Shades of Grey

Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with Nina Kaytel

“I always felt omitting race would be more inclusive to the every reader. It is the one detail they can fill in themselves. Does that mean I have ‘white by default’ syndrome? By not including race in my stories am I helping to spread racism?” White by Default


Race is a slippery concept, a phenomenon rooted in political struggle, yet commonly believed to be a fixed characteristic of human beings. We come across it in everyday life. To the majority of us it may appear as omnipresent and real, but the idea of race is riddled with obvious contradictions. A biological fiction, nonetheless, race is regarded as a social fact.

Race is not something one is born with. It is something one learns. You may disagree. I’m aware that my views on matters of race, gender and difference are not necessarily part of the mainstream, so let me explain.

There are differences of ethnicity and skin colour, this I do not deny. However, the way we think those differences is not “natural” but rather socially conditioned. In addressing any concept, I always start with a definition, yet when it comes to race no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.

I was unaware that there was a perceived difference between the latin and slavic “races” or ethnicities until I was put in my place by those “in the know.” The slavs were the newcomers, the conquerers and therefore viewed themselves as superior; my own ethnicity, underlined by language, religion and culture, came short of the desirable ideal in my country of birth. I was different in the wrong way. 

It was then – at the age of six – that I realised for the first time how negative connotations are attached to skin colour and bone structure, to language and culture, to anything that may be regarded as difference. This difference was used to oppress, to make one feel inferior for being “other”. I refused to accept this. Years later, when I had the chance to research the issue in some depth, the truth of that instinctive rejection of race as “natural” was confirmed.

Race is not biologically real – it is socially and politically constructed through law, public policy and social practices.

How was race first constructed? It emerged in human history as a social structure aimed at instituting systemic hierarchies where Europeans or “whites” were awarded privileges and rights over non-Europeans, “non-whites”. White supremacy went global and structured all societies, social relations and practices to reinforce those social, economic and political privileges.

Here are some snippets of the history of this systemic racial profiling of the world, inscribed by men, not nature: In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson delineated the significance of race. In 1899 William Z. Ripley wrote The Races of Europe, where he aimed to fix racial difference through head-type. In 1901, Two years later, Edward A. Ross wrote The Causes of Race Superiority, using the perceived differences between the Arab and the Jewish “races” to make his point. This was only the beginning and much more was written on the matter since – all attempts to create a theory of race that may justify discrimination.

When I say that race is a social construct, I mean to indicate that race is rooted in the social history of humanity, not in its biology. It only has biological significance because we have spent centuries giving it that significance.

No one would claim nowadays that there is any racial difference between Greeks and Romans, Saxons and Franks, because our narrative has moved on to creating a story of “white” and “black”, with many theorists doing their best to clothe an idea with “evidence” so that it may be accepted as fact.

This to me is the context in which Nina asks her question: “I always felt omitting race would be more inclusive to the every reader. Does that mean I have ‘white by default’ syndrome?”

And this is why I feel secure in giving a straightforward answer.

We tell stories about human beings and their lives. If racial discrimination is not a part of those characters lives – something they have to resolve for themselves and for the world which they inhabit, then the idea itself becomes superfluous. When those stories come from a place of honesty about the human condition, then the colour of one’s skin will not change the response of the reader. They will make the story their own.


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44 thoughts on “Shades of Grey

  1. I agree with you; race isn’t something one is born with, it’s something one learns. I always feel that the society is to blame-to a large extent- for all the ‘racial’ differences. We shouldn’t determine a person’s superiority or inferiority because of their skin colour. I also believe that it’s always an individual’s choice to perpetuate racism or not.

    • Thank you, Aly. I agree with you: when it comes to the perpetuation or curtailing of racism it does come down to individual choice, although systemic factors also play a role and the media: some newspapers that continue to print xenophobic pieces have a lot to answer for in this respect.

  2. Yes I have to agree it is something that one learns. I remember making a friend when I was 11 years old, we were best friends and I never noticed anything about her but her personality, 3 years later someone passed a comment about the colour of her skin… All that time and I hadn’t even noticed it was any ‘different’ to my own…

    I’ve added a video above that just highlights how influenced children can be by teachers, parents and other people around them, you might find it interesting to watch! 🙂

  3. Disgree based upon the research from a Lebanese researcher at McGill University I read about some years ago. Her research with children young enough to be reasonably free from social racial biases suggested that there is an innate tendency within humans to visually distinguish between physical racial characteristics. The conjecture was that this was an evolutionary survival mechanism, in that one might as a self-defence measure tend to suspect others from a different racial/entho-social group.

