Chanthaboune asked why we still keep talking about race, if it doesn’t exist. I refer her (and other interested readers) to Kenan Malik’s talk on “Why do we still believe in race?”

This talk reports the evidence (from the human Genome Project) that there is no biological validity to the concept of race, and goes over some popular theories on why folks hold onto it anyway — racism being one of the more popular ones.

But when Dawkins, in the discussion of race that I was talking about yesterday, used Colin Powell as an example of someone who is referred to as “black” even though he isn’t, I was mentally arguing with him. If Mr. Powell says he’s black, then he is.

Racial or ethnic categories are not used merely to define the outgroup against whom we can choose to discriminate, but also to define ourselves. Many of us have some sense of our ethnic heritage — though not necessarily our “race” — as being of importance. When the U.S. went through a spell of weird anti-French prejudice, I found myself pretty offended on behalf of my 50% Franco-American heritage, in spite of my awareness that it is biologically insignificant. I felt silly over that — there doesn’t seem to me to be any reason that I should be more offended by that than by any other sort of bigotry, on behalf of my 100% humanity — but I stomped right out of the bakeries selling “Freedom bread” anyway.

I would say generally that everyone should get to pick his or her own label, if we are determined to have labels. But then we find ourselves in the quandary to which Dweezy alludes. There is not widespread agreement on terminology.

In the U.S., for example, we generally say “African-American” for the people Dawkins refers to as “black,” including Mr. Powell. But I have heard American news presenters stumble over that in referring to European blacks, who can’t be called “African-American,” but also cannot be called “black” once we have decided that that term is impolite.

My sons object to the word “white.” I don’t mind it, myself, but I don’t like being referred to as “Anglo”  — my mother’s preferred euphemism — because I don’t have much Anglo-Saxon ancestry. It seems to be a false assumption about my heritage, where “white” is just a reference to that mental sort we’ve been discussing. I don’t object to “European-American” either, but that is subject to the same difficulty in global terms. Particularly now that Europe has more ethnic diversity.

In fact, in global terms we run into more complications. My reading of British novels suggests to me that English people, saying “Asian,” often mean folks from Pakistan, when we in the U.S. more often mean Chinese or Japanese heritage. “Hispanic” is really about language — though we in Hamburger-a-go-go-land would probably have to call Mayans and Brazilians “Hispanic” too, just for lack of other terminology.

Even on an individual basis, the sheer superficiality and vagueness of the distinctions can complicate matters. Thanks to Mendelian ratios, we have three kids who comfortably check off “Asian or Pacific Islander” on forms, and one who would feel silly doing so. In biological terms, of course, all of them have equal right to check “Asian” or “White, non-Hispanic” if they feel like it. But it is the shade of their skin that really determines the choice.

And this is not only true for those of mixed parentage (which actually comprises a very high proportion of the world’s people). The folks in Kenya look different from the folks in Japan, as Malik says, but there are gradations all along the way. There is no clear edge for any “race.” And there never has been agreement on the sorting of human populations into “races,” though Malik gives an interesting computer model.

Since there is no scientific basis for any of this, and the only factual data we are using is some limited notions about how people look, the whole thing is quite imprecise.

So what good does it do us?

This is what Dawkins was talking about. It doesn’t do us any good. And the only thing it seems to allow us to do that we couldn’t do if we all looked sufficiently alike that we could not even make up stuff about race, is to discriminate in-groups and out-groups.

Since these visible differences exist, Dawkins presumes, then it must be the case that there were adaptive advantages — at some time in our past — in being able to say “like me” and “not like me” about the people you saw. There does not appear to be anything else of any particular value about these racial differences, so that must be what they were for.

Perhaps we could go with the Hogwarts sorting hat instead. Then, once we require everyone to knit him or herself a suitably striped scarf and wear it at all times, we can give up the clunky and old-fashioned idea of race entirely.