One Finite Planet

Race, Racism and Skin Colour: what does ‘race’ determine?

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Different people actually have different ideas of what it means to be racist. I recall once finding myself in a debate with a woman who clearly perceived my views as racists, while I perceived her views as racist. Can both be right? My Definition of racist: prejudging characteristics of an individual or a group of individuals on the basis of race.

Difference Views of Racism

What is Race?

Her alternate view: failing to recognise racial differences especially unique positive attributes as being of characteristic of minority groups and negative attributes as being characteristics of majority groups.

She believed that Indigenous Australians had a society more humane than western society, and this was because different genes of Indigenous Australians inherently made them more humane. In her view, the different races truely are different. My view that race is not even real and does not determine behaviour was itself racist. The only possible way I could not recognise specific ‘racial strengths’ and racial difference was due to my bias in believe racial differences inconsequential all people equal. To not see racial differences I must be biased.

I believe that attributing either ‘racial strengths’ or ‘racial weaknesses’ to a group of people is equally racist. To me, cultures can be superior, but not race.  That even declaring the minority as ‘superior’ is problematic, as no-one is in truth superior. Any basis to argue one group is superior over another is just fuelling the problem.

Now, view the starting line at the Olympics of the 100m sprint, and then the 100m freestyle swim, and the view could certainly give the appearance that some ‘strengths’ can be attributed on the basis of race!  So how does my view explain that?

My definition of racism requires some analysis of what characteristics, if any, can be described on the basis of race.

What does ‘Race’ determine, if anything?

What is ‘race’?

Firstly,  I suggest the concept of ‘race’ is too simplistic anyway.  There is no single genetic marker for race, although analysis of gene can place any individual within one or more racial groups. But being identified as within a racial group, does not ensure any one specific gene will be present, more that certain genes are present most often within specific groups. Further, the impact of these genes that vary, is in most cases, almost insignificant.  So we have a continuum of small, mostly cosmetic differences, which are more likely to be present depending on ‘race’.

Colour: False Assumptions of Genetic links.

I recall a documentary tracing the long term ancestry of three Australians: the famous Olympian Ian Thorpe, French-born Australian television presenter Julia Zemiro, and Indigenous Australian actor Ernie Dingo. The story is well explained here, but in summary, three visited the Hadza people in Tanzania who are believed to be living closest to way of the original humans, and perhaps with as close to the original human genome as possible.  But it was revealed that despite the Indigenous Australian, with dark skin and heritage of living in a similar way to the Hadza, had no greater link in DNA to the Hadza, and in fact was genetically far more similar to the ‘Europeans’.

Bottom line:

It is great to see Julia, and hopefully many viewers, replace their assumptions that “all brown people must be genetically similar” with a better understanding of science.

the conversation: DNA raises tough questions.

The reality is there are many groups with similar skin colour and other aspects of appearance, but with very difference DNA.  All skin colour alone reveals, is a clue to a recent ancestry near the tropics.  Pick three people at random and the two with the similar skin colour may actually be the most genetically different from each other.

Racial Purity?

Almost no-one is has only the genes of a single origin. It has been said that President Obama is the first ‘black’ president of the USA, but isn’t he half ‘white’ which would make that half true?  Certainly he is not the first president with genes from Africa, with the only question being how recent a link to Africa existed with past presidents and we just do not know. But if Obama is not ‘fully black’ has any previous president ever been ‘fully white’ give that almost certainly all had Neanderthal DNA in the mix.  In fact genes spread so rapidly that is it thought that every one in Europe would have some DNA from Chalemagne and in fact from every other person living in Europe at the time, which would have included many races! So all ‘Europeans’ are in fact a racial mix.

OK, so what about the Olympics?

So why did everyone in the 100m sprint final have dark skin? Firstly, while ‘not all brown skin people are genetically similar’, we can be certain of many similarities between the competitors for the 100m sprint in the Olympics.  They are all professional athletes in peak physical condition within a limited age range who spends many hours every week training.  We can also assume some genetically similarity in regard to muscle type and body shape, but could there be a set of especially advantageous genes present with a racial sub-group?

A Racial Sub-group or winners?

Looking at the final in question, yes they all have dark skin, and not only are there two athletes from Jamaican, but at least one other of Caribbean ancestry (De Grasse).  In fact when you consider how many medal winners over the past 30 years from Jamaica, a country with has less than 3 million people, the strongest link to success in this event would be to Jamaica.

Other Explanations.

International tennis in the 1960s and 1970s was dominated by Australia.  With players of varied European ancestries and an Indigenous Australian, it is just not possible that this domination was in any way related to race. But here was another case of a country dominating a sport well beyond what could be expected on the basis of population.  This proves that domination such a we see in various sports may not even be about genetics at all. In fact, cultural differences can outweigh any genetic difference.

How big might be the difference?

Assume for the moment, that the difference is linked to genetics within a racial group. Just what size difference are we contemplating?  Well, consider that the French runner in the final was actually of mixed race, and just from the information I have, a Japanese runner came 5th to Usain Bolt in the semi-final, and about 13th overall for Olympics, and that was not the fastest ever time for a Japanese runner.  The Japanese runner was within 1/4 of a second of the world record time only beaten by how many people in the world?  So if there is a clear race based advantage, it is enjoyed by about 10 people of that race in the entire world.  And that is ‘if’.


It is possible that there is some minute marginal contribution to human performance which can be attributed to race, but whatever contribution there is pales into insignificance outside of highly selective environment such as the Olympics.  In the normal world, if eight runners are about to race, then age, weight, height range, general confidence are all significant, but skin colour is not.

The are many visual clues we discern when trying to predict if a person is athletic, intelligent, of a kind nature or any other characteristic.  But to try and judge any attribute by skin colour is completely misguided.


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