Sunday, December 11, 2011

Race: Are We So Different?

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through January 8, 2012

"Human diversity is the end result of two complex, interrelated and fascinating processes: evolution and history." - Alan Goodman, biological anthropologist, Hampshire College

This is a fantastic exhibit and one I would urge everyone to go see.  It's very large, and to see it properly requires much longer than a lunch hour.  Even in a limited period of time, however, you can learn quite a bit about race, and unlearn quite a bit more.

First of all, there is no such thing as race, viewed scientifically or biologically.  The traits that most people think of as making up race: skin color, eye color, hair color and texture are all inherited individually, and so actually have no relationship to one another.  Skin color is simply a function of how intense the sun's rays are in the area of the planet where the people whose genes you inherited lived.  If they were from Kenya, where the sun's rays are quite intense, you will have darker skin, as protection from the sun.  If  they were from Norway (like some of my ancestors) you will have light skin, as you need to soak up every bit of Vitamin D you can get in a sun-starved place.

Secondly, when people think of race, they think of black, white and Asian, but in fact, the world is far more diverse than this division would imply.  If you looked at a person from Kenya, one from Egypt and one from Norway, they would appear very different from one another.  If however, you walked from Kenya, through Egypt to Norway, you would find that the changes in the appearance of people you met along the way were far more gradual.  Each person looks much like the people living around them, and the changes that are so apparent when you take people from different places and put them together are far less obvious if you see them in their native place.  The question of how to draw the line between races may seem simple, but in fact, is quite difficult, and has been fraught with power struggles over time, not least here in the United States.

I found out that sickle cell anemia is not related to race, so much as place.  In areas where malaria is prevalent (such as Africa, but also parts of the Middle East), sickle cell anemia is also prevalent.  This is because the same gene that causes sickle cell also protects you from malaria.  The exhibit showed a man, of Middle Eastern descent, who has sickle cell, as does his daughter, who looks as if she just stepped off the boat from Ireland.  He was undiagnosed for years, as the doctors thought he couldn't have sickle cell because he's not of African descent.

Race is not found in nature; it's created by people who wish to dominate others and find appearance an easy way to do that.  One can only hope that as people migrate even more around the globe and intermarry with those who look different from themselves, this rigid view of race will give way to an acknowledgment that we are all human, and have much more in common than outward appearance would indicate.

Verdict: Go see this exhibit!

No comments:

Post a Comment