Showing posts with label Race. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Race. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fighting Racism in Biology Class

Nona Willis Aronowitz, of GOOD, relates a new study which suggests quality genetics education could help fight racism in the biology classroom.  Unfortunately, Aronowitz is less convinced.  Here are some basics.  We humans comprise the same species because of our similar genetics.  When asked, most people assume that two humans share only about 56%.  In reality, two humans share about 99.9% of the same DNA.  Needless to say, the 0.1% leads to a great amount of diversity but we are all essentially the same.  Many geneticists and social scientists have concluded that humans lack the genetic diversity to describe distinct races.

As a biology teacher, I spend a lot of time discussing the genetics of race.  I am fascinated by the evolution of human skin color and how race plays a role in our society.  I have used the PBS special, Race: The Power of an Illusion, to help make the point that we are one species and that race doesn't exist.  But, race still has a dramatic impact on how we perceive others.

I am hopeful that education and information can substantially disarm the ignorance of racism and bigotry.  If no single gene separates any two "races" of humans, then we can get past these misconceptions.  The traits that we characterize certain "races" can be found in many other populations.  Unfortunately, we maximize our minimal differences and confuse cultural with genetic difference.  Place a Palestinian and an Israeli in the same room and you could not tell the difference until we came to the topic of politics and religion.

Racism is based on an ignorance that can be erased through information and immersion.  Biology teachers don't need to be afraid of these topics and take a lead in fighting the biases in the classroom.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mutlicultural Colors

A wide diversity of skin tones leaves a mark on the human race.  Recently, Crayola has released a "Multicultural" set of colors to allow more children to draw themselves.

Apparently, the people at Fox and Friends thought that this was a bad idea and couldn't understand the need for them.  One commenter said that burnt sienna was good enough for her as a kid and it should be good enough for everybody.  Seriously people.  How can people say these things with a straight face.  Crayola makes colors or all shades.  Now they have made colors that more accurately match the rainbow of skin colors.  Not every person is peach or burnt sienna.  Human diversity is a great thing.  I applaud Crayola for these new colors and yet another face palm for the anchors of Fox and Friends.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Common Controversy

I wanted to post about this on Friday, but Blogger experienced some difficulties that prevented me from accessing my account.  So I will just talk about this today.

Last week, the Obama's invited the Chicago rapper and lyrical poet, Common, to perform at a poetry reading event in the White House.  Fresh off of the President's birth certificate revelation and Bin Laden extermination, the right wing needed something new to attack him for.  In this case, they chose to question why he invited Common to the White House.  Fox News and their hosts provided the most idiotic statements about this non-event while attempting to resurrect the "dangerous black man" routine.  They claimed that Common raps about drugs and cop-killing.  He doesn't.  In fact, Common may be one of the most positive rappers in today's music.

This was nothing more than another attempt to play to the racist elements of those who oppose President Obama.  People do exist who hate our President for nothing more than being black.  The birth certificate issue, his name, his school records, and now the Common Controversy, all have the same basic intent.  To emphasize that Barack Obama is not white.

Hannity, Beck, Palin and others can say that they are not racist, which might be true.  But they are playing to the racists in their followers by promoting this kind of racially and culturally motivated animosity.  I bet they do it unintentionally.  They reflexively attack anything our President does and will use anything to smear him.  If it comes off as racist, then that is just liberals playing the race card.

I will leave you with Jon Stewart's segment on Fox News' latest hissy fit.  Below the fold, you will also find Common's performance at the White House.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Racial Literacy and the Power of the Illusion

Follow this link and take the Race Literacy Quiz.  You can test your knowledge of race in science, history, and society.  After the test, you can follow the links to the PBS website called Race: The Power of an Illusion.

There you can learn about the dynamics of race.  In the scientific sense, race does not exist.  Our species shows too little variation to have genetically divided races.  Every person shares roughly 99.9% of the same DNA, while any population of people contain over 80% of the variation in our species.  Because of this, races can be very difficult to define.  The website also has an activity for you to sort people into different races.

They give you pictures of 20 people and ask you to place them into the "appropriate" race.  This used to be the same method census takers defined your race before we began self-identifying.  As you perform the task, you find it incredibly difficult.  Some pictures could fit in many categories.  When you think that you have put them in the right places, you click to find out the answers.  If you get more than 50% correct, then you have done better than anyone I have ever witnessed.  Go ahead and try it.

The website also features many facts about races and how we developed the idea.  Explore the website to learn more about human races.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Test Your Implicit Reactions to Race

I learned about this website through Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink.  Harvard University has developed a website to test how you subconsciously associated opposing ideas.  Project Implicit features many versions to gauge your reactions to race, age, gender, sexuality, weapons, Presidents, and many many more.  If you go to the website, you have to click through a few choices and then you get to the different tests.  Try the Race IAT to see how you respond to race.

This IAT compares how quickly you can link ideas White and Black vs. Good and Bad as pictures pop-up on the screen.  If you are slower linking black with good and white with bad compared to the reverse, then you will show a preference for white.  If both are the same, then you will show no preference.  Finally, you can also show a preference towards black.  

Let's be clear, this does not tell you that you are racist, but that through culture and other stimuli you have automatically linked certain terms/ideas together. These scores can alter slightly.  When seeing news stories about gang violence and other negative stereotypes about blacks, people will show more preferences towards whites.  Reverse it and watch positive stories about black history, then that negative association disappears.

