Originally posted: http://bendench.blogspot.com/2009/05/race.html
U.S. culture often assumes race to be an objective biological attribute. It is mistaken. While other species have distinct subgroups referred to as races, Homo sapiens do not. The concept of there being biological human races is a false one. Race as understood in U.S. culture is entirely culturally defined, and other cultures define races along entirely different lines.
Americans recognize such racial distinctions as black, white, Hispanic, etc., and base this distinction on the ancestry of an individual. In contrast, Brazilians, for example, think about race purely as a description of physical attributes, closer to our distinction of eye color. Americans see, for example, members of a white race as being marked by such attributes as “very light skin color, straight blond hair, blue eyes, a narrow nose, and thin lips” (Fish 273) and members of a black race as being marked by such attributes as “very dark skin color, black tight curly hair, dark brown eyes, a broad nose, and thick lips” (Fish 273). But while these physical attributes are generally associated with people of the given races, variability exists between a race’s actual members. What is considered in America the true mark of what one’s race is has little to do with one’s physical appearance. It is largely determined by what race one’s parents were considered to be. Even if one is lighter than either of one’s parents, if one of them was considered black, the individual is considered black. This categorization is marked by a system of hypo-descent, in which one takes on the race of one’s least prestigious race of ancestry. “According to hypo-descent, the various purported racial categories are arranged in a hierarchy along a single dimension, from the most prestigious (‘white’), through intermediary forms (‘Asian’), to the least prestigious (‘black’)” (Fish 275).
Brazil, in contrast, recognizes race as a description of one’s physical appearance, and a couple can have children of different races just as we can have children of different hair color. These racial distinctions, called tipos, are drawn along increments of complexion from louras “with straight blond hair, blue or green eyes, light skin color, narrow nose, and thin lips” (Fish 277), to brancas, to morenas, to mulatas “with tight curly hair and a slightly darker range of hair colors and skin colors” (Fish 277), to pretas who “look like a mulata, except with dark brown skin, broad nose, and thick lips” (Fish 277). They also acknowledge groups that do not fall on this single dimension.
Both of these racial distinctions—and all racial distinctions of human beings—are culturally defined and culturally bound. Genetically there is more variation within a human “racial group” than there is between them, and there is no single genetic trait that defines one race from another. There is not, for example, a black race and a white race. If you look at cultures cross-latitudinally, cultures that grew up close to the equator have very dark skin (to protect from sunlight) whereas cultures that grew up far from the equator have very pale skin (to absorb as much sunlight as possible). If we were to look at just these two extremes, we might be tempted to think these were separate races. But if we progress from cultures close to the equator to cultures far from the equator incrementally, we discover that the skin tone changes progressively with every degree in between. These groups are not genetically independent from one another and never were. Take any quality you like, and you will find that it bleeds out across the whole of humanity, based roughly on geographical location.
But what’s more, the qualities themselves, which appear to us to signify a great difference, are in reality only skin deep. If you were able to look at people genetically, rather than through their visual appearance, you would not be able to distinguish one “race” from another, like we could with the races of other species. Any sort of complex genetic sequence responsible for complex abilities, such as intelligence or athletic performance, was formed and solidified long before we as a species expanded out of Africa and broke up into different “races.” Africa, the mother continent, has perhaps the most genetically diverse human population of any of the continents on the planet. Any sort of social grouping based on race, such as the fact that the majority of professional athletes are African American in the United States, is the result of the fact that we have socially made this the case—not any genetically predetermined role as some seem to imagine.
While America uses ethnicity as a distinction that largely separates people into different groups of cultural origin (this is of course an extreme oversimplification), Jack Weatherford discusses in his article “Blood on the Steppes” how across the world different groups are defining their own ethnicities in order to bring people that they share common situations with together. The Mongolians have returned to their old ways of doing things after the fall of Communism, because they have found that economically the old ways of doing things were much better adapted to their geographical situation. “Without Russian help there was no productive life in Ulan Bator and the smaller towns. The main option was to return to a life on the steppes where people could subsist by herding” (Weatherford 285). The Uzbekistani united their people under a new national identity supported by a national historical hero named Tamerlane after the fall of the USSR; the people of Turkmenistan invoke the memory of their tribal identity; militant Islam provides many people in the Middle East, when combined with their cultural history, a way to unite and rebel against other countries that they find oppressive; etc. Ethnicity is just another culturally defined construction, like race, to define a people as a culture sees fit, to aid itself or the various commanding forces within it.
Biracial individuals in American culture are largely perceived by the public as being of the race of their least prestigious race of ancestry in the categorizing process of hypo-descent discussed earlier. This both covertly maintains a social ranking of each “race” as well as leaves individuals from any background with little real choice about their own ethnicity. Tiger Woods may deeply value his Thai ancestry, but to America he is black. Even though Holly Berry has features that are commonly associated with whites, she too is perceived as black. Such designations, based on hypo-descent, not only place the individual in a rigid category, but assert that being “black,” for example, carries with it a stigma that has to be specifically noted. On the other hand, inner city youth who are white may have more in common with other inner city youth of any ancestry than they do with the wealthy, but any “whites” that act “black”are often looked upon as if they are to some degree “faking.”
Americans, continuing to regard their perceptions as being of biological facts rather than the cultural constructs that they are, see race as being naturally determined in some ways as much as eye color. This gets us into trouble. It blocks our growth as a society and as individuals and violates individual autonomy and self-determination needlessly. Either believing that race exists biologically or denying that it exists socially is inaccurate. The concept of biological race is a lie that is used as a tool of oppression, but because people believe in it, it has power. The way out of this is by spreading knowledge. The knowledge both that race does not exist biologically and that it is a social reality used to oppress and distract people must reach the tipping point for us to be able to move beyond our current stagnant situation with this matter.
Fish, Jeffrey M. "Mixed Blood." Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. 11th ed. 2003.
Weatherford, Jack. "Blood on the Steepes: Ethnicity, Power, and Conflict." Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. 11th ed. 2003.
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