If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

Tree of Life
How do we combat racism, which does exist, without endorsing the idea of separate human ‘races’, which don’t exist? All humans share one big world-wide family-tree. Maybe squabbling, maybe prejudiced, maybe many things, lots of good as well as bad – but all sisters and brothers under the skin.1 So let’s celebrate human diversity amidst human unity.

Three thoughts. Firstly, it’s very right and proper for any group who are wrongly discriminated against to protest in full human dignity. It’s not only a duty which people owe to themselves. But they owe it to their children, whose entire upbringings can be blighted by a baffled sense that they are unappreciated in the wider world, without any fault of their own. A sense of inner worth is a vital gift to give to every child. ‘Of all our infirmities, the most savage is to despise our being’ (Montaigne).

Campaigns like ‘Black Pride UK’2 and ‘Black Lives Matter’3 are honourable and deserve support from everyone, though, as within all cultural/political popular movements, there are valid debates over tactics and strategy. The general point is not to disparage others but to affirm the dignity and importance of the lives of all descendants of the African diaspora. In particular, a celebration of human pride is intended not only to hearten the young but to alert authority figures in general and the police in particular. Since anthropologists tell us that all branches of humanity come ultimately ‘out of Africa’, these are campaigns that everyone can value.

Secondly: We also need cultural space to celebrate people of mixed heritage, with diverse ethnic and national backgrounds. Having written last month on the under-acknowledgement of this very common feature of human history, I was initially surprised at the number of people who hastened to tell me about their own mixed families. Yet I shouldn’t have been. Huge numbers of people, from all round the world, have mixed parentage. And as travel and migration spread, that experience is likely to become ever more common.

Among my own family, I already have an Indian/English niece, whose partner is a Catalan/Irishman. Two of my step-nieces are Japanese/English; two others are one-quarter Danish. Two first cousins are Italian/English. Another first cousin is Scottish/English (and supports Scottish nationalism). Another branch of second cousins are French-speaking, of English/French descent. And my partner has recently been told by a relative, who is investigating their south London family tree, that they have an Indian great-grandmother, who met and married their great-grandfather when he was on military service in India.

Similarly, among my close ‘English’ friends, it turns out that one has a Chinese father (whom she has never met). Someone else has both Portuguese and Spanish ancestors, whose families she meets regularly. Other friends have close family links which are (separately and variously) Algerian, American including indigenous American, Argentine, Australian, Brazilian, Canadian, Columbian, Czech, Dutch, Egyptian, Filipino, French, German, Iranian, Irish, Israeli, Italian, Jamaican, New Zealand, Nigerian, Pakistani, Polish, Portuguese, Roma (gypsy), Romanian, Russian, Serbian, South African, Spanish, Swedish, Taiwanese, Thai and Turkish.

Continuing the diversity, one of my close friends among my former students, who herself studies how people travelling in the past met and reacted to ‘different’ peoples, has Bajan/Scottish family roots.

In the wider world, an American woman of mixed parentage has just married into Britain’s royal family, which has German/Danish/Greek/English ancestry. The US President before the current incumbent has Kenyan/American roots. The current US incumbent has Scottish/German/American roots and declared in 2008, when visiting his mother’s birthplace in the Outer Hebrides, that he ‘feels Scottish’.4 And a relatively recent leader of the British Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith MP, is one-eighth Japanese: his maternal great-grandmother was a Chinese lady living in Beijing when she met and married his Irish great-grandfather.5

Some of these mixed family ancestries are apparent to the eye – but many, equally, are not. But it’s manifestly open to all people of mixed heritage to celebrate all their family lines; and to refuse repeated attempts on official forms to compartmentalise them into one so-called ‘race’ or another.

Collectively, all peoples of mixed heritage (including not least the English with their historically hybrid Celtic, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Norman-French, Huguenot, and Irish roots) represent the outcome of historical population mobility. Humans are a globe-trotting species, and people from different tribes or ‘folk groups’ intermarry. It seems too that many of the separate species of very early humankind also interbred. Hence some but not all branches of homo sapiens have small traces of Neanderthal DNA, following meetings from at least 200,000 years ago.6 Diversity within unity is the norm.

So thirdly and finally: It’s overdue to accept the teachings of world religions, biological science, and philosophical humanism, which proclaim that all humans are sisters and brothers under the skin. In particular, it’s even more overdue to reject socially-invented pigment-hierarchies which claim that some shades of skin are ‘better’ and more socially desirable than others.

