4.4 Get ready… Race!

4.4 Get ready... Race!
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Earlier I asked you to try to define race based on your prior knowledge. Now I want to explain what race is (and isn’t).

First, if you have access to a biology or anatomy textbook, look up the definition of race using the index. If you don’t have access to a biology or anatomy textbook, select one of the items below and view the link for how they explain the biology of race.

Phenotype are the observable properties/traits that an individual expresses as a result of the interaction of its genotype with its environment. Think about the characteristics that people use to divide people into “races.” If you were to categorize people from around the world, they would resemble a spectrum rather than distinct groups. Scientifically, biologically, people cannot be divided into “races”. If you tried to separate them by trait, the categories you created would be arbitrary and subjective. For example, we’ll look at skin color next. You will find that skin color is not discretely divided into biological groups.

Phenotypic traits and race; People look different, why isn’t it race?

Yes, people have different phenotypes, such as dark skin or curly hair. These phenotypes are derived from different genetic combinations, but these combinations are not divided into distinct groups. Instead, the division we create is an arbitrary division. If you were to divide all the people in the world by trait, the division would be less obvious. It would look more like a spectrum that changes by gradually merging into one another. For example, consider skin color, one of the most prominent phenotypes in the United States and often the default in the social construction of race. Check out the following evidence for why skin color doesn’t differentiate into separate groups:

According to the American Anthropological Association’s, deciding how to categorize people is arbitrary.

Another example of why the phenotypic trait of skin color is NOT a way to categorize people is a post on a social image blog. This artist has created a color palette that shows that human skin is much more of a spectrum than individual groups. More about the artist and the project, including Ted’s interview, can be found in this post.
Where would you divide this palette into different races?

To explain the biology of skin color, the Skin Deep article by Nina Jablonski and George Chaplin of Scientific American explains the science behind skin color and how skin color around the world appears more like a spectrum than discrete groups. The map from the article explains the correlation between UV light intensity and skin color. Returning to our metaphor of traits, do you see the trait of skin color as a spectrum rather than discrete groups?

Nina Jablonski explains the significance of skin color in her Ted Talk.

3. Do you understand why skin color cannot be used to divide people into different races?

Phenotypes other than skin color are also not racially discrete

Click here to go to the races; A Power of Illusion site to explain why there is no way to biologically divide people into “races” based on physical appearance (including skin color, nose shape, and head size), geographic origin, or genetic similarities.

Racial essentialism is a false but tenacious theory

In the 1800s and for nearly a century afterward, scientists, including anthropologists and biologists, erroneously concluded that humans evolved from three distinct groups of hominids. Known as the “essentialist theory,” it incorrectly claims that each group began as a “pure race” in three separate locations: Mongolia, the Caucasus, and Nigeria. Eventually the groups mixed, but some individuals remained “purer” due to less mixing. Using the scientific data now available, biologists, physicians, anthropologists, and sociologists know that this is not true. Rather than evolving in isolation, all humans began in Africa and gradually spread throughout the world. However, some people still promote an essentialist theory of race.

So what is race?

Race is the socially constructed idea that people can be divided into separate and distinct groups based on biology. For example, one society might say that there are 3 races in the world: Asians, Africans, and Whites. However, as you will see, other societies have their own racial categories, such as Dinka and Bantu, and countries will use any combination of heritage, ethnicity, religion, or phenotype to create their ideas of race. Another way to explain the definition of race is that race is the false/incorrect belief that people can be classified into groups based on their biological characteristics such as skin color, hair, eyes, nose, genes, etc.

Do you understand that race is not a scientific topic; it cannot be measured discretely or clearly using any biomarker?

Other resources to help you understand what race is not:

Anthony Peterson’s “What I’m Learning From My White Grandchildren” TED Talks in Antioch explains why race is NOT real, but it matters, and why it’s important to talk about race with kids. He notes that many of us teach that race is real, but that it doesn’t matter, and that teaches kids the wrong message.

The transpacific project’s genetic studies show a large number of genetic marker maps around the world.

A map from Princeton U. Commons shows the spread of humans based on traceable gene mutations in mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome.

Jefferson Fish also explains how race has no meaning in 1995. In the article “Mixed Blood” in Psychology Today.

For more information, you can view the 2005 April 22 episode of the Odyssey radio program that aired on Chicago Public Radio. This episode is about the genetics of race, and if you listen carefully to the caller segment, you can hear a very interesting commentary from the sociology teacher. [Listen the program here (the good part is after 35:26)]

This Slate article explains why sets of ancestry don’t explain race.

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