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Race is a state of mind

7 Mar

I’m serious.  I’m not just referencing old slogans for the fun of it, it’s too early in the day for that.  For a long time I’ve wanted to write a post fundamentally stating, without the merest hint of doubt, that race is a social construct with no basis in science.

Turns out Adam Rutherford has already written it!  In this post he straight up states that race, scientifically, does not exist.

Rutherford, who describes himself as “partly of Indian descent”, leaving the reader to assume that his ethnic heritage is otherwise white European, is a science writer and editor.  If I were to be flippant I would point out that he’s also rather handsome, ’cause, ya know, I’m also partly of Indian descent, and I’m damn cute.  Maybe it’s a thing?

HA NO!  It isn’t!  Just because Adam Rutherford and I are excellent eye candy* doesn’t mean that all European/Asian heritage people are because, get this, as Rutherford says in his post “There is no genetic basis that corresponds with any particular group of people”.  Yes, you can predict some things about a person’s genome from their phenotype (outward appearance) but you can’t predict someone’s race from their genome with any confidence.  You can make reasonable assessments of their ancestry, and some of their probable appearance, but the divisions of what makes someone one race or another, according to the phenotypic and cultural criteria most of us use, are not seen in the genes.  Within any single “race” is such variance as to render the racial categorisation unusable in science.

Rutherford gives some great examples of conditions and genetic factors, long thought to be consequences of racial heritage, which are more scientifically explained by geographic area and the populations that live there.  Ah, you might think, Ms Mongrel, surely those geographically defined populations can be called races?  Well sure, socially you can go with that, but there is no scientific definition to back you up.  As Rutherford rather bluntly and brilliantly points out, humans are “too horny and mobile to have stuck to our own kind for very long” meaning that virtually every population has “DNA mixed and remixed through endless sex and continuous migration”.

I think that this message about the arbitrary nature of racial ‘definition’ is really important.  Rutherford also points out the way that the early science of inheritance and then genetics attempted to find a scientific rationalisation for racism (including the genocide of native peoples by European empires, the subjugation of others, the transatlantic slave trade, and various 20th century eugenics schemes).  Somehow the educated, European elite felt that by scientifically showing that the other races were “lesser”, they could justify their murderous expansion and the imposition of their values on alien cultures – all driven by profit except perhaps for a minority of genuine adventurers or earnest missionaries.

If someone can show me that the human race can be scientifically subgrouped into subspecies or races, with a consistent definition that can be shown in the lab to be “nature” rather than based on the environment and cultures in which we are raised, I’ll change my mind, don’t you worry.  I’m all about evidence.  But, as someone whose existence already disproves a number of stereotypes pertaining to my racial heritage, I’ll continue to challenge any racial definitions based loosely on appearance, geography, religion, and old prejudices.

There’s no such thing as race people, unless you choose to believe in it.  If that’s your choice, fine.  Just don’t expect the rest of us to live by your definitions.

*okay well maybe Rutherford more than me.  It’s a matter of perspective!


A war to end all wars

4 Aug

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the recognised start of The Great War, the moment that Britain declared war on Germany after the Germans remained silent in reply to a British ultimatum regarding Belgium’s neutrality.  It is often said that when Britain entered the war that the politicians and population expected it to be a short war, with the soldiers leaving in August apparently calling back to those they left behind that they’d be “home by Christmas”.

As you should know, this war lasted 4 years.  Here are some numbers you may or may not know:

  • During the war an estimated 9 million combatants were killed
  • It is estimated that the total death toll including civilians was 16-17 million
  • 38 countries were involved in the war – at a time when the total number of sovereign states was 62 (different sources give different estimates due to the statuses of some countries, as low as 32 out of 59).
  • 3 empires were wiped from the map during the war or in its aftermath: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the German Empire.


A map showing the countries involved and the sides they shared. From a collection of posters by Laura Hobson

A map showing the countries involved and the sides they shared. From a collection of posters by Laura Hobson

Although not the bloodiest war in history, it was remarkable not only for the scale of the killing and casualties but also, arguably more importantly from a historical perspective, the number and variety of combatants.  For Britain of course, this was a time of empire, and the Empire was mobilised.  Many empires were mobilised.

Today, memorials and other ceremonies are being held in Britain, Europe, and elsewhere, to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died in the war and the effect it had on our societies.  I find that I cannot think about World War I without thinking about the legacy of that time for so many parts of the world.  In my mind particularly are the conflict zones where conflicts were carved or accelerated by occupying imperial powers, whose arbitrary boundaries were affected by both world wars, and furthermore, where people are still dying as a result of these historical actions.

The ongoing conflict between the Israeli administration and the Palestinian freedom fighters/terrorists can be traced back through centuries, if you so wish, but the establishment of the Mandate of Palestine, ruled by the British who had won the region from the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, is a turning point in that region’s history.  Subsequently, the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel would take place after World War II, with the British gifting the land to the displaced diaspora, and ever since then Gaza and the West Bank have been in limbo, with no recognition of sovereignty and continued conflict over Israeli occupation of more and more Palestinian land.

Last week, around one and a half thousand Palestinians and over 60 Israelis died in a resurgence of violence between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.  The majority of deaths on the Palestinian side were civilians.

When I think of World War I, the Great War, I think about the sentiments that came out at the end of the war.  The symbol of the red poppy for the fallen, and the goal of remembering them.  Not only remembering their sacrifice on a personal level, but also remembering the war that their sacrifice might not be just a historical footnote, but a reminder that our goal must be peace.  When I hear the words “Lest we forget” and “we will remember them” I want to honour their memory by doing all that we can to ensure that young men are not sent to die or be maimed in wars that centuries later will be half-remembered or seen through the lens of costume dramas.

