race categories don’t represent us well

race categories

Race is a social construct, and the race categories as we know them have no real genetic or biological validity.

Maybe that sounds familiar to you, or maybe it makes no sense. The ideologies related to race in the U.S. are in the foundation of many of our biggest institutions, and these ideologies rely on race being a biological reality. So we’re taught that it is, and on the surface, it makes sense. But there are three big reasons why race is not a biological (or genetic) construct:

  1. Human variation is clinal, or gradual. Our race categories teach us to group people into discreet categories based on physical appearance: skin color, hair color, hair texture, the shape of our lips, eyes, noses, many different features. These are all features that vary within human populations, mostly because of the geographic location of our ancestors. People living in different parts of the world developed different features to live in those climates, and we’re all descended from a mix of different people. But the features change gradually over geographic space. If you walked from the equator to Norway, you would see great changes in the physical appearance of the people that are indigenous to the land. However, there’s no way to delineate exactly where a feature like skin color changes. It’s gradual, and we can’t decide on a line where people stop being “black” and start being “white” in a way that has any validity. Of course, we still do draw these lines, they’re just based on cultural perceptions rather than biology.
  2. Human features are nonconcordant. This means that if you have one feature, like curly hair, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have another feature, like fuller lips. One trait doesn’t predict another. Any person can have any number of traits, based on the genes they inherit from their parents, but just because they have one trait doesn’t mean they’ll have another. This is more evidence that begins to corrode the way we think about “races”: not everyone in any given race can be identified by a trait.
  3. There is more genetic diversity within our race categories than between. There is a vast expanse of genetic diversity among humans, but it doesn’t correspond with our race categories. We’ve found more genetic differences between the people in one “race” category than between all the different categories.

For more information about how race is not biologically valid, I recommend the book Race in North America by Audrey and Brian Smedley. Not only does it cover how our race categories were constructed, it also discussed some of the consequences of our racial worldview. Here’s some more information: http://genome.cshlp.org/content/14/9/1679.abstract?etoc

Even though races are biological nonsense, they are incredibly real, and have real social consequences. Race categories were created by institutions and people in power in order to control populations of people, and they are still used that way today. Race categories and definitions have changed over time to adapt to changing social climates. You can read about it here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/06/racecraft-racism-social-origins-reparations/

People are treated differently based on the race they are defined as. This happens on an interpersonal level (yes, racism is still around even though we have a mixed-race president) but it also happens institutionally and systemically through our media, schools, workplaces, universities, healthcare systems, government support systems, voting laws, law enforcement and prison systems, and many other institutions. While it is important to focus on individual racist people like white supremacists or even people who make racist jokes, the institutional side of racism is often ignored or denied, and it can have a much more powerful effect on people and the country as a whole: http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/at-the-edge/2015/05/06/institutional-racism-is-our-way-of-life

***It’s also important to understand that racism effects people differently depending on their other social locations like their gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, national origin, and other factors. Different communities of color experience racism in different ways. I’ll discuss this more in a few days.

I recommend the three-part PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion. It covers the biological nonvalidity and social construction of race, as well as some history and modern institutional racism. You can view it or read the transcripts here: http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm

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Author: Bullshit Binaries

Talking & writing about the social binaries we've constructed and their consequences.

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