Heewon Chang, Ph. D.
Carol Mukhopa dhyay and Rosemary C.
dhyay and Rosemary C. Henze
(Editor’s note: This article
was originally published in Phi Delta Kappan, May 2003,
pp. 669-678, and appeared on line at
http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0305muk.htm. It is reprinted
here with the permission of Phi Delta Kappan International. The
layout is slightly modified and the original references with a
minor change have been converted into the APA style to be
consistent with the EMME's editorial policy.) Surely we've all heard people
say there is only one race -- the human race. We've also heard
and seen overwhelming evidence that would seem to contradict
this view. After all, the U. S. Census divides us into groups
based on race, and there are certainly observable physical
differences among people -- skin color, nose and eye shape, body
type, hair color and texture, and so on. In the world of
education, the message of racial differences as biological
"facts" is reinforced when we are told that we should understand
specific learning styles and behavior patterns of black, Asian,
Native American, white, and Latino children and when books such
as The Bell Curve make pseudoscientific claims about race
and learning (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994).
(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Phi Delta Kappan, May 2003, pp. 669-678, and appeared on line at http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0305muk.htm. It is reprinted here with the permission of Phi Delta Kappan International. The layout is slightly modified and the original references with a minor change have been converted into the APA style to be consistent with the EMME's editorial policy.)
Surely we've all heard people say there is only one race -- the human race. We've also heard and seen overwhelming evidence that would seem to contradict this view. After all, the U. S. Census divides us into groups based on race, and there are certainly observable physical differences among people -- skin color, nose and eye shape, body type, hair color and texture, and so on. In the world of education, the message of racial differences as biological "facts" is reinforced when we are told that we should understand specific learning styles and behavior patterns of black, Asian, Native American, white, and Latino children and when books such as The Bell Curve make pseudoscientific claims about race and learning (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994). [paragraph 1]
How can educators make sense of these
conflicting messages about race? And why should they bother?
Whether we think of all human beings as one race, or as four or
five distinct races, or as hundreds of races, does anything
really change? If we accept that the concept of race is
fundamentally flawed, does that mean that young African
Americans are less likely to be followed by security guards in
department stores? Are people going to stop thinking of Asians
as the "model" minority? Will racism become a thing of the past?
Many educators understandably would like to have clear information to help them teach students about human biological variability. While multicultural education materials are now widely available, they rarely address basic questions about why we look different from one another and what these biological differences do (and do not) mean. Multicultural education emphasizes respecting differences and finding ways to include all students, especially those who have been historically marginalized. Multicultural education has helped us to understand racism and has provided a rich body of literature on antiracist teaching strategies, and this has been all to the good. But it has not helped us understand the two concepts of race: the biological one and the social one. [paragraph 3]
In this article, we explain
what anthropologists mean when they say that "races don't exist"
(in other words, when they reject the concept of race as a
scientifically valid biological category) and why they argue
instead that "race" is a socially constructed category. We'll
also discuss why this is such an important understanding and
what it means for educators and students who face the social
reality of race and racism every day. And finally, we'll offer
some suggestions and resources for teachers who want to include
teaching about race in their classes.
For the past several decades, biological anthropologists have been arguing that races don't really exist, or, more precisely, that the concept of race has no validity as a biological category. What exactly does this mean? [paragraph 5]
First, anthropologists are
unraveling a deeply embedded ideology, a long-standing European
and American racial world view (Smedley, 1998). Historically,
the idea of race emerged in Europe in the 17th and 18th
centuries, coinciding with the growth of colonialism and the
transatlantic slave trade. Attempts were made to classify humans
into "natural," geographically distinct "races," hierarchically
ordered by their closeness to God's original forms. Europeans
were, not surprisingly, at the top, with the most perfect form
represented by a female skull from the Caucasus Mountains, near
the purported location of Noah's ark and the origin of humans.
Hence the origins of the racial term "Caucasian" or "Caucasoid"
for those of European ancestry (Marks, 1995).
In the late 19th century,
anthropologists sought to reconstruct human prehistory and trace
the evolution of human cultural institutions. Physical and
cultural evolution were seen as moving in tandem; "advances" in
human mental capacity were thought to be responsible for human
cultural inventions, such as marriage, family, law, and
agriculture. If cultural "evolution" was propelled by biological
evolution, according to this logic, the more "advanced" cultures
must be more biologically and intellectually evolved. Physical
indicators of evolutionary rank, such as skull size, were sought
in order to classify and rank human groups along an evolutionary
path from more "primitive" to more "advanced" races.
scientists disagreed on when the "races" began. Theologians had
long argued that there was "one human origin," Adam and Eve, and
that certain races subsequently "degenerated" (predictably, the
non-Europeans). Some evolutionary scientists, however, began to
argue for multiple origins, with distinct races evolving in
different places and times. By the beginning of the 20th
century, European and American science viewed races as natural,
long-standing divisions of the human species, evolving at
different rates biologically and hence culturally. By such logic
was racial inequality naturalized and legitimized.
