Trying to Find Chinatown

by David Henry Hwang

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Is the genetic evidence against the concept of "race" widely accepted or contested?

Quick answer:

Genetic research has found that there is no distinct genetic profile for any race and that genetic diversity varies greatly within racial and geographical populations. For this reason, it is widely believed that there is no genetic or biological basis of race. However, racial identity still plays a large role in how people are viewed in society. For this reason, race is commonly considered a "social construct," meaning that while it is not biologically real, it has been given power in our society.

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We often associate race with our genetic heritage. Since race is often associated with physical traits (skin color, hair texture, etc.), many people assume there is a distinct genetic difference between races. However, modern genetic research has found that there are no distinct genetic markers indicating a person's race.

Alleles are different versions of the same gene. Think of them like different flavors. Even though we all have the same genes, different alleles account for the vast diversity between individuals. Many traits are complex, meaning that they are influenced by several different alleles. Hair color is an example of a complex trait, which means we cannot predict hair color by simply looking at one gene. Due to the complexity of genetic influences on any single physical trait, we can begin to understand how race—which can include skin color, hair texture, and many other traits—is likely more nuanced than we once thought.

Research at Stanford University in 2002 found that only 7.4% of the 4,000 alleles they studied were specific to any geographical region. Additionally, only 1% of the population in any given region was found to carry the geographically-associated allele (Chou 2017). Other research found that a person may be more genetically similar to someone of a different race than someone from the same race (Chou 2017, Gannon 2016). Studies like this lead to the belief that there is no distinct genetic profile for any race.

Genetic diversity varies across geographical regions and perceived races. This is why many people say that race does not exist. In research, it is encouraged to use terms like "ancestry" and "geographic population," as this is more specific and biologically relevant than race. For example, sickle cell anemia is more common in people of sub-Saharan African ancestry. This is more specific than saying that black people are more prone to sickle cell anemia, because people from many different areas of the world can be perceived as black, but only those with sub-Saharan ancestry are at an increased risk for this disease.

However, this does not mean that race is completely nonexistent or unimportant. Biological and social scientists prefer to identify race as a "social construct," meaning that race has been given meaning within society. Social constructs are not found outside society and are derived from social conventions, not nature. Researchers acknowledge that how a person is perceived racially greatly influences how they are treated in society.

We see examples of this in the play Trying to Find Chinatown, like when Benjamin assumes that Ronnie will know his way around Chinatown because he appears Asian. Even though there is no genetic basis for different racial identities, we still categorize people by race within society, and so these identities have power. For this reason, we should not say there is no race, but rather that race is a social construct.

Trying to Find Chinatown was first performed in 1996, before we had sequenced the entire human genome (2003) and before much of the research I have referenced was published. Still, the messages from the play align well with our modern perceptions of race as a social construct. Benjamin and Ronnie do not identify with the race other people perceive them to be. Benjamin is ethnically Caucasian but identifies as Asian American, like his family. Ronnie is ethnically Asian, but identifies more with American culture. Trying to Find Chinatown shows us how identity is often influenced more by the people and culture around us than our physical traits.

The last part of this question asks how you identify yourself. Take some time to think about what influences your own identity. Do you think your personal identity has been more influenced by social aspects like family and culture, or genetic aspects like your physical traits? See the articles below for more reading on the genetics of race. I hope this was helpful!

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