I can honestly say that race did not mean a great deal to me until moving to America. I felt as though race was a biological (as in maybe there is some truth behind black people having denser bones and so not as good at swimming) which could cause social or cultural differences. But it was not a subject which I truly thought about in any depth. Which is why I couldn’t understand how Barack Obama could be considered black when it was common knowledge that his mother was white.
However, the concept of race in the way I knew it did not truly become as fickle as it is for me today until taking a class in America which explained it like this:
How do we draw the lines between races?
An English person and an Italian person are both considered to be white, but they have very different skin complexions, hair textures, noses, and eye colours.
A Greek person looks closer to an Egyptian than to a French person. Similarly, a Saudi Arabian person looks more similar to a Sudanese than a Ghanaian person. So where exactly do we draw the boundaries between what is black and what is white when there is so much variation within racial groups? Upon the basis we are living by, an Ethiopian and Ghanaian person could be of completely different races due to the differences in skin complexion, hair texture and features. Even my sister and I (by society’s racial logic) could be viewed as two different races if the person looking at us did not know we were related as we have different skin complexions and hair types.
Since modern science has proven that there is more genetic variation within a race than between races (meaning that if you are a white British person, you are probably more genetically similar to a Portuguese person than someone of your own race due to the amount of racial mixing humans have done), it seems ridiculous to then judge one’s skin tone or hair texture as a reflection of their personality. Culture is separate from race. (But even within a culture or society, there will always be someone who is power hungry, the weird introvert who no one knows about, the party animal, the flirt, the super religious etc etc. It is our cultural practices which divide us, but as individuals/personalities there are few differences by country or nation. But that’s for a different post)
So now that we have proven that it is society, not biology which draws these demographic lines, we can truly understand race is wholly social. It is completely dependent on the societal perceptions, and thus treatment of you, based on how you look.
Therefore, if these twins were born in 1950s America, the lighter one would be able to use better public bathrooms and sit anywhere she pleases on public transport etc, whereas the darker one would not. Hence why Obama is in fact black, because despite being born to a white woman, he is still more likely to have difficulty catching a taxi in New York, and he would not have been able to freely vote in the 1950s. And in that sense, I did not really feel the effects of race so much until living in America and experiencing odd behaviour from some people which would confusingly alter once they heard my British accent, as though they were unsure of how to treat me. I wasn’t African American, I was Black British, and that was too nebulous a concept for some to wrap their minds around. I did not fit their cultural stereotypes, but I looked like them because I fit their description of black.
So there we have it, race is sociology, not biology. So the next time you internally make a judgement on someone just by looking at them, please reconsider because we all have less different than we realise.
By Priscilla McGregor-Kerr