“White people don’t have a monopoly on genetic variation.” –Chally Kacelnik

I wrote this elsewhere but am posting it here for two reasons. Firstly, I want to link you to this article written by Chally stating that white people don’t have a monopoly on genetic variation and I want to talk about it. (Actually, I’m just going to grab this opportunity to link a few essentials Chally has written lately: read this one, and this one, and this one.) And secondly, last week a (white) woman informed me that she was wondering why some Latina women have such white (“I mean really, really pure white,” she emphasized) skin even when they were “mixed” and disclosed that she had decided to conduct research on the matter through which she had “discovered that there is a biological ingredient in a specific chili pepper pertinent to their diet that results in whiter skin—”

“Do you also wonder why white people have such light skin?” I interrupted rudely, forcing what I had attempted as a polite smile.

She looked startled and laughed nervously.

Enter Chally’s article. White people do not have a monopoly on genetic variation. As Chally writes, they’re depicted as blonde, green-eyed, tall, petite, brunette, stocky, brown-eyed, Roman-nosed, slim, tanned, raven-haired, violet-eyed, snub-nosed, pale, blue-eyed, red-headed… But everyone else? One generic look each. And if “other” races deviate from their assigned appearance, their features are measured on a scale of whiteness. I’ve occasionally been told I have a white woman’s mouth and chin, and it always disturbed me. These are my features, and if I identified with a race they would be the features of my race. White people also happen to have them. That doesn’t make them white. It’s not a deviation from my race.

What’s worse is that someone is denied that background if xie falls outside the idea of what a person of that race should look like. (As mentioned in Chally’s article—yes, there are red-haired, blue-eyed Kashmiri people! And yes, they are still Asian.) But that’s how you get the stereotype that all people of one ethnicity look the same and are interchangeable and easily confused with one another. The vast, expansive differences are simply not acknowledged. People train themselves not to see the differences, are taught to expect everyone to look the same, and so they comfortably never see the differences. They don’t have to recognize or confront them or leave the comfort of their prejudice.

And that’s exactly why they deny you are the ethnicity you insist you are when you disclose it to them if you don’t look like their idea of that ethnicity. (“No way! You must be mixed!”) And that’s why they get so uncomfortable when they can’t figure out what ethnicity you are when you don’t disclose it. They need a label so that they can sum up your expected characteristics in all other areas. They are used to categorizing people together like that and erasing individuality and personal identity by assigning essential physical racial attributes and reducing you to them. If you’re not white, and they can’t figure out “what” you are, they suddenly don’t know how to behave.

I’ve had people desperately guessing at my ethnicity when viewing photos of me. “Arab? Brazilian? Moroccan? Indian? Mexican?” and even trying white ethnicities, “Spanish? Greek? Italian?” even though I clearly don’t look white, because white people are given the most variety in attributes. “You still have their skintone!” (No. I have mine.) Most people are convinced I must be mixed. (I’m not.)

So! Please don’t be an asshat, thank you.

6 thoughts on ““White people don’t have a monopoly on genetic variation.” –Chally Kacelnik

  1. JDay

    Genetically speaking, people from Africa have the most genetic variation. Biologists do not recognize the term “race”- this is a cultural construct but has no basis in DNA variances.

    In the spirit of Ramadan “we are one”-ness, I suggest the book or National Geographic tv series “Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project” by Spencer Wells.

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    1. Julian Morrison

      Race is quite real in terms of the effects of racism, historical and contemporary (yes, it counts as racism if you ignore the past, pretend poor countries were always poor, politically marginalized and technologically backward and rich countries got rich by hard work, the ontologies of european science are untainted, black people are in jail in the USA because they committed crimes, and borders are necessary – ignorance is not an excuse, ignorance is the crime).

      You need to understand that race is about caste (“what is your category? what is your stereotype?”) – ancestry is the excuse. White supremacy is the purpose, where “white” is a constructed identity defined by exclusion and intended to allow categorization and control of everyone else. (Race doesn’t apply to whites, they are the “unmarked” category, “no race”, hence diversity is permitted.) Defeating the excuse is worth a little, it has pulled racism out of the overt scientific mainstream. But not much – it has not ended white people’s and white culture’s entitled arrogance, sense of being unmarked while everyone else is marked, or ended the system of “rich” and “poor” countries, or much of anything else.

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      1. JDay

        What you have to understand is that for the one billion nonreligious people on this planet, scientific ‘truth’ is significant to them. Since the aftermath of the Nazi regime and the scientific advances in genetics, immunology, and organ transplantation, there has been a major paradigm shift in the scientific community to see all humans, indeed all living things, as related and interconnected.

        Humans have always been good at forming different groups and then asserting that their particular group is superior to all others. This goes back to the Homo sapiens versus Neanderthal years, 30,000 BC, and probably earlier. We are good at being generous to the “in” members of our group and exceptionally brutal to the “outsiders”.

        Instead of waxing eloquent on the evils of racism, why don’t we go and CELEBRATE and SHARE in our beautiful genetic diversity? I would urge you to register for the National Bone Marrow Registry. They are particularly interested in people of mixed, Asian, and African ancestry. There is no initial blood draw, they just do a swab test of your inner cheek. If you are a match, your bone marrow donation could save someone (probably a child)’s life.

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      2. I agree with you. My short version would be: “race” as commonly understood has little biological reality but a significant social reality. Social constructs can have real impacts on the lives of individuals.

        To use an analogy, “rich” and “poor” have no biological reality (if you took Mitt Romney and one of his cleaners and put them on a desert island, cut off from all outside help, I’d say they’d have equal chances of surviving), but to pretend there’s no difference between rich and poor in our society is to ignore the differences in power generated by social constructs. The same applies to race.

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  2. Susan

    GAAARGH! This happened all the time when my son was younger.(I’m much paler than he is) We would be having dinner or doing things a family does and I would always get “Is that your son, where’s he from?” We would say “Australia” and then the dissection would begin… Is he Italian, is he Chinese and guess what? It is really uncomfortable and really intrusive… and if you complain about well you are just being ‘over- sensitive’. Sorry if we are having pizza together and he wants to tell me about Pokemon or football, and you interrupt us just satisfy your curiousity, then I will get over sensitive. Our family tree is our business. Sorry for the rant but I agree 100%

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  3. Ametra

    Nahida, thank you for this post. You have put to words a lot of the pain that I have gone through. A lot of white people a raised in ignorance and have been taught that only white is beautiful, and that for some to possess beauty that have to be white or be mixed. For me this is particularly painful in that I am mixed. I have been often told that the only reason that I am considered beautiful is that I have white in me. Yet, my skin tone and hair are often the most complemented things about me. They are not what most or nay would considered white.

    Many people try to guess what I am, beside well human. I am often glad when people form other cultures think I look like then, because half the time they do not think I am mixed or have white in me, but that I am variation of them. That I am a variation, that the standard is not one size fits all.

    Being mixed is odd, and you never fit in and the looks that you have and the beauty that is yours form the graceful combination of your genetics in over looked the moment you mention you have white in you. That small contribution is the over all contributor to all of your looks, intelligence and bearing, and nothing else adds to it. That is lie. I am who I am. I am more then the sum of parts and one genetic maker dose not make me more or less beautiful.

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