Race: Social fact, biological fiction


Andrew Martindale
Focus on Adoption magazine

Andrew Martindale, an adoptive parent, and assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, explains that the concept of race is man-made and, though it holds enormous power, has no biological basis.

The history of race relations makes transracial adoptions deeply personal, and, at times, very public statements of reconciliation. What do we say to our children, ourselves and others about the nature and significance of racial difference within our families?

Parents (and eventually, children) can be forgiven for feeling confused. We get a lot of mixed signals. For example, the Hague Convention, to which Canada is a signatory country, is designed to regulate intercountry adoptions and prevent child trafficking. However, it also argues (Article 16b) that "due consideration be given to the child’s upbringing and to his or her ethnic, religious, and cultural background." No mention is made of race.

At the same time, when my partner and I adopted children from Africa, our Canadian adoption service required, under Hague conventions of educating adoptive parents, that we take a series of courses from the US-based Adoption Learning Partners. These largely focused on race and the challenges of becoming a "bi-racial" family.

Race is an invention

Race is the most significant aspect of cultural difference in adoption. It would be arguably as profound a cultural difference for secular parents to adopt a child from a deeply religious heritage. However, these differences are rarely considered in adoption circles, although religious difference is listed in the Hague Convention while race is not. As a result of the focus on race, it might surprise adoptive families to know that race is a cultural construction, an invention of history and not a biological phenomenon.

When I tell people this, I frequently receive disbelieving looks. The demonstration that there is only one human race is quite simple: in technical terms, if you attempt to define any sub group (race) within the human species based on any set of traits, you will find that the biological variation within those groups is as great or greater than between the groups. Logically, there is only one group, one human race.

Consider two examples, one serious and one trivial. Races as they currently seem to be defined is determined by about 15 genetic traits, all focused on facial features (skin colour, hair, type, nose shape, etc.). People within these groups differ from each other as much or more than they differ from other "races," it’s just that we cannot see the difference since it involves traits other than facial features.

Gene numbers

How can I help when my child is hurt by racism?

STEP 1: Each child has his or her own unique way of dealing with feelings. Some need physical closeness; others need space. Focus on your child’s feelings first, and your own later.

STEP 2: Find out what happened through active listening—ask open-ended questions and be empathetic. Once the child’s feelings have been acknowledged, he or she is more likely to discuss the details.

STEP 3: If you have given your children the skills to deal with racism, remind them that:

  • They have the right to be respected and treated equally and fairly; home is a safe place to talk about difficult experiences, and you’re there to help support them, and speak out for them if they choose.
  • They have the skills to deal with difficult situations. It’s important to leave the choice of our involvement up to our children. Our children need to learn to handle these incidents on their own because interference by parents and teachers, especially if they’re all of European heritage, can reinforce the idea that people of European heritage have more power. Finally, it’s important to use affirmations to reassure our children of their intrinsic value.

Incident report

Ask the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • How did you feel then?
  • How do you feel now?
  • What did you do when that happened?
  • In future would you will deal with it the same way?
  • Would you like me to do something?

Source: Raising Healthy Multiracial Adoptive Families by AFABC.

When you consider that humans have about 20,000 genes, sorting us based only on 15 poorly defined facial features ignores a lot of genetic data. Trivially, it means that we could just as legitimately divide the world by some other set of 15 traits, such as foot size and shape. A world divided into big footed and small footed races would be just as illogical as the current definition based on facial features.

The variations that many people attribute to biology are mostly a function of different traditions in which people grow up. The only thing instinctive about culture is our ability to learn it, which is something we all share equally.

Why races exist

If races are not biological divisions, why do they exist? The answer is complex and partly that races exist because people want to believe they exist. Although race identities can lead to racism, they also have considerable value in social terms. People who have been marginalized historically, based on a flawed concept of race, find solidarity with people who share the same history. Ironically, the concept of race can have a positive role in repudiating racism. For this reason, the concept of race is not likely to disappear any time soon.

What does this mean for parents who have adopted children of different "racial" backgrounds? Well, first it means that your children are biologically no different in any meaningful way from any other child, or in fact from you, or really from any one else in the world. They have the same capacities, the same abilities and the same potential as any other human being. Scientific arguments that have been published to demonstrate that "races" vary by ability have all been shown to be based on flawed data, and in several cases based on fabricated data, a kind of scholarly racism. Read Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man for more details. While they may differ from you in specific genetic issues, such as a different chance of susceptibility to certain medical conditions, human capacities vary the same in all groups of people, however defined. Thus, there are the same proportion of geniuses in every "race." The difference is that some people have historically not been given the same opportunities as others because of their "race."

When my white family adopted my black sister in 1970, racism and the ignorance that creates it was less overtly challenged than it is today. Science has only demonstrated what my parents, and all adoptive parents, already knew: don’t let anyone try to tell you that your child has different abilities because of some concept of race.

The social reality of race

However, we cannot ignore the reality of race and this raises the second important issue for adoptive parents. If your child’s race differs from yours, he or she will live in a somewhat different world than you do because of people’s beliefs about race. It will be a world that will have its drawbacks: your child may be exposed to both active racism (direct insults) and passive racism (different expectations). But it will be a world that will also have benefits, such as the solidarity and sense of community that comes with belonging to a visibly distinct group that takes pride in its common legacy. The long history of cultural achievements of such groups, both in Canada and around the globe, can be the basis of a developed sense of personal identity, something we all need.

It would be a nicer world if we did not have such divisions, but because they have historically existed, then the repudiation of racism will continue to require that we recognize the social reality of race. Your child may or may not wish to pursue this aspect of his or her identity, but as parents we need to allow our children the option. As much as we might tell them that race does not exist, they will get the opposite message from both racists and from people who confront them.

Race as a cultural concept is a paradox: it has no biological basis, but peoples’ belief that it does creates a social reality that our families will encounter. By balancing the paradox, we are better equipped as parents to confront the negative aspects of racism and promote the beneficial aspects of pride in our children’s cultural heritage.

Andrew Martindale is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. He and his partner, Andrea Collinge, recently adopted twins from Africa.

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