In this Issue:
Our Topic: Deconstructing Race
Race is Not a Biological Concept
Human Variation in Skin Colour
Social Implications of Bias
The Way Forward
The concept of race as a classification system that divides people into separate and distinct groups with typical characteristics shared by members, does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation. It was never accurate in the past, and it continues to be an inaccurate representation today.
But over the last five centuries, racially categorizing people has become a social reality that has structured our societies and beliefs about humans with significant implications and consequences for how we experience the world.
In this edition of What We Know, we’re deconstructing the concept of race and addressing the long-standing anti-Black racism that has led to profound inequalities and chronic violence against Black people. Let’s get to it…
Race is Not a Biological Concept.
There is an incredible amount of variation within our species. However, humans are not biologically divided into distinct continental types or racial genetic groups.
To understand how this is possible when we can look around the room at each other and see that we don’t all look exactly the same, we need to start with the basics of biological variation.
Every organism is a by-product of both its genetic makeup (its DNA) and the environment. The genetic makeup of an organism is referred to as its genotype. At the cellular level, all living creatures are made up of genes that are compromised of precise arrangements of nucleotides (each composed of a phosphate group, sugar and a base), which can exist in a variety of different forms across organisms. Different forms of genes are called alleles, and individuals possess various combinations of alleles that provide the genetic code for our traits.
Your human genotype is inherited from both of your parents, each contributing half of their two different sets of genes, that combine in various ways to make you you, with your own unique genotype.
But even though we each exhibit unique combinations of alleles that make us individually different, the vast majority of our DNA (99.9%, in fact) is shared in common with all other humans. No group of our species is, or ever has been, biologically distinct from the rest. And, more importantly, variations across our species are not distributed in a way that maps clearly onto socially-recognized racial groups. This is true even for aspects of human variation that are commonly emphasized in discussions of race, such as skin colour, facial features and type of hair.
The diagram to the left makes this visibly clearer. When researchers attempted to look at genetic variation among socially recognized groups – categorizing genetic variation found in Africans, Europeans, and Asians – they found that the genetic variation of Europeans and Asians are actually subsets of all the variations also found in Africans.
Moreover, Asian and European subsets are actually very closely related to each other through shared variation (as noted in the diagram by the relative size and overlap of each circle). This means that all of the genetic variations found in our species exist in African populations, encompassing all the variation we see in Europeans and Asians.
How can this be?
Well, people have lived in Africa far longer than anywhere else, and this has allowed human populations in Africa to accumulate more of the small mutations that result in our genetic variation. In ancient human history, only part of the African population migrated out of the continent into other parts of the world - the people who migrated possessed a subset of the genetic variation found among Africans. Thus, people living outside of the continent of Africa are genetically a part of the full range of possible variations we see in all of the possible genetic variations that can be found in people from the continent of Africa.
Human Variation in Skin Colour
Earlier we mentioned: every organism is a by-product of both its genetic makeup and the environment. Genetically, we know now that all humans share 99.9% of the same genetic makeup and that racial categories have no genetic basis. So let’s talk about some of the visible differences we see among humans.
The visible or observable expression of physical traits is called the phenotype and it’s the product of the genotype combining with environmental influences to create an organism’s appearance or behaviour. Phenotypic variation in humans, particularly with regard to skin colour variation has long been used to discriminate against various groups of humans perpetuating the Western concept of race and racist ideologies in support of European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination.
Biologically, however, human phenotypic variation (or human physical appearance) does not follow clear-cut racial lines in our species but instead varies continuously across a range of populations.
Variation in human skin colour, in fact, is the result of accumulated long-term changes involving more than 37 genetic loci (fixed places on a chromosome for a particular gene) and local environmental factors, along with human migration and mating patterns.
Moreover, variation in human skin colour is one of the most important adaptations in human history to
ensure our species’ survival.
Here’s how it works:
Over the course of evolution, as humans moved into hotter, open environments in search of food and water, we were faced with the challenge of how to keep cool. The adaptive solution to this new environmental niche was to reduce the amount of body hair we have and increase the number of sweat glands.
We humans, the naked apes, can now sweat more profusely and more efficiently than any other animal on earth. But this also exposed our skin to the hot sun – particularly in lands close to the equator.
As many of us know, strong sun exposure can be damaging to our bodies. Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) can severely burn skin and, more importantly, too much ultraviolet radiation can strip away folate (folic acid), which is an essential nutrient for the brain development of healthy foetuses.
