In the award-winning musical Avenue Q, filthy-minded puppets sang about schadenfreude, internet porn, loud sex, the uselessness of an English literature degree — and racism. Or, more specifically, they sang about the ubiquitous human habit of
stereotyping people by race:
Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes.Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes.Look around and you will find,No one’s really colour blind.Maybe it’s a fact we all should face.Everyone makes judgments…Based on race.
The puppets were right: everyone makes judgments based on race. Humans are lazy creatures who like mental short cuts. Thinking in shades of grey is more effortful than thinking in black and white. Evaluating a new person afresh, based on their unique characteristics, is slower than falling back on a ready made judgment. If you’ve spent time with a two-year-old, or if you’ve used psychedelic drugs, you might have glimpsed what it’s like to see an individual blade of grass as itself, and not just as an exemplar of the category ‘grass’. It’s exhausting.
In How to Argue with a Racist, Adam Rutherford uses his expertise in genetics to try to get us to see people the way a person on LSD might see a field of grass. That is, he wants us to see individual humans as themselves, rather than as exemplars of racial categories. Overcoming deeply ingrained patterns of mind, while also providing a crash course in genetic biology, is a tall order for any book, particularly one so brief. To accomplish his goal, Rutherford has densely packed each section of his book with scientific and historical details, all of which converge on a central theme — it’s ‘wickedly complicated’.
Part I begins by challenging the apparent simplicity of racial distinctions based on skin colour or other observable physical characteristics.