    From an etiological perspective, can you prove your assertion that race is a social construct? It appears to me to be of a similar academic vein as is the feminist position that gender is a social construct, which I also dispute.

    The Earth being flat was also once widely regarded as truth too. Someone has to keep you honest! };-)>

    • I agree with you, Navigator, though not quite from an evolutionary perspective. I believe much of our thinking about and bias regarding race is learned. But it has yet to hit home plausibly that it is fully not so.

      A related tangent: there is much in African-American literature, both historical and fiction, that blacks favored the lighter shades among one another. Of course with exception, as is found anywhere. Profoundly interesting.

      Your post, Vic, foreruns by three months a collaborative series I plan to launch.
      I’ll leave it at that. =)

      • Madam Wayfarer,

        Interestingly, I had considered including the issue of being “too black” amongst African-Americans in my comment here, but decided not forgo it. I would agree that racism in the sense of it being a form of hatred can certainly be learned.

      • I concur on the point of racism. =)

        V’s post brought to mind a lot of the thoughts that bore out in my greatness series, the human drive to conquer and bring under one’s feet other human beings (tribes and nations of them). The physical violence is an extension of the distinctions we make at the mental and emotional level – aka racism – which itself grows from race consciousness. I know there have been studies proving the human need (or insistence that feels like need) to distinguish ourselves from one another, which you see among people groups that to onlookers appear similar (genocides in Africa, conquest of Korea by her neighbors). If we all looked exactly alike, the world over, I swear we will find some way to draw boundaries among ourselves even to cling to left- and right-handedness if that’s all we had to nitpick. Acknowledging (then embracing, if we would go that far) RACE, and therefore racial differences, is one thing and I don’t see that we have to say this acknowledgmt must be a learned or trained assent. Ascribing value to those distinctions is another matter.

        I am glad to know V better on a personal level. Your bio segment will fit in nicely in the series I plan to launch — if you participate, that is.

    • Thank you for your comment, navigator. I am unsure what you found to be dishonest about my claim. As I mentioned, I am aware that my view is not necessarily a part of the mainstream, so I do not expect universal agreement on the issue. However, I have spent a lot of time both researching and thinking about this and have come to a conclusion which explains the discrepancies I have witnessed in both my country of birth and in those I have been able to subsequently visit.
      Regarding the McGill’s findings: I am as certain that humans visually distinguish between physical differences, as I am that they learn to discriminate on the basis of those differences. I doubt that a child would flee from someone who looked different from their immediate family circle unless they had been taught to expect harm rather than the opposite. As for aetiology, I believe that I already provided an example for this re European expansion of ownership across the world for which they required a “moral” justification.
      I fear this is yet another subject we have to agree to disagree on.

  4. I was sitting having a cup of coffee with a black man one day when he grabbed my arm and said “Irene See that black man over there.” I replied that everybody of there was black as was he and his response was ” but he is black black.” There was no hatred in his tone he was just stating a fact and he was actually correct as the man was much darker than everyone else.
    As with most issues race is something we are born with and I don’t see the point in being politically correct and trying to ignore that differences exist. It is what you do with these differences that matter. Everyone should be treated equally and not be the subject of discrimination or abuse no matter what their race. Most likely this is a learned behaviour and I look forward to the day we can peacefully live together in total harmony.
    As to the story – I agree with you Vic – if it gives nothing to it leave it out.

    • Thank you Irene. Your phrase works for all writing I believe: “if it gives nothing to it leave it out.” – love it!
      Regarding difference, I agree with you, of course it does exist. However, I do believe that the idea of race was created in order to fix those differences in a way that would allow for those in the business of ruling to discriminate against the rest. These categories ought to be irrelevant, but continue to exist and I fear will be here to stay for as long as they are a basis for discrimination.

  5. Vic, I agree with you… “Race is not biologically real.” It’s not objective and for it to be proven so would require at least one, modern-day human being to trace their racial origins to the very beginning. Show me a complete and accurate definition of just one race and then, perhaps, I could consider the race question to be something other than entirely subjective. Letting the reader choose is a wonderful option, and frankly I would like to see more authors taking that approach.

