I arrived in Tanzania, East Africa, on Jan. 23 of this year. After two long bus rides, I ended up along a sun-baked dirt road surrounded by rolling hills covered with rows of corn, the occasional spot of forest, and the mud/brick buildings of the village, Magulilwa.

I came armed with 12 laptops. I was there to kick off the first computer program at Magulilwa Area Secondary School, a boarding institution housing 202 teenagers.

Headmaster Mgongolwa — hefty and middle-aged, clean-shaven with buzzed gray hair and, as always, dressed in slacks and a button-up — walked me to my room. The bare concrete quarters were nice by local standards, with a comfortable bed and a wooden desk by the window, barred to keep out burglars.

Outside, among the brick buildings with corrugated metal roofs, were dirt paths packed hard by the black shoes of the green-clad youths heading to and from dormitory, dining hall and classroom. The campus spread out along the side of a slight hill, from the top of which I peered down. It was the rainy season — tall grass and even some corn grew between the buildings.

Teaching students how to operate high-tech equipment in a low-tech setting was a challenge, with electrical outages and dust blowing in through the windows when the weather was dry and water leaking in under the door when it rained.

And for many of these 13- to 16-year-olds, this was their first time using a computer. I remember one girl making 12 attempts — I didn’t want to do it for her — before she could move the mouse to get the cursor over the icon. She’d move it too high, overcorrect and go too low, go back up too high, too low, too high … and then, when she would get it on the icon, she’d bump it off trying to double-click, a maneuver whose speed many students struggled with. “Not click … click,” I’d tell them. “Click-click.”

A few students — Nelly, Charles, Samuel — had used computers before and helped show the others.

Of course, being in Tanzania was about more than teaching tech. It was about seeing with fresh eyes, on fresh canvas, the ways of humanity demonstrated there. I spent many afternoons walking through this laid-back agricultural village.

Every day at around 4 p.m., locals congregated after farm work in the village square. Women in thin, colorful skirts and headscarves stood talking among themselves, some with babies secured to their backs by a thin fabric wraparound. Men in rubber boots, worn slacks and wrinkled shirts would sit tucked away on old benches along the mud-brick walls inside one of the small, dim buildings along the square. They passed around a plant-pot beverage container brimming with sugar-cane spirit. One of these men was Grandpa Ndambo, an elder who knew enough English for us to hold a conversation. Back outside, a few older women sold tomatoes and cucumbers off a long wooden table, while at a butcher’s table young men trimmed and sold cuts of beef.

In the center of the village was an open area that featured, on either end, two vertical logs with their tops connected by a third. These were soccer goals. Almost every day boys of all ages and in all manner of footwear — shoes, flop-flops, barefoot — kicked around a ball created out of dozens of black plastic bags tightly wadded and held together with twine.

For six months I worked and lived in this world.

And I learned a truth about race. Not whether or how or from what cause white and black human beings are different — but how insignificant the whole topic of race is when it comes to building relationships, learning, teaching and just living a life among others.

I was set up to learn this truth, growing up in a society that is all wound up on this topic — wound as tightly as the village boys’ makeshift soccer ball.

Professors’ disagreement

Eleven years ago, I was a psychology undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. In the fall of my senior year, I took upper-level courses in anthropology as well as within my major. I took “Anthropology: Race and Culture,” taught by the semiretired Academy of Distinguished Teachers honoree Micha Penn. That same semester, I took “The Psychology of Individual Differences” from another semiretired, distinguished intellectual, the recipient of the Dobzhansky Memorial Award for a Lifetime of Outstanding Scholarship in Behavior Genetics, Thomas Bouchard.

Tuesday and Thursday mornings would begin with Penn. The short, cane-wielding professor with wavy gray hair explained from his seat in front of our small classroom that race is a myth. There is far more in common than separating the so-called races. And what is different can be explained by external factors — culture, climate, upbringing and so on. What’s more, he impressed upon us the horrors of the race myth — how the belief has contributed to misunderstanding, discrimination and death.

Afterward, I would attend my psych course. The tall, bald, white-eyebrowed Bouchard lectured about statistical analyses showing the breakdown of factors responsible for shaping humans. Genes, he explained, contribute roughly half of the variability in human traits and environment the other half. The analyses also revealed not just genetic influence for individual traits, but groupings of people with common measurements along those traits. Those groups were the human races.