I want to honour them by searching for the peace that they fought to defend.

That peace should be sought for by all people, everywhere, and whenever we can we should be enabling peace, not conflict.

Not selling weapons to brutal regimes.  Not invading sovereign nations on false pretences.  Not using our influence to maximise profits whilst the local populations suffer.

So whilst leaders across the world, including our own British government elites, pay lip service to the dead of the Great War, to the killed and wounded and the families they left behind, I want them to know that we are watching, and willing them to truly honour the sacrifice in both world wars, and every conflict since, by doing their utmost to ensure that wars and armed conflict are avoided, especially when increasingly in modern conflicts it is swathes of civilians who die with indignity and anonymity, with no memorials or poetry.

Interestingly, this week marks another anniversary that should never be forgotten: the 69th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the USA.  The combined death toll of these attacks is estimated at over quarter of a million people (including those who died of radiation effects afterwards) for two days of action, so 125,000 for each day .  Compare that with 17 million over four years – an average then of 12,000 a day, and you can see how human effectiveness at taking lives increased in just the 30 years after the “war to end war”.

I leave you with that great warning to all modern people “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  Let us learn from the past, let us remember.


Lest we forget.

Mix-d: feelings

6 Jul

It has long been my intention to put together a list of resources that might be interesting or helpful to people in the UK who are mixed race, have mixed race kids, or are just curious about the largest growing ethnic minority in Britain. As usual I have been off on various tangents, but a recent post in my twitter feed has reminded me of this goal.

Bradley Lincoln set up Mix-d: as part of the Multiple Heritage Project which started in 2006. From what I can see Lincoln originally started with an aim of providing consultancy to schools with mixed race students, and more importantly with the aim of allowing mixed race students to speak for themselves and discuss their experiences and ideas.

I first found out about Mix-d: organisation through google when looking for online resources about/for mixed race people in the UK. Although I was pleased to see someone like Lincoln and his growing team creating a space for discussion, I wasn’t overly impressed by the management-speak name “Mix-d:” and the corporate styling of the website and organisation as it felt too polished and shiny, filled with marketing style. I realised later that perhaps this stylistic approach was meant to appeal more to schools and government organisations than to individuals who might be looking for some warmth and understanding about their particular experiences. I was particularly dismissive of the Mix-d: Face competition to find mixed race models, as I felt that this fed in to the idea of mixed race people as exotic and beautiful, when in fact we are just people, some of whom are beautiful, some of whom have radio faces, just like any other group.

Having said that, Mix-d: has organised numerous conferences for young mixed race people and their stated mission “To see mixed race people at the heart of mixed race discussions” is incredibly important. As Lincoln says “There were plenty of people and books that told me I was mixed race. They were right – I am mixed race – but that didn’t capture how I felt, or what I knew to be the experiences of other mixed-race friends and family members”. I have found myself that when discussing my ‘mixedness’ with other mixed race people I would feel understood in a way that didn’t happen when talking to people ‘of one race’ even if they were from multi-cultural backgrounds. A classic for us mixed race people is the “where are you from?” question which is often asked with the real meaning of “what are you?” something discussed brilliantly here. This is a question that the UK ethnic majority, the so called ‘white British’ population do not experience in the same way.

It has been really inspiring to see Mix-d: become what it is today, where other well-meaning projects have fallen by the wayside, Mix-d: is working towards offering information for organisations working with young mixed race people, and a “parent pack” for parents raising mixed race kids who may not have any experience of what it is like to be mixed race (or if they do don’t know how relevant it is to today’s youth growing up with the internet and smartphones and hovercars more high profile mixed race celebrities).

The latest project that Mix-d: have highlighted over Twitter (Lincoln, if you ever read this, get someone to update the Mix-d: Twitter account more often!) is fascinating. As part of a British Academy research project, which also formed the basis for the BBC2 documentary series “Mixed Britannia” back in Autumn, by Dr Chamion Caballero and Dr Peter Aspinall, a timeline showing the development of the mixed race community in Britain since the start of the last century has been put together. The timeline includes recorded mixed-race marriages amongst ordinary people as well as some who are famous, the creation of the eugenics society and so-called research supporting the idea that mixed race children were somehow of poorer stock than racially pure children, legal changes to the status of immigrants, race riots, studies into societal attitudes toward race, and pop-culture moments. I am really pleased to see this research presented in such an accessible way, and with such a diversity of events recorded.

One of my main issues with discussions about mixed race issues is the idea that mixed race people are a modern invention, and that relationships between people of different racial backgrounds NEVER used to happen. This is a blatant fallacy, and feeds in to the idea of racial purity that fuels white (or any other racial) supremacism. The timeline, although starting ostensibly at 1900, challenges that fallacy, recording the experiences and discussion of mixed race communities that have existed in Britain since then. The timeline project has made me revisit Mix-d: and review their approach. I think that Lincoln and his team are creating a positive space for discussion, without shame or recrimination. Theirs is a forward thinking organisation that looks to work toward encouraging mixed race young people to explore their heritage. The consultancy element is important, schools and other organisations do need resources to support them in the support of these students, and Lincoln is looking to fill that need. I am interested to see what Mix-d: becomes in the future.

I do think Mix-d: has a silly name, but I’m pretty sure that they would say the same about MsMongrel. I’d like to leave you with a song featuring my least favourite, but previously common, term for mixed race people by Thin Lizzy, fronted by Phil Lynott, a mixed race Irishman, something I learnt from the Mix-d: museum timeline.