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Even though science itself has come to a general agreement about race—that all racial categories have no scientific basis whatsoever, either in fact, in genetics or in biology—we still think of race as real. Our society and our individual awareness lags way behind the science.
If you don’t agree, consider, for a moment, three notable American men: Booker T. Washington; Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama. Then answer this question: What do they have in common?
If you said they’re all African American, you’re half right. Each one of those famous “black” men had one “white” parent. Technically, contemporary rules of racial discourse would call them “mixed-race” people.
But here’s the irony—we are all “mixed-race” people.
You can easily verify that fact about yourself by getting a simple genetic test. This has never been possible before now, but today it’s pretty easy. Just click on any number of ancestry or genetics websites, pay a fee and soon a little saliva collection kit will arrive at your doorstep. Spit into a test tube or swab the inside of your cheek, and send the sample back to the genetic testing company. They will genotype your DNA, and in a few months you’ll receive a personalized report about your particular gene variants—which will tell you, with some specificity, all about your mixed-race background.
One friend of mine took the test, and got a few big surprises. His parents and grandparents had always told him he was Irish. Sure enough, his DNA test did reveal some Northern European background—but it also informed him that about a quarter of his genetic material originated in Africa, and another significant portion came from the Middle East. Even more surprising to him, the test informed him that he had 2% Neanderthal DNA. He learned, in the process, that many people of Eurasian origin have between 1-4% of Neanderthal genetic background. “Talk about mixed-race!” my friend said. “I’m mixed-species!” (His wife told me she had always suspected he was part caveman…)
Anyway, all this gives you a hint about what scientists mean when they say that race is “socially-constructed.” It has no actual categorical reality, but since we randomly assign people to a racial group, usually by their skin color, we come to believe in the existence of a distinct group, defined by their skin color. If you look up the biographical details of each of the three men I mentioned above, you’ll see that just about every source lists all three of them as black or African American. But logically, those sources could just as easily, based on their heritage and parentage and genetic makeup, list them as white—right?
In fact, most scientists, including social scientists like anthropologists and sociologists, no longer use the word race. It has no accurate scientific meaning; so they’ve substituted terms like populations, peoples or communities.
They’re slowly moving toward the recognition that we no longer have independent, separate populations or communities in this world—instead, just as the Baha’i teachings say, we have one native land and one global community:
…love and good faith must so dominate the human heart that men will regard the stranger as a familiar friend, the malefactor as one of their own, the alien even as a loved one, the enemy as a companion dear and close… The meaning is that they must treat all humankind even as they treat their sympathizers, their fellow-believers, their loved ones and familiar friends.
Should such a torch light up the world community, ye will find that the whole earth is sending forth a fragrance, that it hath become a delightsome paradise, and the face of it the image of high heaven. Then will the whole world be one native land, its diverse peoples one single kind, the nations of both east and west one household. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 84.
The Baha’i teachings maintain that our future as a race—the human race—depends on our acceptance of this vital principle of our essential and inherent oneness:
The turmoil and crises of our time underlie a momentous transition in human affairs. Simultaneous processes of disintegration and integration have clearly been accelerating throughout the planet since the Báb appeared in Persia. That our Earth has contracted into a neighbourhood, no one can seriously deny. The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness. – The Universal House of Justice, May 22, 2001.
What a blessing that will be — when all shall come together, even as once separate torrents, rivers and streams, running brooks and single drops, when collected together in one place will form a mighty sea. And to such a degree will the inherent unity of all prevail, that the traditions, rules, customs and distinctions in the fanciful life of these populations will be effaced and vanish away like isolated drops, once the great sea of oneness doth leap and surge and roll. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 260-261.
Next: Can the Human Race Ever Unify?