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Can You See Race?

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Teacher David Sherrin presents an exercise called "Sorting People" to his 9th graders at the Facing History School. The outcome? Well, have a listen. How accurately can you guess a person's background from their appearance? Reporter Ali Abbas takes us to Baghdad, where that question has become an issue of life and death as tensions and violence have risen between Sunni and Shi'a in Iraq, and safety can come down to the spelling of your name.


Ali Abbas and David Sherrin

Comments [18]

Not you aver. Joe from Charlotte

This is a test to see if I can post,, I am not a member.

If in case this does work, I am a 30year old black male, and found this to be one of the best conversation I've heard in a while. This translates back to "the human will strive to have reign over each other, and even when there is not difference evil will help create a gap in unity"

May. 07 2015 12:14 AM

I found the first part of the podcast relatable which was talking about the high school students. I am half Indian and half black, but my dad just sees himself as black rather than Indian (because he is Jamaican) but his family actually would hate to be considered black because Indians have different hair types, lip shapes and other general features. So I find often find it hard to really identify my race. Also, my mom's mother considers herself black but someone looking at her might mistake her for being white or Chinese (there are a lot of Chinese Jamaicans). so I often find myself hard to tell people what my race is but I often just categorize myself as black.

The part with the middle eastern man reminded me of the mass genocide that took place in Rwanda between the Hutu and the Toutsi (not sure if I spelled those correctly). Most people could not really see the difference but who your papers said you were made the difference between life and death.

Apr. 21 2014 09:47 PM
kak from The Heart of Dixie

I cannot believe you cavalierly identified being a "jew" as a race (As in, "You can pass for a Jew...").

Judiasm, like Christianity and Islam, is a religion. Regardless of the importance of race or lack thereof, a person cannot change his race any more than he can change his parents. In contrast, as anyone who has converted from one religion to another can testify, a person's religious beliefs can change or be more in line with another religion than the one that they are "born to."

My ex-wife and the mother of my children is caucasion with some native american ancestry. She converted to Judaism. Conflating her race (and, therefore, my kids' race as well) with her religion does her and everyone else who has converted from one religion to another a great disservice.

You owe them all an apology.

Apr. 21 2014 02:30 PM
Martha from California

This story was so deeply moving. I don't believe that many who commented listened to the entire story. I think you were a little flippant at the beginning and I was almost turned off but I listened through to the end and I was and am just astounded at the level of hatred that people are able to feel for others, and the ability to live through this experience on the part of your guest, the friend of the Shia boy/man. I am so in awe of them.

Apr. 17 2014 04:21 PM
Lilian from Melbourne, Australia

@Sir Joshua from Planet Earth:

I find it odd that you think people are behaving 'unintelligently if they are 'so worried about what defines them or makes them different than the next person'.

Deeper understanding about who you are and how you are different than others around you doesn't necessarily lead to division/segregation. In many ways, it can do the opposite, because you get to realise (AND appreciate) how rich and diverse this planet's population is.

Besides, the urge to define yourself is only natural, because that directly feeds into the instinct to want to belong somewhere, and be accepted into a 'tribe', something that ensured our survival as a species.

Aug. 14 2011 03:06 AM
Eric from los angeles

Seriously? A whole segment on the "Race" program about Sunni's versus Shiites? No one talks about Protestant-Catholic racial relations. Come on guys. Do your research.

Apr. 16 2010 02:18 AM
william cordova from lima peru

"you can definitely see and feel racism"

May. 10 2009 09:59 PM

I loved this show - mostly because of the different perspectives that were included; I don't know about others, but I don't really look to radio for conclusions about the world. I found the "Sorting People" segment to be somewhat problematic. It seemed that it concluded with a hasty generalization: it was suggested that even self-identification in terms of race is fluid or fuzzy. But they failed to interpret these "results" in light of the fact that they had mostly surveyed Hispanic students. And Hispanic-ness isn't a race! And of course, while when interacting with White/Anglo Americans, Hispanic-ness does define individuals to a great extent, when dealing with other Hispanics, country of origin is much more important! Minor point, really, and the conclusion may hold anyway, but I thought it worth bringing up.

Apr. 26 2009 11:39 PM
Sir Joshua from Earth

Funny. I'm about to say something I once would have had the urge to turn my head upon. The more I learn about the world (Countries, cultures, etc) the more I begin to Love America. No I won't reside here for the entirety of my life, though I feel a love here, in such a place where you really can pretty much do and be what you want to be. Sure, Ameirca has it's share of BS, race, crimes, and such, though this country has an external freedom that so many people only dream of. Here, you are free enough to BE without the threat of death....heh, then again, death does come. So yes and no. Though still, good job America. As far as the whole race thing goes, these humans are acting quite odd and dare I say unintelligent being so worried about what defines them or makes them different or more special that the next person. It's as if a bunch of people with self esteem problems came about and said "I know there's a reason why I'm better than you and I'll scour the earth, the universe and our very genome to find it!" Pshaw! Funny humans. Get a life :)

Mar. 02 2009 12:25 PM
James H. Hay from Santee CA

I'm a huge RL fan but find this to be a particularly weak show. I don't have a strong opinion on race but as so far as the evidence given. . .

