A (backhanded) slap at the concept of “races”

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Mark O'Bannon

The depiction I used for character Mark O’Bannon in the original cover for The Kestral Voyages: The Lens.

Years ago, for one of my first writing projects (The Onuissance Cells), I decided that I wanted to make a statement about races and nationalities in science fiction.  A few years later, I decided I wanted to repeat the statement, and I chose The Kestral Voyages to do that.  though neither series was connected, they used the same character type and (approximate) basis.  The character types were represented by Commander Thomas Beak in Onuissance, and Mark O’Bannon in Kestral.

In both cases, I postulated a period previous to the story’s time, when corporate researchers had tried to figure out a way to biochemically alter human skin in order to make it more resilient to UV rays.  In Onuissance‘s case, the UV rays were reaching the Earth’s surface via the thinning ozone layer; in Kestral, the UV rays were shining down on the first Martian colonists through Mars’ much thinner atmosphere and lack of ozone layer.

The skin alteration gave those who used it jet-black skin and snow-white hair; those people were then commonly referred to as “black.”  This came at a time when humans were still referring to various races based on color designations, such as the term “black” being a reference to those of dark-skinned African descent.  This impacted the widespread use of color designations to denote racial type, especially as those with “black” skin could now be any racial type at all… and it sounded stupid to say things like, “a black-skinned white man.”  Eventually, differences defaulted to more racially- or nationally-accurate designations, or more and more often they weren’t used at all.

But I decided to throw in a catch, borne out of two trends.  The first was the growing realization that our modern love affair with the lowly peanut was resulting in unforeseen medical consequences, mainly, widespread allergies to the peanut that were impacting food and manufacturing industries worldwide.  Having little to no knowledge of genetics when G.W. Carver began his campaign to introduce peanut-based products to the world, there was no way to guess that humans would eventually have an adverse reaction to the peanut, nor that the trait could be passed down to subsequent generations.  A clear example of how much we still have to learn about ourselves and the ecosystem that supports us.  The second trend was today’s industrial process of generating new biochemical products, much of which is not thoroughly tested or proven safe, in order to put it into market as fast as possible to earn whatever profit can be had.  This has resulted in debilitating and even fatal products, numerous class action suits and a general distrust of the biochem industry and its releases.

And so: Under both scenarios, the fictitious treatment had not been thoroughly tested by the profit-motivated labs and corporations, and was introduced to the public before it had been cleared by regulatory labs and authorities.  And though the treatment worked at blocking UV rays, it had a surprising consequence: The elaborate treatment unexpectedly managed to permanently alter the DNA of those who used it, and the alteration was passed down to their progeny.  As a result, a new “race” of white-haired black-skinned humans was created, and the process could not be reversed.  Those who initially used the untested products were considered gullible and ignorant by those who did not; and this new prejudice was further applied to the children of the subjects for generations, creating a new group of people that others felt they could scorn and ridicule, much as new immigrant groups to American shores were often treated in the 1800s and 1900s.

So, yes: I took away the original objects of the region-centric, or “racial” prejudices of Man, and redirected prejudice at a brand new, visually distinctive “race” that was actually made up of any and every human race; my admittedly backhanded way of saying that “we’re all the same under the skin.”  And more: This prejudice was mostly intelligence-based, not region-based, giving rise to the issues of mostly professional discrimination to be overcome by subsequent black generations.

In Onuissance, a series of short stories set only about 250 years in our future, I only touched on the obvious depiction of class struggle inherent in such a character trope; I represented it as a fresh, not altogether settled issue, with a few old-fashioned souls who hadn’t gotten over their prejudices yet, and the ill-will that was generated.

In Kestral, which takes place about 400 years in our future, the issue is completely resolved… especially as humans have gone on to master genetic manipulation and physical variation, and now reconfigure the human genome at will to optimize it to the physical demands of the planets they settle on.  In that light, slight variations in skin color or facial structure mean less than nothing against traits like heavier musculature, lighter bone structure, lungs designed to handle a different mixture of air or digestive systems altered to filter out unusual chemicals from a planet’s makeup.  Blacks are now considered the same as any other race of humans; which is to say, one of a varied group of physical types that all share a basic human ancestry, but a step beyond the varied physical traits that represent our regional differences today.

Though the racial aspect of this trope is obvious, it’s actually intended as more of a criticism of today’s profit-based industrial system, and its apparent disdain for human safety in pursuit of the almighty dollar.  It just so happens that I chose a way to present this that doubles as a commentary on race and race relations.  Sort of a two-for-one deal.  The racial aspect of this vehicle is largely metaphorical, and simply meant to speak to the readers of today; they are not intended to be prophetic.

What I expect to happen in reality is a continuance of the behavior of the last 3000 years, wherein the human race that had previously spread itself to the far corners of the planet and created all these regional differences, continues to come back together and remix those regional differences.  As races mix and regional environments progress toward a more homogenous state, the human race will likely lose most of the overt regional differences that we see and celebrate today, resulting in more standardized physical appearances.

But this regional homogenization will likely take a few more thousand years to accomplish.  In the meantime, we can expect to be able to recognize at least some people by the regions from which their ancestors were born; and as long as some of us will continue to ascribe differences to those regional types—whether they mean anything or nothing—we’ll be making it a part of our narratives for some time to come.

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One thought on “A (backhanded) slap at the concept of “races”

  1. A Facebook commenter asked: “Would it be fair to say that the “black” humans are genetically gullible, or would they in fact become more cautious having learned from their parents’ mistakes?”

    My reply:

    As far as I know, that’s not something that can be passed down. Besides, their parents weren’t necessarily gullible… they were ordinary people, as smart as anyone else, who took what looked like a good opportunity to protect their skins; but the government hadn’t done its job of protecting them from the product, and they lost. As I said, that’s why people were blamed, but it was more an indictment of the corporations involved.

    You would hope the progeny would be sensitive enough to the unfortunate image their parents had gained, to try to be more careful about being duped by… well, anybody. But the truth is, you don’t always have the information you need to make a good call; some of that info may be deliberately misleading, and you may not have the means to find that out. In the end, every decision is a crapshoot, and you can only hope you get a good roll every time.

    Like

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