By Vaudine England
The thought behind a lot of these ruminations in this blog is that the subject of race in empire, specifically with relation to Hong Kong, has been grossly under-covered to date. Some Dutch academic friends wonder if it is the Britishness of Hong Kong studies — how else to explain, one wondered, the contrast between the huge swathes of scholarship done by the Dutch on ‘their Eurasians’ (the Indos) and the minuscule body of work on the mixed race products of British colonies? Perhaps regarding Hong Kong, the gap is also because the whole idea of studying Hong Kong from a Hong Kong point of view (rather than a Peking or London perspective) only gained traction in the last 20 or 30 years, just when the tides of so-called political correctness militated against any straight look at a topic as murky as race. It has also been the period when scientists of many kinds have insisted that race does not exist.
Not only has being a Eurasian meant a lifetime of taboos; talking about it, studying it, has been shrouded in taboo too.
This thought was thrown into sharper relief when I came across an article I’d kept from a decade ago, by the evolutionary developmental biologist Armand Marie Leroi. It was published in the New York Times as ‘A Family Tree in Every Gene’ on 14 March 2005, and in the Asia edition of the International Herald Tribune the next day as ‘Genes Rebuild Our Ideas About Race’. The difference in headline is already provoking; was the New York editing desk scared to put ‘race’ in bold type?
Leroi was prompted to write by a commentary in The Times of India which feared the loss of endangered tribes around the Andaman Islands in the tsunami of end-2004; this would destroy increasingly rare ‘Negrito racial stocks’, it said. Technically correct, the description jumped out at Leroi in a world long defined by the belief that race is not a scientific concept, but a social category. That belief is now threatened by fascinating advances in genetic research which, he said, were beginning to show that races do, after all, exist.
Leroi recounted how it took three decades to disprove the statement by Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin — that the genetic difference between a European and an African was barely bigger than that between any two Europeans. Leroi said Lewontin had left out the impact of correlations between genes which enabled the reconstruction of large-scale genetic topographies. Of course human beings have always been ‘irredeemably promiscuous’, as Leroi charmingly put it: ‘We have always seduced, or coerced our neighbours even when they have a foreign look about them and we don’t understand a word’. But just as the Pennines and Himalayas can both be described as mountain ranges despite huge differences in scale, so too can races be defined: ‘The billion or so of the world’s people of largely European descent have a set of genetic variants in common that are collectively rare in everyone else; they are a race. At a smaller scale, three million Basques do as well; so they are a race as well…’, wrote Leroi.
None of this is intended to reach new definitions of racial purity; rather the opposite. Leroi wrote that genetic research on people of mixed race ancestry would provide for the greatest scientific advances, in trying to find out what makes blue eyes blue, or not. Such ‘admixture mapping’, where following genetic strands is made easier by the variations, is exciting and would help understanding of the differences that make up the rich human tapestry.
Wrote Leroi: ‘Race is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic cultural or political differences. But it is a shorthand that seems to be needed. One of the more painful spectacles of modern science is that of human geneticists piously disavowing the existence of races even as they investigate the genetic relationships between “ethnic groups”. Given the problematic, even vicious, history of the word “race”, the use of euphemisms is understandable. But it hardly aids understanding..’
Of course one could argue that in some Asian polities, there’s been a bit too much race all along! The British colonial administrators appeared to experience no qualms when blithely mixing in some Indian Chettiars to do the accounts for the Burmese, or the Chinese ‘coolies’ to work the mines and Indians to tap the rubber trees with the Malays who were too ‘lazy or mystical to work. Having identified races as real after all, a new more blunt scholarship of such events might follow.