What happens in regards to race relations when anyone can arbitrarily change their appearance? This is based in a near-future Earth where normal humans the world over have gained the ability to perform complete, cheap, and perfect visible transformations of their bodies through genetic manipulation.

Current universe rules

  • All genetic diseases have been eliminated and continue to be removed from the population as they crop up.
  • No alterations to brain structure or chemistry are permitted.
  • No speciation is permitted.
  • All humanity above age 18 has complete access to all appearance changes resulting from the gene manipulation treatments. Underage persons may request permission for a limited set of treatments from the regulatory body. Requests are generally approved for a child to match appearance with their parents.
  • Gene manipulation is treated as a basic human right and is guaranteed to all members of humanity.
  • No direct restrictions may be placed on gene manipulation by any country or municipality except by the global regulatory body, which thus far has only applied the above two restrictions. Anyone, anywhere, may make any changes they please.
  • The results of gene treatments are not instantaneous. Larger changes involving bones or muscle can take months. Softer tissues can change in days or weeks, depending on the alteration.

As discussions on this topic can get very complicated, very quickly, let's restrict this to a very specific set of circumstances. Any similarities to an actual real world situation are merely coincidental.

  • The Privileged have blue-tinted skin with distinct facial features. The Unprivileged have green-tinted skin with different facial features. (I know that normal humans don't have green or blue skin but I wanted to make sure this was as non-specific as possible.)
  • The Privileged have enjoyed centuries of economic and political power over the Unprivileged. The top 10% of Privileged control 60% of all wealth in this country. The top 10% of Unprivileged control a mere 5% of all wealth.
  • The Privileged have no religious justification for their actions. They appeal to no higher authority than their own economic benefit and cultural inertia for oppressing the Unprivileged. They hate the Unprivileged just because they are different.
  • The population is 35% Privileged, 50% Unprivileged, 15% Other.
  • This country is in military and economic equilibrium with its neighbors.
  • Both groups have shared a single country for three centuries.
  • In the past, the Privileged frequently used mass police violence to suppress revolts or systematically harass the Unprivileged. Systematic genocide has never been attempted by either group though that hasn't prevented hundreds of thousands of Unprivileged deaths over the centuries. Incidence of mass police suppression have dropped off considerably in the last twenty years with the advent of the Internet, though individual intimidation continues on a daily basis.
  • Economic opportunities are few for Unprivileged as wealth is concentrated with the Privileged.
  • The courts and laws maintain a distinct bias against the Unprivileged because the legislature and the judges themselves are Privileged. Biases appear in the form of the costs of legal representation. The Unprivileged generally cannot afford the legal counsel that would otherwise have gotten them off completely or with a vastly reduced sentence. Petty crimes generally carry similar or harsher punishments than the more broadly damaging white collar crimes. There are no longer any laws that specifically target the Unprivileged by racial identifier.
  • Immigration and emigration are fairly liberal. Anyone may receive and exercise a passport. An immigrant may be in one of two classes. A 'reduced privileges' class that precludes voting but permits holding official government issued identification. A 'resident alien' class may vote in elections and hold government ID but is subject to deportation at the discretion of the government at any time.
  • Changes to an individual's legal name are unrestricted.

In these circumstances, how will the Privileged respond when the Unprivileged can avoid oppression by simply changing their looks and moving to a different city? Please address likely political, economic, or media manipulation they may use in regards to the new gene manipulation treatments.

I know that this is an incredibly complicated and sensitive subject. More than usual, if there are problems with this question or if I have been insensitive in someway, please let me know and I will correct it as soon as possible.

  • $\begingroup$ What's the difference between Privileged and Unprivileged? What gives one the cultural power over the other? Making this distinction seems mostly arbitrary, given the environment. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jul 27, 2015 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ The difference is that the Privileged got rich first then used that wealth to exploit and oppress the Unprivileged and keep them poor. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Jul 27, 2015 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ Sounds like the Unprivileged can be identified regardless of their appearance... $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jul 27, 2015 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ Anyone having the right to change their appearance in any way and having a caste system based on appearance are mutually exclusive. $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Jul 28, 2015 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Neil the caste system isn't explicit though, not anymore. Just like the caste system in India, the caste system doesn't exist anymore but it's effects are certainly still around. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Jul 28, 2015 at 12:13

2 Answers 2


Passing becomes more common

Why would people not change their appearance if the current appearance brings clear disadvantages? Well, there are plenty of reasons. Pride in their own heritage. Distrust of the genetic engineering technology. Severing ties with their current peer group. Still, passing becomes much easier.

Discrimination remains

Privileged and Unprivileged are not just different in color. They went to different schools, have different wealth levels, read different books (if the ever read), watch different movies.

Discrimination would be less about race and more about class. The top achievers of the Unprivileged would merge with the upper middle class of the Privileged. They teach their kids to speak the right language, send them to the right schools, and within a few generations they're fully assimilated.

On the other hand, Privileged might ask questions like "where were you born" and "what was your birth name" when it comes to membership in the right country club. Universities might try and pass rules to favor the children of alumni.

The underachievers of the Privileged would be an underclass separate to the Unprivileged, but desperately proud of their "genuine" belonging to the Privileged group. They would resent Unprivileged achievers. Sounds familiar?

Historical comparisons

Think of the history of German Jews. Prior to the Nazi genocide, many of them were well on their way to cultural assimilation. Some retained their religious identity, some didn't, but they were German just like Protestants and Catholics. When the Nazis came to power, they started to research and document the heritage of all Germans because names and looks were not enough to tell.

  • $\begingroup$ The Nazis also did stuff like force Jewish people and other groups (like gay people) to wear identifying markers like armbands to make it so they couldn't pass. Passing legislations such that persecuted groups couldn't avoid persecution was a very common tactic of oppressive governments. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2021 at 23:55

The unprivileged can, and will, change their looks to resemble one of the privileged classes whenever they think it might help them in any way. At home and in the circle of their friends, they will stay who they are.

But there are things they cannot easily change, and that is their habits and language, but even more all kinds of accessories.
think, for example, of an expensive watch, expensive clothes and suchlike.
While it is easily conceivable how a member of the lower class can change their habits and language, they have no easy way to access those accessories, unless they are either rich enough or steal them.

So, while they can change their physical appearance to resemble the rich and privileged, they will still be distinguishable because they simply do not possess the gadgets that the rich have, and thus will hardly ever pass as a "true" member of the upper class.

That also means that your society will fairly quickly migrate from distinguishing by the skin color to distinguishing by some expensive and hard-to-obtain tokens.
That, in turn, means things will be pretty much like they are today. No Rolex, no Ferrari? Not a member of the upper class. No matter how you look or speak.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, one difference would be that a Privileged cop is less likely to stop and frisk Unprivileged on a whim when they cannot be told apart at a distance. Unless the Unprivileged were careless enough to wear distinctive hoods and baggy pants. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jul 28, 2015 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ true, @o.m., but the closer they are, the clearer it gets that he is not a privileged, making it more likely the cop stops him. In a car, it would be a lot more obvious from a distance. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Jul 28, 2015 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ that is true, but a blue-skinned cop won't just see a green-skinned man in an expensive car and automatically check if it is stolen. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jul 28, 2015 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ Our underprivileged must first get hold of an expensive car. Under normal (legal) conditions, he will be driving something cheaper. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Jul 28, 2015 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking of a green-skinned guy who legitimately owns a nice car and gets checked/harassed by cops all the time because of his skin color, and because the cops don't believe that he could legally own such a nice car. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jul 28, 2015 at 14:39

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