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Reflection January 21, 2018
"Looking a Bit at Race" by: Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday (January 14), I preached on Dr. King and his legacy. I admit I’m a bit sad that so many were unable to be present for our special worship. During the sermon, I touched on the whole question of “race.” In this edition of the Advance, I’ll place a few important perspectives on “race.”
Biologically, there is no such thing as “race.” We are, each of us, a mix of skin pigmentation. While some would classify me as “white” - I’m not “white.” I’m probably best described as “pale pink” (with lots of freckles). Beth used to kid me that she was more “golden” than I. I wanted to be more “gold” than “pink.”
Those who are classified as “black” are not “black” but a variation of brown. Race is a misguided construct. We, humans, have a long history of variations in skin pigmentation. It’s probably better to speak about “ethnicity” than “race.” I always refuse to categorize myself as “white.” Until there’s a category “pale pink,” I will not answer “race” questions.
Let’s look a bit deeper at our human history. As a species, we are Homo sapiens. As such, we arose in Africa approximately 300,000 years ago (there’s debate about the exact timeline).
Yet humans have existed for about 2 million years. The human species, Homo erectus, moved out of Africa about 1 million years ago, long before our ancestors did the same some 70,000 years ago. The first humans spread out throughout the earth long before there were any Homo sapiens.
As the recent bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind notes: “The earth of a hundred millennia ago (100,000 years ago) was walked by at least six different species of humans.” Over time, however, our species supplanted all the other human species. We are all now Homo sapiens but we often carry the genes of other extinct (human) species with us.
“Over the past 10,000 years Homo sapiens have grown so accustomed to being the only human species that it’s hard for us to conceive of any other possibility. Our lack of (other human species) makes it easier to imagine that we are the epitome of creation, and that a chasm separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
“Whether Sapiens are to blame or not, no sooner had they arrived at a new location than the native population (of other humans) became extinct. The last remains of Homo soloensis are dated to about 50,000 years ago. Homo denisova disappeared shortly thereafter. Neanderthals make their exit roughly 30,000 years ago. The last dwarf-like humans vanished from Flores Island about 12,000 years ago. These humans left behind some bones, stone tools, a few genes in our DNA and a lot of unanswered questions. They also left behind us, Homo sapiens, the last human species.”
I bring up this very condensed history lesson because of a DNA study that was reported last October in The Atlantic. It was discovered that the genes/DNA that impact skin pigmentation arose some 900,000 years ago (600,000 years before our own human species arose). Light and dark skinned humans have co-existed for hundreds of thousands of years.
This recent study puts a final nail in the coffin of “race.” Race as a construct - as a category - has been thoroughly disproved and dismantled. We are neither black nor white or any other “color.” We are, and have been for hundreds of thousands of years, a mix of light and dark skinned individuals.
Sometimes white supremacists have argued (wrongly) that “white” people are more evolved than “black” people. The argument is that since our species arose in Africa, we were probably all dark-skinned at first. Then we “lost” our “darker” skin color as our ancestors went north into less sunny climates. But this is not the case. We have co-existed for hundreds of thousands of years as a mix of light and dark skinned people. This occurred long before we even began as a distinct species.
A serious source of human struggle is our innate tendency to separate people along some form of hierarchy. We want to know where we, as individuals, sit on some hierarchical variation. Who’s above us? Who’s below us? This is what we do as wounded and broken human beings. It’s our real “original sin.”
This unfortunate tendency is echoed thousands of years ago with the birth of Hinduism and its demonic caste system. People who were light-skinned were seen as the highest caste, the Brahmin. People who were dark-skinned were considered closer to the bottom rungs.
In our own country, with its heinous history of slavery, something similar occurred. People who were sold as slaves were considered “less” human. There were even many clergy who considered this a “God-given” reality. God and misshapen forms of religion have been used much too often as a brutal club in the hand of those who consider themselves “higher” humans.
There is systemic racism in our country. As the Harlem writer Langston Hughes stated it so well in his stunning poem, “Let America Be America Again”: “O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath - America will be!”
We have work to do to make America truly America where all are judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor