Race & Reality

I just finished reading Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity by Guy P. Harrison.

This was definitely not light, relaxing reading but I’m happy that I pushed through and read it.

Book Description:

“Drawing on a wide variety of evidence – the hard data from fossils and DNA, interviews with the victims of racism, and personal experiences – Harrison dismantles the ‘race’ concept, bolt by bolt. Exposing race as a social illusion and political tool – rather than a biological reality – Harrison forces the reader to consider how they think about ‘other folk.’ Anthropologists have no use for the race concept, and neither should educated citizens.” -Cameron M. Smith, PhD, Department of Anthropology, Portland State University

Even if you already consider yourself educated and enlightened, reading this book will open your eyes in new ways. You won’t be able to look at people, race or society the same ever again. (Remember, we’re talking about race here – not culture. Very different. The craziness I observe in my own household on a daily basis is proof enough to me that cultural differences exist!)

The author argues that we all came out of Africa and we are one human race – that any categories based on hair type, skin color, facial features, etc – are simply man-made… By the time I finished reading this book I felt simultaneously freed…and trapped. I see myself as raceless, but this just isn’t practical in the society we live in.

Imagine renewing my driver’s license at the DMV. I fill out the form, I come to the race boxes – decide to leave them blank because they seem silly and irrelevant. That’s just not going to fly.

So, I don’t think race will be disappearing any time soon – and maybe it would be irresponsible of me to pretend our world doesn’t see these man-made boxes, regardless of what I personally feel. I have two sons who are struggling with their identity, and answering their questions with a cheerful, “Race doesn’t exist”, is not going to help them sort things out.

Just yesterday a classmate approached my older son and said, “Are you Mexican?” … My son, (having picked up on his father’s annoyance at constantly being incorrectly labeled Mexican instead of Latino or Salvadoran), replied with a simple, curt, “No.”

I told him that he should have used the opportunity to educate his classmate, but I wonder if that was fair of me. As a “white” girl amongst other “white” kids, I never had to explain myself. It must get annoying having to patiently tell people “what you are”. It must make one feel very “other”… and that’s never a good feeling, no matter how old you are – but especially in middle school.

The book, Race and Reality, re-printed a “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” which I think is empowering, not just for people who are traditionally considered “multi-racial” by today’s society – but for all of us. In the end, there is no pure race. We are all mixed and we are all human.


Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage:

Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.
Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my physical or ethnic ambiguity.

To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.
To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me.
To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters.
To identify myself differently in different situations.

To create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial or multi-ethnic.
To change my identity over my lifetime -and more than once.
To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people.
To freely choose whom I befriend and love.

© Maria P. P. Root, PhD


  1. Very interesting, I have to check that book out!! I was born and raised in Mexico, and I seriously never thought about race until I came to the U.S. The first time someone asked what I was I said “human” … I’m one of those people that believes that race is socially constructed. Interesting to see how this country is so obsessed with race.

    • @ MJ – I think that the U.S. is not the only one, but it is definitely a bigger issue here than in some places.

      Thanks for commenting with your perspective, amiga!

  2. I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but here in Canada, race doesn’t seem to be as big of an issue as it is in the U.S. Maybe it’s our “polite” way, but no one really walks up to another person and says “What are you?” Or maybe I’m just living in a bubble. I have no idea. It’s something I’ve been paying attention to alot lately though, due to a recent conversation with an American friend.

    Now I have Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” song stuck in my head…

    • @ Heartinhand – Between you and *pol, I’m wanting to visit Canada more and more.

      “People are people” – good song. Haven’t heard that in forever but you made me go listen to it. LOL.

  3. Sounds like a book that would help me. I will have to order it and read it.

    My daughter is “mixed race,” too. My dear husband is Japanese (born and raised in Japan) and I’m a blond-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian American. Like you, Senora Lopez, I can sure attest that cultural differences exist, but race? I’ve never considered my husband a separate race from me,though others obviously do.

    I think of “race” more as something like “how a person looks.” Culture, of course, is influenced by “where a person comes from” with traditions that started millenia ago.

