For the most part, people did a great job on Week 1 activities. It looks like many of you found the activities thought-provoking ( if, at times, uncomfortable). It is evident from your posts and comments that participants offered a variety of responses to the question, “What is race?”. That race holds such varied, at times conflicting, meanings indicates that the category arises more from historical and social processes than from some objective truth. Given the deplorable state of race-based violence in the US and throughout the world at this time, it is evident that the category of race, itself, is an object of political conflict–in other words, race, and its associated meanings, constitutes what social scientists often describe as “a site of contestation,” or an object of political struggle. You can get a sense of this not only from the variety of meanings but from the discomfort people tend to show when confronted with the question of race and the ways they try to read between the lines of the question. Many students pointed out that their participants hesitated or expressed some unease after being asked to speak on the subject of race.
The sorting activity on the PBS site reinforces that racial meanings reflect social and historical processes, not stable, biological truth. The exercise is intended to introduce you to thinking about race as a powerful way of talking about and organizing difference and inequality that is dependent on historical and geographical processes–a way to make social differences and not a description of natural differences.
You also looked a bit at the anthropology and biology of human variation this week. It is important for you to understand the basic processes by which physical traits like skin color, hair texture, body shape, etc., appear and are distributed in society. The key concepts here are genetic drift, natural selection, clinal distributions, and population effects.
For now, it is important to take away from these readings and online exchanges that race is a historically and culturally defined system for making social differences meaningful by reading them as natural rather than historical and cultural.