The Concept of Race

Introduction

Before I dive into the concept of race, I just want to thank Kambiz for this opportunity to broaden not only my perspectives but everyone else’s as well. I am very excited to discuss subjects that interest me and make people think critically about culture and society. I am looking forward to this personal challenge to hold my own writing with an anthropological community. I humbly thank you all in advance!

Historical Context

All the history books that I have read suggest that race was first recognized when the Europeans came over to America and saw the Native Americans. But what did the Europeans think of the peoples on their trade routes? What was different about the Native Americans that sparked a racial hierarchy to begin? Or is it our history books that are flawed due to being written by either by Americans or Europeans and are therefore biased?

The main concern of the Europeans was religion and how people of different colors fit into that scheme. Were they also “Children of God or soulless creatures that needed to be saved? The discussion of the “conversion” of “savages” is an entirely different bag of issues, so to speak. But this is, nevertheless, the beginning of the mistreatment of people for their skin color…in theory.

Definition

The definitions that I am referencing are from “The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality” with Tracey E. Ore describing race as “a group of people who perceive themselves and are perceived by others as possessing distinctive hereditary traits.” Whereas ethnicity would be “having cultural traits such as language, religion, family customs, and food preferences.” I state the definition of ethnicity because the two can be confused with one another but they can also be intertwined.

Reason for Race, Not Justification

It is human nature to categorize things to make our reality more palatable. Also, it is a coping mechanism for status. Something as simple as the color of one’s skin can denote their position in a hierarchy and can save a conversation. One does not have to talk to someone to figure out their status if they can just look at them and know according to their skin color, hypothetically speaking. Now, I am not saying we all do this, but realize that ingrained within each one of us is our culture that society has presented to us since birth. I believe, no matter who you are looking at, you will make some sort of assumption or employ some sort of stereotype to that person. This may include race but more importantly hierarchy or status judgment.

Construction through Society

Race is a very dynamic human category. It is not the same anywhere at any given time due to the different constructs set up within a society and the personal translation of that construct. The construction is solely based upon the “recipe” for race throughout the society’s history. In America, race started out by the decision of whether or not the peoples of darker skin were animals or men. That is a pretty intense construct to break out of after years of this type of thinking and teaching! It has taken decades…no centuries to even come face to face with the equal rights issues because people are just stuck in society’s cultural mind of oppression!

Not only sociocultural factors are involved but a more “exact” science as well: biology. Scientists justified oppression due to skin color by coming up with biological factors that proved “they” were inferior to them. We have outgrown this phase (for the most part), though, which is relieving. There is still a commanding argument on whether or not biology has anything to do the color of skin of anyone. Yes, the color of skin varies but does it make someone biologically different to the point of them being inferior or superior?

Conclusion

The conception of race is truly in the eyes of the beholder. It depends on who is looking, judging, assuming and has little or nothing to do with biology but the history of a society that makes assumptions or stereotypes of people of darker skin to create a social hierarchy that is visible or easily identified. There is variation of skin colors depending on the region of one’s origin. But the emphasis put behind the skin is the creation of race. The emphasis that is put in place by a sociocultural system is where the interpretation and conception of race stems from. Race is just an idea and not a fact of inferiority.

11 thoughts on “The Concept of Race

  1. “All the history books that I have read suggest that race was first recognized when the Europeans came over to America and saw the Native Americans”. I presume you mean the idea that one race can be superior to another. Obviously even Herodotus recognised there were different races.

    The best history books I have read agree with the bit, “was first recognized when the Europeans came over to America” but claim it was because Americans (and Europeans who provided the transport) felt obliged to justify their kidnapping of another group of people to work the intensive farming methods they were developing there.

    The idea that races can be placed along a hierarchy of intelligence, say, is completely ridiculous anyway. Even if the average intelligence (however we might be able to measure that in any meaningful way) of one race is higher than in another there will be many people in the so-called inferior race who will be more intelligent than many people in the so-called superior one.

    As you say the idea is simply to, “create a social hierarchy that is visible or easily identified”.

