Updated: Jun 16, 2020
We are all mourning George Floyd and the countless others who have lost their lives because of racism and a toxic status quo. Most of us can't quite find the words to express the anger, the disappointment, the heartbreak- because with emotions so powerful, words (no matter how well-meaning) always run the risk of being shallow. But that risk is nothing compared to the cowardice of remaining silent. We want to tell our friends, colleagues and the larger Black community that we stand with you. We want you to know that you are loved, supported and revered.
For too long, society has built systems on this notion of hierarchy. That for nebulous reasons, some are better, and others are worse. This simplistic heuristic is used to justify our betrayal of humanity. Then bad rhetoric and even worse science to coax people into complacency. The purpose of this post is not to be reductive. We are not insinuating that racism is just a matter of molecules. It is a complicated disease ravaging a fragile system. A system based on foolish assumptions that uses genetics and its manifestations as an excuse to devalue people.
Humanity has managed to use genes as weapons against people of color by creating and perpetuating biased, broken systems. Our genes encode proteins and these proteins then carry out a mind-boggling array of tasks in our bodies- from maintenance, to synthesis and destruction. In one case, on chromosome 11 at position 14.3 (1), you can find the code for an enzyme called tyrosinase (TYR). This is the rate-limiting enzyme for melanogenesis, the process by which melanin is made in the body. Melanin, shown below, is what determines skin color (2).
Let's look at the chemical structure of this molecule. Let's size up whether it's 18 carbon atoms (shown in grey) can support the weight of millions of lives lost- through slavery, institutionalized racism and more. It can't.
Because it is a molecule. It is created in melanosomes, specialized organelles found in hair and skin, which are responsible for the "synthesis, storage, and transport of melanin" (2). Within these melanosomes, our good friend TYR is at work. It needs some help to function, though. So, it is assisted by Ion-transport proteins (OCA2, SLC45A2, TPC2) which ensure a neutral pH environment and ATP7A which transports a required cofactor, Cu2+. Through this dance of proteins, substrates and ions, this tiny molecule is produced.
A molecule, whose production levels are predicated on genetics, is used as an excuse to systematically torture and debase members of the human race. It has been used to justify the superiority of those who make it sparingly. This is the only time you will catch these people being glad they have less of something. These people who will do anything to keep their brothers and sisters down so they can relish their own ego and undeserved privilege. These people who spew hateful language and promote violence. These are the villains amongst us. Not those who are suffering and dying because society was foolish enough to overestimate the value and meaning of a molecule.
Considering this molecule and how it comes to be, it is easy to be in awe of its beauty. But think of what us humans have made of it, how we built empires on the back of children. How we marginalized their children at every turn. How we treated them like they were nothing. Often worse than nothing. They grow up watching their friends and family be gunned down in the streets or crushed until they can't breathe. Why isn't everyone angrier?
“TYR Gene - Genetics Home Reference - NIH.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 26 May 2020, ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/TYR#sourcesforpage.
Pattama Wiriyasermkul, Satomi Moriyama, Shushi Nagamori,
Membrane transport proteins in melanosomes: Regulation of ions for pigmentation,
Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Biomembranes,
National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem Database. Melanin, CID=6325610, https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Melanin (accessed on June 1, 2020)
This has been adapted from an article originally published on LinkedIn by Asmara Kazmi, Founder & Director of AK1 Consulting. Connect: https://www.linkedin.com/in/asmara-kazmi/