A group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognise race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them.
Scientific racism continued to grow in strength and credibility throughout the 19th century. It was used to justify the superiority of the white ‘race’ over others. It was used to justify wars of conquest. It was used to justify the dispossession of indigenous land. And in the mid 20th century it was used to justify the Holocaust. Race is used to justify. But what if there was no such thing as race? For many this is common sense but for others, it’s a ridiculous proposition. For those people who believe in the notion of race, of course humans can be sorted into categories. Voltaire was no Africa hating white supremacist on a mission or civilise or exterminate. He was a well respected philosopher on a mission to enlighten the royal courts of Europe, not justify imperial expansion into the African continent. And yet, even the most ‘enlightened’ minds can be swayed by the deceptive logic of race.
As Voltaire noted,
It is a serious question among them whether the Africans are descended from monkeys or whether the monkeys come from them. Our wise men have said that man was created in the image of God. Now here is a lovely image of the Divine Maker: a flat and black nose with little or hardly any intelligence. A time will doubtless come when these animals will know how to cultivate the land well, beautify their houses and gardens, and know the paths of the stars: one needs time for everything.
– Les Lettres d’Amabed, 1769
François-Marie Arouet aka Voltaire, wrote extensively on a wide range of subjects over his 60 year literary career. He is regarded as a driving force behind european enlightenment.
People believe quite strongly in their heritage and ancestry. They reach back into dusty photo albums and find images of their ancestors from as far back as the 1850s. They might go down into the basement and return with war damaged SS helmets their grandfather captured during the war. If they are lucky, they might even be able to trace their ancestry back to the 18th century when parish record keeping of births, deaths and marriages became a fact of life. They would point this accumulated evidence to prove beyond a shadow of doubt they are and have always been ____insert nationality____.
Your ancestry stretches beyond our immediate generational memory. Image courtesy of Thinkstock Photos / Getty Images.
This week, Viral Thread via Momondo and Ancestry.com have launched a video which directly challenges the idea that we know who we are and where we come from. Their aim is to slowly chip away at the pretence that nations can somehow be ‘pure’ or dominated by one ‘race’ of people. They organised for volunteers to participate in a DNA screen which would reach far back into the past to identify common ancestors. The test would also map lineage.
As many of the participants soon discovered, they were not as homogenous as they assume.
For Kurdish refugee, Ellah, she told organisers prior to providing DNA that she was very certain her ancestry would prove she was 100% kurdish. As the child of political refugees granted asylum in Denmark, she has formed quite a strong cultural identity around her family group.
When the interviewer asked, “So how much of your family background do you think is Kurdish?”
“I hate that question!” she replied. “I know that we’ve been, you know the Kurdish people are people who’ve been ..Oh I have to be..We don’t have a country anymore! We haven’t had one for a long time, and when you are a person like me, you don’t know exactly what [sic] your grandparents are if you look at blood, but we are confident enough to say that we are a people of our own. Even after what we have been through.”
Ellah struggled to hold back tears when she acknowledged to experiment organisers that her family have been through much over the past several decades.
Toward the end of the experiment the test results for all participants came back and were analysed by a team of experts. Ellah was seated back in front of the panel of experts with the crowd of participants at her back. Each was called forward one by one to be informed of their true race.
“In a way, we’re all kind of cousins, in a broad sense. In a much more direct sense, you have a cousin in this room..Turn around a guess who it is” said the first expert when Ellah came forward to claim her results.
The clearly emotional Ellah can be seen shaking with emotion at the prospect of the discovery of an unknown family member entering her life. When she turns around she is introduced to Waj.
“Waj, why don’t you come down here and meet your cousin?” requests the DNA expert.
“Oh my god this is amazing!” Waj declares before the audience of other participants.
Watch the video to discover the full DNA journey of experiment participants and the slow unravelling of their firm convictions and assumptions around their cultural heritage.
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