What Is Race?

What Is Race?

In order to understand racism, we first need to address our ideas about race itself. Many of us believe that race is biological; in other words, that there are distinct genetic differences between races that account for differences in traits such as sexuality, athleticism, or mathematical ability. This idea of race as biology makes it easy to believe that many of the divisions we see in society are natural. But race, like gender and disability, is socially constructed (Brzuzy, 1997; López, 2000; Weber, 2010). The differences we see with our eyes, such as hair texture and eye color or shape, are superficial and emerged over time as humans adaptated to geography (Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi, & Piazza, 1994). However, race as a social idea has profound significance and impacts every aspect of our lives. This impact includes where we are most likely to live, which schools we will attend, who our friends and partners will be, what careers we will have, and even how long we can expect to live (Adelman, 2003; Johnson & Shapiro, 2003).

Race as we commonly understand it is a relatively modern concept (Gossett, 1997). Humans have not been here long enough to evolve into separate species and we are, in fact, among the most genetically similar of species on Earth. External characteristics we attribute to race, such as skin color, are not a reliable indicator of internal variation between any two people (Cooper, Kaufman, & Ward, 2003). To challenge deep-seated ideas about racial difference and genetics, we need to understand the early social investment in race science that was used to organize society and its resources along racial lines.

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