Skip to Content

raceAhead: What Cheddar Man Teaches Us About Race

Today’s essay is brought to you by the letters D, N and A.

A groundbreaking new genetic analysis on Britain’s oldest complete skeleton has revealed a surprise: The first modern Briton was a black man.

The DNA test on the figure known as “Cheddar Man,” named for the area where his remains were excavated, shows that the 10,000-year-old young man was of dark or black skin, with coarse curly hair and blue eyes. Previous facial reconstructions of the fossil, attempted without DNA, depicted Ched as having much lighter skin.

This has upset quite a few white people.

While the news created quite a stir on social media, most of the real action came from newspaper commentary.

Here’s a (re-publishable) sample from the Daily Mail: “This is why none of our history adds up. Instead of the truth it’s PC madness. Makes you wonder why all the white Australians haven’t slowly started turned into aborigines.” Also, “What’s to say that the person was not a foreign visitor?” And, this: “So like where did all the white people come from?”

That people are alarmed to discover Cheddar Man may be a brother shouldn’t be surprising.

“People define themselves by which country they’re from, and they assume that their ancestors were just like them,” says Alfons Kennis, one of the two expert paleo-artists who made the reconstruction of Ched.

About ten percent of white Britons are descended from Ched’s people, the “Western Hunter-Gatherers” of the Mesolithic-era. Ched looks nothing like them.

Lots of white people find discovering their genetic history to be disorienting. There’s a reason why we’ve yet to see a hapless white fellow on an Ancestry.com commercial good-naturedly toss out his lederhosen for a Yoruba oke. The world has come to associate whiteness with superior culture, even if certain individuals don’t actively behave in a racist way.

Newly affordable DNA tests are increasingly triggering race-based anxieties. In one messy case, Police Sgt. Cleon Brown of Hastings Michigan sued for workplace taunting after the results of an ancestry test revealed that his genetic makeup was of 18% African origin. But the city says it was Brown who did the racist joking, which included fried chicken jokes and references to his sexual prowess.

And it’s a particularly interesting time for white supremacists, who are now increasingly requiring new hate group members prove their racial bona fides with a test. The news is often not what they’d hoped.

Two UCLA scientists have spent years studying online conversations about genetic tests on Stormfront, the white nationalist forum. Some posters reject the tests outright – “When you look in the mirror, do you see a Jew? If not, you’re good.” Others believe genetic testing is a Jewish conspiracy to capture DNA to create bioweapons. But others understand that the science is still evolving, the findings are hard to understand, and continue to recruit new believers despite what tests say. “If we believe their politics comes from lack of sophistication because they’re unintelligent or uneducated,” says one of the researchers, “I think we’re liable to make a lot of mistakes in how we cope with them.”

The truth is, we haven’t investigated the genetics behind skin color enough.

This recent Atlantic piece explains the surprising reason why – most genetic information about race comes from only studying people of European descent. (Does that seem racist to you?)

To begin to remedy the problem, another new DNA study, conducted by a team of geneticists from the University of Pennsylvania, focused on a cohort of volunteers from Botswana, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. They found extraordinary genetic variation in their African subjects, and that light skin genetic traits don’t appear to be unique to Europeans. “One of the traits that most people would associate with race—skin color—is a terrible classifier,” says one researcher. “The study really discredits the idea of a biological construct of race. There are no discrete boundaries between groups that are consistent with biological markers.”

We really are all part of the same human soup.

So while the race-anxious continue to cause trouble, the rest of us should welcome Cheddar Man to the global family barbecue, along with the growing body of evidence that can help put irrational arguments about race and social status to rest.

