Race Thought Experiment #1

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If some really smart aliens contaminated the world's water supply with some powerful transformative agent so that within three months everyone would come to look just like Chris Rock, would there be any races left (or maybe just one)? Would it still make sense to say that I'm white? Would I be black?

How should you change any of your answers if everyone was made to look like Britney Spears? Dwayne Johnson?


I've always thought - despite how society or Webster might define it - that race is almost solely a definition of one's cultural heritage, and not so much a skin color thing. While skin color is an easy visual cue to guess what someone's cultural heritage likely is, if we were all the same color all that would do is take away one of the most obvious indicators. We would still identify with or judge one another based on height, or eye shape, or accent, or clothing style, or what people eat or what music they listen to or any other factor. I think that the human condition is that we pre-judge others on whatever superficial factors we can find that will allow us to quickly guess at someone's likeness or differences to ourselves. Even if these aliens made us the exact same in every way (nature), we would find ways to define and differentiate ourselves and others via our environment (nurture). And thus, our thoughts about what 'race' is would finally begin to extend beyond skin color, but I think nothing like what you suggest would ever remove the concept from our vernacular - whether we all looked like Brittany Spears or Chris Rock or George Lopez.

I'm not asking whether we would eventually have new ways to divide ourselves, even if we call them races. I'm asking whether the racial groups as they are now would still exist, whether the people who are now members of those groups would still be members of the same groups, and whether the immediate effect would be to remove races altogether (even if they or some other classificatory groups eventually did recur in some way). What is the immediate effect on the actual groups that we call races now?

As long as we are not all made into psychotic Time Lords, it's all cool.

Jeremy - I'm not talking about new ways to divide ourselves. I think that we would still have all the same racial groups we have today - they just wouldn't be as easily identifiable by initial appearance. My point is that I believe that 'race' transcends appearances.

Come on, Jeremy ... I thought my intentionally humorous comment would have elicited some response from you. :)

(You did get the joke, didn't you?)

Are you referencing the two-parter where the Doctor becomes human and loses his memory? Isn't that the other direction?

Jeremy, write series, but wrong episode(s). I was referring to the latest Doctor Who special called "The End of Time" (parts 1 and 2), which aired on BBC America last week. I assumed that you would have seen it. If you have not seen it yet, then you should enjoy it. My apologies, kind sir.

P.S. Trust me, in the context of that story, my comment was really funny. :)

I've seen through the fourth season. Our service doesn't include BBC America. I haven't seen any of the specials since the fourth season.

In the original case, the whole world would become black. The question as to whether this new racial situation would hold indefinitely depends on the tenacity of the memory of racial differentiation (which makes being black different from something else that one can be). If, at some point, people stop calling themselves black because they no longer remember the contrast between black and other racial terms (and "remember" here includes memory through learning history), or alternatively, if they persist in using the term "black" but as a generic word that means the same thing as "human", then race will have ceased to exist.

The Britney Spears case seems parallel to me. The Dwayne Johnson case is more interesting. I can imagine it going one of two ways: race survives for however long it does with "black" as the race of all humans (the complexity of the Rock's heritage being soon forgotten or not paid much attention) or race dies out quicker than in the Chris Rock or Britney Spears cases.

David, I've finally seen it. Good joke, very appropriate for this post.

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