Also, we have the ability to get past our subconscious biases by recognizing that they may exist.  If we forever deny that such implicit reactions can occur, then our behaviors and decisions will continue to be based on those ideas.  This also shows the power of education and the importance of diversity.  Positive interactions with people different from you can relieve our fears of "others".

I like to have my students take this test when I cover the skin to see what they know about race and how we respond to it.  They seem to enjoy them.  They like to take the other tests as well.  Perhaps you would like to see how you react to other situations.  How do you respond to other religions?  How do you link gender and career?  You may confirm what you already expected or discover something about yourself.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Natural History of Race

It seems that Americans have been talking a lot about race recently.  In this article, I would like to look at the natural history of race: where does it come from, does it even exist, how do we let it affect us.  In the fight against racism, colorblindness leaves our world a blur of grays.  But the human race creates a beautiful mosaic of skin tones and cultures.

Racism is nothing new the the US.  It has been around longer than we have been a country, but not much longer.  Human beings have always separated people into us-and-them.  It is what we do (it is why college rivalries have become increasingly heated).  The "us" probably began as family groups.  These are the people with similar genes to me.  So to protect my genes (the ultimate evolutionary imparative), I must protect my family.  As time passes the family group evolved into to tribal bands.  These bands included more genetic variation than the family, but many on my genes are still present.  And so, I must defend my tribe.

Over thousands of years, these tribal bands spread out over the world.  Some tribal bands stayed in Africa, but many migrated to Europe and Asia.  It is now that we will begin to see the differences in our skin color.  The tribes in Africa continued the thrive under the oppressive equatorial sun.  The UV radiation that plays havoc on DNA could only be blocked by the protein melanin.  Melanin not only acts as a sunscreen, but it also provides our skin color.  Therefore, the more of this protein that you have, the darker your skin.  Interestingly, populations in other parts of the world near the equator, also possess dark skin: southern India, Australia, Indonesia, etc. 

Could skin color be as simple as a sunscreen? Well, yes and no.  UV radiation determines our production of melanin (white individuals produce extra melanin when exposed to sunlight: it is called a tan).  But, the reasons are more complicated.  UV radiation has both bad and good qualities.  First the bad:  UV radiation breaks apart DNA which leads to skin cancers.  Across the board, individuals with darker skin have less skin cancer.  But, UV light also breaks down Folic Acid.  Folic Acid is necessary for the development of the fetus.  Studies have shown that decreased amount of folic acid leads to higher incidences of spina bifida (a frightnening, debilitating disorder when the nervous system fails to completely develop).  So more melanin blocks the destruction of folic acid, which is important when living in the tropics.  What about the good?  UV radiation also helps up produce Vitamin D.  When sunlight hits our skin, we make more of it.  Vitamin D is important in a lot of matters but especially the absorption of calcium into our bones (low vitamin D leads to rickets).

The skin color of our ancestry was a battle between the protection or folic acid and the production of vitamin D.  If we look at the world, sunlight is strongest in the tropics and weakest at the poles.  Those individuals of the tropics were getting plenty of vitamin D and needed to protect their folic acid and DNA.  So the individuals with darker skin were more successful in mating and that tribe evolved to have dark skin.
If we look at my tribe which had migrated to Europe there were different pressures.  The weaker UV light posed less of a problem for our folic acid levels.  But dark skin would mean not enough Vitamin D.  So our skin began to mutate, and tribal members with less melanin, produced more Vitamin D, were healthier and had more kids.  That tribe evolved lighter skin.

As long as our tribes were separated by continents, we began to produce other differences.  Hair types began to change (curly hair helps in hot climate, straight hair helps in cold climates) and more mutations took place (Sickle Cell Trait protects against malaria).  Only the occasional population migrated between the groups to keep our gene pools linked.  But also our cultures began to change. 

However, in the 1400's and 1500's Europeans began to travel.  Soon no tribal group was isolated and we began to run into our cousins once again.  The exploration age tore down the walls that separated our different populations.  The differences that accumulated through time, genes and culture, must have been a shock to both parties.  This leads to the idea that we must protect our own tribe, our own culture.  If we only think about humans in our recent past, the reintroduction to our family, then the racial divisions serve to protect our genes.  But in reality,  we all share the same genes. 

We are all 99.9% the same.  Also in any given society, 85% of the total variation in humans can be found.  And what I find the most telling: Africans, who we  tend to group as all the same, actually show the most variation of any population of humans.

Monday, October 18, 2010

De Facto Segregation

With the decision of Brown vs Board and the mobilization of troops, legal segregation came to a halt.  To me, I find it hard to believe this happened on 50 or so years ago.  However, with the end of de jure segregation, a look at neighborhoods throughout the country show the signs of de facto segregation.  No longer does the government endorse the separate but equal philosophy, but we have, through various movements, segregated ourselves into pockets of homogeny.  

Check out these maps from Eric Fisher on Flicker.  He originally took 40 major cities across the US and included where people live on the maps.  Now he has taken the total up to 103 cities.  Red represents white, blue is black, green is asian, and orange is hispanic.  As you go through the pictures you will see clearly defined borders between one group and the next.  In some cities, you find more blending, but most have distinct pockets of black, hispanic, or asian populations.

Washington, DC shows a clear East/West divide between White and Black.  New York's density shows the intense colors of segregation, yet that density also provides ample interactions between races.

Four North Carolina cities show the same trend: Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro, and even Winston-Salem.

Racism thrives on ignorance.  When people divide themselves and limit interactions with different peoples, stereotypes prevail as the only understanding of different races.  Diversity is not a dirty word, but the antidote to animosity.