W1: Race as a Cultural Construct

Race is a tricky subject. Despite its continual persistence in the United States today, many people do not understand what it is or its impact. In beginning to understand the concept, one must first understand that race is a cultural construct and not biologically real. People “see” races by looking at others’ skin color and physical features, but that doesn’t make it real. Individuals are most commonly forced to think about race when they fill out forms that require the categorization of oneself into a specific race. While most would think there is an official list of all the races, the reality is the population could be split into so many subcategories that each individual person in and of themselves could be their own race. A good way to think about the nonexistence of individual races is thinking that if someone walked from the southern tip of Africa all the way to China, there would be a gradual change in skin color and physical features. There are not set locations with different races, but a gradual continuum with an endless variety of individuals. Thus, with this example, it can be proven that there is no genetic basis for race. Race is a modern idea that has evolved and continues to do so over time.

The biggest problem with race is when it turns into racism. Because individuals who look phenotypically similar are grouped into one race, a hierarchy was formed which placed light skinned people at the top and darker skinned people at the bottom. As a result, some received more benefits in society than others, which has a variety of consequences. One example is the presence of white privilege. Because whites are an “unmarked category” and seen as the norm in society, they receive a number of benefits they do not necessarily see or understand. Peggy McIntosh lists many of the daily privileges she has every day because of her whiteness. Some examples include, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” and “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented” (McIntosh 3). Another consequence of racism is that some people have access to more and better resources than others. In context of the medical field, having access to proper healthcare, medication, doctors, and other such necessary means could eventually be the difference between life and death. There is a concept called the weathering affect, which explains that experiencing racism over the course of one’s lifetime negatively affects one’s health. There are studies that show blacks in America have higher cases of certain illnesses, higher infant mortality, and a plethora of other health issues other races don’t necessarily have. Through different research studies, it has been determined that it these are caused by living in the United States with dark skin, not genetics related. And so, through the extensive amounts of studies that have been conducted on the topic of race in relation to medicine, it can be proven that the different perceived races will have different health outcomes due to the socially constructed category they have been placed in.

 

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies (1988): 3.

6 thoughts on “W1: Race as a Cultural Construct

  1. Something you brought up early in your post has really stuck with me; the struggles for some of having to chose a race when filling out paperwork. As Caucasian it wasn’t that I didn’t notice the other options but it was always a simple question for me to answer. For others who are a mix of “races” or don’t identify with one exclusively, a seemingly simple question could cause a person great anxiety or frustration. As race cannot be biologically determined this question becomes all about an individuals perspective. Race is not a concrete set of parameters as society has conditioned us to believe, so how can anyone answer that question completely honestly.
    I also spoke in my post about the weathering affect. It was quit startling to me that a trait for skin color could dictate a person’s health, even though the trait for skin color is unrelated to other traits. The idea of nature versus nurture has been around for some time but to say that the environment in which you live could affect two people of different ethnicities differently is eye opening. The emotional and thus physiological burden that society has created by classifying people based on a trait is unnerving.

  2. Great job on your post this week! I think you had some very interesting points. Something I thought of when you mentioned the effect of skin color in America on a person’s health is the Flint Water Crisis. This obviously was an issue close to us in East Lansing. There were many questions raised as to if the water issue would have been as bad or gotten attention sooner if it would have been in a white area or an area with more money. The relation of race and socioeconomic status is a different topic but it is hard to understand the whole problem if you don’t understand all the aspects.
    We see whiteness as superior in America, what is it like for whites in other countries? How does racism affect them if they live elsewhere? We have our own perspective, which is not a problem; we are trying to analyze things from our own point of view. It just goes to show how complex topics such as racism can be flipped around and analyzed in many different ways. We are all one race, the human race. Race is especially prevalent right now after the events in Minnesota, Dallas, and Baton Rouge the past few weeks. It is important to remember that race does not define every person in a group. We don’t make generalizations off of eye color, so why does skin color get so much attention?

  3. Your post was really good! It brought up many important topics which I think are vital for everyone to learn about. At one point in your post you wrote about how some people believe that there are certain locations for certain races. Although we know that this is not true, many people do not realize this. I think that it’s great that you mentioned this because it is a serious problem. People who may have a different physical appearance than you does not automatically mean that they belong in a certain part of the world. We are all of the same race which means that we shouldn’t have boundaries on where we can live based on our physical appearance.
    With that being said, you also brought up the point of white privilege, which I think goes along with this idea. If we are all of the same race, then it is really aggravating to see that white privilege is something has continued to grow throughout history and still continues today. Race is a hard subject to talk about and can make a lot of people uncomfortable and I think that white privilege has something to do with that. If everyone was able to recognize that we are the same race and that we should all be equal, then maybe race would not be something that makes everyone so uncomfortable. It’s disappointing to know that racism exists when it shouldn’t and it’s even worse knowing that it still continues when many believe it doesn’t. Great post!

  4. Grace,
    I believe that your post was very well written. Most people in our white-dominated society don’t understand that race is so much more than just skin color. I disagree that race isn’t biologically real; I think that in modern times, race and ethnicity are the same thing. Perhaps in the early stages of evolution, race could have been equated to a subspecies (just as in that video we were assigned), but now, because “interbreeding” has happened for years, race has evolved into ethnicity, something that can be seen at the genetic level. I realize that your post focuses on what our society thinks race is, but it may be helpful to know that people within the same ethnic circles or even people within the same geographical locations will have similar genetics specific to that group. Although I do not agree that race isn’t genetic, I do love that you use the example of walking from Africa to Asia. Additionally, I do like that you mention that each person is capable of being his or her own race. Genetics is amazing in that every one of us can be so similar yet unique! Your argument on social racism and its health effects was very well put. I think that the United States’ idea of race is indirect racism. It immediately categorizes people and stereotyping their health, values, and beliefs.

  5. I agree that race is a cultural construct rather than a biological one. We observe the world through a racial lens whether it is white, black, Asian, Mexican or other. How we see others and how we are seen influences distinct aspects of our lives and the lives of others. From the people we meet, the places we live, the schools we attend, the jobs we have, etc. It as all influenced by at least one social arrangement, race. Looking through a specific lens is how we perceive each other.

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