Updated: May 20, 2022
As a retired school teacher, I recently had an interesting puzzle solved for me. And it's all about one little word.
Why, I often wondered, did some of my students say 'ax' instead of 'ask'? This was a word that was frequently stigmatized by my teacher colleagues as indicative of the unintelligent and unsophisticated. To be frank, these same students were often Polynesian. And they also had a tendency to struggle the most with their school work. So I was surprised the first time I heard my young Maori grandson used the word 'ax'.
That first time, I corrected his pronunciation. Turns out I was wrong. I was actually showing my own ignorance.
Language and pronunciation can tell a lot about where someone is from— the ask/ax disagreement is laden with additional cultural baggage which actually has a very long history.
'Ax' is a pronunciation that has been handed down, unbroken, for a thousand years. Far from being a new thing, it is in reality a regular feature of English, traced back to the eighth century. Chaucer used “ax.” and it is even in the first complete English translation of the Bible; ‘Axe and it shall be given.’
It is certainly not a racial predisposition but provides a valuable example of how our cultural and historic differences cause us to make value judgements about one another
“O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other…. – The Hidden Words, Arabic #68
In fact, genetic research has discredited the very concept of 'race'. Scientists from Britain’s Natural History Museum and University College London recently announced the sequencing of a genome belonging to the earliest complete skeleton ever found in Britain. A full face reconstruction model was made from the skull of a skeleton named 'Cheddar Man', at least 10,000 years old, whose bones had been found in a cave sealed under a stalagmite. DNA suggests he had dark skin and blue eyes.
To a geneticist today, the idea of “race” is no more than a social construct of shared custom, community and belief. There's a pretty simple explanation of skin colour: it is an adaption deigned to protect skin from sunlight, and its damaging effects on DNA and fertility levels. Dark skin pigments shield molecules from intense ultraviolet light; in colder, darker places, people need more sunlight to make necessary vitamin D. Clearly skin colour has nothing to do with behaviours such as musical or sporting ability, criminality, aggression or intelligence.
In fact, the genetic differences we do have are even greater between individuals than between groups; there is more diversity amongst our “races” than between them. So once and for all, the microscope of genetic research has done away with the concept of biological race.
White people - including blondes like myself - are actually mutants exhibiting a recent adaptation to low Scandinavian light levels. Most of our human species’ 300,000-year span was spent in Africa, where our skins were dark.
The earliest accepted record of white people ever found were blue-eyed, blond-haired “Swedes” buried about 7700 years ago.
Why did light skin take so long to become wide-spread in Europe? After all, we had been there for 33,000 years before the blond Swedes of my own recorded genetic ancestry showed up.
Strangely enough, African genetics are little studied, despite their commonality. All non-Africans, from Polynesians to Peruvians, are descended from the small migratory bands that left Africa , giving us a reduced number of genomes, a small subset of the African total.
The 'genetic genius' Siddhartha Mukherjee poetically observed;
"In a genetic sense, nearly all of us who emerged out of Africa, gasping for land and air, are even more closely yoked than previously imagined. We were on the same boat, brother. The problem with racial discrimination is not the inference of a person’s race from their genetic characteristics. It is quite the opposite: it is the inference of a person’s characteristics from their race."
The assumption that the worth of an individual is determined by race is the reflection of a faulty social system based on these assumptions.
The Univeral House of Justice clearly states that:
Racism, one of the most baneful and persistent evils, is a major barrier to peace. Its practice perpetrates too outrageous a violation of the dignity of human beings to be countenanced under any pretext. Racism retards the unfoldment of the boundless potentialities of its victims, corrupts its perpetrators, and blights human progress. – The Promise of World Peace, October 1985, p. 7
Abdu'l-Baha paints a frightening picture of unrestrained racism:
All prejudices, whether of religion, race, politics or nation, must be renounced, for these prejudices have caused the world’s sickness. It is a grave malady which, unless arrested, is capable of causing the destruction of the whole human race. Every ruinous war, with its terrible bloodshed and misery, has been caused by one or other of these prejudices. – Paris Talks, p. 146
This statement underscores the urgency of our task. Racism can no longer be considered as just a personal attitude or bias; it is a global issue. Its resolution will determine the very future of our entire planet.