Sunday, December 18, 2005

Researching Race

Last week I wrote about the "end of racism", with a big giant question mark on the end of that post title. Here's an interesting new development in that same vein: the discovery of a gene which figures prominently in the determination of skin pigmentation.

While scientists tout the discovery as a further step in understanding the genetic evolution of human traits and, potentially, the causes of skin cancer, there's another dimension to this story, even if nobody is talking about it.
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What are we to make of the possibility, entirely remote at this point in time, of cosmetic alteration of skin pigmentation? For starters, tinkering with such genes might at some point be vastly less expensive than taking a weekly trip to the tanning salon. Of much greater interest is the possibility, some day, of embryos genetically modified for skin color.

Such a technology would no doubt be monumentally controversial. But why, exactly? Is race really about skin color, or is it about something both deeper (a suite of genetic characteristics extending far beyond skin pigmentation) and broader (encompassing cultural and social histories and identities)? Is there an independent importance to skin color itself, even detached from questions of race?

While cosmetic pigmentation alteration is a technology that, if it ever arrives, will be years in the making, its mere possibility is an invitation to look at race and, by extension, racism from a novel perspective. If we could alter the skin color of our children, or even of ourselves, how would react, and what does that reaction tell us about our views on race?

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