When reading books like this, I often approach them from the point of view of my students. As a teacher, especially as a white teacher, it is important that I bring issues of race into my classroom. I seldom have the time or opportunity to use entire books. Still, you never know when a chapter or couple of pages might come in handy. In the case of Racism, Not Race, this book provided an impetus for me to tweak how I teach about race during my unit on media literacy and stereotypes. Mainly, I really appreciate Joseph L. Graves, Jr. and Alan H. Goodman's approach to explaining, consistently and repeatedly, that biological race is not a thing.
Thanks to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for the e-ARC review copy.
In the first chapters, Graves and Goodman examine the historical origins of race in European science and colonialism. They provide a very clear explanation of Blumenbach, Linnaeus, and all the other people involved in attempting to codify scientific, biologically-based races. They clearly connect this to the need by seventeenth century Europe to justify things like the enslavement of African people. They use modern genetics to debunk the existence of biological race and, along the way, disentangle related concepts like ancestry and geographic variation. The bottom line? Much like Emily Nagoski concluded in Come As You Are, there is more variation within a given population than between populations. That is to say, two people of European ancestry might be more genetically different from one another than from a third person of predominantly African ancestry! I particularly liked the point that the phenotypical markers we use to supposedly decide on someone’s race are arbitrary—that is, we often associate race with skin colour but not eye colour, even though both traits are ultimately genetic.
After exploring these concepts, Graves and Goodman devote the remainder of the book to asking specific questions about the social and medical implications of race as a social construct. For example, they explore how medicine tends to use race as a proxy for things like ancestry or other data points that are more difficult to pin down. They discuss hate crimes, police brutality, and environmental racism. They really cover a lot of ground here. The Q&A style sections will likely appeal to many people; I was rather indifferent to them. But I can’t knock how thorough this book is!
That being said, while Graves and Goodman might be great scientists and good communicators, I’m not sure they are great science communicators. Graves and Goodman write in a very accessible tone that would be great for beginners to antiracism. Yet when they talk science, their explanations tend to be very technical, and even someone like me with a fairly good layperson’s scientific background started to feel lost. So on the one hand, I really want to recommend this as a “starter” book for people who need these questions on race and racism answered—on the other hand, I’m hesitant simply because I think some of the jargony science explanations will turn those same people off this book. On the whole, I recommend this book but wanted to register this caveat.
Racism, Not Race is definitely the type of book we need. Pair it with So You Want to Talk About Race, which is a bit more of a personal and cultural spin on racism. Whatever your race, books like this help you unlearn internalized ideas that just aren’t true. And if you are white, like me, in particular they point out the ways in which our society functions to uphold whiteness—things we don’t see, or can ignore, because of our privilege. These books are necessary because, as Graves and Goodman point out, plenty of people these days are not intentionally being racist, yet racism still exists, and will always exist until we change and rebuild the systems that serve to exclude and oppress people we don’t consider to be white.