1) In ?hypertension? was said that country, actually diet, was the important factor. Okay, it is primary but that does not exclude a significant racial effect.

2) The counter to blacks being (genetically) good at sports was a black who WAS as a kid but decided against? What?

3) Isn't Shite vs. Sunni a religious rather than racial conflict?

Jan. 05 2009 07:21 PM
Dave Kliman from Long Island, NY

@ Ali Abbas,

In answer to your question of "how do all the different races get along so well in Brooklyn."

There is a very simple answer for that, which I believe is true anywhere.

When people are happy, they don't worry about things like that. It's that simple.

That's why one of the major ideas of this country is to pursue, and have happiness.

Bush pushed Iraq to the very edge, where every ounce water, every gram of food, every square cm of roof over your head could mean the difference between life and death. It makes sense that people would turn to any possible thing such as race to stay on top. I hope his hard work won't take the rest of the world down that path too. He will be gone soon.

Dec. 22 2008 05:43 PM
Louise Mowder from North Brunswick NJ

I agree with Alicia - the segment by Ali Abbas was the most gripping, terrifying and disheartening piece I have heard on radio in years, and perhaps the most vivid piece of reporting to come out of the war. Abbas should be shopping a screenplay based on his stories. And it should end with him sitting on the NYC subway, wondering who long the US can hold its diversity in place.

I thought of Abbas' story listening to Bush in Baghdad yesterday at the immortal shoe-throwing press conference. The Iraqis would probably give up all the "freedom" Bush brought them for the security and peace and non-sectarian society that Saddam had worked so hard to maintain. Yes, there was violence - but in certain known situations. The violence in Iraq is unpredictable and omnipresent. How can a person remain sane in such conditions?

Dec. 15 2008 06:51 PM
JLN from Alberta, Canada

This was an interesting program, however, I think we are not given the whole story in the first section. When we are introduced to the black man who discovers from a cheek swab genetic test that he is 0% black, we are not told what that cheek swab measures. It is my understanding that those cheek swabs only look at only maternal or paternal ancestry. For example it would only see your mother's mother's mother's mother's, etc lineage or your father's, father's, father's etc lineage. Therefore you could theoretically be half black on both sides and the test would not see that, as most of your genetic line is not represented (ie, your mother's father's genetics are not seen at all). Perhaps this was not the case for the test in question, but I don't think that these types of tests look at the whole genome of the individual, as is implied in the episode.

Dec. 14 2008 02:52 AM
Alicia from Atlanta

Out of all the programs I've ever heard from Radiolab, this has to be one of the best. This story gave such a gripping perspective of the violence in a world that we as Americans see everyday on television but have no inkling of its often unbelievably brutal reality. I was on the edge of my seat until the very end, anxiously awaiting the fate of Ali, Ahmar, and Ali's brother. I was so glad to hear that they managed to leave without a scrape, but it also reminded me of the unlucky who ended up at the hospital. It was a spectacular piece, and I hope to see more like this in the future.

Dec. 10 2008 04:03 PM
MM from Washington, DC

What a fascinating and informative program. I enjoyed how the program tackles certain preconceptions about race (i.e., blacks are good at sports) and addresses how those ideas are rooted in something other than biology. I think this would be a wonderful resource for teachers, including myself, who want to offer undergraduates a primer about why race does/does not matter. I hope the link to the program stays up for awhile, so I can have access to this for my students. Excellent work!

Dec. 01 2008 03:17 PM
dd from queens

Listening to how a Shi'a or Sunni can be recognised sometimes only by name reminds me of the "Troubles"in Northern Ireland where sometimes it was the way a word was pronounced or whether you called the city Derry or Londonderry would identify you as Catholic or Protestant (and therefore Nationalist or Unionist.) I just highlight this to show that Ali Abbas situation not only happens in an Arab conflict but has happened in other places in the world, so that people will not think that the arabs are acting that way.. it is people who act that way. I also wish the lessons learned and changes made to bring peace to Northern Ireland - chiefly the inclusion of all people in the political process there - could be modelled for the improvement of the political situation in Iraq and in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Nov. 28 2008 04:00 PM
mgduke from hel's kitchen

More interesting than the microbiological and genetic perspective is the macro lens of continents and civilizations, through which it’s obvious that Africa lags well behind Europe and Asia, but isn’t that just because the living is so easy in Africa and, as Aristotle taught, without the goad of need man would never get off his arse?

Nov. 28 2008 03:18 PM
mgduke from hel's kitchen

Isn’t it obvious that “race” is essentially a socio-cultural construct, and that the striking physiological differences, such as color and body shape, are just longterm and ever-modifiable responses to diverse environmental conditions?

Nov. 28 2008 03:03 PM

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