Ancient DNA Reveals… Modern Racism?

08Sep12

Scientists have successfully used a new DNA amplification technique to sequence the genome of a Denisovan, a member of an ancient subspecies of human.  The DNA, taken from a young girl’s finger bone, has yielded a profile so high in quality that it rivals what could be obtained from a living human.  As a result, researchers can tell us a great deal about the Denisovans, even more than they can tell us about the Neanderthals.

Anthropological curiosity aside, I was struck by the photo that accompanied the Wired article (and similar articles on the topic).  It shows the Denisovan finger bone in its relative place on what’s presumably a model of a Denisovan hand.  The image was provided by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, which conducted the research.

Here is the curious thing:  the DNA tells us that the Denisovan girl had brown skin.  Plus, of all the humans alive today, only a small group of Pacific Islanders seem to possess any Denisovan DNA.  So… why is the hand in the image white?

I’ve seen the (probably sarcastic) speculation that white skin was chosen to make the finger bone stand out better in this representation.  Perhaps this hand was not meant to be Denisovan at all, instead just a prop to show the location of the finger bone.  Or, just maybe, the image’s creators fell into a subconscious trap that tells us more about them that it does about their subject.

Recently, I’ve been following some very good discussions about subliminal racism and unconscious white privilege.  A self-published novella entitled Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden by Victoria Foyt ignited an internet sh!t-storm this summer, and that turned into a sh!t-blizzard last month, when the once-venerable fantasy magazine Weird Tales announced it would print the first chapter*.  I have read that first chapter, and I’ve read much about what follows.  While the author insists her intentions in writing the book were anti-racist, the clumsy prose stumbles over numerous derogatory black stereotypes, and there’s plenty to offend other people of color (PoC) as well.  The “reverse racism” experienced by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed protagonist is overt and exaggerated by the author’s heavy hand. Foyt herself is white, and it is clear she has never experienced racism or understands the insidious subtlety of it.

Most white people, including Ms. Foyt, don’t appreciate the degree of privilege they possess.  It’s transparent to them.  They are rarely conscious of the color of their skin or how others may react to them because of it.  It’s not part of their identity.  If asked to describe himself to someone who can’t see or hear him, a white man might not even mention his skin color.  White is the default, in life as in literature.

Of course, PoC living in white-dominated societies are always conscious of their race.  Whites tend to make immediate assumptions about them based on a litany of stereotypes (negative and otherwise) without even recognizing this.  In life, and in literature, PoC are different, they are something “other.”

Which brings me back to the Denisovan girl.  Were all the scientists who worked on this project white?  Were the modelers?  Is this hand white because the researchers, on a subconscious level, can identify more strongly with a white subject?  Or do they think their audience, largely white Westerners, simply expect to see white skin?  After all, brown skin is “different,” and it could draw attention away from the centerpiece, the finger bone.

I’m really not trying to make any accusations here.  I just think the questions themselves are interesting.  When “white” is the default, the given, and the normal, it drives our assumptions and can lead us to error, or at least distraction.  We are prejudiced, whether we are racist or not.

* After an outcry, Weird Tales quickly reversed this decision.

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