One of the more controversial pieces I’ve written critiques Ancestry DNA mania for legitimizing and exacerbating tribal thinking at a point in history when people already see reason enough to feel kinship with some neighbors, but not others. In it, I detail my father’s inexhaustible efforts to imbue me with pride in my Italian heritage—and my resistance. I questioned his notion of pride as birthright, a gold star conferred simply by genetics. (Dad did not live to hear George Carlin’s mordant riff on ethnicity-mongering: “Pride should be reserved for something you can actually do, not just something you are. You wouldn’t say I’m proud to be predisposed to get colon cancer!”) There was also a more troubling dimension to Dad’s genotyping. If he wanted to claim DiMaggio as ours, were we not logically obliged to claim Gambino, too?
I’d much rather sink or swim on my own merits.
This is the mindset that I urged on my college journalism students this past semester in evangelizing for the—heretical, in that environment—notion that we ought to cast off our racial identities. “Just be who you uniquely are,” I exhorted.
As I conceded to my class, for most of my life—I am currently sixty-nine—if someone had inquired about my race, I would’ve answered, reflexively, white. That was the box I always checked on forms, simply because it was how I’d always been formally categorized. There seemed no pressing reason to resist that categorization.
More recently, however, I have decided to take my ethnic independence to the next level by declaring my racial non-affiliation. I have already refused to check the usual boxes on forms handed me by the DMV and the university. I intend to leave the box unchecked on my next census form.
From now on, I told my class, “I am to be considered Steve. Not white Steve, not Italian Steve, just Steve.”
“You still look like a white dude to me,” quipped one of my favorite students.
Whereupon I remarked how fundamentally silly it is to make these sorts of determinations based on appearance. Another student, a multiracial girl called Alexia, identifies as black in spiritual solidarity with her very dark-skinned grandfather—despite looking more Irish than my proudly Irish wife. Alexia even has blue eyes, whereas my wife’s are brown. I have Sicilian relatives who are darker than Obama. So are they, then, black?
The differences found in the shallow regional heritages identified by the likes of Ancestry DNA are insignificant when compared with the core-level genetic universality demonstrated by the Human Genome Project. The scientific literature is all but unanimous that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and then, around 1.8 million years ago, commenced a diaspora to all points of the globe: that was when the superficial differences we now think of as racial characteristics began appearing as mutations or adaptations. But those visible adaptations changed nothing about the essence of who we are. A major Harvard white paper on race and the genome argues that
If separate racial or ethnic groups actually existed, we would expect to find ‘trademark’ alleles and other genetic features that are characteristic of a single group but not present in any others. However, a [landmark] 2002 Stanford study found that only 7.4% of over 4,000 alleles were specific to one geographical region. Furthermore, even when region-specific alleles did appear, they only occurred in about 1% of the people from that region—hardly enough to be any kind of trademark.
The bottom line, according to the Harvard study, is that, “There is no evidence that the groups we commonly call ‘races’ have distinct, unifying genetic identities. In fact, there is ample variation within races.” National Geographic was more emphatic in a 2018 special issue on the subject: “There’s no scientific basis for race—it’s a made-up label.”
Social Justice activists may argue that the mentality I espouse robs blacks of their cultural identity and the special kinship they feel with their black brothers and sisters. No one would deny the bleakness of much of the black experience in America, and only a fool would trivialize any curative steps. It is natural that blacks should bond and even organize in order to seek redress. But a cultural or political identity is vastly different from a genetic identity. Although, throughout history, people have othered and imposed arbitrary distinctions on people who looked unlike them, often to horrific ends, the imposition of those distinctions did not make them biologically real. Bigots of various stripes have assumed that superficial characteristics testify to profound internal differences, even declaring some to be indicative of a lesser form of humanity—when, in fact, as the Harvard and National Geographic material tells us, you may share a more comprehensive DNA profile with a person of another so-called race in another city than with someone who lives down the street from you, in your racially homogeneous neighborhood. Major studies have documented individual intra-race genomic variations that exceed those between races.
