Social Construct of Race Imposes Biology


“So humans are really really good, or at least Western traditionally educated humans are really, really good at categorizing things into types.”

Jennifer Raff. She’s an anthropologist at the University of Kansas. Raff spoke last month at New York University’s Journalism Institute.

“And if you go back through the history of physical anthropology, which we now call ourselves biological anthropologists to distance ourselves from that history, we as a discipline have a lot to answer for. Because we were the ones who measured crania, measured skulls, to try to come up with…we called it the Caucasoid, and the Negroid and the Mongoloid types, right, this ideal specimen of a cranium that fit these perfect measurements. And that was the type. And we tried to fit in then every other person into one of these categories, and that…really influenced eugenics.

“We still have that notion, are you this group, are you that group, when in reality we’re mixtures, most of us are very mixed. We have lots of ancestry from lots of populations. So if we can stop thinking of these categories as these fixed entities, we’ll get somewhere.”

Raff later noted that race does involve biology—but as an effect.  

“But that doesn’t mean that these racial categories aren’t real in some sense. And what I mean by that is, yes, they are culturally constructed categories, but they actually have biological effects…when we create the race ‘black’ or ‘African-American’ or whatever we’re going to call it, we put people into that category regardless of their genetic background, right?

“So, I always come back to this example: President Obama is just as much Irish as he is African-Am-, but we code him as black, right,…when we do that, when we categorize and classify people, that can have biological effects. We know that stress levels in African-Americans are chronically high, because of racism, because of structural racism, these categories that we’ve created, right? That is biological, that’s real. It may not be because of the genetic variants that they had, or there may be some complicated interaction there, but these categories that we create, these social categories, have biological effects.”

—Steve Mirsky

(The above text is a transcript of this podcast)  

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