I drive three hours almost every weekend to go home to my family, and lately I’ve been listening to podcasts to help pass the time, namely RadioLab. I came across an episode from season five simply titled “Race.” There are a lot of interesting stories featured under this topic, but one in particular has kept me thinking long after listening to it.
There has been this trend circling around the internet where people reveal the results of a DNA test that tells them what percentage of their genes are specific to other people living in certain regions. For example, if I were to take one of these tests, the results might say something like 93% European with perhaps small percentages that lead to other parts of the world. This test is most often done in good fun and most people who take this test already have a good idea about what the DNA report will tell them, with perhaps a little bit of shock. For example, as a very pale white person might be shocked to find that 4% of their DNA can be traced back to Africa, but this realization is often not earth-moving information.
This RadioLab story, however, introduces a man named Wayne Joseph who had never had any suspicion in believing he was anything but black, or more specifically, he whole-heartedly believed that if he were to take such a DNA test, a significant percentage of his DNA would be traced back to Africa. But when he got his results back, it claimed that 0% of his DNA could be traced back to sub-Saharan Africa, which for this DNA test is the scientific name for being black.
The goal of this post is not to contend whether or not the DNA test was wrong or if the process of this type of DNA testing is valid to begin with. Instead I’d like to pose the following question: Despite the results of this test – assuming they’re true – is this man still black? And there are a few different ways to answer this question. First, there are questions about self-identity. In his mind is he still black? Should he still feel black? Knowing what he does now, should he have an obligation to no longer identify as black? On the other hand, there are questions about the world he lives in: does he even have a say in whether he’s black or not… did he ever have a say in whether he was black or not?
Certainly there are situations in which self-identity is important, such as is discussed in an episode of the podcast AboutRace titled “I Check All the Boxes.”. The episode talks about a school activity in which children and their families are expected to put themselves in boxes that identify their race. The purpose of this was to facilitate a new project in which children of the same race are put together in classrooms for a portion of the school day in order to discuss their experiences as those races. Feelings of belongingness to one or more different groups were thoroughly discussed, and not surprisingly, different views about how the idea of putting people in racial boxes should be handled emerged, and certainly the man who was interviewed on RadioLab will process his own self-identity in his own way.
But perhaps a more pressing question is whether he has a say in his identity to the outside world at all. If he looks like a black man, the results of a DNA test aren’t going to keep others from seeing him as a black man. The fact that he’s 57% Indo European isn’t going to keep some people from suddenly remembering to lock their car doors as he passes by, being 39% Native American isn’t going to keep a few women from clutching their bags closer to their bodies as they stand next to him in an elevator, and being 4% East Asian isn’t what’s going to keep him from being “randomly stopped” by police in the city for a pat down. Even though race isn’t even biologically significant because there are more genetic differences within a race of people than there are between different races, none of that matters in the 21st century: if you look black, you’ll be treated differently than if you look white.
This is why I have particularly strong feelings when I hear people comparing other kinds of injustices with the injustices faced by those who are black. For example, I think it’s important to find room in our hearts for everyone including police officers and the struggles they face and it’s certainly a tragedy when a police officer dies while on duty. However, at the end of the day, police officers have the option to hang up their uniforms and spend time as a civilian or quit their jobs entirely, and so the stigma that comes with being in uniform disappears (although I understand police officers still have certain obligations to fulfill even off-duty). But if you’re black, or you look black, the color of your skin can’t be removed at the end of the day. It’s not reasonable to imagine a black man coming home after making 75 cents to a white man’s dollar, or a black woman coming home after making 60 cents to a white man’s dollar and then having the option to not do it all again tomorrow (Patten, 2016). A black man can’t turn on the news and watch someone with the same skin color as his own be shot at, pepper sprayed, or tasered and decide to quit being a black man like he’s quitting a job.
Is there a place outside of our safe spaces for us checking our own boxes? And is there reason to believe that, if not now, that one day we could check our own boxes?