Why the False Belief that Race Is Biological Needs To Be Confronted

Contributed by Karen Gaffney.

As a white, anti-racist educator and author, I have been working with white people for years to address the myth that race is biological. What exactly is this myth? It is the belief that human beings can be biologically or genetically or otherwise scientifically divided into distinct races. It is the belief that white people share more genes with each other than they do with black people. It is the belief that you can draw clear scientific lines between racial groups. 

None of these beliefs are true. Not only are these beliefs false but they are also dangerous. To begin, why are they false?

Human beings, regardless of where on the planet they live, are about 99.9% genetically identical. The tiny part that does vary does not correlate with race. The PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion (from 2003 but still very relevant) does an exceptional job of explaining that human beings are a very genetically similar species (compared to penguins or fruit flies) and that there are no genetic traits that can be found in everyone of one race and no one of another race. Within any given race, there is genetic variation, often more variation than between racial groups.

We tend to think that a random white person has more in common with another random white person than with a random black person, but that is simply not the case. There are genes that influence some easily observable differences between humans, and there are genes that influence differences between humans that are not easily observable. Of the easily observable differences between humans, we have been taught to focus on skin color, almost at the expense of all other possible observable and less observable differences. However, the genes that influence skin color do not correlate with the majority of other traits, like intelligence, athleticism, criminality, and perseverance. 

We need to recognize that the belief that race is biological is not some abstract or intellectual endeavor. It is a matter of life and death. The false belief that race is biological is dangerous for several reasons:

  • This false belief, which scholars thought would fade over time, has seen a dangerous resurgence, as Angela Saini makes clear in her book Superior: The Return of Race Science (Beacon Press, 2019), which highlights connections between this ideology and the rise of white nationalism in the US and globally.
  • The myth that race is biological is also dangerous because of what is known as medical racism. There is ample evidence that black people are often not treated as well as white people when they encounter the healthcare system, leading to a high black maternal mortality rate and a persistent belief that black people don’t feel pain as much as white people do, a belief that served as a rationale for slavery and corresponds to the racial ideology that black people are not fully human. Dorothy Roberts provides an excellent overview of medical racism in her Ted Talk “The Problem with Race-Based Medicine” and elaborates more generally on the danger of the false belief that race is biological in her book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (The New Press, 2012).
  • The belief that race is biological is an excuse for inequality, a way to accept racially disproportionate prison sentences, wealth, housing, and health outcomes as simply a result of biology rather than systemic racism. 

My college students, when we discuss the ideology that race is biological, often say they are shocked to hear that race is not biological because their prior schooling never raised this issue and because there are many ways in which the media advertently or inadvertently reinforces this myth. In my experience, once students realize that this belief is indeed a myth and that race is actually a social construct, a human invention, they want to spread the word. Likewise, when I facilitate workshops in the community, either at libraries or churches, and I raise this issue, some white participants in particular share their surprise at hearing this myth is not true, and the older they are, the more concerned they are that it took so many decades for them to learn that this belief is a myth. I’ve been working with a NJ-based social justice theatre company, The Meta Theatre Company, and we created an interactive performance called “Dismantling the Myth that Race is Biological” in order to raise these exact issues and highlight medical racism in particular. 

The more white people understand that race is not biological, the better, so spreading awareness and sharing resources to help debunk the false belief is important. Then, white people in particular need to work on examining the systems we work in to see how the myth pervades the structure of our work, whether it’s embedded in policy, decision-making, etc. We need to confront this myth, debunk it, recognize its impact, and dismantle it. 

Karen Gaffney, PhD, is an English Professor at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey and the author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge). Her book and her website (https://dividednolonger.com/) expand on the ideas presented here. 

3 thoughts on “Why the False Belief that Race Is Biological Needs To Be Confronted”

  1. Karen;
    I’d like to hear more about your book. Are you doing any public presentation of your book, or a book signing?

    1. Hi Paul. Thanks so much for asking. Yes, I do local book talks. I actually spoke at the Lambertville Library last fall, sponsored by this Indivisible group. My next book talk is Sat., Feb. 29 in Plainfield, NJ at 10:30am at the Plainfield Public Library (free and open to the public). Then Social Justice Matters is sponsoring my next book talk on Mon., April 27 in Fanwood, NJ, at the Forest Road Park Building, at 7pm. These will soon be added to my website here https://dividednolonger.com/my-presentations/
      Thanks! Karen Gaffney

  2. Excellent contribution Karen! As a biology teacher, you often come across misconceptions like this. I teach that we are one race, the human race and while we are each unique, that uniqueness is born out of adaptations, flips of the switches in our genetic code. Thank you.

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