Why I’m Leaving My Race. And Why You Should Leave Yours.

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.

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17 comments

  1. Fully agree with the article. Talking about cultural heritage is something important but should not define who you want to be or ought to be. I do not deny the existence of « races » (however you may want to call it) but I really shiver when I read Mankind Quarterly (among others).

    We have lots of problem lying ahead of us. And yes, we should take into account cultures to deal with it. Doesn’t change the fact that tribalism skews any serious discussion.

    « In it, I detail my father’s inexhaustible efforts to imbue me with pride in my Italian heritage—and my resistance. »

    Same experience. But I still do not understand why, having been born catholic (among others), I should be bound to a belief in God and enforcing a version of absolute morality onto others just because Daddy wants me to.

    Bullshit.

  2. I agree that one needs to remove the idea of responsibility for past wrongs and recognize the problem with the left using the racial categories that the racists invented. Can the author please articulate how to address the reality that today individuals are still suffering as a result of these ideologies and policies and many unintentionally benefit? How can the inter generational disadvantage be addressed? If we don’t examine this question then actually “we” are part of the problem? Same goes with misogyny and the prevalence of violence and discrimination against women. Perhaps it is like living off the spoils of a fortune you know was attained illegally. You didn’t steal but you aren’t handing over the riches either.

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  3. but really you’re a white guy whose life possibilities were always circumscribed by race. blacks don’t think of themselves as black because they’re politically correct. it’s because they’ve been the victims of racial terror.

    1. >racial terror

      You mean like when a Black shoves a White man off to certain serious injury? Or the antics committed by Blacks in South Africa? Or is Whitey the source of all the world’s problems?

  4. I stopped reading when the author linked what he called a “major Harvard white paper” and later termed “a Harvard study” even though I found a cursory glance revealed it to be a blog post written by a grad student and categorized by the Harvard publication it appeared in as “opinion”. Further, when I read that the primary evidence for the grad student’s claim was a thoroughly outdated 2002 paper out of Stanford, it clinched this article as not worth any more of my time. The social “sciences” need to stay out of population genetics (or when they intrude, be ignored) as it has become quite obvious that the practitioners in these fields have no conception of what the mass of evidence being found even means.

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  5. Yeah, I thought in these lines for almost a decade after graduating high school as a leftie. And then suddenly at the beginning of the 2010s race suddenly came back. This time from the left. Now I feel torn as it seems more and more logical for me to vote the right wing populists, if indeed the PoCs want to “deconstruct” whiteness. At what point will they start to deconstruct white bodies too?

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  6. Bravo for refusing to acknowledge responsibility for possible sins of ancestors. That makes two of us, and many more.

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  7. The author makes as brave a case for the nonexistence of race as could be made, alas it doesn’t work. May as well claim that there are no breeds of dogs or subspecies of horses. But at the same time the author identifies the solution to all race issues which is simply to view each individual as an individual as an individual. Problem solved.

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    1. “Race” is equivalent to subspecies and when they occur, they are created by natural evolutionary processess. There are no subspecies within Homo sapiens. This is likely because people have been moving around on the surface of Earth for a very long time reproducing with people who do not look like themselves. In other words, members of our species have never been isolated long enough to develop into subspecies.

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      1. But just as subspecies is a concept with soft borders, so is race. A race is a not quite subspecies. The Australian Aboriginals were isolated for, they say, something like 40,000 years. Long enough that one can distinguish one of them from a Russian with 100% accuracy. They are close to being a subspecies even if not quite. BTW, are there any breeds of dogs or is that an illusion too?

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  8. This is the essence of MLK’s dream speech, that his children will one day live in a nation where they will NOT be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

    Seems like as a society we are in full speed reverse today. Good article.

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  9. Your basic premise that tribal thinking is illegitimate is erroneous to begin with. Mankind is tribal, was tribal and always will be tribal. Regarding tribal pride, some tribes contributed greatly to civilization with things like science, math, theater and philosophy like my Greek tribe or with things like law and art like your Italian tribe. Both your tribe and mine pointi to a rich heritage of societal contribution with pride.

    Other tribes painted themselves and danced around fires howling at the moon only to be captured by stronger more advanced tribes and sold into slavery or slaughtered and left for dead on the plains of a new world. As for the rest of your post, I didn’t read any further because if you’re so separated from reality that you think that tribal trait is illegitimate then reading the rest of your post is just a waste of time. .

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    1. Yes humans are tribal. But the idea that tribe need be defined by ethnicity is false, the idea that what ideas any tribe emblem are fixed is false, that our idea of tribe is reductive and determinative is false, that we can’t or should challenge tribal thinking is false, that it always defines us is false, and that we can’t share much with others from other tribes is false. The idea that we need accept some kind of tribal affinity as the basis for society is false.
      Your argument is like saying that because at some base biological level we show some kind of instinctive bias against those different from us, racism is therefore the legitimate basis for how we see the world or that we’re incapable of exercising human moral agency to override what maybe instinctive.
      You may wish to choose to remain tribal in your thinking and read (and quite clearly think) no further, but please don’t assume this is nothing more than a choice you’ve made, one many of us reject for what are historically obvious reasons.

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