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Imagine Earth in the future. Technology is super advanced and people can change their genetics [and in particular their outward physical appearance] on demand, easily, for free, as many times as they want. I.e. technology exists such that a person can e.g. pull out their phone, go to their appearance settings, and change their height, build, skin color, hair style, eye color, etc., i.e. they have complete control over their physical appearance.

For now, assume that humans stay human, i.e. they do not alter their biology so much that they have wings, gills, etc. So they are still recognizable as humans but can have any human appearance they want.

Also, assume that by now the technology is ubiquitous so everyone is using it, i.e. it is not just a tool of the elite, but is used uniformly by all demographics.


The question is: Racism is a very complicated issue. But how will racism be affected by this ability to arbitrarily alter appearance?

  • On the one hand, if anyone can have any appearance, then you don't actually know what ethnicity someone was by birth, so in one sense no one has a permanent ethnicity and race is less relevant. [But it's very possible that people may have a special fondness for their "true" genetic makeup and physical appearance, so they may favorite this as one of their default appearances, and spend more tie in that configuration, and therefore still on average be more that wthnicity than any other].

  • On the other hand, people may take advantage of existing racial stereotypes depending on their activities: oh, you are trying to be recruited for the basketball team? Well change to your black person avatar. Oh, you got pulled over by the police, you want to be hired for that job, you want to rent that apartment, etc.? Change to white person. Oh you want people to assume you are good at math? Change to Asian appearance. Etc. You can see how users might try to take advantage of some other people's assumptions about race in order to benefit their activities.

  • Some people may switch to another ethnic appearance and intentionally misbehave in order to bring negative attention to that group.

So some behaviors will encourage racism while others may reduce it. What are some other effects that strengthen or reduce racism in this society?

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closed as too broad by Aify, Mołot, L.Dutch, Mormacil, Hohmannfan Apr 8 '17 at 12:32

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe racism as a form of judging by ethnicity will no longer exist. There will simply be a new form of racism of judging something else, what clothes are worn, what income level the person has or something along those lines. $\endgroup$ – Mirte Apr 8 '17 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't this a duplicate of worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/55979/809 ? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 8 '17 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Any motivation for racism still existing in a transhumanist future? $\endgroup$ – Mormacil Apr 8 '17 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ Michael Jackson comes to mind. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 9 '17 at 6:19
  • $\begingroup$ They don't change their genetics. They change their phenotypes. That's a difference $\endgroup$ – BlueWizard Apr 15 '17 at 22:29
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It’s the same as treating people as an “out” group who don’t wear the cool kids' clothes choices, listen to the “in” group’s choice in music and social venues, or follow the “right” sports teams.

I was bullied for having pants in an unfashonable length, growing faster than it was economical to replace them, and the break of the cuff is so unimportant, right?

So people will continue to act the way they do, but race will be absorbed into more general choice-based differences.

Economics can play a role, if body mods have some cost. The lower end, even in the same economic middle class, might not keep up with the spending of the higher end on this matter. So, use may not be completely uniform even if universal, even in a single economic class.

If it's not a cost, there will be deeper personal choices, like prefering the metaphorical comfortable and practical clothes to uncomfortable, impractical, but “trendy” conformist clothes. Or choices can reflect personal tastes that are not easily overridden to fit in, like if the “in” group listens to pornographic overly loud rap “music” and hangs out in smoke-filled venues where such is playing, and likes to eat disgusting food. Someone may feel the same way about mody-mod fashon aspects and choose not to conform for the sake of conforming.

So, people will continue to be different from each other in ways that are not trivially removed. Human nature will continue to find “in” groups and cliques, unless that has changed too but that would make the question too broad or POB.

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Racism would be worse, because the "people have not chosen how they are born" argument is no longer valid. You've chosen your ethnicity, so you are accountable for it.

How dare you apply to this job with blue skin? Don't you know what happened between the blue-skins and the purple-skins in 2165? We won't hire any blue's here.

Don't tell me it's just because your family has been blue for generations and all your friends are blue and they would ostracize you if you are ever seen in a different color. If you want to work here, you better change your skin color to pink, green or some other acceptable color. Those "Blue Pride" people don't belong here. If you refuse to change your skin color because of your "blue heritage", it tells me you are not just blue on the outside, you are blue on the inside. You people disgust me. Get out!

Due to historical baggage associated with certain ethnicities, people will feel that people belong to their ingroups or outgroups based on their appearance preferences. Changing your appearance spontaneously to avoid an awkward situation might be seen as dishonorable by members of your in-group and judged as cultural appropriation by members of the group you changed into.

How dare you wear our skin color? You know nothing about the green struggle or our rich green culture. You don't underestand what it means to be green. You are just a poser. Change back now, or we kick your ass.

But what if you identify with a subculture of "changelings"? People who like to change their appearance constantly, just for fun. It means you are now communicating with your choice of appearance. If you appear as one ethnicity in one situation and with a different one in another, people will wonder what you want to imply with that choice. You will be judged even more harshly by your current appearance.

(feel free to substitute the skin colors in the above examples with more realistic ones. I didn't want to write an actual racist rant)

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TLDR: I think you have the option of either denying originals of a race of the right to how the world views them (and probably creating a split between originals and switchers) or limiting the number of people who can switch and then creating a world where these race profiles have to be bought and it becomes about wealth again - much like expensive cars, suits or phones.



Racism would just become a smaller sub-section of prejudice

We don't have a word (that I'm aware of) for people who judge social groups (Goths, skaters etc) but they come under a general prejudice by generalising these style choices to their whole mentality.

However I don't think we can predict exactly how these will change. I suspect that, at the start, older generations will (on the whole) stick to their given race but as children grow up with this technology you will find them making these choices based on trends in their social group.