Today’s black cultural identity was forged as a defense against the evils of slavery, and, later, the KKK South. In a very real sense, racial identity was inflicted on American blacks from without, along with the shackles of slavery—and, like those shackles, the identity can be cast off, given time and understanding and a society-wide commitment to individuality.
The campaign I now champion is a Sisyphean undertaking in today’s academia, however—especially at administrative levels, where science itself is seen as insignificant compared to the larger social imperatives bound up in race. For, without race, there can be no calls for diversity, which in practice is the celebration of all things non-white (and/or non-male). Academia justifies this rooting interest in the name of empowering minorities. The problem with upholding racialized thinking on social grounds is that it tends to get expressed as a blanket indictment of all members of the only race you’re not celebrating.
One can surely understand the lingering sting of such historical grievances as slavery, recently inflamed by episodes like Ferguson and Flint. But—like Carlo Gambino—none of that has a damn thing to do with my current white students or, for that matter, with me. For—regardless of how anyone chooses to classify me—I reserve the right to assert my individuality and my innocence of crimes in which I played no active role.
Viewing me through the prism of lynchings in the Old South or the loathsome tap water in Flint is not only specious and unreasonable: it is textbook bigotry. I enjoy the same right to be free from sweeping opprobrium that a black shopper enjoys to browse the aisles in Macy’s without store security trailing watchfully along.
This is why I have decided to set an example for my students (and, if necessary, with them). I will no longer pay the debt service on racial liabilities that I did not incur.
During my first semester at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, I stood mutely in front of a class for a good five minutes as a student delivered an ad hoc harangue about the manifold ways in which my white privilege distorted my lens on social issues. I could not summon an answer that seemed appropriate or safe. Black Lives Matter was then reaching critical mass: these were very touchy issues and for the most part remain so.
Nonetheless, today I would tell that student that my personal background, the only background I deem relevant, does not betoken anything even resembling privilege. Likewise, I will not stand idly by as students regurgitate talking points assimilated during workshops with titles like Dismantling White Privilege, Power and Supremacy, or other campus activities that paint my presumptive whiteness as a per se affront to marginalized communities.
I reserve the right to opt out of those proliferating school-sponsored faculty events that masquerade as seminars on diversity and inclusion, but actually unfold as mass interventions that out me as a card-carrying member of the patriarchy and seek to extract my atonement for a litany of ill-defined sins (see here, here, here, here and here). Should I decide, in the spirit of collegiality, to attend such a session, I will not apologize for my lack of guilt and shame (a confession expected from me at at least one such event, as its brochure proclaims) or for my disinclination to acknowledge that meritocracy is sly code for white supremacy. On the other hand, while I prefer not to be dismantled, I chafe at the prospect of being left off the list of invitees to the next meeting simply by virtue of melanin deficit.
As an individual who opposes bias in all its forms, I will let students and administrators alike see that I reject today’s systemic portrayal of whiteness as disease. I will neither applaud when school administrators declare that there is still much work to do in reducing white enrollment, nor cheer when they remove photos of esteemed emeritus faculty from gallery walls because too many of the faces are white.
I urge my own students not to fall prey to the inescapable trope that people who claim to be colorblind are deluding themselves and thus are part of the problem. That’s ass-backwards thinking. In fact, race is the big lie, kept alive in America by cynical political operatives on both sides, who find it expedient as a wedge issue, and by a handful of incorrigible bigots, who truly believe that their rarefied DNA ennobles only them and people who look like them (though why they trace their roots back only as far as Europe—and not the rest of the way to Africa—remains a mystery).
As of 2019, it has been precisely four centuries since the first slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, an event that placed the nation in the vice-grip of a mass delusion, which makes us see formal dichotomies that do not exist—which makes us see race where there are only different facial features or skin tones. The problem is not erroneous colorblindness: it is the erroneous perception of race. We should work to eliminate that delusion, not sustain it in politics and culture until we all lose all sense of who we are as individual humans.
My desire is that we abandon race altogether: scientifically the concept is bogus, and socially it has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. My demand is that no one, of any color, be scapegoated for the worst sins of his supposed group, past or present. I certainly refuse to be a scapegoat. You should, too.