For last week’s Sarah’s World Beat, I wrote about Paving the Way Toward Equality, which explained why I feel it’s necessary to discuss the myriad ways—both subtle and obvious—that we’re taught to praise and strive for the European-centric beauty standards, Euro-centric culture and so on. It all started with me wanting to write about women of color and our hair. I even created a survey, which I asked women of color to fill out. But as I started writing about women of color and our hair, I realized I was, as the expression goes, putting the cart before the horse. How can I write about women of color and our hair if I haven’t talked about how got here to begin with: the subject of race has to be discussed before we can talk about hair, culture, language, etc. So, what is race?
No, I am not kidding. I had assumed people knew this answer. After all, fans and followers of Multiracial Media are part of the Multiracial Community, which assumes you’re either Biracial / Multiracial / Mixed Race or you’re the parent, relative of someone who is. When asked to define ourselves, people give a list of both races and ethnicities, which leads me to believe either they’re being more specific—”I’m Asian and within Asian I am Vietnamese…”—or they’re uncertain and can’t actually answer the question of what is race?
So, What is Race, From a Theoretical Perspective?
I am not good with definitions of words sometimes, so I’m going to cheat. After my co-author and I published our first book, Being Biracial: Where Our Secret Worlds Collide, we began exploring the idea of getting our book into high schools, colleges and universities. To that end, we hired mixed-race scholar Shannon Luders-Manuel to write a teachers’ guide. Shannon holds a Masters in English Literature. She’s written a lot about race and being Biracial for both academia and content writing.
Most of us know that race is, in effect, a social construct. “Races” exist through a combination of geography and survival of the species, in which individuals in a particular region pass down genes to their offspring. Some of these genes determine outward signifiers like hair, eye and skin color. Skin color in particular began as a purely geographical construct.
While race is a social construct, it has a history of being used as biological evidence for racial “differences” that go beyond appearance.
Race itself has undergone many variations in a very short period of time, which speaks to its lack of biological basis. Modern taxonomists have classified anywhere from three to over sixty races. These variations in classification come from the absence of objective markers for race.
When racial classifications began in America, they were supported by a semi-scientific theory called the Great Chain of Being, which listed living things in a hierarchical fashion. While this theory was first used in classical Greek writings, the natural hierarchy was then placed upon “races,” and certain races were deemed biologically, and mentally, inferior. “The hierarchical ‘chain of being’ served to legitimize and maintain power in the colonial world” (Knapman). Colonists used this hierarchical strategy throughout the development of the United States.
“Race” exists not just in geography, but also in cultural signifiers. We learn who we are based on our traditions, our shared experiences, and even our culinary preferences. This sense of shared experience makes us feel connected to others in a way that supersedes pure intellect or reason. We define ourselves based on our ancestors’ struggle, whatever that struggle may be. We feel part of a larger narrative of which we are merely one of many characters, all of whom share a common story.
Race also plays a significant role in the way people interact with one another. To say that race as a symbol doesn’t exist because race as biology doesn’t exist would be to erase the very clear reality that our experiences regarding race are largely external. For example, the Black Pride movement in the 1960s arose as a push back against the dominant culture that segregated and mistreated individuals based on physical features.
What is Race From the Perspective of a Layperson, Like Me?
Race is a social construct, created by one group of people for the purposes of dominating another group or other groups. However, while race is a social construct, relationships between one person and another, one section of town and another, one state and another, one country and another and one religion and another are predicated upon this social construct. When people insist there’s only one race: the human race, although they’re correct, the problem is we’re not at a point where we deal with people as complete equals and so we’re not ready to live in racial harmony.
This is, of course, my opinion, but there’s enough evidence to back me up. There would be no need for the one-hundred-year-old Black Power Movement, women’s lib(eration), revolutions in countries where fascist dictators preside, etc. if people were equal.
The moment Christopher Columbus set out to find “the new world” in 1492, it was for sole purpose of dominating other cultures, their land (both to live and grow food on), their women and exploit the people living on the land. This was, and still is, done through colonization, domination, slavery and control of natural resources.
Others followed this model: England, France, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands (Holland). England, of course, was the master at colonization. With colonies in the Caribbean, India and much of Africa, their motto was, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”
What is Race in Comparison to Ethnicity?
There are four races in the world:
Native/Indigenous—Someone whose origins can be traced back to the first people living in a territory, often associated with a tribe. Examples of Native people, meaning ethnicities, are:
- Aboriginal people of Australia
- Taino, Caribe and Arrowwack peoples of the Caribbean
- First Nations of Canada
- Hawaiian peoples
- American Indian
Asian—Someone whose origins can be traced back to the continent of Asia, including the Far East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Examples of Asians, meaning ethnicities, are:
Black or of African descent—Someone whose origins can be traced back to the continent of Africa (including those who live there currently). We shouldn’t confuse this group of people with, for example, White South Africans, as their origins are rooted in England, the Netherlands, etc., in other words, the continent of Europe. Examples of Black, meaning ethnicities, are:
- African American / Black
- South African
White—Someone whose origins can be traced back to the continent of Europe, parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Examples of White, meaning ethnicities, are:
Summarizing Race vs. Ethnicity:
If you are mixed with Belizean and Australian, you are Biracial / Multiracial. If you are mixed with German and Dutch you have one race in you, but you are multiethnic.
Where this gets confusing and controversial is in cases like Egypt and Morocco. I would say they’re Black, although I bet even as dark as many are, some might claim otherwise.
Even more confusing are Latinos and Hispanics. (By the way, Latino and Hispanic are different, and while they’re used interchangeably, it’s incorrect. This video can explain better.)
Many Latinos and Hispanics refer to themselves as having only one race, however, that’s not generally the case. Thinking of the countries where Latinos and Hispanics come from, for example: Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, etc. more often than not, these people comprise three races: Black (from Africa), Spanish (from Spain) and Native and by default are Multiracial. Looking at the demographics recorded in many of the countries I mentioned, one might assume that the majority comprise White, however, this is historically incorrect.
Are you any closer to understanding the answer to, what is race? It is complex, isn’t it? Is it a social construct? And does race—meaning distinguishing characteristics associated with a certain group of people—exist?
Yes. So when people say, “There’s only one race: the human race,” consider it a brush off and their way of telling you they don’t want to discuss the history and politics behind race—perhaps out of denial, shame or ignorance, we won’t know. So while they’re correct from an anthropologic perspective, they’re not from a socioeconomic, political, social and historical perspective.
Confused? Let’s discuss, please. Then we can discuss race is expressed in features, cultures, politics and society.
My name is Sarah and I am one of the founders of Multiracial Media. Not only am I multiracial (Black, Asian and White), but I’ve also lived in or spent long periods of time in several countries, throughout the United States and now my husband and I live on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. I see myself both in terms of my racial and ethnic identity as well as someone who appreciates the food, culture and customs of all nations—like a citizen of the world. Sarah’s World Beat column reflects this.
If you would like me to write about your culture or country, please drop me a line and suggest a topic.