Maybe for goths the new leather trench coat is to have pitch black skin and red eyes, anime fans like to look more Japanese...think of a social group and you can think of an extreme they could take things to.

These will dictate how races are judged as they become more prevalent. Though there will probably emerge some form of protection over ethnic groups - you can only have a certain number of people who get to look like a certain race without actually having any heritage.

Take the Anime fans -> Japanese looks change. Currently the stigma attached (among people I know) is that Anime fans tend to be living in their parent's basement with little motivation to move on. However right that is the stigma is there and could leak through to be associated with people who look Japanese unless something is done to limit this.

So I think you'll see a rise in cultural heritage protection movements, a restriction on what percentage of people who look like a race can have changed themselves.

Though this would start off well meaning with the effort of protecting the impression of small groups I imagine it would quickly turn into an industry: Anywhere where there is limited supply and a demand someone will seek to make a profit.

So you'll end up with an industry where companies buy up the limited opportunities to switch to a race in the hope that the trends change and people will want to buy these choices - much like the stock market today.

So, unfortunately, I think you end up with a situation where certain races do imply wealth - much like expensive cars, suits or phones do today.

Or those of a race who can trace back their heritage would become a minority within their own race...probably leading to divides between "originals" and "switchers" or something.

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This is entirely dependent on the power structures in this future world. Racism is essentially a mechanism for disempowering the already disempowered. To institute racism social, economic and political power needs to be taken away from the outcast group.

Of course, if the morphological changes are being made to the bodies of the wealthy and powerful, then it may be the former natural types who are discriminated against because now the so-called elites will be able to distinguish who their inferiors are.

Racism works by downgrading the status of persons or classes of people whose labour, this can be physical or intellectual, is captured and employed for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful. African slaves were turned into living machines whose work was employed to create wealth and power in Europe and the Americas. There was no point in continuing to consider them as having value in their own right human beings so they were axiomatically stigmatized as less than human. What the Nazis called untermenschen.

While prejudice easily arises with respect to outgroups, those who don't look, act or seem like us, real racism needs a foundation of power to facilitate the dehumanization of an 'underpeople'. It's all about power, it's always been about power.

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Racism has little to do with physical aspect. Physical aspect has little do to with racism. And racism is just one aspect of ethnic prejudice, and not always the most important.

Consider the modern world. In many places there is a certain amount of racism against north Africans; but from a purely physical anthropology point of view north Africans belong to the white race; in physical appearance and in any biological characteristic they are very similar to other Mediterranean people -- Spaniards, Maltese, Sicilians, or Greeks. The same goes for Arabs, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans... Physically they are white people but racism does not care about physical anthropology.

Or consider the classical world, the world of ancient Greece and Rome. They did not have a concept of race, at all; for example, in Sallust's Jugurthine War one cannot find even the slightest mention of "racial" differences between the Romans and the Numids, although the book is about a war between Rome and the north African Numids, ancestors of present-day Berbers. Not one. That is not to say that in the classical world there was no ethnic prejudice -- there was plenty; but their ethnic prejudice was oriented towards much smaller divisons; Athenians thought that Boeotians (30 km from Athens) were stupid, that Corinthians (60 km from Athens) were libertines, that Spartans were lacking in artistic taste... In that world each and every city harbored prejudice against each and every other city, but there was no "large-scale" idea of race -- they did not see Persians as somehow biologically different from Greeks.

Consider also how much the conception of race varies from place to place. To give just one striking example: I understand that in the U.S.A. there is a concept of a Latino race; as a European whenever a character in an American movie says that some other character is a Latino I have no idea what they mean, because for me there is no such overall grouping, the people of Central and South American being either white, or black, or indians, or mixed-race -- with a common-sense and obvious distinction between mulattos (with white and black ancestry) and mestizos (with white and American indian ancestry).

As a separate dimension, consider that racial prejudice is highly variable. In most of central Europe there is little prejudice against black people, but there is a lot of prejudice against Gypsies -- which, as people of north Indian descent, should be considered white if biology had anything to do with it. In Japan there is a lot of prejudice against people of Korean descent, although for most Europeans the two nations are essentially physically indistinguishable. And so on -- different nations have different prejudices.

To come back to the question: probably racism as we know it today will dissappear; after all, it is a relatively recent phenomenon, historically speaking -- there is little evidence of modern-style racism before the end of the Renaissance. Instead of prejudice against physically different people there will be prejudice against culturally different people, or against people from other cities, or other states, or other nations; against people who speak funny; against people who live in the highlands or in the lowlands; gainst bicyclists; against bankers, or computer programmers, or salarymen. Or, if all goes well, there will be no more prejudice. One can always hope.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would argue that "modern style racism" came about because people started interacting with people who came from further away and probably don't have a common ancestor a few generations back - that doesn't mean it will disappear, only that people weren't that physically different. I don't believe the situation the OP provides will end with us all physically the same. (Also there was racism towards the Jews in Spain $\approx 13^{th} - 14^{th}$ centuries). $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Apr 8 '17 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ @LioElbammalf: There was prejudice against Jews, yes. (Even the Romans had that.) It was universally spread in medieval Europe and the Near East. Was it racism? I wouldn't think so, because AFAIK the basis of the prejudice was purely religious, and Jews who converted to Christianism (or Islam, as the case may be) were no longer Jews but Christians or Muslims; but then I did not read much on the history of Iberia, and anyway the social history of medieval / early modern Iberia is very complicated and rather unique. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 8 '17 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ Sure it could be marked as religious prejudice but when Jews converted to Christianity (particularly in Spain) they were still treated differently. "In city after city, laws were enacted disqualifying people of “impure” (Jewish) blood from entering universities, religious orders and city councils". $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Apr 8 '17 at 12:26

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