Race: An Open Letter to American Elementary Schools

img_4856 by Steph Holton

Almost everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten, to paraphrase Robert Fulghum. Kindergarten was when I learned to share, play fair, and to wonder unapologetically. But there was one lesson I didn’t learn until I was 18 years old and starting a degree in anthropology here at Portland State – a lesson that, three years later, I’m still upset I didn’t learn earlier.

The lesson was this: Race is not a biological reality.

Today, we’re lucky enough to not only have an impressive archaeological record containing fossils of our ancestors reaching back millions of years, but also to have the capability to sequence entire human genomes. These databases of knowledge support the model of human evolution beginning with humans in Africa 200,000 years ago and migrating into Europe around 60,000 years ago. Change in skin pigmentation was a result of the increasingly limited UV radiation those migrants were exposed to, and was merely a surface-level change – both phenotypically and genotypically. Because it was an adaptation to different environments, loss of pigmentation occurred at varying levels.

This history of early man means two big things for modern man: 1) The range in human skin color we see today only started evolving in the last fourth of our history! 2) There’s no biological way to validate racial categories, because human variation exists on a spectrum, with no places to draw distinct divisions between populations.

Race is very much a social reality. In no way do I intend to take away from its cultural significance. But it is a much too common misconception that there is more than a social justification for dividing humanity into discrete units. We need to celebrate the remarkable phenotypic and cultural diversity among us. But, now more than ever, we should also be taking Robert Fulghum’s advice to “hold hands and stick together” – by recognizing and teaching that we’re more alike than different.

A couple of great TED Talks on this topic are Nina Jablonski’s “Skin color is an illusion” and Spencer Wells’ “A family tree for humanity.”

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