  2. I also don’t think it’s so clear. The concept of race is old, though it was diffuse and more often than not used as synonim of ethnicity, something that was done by some even as late as the 19th century.

    Ancient Mediterraneans obviously knew of black people but didn’t think of them apparently as different from other exotic “races”, like, say, Germans or Indians. It was not the quasi-biological concept of today, not so much finished in any case.

    Racism also arose from or at least within religious discrimination. When Europeans first looked for moral justifications of slavery of exotic peoples, being a “heathen” was usually the more common pretext. In fact the English of Cromwell enslaved under that pretext hundreds of thousands of Irish Catholics (http://www.kavanaghfamily.com/articles/2003/20030618jfc.htm). And this is just surely one example among many. Only with time would the religious pretext become a racial one.

    I think the modern concept of race is born of a mixture of scientific mentality and colonialism that would soon become racism. It did not appear out of the blue when Colombus landed in Quisiqueya (modern Hispaniola). In fact Colombus was surely very familiar with the existence of Black people with whom he must had contact or at least heard of when he was in Portugal (and there is a theory that claims that he was personally involved in the early slave trade in West Africa).

    The conception of race is truly in the eyes of the beholder.

    I certainly agree with this largely. It is mainly a social construct. There is some biological base but it’s very limited.

  3. I am not implying in the least that race was invented by Europeans. I am, however, implying that the CONCEPT of race in the American sociocultural sense was invented by the European religious “conquests” and overall confusion of what Native Americans were. I do not want it to seem that I thought that the color of skin was first noticed then but a certain unique emphasis was put on it at the point of the “discovery” of America by Europeans. I largely discuss the concept of race in America and not the simplified notion of just “race”. If I were to discuss race as a whole and across cultures instead of the concept of the idea in America, it would be a book and not just a blog. I respectfully appreciate your critiques!

  4. I know this will be an unpopular, politically incorrect question… but it’s an honest question. If there is an obvious difference in genetic/racial characteristics, why can’t we ask the question relating to a corresponding predisposition? I know… it could lead to sterotypical racial statements. But… what if it’s the truth ? Is everyone afraid of the truth? I’m Irish. Is my smartass sense of humor somehow related to my genetic past? Why can’t white guys dance? Why are asians so damn good at math and music? Is anyone courageous enough to tell the truth?

    1. Hi Steve, you refer to The Truth a couple of times in your post which implies that you already have a view which is why you have a few thumbs down I would imagine. I’d suggest that you are buying into stereotypes which are either untrue, or likely to be the result of cultural influences as opposed to race. eg I’m white and crap at dancing because I grew up listening to grunge, not because my dancing genes are significantly worse than someone with a different skin tone. Not a bad question but you could have asked it better. Race is a really crappy concept which holds the human race back. Best to resist our base instincts but this takes intelligence and civilisation.

  5. Well it is evident that all of us are different !All racism is simply racial PRIDE! (i.e i’m better than you because of my skin tone,color etc..) Once people realise that no one is better than another because of their skin color or country it will stop attitudes like that.What is needed is more education.Ignorance breeds ignorance.Families need to teach that as children are the future.Racial pride will always be amongst us as we live!That is due to the fallen nature of man.

  6. Race is a sociopolitical construct that has no basis in biology or the natural world. If you can mate across these arbitrary lines and produce fertile offspring you are of the same species. If you display 99.9 % genomic DNA sequence homology, then varied phenotypic trait display is mute. The concept of race comes into play when you require moral, albeit false, justification and rationalization for slavery and genocide/ethnic cleansing while blathering on endlessly about liberty and equality. Race also becomes useful as a mechanism of crowd control, division and conquering of the masses by a vastly outnumbered gentry elite. In the land mass now referred to as America, Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 represents a pivotal point at which the local colonial political elites foresaw a foreboding future for themselves if they could not manufacture division between united black and white, indentured and enslaved. Seeing them united in a cause alarmed the ruling class. The rebellion hastened the hardening of racial lines associated with slavery, as a way for planters and the colony to control the underclass.

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