Monday, April 16, 2018

Race and biology; Race shouldn't be a thing

As you enter the room, please do two things:

First, classify all of the objects on the table into categories.  You must have 2 or more categories and you cannot have a miscellaneous category.  Please be sure that you have assigned each object to a category.

Second, once you are finished with the objects, please answer these questions in order:
Q1: When referring to how people look, do you know what race means?
Q2: How many races are there?  Name them.
Q3: What is the definition of the word race as it applies to how people look?

This is the beginning of our unit on race.  Here is our packet for this unit.  Before we begin, it is important to define what we mean by "race" as well as some of the other terms that get confused with "race".

Ethnicity is a group of people linked by a common culture, ancestry and often associated with a geographic location.  For example, one might say that Italians are an ethnic group.  But an ethnicity doesn't have to apply to a country, it can be a group like Assyrians, Amish or Southern U.S. citizens.

Nationality is the country where someone is a citizen.  For example, if your passport is from the U.S. then your nationality is the United States, often referred to as "American".

Heritage is where a person's ancestors can be traced to.

Genotype is an individual's specific combination of genes that makes up their DNA.

Phenotype is the observable characteristics that an individual manifests from their genotype interacting with the environment.

Race is the idea that humans can be separated into distinct and discrete groups based on their biology.  For example, one might say that there are 3 races in the world: Asian, African and white.  The belief is that people can be separated into groups based on their biological traits such as, skin color, hair, eyes, nose, genes, etc...

HW:  Read Omi and Winant pages 2-8.  Be ready to answer questions about it and discuss it.

Warning:  Sociology sometimes "makes the familiar strange."  It sheds light on areas of our life that we never questioned before.  This can be an eye-opening experience that is sometimes difficult to accept.  Remember that we are like fish in water never having to question or notice the water.  This lesson may do that to you.  Trust the process.  Open your mind.

The first part of this metaphor explains how we classify the objects by trait.

Did anyone use different traits to categorize the objects? (size, shape, color)
What was the trait you used?  What were the categories you used to define the trait?  What objects did you put into each classification?
You will see two likely scearios:
1. Students categorize the objects by different categories even though they use the same trait.  For example, if they choose the trait of size, they might categorize into either small, medium, large or small, medium, large, extra-large.  This shows that the categories used are subjective.
2. Students will categorize the objects by the same trait and same categories, but they will choose different items to put in each category.  For example, a ball that is classified as small by one student might be categorized as medium by another.  This illustrates that the delineations we use to separate categories are arbitrary.  Instead, if you lined all the balls up by a trait, they would look much more like a spectrum than distinct groups.

This is a metaphor for race and how we classify people.
Racial categories are hegemonic assumptions in the United States.  They are so ingrained in us that we never question them.  What constitutes different races?  Think about what traits people use to classify humans into "races."  If you lined people up from all over the world, they would resemble a spectrum instead of distinct groups.  People cannot be grouped distinctly into "races" in a scientifc, biological way.  If you tried to separate them based on a trait, the categories you create would be arbitrary and subjective.  For example, let's examine skin color. 

Skin color as an example of a trait.
Yes, skin color comes from different genetic combinations, but these combinations are not dividable into distinct groups.  Instead, the divisions we create using skin color are arbitrary divisions. If you lined up all of the people in the world according to a trait, the divisions would be less obvious. It would look more like a spectrum that changes gradually blending into one another.  See this evidence:

From the American Anthropological Association, this activity shows that deciding how to categorize people is arbitrary.


From a post on the soc images blog, this artist created a palette of colors showing that human skin is much more of a spectrum than distinct groups.  See this post for more about the artist and the project, including a Ted Talk.
Where would you divide up this palette into different races?

For an explanation on the biology of skin color, the article "Skin Deep" by Nina Jablonski and George Chaplin from Scientific American  explains the science behind skin color and how around the world, skin color would look more like a spectrum than distinct groups.  The map below from the article explains the correlation between UV light intensity and skin color.  Going back to our metaphor about the traits, do you see how the trait of skin color is a spectrum rather than distinct groups?

Nina Jablonski explains the significance of skin color in her Ted Talk here.

Before moving on, questions?

Questions about traits and why they cannot be used to categorize people into distinct races?

Other resources:

Click here to go to the Race; Power of Illusion website to see why there is no way of biologically separating people into "races"  based on physical appearance (including skin color, nose shape and head size), geographic origins or genetic similarities.

From the American Anthropological Association, here is an explanation about how genetic diversity spread out over time and how that led to varying populations of diversity but not distinct groups.  This explains that for nearly a century, scientists including anthropologists and biologists erroneously concluded that humans evolved from three distinct groups of hominids.  Known as the essentialist theory, this incorrectly posits that each group started as a "pure race" in three separate locations: Mongolia, Caucasia and Nigeria.   Eventually the groups intermixed but some individuals stayed more pure basedon less mixing.  Using the scientific data that is available to us now, biologists, doctors, anthropologists and sociologists know that this is not true.  Instead of evolving separately, all humans began in Africa and gradually spread out across the globe.  However, some people still promote the essentialist theory.

From Harvard University's School of Biomedical Sciences, this explains more detail how genes work and why they can't be used to categorize people scientifically into"races".

Anatomy Class.  The idea that people can't be categorized biologically into races is difficult to accept and process because race is so ingrained in our society that we never question it.  It gets validation from many places, including our very own anatomy classes! (click here for a clarification of the anatomy forensic lesson).

Bill Nye explains why there is no way to define race biologically.

A 2017 article from the NY Times explains that the latest evidence from genetics is that there is not a connection between genes and race.

Jefferson Fish also explains how race doesn't make sense in the article titled "Mixed Blood" from Psychology Today, 1995.

For more info you can checkout the April 22, 2005 episode of Odyssey, a radio program that used to air on Chicago Public Radio. This episode about the genetics of race and if you listen carefully to the caller segment, you can hear a very interesting high school sociology teacher commenting. [Listen the program here (the good part is after 35:26)]

This article from Slate explains why ancestry kits do not explain race.

For your sociological mindfulness:
What are some assumptions you have had about race? Have you learned erroneous information regarding race? Why is this not a part of curriculum in American schools especially in light of the profound impact the idea of race has had on this country?  How do you reinforce the idea of racial categories?

Takeaway: (for more info see Ferris and Stein pages 215-218, 224-227)

How do humans around the world look based on different traits?

Are racial categories biological?

What is racial hegemony?

What is the essentialist theory?

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