On the flip side though, a certain amount of ultraviolet radiation from the sun is beneficial to humans and helps our bodies make and use vitamin D to absorb calcium. Calcium is a critical nutrient to human health. We need it to maintain strong bones and teeth, but it’s also critical for muscle movement, for nerves carrying messages between the brain and every body part, for moving blood throughout the body in blood vessels, and for releasing enzymes that affect almost every function in the human body.
Calcium is a pretty big deal for us, and vitamin D helps to increase the absorption of calcium in our bodies. So some vitamin D from the sun’s UVR rays is vital to maintaining healthy bodies, but too much UVR can cause major damage.
The fundamental adaptive solution in humans to balancing the need for some vitamin D for calcium absorption, but not enough to strip away folate that would damage foetuses was to evolve skin pigmentation that could protect against the sun’s more damaging rays. As a result, human skin produces melanin that darkens the colour of our skin - and the darker the skin, the better it protects us from the sun’s UVR rays.
Anthropologists Nina G. Jablonski and George Chaplin did a really great study in 2010 to prove this.
In their research, Jablonski and Chaplin measured “skin reflectance” as a means to quantify skin colour by measuring the amount of light that different skin colours reflect. They took these measurements from people all around the world and correlated skin reflectance with the geographic distribution of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation on earth.
Their findings demonstrate that those closer to the equator have darker skin, thereby preventing folate deficiency, and that as groups of people moved into regions farther from the equator, where UVR levels are lower, natural selection favoured lighter skin which allowed enough vitamin D-forming UVR to penetrate their skin.
Skin colour variation in humans, therefore, does not show any clear-cut racial categories, but instead reflects a clinal (continuous and gradual across geography) distribution of variation that cannot be separated into disparate categories. Biologically, it’s all about how much UVR radiation hits the earth, and how our bodies have adapted to protect us and ensuring our species’ survival over a wide variety of geographic locations with different environments.
Social Implications of Bias
While human racial groups are not biological categories, “race” as a social reality is very real, and it has a long, well-documented history rooted in European colonial expansion over the last five centuries
Built upon the (incorrect) assumptions of innate, natural differences between Europeans and other peoples, rooted in a belief of inherent superiority and inferiority, the classification of people by “race” into hierarchies has long served to justify power disparities, economic exploitation, deprivation, oppression, displacement, institutional racism, and even genocide, by shaping and structuring the way we talk about and understand others and ourselves.
Though racial categories have changed over time, this practice has never been wholly innocent, unbiased, or apolitical. And despite modern scientific consensus that humanity is more alike than different, our species’ long history of racism is a dismal reminder that a mere 0.1% of genetic variation has been adequate justification for committing all manner of atrocities against people - proving racial classification systems to be among the most damaging elements in human societies that continues to permeate our world today.
“Systemic or institutional racism” refers to how beliefs of white superiority fostered from European colonialism are captured in everyday thinking at the big picture level of how society operates, rather than looking at one-on-one interactions. These systems can include laws and regulations, but also include unquestioned social systems like education, hiring practices or access to opportunities.
Slavery, segregation, residential schools, and internment camps are all rooted in institutional racism and while these institutions no longer exist in present-day, they have had long-term impacts on our society resulting in continued racial stratification and disparities in employment, housing, education, healthcare, and government policies in spite of the many laws passed in the mid-20th century that make discrimination illegal.
Social biases develop when we associate stereotypes or attitudes towards categories of people without conscious awareness - which can result in actions and decisions that may be at odds with one’s conscious beliefs about fairness and equality. This can lead us to make imbalanced decisions about who gets hired for a job or selected for a promotion, who gets sent out of the classroom for acting up versus who gets a warning or even a laugh for their disruption, and it can even go so far as to mediate which treatment options are made available to different patients when they go a hospital for sickness.
Results from numerous studies on racial inequalities in society show racial gaps across every system. For people of all ages it affects where they live, the quality of the education they receive, their income, types of food they have access to, their exposure to pollutants, whether they have access to clean air, clean water or adequate medical treatment, and the types of interactions they have with the criminal justice system.
