The Myth of Race (Book Review)

Author: Jefferson Fish
Publisher: Argo-Navis, 2012. 154 pages. ISBN: 978-0786754366
Reviewed By: Wandajune Bishop-Towle, PhD

One of several books by the author on this subject, The Myth of Race looks at the lack of biological evidence for race, as well as the manifestations and impact of the concept of race in a changing culture. With sharp analysis and engaging style, Fish draws on the disciplines of psychology, anthropology, and evolutionary biology, also sharing his own experiences as "white psychologist from the Bronx" married to, and raising a daughter with, an "African-American anthropologist from Brooklyn."

Fish describes how, as humans evolved, our outward appearance (hair texture, skin color, etc.) came to vary gradually as we spread out over the globe, resulting in spectra of traits with different frequencies and combinations depending on location — anthropologist refer to such a process of gradual change as a cline. In contrast to genetic traits, race as a concept varies by language and culture. In Brazil, for example, a person's tipo (tr: race), is based on appearance, not ancestry. A woman who might be described as a white brunette in the U.S. might be called branca (tr: white), or morena (a person with dark, straight-hair, and a deep complexion). There are many more tipos in Brazil than races here; members of the same family (that might be described as simply "mixed race" in the U.S.) can all represent different tipos. In our own language and culture, too, racial categories have been highly mutable, as Fish points out in an incisive (and witty) discussion of racial categories used by the U.S. census from 1790 to the present. Later in the book, Fish criticizes the research on race and IQ in terms of its omission of key environmental variables, apart from the fact that no empirical basis exists for classifying subjects according to "race."

In the chapter "Racial Myths and the Author's Family," Fish reflects on his own experiences in a "mixed race" marriage, using well-chosen anecdotes of family life. In another chapter, entitled "Dreams from My Daughter: Mixed Race Myths," he considers his daughter's "both/and" adaptation to growing up bicultural, alongside that of the better-known of Barack Obama, and discusses other possible outcomes for "third culture kids." The last chapter examines the idea of race as a meme (the term refers to an entity that is culturally transmitted, including such things as popular songs). Fish explores the roots of the race meme in European colonialism, as a justification for slavery, the persistence of the race meme, despite its lack of biological underpinnings, and the role that the race meme plays in self-concept.

In summary, The Myth of Race rigorously debunks the false notion of biological race, and offers profound insight into the ways that the cultural concept of race affects us all. With its personal reflections and artful prose, it is a pleasure to read. The Myth of Race would make an excellent supplemental text for graduate or undergraduate courses in cross-cultural psychology — one sure to stimulate discussion.

Reviewer Notes

Wandajune Bishop-Towle, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, and co-owner of Seasons of Peace Yoga in Andover, Mass., where she provides body-oriented psychotherapy. She is a graduate of the clinical psychology program at St. John's University and has a post-doctoral certificate in applied behavior analysis from North Texas University. Her ancestors of recent generations include indigenous Americans, as well as people from Europe and Africa.

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