But it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

On Point

What’s it like to be black in public relations?This short video put together by PR Week is the most pointed critique I’ve found of the largely unaddressed lack of diversity in professional public relations. It begins with a stirring montage of black trailblazers, early entrants into the largely white field. It seems their work has made little difference. “To [still] be the first or the only in the room in 2017 is a tough pill to swallow,” says Andrew McCaskill, Senior Vice President, Global Communications at Nielsen. McCaskill and others bravely spill the tea on everything from bias from clients and in meetings, to issues in hiring, development and mentoring. A must view and share for any big company who wants to do better. “The only people who…really understand how big the diversity problem is in P.R. are the people of color.”PR Week

Parents of transgender children write an open letter to Betsy DeVos
More than 700 parents signed the letter, which was delivered to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos yesterday. The letter, organized by the Human Rights Commission, includes families from all faiths, ethnicities and economic backgrounds, and condemns the lack of protection for trans students which she had promised during her confirmation process. “Instead, almost immediately after taking office, the U.S. Department of Education under your command rescinded protective guidance for our transgender children and is now, according to reports, turning away transgender students and their families reporting discrimination,” they write.
HRC

Venture investor Arlan Hamilton: I am here to win
Hamilton, one of Fortune’s grit experts and raceAhead champion, has contributed this Q&A to Quartz’s “How We’ll Win Series,” a collection of stories from exceptional women who are fighting for gender equality. Click through for Hamilton’s extraordinary ascendance from couch-surfing to starting her $5 million fund – and the now famous pitch letter that earned her investment from Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Andreessen Horowitz partner Marc Andreessen, Lowercase Capital founder Chris Sacca, and Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie. “Investing in us—people of color, LGBT people, and women—is good business, good sense,” Hamilton says. “And you are foolish if you think otherwise.”
Quartz

On being a better ally in tech
Tracy Chou, Silicon Valley stalwart and Project Include co-founder, has become one of the more outspoken advocates for inclusion in tech. Her first act of transparency came in 2013 when the then-Pinterest engineer created a spreadsheet of the female engineers working in tech, highlighting the alarming lack of gender diversity in the sector. In her contribution to the Quartz series, Chou explains what men can do to help women succeed at work, the true business case for inclusion and how the myth of “meritocracy” nearly de-railed her career. “I wish I had known how unfair and insidious the power structures of society and business are,” she says.
Quartz

The Woke Leader

This interview with Quincy Jones is insane
So insane, in fact, I thought it was a parody at first. But once I put my seat belt on, I was transported. He dishes tough love on everyone. Michael Jackson? “Stole a lot of songs. He was as Machiavellian as they come.”  Cosby, Ratner, Weinstein? “It was all of them.” Poverty and humanitarian issues? “We’re the worst we’ve ever been.” Interspersed with unbelievable gossip (Marlon Brando really got around) are breezily accurate insights about race, gender, power, and equity developed over a six-decade career. And God. And Frank Sinatra. And who killed JFK. Some important insights for Coltrane fans, too. Much love to interviewer David Marchese who went into the interview of a lifetime totally prepared.
Vulture

Can I hate the artist but love their art? Roxane Gay: Just stop it already
Gay does a masterful job unpacking one of the most wrenching secondary questions of the Me Too era. What do we do when a beloved artist turns out to be a monster? Growing up on the Cosby Show, it was a blow to learn the star’s true nature. But, “As the extent of his predation was laid bare, the sheer number of women Cosby victimized staggered me nearly as much as some people’s willingness to still consider his artistic legacy, despite the damage he did,” she writes. It’s time to finish doing the math. His work is meaningless now. “He once created great art, and then he destroyed his great art.” Put the victims first.
Marie Claire

A free online Black History library
Activist, organizer and journalist Charles Preston, posts a free Black History library every year in February, a treasure trove of pdfs, books, links and video resources about the people and movements we need to learn more about. Perfect for the teachers, archivists and librarians in your life, and for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the experiences of some of black history’s most important figures. Enjoy.
Charles Preston's Google Drive

Quote

Race is the classification of a species. And we are the human race, period. But the other thing – the hostility, the racism – is the money-maker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it. [Slavery] moved this country closer to the economy of an industrialised Europe, far in advance of what it would have been. [And] they don’t stop and frisk on Wall Street, which is where they should really go.
Toni Morrison