    However, my daughter, like your son, has had to deal with all kinds of intrusive questions and this was definitely an issue with her in middle school, continuing on to high school. It’s been hard for me to figure out how to help her, because, just as you say, I never had to explain myself because I was a white kid among white kids. But, like your son, she has many times been asked the question, “what are you?”

    From the beginning, I’ve told her that she’s 50% Japanese descent, 50% European descent, and one hundred percent American! This satisfied her (actually, she seemed to love to hear this) until she was in middle school, when she started to experience questions and difficulties.

    I never used the word “race” to her when she was little. As an adult, she finally told me that as a child she knew there was something called “race.” She thought there were two races, “white” and “black.” (She thought she was white.) Imagine her shock when she found that some people considered her neither.

    It hurts me as a mother to see her struggles. Though estas luchas ya no han terminado, a menos she’s an adult now, and for the most part they have become irrelevant.

    If it’s any comfort, I’ll tell you that this (mostly) seems to melt away in college, at least at the personal level, though, clearly, not at the societal.

    I love the concept that we in the States are all African-American!

    Que Dios bendiga a usted y su familia.

    • @ Rita – I’m glad that your daughter made it through school intact. It’s tough for sure.

      I never attempted to pretend race doesn’t exist with my kids because regardless of whether it does in my mind, it does in the minds of most people and I want my kids to be prepared.

      It’s funny because we talk about identity so much at our house, but growing up, I don’t remember a single discussion I had with my mother or father about the color of my skin or “what I am”.

      • Yes, you are right. Though race doesn’t really exist, as the book points out, it does in the minds of most people.

        I tried to handle this situation the best I could. In retrospect, I probably should have spoken to my daughter about this earlier. However, she seems to have turned out okay.

        As parents, we never know how our well-intentioned guidance of our children will turn out. For the most part, though we may do a less-than-perfect job regarding a particular issue, I think if we try hard, are perceptive and pay attention, and our hearts are in the right place, things have a way of turning out okay. :-)

        Love your blog. This post was great. I order the book from Amazon, and have just started reading it.

        Thanks again!

  4. We only have to declair whether we are Status First Nations (along with the reservation tax exempt #), otherwise it would be way too complicated! We have every nationality on Earth in Canada, why compartmentalize (unless you are trying to get the tax break as aboriginal)… it is apaling to me that they even ask you that!

  5. I just found your blog, thank you for openly letting us into your own struggles with this issue. I agree that race is a social construction, unfortunately we live in a society(ies) where ‘race’ is very much a part of our everyday lives. Even here in Mexico, as much as people like to pretend there are no ‘racial’ differences and that the country somehow is homogeneous, everyday encounters highlight the sometimes more subtle yet very visible differenciations made on the concept of ‘race’ (wether through phenotype, including skin color, height, and even I would say geographical location).

    I grew up in LA and I can tell you that race felt more real than you could imagine especially for my younger brothers. Choosing to check the box or not as you say will not change the deep seated racial conceptions in the US, a country where the one-drop rule (one drop of african blood) permeates the fiber of society. What I do think we need to do is work against the impregnated racism that exist by making a stance that we (regardless of origin, phenotype or the like) are as you say part of this American story. Demand that the stories of your husband, and now children are validated as AMERICAN. I constantly find myself doing the same when I meet people who find me different because of my own background. I respond with every right I have that just like them my story is an American story.

    To think that these issues are only our issues in the US, is a mistake. Just look at the news these days (in the last few weeks France has launched a massive repatriation campaign on Eastern European Gypsies as they did with Africans a few years ago). To think that these are only American issues is to not look at ourselves in the mirror and really see what is happening where we are, (watching the World cup or now my husband watching American Football on Mexican TV there is not a time he doesn’t get up in disgust of how the announcers speak of the African American players).

    Sorry for the long post. Thank you for opening the discussion. Saludos!

    • @ Susy – You’re right, it isn’t just a U.S. problem. One only has to look as far as telenovelas on Univision and Telemundo to see the inequality in Latin America. Lead actresses are typically fair-skinned, and darker skinned people only play the part of maids, etc. It’s really ridiculous and I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to any producer how awesome it would be to break the mold – to be different. How much “buzz” they would get if they tried something different!