    • If by “very beginning” you mean the earliest of Homo sapiens, then there ARE modern-day humans who can trace their origins there! 😀 The San people in the Kalahari have one of the oldest identified Y-chromosome haplogroups, along with the oldest mitochondrial DNA, in the world. In a nutshell, this means the San are probably the closest living example of the first anatomically modern humans. ^_^

      • I don’t think I explained my point very clearly – I can hardly believe that when people discuss race they are referring to Y-chromosome haplogroups. But that is just my personal opinion based on the following reasoning… The San people may very well be linked to the first anatomically modern humans – but so is every human, are they not? If there has been no mixing whatsoever between San people containing the characteristics as defined in your comment, and other non-San people, perhaps some retaining the characteristics and some not, how then do you define those descendents – San or not-San? Racial purity is an impossible and improbable concept to me for many reasons, and every definition of race I can find seems to arise from a belief that racial purity exists and each “race” has identifiable, defining characteristics that are persistent and inarguable. I am not a scientist so I have no clue what I am talking about, but I am so pleased you have introduced me to the word “haplogroups”, thank you.

      • Ah, you’re right, people probably don’t think of haplogroups when they think of race. I just really like evolutionary biology and I tend to nerd out and get a little carried away. ^_^

        Anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa about 195,000 years ago. By using the San as an example, what I meant to do was illustrate that if you were to travel back in time and take DNA samples from humans 195,000 years ago, they would more closely resemble the San than they would most other populations.

        As humans migrated away from Africa, they began to mutate to fit their new environments. The most obvious mutation to observe with the naked eye is that of skin color: too much melanin in the skin (darker skin) prevents synthesis of Vitamin D (which will cause a variety of health problems), but too little will allow UV radiation to penetrate the bloodstream and destroy thiamin, which is essential for reproductive health.

        Human skin color had to change in very specific ways depending upon UV radiation levels (for the most part; there are exceptions), and those changes are written into human DNA. On average, there is only a 0.1% difference in genes between one human and another, but so many things can be included in that 0.1%. Humans who share ancestral roots to the same location or group of people are more likely to be genetically similar, which means that they’ll probably look very similar.

        For example, Inuits live in a place with very low levels of UV radiation, but they have darker skin. Why? In theory, they’d need very pale skin so there would be nothing blocking every available particle of UV radiation from entering their skin and synthesizing Vitamin D. But Inuits traditionally consume a lot of seal meat and blubber, both of which are rich in Vitamin D. So Inuits got their Vitamin D from a source other than UV radiation, which meant their darker skin wasn’t a detriment (and since Nature is lazy, it prefers to just use the default, and in humans the default is dark skin). Modern Inuits, however, have switched from their traditional diets to a Western diet, and this has resulted in more Inuits being in danger of severe Vitamin D deficiency unless they specifically take steps to prevent it.

        Does this mean Inuits are inferior to Westerners? No. Does this mean a Western diet is inferior to a traditional Inuit diet? No. They’re just different and have evolved in different ways–ways which were evolutionarily beneficial given their specific circumstances. Given enough time, they’ll evolve further. Maybe one day, Inuits WILL have very pale skin. It’s impossible to predict.

        So that’s why I say race isn’t exactly fictional, but it’s also not as easy as saying “oh you’re from India, so you’re the same as someone from China, because you’re both Asian.” You’re entirely right about “racial purity” being a fabrication. It’s a means for one group of people to claim superiority over another, and it’s a disgusting way to think. I hope my original response didn’t make it sound like I was supporting something like that.

    • Thank you, Robyn. I apologise for the delay in my reply. I’m in the States at the moment and my internet connection is unreliable at best. I was relieved to read your comment. For a while there, I was wandering whether I’m completely on my own on this.
      On the fiction side of things, I was advise to add more character description as I had next to none. Whenever I read a book, I have someone in mind long before any description appears. Sometimes I will not adjust the image even if it does not correspond to what the author describes, so I thought that others may be doing the same.
      I do prefer letting the reader decide, although I have done my best to include a few clues as to appearance – whether they are taken into consideration or not, I don’t mind really. After all, the story is what matters most.

