By Robert R. Thomas
Marcia and Millie Biggs grace the cover of National Geographic’s April 2018 special issue titled “Black and White.” They are fraternal twin sisters, daughters of a bi-racial couple. As the subtitle indicates, “These twin sisters make us rethink everything we know about race.”
The key factor, Marcia points out, is “People are made how they are.” Her mother adds, “It’s genes.” The real story in black and white is not race; it is ancestry. This issue of the magazine nails its scientific thesis debunking race and illuminating ancestry to the door of knowledge using DNA testing for the nails.
Our common mother: Mitochondrial Eve
Last year I purchased National Geographic’s Geo 2.0 DNA Ancestry Kit and submitted my saliva for testing. It still amazes me how much I learned from a little spit. When I received the results, “Your Ancestral Journey,” the opening sentence set the stage for my genetic journey: “The origin of our species lies in Africa: It’s where we first evolved and where we’ve spent the majority of our time on Earth. We have a common mother, a Mitochondrial Eve, and she is decidedly African.”
While I knew that all human beings derived from Africa, my curiosity lay with the pathways of the human diaspora, particularly the pathway of my ancestors. The April issue of National Geographic nicely supplements my genetic ancestral journey report with a deft usage of graphics, photography and writing.
A map of the human diaspora from East Africa is aptly titled, “A formative journey.” The map displays the genetic journeys of our species, both those who left and those who stayed. Photos and an African language diversity map demonstrate that there is more diversity in Africa than on all the other continents combined. As geneticist Sarah Tishko puts it, “There is no homogenous African race.”
Skin deep: how we present race matters
The issue is extraordinary on several levels beginning with the editor-in-chief’s mea culpa: “To rise above the racism of the past, we must acknowledge it.” Which she then does, including an examination of the magazine’s failures regarding their coverage of race. One of the findings was that the magazine “did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in white American culture.”For Editor Susan Goldberg, “How we present race matters.”
In “Skin Deep” Elizabeth Kolbert examines race, which has no genetic or scientific basis. “Instead it’s largely a made-up label used to define and separate us,” she states.
For six years photographer Angélica Dass has matched people’s skin tones on a standard color palette. “I strongly believe black and white don’t exist,” she says. Then she demonstrates her color wheel of humanity with photos of various shades of people and their marker on the Pantone color scale. The evidence is strikingly beautiful and as varied as the lilies of the field.
A timeline, titled “Ancient flows of dark and light,” genetically traces skin color variations and when and how they came to be.
Chimp, human DNA 99 percent alike
Several photographs are as telling as the cover photo. The side-by-side portraits of a chimp and a blond, blue-eyed white baby, titled “The DNA profiles of these two are nearly 99 percent the same,” is a grabber. So is the photo of the Neanderthal sculpture from the Neanderthal Museum in Düsseldorph, Germany. This photo has special significance for me as my ancestral DNA results show that I have 1.4 percent Neanderthal in my genetic stew.
“The Stop” section is highlighted by the photos of people of shades of color from all walks of life who have been stopped by police. Again, photos that speak for themselves.
“The Things that Divide Us” opens with a stark aerial view of a highway dividing two dramatically different neighborhoods in South Africa. Examining our being wired at birth to tell us from them, author David Berreby questions what science can offer as a solution to the tribalism of favoring our own group? Scientists who study the mind may offer some solutions when it comes to changing perceptions about Us and Them, especially when threatened.
“Our capacity to change our perceptions also offers some hope, because it permits people to shift in the direction of more inclusion, more justice, more peace,” writes Berreby. He then offers several examples of conflicts and the efforts used to defuse them around the world. From the Hutu and Tutsi genocidal slaughter to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict to the Rohingya and Burmese conflict to police training departments, lessons from the science of the mind can help guide us through the minefields of Us v.Them.
Rising anxiety of white America as nation changes hue
As a working class white man with deep Rust Belt roots, I found the most fascinating section of the issue to be “The Rising Anxiety of White America” with its focus on the changing demographics of Hazelton, Pennsylvania. As “The Changing Complexion of Youth” graphic clearly demonstrates, the rainbow people of America are changing its hue.
In 2010 Michele Norris began inviting people to concisely state their views on race. Her project became the Race Card Project. Over 200,000 statements have been submitted from every U.S. state and 90 countries so far. One respondent, Brian Glover, offered what I thought capsulized the rising anxiety of white America: “The whole notion of whiteness as we know it depends on not being a minority.” And this against the backdrop of America becoming a majority-minority country. Hazelton, Pennsylvania is highly instructive as to what is really going on in America with its Red & Blue divide.
National Geographic has followed its opening mea culpa with a jewel of an issue focused on race and ancestry, backed solidly by DNA science and the science of the mind. My copy is already dog-eared from personal pawing. This issue on Black and White turns out to be in living color, both aesthetically and scientifically.
Robert R. Thomas of Flint, a former priest and cable car driver, is an EVM board member and occasional contributor.