The Genetics of Race

 “Why do people say President Obama is Black?”     

I opened my mouth to provide an immediate answer to my daughter’s question, but no sound came out. That was not an easy answer to give to a bi-racial child who considered herself to be...

“Do you consider yourself Black or White?” I asked her, genuinely curious.

“Neither,” came the shrugging reply. This opened my eyes to the fact that she didn’t view the president as Black like his father, nor did she view him as Caucasian like his mother. She saw the President as what he is ― the same way she saw herself.

The Reality and Complexity of Genetics

Genetic race is a topic that is both simple and complicated. All human beings are made up of whatever races their parents were, and their parents before them. This is true 100-percent of the time and an easy concept to explain to a young child. The reality and complexity of genetic race, however, goes a bit deeper because scientists are learning that there is no such thing as “race.”

Science confirms that we all originate from the same two human beings, and we know God created them. All of humanity shares 99.9 percent of the same DNA so we have more in common than we might think. 

While today’s Western society views race as a substantive dividing line, genetically there could be more genetic difference between two Italian men than between an Italian male and one from the Korean peninsula.  As we researched and prepared to discuss the idea of race with our children, my wife and I were startled to discover just how superficial and literally “skin deep” the concept of race is. 

If from an early age we can correct racial assumptions that our children might develop, we can begin to lay the foundation for better unity and understanding of their neighbors as they grow into adulthood. All of us, and especially our children should see “racial” differences for what they are – minor genetic fluctuations in biological diversity that are not confined to one people group. Dark skinned individuals can be found in Africa, Australia, Asia and South America and across the Pacific Ocean. People with broad noses are similarly found around the world and not just within a single “race.”  The vast physical variety that God implanted in human DNA can be found in just about any area of the world, and the continent of Africa contains the greatest genetic diversity among humans.

Below are some tips and references to teach the biblical worldview on race.

FOR KIDS:

For young children learning about race, invite them to talk about classmates or friends who are of different races: what is different about these people? What things are the same? They will find the list of similarities is far larger and more significant. Then, ask them if any of these differences are a reason to not like someone. Remind them that Jesus was kind to the people He met and did not judge them based on their appearance (John 4:1-25). God loves the diversity of our appearances so much that He plans to keep our physical appearances as they are for all eternity (Revelation 7:9). Young children can be taught to see skin color as one genetic variable out of many, not giving it any more or less weight than eye color or whether a person has thin or full lips. Most important, without getting into detail, remind children that no matter how different they may look as compared to someone else, they are more alike deep down - under the skin - than they are on the surface.

FOR TEENS:

Older kids questioning race and the issues they may see in the news can be encouraged to engage in a Bible study on the topic, preferably one that you can join. Encourage teens to engage in a study of human genetics online and they will quickly discover just how tiny and insignificant the idea of “race” really is.  Pastor Tony Evans gives a thoughtful and biblical response to race using the account of the Samaritan Woman and Jesus at the well. It can be viewed at http://bit.ly/2iZ6Pkv  

Studying genealogy is another good way to illustrate the insignificance of racial division. Scientists have determined that any historical person living about sixteen hundred years ago is likely to be your ancestor (and mine).  For example, going back in time just 10 generations shows that each of us has approximately one thousand great-grandparents.  Go back far enough and you will find that Nefertiti, Julius Caesar, and the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, were ancestors of us all. In most cases, dedicated teens can research and find a genetic link between themselves and any of their friends within the last six or seven generations. We know that we are all genetically related; the Bible shows this and science verifies it. Many teens may be interested in researching their own history or DNA to learn that their bodies contain the same variety of genetic information they see in the community where they live.

Another quick activity for teens exploring the concept of genetic race is to have them list at least twenty-five superficial and visible genetic traits found among human beings that, like skin color, are unique and distinctive to individuals. There are hundreds of such physical differences, so twenty-five should be an easy list to compile. Some examples include:

  • Lips thin or full
  • Hair color
  • Eye color
  • Finger length
  • Earlobes - detached or connected
  • Hair thickness
  • Hair ― curly or straight
  • Nails ― brittle or hard
  • Foot shape (Yes; this is genetic, too!)
  • Dimpled chins
  • Dimpled cheeks

Ask your teen to imagine a human society where people were separated and enslaved based not on the color of their skin, but by whether or not their earlobes were detached, or if their fingers were a certain length. This may help them understand the insignificance of one multi-racial feature, like skin color.

No one knows what the first humans looked like. As Christians, we only know that they were perfect the way God created them (Genesis 3:20, ESV). Emphasize to your child that there is purpose and a plan in the way God created each of us (Psalm 139:13, ESV). It is important to teach teens that characteristics like skin color, eyes, nose, height, sex, or hair type are not choices that we make, and therefore should not influence how we see other people, or be a reason to judge others.