When contemporary scientists,
including anthropologists, assert that races are not
scientifically valid, they are rejecting at least three
fundamental premises of this old racial ideology: 1) the archaic
subspecies concept, 2) the divisibility of contemporary humans
into scientifically valid biological groupings, and 3) the link
between racial traits and social, cultural, and political
status. [paragraph 9]
1. There were no distinct,
archaic human subspecies. The first premise anthropologists
reject is that humans were originally divided, by nature or God,
into a small set of biologically distinct, fixed species,
subspecies, or races. Anthropologists now know conclusively,
from fossil and DNA evidence, that contemporary humans are one
variable species, with our roots in Africa, which moved out of
Africa into a wide range of environments around the world,
producing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of culturally and
genetically distinct populations. Local populations, through
natural selection as well as random genetic mutation, acquired
some distinctive genetic traits, such as shovel-shaped incisor
teeth, hairy ears, or red hair. Adaptation to human cultural
inventions -- such as agriculture, which creates concentrations
of water that allow malaria-carrying mosquitoes to breed -- also
produced higher frequencies of sickle-cell genes (related to
malaria resistance) in human populations in some parts of
Africa, India, Arabia, and the Mediterranean (Lieberman & Rice,
1996). At the same time, continuous migration and intermating
between local populations prevented us from branching off into
distinct subspecies or species and instead created a richer and
more variable gene pool, producing new combinations and
permutations of the human genome.
Human prehistory and history,
then, are a continuing story of fusion and fission, of a myriad
of populations, emerging and shifting over time and space,
sometimes isolated temporarily, then fusing and producing new
formations. There have been thousands and thousands of groups
throughout human history, marrying in and, more often, out; they
have disappeared and reemerged in new forms over time.
In short, there are no
"basic" or "ancient" races; there are no stable, "natural,"
permanent, or even long-standing groupings called races. There
have never have been any "pure" races. All human populations are
historically specific mixtures of the human gene pool. This is
human evolution, and we see these same processes at work in the
19th and 20th centuries and today. "Races" are ephemeral -- here
today, gone tomorrow. [paragraph 12]
2. Contemporary humans are
not divisible into biological races. When anthropologists
say races aren't biologically real, they also reject the idea
that modern humans can be divided into scientifically valid,
biologically distinct groupings or races. For races to be real
as biological categories, the classification must be based on
objective, consistent, and reliable biological criteria. The
classification system must also have predictive value that will
make it useful in research. [paragraph 13]
Scientists have demonstrated
that both the concept of race and racial criteria are
subjective, arbitrary, and inconsistently applied (Armelagos &
Goodman, 1998). U. S. racial categories, such as the ones used
in the Census, aren't valid in part because the biological
attributes used to define races and create racial
classifications rely on only a few visible, superficial, genetic
traits -- such as skin color and hair texture -- and ignore the
remaining preponderance of human variation. Alternative, equally
visible racial classifications could be constructed using such
criteria as hair color, eye color, height, weight, ear shape, or
hairiness. However, there are less visible genetic traits that
have far greater biological significance. For example, there are
at least 13 genetic factors related to hemoglobin, the protein
that helps carry oxygen to tissues, and there is also
significant variation in the ABO, RH, and other blood systems.
We could create racial classifications based on genetic factors
that affect susceptibility to diabetes or to certain kinds of
breast cancer or to the ability to digest milk. In sum, given
the variety of possible biologically based traits for
classifying human beings, the criteria used in U. S. racial
categorizations are highly arbitrary and subjective. Our
discussion here focuses on the U. S. concept of race. While
racial concepts are no doubt similar in Canada and Europe, this
is not true in other parts of the Americas (Fish, 2002).
The number of potential
biologically based racial groupings is enormous. Not only are
there millions of genetic traits, but most genetic traits --
even culturally salient but superficial traits such as skin
color, hair texture, eye shape, and eye color -- do not cluster
together. Darker skin can cluster with straight hair as well as
with very curly hair or with hairy or nonhairy bodies; paler
skin can cluster with straight or curly hair or with black or
blond hair or with lighter to darker eyes. Each trait could
produce a different racial classification. For example, if one
used height as a criterion rather than skin pigmentation, then
the Northern Afghan population would be in the same racial
category as the Swedes and the Tutsi of Rwanda. There are huge
numbers of genetically influenced traits, visible and nonvisible,
which could be used to classify humans into biologically
distinct groups. There is no "natural" classification -- no
co-occurring clusters of racial traits. There are just
alternatives, with different implications and uses.
Racial classifications are
also unscientific because they are unreliable and unstable over
time. Individuals cannot reliably be "raced," partly because the
criteria are so subjective and unscientific. Robert Hahn, a
medical anthropologist, found that 37% of babies described as
Native American on their birth certificates ended up in a
different racial category on their death certificates (Goodman,
1997). Racial identifications by forensic anthropologists, long
touted as accurate, have been shown to be disturbingly
unreliable, even in relatively ethnically homogeneous areas,
such as Missouri and Ohio (Goodman, 1997). Forensic evidence
from such urban areas as San José, California, or New York City
is even more problematic.
