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Who You Are: The Illusion of Ethnicity

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Here in Colorado we have the perverse pleasure of watching Ward Churchill, a foolish charlatan who claims to “be” an American Indian (whatever that means), use this claim for his personal and professional gain. This claim is based on a supposed sexual encounter between two individuals a couple of hundred years ago.

This is, of course, ridiculous but it does open a larger issue; the whole issue of “who you are”. Ward Churchill claims to “be” an American Indian. Others are told they are Irish or German or Mexican or African… the list is long. What exactly does this mean? If you examine the science of it, there is no meaning. It is simply the continuation of scientifically false ethnic group thinking from our less knowledgeable and more tribal past. The American Medical Association states it rather clearly: “…ethnicity is universally recognized as being socially defined.” Which is just another way of saying it has no factual basis.

Of course we all have ancestors. You did not just appear on the planet one day. And of course your ancestors had to live some place. And of course we are genetically more like our more recent ancestors than our more distant ancestors. We are not talking rocket science here.

But are you defined by your ancestors? Is it they that define who you are? Why does it matter that some of my ancestors can be traced back to countries we now call Ireland and Germany? These countries, as they are now understood, have only existed for a millisecond on the cosmic clock. What is so special about this small piece of time that we use it to define who we are? The honest answer is it does not. It is simply an historical artifact.

Why not move closer in time? I was raised outside a small town in Colorado, am I LaSallite John? Or why not further back in time? Modern science indicates all humans originated in Africa, therefore we are all Africans. Or let’s go even further back in time; am I Pierolapithecus Catalaunicus Conlin, perhaps the last common ancestor of great apes and humans? Or further back, am I Hadrocodium Michael Wui, perhaps a common ancestor to all mammals? Or even further back, am I reptile Johnny (some would say so but that’s another story)? Or further back, Johnster the happy first vertebrate? Or further back, single cell John-boy? Or even further back, to the very beginning, Johnmeister the spark of life? These classifications of “who I am” are just as valid as Irish or German.

The bottom line is that I am an individual with literally thousands of traits. I am not defined by any ancestor. My beliefs and actions determine “who I am”. Where some of my most recent human ancestors lived has absolutely no bearing on who I am. Royalty or thieving, lying cowards; it makes no difference. One can of course have pride in one’s ancestors, but that is a personal issue – for good or for bad it is meaningless in defining who you are.

My human relatives include every person on the planet. My ancestors (and yours too) include every living thing on the planet. In fact my ancestors include every living thing that has EVER lived on the planet. I am John Michael Conlin, part of an unbroken string of life that goes back to the very first spark of life on the planet. I am blessed beyond comprehension just to exist.

Perhaps it is time to cut the past loose and cast aside the old beliefs. Who you are is an individual. Who your human ancestors are and where they happened to live is an entirely different question and one does not influence the other. This requires a significant paradigm shift in our thinking; often accepting the truth does.

John Conlin is CEO and founder of E.I.C. Enterprises, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing a science and fact-based education to the poor and disadvantaged here and throughout the world. Among other things, he is also an ex-hard rock exploration geologist.

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About John

  • marshall

    wow! this person’s writing is unabashedly racist and condescending. addressing race or racialism is one thing, but to have the audacity to re-define how persons outside of oneself identify in the world is totally out. this neanderthal argument refutes difference in the name of transcending race by mocking people whose very culture is being wiped by people who think use the same argument.

    “My human relatives include every person on the planet.” wow.
    i believe that our differences make us human and that we have an opportunity to embrace each others uniqueness. misusing science to belittle the culture and values of oppressed people is not a realistic approach to creating a better world, if you will, or transhumanism, or, simply, getting to know and respect your neighbors.

    http://racetraitor.org/ is a good forum for “white” people converse with other “white” people about their racism and active resistance in their communities. or, google “anti-racism training” to find out how you can test this theory with other “white” people.

    best of luck,

  • lumpy

    now THAT is one funny response. call the brotherhood of man guy a racist and then link to a white supremacist site. the delusional irony is exquisite.

  • chantal stone

    very interesting JC. everything you say makes so much sense. and a huge paradigm shift, indeed, would need to take place for people to accept these ideas, just like when we had to learn that earth was not flat.

    but this strikes a cord with me in particular, because being “biracial” has been somewhat of an issue for me. it hasn’t been so much about me accepting who or what i am, but more of how i am perceived. and the fact remains, that no matter what science can prove….society will always perceive race.

  • The writer is both confused and dogmatic. Confused, because he claims that ethnicity is a myth, then admits that we all have ancestors from particular places, and then once again denies the reality of ethnicity. Dogmatic, because he claims we are all individuals, but deludes himself that somehow to be an individual is to grow up and live in a vacuum.

    When someone refers to himself as “Irish,” for instance, he’s not claiming he is “determined” by his Irish ancestry. Conlin is projecting his own obsessions onto others. And he claims to be scientific?

