‘3 skulls inside an abandoned sanitarium in Italy’ by v2osk1
by Linda Thamizharasan
Once you reach the harbor gates in the game Disco Elysium, you will encounter a man called Measurehead. At this point in the story, your character has traipsed through the war-torn city of Revachol, come to terms with his alcohol-fueled amnesia, and observed the dead body he was apparently sent to investigate. Measurehead is simply another strange character in a strange city.
When you ask him to step aside so you can enter the harbor, this is his response: “Occidental haplogroup B4 is done giving the orders around here,” he says. “…How far the Occidental haplogroup has fallen. You were once a noble and powerful race.”8
A “haplogroup” is a genetic term used to refer to ancestral groups, and Measurehead’s use of it here demonstrates just a few of the qualities that make him such a paradox. This is a man who clearly knows history, science, and literature. And yet, your character’s complete inability to dissuade him of his underlying racist ideology or even defend yourself against his more insidious claims, is what makes him truly compelling. What does it mean that racism can be perpetuated by those with astute, scientific backgrounds?
Despite a lack of evidence, science is often used to understand race, and it grants a powerfully distorted lens. The most common use of race in science is in the medical field. There, it can be reasonably argued that a person’s racial background is linked to genetic disease, rendering the human classification of race scientifically useful. But even this is not strictly true. Dr. Marcus Feldman and his colleagues explain in a paper published in Nature that, while ancestry is “extremely useful in diagnosis and treatment,” the idea of race has no basis in the medical field.2 Race is, generally speaking, a tool used to differentiate people by physical characteristics.7 It would stand to reason, then, that a vast combination of diverse genetic histories could still produce individuals of the same race. Take, for example, sickle cell disease: for much of its known history, it was considered an “African” ailment. In truth, if you sought to use race as a pre-diagnostic tool, you would overlook people with Mediterranean or South Indian ancestry who are also predisposed to the disease.2 It is clear that race and ancestry are not interchangeable classifications.
However, the abuse of science to justify racist ideology is nothing new. With new breakthroughs—especially in the field of genetics—there are new methods of perpetuating stereotypes and prejudice. A 2018 article titled “Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed)” exemplifies this. It explores an emerging interest in milk among white nationalist groups due to a gene allowing for the digestion of a certain protein found in dairy products.3 Even well-intentioned studies, when not examined carefully, can easily be mischaracterized.
Ultimately, the inadequacy of human classifications is evident in Measurehead himself. Throughout your conversation, he will tell you his own lineage is genetically superior to all others. But if you question him for long enough, his scientific credibility begins to crumble.
“So you were born and raised on the islands, before you moved to Revachol?” your character might ask him.
“I am a descendant,” he replies. “The narrow streets of Ulanbuir are with me in my genetic dreams. I see young Semanese women walk into the grey mass on Ile du Fantôme, waiting on immaculate conception from the Pale.”
“So…you did not come from the islands?”
There is a pause.
“No,” he says. “I have heard about it. On the radio.”8
- Unsplash. (2018, January 19). Photo by v2osk on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/d6m2xV4ekfI
- Feldman, M. W., Lewontin, R. C., & King, M.-C. (2003). Race: A genetic melting-pot. Nature, 424(6947), Article 6947. https://doi.org/10.1038/424374a
- Harmon, A. (2018, October 17). Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/17/us/white-supremacists-science-dna.html
- Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2005). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American Psychologist, 60, 16–26. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.1.16
- Founders Online: To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Banneker, 19 August 1791. (n.d.). University of Virginia Press. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-22-02-0049
- Wang, H. L., Demby, G., Mortada, D., Williams, V., & Cala, C. (2022, December 7). Why some Republicans want to narrow who counts as Black. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/12/01/1140051580/why-some-republicans-want-to-narrow-who-counts-as-black
- Race | Definition, Ideologies, Constructions, & Facts | Britannica. (2023, March 28). https://www.britannica.com/topic/race-human
- Yessirnosir Ltd. (2019). Disco Elysium (Windows version) [Video Game]. Robert Kurvitz