Thursday, 11 February 2021

Superior by Angela Saini

"Where did the idea of race come from, and what does it mean? In an age of identity politics, DNA ancestry testing and the rise of the far-right, a belief in biological differences between populations is experiencing a resurgence. The truth is: race is a social construct. Our problem is we find this hard to believe.

In Superior, award-winning author Angela Saini investigates the concept of race, from its origins to the present day. Engaging with geneticists, anthropologists, historians and social scientists from across the globe, Superior is a rigorous, much needed examination of the insidious and destructive nature of the belief that race is real, and that some groups of people are superior to others."

Non-fiction books on politics and social issues don't usually form part of my reading, but I'd been watching David Olusoga on TV where he mentioned race science as part of the justification of slavery, then caught Angela Saini at the online version of  Edinburgh Book Festival talking in greater depth about the subject, and wanted to know more about how pseudo-scientific ideas take root and influence public opinion.  

In a vague way I knew before of the theory that people can be divided into different races, and that some are not as intelligent (or even as 'human') as others. It was used to give 'justification' for the slave trade, for robbing indigenous peoples of land and wealth, and returned in a different form in Nazi Germany. It's a ludicrous idea, and one that I believed was totally discredited today, not one still lurking around. Superior has definitely proved to be an eye-opening read.

Saini takes the reader through the development of race theory, how it affected Europeans interaction with indigenous population of  Africa, Australia and America, and how it continues today in the social and economic effects it has on black people. What surprised me most was its proliferation today. Modern genetic studies have surely proved once and for all that 'race' is a social or cultural concept, but people still want to believe they are in some way 'better' than others - than their neighbours, the folks in the next town, neighbouring country - and unfortunately there'll be someone on the internet or in specialist, right wing journals, ready to support their claims with alleged scientific evidence. 

Superior is definitely a book that deserves the adjective 'thought provoking'. I understand now where the prejudices of my parents' generation came from, and was left feeling that it's so very easy to feed those prejudices with dodgy scientific 'facts'.

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