The Story of Race and the Classification of People: Generative or Not?
The idea of evolution as just a “good story” has sparked many controversial thoughts within me. After much deliberation over the idea of “truth” and “usefulness,” I realized that thinking of ideas as “good stories” could be fascinatingly “generative.” Race is one of these “stories” that I have come to question. As a child, I was taught that race was a scientifically and socially accurate way of classifying people. According to this story, everybody belongs to a race according to lineage, appearance, language, geography, etc. Most often, however, race classifications were easily assigned to people based on split second observations of skin, hair, and facial features (1). Shadows of doubt were always cast, however, when classifications became blurry. What was I supposed to think of a man whose skin was dark, whose eyes were slanted, and whose hair was blonde? Did he simply belong to a race that I did not yet know of? Or was he a negligible anomaly to the race explanation? Or what if race wasn’t really the best explanation at all?
Questions like these have sparked fiery debates worldwide in recent years. More and more it appears that the story of race is less useful—or “generative”—than it has long been believed to be. To understand more about race, one must analyze first why race has been such a popular story for the classification of people for so long, why it is now being questioned, and what new stories are being generated based on recent arguments.
The idea of classifying people and placing them in definitive groupings has been around for hundreds of years. The idea of classifying people based on their looks, however, has not. As far back as 400 BC, ancient Greeks were classifying people based on purely cultural differences like language, religion, and customs. Hierarchies in society were more likely to be based on social standing than on appearance. The idea of classifying peoples based on their appearances did not come about until much later in history. In 1680 AD, the idea of classification by appearance slowly began to permeate society as lawmakers in the early colonies of North America began to use “white” as a classification of themselves rather than “Englishmen” or “Christians.” 1776 AD marks a turning point in the history of race in which the word “Caucasian” was first used by a man named Johann Blumenbach in his work On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. Blumenbach outlines one of the first hierarchies based on skin color, placing “whites” on top and four other “races” underneath. Superiority based on skin color soon became a widespread idea (2).
Scientists began to search for scientific proof of race, the earliest of whom speculated brain capacity based on skull size. The consensus? Men like Jim Morton in 1839 concluded that “whites” not only have the largest skulls and thus the largest brain capacity, but that this is indicative of superiority. This “discovery” paved the way for many more scientists to explore the “scientific evidence” of race and justify the increasing popular view that some people were “better” than others based on appearance. Why did this concept become so widely accepted? At this point in history, the simmering business of slavery was beginning to boil, and it was socially and morally convenient to “prove” that a hierarchy of mankind which placed “whites” on top was correct (2).
Distinct lines between races were still blurry, however, and arguments soon ended up in the hands of authorities and law makers. Definitions of race were decided upon by courts, arbitrarily, to fit the needs of the local society. The arbitrary nature of these court decisions was recognized, though, and more and more, people discovered that there was little hard evidence to back up claims of superiority based on appearance alone. Slavery was abolished, but a bitter after taste remained—and still does remain: racism (2).
Today, the idea of classifying people based on their skin color is still a popular belief, though political correctness has become a serious issue. Whereas it was OK to judge people by the color of their skin little more than 50 years ago, today it has become socially frowned upon (2). Why? Perhaps it is the realization that race based on appearances never has been, and never will be, a clear cut method to define peoples. This realization is a result of surmounting scientific evidence—or, rather, non-evidence (1). In the time before Darwin, it was believed that people were the way they were because of divine intervention. Darwin’s ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest gave scientists of the mid-1800’s reason to believe that some races really were meant to be more superior than others and that some races were bound to be weaker and go extinct due to competition (2). Since Darwin’s time, though, scientists have delved into research to pinpoint the precise biological distinctions between races. What have they found? Surprisingly, there is much less biological proof for race than has long been expected (1).
Modern scientific studies argue that race has no real basis in biological systems. Since people are undeniably, and nearly endlessly, different in appearance, scientists have looked towards genetic studies to help them discover the secret to race. Genetic studies have revealed, however, that 90% of human variation occurs within a said “race” and just 10% of human variation occurs between “races” themselves. In other words, people from different “races” are only slightly more different from each other than they are from people in their own “race.” In a stretch attempt, scientists have found genetic ways to place humans into tentative “races” (1). However, most scientists will agree that society’s idea of race based on phenotypic characteristics like skin, hair, and face are almost entirely “bogus.” Genetically, humans are incredibly alike—appearances on the outside are most likely due to purely environmental effects (3).
On a large scale, biological scientists and cultural scientists concur: Race is a social construct. The outdated idea that hierarchies can be created to make one type of person more powerful or important than another is a notion that no longer has the support of scientists. Although we could all admit that we can find differences between certain peoples, we would be hard pressed—like scientists and anthropologists all over the world—to draw a definitive line between what we would like to call separate “races.” “What is race?” psychologist Jefferson Fish asks. “It is a biologically meaningless category…This dialogue on race is driving me up the wall.” (3). Why then is “race” still a household term, used in everyday conversation as though it were a viable and “true” categorization? “I use it because, for some uses, it works,” says anthropologist Dennis Stanford. In describing the subtle differences in the human species, the term “race” is still effective. The idea of race, as Stanford agrees, is not.
And so the story of race continues to change—or, rather, evolve. It seems that the idea of “race” that I was taught as a child is no longer a “generative” story in the world today. Instead, it is evolving before our eyes. New observations are being made every day that open our eyes to new stories about “race.” Soon, perhaps, there will be a completely new story that will replace our stale idea of “race” based on physical differences, and a new chapter will unfold.
1. Bamshad and Olsen “Does Race Exist?”
Scientific American, December 2003, pages 78-85
2. PBS’s RACE: The Power of Illusion
Copyright by California Newsreel
3. Petit, Charles “No Biological Basis for Race: Scientists Say Distinction Prove to be Skin Deep”
The San Francisco Chronicle, February 23, 1998, page A-1