    (By the way, the “social scientists” who deny the reality of “ethnicity,” are actually after even bigger fry: The denial of race, which is the most anti-scientific nonsense going, this side of the theory of alchemy. Most of them don’t even believe what they say, but promote such nonsense because they think that admitting to the reality of race (i.e., the obvious) will somehow harm blacks.)

    That I, for instance, am Russian-Hungarian-German-Irish-Canadian is an historical fact. When I say that, I’m not saying that I am “determined” by my ethnicity. My ethnicity is part of what makes me a distinctive individual. However, while my ethnicity does not necessariy determine who I am, it certainly influences me. If I had grown up under the wing, say, of a semi-literate, Polish longshoreman, instead of a Hungarian rabbi’s daughter, it would be much less likely that the written word would be my life.

    On the other hand, had my wife, instead of growing up in Trinidad, grown up under the wing of a Hungarian rabbi’s daughter, it would be much less likely that she would be thrifty, practical, and anti-intellectual, and much more likely that she would be a heavy reader. Anyone familiar with specific ethnic groups and countries can identify distinctive traits. To deny ethnic traits bespeaks and ignorance and a disinterest in real individuals, as opposed to theoretical ones.

    Conlin would condemn us to a colorless, bloodless, boring world of abstraction.

  • chantal stone

    i am aware of the scientific evidence that can pinpoint ones ancestral origin through genetic tests, but for me, the question remains: does that signify race or simply WHERE ones ancestral origin began. isn’t it fair to say that certain genetic traits are common and unique to specific geographic locations, but are not necessarily genetically imprinted?

    i don’t know the answers to these questions, or if correct answers actually exist, i’m only saying it’s an interesting idea.

  • I’m adopted and don’t know what I am but my furniture is from Sweden can I be Swedish please.


  • Nancy

    ROTFLOL, Harper! I have a mania for Chinese food, so I’ll opt for Han, thanks…altho when I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a First Nations (aka American Indian). Still do, come to think of it.

  • I’d like to see how that test works on my blood…My ancestors come from everywhere!

    But from what I’ve read, I should be able to put African-American on any of those forms that ask the question since, according to the theory of evolution, we’re all decendant from ancestors in Africa….no?

  • Nancy

    Why not? How is anybody going to prove otherwise? Of course, if you have blond hair & green eyes, it may be a little hard to convince anyone you’re actually Ibo or San or Korean, but hey, you can always try. There was a follow-up article in the Washington Post about the DNA/family testing; some of the people who sent in samples got some very, VERY surprising results that made me wonder if the DNA thing is at all accurate, unless these people had completely erroneous family history information. One guy thought he was all ‘black’, then discovered from the test that he was actually 50% white. Now, if as far as he knows both parents, all 4 grands, etc. are black, how could that be, unless he was adopted (which he wasn’t)? Still, the idea of perhaps being able to see where the main lines of the family come from is fun, altho I wouldn’t take it to the bank for any more than that.

  • brown eyes…and brown…ok…gray/brown hair…I do have a little bit of a natural tan…mom’s Italian…

  • Nancy –

    “One guy thought he was all ‘black’, then discovered from the test that he was actually 50% white. Now, if as far as he knows both parents, all 4 grands, etc. are black, how could that be…”

    Maybe his dad was actaully the milkman.

  • chantal stone

    there is scientific data (somewhere, plz don’t ask me where) suggesting that the majority of blacks living in America have at least 40% European genetic make-up.

    it’s actually not all that uncommon, given the common practices of rape during the slave era.

  • Chantel – “society will always perceive race” Hmmm, only if we continue to make it so. That is my point – let’s stop doing it. Since there is only one person on the planet you can control (yourself) why don’t we simply refuse to play the game based on an illusion. I freely admit I am asking for much more of a change from those who have been classified by this illusion since their birth – but since when did what we want or hope for change reality. There is no such thing as race so let us accept it and move forward.

    Nicholas – You exhibit the perfect response when confronting with a paradigm change which you fight – I guess the American Medical Association is just my crazed lackey? The American Medical Association states it rather clearly “ethnicity is universally recognized as being socially defined.”
    http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/13676.html Which is just another way of saying it has no factual basis.

    As for the clear basis for race, I guess the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the vast majority of experts in the field are also my lackeys. To quote the 1998 AAA Statement on “Race”: http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm

    Today scholars in many fields argue that “race” as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century…

    From its inception, this modern concept of “race” was modeled after an ancient theorem of the Great Chain of Being, which posited natural categories on a hierarchy established by God or nature.

