Between my Icelandic language courses, the hours that I have spent at immigration, and my time hanging around downtown, I have had the chance to talk with fellow immigrants from around the world about their experiences in Iceland. One unfortunate matter that seems to always pop up is the racial discrimination that so many of them feel they have encountered during their stay. For the most part, I have managed to avoid this, thanks no doubt to the fact that I look like a younger, chubbier American version of Bubbi Morthens. But it’s not hard to figure out that the ever-increasing number of people coming to Iceland from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe might be easier to classify as “different” by the locals. Now I’m not suggesting that all races should live together in peace, as Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other progressive thinkers have in the past. I don’t believe that’s possible, because race doesn’t exist.
“Hell yes it exists!” you protest. “I am white, she is black, and that guy looks a bit Asian or something.”
I can’t disagree that for the history of mankind, we have grouped culturally-related people who share physical attributes into “races,” but this makes no logical sense. My father recently visited South Africa, and he was startled by the simplicity of the old Apartheid system. Under Apartheid, people were split into four groups: White, Indian, Coloured and Black. At a time when some Americans were busy refining and instituting the eugenics movement and the Nazis were developing various “scientific” methods of determining a person’s race (such as measuring nose size and cranial capacity), South Africa had the simple pencil test. Government officials would take a standard HB pencil and insert it into the hair of an individual. If the pencil didn’t fall out, they were classified as “Coloured.” The problem was that this test was notoriously unreliable, and often resulted in several members of the same family being classified in different racial groups. Oops.
More recently, people have pointed to blood tests and DNA to make it easier to figure out what they are, or more importantly what they are not. But this too is problematic. According to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, it is true that certain physical traits have been linked to various groups of people. However, most of the genes that cause these traits have not been mapped at the DNA level, meaning that linking one person with their possible ancestry becomes scientifically hopeless. To further complicate matters, we only inherit two of our 23 pairs of chromosomes from our parents, leaving the rest to our collective ancestry and to environmental factors. The Human Genome Project, a 15-year study of DNA funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has determined that of the 25,000 genes in human DNA (including the sequence of the three billion chemical base pairs that make up that DNA) 99 percent are identical. If you do the math, that means that Dorrit Moussaieff is basically the same person as Silvía Night.
And let’s face it, how much do we really know (or want to know) about the mating habits of our great-grandparents? All it takes is a bottle of rum and a broom closet to alter the DNA makeup of an entire family.
Naturally, as different governments try to use this information to determine what percentage of a group’s ancestral blood a person must contain to be part of that group, inconsistencies have arisen. For example, there are places in South America and Asia where crossing over a national border makes you a different race, due to the divergence of classification systems.
If our idea of a human being’s race is determined by arbitrary physical characteristics, which change depending on where you happen to be in the world, then race becomes simply a tidy little manmade way of grouping people, and nothing more. In other words, the word “black” and “white” could just as easily have been “fork” and “spoon.” You could then take a set of those eating implements all over the world and hear them called by thousands of different names. The names of the utensils would change, but they would still be the same tools that help us consume food. They would cease to have names, and just become identifiable by what they do; their basic description. Just as, I would propose, we should all be categorised – by our most basic description: Human.
This may feel too all-encompassing. The Smithsonian Institution’s definition of human includes “habitual bipedality,” and “functional hairlessness,” which would cover damn near everybody outside of the sailor’s bars downtown. But we like to see different groups of people as, well, different. Why? I can understand the evolutionary need to protect one’s resources in order to ensure survival, but is that really necessary here and now? Iceland has more Mercedes per capita than Germany, and I just paid more for a miniature apartment in Reykjavík than the gross domestic product of Guatemala. It seems that resources abound… so why are we dealing with this here?
America has struggled with the effects of racial categorisation and disharmony for over 200 years, and the rest of the world has for much longer. Iceland is now faced with the growing issue of how to address the needs of its immigrant population. I hope that my new home country will learn a valuable lesson from the mistakes of the past and lead its citizens by example.
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