A lady of distinction
Anything different about this woman?
National Geographic Image collection, Robert Caputo
When I ask an audience whether they notice anything about the lady in the picture, I usually get the following answers:
1. She’s smoking a pipe.
2. She’s black.
3. She has scars on her forehead.
The woman shown in the photograph belongs to the Mondari tribe of the remote southern part of Sudan. Whether I am asking a Caucasian or Asian audience, it normally takes a bit of prompting for people to notice that this lady has, for an African, unusual eyes—almond eyes like we might expect in a person from East Asia (China or Japan, for example).
This example underlines the fact that most so-called ‘racial’ characteristics are not peculiar to the particular ‘races’ they are associated with. I remember visiting China in 1993 on a government mission when I noticed my Chinese hosts making fun of one of their colleagues. ‘What was so funny’, I asked? ‘He has round eyes and a big nose—like you’, the interpreter replied! Did he have any Caucasian ancestry? No, none that he knew of.
So, here we have examples of ‘Chinese’ eyes in an African, and ‘European’ eyes (and nose!) in a Chinese person. If you keep your eyes open, you will notice ‘Chinese’ eyes among Europeans as well.
Studies of human genetics show that ‘race’ does not have much basis in our DNA—we are all pretty much the same inside.1 This finds practical outworking in the not uncommon tissue-matching of people from different ‘races’ for organ transplants (see Blood brothers, for an example).
This doesn’t surprise someone who takes the Bible account of history seriously, as I do. The Bible teaches us that all people descended from Noah’s family, who lived just 4,500 years ago, so we would not expect major genetic differences between any people groups.
The answers given to the question above raise another issue: our tendency to notice only major differences from our usual experience. God ‘wired’ our brains so that we would notice differences in things we see. If we were not made like that, life would be very confusing, even overwhelming. Imagine walking into your home and your brain having to process every image you see, not just the things that are unusual or out of place. If someone moved, you would have to reprocess all the information you were receiving through your eyes, not just the movement. No, we are cleverly designed to process only the things that matter—the differences and the things that change.
However, this has a downside when we see someone with quite different appearance to our usual ‘kith and kin’. Here we focus on the major differences and miss the subtleties. As a Caucasian, I firstly noticed the Sudanese lady’s ‘black’ (actually, dark brown) skin and, not expecting to see almond eyes, I missed them. On the other hand, concerning the Chinese man with the ‘Caucasian eyes and nose’, I did not notice these features until they were pointed out to me—they were features I was accustomed to seeing in people at home, so I did not take note of them.
You have probably heard it said of another people group, ‘They all look the same.’ Ironically, they might say the same of you! Of course, when you become more familiar with the other people group, you start to notice not how they differ from you, but how they differ from one another and then they no longer ‘all look the same’.
This is the way our perceptions can play tricks on us. To recognize one another, our brains notice differences, but these differences are not necessarily biologically significant. Take, for example, the almond eye. It differs from the typical Caucasian round eye in having extra fat under the eyelid (see diagram). This changes the shape of the eye and the position of the eye relative to the eyebrow. Sadly, fashion-conscious Japanese young women have even had cosmetic surgery to remove the fat layer so they can look ‘Western’.
Focusing on the differences can lead to racism, where we discriminate against people on the basis of trivial differences such as skin colour or eye shape. It would make about as much sense to discriminate on the basis of how long a person’s fingers were. Knowing that God made from one man, Adam, every nation of mankind (Acts 17:26) leaves no room for such discrimination. But even more, the Bible makes it clear that for those who are Christians, Christ has brought us together such that distinctions based on nationality or ‘race’ fall away (Colossians 3:11). The greatest antidote to racism should be the Good News of Jesus Christ!
- Ananthaswamy, A., Under the skin, New Scientist 174(2339):34–37, 2002. Return to text.