Does race really exist or did we create it?
For the latest episode of Spit, host Baratunde Thurston sat down with musician and activist Wyclef Jean and Associate Professor of political science, Alvin Tillery, to discuss how people view the connections between genetics and race. The conversation involved real dialogue as all three men shared stories from their childhood and dived head first into the argument of genetics versus social influences, and how each affects the idea of race.
Wyclef began the discussion by talking about his immigration to the United States. As a child, he said he came to the U.S. with a fearless “Haitian Black Panther” bravado that was shaped by his early teachings of race. “My Dad always told me, don't forget, you're a descendant of 1804, Toussaint L'Ouverture. So, this was how I was brought up with a very fearless attitude,” Wyclef said.
As for one of Alvin's early lessons in race, he detailed how he survived a lynching attempt, highlighting the fact that his genetic makeup would not have stopped the attack. “When I integrated my bus stop in New Jersey in 1980, some high school kids decided that they were going to hang me in a tree. And kill me at 9 years old," he recalled. "Thank God the bus driver was on time and cut me down and I made it." He later noted that him being "30% Scottish" wouldn't have stopped the attack.
Despite their varying childhood encounters, both agreed that their connection to the idea of race came more from experiences rather than an innate association with their skin color.
Wyclef and Baratunde also admitted that the idea of race is used more as a tool to divide and categorize human beings.
"We have so much more in common than you could even imagine," said the "911" rapper. "It's like the basic thing, you put two kids together, they're going to want to wake up, they're going to want to play, they're going to want to have a good time. As they get older, they're going to want to fall in love, they're going to have opinions. This is every kid. So, at the end of the day ... And they all have a heart. Within this heart, it's going to be shaped. I just think that a lot of times we just forget that. Because I just think through the idea of politics and religion, at times, these two things at times, it separates the fact that from a cell we become. So, this is important, from a cell we become. I always go back to that because science will prove it."
He added, "Whether we're in the Middle East, we're in Africa, or we're in Haiti, in all parts of the world, we find common ground within the structure of the youth no matter what. I always tell people, this is part of it that you should definitely think of."
As for the explanation of race, Baratunde said that someone’s racial identity is not simply hard-wired into their DNA.
"People [look] for [a] scientific explanation of race, but it turns out it's more of a social explanation. And what we cling to is not based in science it's based in our behavior and how we live together," he explained, adding that genetics can no longer be used as the sole explanation of human behavior.
"I'm fascinated by this idea that even what is explained by genetics still needs some social and environmental consideration," he said. "I may have certain genes that lead me to be predisposed for certain things but if it's not activated by my environment, if it's not reinforced by the community, I may never express that. And so, you know, when the society pushed you in that direction we may activate those things a little bit more."
Spit is an iHeartRadio podcast with 23andMe where we sit down with the most interesting cultural influencers of our time to explore how DNA testing gives us a new perspective on who we are and how we are all connected. Enjoy this episode? Subscribe, rate and review Spit on iTunes. Spit is brought to you 23 and Me.
Find out more about our host Baratunde Thurston at Baratunde.com or sign up for his text messages at 202.902.7949 and #spitpodcastWyclef Jean can be found performing with his Carnival Tour across the country for the remainder of 2018 https://www.wyclef.com/events
You can find Alvin Tillery on Facebook @CSDDatNU, or visit the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy https://www.csdd.northwestern.edu.
Photos: Rachel Kaplan for iHeartRadio