By the way, sometimes people ask me why I write on these matters. I have fair skin and hair (though others among my siblings don’t). And I am relatively socially privileged, though I do have the handicap of being a woman. (That last comment is meant ironically). Such questions, however, miss the point. They wrongly imply that combating racism is an exclusive task for people with dark skins. But no, it’s a matter for everyone. Indeed, it weakens campaigns for ‘Black Pride’, if others are not listening and responding.

Humans are one species which contains diversity. Our skin hues are beautifully variegated shades of the ancestral brown.7 What’s needed is not so much ‘colour blindness’ as ‘colour rejoicing’.

1 See P.J. Corfield, Talking of Language, It’s Time to Update the Language of Race (BLOG/36, Dec. 2013); PJC, How do People Respond to Eliminating the Language of ‘Race’? (BLOG/37, Jan.2014); PJC, Why is the Language of ‘Race’ Holding On for So Long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science? (BLOG/38, Feb. 2014); and PJC, As the Language of “Race” Disappears, Where does that Leave the Assault on Racism? (BLOG/89, May 2018).

2 Founded 2005: see

3 Black Lives Matter is an international chapter-based campaign movement, founded in July 2013. See: https://blacklives

4 Reported in The Guardian, 9 June 2008.


6 Research by Sergi Castellano and others, reported in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science (May 2018),

7 N.G. Jablonski, Skin: A Natural History (Berkeley, Calif., 2006) and idem, Living Colour: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Colour (Berkeley, Calif., 2012).

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Many people, including myself, have declared that the language of ‘race’ should become obsolete.1 (Indeed, that is slowly happening). Talk of separate human ‘races’ is misleading terminology, since all humans belong to one species: homo sapiens. It’s unscientific, as geneticists have repeatedly shown that all people share the same deep biological inheritance and genome.2

Putting people into arbitrary ‘racial’ categories is also unjust to the many people with multiple ethnic heritages.3 And the terminology is confusing even for those who still believe in it, since there has never been agreement about fundamental questions, such as how many ‘races’ there are.

So this BLOG asks what is happening next, as the old terminology slowly disappears? For certain purposes societies need to acknowledge the range of diversity (alongside the common features) within the human species. Yet it is evident that the world has not yet agreed upon satisfactory alternative terminologies.

The first general answer is that language innovation will find a way. It’s not just for one individual to prescribe, but for usages to adapt incrementally. These days, references are usually made in terms of cultural ethnicity (or folk allegiance)4 and/or in terminologies derived from world-regional locations, or a mix of the same (as in African American).

Language innovation also needs to acknowledge the very many people around the world who have multiple inheritances. It’s not satisfactory to refer to ‘mixed race’ or ‘multi-racial backgrounds’. Those phrases smuggle the scientifically meaningless but culturally divisive concept of ‘race’ back into the picture. World regional terms have the advantage here, in that they can easily be doubled up to indicate multiple roots. However, mixings over many generations can make for cumbersome and overloaded terminologies. Often, new collective terms emerge over time. So the ancestrally hybrid Celtic/Viking/Anglo-Saxon/Norman-French population of England after 1066 became eventually ‘English’, and continue to adapt to later generations of population turnover.

One technical change that’s certainly needed is the updating of language on official forms, such as census returns. People are often still invited to self-classify into a separate ‘race’ by ticking a box. When scrutinised closely, such forms often use a very unsystematic mix of classifications, sometimes by ethnicity and sometimes by skin colour. People of multiple heritages usually have to make do with ticking ‘Other’. But sometimes they don’t even get that option. And people who reject the classification of humans into bogus ‘races’ don’t have anywhere to express their dissent.

Another key question is what happens to concepts like ‘racism’ and ‘racist’, if ‘race’ is dropped from the lexicon? Does that move let people who embrace racism off the hook?

To that pertinent question, the answer is: No. People who discriminate against other ethnic groups still need to be opposed just as firmly. But not by using their language. Rejecting the reality of ‘race’ strengthens criticism of racist prejudices. Such attitudes are not only humanly obnoxious but they are based upon non-sense: a combination of myths, pseudo-science, and a not very well disguised form of self-interest. Racists are the equivalent of flat-earthers, denying reality for their own tribalistic benefit.

En route, here’s a small point in the general scheme of things but a relevant one in this context: the United Nations should keep its International Day for the Elimination of ‘Racial’ Discrimination. It’s scheduled annually on 21 March – the anniversary of the Sharpeville killings of protestors against the infamous South American Pass Laws.5 Yet it needs a better name. Or at least ‘Racial’ in its title should be put into quotation marks, as I’ve just done. Otherwise, its subtext seems to affirm that there are separate ‘races’, when there aren’t. Indeed, one of the practical problems of implementing the South African Pass Laws sprang from the complexities of historic interminglings: many individual classifications into the stipulated camps of ‘White’ or ‘Native’ [black African] or ‘Coloured’ proved to be highly contentious.6

Following that, it’s also worth asking whether rejecting the concept of ‘race’ might imply that people shouldn’t take an interest in their own genetic and cultural/ethnic backgrounds? Here the answer is equally: No. But this time, the effect is positive. Rejecting ‘race’ liberates people from trying to fit their personal histories into false categories, which don’t exist.

