Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Race: Defining an evolving concept

           When one is asked to describe the rainbow, he or she will describe seven relatively discrete bands of colour, and yet what is actually there is a continuous distribution of light of different wavelengths (Hogg & Abrams). Our cognitive processes do not allow us to see the rainbow as a continuous spectrum, and we end up classifying the spectrum of light into separate and distinct categories. This is similar to how the United States has dealt with race, since the concept of race was socially created to describe both social and physical human differences.
In any form of civilization, there must be a caste system to create social order. As social beings, humans use these classification systems to outline social “norms.” These classifications are necessary to define behaviors and answer essential questions. These norms are built into who we are as a nation. “From the time the first Africans stepped onto Virginias shore, the English mainland colonies moved toward a biracial society, one in which people from Africa and their descendants- including those of mixed African and European heritage- held a subordinate legal, social and economic status” (Soderlund). This caste system placed people with darker skin at the bottom, therefore giving power to Whites. This division of power made Africans an easy target to the growing demand for labor.  Once this caste system was in place, English colonists began creating bogus reasons for the enslavement of Africans. Dark skinned people were described as pagan, uncivilized, and inferior human beings (Soderlund). This served as a justification to why it was morally acceptable to enslave Africans. As slave owners realized that the slave trade was a profitable market, laws were created to protect it.
            When we think about race relations in the United States, we are forced to wonder not only how it originated but also how to define it. We are forced to wonder if it is a system to biologically categorize humans, or if it’s a socially constructed term that is forever changing. Also, if we do believe that the concept of race is evolving, then can we change the present state of injustice that the categorizing of race has caused? As a student in a Black Studies class, I decided to turn to the book Racisms: An Introduction by Steve Garner. When discussing skin tone differences that exist between people of different races he states:
Moreover, the terms we use, like ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘yellow’, ‘red’, etc. are not even descriptions of what they claim to describe. Nobody living is actually white. Nobody is really ‘black’ in the sense of the ink on this page, although there are some people with very dark complexions indeed. Certainly, nobody’s skin is yellow or red – unless they are sunburnt or suffering from particular diseases. So the conclusion must be that such terms have social meanings but not biological ones. (Garner).
Garner’s conclusion is correct, in the sense that the words we use to describe racial categories don’t have a factual basis. Our skin isn’t actually black, white, red, yellow, etc. Depending on our geographic location, we use different words to categorize race. I am an American student, whose parents are from Jamaica. In Jamaica, this classification system of red skin and yellow skin is more common. However, Garner’s choice of words seems to be bread directly out of the ‘racist’ system of the United States, whether it was intentional or unintentional. When Garner says that no one is actually black in the sense of their complexion, he feels the need to add the note “although there are some people with very dark complexions,” however when he states that “nobody living is actually white”, he does not add the similar disclaimer that there are people who have really pale complexions. This leads me to the greater question of what is the stigma against people of darker skinned tones that has caused the oppression of the Black race. This can only be lead back to the categories that existed during slavery, which caused people of darker skin to be treated inferiorly.
            When examining the evolution of racial categories in America, we see that the census information for the 18th and 19th century included the following breakdown: free white males, free white females, free other persons and slaves. These categories were constructed because of the social relations present at the time. Enslaved Africans were not relevant enough to be categorized as “Africans” or “Blacks.” Slaves were not considered to be civilized humans and therefore they were labeled as property. Giving Enslaved Africans a category on the census, would be acknowledging that slaves were humans. Different terms have appeared and disappeared throughout the history of the United States census, based on the social context of the time period. Words like “Mulatto”, “Octoroon”, and “Quadroon” appeared and disappeared on the census. From 1920 until 2000, the U.S. Census did not recognize mixed-race individuals (Walker). Now, people are allowed to check off more than one race. Also, the term African American wasn’t introduced until the 20th century. The changing census proves that the concept of race is a developing one, based on the social relations, and context of the period. Racial categories also vary by geographic location, where we see classifications within a race or ethnic group based on skin color.
            When questioning the necessity of race, one has to evaluate its’ purpose. Although racial classification has not always been used in positive manner, both science and history have proven that classification is both necessary and essential to human existence. There would be no social order without a social classification system. However, how we as individuals choose the use this classification system, is another story. I have seen numerous arguments explaining why race is in fact biological and more than a social construction. Steve Garner’s Racisms: An Introduction identifies one study that finds African Americans to be a higher risk for the disease sickle cell anemia. Another study he identifies found that the scores on an IQ test varied, based on race. He also mentions that people who dispute these findings often argue that there are a host of social class and culture-related issues around what is counted as intelligence and what is actually measured in these types of tests (Garner). I tend to agree with that argument. Social class and the resources available to a particular ethnicity will affect the results of any experiment that tests knowledge. It particularly angers me when people don’t understand this concept.
            Last week, I decided to watch a “True Life” episode on MTV called “I hate the US government.” At first glance, I figured the episode would be focused on the injustices of the United States government. However, the episode was focused on how people hate where the government is presently headed, with Obama as president. The episode didn’t go into the topic of race, but the undertone of racism was present. A story that bothered me in particular was one about a high school student who began his own Tea Party Club at his school. The episode illustrated his discontent with Obama’s new healthcare bill, and what he described as Obama’s “socialist policies.” He didn’t agree that everyone should have to suffer and pay higher taxes for healthcare. As a Black student, his argument angered me because it did not offer a solution for those who have been denied resources for centuries – therefore making it harder for them to access sufficient healthcare. It upset me that a student, not too far from my own age was not interested in the people the bill was helping. Instead he seemed more concerned with government politics, and higher taxes. My disappointment laid primarily in the fact that this episode did not represent the injustice of the United States government onto minority groups.
            During the past few semesters, I began to take a few Black studies classes, in both history and literature. Before this, I knew racial categories existed but never gave it much thought. I knew that Africans were brought from Africa to America and enslaved. I also knew that this horrific historical event had tragic effects on the racial system in America. After taking classes and expanding my knowledge of slavery I have a broader understanding of the concept of race in America. Before, I might have said that race, like other controversial socially constructed categories such as gender and sexuality shouldn’t exist. However, this argument doesn’t seem practical when it’s practically innate for humans to classify the things around us to keep social order and to grasp understanding. Similar to the rainbow analogy I described earlier, humans fear the unknown and therefore categories make everything definitive. I believe it’s impossible for humans not to classify one another based on origin and physical characteristics. However, I don’t believe that these classifications should be used to form racist ideologies.
            What separates people’s understanding of who is who in one place, at one time, is not necessarily the same logic that applies elsewhere at other times (Garner). The concept of race is an evolving one that varies according to social context. I believe it’s unrealistic to say that these categories should be thrown away because there is no such thing as race. Instead we can accept the fact that these terms are socially constructed, and socially foster positive attitudes towards each category to reverse the effects of racism.

Image Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of National History


Garner, S. (2009). Racisms : An Introduction. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Hogg, M. A., & Abrams, D. (1998). Social identifications: A social psychology of intergroup relations and group processes. London: Routledge

Soderlund, Jean R. (2000). "Creating a Biracial Society 1619-1720."Upon These Shores: Themes in the African American Experience 1600 to the Present. Ed. William R. Scott. New York: Routledge, 63-82. Print.


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