  6. I agree completely that race, as a concept, is a social construct, and that there is no objective definition of race. All societies, however, draw distinctions between groups of people. This is not always based on physical differences– it is often linguistic or cultural. In the ancient world, for example, if you did not speak Latin or Greek, you were, by definition, a barbarian. Distinctions between groups are fairly inevitable in any society– the real difficulty comes when you start assigning differential levels of power, prestige and desirability to one group versus another. Race in America historically was used as a concept to support unequal economic, labor, and social relations between an owning class (white slave owners) and a servile class (black slaves).

    As writers we need to be aware of the racist assumptions of the real-life society in which we are embedded, and from which our readers bring their unstated/un-examined assumptions about race. In my opinion, to be realistic about how human societies work, we also need to construct fictional societies that reflect the human tendency to draw lines around groups, for purposes unique to each society. Ideally, the author’s awareness of real-life assumptions, and their construction of fictional universes will both work to cause the reader to understand and think about their own assumptions, and to see how they might think better.

    Summing up— for my person taste, fiction that somehow tries to paint everyone gray is false and artificial. And in doing so, the author misses an opportunity to educate the reader about their own world.

    • A very thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. Thank you, Doug. If you know of any further reading regarding how authors have managed to use their fiction to raise awareness, please let me know. I would greatly appreciate it. It must be rather difficult to accomplish this when it is not a main theme, but I am keeping an open mind and am very curious to find out more on the subject.

      • One thing that comes to mind at once is Ursula K. Le Guin’s the Lathe of Heaven, in which a young man whose dreams can alter reality dreams of a world without racism, and in the resulting alternate reality all people are gray. The consequences of this alteration, though, are negative in different ways.

        Robert Heinlein, for all his reputation as a right-wing curmudgeon, constantly subverted the expectations of readers in the 1950’s and ’60 with his science-fiction with regard to race– without calling attention to it, he would slip in characters who violated racial stereotypes and then turn out to be not white, such as the protagonist in Starship Troopers.

        As far as directly talking about race, it is doubtless easier to do so in sci-fi and fantasy, where you can build a universe with its own rules, and where you can use alien species or mutants as substitutes for race.

  7. I guess the argument about whether race is real is based on which definition you use! In the 17th Century, it was originally used to differentiate between linguistic patterns, and was later expanded to include physical appearance. In the 19th Century, the definition was changed to a more taxonomic definition, in an attempt to assign scientific thinking rather than subjectivity. It still wasn’t perfect, but it was a start!

    Skin color is so interesting to me. If we talk about the evolutionary history of skin color, you’ll soon come to appreciate the hell out of your skin! Your skin has the best built-in sunscreen in the world already included, and if humans would just stop migrating where they don’t belong (dang it!), there would probably be much less skin cancer. Skin pigment is directly related to UV intensity: the more UV rays you’re pummeled with, the more melanin your skin will produce. But blocking UV means also blocking the process of Vitamin D manufacture. So there is a careful balance of just enough melanin to block harmful UV, but not so much that it prevents Vitamin D synthesis. Dark is the default for humans; pale is a mutation.

    Consider, also, the other things that make different “races” identifiable: the shape of noses and eyes, hair texture, ratio of body to limb, short or tall stature. These traits are all based on geography and climate, which is fast becoming less of a factor in an age where you can circumnavigate the world in a day or two. Flat, wider noses allow dry/very hot/very cold air to be better humidified/cooled/warmed before it enters the lungs. Almond-shaped eyes are a built-in insulation against bitter cold. In warmer climates, people will have longer limbs in relation to their torso, which increases surface area and better facilitates cooling (the opposite is true in peoples from colder climates); tallness or shortness depend on climate but also nutrition and local geography.

    And then there’s the question of whether Neanderthal DNA really exists in modern humans… Evidence suggests that if you’re European or Asian, you’re probably part Neanderthal. But other schools of thought reject that idea. What would it mean for race if it was true? Would the part-Neanderthal European be different from the European who didn’t happen to have any Neanderthal in them? I wonder, if the Neanderthal species (or sub-species) hadn’t died out, would Homo sapiens even care about its internal racial differences, and instead be too busy hating on the sister species? The writer in me is already thinking of a story.

    I do agree that race is largely misunderstood, but I don’t think it’s a biological fiction. The differences that appear across the human species are fascinating and beautiful, and paint a rich picture of our history. The problem arises when racial differences are used to abuse or harm.

    Phew, that post took on a mind of its own! I just really love the diversity of humankind, and the science behind that diversity. I could geek out about it all day.

