Race 101: Unpacking “Race is a Social Construction”

If you have ever taken a course in the discipline of Ethnic Studies, or communicate with people who just know this shit, this is the most basic fundamental you will learn.  So what does this mean?

  • Race is not biological, and there is no scientific evidence to support this idea.  Syracuse University created a US version of an exhibition investigating the alleged connections between race and biology, and no connections were found.  Skin color is only genetically significant in terms of melanin, migration patterns, and geography.  There are more genetic differences within ethnic groups than there are genetic differences between ethnic groups.  The excerpt below was taken from one of the exhibition panels:

    “Some of our physical differences give the impression that it is possible to divide us into races. But when these physical characteristics are subjected to detailed study, that cannot be concluded at all. Instead it becomes obvious that our physical diversity reflects continuous changes from one extreme to the other of the continents. To place any boundaries within this continuous diversity would be, therefore, completely arbitrary. Human diversity is in fact infinitely more complicated than the idea we have constructed of it. This is why attempts to make racial classifications don’t yield any coherent results; there is nothing scientific about “races”. The science of genetics teaches us that it is impossible to attribute physical resemblance to genetic resemblance.” [bold and italics added]

    There is some seriously problematic shit about that exhibition, and that website, in terms of how the ideas are presented and what doesn’t get addressed… which leads us to another bullet point.

  • This quote uses a seemingly neutral word that erases huge amounts of historical specifics: “… more complicated than the idea we have constructed of it.”  By “we” the author meant elite white European men during the Age of “Enlightenment.”  In 1735, Charles Linnaeus published The General System of Nature in which bogus ideas of racial hierarchies began to be theorized and formed.  By then Europeans and friends, who had colonized most of the planet, needed a justification for killing, raping, conquering, enslaving, and displacing Indigenous peoples.  The concepts of race, both the invented superiority of white Europeans and the invented inferiority of Indigenous non-white ‘others,’ were created to make such a justification possible.
  • These hundreds of years of history lead to these ideas being concretely rooted in institutional and social practices in the present day US (since we’re writing from the US, these are the race relations being discussed).  Some examples include, but are not limited to: genocide, slavery, segregation, boarding schools that “civilized” American Indian “savages,” Japanese internment camps, higher rates of imprisonment, lack of access to education/housing/healthcare for POC, and much more.  What these practices reveal is this: while race is an invention, an illusion, and something that cannot be scientifically proven, it is also a social fact.  It is something that has a function, something that is taught, learned, and enforced.  It is experienced and it is present.  It is, to this day, still used with its original intention of uplifting whiteness and oppressing POC.
  • Constructions of race have material consequences.  No one can biologically prove that white skin is superior to different skin colors, but this is how whiteness has been constructed socially—meaning white folks created this nonsense and we perpetuate it, which is reflected in all of the laws and movements that had to pass/occur in order for POC to gain some access to institutions that were exclusively reserved for white folks.  That is why all white folks and folks with skin privilege (moderators of this blog included) still benefit from this legacy of race; we still reap the rewards and consequences of slavery even if we don’t own slaves in the current moment in time.  Safety and privilege for white folks are the consequences of white supremacy, just as racism and oppression are the consequences of white supremacy for POC.  The meanings that are assigned to race are fiction, the social experiences of race and corresponding advantages or disadvantages are fact.
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One thought on “Race 101: Unpacking “Race is a Social Construction”

  1. beton says:

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