Monday, December 10, 2012

Removing race-tinted spectacles

Guardian of the bridge in Yorkshire

I am an avid reader and have been for most of my life. I think I have read three fiction books and the rest have been non-fiction. For many years, my bed partners have been at least six books, all being cross-referenced with colour-coded stickers as I absorb the facts and sometimes the ways in which the media twists the truth to suit their own various agendas. It is because of the differences in the way history is written that I find myself starting on a subject that leads on to become an almost obsessional hobby to find out the truth by reading as many books on the same subject as I can, and cross-referencing so that I can find the “truth” somewhere there in the middle.

Social movements, politics, psychology, philosophy, religion and history have always been some of my favourite topics of study. I have spent thousands of hours reading about the politics of South Africa to try to understand why Eugene de Kock is still in prison, and from that there was a natural progression towards doing research on race and why we have racism in the world. One thought, one book leads to another and I find myself going around the world and back, still with the same questions but with a lot more knowledge (and hopefully wisdom). Knowledge without wisdom is like a donkey with a library on its back and I don’t want that label. I do try to put into practice what I learn and slowly am becoming wiser than I was a few years back. My learning curve has not even reached the top yet. I have so much more to learn and to understand about life, human nature and the soul.

This brings me to a book that has opened my eyes and changed my ideas of talent, as well as my ideas of the difference between races. It is called Bounce and is written by Matthew Syed, three-time Commonwealth table-tennis champion. There are heaps of experiments described in his book that show that it is not talent that leads us to become world-class in any subject or sport, but opportunity and 10 000 hours practice. The great news is that it is not too late to begin on anything as long as you are prepared to put in the 10 000 hours practice needed to become world-class. Obviously, opportunity refers to having the opportunity to follow that “thing” you are interested in. In the case of Matthew Syed, his father bought a table- tennis table and put it into his garage when he was 8 years old. The fact that Matthew had an elder brother to play with daily led to his 10 000 hours practice and subsequently to the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. If for example you were born in the desert, it would be unlikely that you would become a world class swimmer due to the lack of swimming pools, but you could become a world class runner.

Matthew Syed also talks about the common idea that most people have…that ‘black’ people are superb runners. In fact, 494 athletes of the top 500 100-metre times and 98 per cent of top sprinting times are ‘black’ athletes. Many of the world-beating performances are limited to two population groups: African-Americans and Jamaicans who can trace their ancestry to West Africa. Does this mean that sprinting success is a West African ‘trait’? Absolutely not! Because virtually no West African nations share their success. Look at Guinea_Bissau, Sierra Leone, The Republic of Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Niger, Mali, Ghana, Gabon, Senegal, Congo and Angola – all West African states but whose combined inhabitants have never won a single medal in the 100 meters.

Just like the East African success in distance running, the West African success in sprinting is highly specific. Talking about a ‘racial’ superiority in athletics makes absolutely no sense at all. Is the notion of ‘race’ so deeply embedded within the psyche that there is a collective blind spot when it comes to its use and meaning?

Distance running is not a ‘black’ phenomenon, but an East African phenomenon, focused on the nation of Kenya. Not only that … the shocking fact is that all these world class runners live within sixty miles of the town Eldoret. DNA testing was done to see what has happened in the Nandi Hills of Eldoret to produce runners of this calibre. The DNA showed that there was no link whatsoever between the runners. The only common denominator was that all the world class runners had run an average of 20 km a day to school and back, clocking up more than 10 000 hours by the time they took part in world class events.

The only reason why racial scientists are able to get away with their statistically flawed generalizations is because they register with people’s natural inclination to regard ‘black’ as a biological type distinct from ‘white’ or ‘yellow’. We must make a concerted effort to move away from this powerful inclination of classifying people based on the colour of their skin. We need to free ourselves from this very powerful stereotyping. What I found quite astonishing is that some of the experiments show more similarity between two different skin colours (black and white) than between those of the same colour skin. Race is a non-word and a non-categorisation if we look at our biological and natural abilities to do things. If we have opportunity and we have the 10 000 hours to practice, we can be world class in anything we want to be, whether we are white, black, mixed race or any other ‘race’.

It is too easy for us to assume that racial patterns of failure or success are grounded in genetics. The tendency to see black and white as genetic types has been contradicted many times by the findings of population genetics.

If we ditch our race-tinted glasses, not only would the world look different, but it would soon become different too. We all have the potential to be world-class. It is not that we are born with talent, it is not because we are genetically pre-disposed to being great…we just have to practice long enough to be the best. Should we not just start by removing our pre-conceived ideas of race and view ourselves only as a member of the human race?