      I didn’t know about what was happening in France – so thank you for informing me on that issue.

      I like the idea of insisting that my husband and my children’s stories are just as American and just a part of the fabric of this country as anybody else’s.

      Thanks for your comment – and please, never apologize for long comments. The discussion that goes on here is one of my favorite things about having a blog.

  6. My husband just brought up a good point that I hadn’t considerd… is the “race” check box supposed to be to help identify you for law enforcement? But listing race is so vague that it doesn’t really help effectively. Our Driver’s License lists height, eye color and hair color…. factual, observable, physical attributes for ID.

    • @ *pol – It could be to help law enforcement identify people, but how does this help when people don’t fall neatly into the box? This might actually hurt law enforcement’s chances of finding someone. Race is not a good descriptor in the way that hair and eye color might be.

  7. I’ve never seen those Bill of Rights before! That’s awesome. I will be sharing that with my daughter some day. I wish I would’ve seen something like that when I was a girl!

    • @ Melanie – I’m looking forward to sharing it with my older son. I think this could really help a lot of people who struggle with identity. All credit to Dr. Maria Root for coming up with this. I think it can really create a “light bulb moment” for some people.

  8. I might be the lone wolf here, but the “people are people” concept misses something essential in valuing people for their uniqueness. While in theory I’m supportive of the idea that we’re all one human race, I think it’s important to see the wonderous variety in each of us. Sounds like an interesting book, tho!

    • @ Evenshine – You’re not a lone wolf at all on this. Just because we recognize that trying to fit people into race “boxes” is ridiculous, doesn’t mean we can’t recognize the beauty in our differences including hair, eyes, skin color – all of it. The physical differences and variety are beautiful. Doing away with race doesn’t magically make everyone look the same, know what I mean?

  9. I simply want to thank you for your loving, deep insight on this subject. Everytime I visit your blog I find a good and thoghtprovoquing read… This one reminded me to the lady who told you
    – Que cara de gringa que tienes!
    Isn´t it? May be on that ocassion you had to explain your whiteness a little bit, am I right?

    • @ Fernanda – Ah, tienes razón, amiga. I forgot about the woman who insisted I had a “carita de gringa” … yes, I guess I did have to explain my “whiteness” before – though definitely my experiences of that type don’t compare to the type of racism many others face.

  10. I hate the whole ‘race’ thing. It seems ridiculous to me. Also my kids have somewhat of an opposite problem. No one would know they are 50% Puerto Rican. My husband’s family is pretty light skinned and so they look *almost* European like me…except…for their eyes which are very Puerto Rican-ish. My daughter will get “why is your last name Gonzalez?” And she’s like “I’m 1/2 Puerto Rican!” and they sometimes don’t believe her. But she’s proud of who she is… of loving la isla and everything it means.

  11. The question of “race” can even be difficult within the hispanic community. I am dark-skinned but with more Euro features, and am always told i have “hispanic eyes”. I carry the apellido of my American father, but am proudly half Mexican. I am often insulted by other latinos who say that I cannot understand our culture, experience, etc, because I am “white”. Some people even insiist that I just can’t be Mexican!The race-based discrimination is alive and well even within our mundo. I am shades darker than my D.F. born boyfriend. Recenly he and I went for lunch at a ceviche truck near our home, and tried our best to not overhear the other diner’s insults about the “p***he chilango y su novia espana”. Really? Why all the splitting hairs over skin-color, eye color, etc? It is frustrating and painful. As it turns out, me and my siblings were raised alone, by my Mexican mama, who supported us as an undocumented chacha for rich folks.
    My sister, whose husband is African-American, has moved her family to Nicaragua, because there is a wider spectrum of “looks” to the population, and doesn’t want her children to feel out of place. (She has a rainbow-assortment of beautiful, adopted and biological children). It is sad, because she would prefer to be in Mexico with our family, but is appalled by the racism she had seen directed at her children.

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