  8. Great discussion – race is social construct, and one that changes all the time. Historically, the idea of “race” is basically a slippery fish that jumps around depending on political leanings.

    I also wanted to let you know that I’ve nominated you for the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers award!

    I just learned that this existed a few days ago when I was nominated, but the gist is this: you accept the award by posting that you were nominated, then answering some questions about yourself, and listing out ten blogs that you would like to nominate as awesome. I name you here:

    • I wasn’t able to read the comments for a while and was pleasantly surprised by how well the debate developed in my absence. Thank you for thinking of me, Michelle, and congratulations on being nominated.

  9. Interesting discussion and read. As ever, Vic, you allow us to contemplate things on a deeper level. While I believe that we are born with certain physical traits via genetics, I also agree strongly that society and culture places historical and modern “preferences” onto our psyches that push us into division if we are not careful to make decisions based on love and humanity. Look at the whole eugenics movement and its misguided effort at defining superiority. That culture took division to its ultimate worst end.

    One only has to look at culture and the female figure to see how ideas of “superior” beauty reaches into the minds of entire populations. Skin pigment is the easiest method of identification, thereby the easiest to create separation. However, I agree with Holistic Wayfarer, that if we all had the same pigmentation, societally, we would seek out other methods of separating ourselves tribally to attain stature. Unless, of course, our culture valued unity.

  10. O.K, I had to really pay attention at this one, but I did take two philosophy classes back in my university days and I wasn´t all that bad. I did tend to find them pointless because the arguments never seemed to reach a final point there was always one more question so round and round we went. I figured what the fuck, let´s get to the point in one of these classes. So let´s get to the point.

    Races I don´t believe is something society has constructed, they may have said this guy is black this guy is white and the other one is yellow, and they coined them “races” so we treat the white master better because that is the way it is going to be. O.K, but here is my argument, you ready….hit it!

    There are different races, I`m white, there is black, there is greeks, that´s a mixture of who know what, the scandinavians too, the same with Spaniards, since we were conquered by the muslims and they seem quite happy at having many spouses and kids a lot of us Spanish, not me, but a lot are dark hair dark features. Latin America, race is black. So there is no denying that there are different colour or races. And inevitably it is biological, a black person is biological different from a white person, that´s just pure science. Now,not writing about it makes you a racist? I don´t think so. We are not here to save the world. I have black friends, gay friends, girl-friends, and they seem their doing pretty good to me. Everybody has issues, but not to the extent as to relieve the past history, relieve the slave history, have what I call the “white feel bad complex” There´s a great line in a movie by the comic Larry Davis: He´s walking down the a hall with his agent and he´s pissed off, everybody say´s hello to him and he doesn´t respond then a black man passes by and Larry says “Hi, how are you doing?” The black man looks at him as if Larry is nuts. Then Larry´s agent asks him with a strong tone “What the hell are you doing?” To which Larry responds ” It´s just so he know´s I´m not like my father that treated you bad” I guess my point is, to lighten up a bit. Yes there will always be issues of race, as long as the human race exists. But for me, the more you relieve history the more you pin people against each other, the past is past so lets move on to better places.

    P.S. I do understand that you are in college and that is what you do in college, reflect about these type of issues. I went to California to college so you don´t get more liberal than the teachers I had. And they will pound your head with all this stuff, it actually made me think what the hell are these people coming from, they are right on some things, but I´m not buying the hole store. And that was big rant…I think I burned my two neurons I had left.

    • Thank you for your comment, Charly. When you speak of race, you refer to exactly the concept I was referring to: one that has been invented and then systematised in order to differentiate between people that have different skin pigmentation and/or a different culture and/or happen to live in a different region. What I was trying to say is that when it comes to biology, the differences between this presumed “races” are so small that if you had to follow each pigmentation mutation through, you would end up having as many races as you have people in the world. This is why I consider it to be a social construct: because we think in terms of race without actually understanding what that term stands for, and what it stands for is a long history of theorisation by those who had a stake in maintaining a hierarchical social arrangement and sought to justify it through pseudo-scientific research.
      I suppose when it comes to this issue there may well be as many opinions as there are people considering it.

      • Yep, you´re right on the last part, ” as many opinions as there are people considering it”
        But that´s what makes it fun right? If we all saw the world through the same glasses it would be pretty boring.

  11. Pingback: Featuring Vic Briggs: (Winner of nine consecutive awards!) | Spartacus2030

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