THURSDAY, APRIL 1, 2021
Are such groups fundamentally different?: Just like that, Professor Gates piped up with The Best Question Ever Asked.
When he did, Ava DuVernay offered a thoroughly human response.
All in all, it added up to one of the most interesting exchanges we've ever seen on TV. As we noted yesterday, their exchange started like this:
GATES: Can you read those percentages?
DUVERNAY: 57.3 percent African—thank you! 41.5 percent European. This makes me so happy.
GATES (chuckling): I can tell.
DUVERNAY: This makes me sooo happy.
GATES: Wait a minute. What difference does it make?
DuVernay directed the Oscar-nominated film, Selma. As she spoke with Gates, she had just learned that more than half of her DNA tracks to Africa rather than to Europe.
In an exchange which was partly humorous but was also plainly much more, DuVernay said this news about her DNA made her very happy. Gates then offered The Best Question Ever:
"What difference does it make?" the sagacious professor asked.
Translating, Gates was asking this:
What difference does it make where your DNA comes from? (Where your DNA tracks to.)
As we've noted in the past few days, we assume that Gates was saying this:
It's all just human DNA. Nothing essential is involved in the question of where it came from. We humans are basically all the same. In terms of biological inheritance, it doesn't really make any difference where your DNA came from.
We humans are basically all the same? Also, there's no such thing as (biological) race? (In effect, "race" is a social construct?)
Within living memory, these were basic, go-to points within the prevailing liberal worldview. We assume that Gates was playing this familiar tune when he posed The Best Question Ever Asked to the exultant DuVernay on his popular PBS show, Finding Your Roots.
As it turned out, 57% of DuVernay's roots had tracked back to African sources. Only 42% of her roots had tracked back to Europe.
Gates asked her what difference this makes. As he did, he seemed to suggest that it doesn't make any significant difference at all.
In reply, DuVernay said it made a (big) difference to her. As you can see on this videotape, their fascinating exchange continued in the manner shown:
GATES: Wait a minute. What difference does it make?
DUVERNAY: I had had a whole narrative in my head of like, "It doesn't matter. It's how I identify. It's how I'm seen in the world, it's how I—"
DUVERNAY: You know, I did the whole thing. But I truly just feel like my heart just burst open. Because it does make a difference to me.
What a great thing. This was incredible! An incredible experience!
As you can see if you watch the tape, the exchange was partly played for laughs. But also, it partly wasn't.
DuVernay made it clear that the provenance of her DNA does make a difference to her. There's nothing wrong with that (perfectly human) reaction, though it may not make perfect sense in every possible way.
What does it mean when we the people each get assigned to a "race?" What does it mean when we each get assigned to a race, then get told that our "race" is a key part of our "identity?"
We're assuming that Gates was saying this about what it doesn't mean:
It doesn't mean that we're biologically different, in some significant way, from all the people who have been assigned to some other "race." Biologically, we're all pretty much the same.
It's all just human DNA. We're all just human beings—people. We're just people, all the way down.
We assume that that's what Gates was implying when he posed his world-class question. We also assume that such observations are fundamentally accurate.
But in her response, DuVernay referred to an unfortunate fact about life as it's lived in our world. Each person will be assigned a "race," and that assignment affects the way that person will be treated.
The "race" a person gets assigned will affect the way she gets "seen."
We humans! We may be inclined to believe that we're fundamentally different from other people in some "racial" way.
We may even assume that these differences track to our DNA—not to the different cultures and experiences which exist when we divide the world into groups based upon "race," then reinforce the fact of this social division with disparate treatment of different people based on their (perceived) "race."
In this country, we all get assigned a "race." Routinely, this assignment will be treated as very important.
This cultural fact is very much part of "the world the slaveholders made." Indeed, our brutal national history was built around such perceptions of "race."
Even today, we in the liberal world can be forced to say that there's no such thing as (biological) race—that "race" is a social construct. We can still be forced to say such things, but we may have to be pushed at this point.
To what extent have we come to believe that there really are fundamental differences built into our membership in different "races?" To what extent have we (perhaps secretly) come to believe that we people really are fundamentally different—that we aren't, in the end, all the same?
Increasingly, thought leaders here in Our Town are devoted to the concept of "race." You can make us say that we're all the same, but does anyone really believe it?
Across the sea, Vladimir Putin is trying to help us fixate on these notions of difference. This will help autocracy win, this widely-admired humanitarian almost surely believes.
Tomorrow: Routine suggestions of difference