World of Wellesley offers an annual community viewing and conversation of the three-part PBS documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion.” What is this thing we call race? Where did the idea come from?
What if we suddenly discovered that our most basic assumption about race—for instance, that the world’s people can be divided biologically along racial lines—was false? And if race is a biological “myth,” where did the idea come from? How do our institutions give race social meaning and power by advantaging white people? These are just a few of the questions raised by this documentary series.
Schedule for next viewing coming soon.
Episode one in this three-part series follows a dozen students, including African American athletes and Asian American string players, who sequence and compare their own DNA. The results surprise them—and us—when they discover their closest genetic matches are as likely to be with people from other “races” as their own. Much of this episode is devoted to understanding why. Looking at skin color differences, disease, human evolution, even genetic traits, we learn there’s not one characteristic, one trait, or even a single gene that distinguishes all members of one “race” from another. One by one, our myths about race—including “natural” superiority and inferiority—are taken apart.
The second episode in this series questions the belief that race has always been with us. Ancient peoples stigmatized “others” based on language, customs, and especially religion, but they did not sort people into “races.” This episode traces the race concept to the European conquest of the Americas, including the development of the first slave system, where all slaves shared a physical trait: dark skin. Ironically, it was not until slavery was challenged on moral grounds that early prejudices—emboldened by the need to defend slavery in a nation that professed a deep belief in freedom—crystallized into a full-blown ideology of white supremacy. By the mid-19th century, race had become the “common sense” wisdom of white America, explaining everything from individual behavior to the fate of whole societies.
This final episode focuses not only on individual behaviors and attitudes, but also on how our institutions shape and create race, giving different groups vastly unequal life chances. Who is white? In the early 20th century, the answer was not always clear. Often, the courts had to decide, and they resorted to contradictory logic to maintain the color line. After World War II, whiteness increasingly meant owning a home in the suburbs, aided by discriminatory federal policies that helped whites and hindered nonwhites. European “ethnics,” once considered not quite white, blended together as they reaped the advantages of whiteness—including increased equity as property values rose dramatically—while African Americans and other nonwhites were locked out. Forty years after the Civil Rights Movement, the playing field is still not level, and “colorblind” policies only perpetuate these inequities.