Instead, individuals can investigate the ethnic identities of all their family branches with pride. Rejecting separate ‘races’ improves the potential for personal and cultural understanding of our pluralistic humanity. That’s particularly important for people from multiple heritages. Those historic legacies all merit attention, without any false rankings of one group being intrinsically ‘above’ another group of fellow humans. It’s culturally and psychologically important for people to know about their roots. (And in some cases it’s medically relevant too). Yet that exercise should be done in a democratic spirit. Pride in roots is not racist but a due acknowledgement of authentic pluralism.

In many countries, these themes are lived daily. For example, in the great ethnic melting pot of Brazil, there are rival pressures. On the one hand, there are subtle decodings of status and hierarchy by reference to an unacknowledged pigmentocracy, based upon skin colour. Lighter skinner people tend to be in positions of power, although not in all walks of life. On the other hand, there is great pride in country’s multicultural legacies. Hence there is a notable social impulse to ‘be cordial’ (in a favoured phrase) by not drawing attention to outward differences (say) in appearance and skin colour.7 Visitors report on a society where people seem admirably comfortable in their own bodies. In short, the collective dynamic may be evolving beyond older fixations upon ‘race’.

Nonetheless, Brazil’s current policies of affirmative action, to help disadvantaged groups, are running into major difficulties in classifying ethnic affiliations. Specifically, the ‘Race Tribunals’, appointed to undertake this delicate task for appointments to government posts, are struggling with the instability of ‘racial’ boundaries.8 Hence the policy, undertaken with good intentions, has already become controversial.

It may well be that in future the challenges to inequality, in Brazil as elsewhere, will turn to focus instead upon class. And ‘class’, whilst also a socio-cultural-economic concept with its own definitional fuzziness, does not purport to be pre-ordained by human biology. Achieving a full and fair democracy is no easy task; but it will be boosted by finding fresh terms for ethnic diversities within a common humanity – and fresh ways of both assessing and rectifying social disadvantage.

Lastly, the best egalitarian rejection of racism is not to urge that: ‘all “races” should be treated equally’. Such a declaration falls back into the trap of racist pseudo-science. The best statement is straightforward: ‘We are all one human race’. That’s the seriously best starting point from which to combat discrimination.

1 P.J. Corfield, See P.J. Corfield, Talking of Language, It’s Time to Update the Language of Race (BLOG/36, Dec. 2013); idem, How do People Respond to Eliminating the Language of ‘Race’? (BLOG/37, Jan.2014); and idem, Why is the Language of ‘Race’ Holding On for So Long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science? (BLOG/38, Feb. 2014).

2 See L.L. and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Reading, Mass., 1992); and M. Gannon, ‘Race is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue’, Scientific American (5 Feb. 2016), with the strap line: ‘Racial categories are weak proxies for genetic diversity and need to be phased out’.

3 See M.P.P. Root’s Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage (1993), which includes the declaration: ‘I have the right to have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people’.

4 Ethnicity is defined as the state of belonging to a distinctive group with a shared cultural and/or national tradition. Shared religion, language and genetic markers may also contribute. The classification is not a precise one.

6 D. Posel, Race as Common Sense: Racial Classification in Twentieth-Century South Africa’, African Studies Review,  44 (2001), pp. 87-113.

7 J. Roth-Gordon, Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro (2016).

8 C. de Oliveira, ‘Brazil’s New Problem with Blackness’ (2017), in Foreign Policy Dispatch:

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Of course, most people who continue to use the language of ‘race’ believe that it has a genuine meaning – and a meaning, moreover, that resonates for them. It’s not just an abstract thing but a personal way of viewing the world. I’ve talked to lots of people about giving up ‘race’ and many respond with puzzlement. The terminology seems to reflect nothing more than the way things are.

But actually, it doesn’t. It’s based upon a pseudo-science that was once genuinely believed but has long since been shown as erroneous by geneticists. So why is this language still used by people who would not dream of insisting that the earth is flat, or the moon made of blue cheese.