A person’s “race” does not predetermine anything about a person’s character, yet it is often still the most significant factor influencing how we are perceived, and racism dramatically and negatively affects a person’s health and well-being. The long-term consequences of our history of categorizing people into inaccurate racial groups has resulted in poorer outcomes for Black people that range from fewer opportunities in life to increased experiences of violence, including brutally excessive force and deadly police interactions with law enforcement agencies.
In order to do something about it, we must recognize this and take real action to change.
The Way Forward: How Do We Rebuild A Better World?
STEP 1: EDUCATION
We’ve given you the first tools to fight against racism. You are now equipped with the scientific and genetic literacy to understand and know that race is NOT a biological concept.
We are all more alike than we are different. The concept of race is a social construct and racism is a social problem.
We create our own societies. We have full control to influence and change them.
STEP 2: SEEK OUT OTHERS
Actively seek out the voices of people who have been overlooked and silenced in the past and listen to their perspective. Please be sensitive to the needs of individual Black people - it can be very painful to be asked to relive traumatic experiences or racism that they have experienced. There are many amazing books and personal essays online by Black people that you can learn from. To start, here is a great list of documentaries on issues of racism, injustice, discrimination and privilege, that we encourage you to take some time to watch and learn more: https://www.docplay.com/articles/10-documentaries-to-watch-about-race-instead-of-asking-a-person-of-colour-to-explain-things-for-you/?fbclid=IwAR2mbO0y5tlZMNRGg2gaGVMlX0OLLslFq9FMke3nr3eao8MMHSi_KEY0lAc STEP 3: ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR BLIND SPOTS & CHECK YOURSELF
Bias and racism can all too easily go unnoticed in our words, choices, reactions, and actions without thoughtful awareness. The only way to regulate these is to bring them into the light of full consciousness and then actively self-correct towards inclusion, acceptance, empathy, and compassion.
STEP 4: BE PREPARED TO DO THE WORK
Coming to terms with the realities of how society favours some and hurts others is not a fun experience. Recognizing privilege and oppression brings up an array of emotions. This is a necessary part of the process of connection. But it is not enough to simply dislike racism, we all need to work towards anti-racism. Keep supporting Black media, initiatives, charitable organizations and continuing this important work even after the current outrage and attention to these issues has died down.
Now You're In the Know:
Our mission at Prime Earth is to educate, empower, and engage people to become compassionate global citizens who live in harmony with nature and each other.
From day one, we have envisioned a future world where people revere nature and human diversity by understanding that humans fit within a global ecosystem and are deeply connected to the environment.
We are founded on the principle that every individual is important and must take responsibility for his/her/their own life, and we recognize that humans (as a species and as individuals) are not in opposition to or superior to the rest of life on earth, that humans have a finite amount of time here on earth and that we have the valuable ability to intentionally choose our own actions – and thus we have a global responsibility to choose wisely.
Prime Earth firmly stands in solidarity with protests against police brutality, systemic racism, and white supremacy, and in support of all who are working tirelessly for social justice and social change. We promote peace and harmony, celebrate diversity, and believe that our societies can and will be transformed to incorporate universal values for peace, non-violence, human dignity, and equality and equity for all races, genders, sexualities, and ages, alongside nature and animal rights.
We pledge to continue deconstructing racism and discrimination, and to continue creating opportunities for a collective re-envisioning of a safe and empowered future for all. In light of recent events around the globe, we're adding new resources and expanding programming:
building new online resources to educate our supporters on evolutionary adaptions in humans that demonstrate race is not a biological concept, and;
introducing two new classroom workshops on diversity as part of our Earth Educators curriculum: Diversity Wisdom (for youth in Kindergarten to Grade 3) and Human Variation (for youth in Grades 9-12).
The power to rebuild our societies to be more inclusive, accepting and understanding is 100% possible and in our hands.
Now you're in the know to take action and join us in creating
So until next time...
CHARITIES, CAMPAIGNS & FUNDS:
Black Lives Matter: https://blacklivesmatter.com/
Campaign Zero & 8 Can't Wait : https://www.joincampaignzero.org/
Racial Equity Tools: https://www.racialequitytools.org/home
The Bail Project: https://bailproject.org/
The Liberty Fund: https://www.libertyfund.org/
Stand Up to Racism UK: https://www.standuptoracism.org.uk/
PETITIONS TO SIGN:
BOOKS TO READ:
Why I’m No longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
Natives by Akala
Dark Days by James Baldwin
Diversify by June Sarpong
How To Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla