Illusive Race

The current issue of National Geographic Magazine is dedicated to the issue of race. On the front is a picture of fraternal twins born to a mixed-race family in England. One looks quite white and the other is unmistakably black. I have noticed recently that TV programming and commercials show more and more people of color in core roles. I know a person who wouldn’t even touch this issue of the magazine because of its topic. It is most poignant that it appears near the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The editorial at the beginning is telling. The editor-in-chief is the first woman and Jew to hold the position at the National Geographic Society. Her piece takes apart the implicit racism of the magazine’s past, noting a 1916 photograph of two Aboriginal people from Australia with the caption that they “rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”. She gets more sophisticated when she shows a 1960’s picture of a journalist showing off his modern camera to some people from some remote corner of the world. The locals are puzzled and amazed at western technology. The implication is that the locals are ignorant about the important things—western technology. Contrast that to another article in which cameras were given to people in Haiti and asked to go and document their lives in pictures. She presses the point when she notes that in two years more non-white babies will be born in the US than white. It is quickly becoming the issue of the age.

She names the issue in the first paragraph: race is a social construct, not a biological one. We have social conventions about how we treat people who have certain physical characteristics, but those conventions are not rooted in biology. They are social conventions. When Texas was admitted to the Union it did so with a document that declares in no uncertain terms that the black race was divinely ordained to subjugation by the white race. We know that to be a theological fallacy now, and a hugely offensive one. Why skin color? There are plenty of examples of white people being discriminated against, like the Irish. It’s not a matter of biology. It’s about social convention, and social convention is something WE decide. WE need to decide what we believe it means to be fully human.

Maybe this issue is an indication that we as a people are rethinking that question in other-than-biological terms. I would hope so.

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