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Taking Off the Color Blinders

Geneticists and Historians Grapple With the Gray Areas of Race

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; Page C01

A hundred social scientists and geneticists gathered this week in Alexandria to sort out the meaning of race, and didn't, quite.

They gave it a game effort. They tackled every thorny question stretching across their academic disciplines, the historians hearing about clusters of genetic alleles and the geneticists hearing about race as a power relationship.

Social scientists and geneticists gathered in Alexandria this week to take part in a brainstorming session for a museum project on race, sponsored by the American Anthropological Association. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

They explored the distinction between race and geographic variation. They pondered replacing the word "race" with "ethnic group." They talked about racism, multiculturalism, college diversity goals, racial self-identification in the U.S. Census, micro-ethnic groups, the racialization of Mexican Americans and how come no one ever asks why all the white kids sit together in the cafeteria.

When Leith Mullings, an anthropologist from the City University of New York, sardonically said that "only people of color have race, and only women have gender," everyone knew what she meant.

A professor who argues that race is a biological myth sat next to a professor who wants the U.S. government to pay reparations to African Americans. Their positions are not inconsistent, but they require a bit of explaining. Race is complicated. Nothing in the discussion is black and white.

"It doesn't exist biologically, but it does exist socially," said Alan Goodman, incoming president of the American Anthropological Association, which sponsored the meeting at the Holiday Inn in Old Town.

The event served as a brainstorming session for a $4 million project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation, to create a traveling museum exhibit on race. If all goes well, the exhibit will debut in two years at the Science Museum of Minnesota, in St. Paul. The working title is "Understanding Race and Human Variation."

Beyond that, things get fuzzy.

If there was a consensus that emerged from two days of conversation, it's the notion that race is a cultural construct. Investigations into the human genome have so far failed to turn up any evidence that there's such a thing as, for example, a Caucasian. Human beings are genetically rather homogeneous compared with other animals. But the lack of biological support for traditional categories of race does not change the fact that race is a lived reality. The exhibit should discuss this "paradox of race/no-race," in the words of anthropologist Micaela diLeonardo.

It will take a long time for people to grasp the illusory nature of race at the biological level, Goodman said. It's like understanding that the Earth isn't flat. It looks flat when you're walking around, but if you go up high enough in an airplane you can see the curvature. Someday, he said, people will no longer be flat-Earthers about race. They will see with different eyes.

He identifies himself, incidentally, as a white person.

"Culturally I'm white-ified," he said. "People see me as white. That has something to do with how I look, but it has nothing to do with biological variation."

The revolution won't happen overnight. Americans in particular are socialized to notice race immediately, to put people in rigid categories, not always with the best of intentions. Race might not exist biologically, but, on the flat Earth, it's very noticeable.

"We live in a culture in which race is a dominant paradigm," Goodman said. "I see human variation in this room, but I don't see race."

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