Part of the reason is no doubt the power of tradition and continuity – a force of history that is often under-appreciated.1 It’s still possible to hear references to people having the ‘bump of locality’, meaning that they have a strong topographical/spatial awareness and can find their way around easily. The phrase sounds somehow plausible. Yet it’s derived from the now-abandoned study of phrenology. This approach, first advanced in 1796 by the German physician F.J. Gall, sought to analyse people’s characteristics via the contours of the cranium.2  It fitted with the ‘lookism’ of our species. We habitually scrutinise one another to detect moods, intentions, characters. So it may have seemed reasonable to measure skulls for the study of character.

Phrenologist’s view of the human skull: point no. 31 marks the bump of locality, just over the right eyebrow.Yet, despite confident Victorian publications explaining The Science of Phrenology3  and advice manuals on How to Read Heads,4  these theories turned out to be no more than a pseudo-science. The critics were right after all. Robust tracts like Anti-Phrenology: Or a Chapter on Humbug won the day. Nevertheless, some key phrenological phrases linger on.5  My own partner in life has an exceptionally strong sense of topographical orientation. So sometimes I joke about his ‘bump of locality’, even though there’s no protrusion on his right forehead. It’s a just linguistic remnant of vanished views.

That pattern may apply similarly in the language of race, which is partly based upon a simple ‘lookism’. People who look like us are assumed to be part of ‘our tribe’. Those who do not seem to be ‘a race apart’ (except that they are not). The survival of the phrasing is thus partly a matter of inertia.

Another element may also spring, paradoxically, from opponents of ‘racial’ divisions. They are properly dedicated to ‘anti-racism’. Yet they don’t oppose the core language itself. That’s no doubt because they want to confront prejudices directly. They accept that humans are divided into separate races but insist that all races should be treated equally. It seems logical therefore that the opponent of a ‘racist’ should be an ‘anti-racist’. Statistics of separate racial groups are collected in order to ensure that there is no discrimination.

Yet one sign of the difficulty in all official surveys remains the utter lack of consistency as to how many ‘races’ there are. Early estimates by would-be experts on racial classification historically ranged from a simplistic two (‘black’ and ‘white’) to a complex 63.6  Census and other listings these days usually invent a hybrid range of categories. Some are based upon ideas of race or skin colour; others of nationality; or a combination And there are often lurking elements of ‘lookism’ within such categories (‘black British’), dividing people by skin colour, even within the separate ‘races’.7

So people like me who say simply that ‘race’ doesn’t exist (i.e. that we are all one human race) can seem evasive, or outright annoying. We are charged with missing the realities of discrimination and failing to provide answers.

Nevertheless, I think that trying to combat a serious error by perpetrating the same error (even if in reverse) is not the right way forward. The answer to pseudo-racism is not ‘anti-racism’ but ‘one-racism’. It’s ok to collect statistics about nationality or world-regional origins or any combination of such descriptors, but without the heading of ‘racial’ classification and the use of phrases that invoke or imply separate races.

Public venues in societies that historically operated a ‘colour bar’  used the brown paper bag test for quick decisions,  admitting people with skins lighter than the bag and rejecting the rest.  As a means of classifying people, it’s as ‘lookist’ as phrenology  but with even fewer claims to being ‘scientific’.  Copyright © Jessica C (Nov. 2013)What’s in a word? And the answer is always: plenty. ‘Race’ is a short, flexible and easy term to use. It also lends itself to quickly comprehensible compounds like ‘racist’ or ‘anti-racist’. Phrases derived from ethnicity (national identity) sound much more foreign in English. And an invented term like ‘anti-ethnicism’ seems abstruse and lacking instant punch.

All the same, it’s time to find or to create some up-to-date phrases to allow for the fact that racism is a pseudo-science that lost its scientific rationale a long time ago. ‘One-racism’? ‘Humanism’? It’s more powerful to oppose discrimination in the name of reality, instead of perpetrating the wrong belief that we are fundamentally divided. The spectrum of human skin colours under the sun is beautiful, nothing more.

1 On this, see esp. PJC website BLOG/1 ‘Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?’ (Nov. 2010).

2 See T.M. Parssinen, ‘Popular Science and Society: The Phrenology Movement in Early Victorian Britain’, Journal of Social History, 8 (1974), pp. 1-20.

3 J.C. Lyons, The Science of Phrenology (London, 1846).

4 J. Coates, How to Read Heads: Or Practical Lessons on the Application of Phrenology to the Reading of Character (London, 1891).

5 J. Byrne, Anti-Phrenology: Or a Chapter on Humbug (Washington, 1841).

6 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (London, 2007), pp. 40-1.

7 The image comes from Jessica C’s thoughtful website, ‘Colorism: A Battle that Needs to End’ (12 Nov. 2013):

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