Feb 22, 2011

"There is no purity of race; it doesn't exist"

The headline is a quote from Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr, in a speech he gave last week at Northwestern University. (I embedded a YouTube video with short excerpts after the jump.) I'm not going to comment much on the incident a couple years ago when he was arrested at his home, beyond the fact that lots of similar incidents happen every day in America. I think it's silly it made national news, and led to the so-called beer summit at the White House. That being said, I've read several articles by Gates in the past, and found him a thoughtful scholar, especially writing in a field where so many others spew vitriol and post-modernist mumbo-jumbo. Also in the speech, he debunked some myths about African American genealogy.

In the distant past, many so-called scientists conducted research with the likely purpose, and pre-ordained results, that Europeans, or a more specific ethnicity, were somehow racially superior to others. I bring this up only because the vast majority of our DNA, greater than 99%, is common to all humans. We're genetically far more alike than we are different.

I had my DNA tested at Family Tree DNA last year, which had some interesting results, but few matches so far. Then I read Megan Smolenyak and Ann Turner's book, Trace Your Roots with DNA, which explains the basic principles and how to apply it to genealogy. Since then, I've been reading (skimming mostly) lots of academic papers by geneticists and anthropologists. Many anthropologists and archaeologists do discuss racial characteristics they use to distinguish different groups, by investigating both skeletons and living people, but they're using race in a very clinical, scientific sense.

Unfortunately, however, race as it's used in popular culture is not that narrow. American culture–especially the media–seems to be obsessed with race. Gates has been doing good work, both academic and popular, which upends many pre-conceived notions of race. I agree with his thesis; I'd even extend it to say that ethnic, cultural, and language purity are also complete fiction, but I'll leave those for future posts. America truly is a melting-pot, and most of us are what I call mutts. (I'm not referring to anyone's looks, just our mixed heritage.)

My skin is about as white as could be (especially after the long Minnesota winter), but what does that have to do with being Caucasian? I have no known ancestors from the Caucasus region. Why are we still even using that term? At least the US Census has stopped. There was a recent article in the New York Times, on racial identification among young people of mixed-race. The 2000 US Census was the first one people could select multiple answers to the race question. I have my own solution to the problem. On question 9 of the 2010 US Census, I simply checked "Some other race," and wrote in Human.

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