The Social Construction of Race
Race is defined as a category or group of people having hereditary traits that set them apart. While race revolves around the idea of biological traits, ethnicity is based on a shared cultural heritage. Sociologists and other social scientists believe that race is a socially constructed concept. It is an idea that was created in society to justify inequality.
Race is a modern concept. In ancient times, people were more likely to be divided according to religion, language, lineage, and nationality. In ancient Greece, for instance, people were divided by language and culture rather than physical differences. Africans, who may have looked different physically, were accepted into their society as long as they adopted the customs and language of Greek culture. So where exactly does the idea of race originate? In the 16th century, Europeans used three different categories to classify the different groups of people they encountered through continental exploration. The racial categories used at this time were: Mongoloid (Asians), Caucasoid (European) and Negroid (African). Throughout the centuries to follow, the concept of race was used as a means of justifying superiority and colonization.
Geneticists point out that race is not a valid concept. According to the Human Genome Project, humans are 99.9% alike. What makes us appear physically different is determined by one-tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up!! Even these differences can be arbitrary or unclearly defined. While it is true that some people have different skin color, geneticists point out that the physical traits used to classify people into different races (skin color, eye color, hair texture, facial features) are more varied within a race than between races. In other words, if you were to look at a group of people who are considered Caucasian, you would find more physical differences within that group than you would between a group of Caucasians and a group of African Americans. Also, using skin color as a means of classification can be confusing. Some Caucasians, for instance, have darker skin than people who are considered African American. Some Hispanics, who consider themselves white, have skin color that is darker than African Americans. But race is not always determined by the color of a person’s skin. Usually, we consider ancestry as a means of classification. However, as researchers have pointed out, this can be inaccurate as well. Throughout the centuries, humans have been interbreeding for so many years that it is virtually impossible for a pure race to exist.
Considering this, most sociologists point out that race is something we have made up. It isn’t real. People may look different from one another, but that has more to do with geography than it does biology. Typically, people from warmer climates have darker skin because they have a higher concentration of the pigment known as melanin. This pigment helps protect the body by absorbing ultraviolet radiation. It acts as a shield which protects the body from getting skin cancer or melanoma. This is why people with lighter skin color are at a greater risk of developing skin cancer.
Skin Color Adaptation
So if race is a social construction, where did it originate? The idea of race in the United States has changed somewhat over time. The one-drop rule originated in the South and was eventually adopted by the entire nation. It stated that if a person had one drop of African blood in their ancestry, they were African American. This rule was only applied to people with African ancestry and indicates the deep roots of racism in American history. We still tend to classify race along the same lines today. If a person has even a small percentage of black ancestry, it is more visible. For instance, most people think Tiger Woods is African American but his father is Native American, African American, and Chinese. His mother is from Thailand. Woods rejected the classification system that has been used in the U.S. and came up with his own. He refers to himself as “cablinasian.”
One way that race perpetuates itself in society is through stereotypes. A stereotype is an oversimplified set of beliefs about people from a certain group in society. There are numerous stereotypes for people of all racial and ethnic categories. While most of these stereotypes are negative, the stereotypes for some groups are much more damaging than others. For instance, whites have always been stereotyped as being racist, greedy, and bad dancers. Compare this to some of the more damaging stereotypes of African Americans which include uneducated, lazy, and unemployable. Clearly, these stereotypes are much more damaging.
Some say that stereotypes are based on actual patterns of behaviors. Let’s say that some people do act out their stereotypes. Does this mean they are biologically programmed to behave this way? According to The Thomas Theorem, “situations that are defined as real become real in their consequences.” What this means is that if society defines race as real, it will become real as people internalize these beliefs and act them out. What race and stereotypes do is create Self-Fulfilling Prophecies where individuals believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that they are real.