No, Meryl Streep, We're Not 'All Africans Really'

Streep's faux-pas at the Berlin International Film Festival reopens a long-simmering scientific debate about race and genetics.

Getty/Pascal Le Segretain

Questioned by journalists at the Berlin International Film Festival about whether the all-white jury, which she is heading, was fit to judge films from North African and Arab nations, actress Meryl Streep replied, “We’re all Africans really.

Oh, Meryl. We thought you were better than this.

Streep, we can only hope, meant well. “There is a core of humanity that travels right through every culture, and after all, we’re all from Africa originally,” she also said, but her knee-jerk response shows how little she understands about the concepts of race, culture, and genetics.

Her statement, no doubt, was rooted in the belief that all humans originated in the area we call Africa. And, strictly evolutionarily speaking, this is not entirely wrong: All of our closest ancestors — Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and recent find Homo naledi — seem to have originated in Africa, and it’s pretty much agreed upon that Homo sapiens evolved in the area as well. Did our gene pool originate on the African continent? Sure. But that is beside the point.

To say we are all African is troublesome because Streep’s statement was not about genetics — it was about race. Sorry, Meryl, but just because our genes all came from a bunch of humans living in the same desert does not mean that we are automatically and biologically equipped to understand the nuances of what it means to be culturally African.

Some members of the science community are angling to get rid of the concept of “race” altogether, at least in the way it’s currently used to refer to arbitrary genetic groups. Human race itself is a concept, they argue; while “African” or “Arab” or “Asian” may be used to describe groups of people found within a certain geography who, naturally, share more genes than others, we can’t forget the fact that humans are the ones that created those delineations. As Inverse’s Sarah Sloat writes, the lines we’ve drawn to denote race don’t necessarily fall along “natural” genetic boundaries.

This is a highly conceptual debate, and not one that we could reasonably have expected Streep to understand in its entirety. But what makes her statement so disappointing is the fact that she missed the simplest part — you’re not culturally African, Meryl! — and in so doing managed to piss off the entire Internet and re-re-reignite the #OscarsSoWhite debate. Oh, Meryl. You’re better than this.

Race and culture, unlike the actual building blocks of our DNA, are human constructs. Unlike genes, they have not been passed down over millennia from the original Homo sapiens on the African continent to a very wealthy white woman serving on the panel of a European film festival.