“What? … How?” I thought. I had just been told by my other award-winning professor that race is a myth.

After one lecture, I approached the podium and said: “Dr. Bouchard, this morning my anthropology professor said there was no such thing as race.” His white eyebrows rose with the slightest hint of an eye roll beneath them. He’d been dealing with skepticism (and worse) from those who didn’t like his data for decades. In fact, the whole U psychology department seemed to have established a bit of a reputation.

In my research consortium later that year, a doctoral student in clinical psychology said he’d once attended a research conference where, while waiting in line for registration, he overheard a pair of fellow attendees ahead of him say, “The University of Minnesota is here.”

“Oh, you mean the Nazis?”

Melting pot or pressure cooker?

America is a charged nation — especially when it comes to race. Perhaps no other issue raises as many red flags, inspires more red-faced commentary or makes people feel as uncomfortable. And the last six months of my life have convinced me that the loudness of the debate is more of a problem than where it is people stand.

The race controversy pours into any discussion of nature vs. nurture, genes vs. environment. And the volume is high because this debate serves as ammunition — first for the diminishing number who feel that if race is biological, it justifies their beliefs in racial superiority; and then for those who exaggerate the threat from those that think this way, and so accuse all who believe in (or discover) biological differences to be racists.

I thought about this as I watched preschool-aged boys in my village kicking the soccer ball hard and square, then attempting handstands. I noticed their obvious, almost effortless talent and felt the controversy rise at even the inference that these boys might be physically gifted as a product of their race. But when I turned around I saw that no one from America was there to judge my observations or intimidate my thinking.

Away from the pressure cooker America’s “melting pot” has become, I saw how benign it all actually is. Who cares, I thought, whether, or to what degree, their physical ability is a result of cultural encouragement or genetic predisposition? It has no bearing on a person’s value. Nor do my beliefs on how this balance of genes and environment plays out have any bearing on how I value these boys.

I think for many Americans, a nonmalicious interest in race differences is inconceivable. The result is unnecessary drama and harm — obviously from real racists who pose a real threat to equal opportunity, or worse, but also from those hyper-concerned with racism. Relationships are strained because who wants to be associated with “bad” people who don’t toe the politically approved line? Attempts are made to censor and put a ceiling on scientific progress in genetic biology.

Biological differences don’t affect my effort with my students or how we value one another, but the realities of our makeup do matter in how we approach problems of health and economic development.

“African Americans are four times likelier to suffer from end stage kidney disease,” writes genetic biologist and TED fellow Juan Enriquez, who follows up this biological disparity with an evolutionary explanation. Yet despite the obvious health benefits of these kinds of biological distinctions, I can remember another anthropology professor of mine permitting such recognitions of racial differences but only as “racism that can be beneficial.”

As it stands, the more we learn now that researchers can mine the human genome, the more nuanced things become. Modern genetic models do cluster human beings into major race groups, and there is now genetic evidence supporting some stereotypes. “Only 16 percent of Africans lack the ACTN3 gene versus 51 percent of Eurasians,” says Enriquez of this gene tied to athletic ability. But he admits that “No smart young investigator is likely to go near these topics while seeking tenure.”

On the other hand, it is also now revealed that environmental trauma can affect genes and be felt for generations, and that environmental trauma can be passed down in ways other than genes.

In other words, the debate about genes and environment and race is becoming ever more complex, with more evidence demonstrating influence from each factor, and even that the two aren’t as separate as we like to think.

I’m not a scientist. I’m a teacher and a writer with a degree in psychology, shaped by my upbringing in Minnesota and by my mom’s and dad’s mixture of DNA. I can speculate about the application of biological findings, but I have learned that when I sit down with a student to show her how to save a Word document — or when we all do what matters most in our lives: caring for, helping out, doing business with, electing, dating, employing or partying with those about us — race (whatever that ends up being) or racial differences are irrelevant.

I think if more came to believe and know this — and accepted that many others already do — we could get out of the way and give researchers the space they need for the science to sort itself out. Meanwhile, we could each move forward to work in our own way to make the world better for everyone.


Brandon Ferdig is a Minneapolis writer. He shares his observations at ThePeriphery.com. He can be reached at brandon@theperiphery.com and is on Twitter: @brandonferdig.