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The Social Concept of Race

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No matter where you look in the news, there is talk about racial lines. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last few years as well as discussion about wage gaps and physical barriers between countries and races, it is obviously playing a role in our society. The question is, why?

Despite the history of it, many anthropologists have claimed that this “line in the sand”, however obvious, is simply man-made. Without culture, this line would be obsolete, and might not even exist at all.

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Without culture, the race would not be meaningful. Boiled down, it is simply a difference in physical characteristics. However, just because race is culturally constructed, doesn’t make it meaningless. In fact, it is the very cultural construction of it that makes it meaningful. Through the history of division, cultural unity, and “othering culture”, race has developed from simply a biological difference to something that shapes the way that we think and acts as human beings.

The race first became meaningful when people began to “other” each other. Since the beginning of mankind, human beings have searched for group identities. Without these identities, they would feel excluded and alone. One of the most significant group identities that have been formed because of culture is race. In his article on the subject of othering, John Powell defined “othering” as “a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.”

In a public interview addressing the United States, President Barack Obama cited “othering culture” as a source of conflict. In his view, the “collision of cultures brought on by the Internet and social media,” and “scarcities,” lead to a “default position: tribe—us/them, a hostility toward the unfamiliar or the unknown.” and to “push back against those who are different.” This “othering” culture is one of the most important reasons why race is still a driving factor in our world. To find these group identities, people began to separate into groups based on race. Because it is seen as a need for people to other one another, racial lines have become very prevalent in society and western culture. Because of other cultures, race still matters.

Throughout our history, there have been dividing lines between people. Whether it is gender, religion, perceived mental competency, birthplace, or ethnicity, you can find a place in history where there was a line drawn in the metaphorical sand. The race is no stranger to this idea. In the case of American history, there is a very clear point where the race was considered to be the most important characteristic we had.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, people were kidnapped from the continent of Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies, and exploited to work in the production of crops such as tobacco and cotton as slaves. In the 19th century, the slaves were freed, and slavery was abolished, but that did not fix the problems that African Americans were facing. Even a century afterward, the country still hadn’t recovered from that racial prejudice. So why does culture matter from a historical context?

Because race shouldn’t matter, but it does. It matters that the country we live in has a history of white supremacy that hasn’t been completely wiped away. It matters that we had slavery here. It matters that there are people who are alive today that remember segregation. Even though the race is a cultural construct, it still has repercussions.

In Matthew Engelke’s book, “How to think like an Anthropologist”, he mentions the importance that people place in blood relations. Especially in western culture, people use the phrase, “It’s in my blood.” Family connections are driven by common blood and common characteristics. Through the passing of characteristics, race can bring a connection between you and your ancestors. Having raced in common with their ancestors is what many people have considered being a driving force in keeping them in touch with their ethnicity.

The race is an important part of ethnicity. In her article, Nadra Kareem Nittle explains that “Ethnicity is the term used for the culture of people in a given geographic region or of people who descended from natives of that region. It includes their language, nationality, heritage, religion, dress, and customs.” Although someone doesn’t need to be of a certain race to be part of an ethnicity, it does play a role in connecting them with a specific subgroup. Sometimes within the race, there is a desire to remember the desires and customs of ancestry. Through race, people can find a common ground to share with others coming from their ethnicity. Race matters because many people are tied to racial identities, which are often reflective of cultures and peoples they grew up around. In this sense, culture doesn’t make race meaningless. In fact, it makes it very much meaningful.

Race still matters in our world. Even though there is no real difference between the races, there are still racial prejudices that drive races against one another. So what, if anything, should be done? Some anthropologists believe that the word “race” should be abandoned altogether. In her article, “The Concept of Race” Ashley Montagu states, “all those who continue to use the term ‘race’ concerning man, whether they be laymen or scientists, are ‘for sacred rites unfit.’” This assertion is due in part to the fact that race, as a defining concept, is man-made. By labeling a race, you are not taking into account all of the unique parts that make that race significant. However, racial boundaries and race shouldn’t necessarily be conflated.

The race is a social construct, but it isn’t all meaningless, because we as a people have given it meaning. People can be joined together by their similarities in race, and their differences outside of it. They can be brought closer to their ancestors and learn more about the culture that makes them unique. However, we must overcome our racial bias and our propensity to another one another so we can be truly brought together.   

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