What Is Race?

I haven’t written a blog for a while, being preoccupied with other matters. However, while watching the morning news show I usually wake up to, I saw a segment that compelled me to type something out.


Before delving into the interesting matter at hand, I want to mention what I’ve been up to in the writing world. My next novel, Unforeseen, will be released in August. This is the third book in the Erica Rosen MD Trilogy, bringing the exciting adventures of Erica Rosen to a close. I hope you’ll pick up a copy (print or e-book). If you haven’t already, the first two installations, Unnatural and Unwitting, are available now. I hate to nag, but if you’ve read my work, please leave a review (especially if you liked it). The reviews are slowly coming in but looking at past sales, I know many have read at least one book but haven’t reviewed it (you know who you are).


And now for the meat of my blog:


What is race? Do you even know? I think most people consider race to be biologically defined. Actually, it isn’t. This may date me, but for the first ten or so years of my life, I was taught that there are three races: Caucasian, Negro (that was the term, back in the day), and Chinese. When I was in middle school, American Indians were added as a fourth race. Nowadays, it is commonplace to see questions about race and ethnicity on many questionnaires, typically including American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White, although additional categories can be included.


When you read the last sentence above, you may have asked yourself wait – they’re asking about race and ethnicity lumped together. Is race the same as ethnicity?


According to Merriam-Webster, race is “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry.” Another definition is “a group of people sharing a common cultural, geographical linguistic, or religious origin or background.” In short, race is not biologically defined, but is a social construct set down by society. Physical characteristics commonly used to determine race include skin pigmentation, hair color and texture, and facial features.


A secretary once asked me if the organs of White people are different from those of Black. As a pathologist, I could comment with authority that other than increased skin pigmentation in Blacks (and other dark-skinned people), there is absolutely no difference. Grossly and under the microscope, the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, thyroid, etc., are indistinguishable by race.


According to dictionary.com, ethnicity is defined as “a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or. . . background, allegiance, or association.” This overlaps descriptions of race. I believe ethnicity brings out people’s ingrained prejudices as much as race, and the distinction between ethnicity and race is blurred.


What about people of mixed race or ethnicity? Why is Barack Obama considered Black, while he is 50% White? Can you ascertain the race of everyone by looking at him/her? In my case, I believe I can often be pretty sure someone is Black, White, or Asian, but there are many instances when I’m not sure.


This subject was brought to the forefront recently by Whoopi Goldberg, of all people. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks, the comedienne Whoopi Goldberg was recently furloughed from The View because she claimed that The Holocaust had nothing to do with racism, just man’s inhumanity to man. Being Black, I suppose she saw racism as only a problem for Black people. When you get down to it, though, couldn’t one consider slavery just another example of man’s inhumanity to man? Since most Jews are White and can’t be identified on the basis of skin tone, in her self-centered world, racism didn’t apply in the case of White on White. I don’t know what she thought of Hutus vs. Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide. Or the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, an area that was centered around modern-day Turkey. Currently, the genocide of Rohingyas is being perpetrated by Myanmar, and China is carrying out genocide of Uyghurs.


Nowadays, people can get their DNA analyzed to determine where they originated from, as defined by where their ancestors lived before people moved around much. Many are surprised and find that the group they identified with is not in their lineage. As an aside, a while back I looked into the analyses being done to determine ancestry and found the testing is pretty robust, getting more and more specific with time as more data is collected.


Like my protagonist Eric Rosen, I am Jewish. I know that had I been living in Germany at the wrong time, I would have been sent to a concentration camp and probably killed. Even had I renounced my religion and my “Jewishness,” I would not have escaped being classified as Jewish. Jewishness was considered something people were born with, and there was no exception made for people who chose not to be part of the Jewish community (other groups, including Roma and gay people, were also murdered, but the numbers were not nearly as large, and exceptions were made). I know if I had been forced to wear a yellow star in Germany before being sent off in a cattle car, I would have been treated with disgust and suffered countless indignities every time I walked amongst the general population. The yellow star was necessary for people to distinguish Jewish people from other citizens, so they could be appropriately ostracized.


It is because Jewish people usually cannot be identified by their looks that they are often privy to the thoughts of others in regard to Jews (I know, there are particular “looks” ascribed to Jews such as large noses and dark, kinky hair, but these features are seen in other groups, and are not seen in all Jews). One particularly revealing conversation occurred years ago when I was in graduate school. I was talking to a lab technician I was quite friendly with. He was from China, having been sent out of the country by relatives just as Mao took over. He asked me about my last name (it’s not Greene – that’s my pen name) and wondered if I was German. I told him I was Jewish. He laughed and said, “No, really, are you German?” He asked me the same question several more times, and I repeatedly gave the same answer. After several back-and-forth volleys, his expression suddenly changed when it dawned on him that I really was Jewish. He was totally flabbergasted and told me he couldn’t believe it! He said he’d been told that all Jews were ugly, had big noses, and were terrible people who only cared about money. I informed him that he was uninformed and took it upon myself to enlighten him. Even though he was middle-aged at the time, he had been fed lies about Jewish people and gone through life believing the stereotype. Rather than treating me with disdain after that, we continued to get along quite well, and I always felt he treated me with the utmost respect. I believe I truly changed his opinion of Jews (one down, millions to go).


That brings me to the news show segment I saw on TV this morning. Tina Knowles (Beyonce’s mother) was interviewed about a four-part docuseries she produced for Discovery+ titled Profiled: The Black Man. In it, she examines the stereotypes our society has assigned to Black Men and aims to dispel them with interviews of Black men who are upstanding citizens (and there are many to choose from). I haven’t seen it, but I think it will be a good start in promoting a change in attitude.


A change in attitude is exactly what I think this country needs to overcome prejudice against Black people, as I stated in my blog Time to Say Goodbye to Robert E Lee (published June 18, 2020). I continue to believe the stereotypes of Black people make it difficult for them to be treated the same as generic White people, and it is the fear of Black men, in particular, that results in excessive police shootings when decisions often have to be made in a split second. I doubt that Tina Knowles’s series will solve the problem, but it will hopefully make a dent.


In addition, I still believe we must address poverty, which afflicts Black people disproportionately and drives their youth towards gangs and crime. As long as statistics reflect the high incarceration rate of Black men (the result of increased prosecution because of race, as well as increased criminality of poor people), it is unlikely attitudes will change much.


Many people probably have some deep-seated prejudices against people with different backgrounds because the seeds were planted by parents or others. But with effort, everyone can work to avoid reflecting that outwardly in their daily lives even if they can’t change the way their brain has been programmed. And let’s refrain from passing our prejudices onto our kids.



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