    “Race” thus evolved as a worldview, a body of prejudgments that distorts our ideas about human differences and group behavior. Racial beliefs constitute myths about the diversity in the human species and about the abilities and behavior of people homogenized into “racial” categories. The myths fused behavior and physical features together in the public mind,…

    A “social mechanism invented”? A “hierarchy established by God or nature”? “Myths”? Why do we continue to pay homage to an idea that is clearly not true in any scientific manner? Ops – there’s that darn paradigm shift again. Please ignore the facts you find uncomfortable (heck, everyone can SEE there is race, and of course all those “blacks” (or fill in your favorite racist slur) are exactly the same.

    You state you “are” That I, for instance, am Russian-Hungarian-German-Irish-Canadian..” What were you before that? What “were” you before there was a Russia or Hungary or Germany or Ireland? Did you ancestors just magically appear on the planet one day and you started counting then? Your example of who you might have been is somewhat valid if you leave off the Polish longshoreman – how about just a longshoreman, or Hungarian rabbi – how about just a rabbi. But even then it is somewhat biased – a longshoreman can’t be driven to education? Or religious? Or …?

    And yes, I’m driven to “condemn us to a colorless, bloodless, boring world of abstraction.” It is my life’s goal. Here I thought I was making the point that there are only individuals, each a wonderful and precious cornucopia of traits and characteristics. Each whose life is a precious gift beyond comprehension. Thanks for setting me straight!

    As for DNA – the average “black” American population is an African-European hybrid, with about 70% of the genes having come from Africa and 30% from Europe. If that is the case, then I guess individuals like Halle Berry and Barack Obama (both had “white” mothers and “black” fathers) are really “white” since over 50% of their genetic make-up is “white”. Or is it 40% “black” and then you are “black”? Or 25% or just a drop? I don’t know much about this racist way of thinking, perhaps someone can explain it to me. How much do you need to be able to have rhythm and dance? Or to jump high? (sorry for those last two INCREDIBLY racist comments – trying to make a point of the obscenity of this whole way of thinking)

  • cp

    Race, nationality, and ethnicity are separate concepts. It’s really not that difficult. Consult a dictionary first before trying to merge these definitions, or to come up with a different definition from everyone else using the english language.
    Regardless of how ‘individual’ you think you are, you speak probably 1-2 languages that are the same as those of your neighbors. If you were to take a trip from colorado to Turkey or Japan, quite a long list of customs, daily activities, and rules of interacting with others will be different. Even an ‘individualist’ in Japan who thinks they are completely self determine their life is going to end up going about their day very differently from how they would if they were in Turkey due to ethnicity. Race has nothing to do with this. A person with japanese parents who was adopted by white Colorado people will have white colorado ethnicity. People with recently arrived japanese immigrant parents will undoubtedly reflect some japanese ethnicity. Likewise, people on an indian reservation will be observed acting quite differently from you and is not required to assimilate to “normal” white ethnicity (that you might fail to even see), and regardless of what you say, everyone isn’t a random atomistic entity who generates their own independent customs and traits.

  • Valery

    A medical association that calls itself “American”?? It’s a joke, right?

    And an anthropological association labelled (labeled) “American”??
    (whatever that means).

  • I think the medical association you talk about names itself American because it’s located in America…I could be wrong.

  • Race and ethnicity do make some difference but this should not be confused with suggesting inequality or superiority.

    My cousin died of leukemia. He needed a match that would have to come from someone that was either in the same family (didn’t happen) or same ethnic group or race. This is well-known and because of language and geographic barriers, matching for ethnic Asians is very difficult.

    Some racial and ethnic groups have a tendency toward certain diseases.

    After meeting my relatives in Japan, I began subscribing to the nature theory (before I tended toward nurture). There are things from my ethnic background that resonate in my life today because of nurture (learned behaviors) and there are skills and behaviors that I feel are a part of genetics.

    This is similar to dogs and breeds. Some dogs are better for certain tasks, but they are one species and their offspring are not hybrids. It is unfortunate that people see the need to assign superiority of one breed over another just as they do with humans and race and ethnicity.

  • Valery

    You could also be an American Andy (whatever that means).

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Actually guys, most of “ethnicity” is probably nurture. Nature gets to have her say in the DNA. At least that’s what I thought until I started seriously reading Torah.

    In sections in Exodus you read the kind of sarcastic backtalk you would only hear in a room full of Jews at a lecture, each of whom thinking he knew more than the next.

    “There weren’t enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die?” That is just a sample. Now I’m not so sure about ethnicity being just nurture.

    When DNA makes it mark, it really is hilarious. The Vemba in Africa have the same DNA Y markers as Aaron – which mean they are descended from the priesthood in ancient Israel – and they have kept a number of Jewish customs to this day. Explain this to the wise elders in this town and you can see the mouths drop as you read the words on their faces.

    “B-b-but they’re shvartzes!” Shvartze is not the nicest term for a black man.

    The Vembas are also Jews – brothers. The DNA talks louder than skin color. And frankly, I wish some of the “Jerusalem gentry” would take their “ethnicity” and shove it where the sun don’t shine.