How much should biology matter to our identities? When it comes to race and ethnicity, many people believe there are biological differences between groups. Actually, despite what many think, geneticists have proven that all humans are more than 99% genetically similar regardless of race. Even though these discoveries made in 2000 were widely reported in the news and in academic settings, most people (including academics!) continue to use assumptions that biology is relevant to determining who we are and to what groups we belong.
In today’s society, many people believe they are 'colourblind' and that we are 'post-race' — in other words, they think race shouldn’t matter anymore, that racism is a thing of the past, and that everyone has an equal chance at succeeding in society. Another part of 'colourblind' thinking is that we have changed the way we talk about race. Today it is far more common to use code words such as 'illegals', 'inner-city', or even to talk about culture as a stand-in for talking about racial groups.
Sometimes, we continue to use the same old assumptions regarding race and ethnicity that shaped some of the most extreme forms of racism (like imperialist invasion by Europeans, U.S. slavery and the Holocaust) but use them in subtle ways. One of these assumptions is the idea that race and ethnicity are biological categories, and my research shows that society is adapting by creating subtle ways of marking racial and ethnic groups as biologically different.
My Identities article, 'Bio-logics of Jewishness: media constructions of the nuances of race and ethnicity', focuses on how major newspapers write about Jewish people in ways that rely on the belief that Jews are biologically different, which I call 'bio-logics' (a play on the words biological and logic). Articles published from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times from 2000–2010 show that there are two major ways that 'bio-logics' are used to talk about Jewishness. First, despite trends in 'colourblind' ways of talking about race and ethnicity in indirect ways, these news articles still occasionally talked about Jewish biological difference from other racial and ethnic groups in explicit ways. Some of these news articles would mention DNA tests that could 'prove' one was Jewish, and even making arguments that having 'Jewish DNA' would compel people to have an unexplained lifelong interest in Jewish culture. But what was more common in these news articles was that there were more indirect or subtle ways that Jews were defined as biologically different.
These subtle claims that biology determines Jewishness included briefly mentioning Jewish family members (parents or more distant ancestors), but never actually referring directly to someone as a Jew themselves. In fact, almost all of the times that news articles wrote briefly about someone’s Jewish ancestors, no other content about someone’s Jewish identity was discussed. Oftentimes these news stories were about a business, person, artist or celebrity, and not about someone’s life as a Jew or experiences of Jewish identity, culture, religious practice, antisemitism or other relevant aspects of being Jewish. In some of the news articles, if someone had distant Jewish ancestors they were defined as Jews, even if they practiced an entirely different religion and were raised in a completely different culture, such as Mormonism.
Some of these subtle 'bio-logics' might seem harmless on the surface, but I believe they are an indication that how we discuss race is shifting, not only for Jews but a variety of racial and ethnic groups. It is crucial that research examines changes in how society talks (or writes) about race and ethnicity, because these shifts will impact how inequalities function and how people experience and define their identities.
Blog post by Emma Gonzalez-Lesser, University of Connecticut, USA
Read the full article: Gonzalez-Lesser, Emma. Bio-logics of Jewishness: media constructions of the nuances of race and ethnicity. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1617529