Racial categories used by the U. S. Census Bureau have changed over time. In 1900, races included "mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon" in addition to "black." Southern Europeans and Jews were deemed to be separate races before World War II. Asian Indians ("Hindus") were initially categorized as "Caucasoid" -- except for voting rights. The number and definitions of races in the most recent U. S. Census reflect the instability -- and hence unreliability -- of the concept of race. And U. S. racial classifications simply don't work in much of the rest of the world. Brazil is a classic, often-studied example, but they also don't work in South Asia, an area that includes over one-fifth of the world's population. [paragraph 17]
Historical and contemporary
European and American racial categories are huge, biologically
diverse macro-categories. Members of the same racial group tend
to be similar in a few genetic ways that are often biologically
irrelevant. Moreover, the genetic variability found within each
racial grouping is far greater than the genetic similarity.
Africa, by itself, is home to distinct populations whose average
height ranges from less than five feet (the Mbuti) to over six
feet (the Tutsi). Estimates suggest that contemporary racial
variation accounts for less than 7% of all human genetic
variation (Lieberman, 1997). U. S. races, then, are not
biologically distinct or biologically meaningful, scientifically
based groupings of the human species.
3. Race as biology has no
scientific value. An additional critique of the concept of
race is that racial categories, as defined biologically, are not
very useful in understanding other phenomena, whether biological
There is no substantial
evidence that race, as a biological category, and "racial"
characteristics, such as skin color, hair texture, and eye
shape, are causally linked to behavior, to capacities, to
individual and group accomplishments, to cultural institutions,
or to propensities to engage in any specific activities. In the
area of academic achievement, the focus on race as biology can
lead researchers to ignore underlying nonbiological causal
factors. One classic study found that controlling for
socioeconomic and other environmental variables eliminated
purported "racial" differences in I.Q. scores and academic
achievement between African American, Mexican American, and
European American students (Mercer, 1988).
Health professionals have
also critiqued the concept of race. Alan Goodman and others have
shown that race does not help physicians with diagnosis,
prevention, or treatment of medical diseases (Goodman, 1997).
Racial categories and a false ideology of race as "biology"
encourage both doctors and their patients to view medical
conditions as necessarily genetic, ignoring possible
environmental sources. Hypertension, infant birthweights,
osteoporosis, ovarian cysts -- all traditionally viewed as
"racial" (i.e., genetically based) -- now seem to reflect
environmental rather than racially linked genetic factors. The
Centers for Disease Control concluded in 1993 that most
associations between race and disease have no genetic or
biological basis and that the concept of "race" is therefore not
useful in public health.
As a result of recent evolution and constant interbreeding between groups of humans, two individuals from different "races" are just as likely to be more similar to one another genetically than two individuals from the same "race." This being so, race-as-biology has no predictive value.
Classifications are usually
created for some purpose. Alan Goodman and other biological
anthropologists suggest that investigators focus on using traits
relevant to the problem at hand. For example, if a particular
blood factor puts an individual at risk for a disease, then
classify individuals on that basis for that purpose.
Some suggest using the term
"population" or "breeding population" to refer to the multitude
of small, often geographically localized, groups that have
developed high frequencies of one or more somewhat distinctive
biological traits (e.g., shovel-shaped incisors) in response to
biological, historical, and cultural factors. But others point
out that there could be thousands of such groups, depending on
the classifying criteria used, and that the groups would be
merging and recombining over time and space. Moreover, the
variability "captured" would reflect only a fraction of the
variability in the human species.
Most anthropologists now use
the concept of "clines" to help understand how genetic traits
are distributed (Lieberman & Rice, 1996). New data indicate that
biological traits, such as blood type or skin color, are
distributed in geographic gradations or "clines"; that is, the
frequency of a trait varies continuously over a geographic area.
For example, the genes for type B blood increase in frequency in
an east-to-west direction (reflecting, in part, the travels of
Genghis Khan and his army). In contrast, skin pigmentation
grades from north to south, with increasing pigmentation as one
gets closer to the equator. The frequency of the gene for sickle
cell decreases from West Africa moving northeast.
Virtually all traits have
distinct geographic distributions. Genes controlling skin color,
body size and shape (head, limbs, lips, fingers, nose, ears),
hairiness, and blood type are each distributed in different
patterns over geographic space. Once again, for biological races
to exist, these traits would have to co-vary, but they don't.
Instead, biological traits produce a nearly infinite number of
potential races. This is why anthropologists conclude that there
are no scientifically distinguishable biological races -- only
thousands of clines!
We hope we have made the
point that the concept of separate, biologically distinct human
races is not scientifically defensible. Unfortunately, racial
ideology, by focusing on a few physical attributes, traps us
into a discourse about race as biology rather than race as a
cultural construction. The concept of race is a cultural
invention, a culturally and historically specific way of
thinking about, categorizing, and treating human beings
(Mukhopadhyay & Moses, 1997). It is about social divisions
within society, about social categories and identities, about
power and privilege. It has been and remains a particular type
of ideology for legitimizing social inequality between groups
with different ancestries, national origins, and histories.
Indeed, the concept of race is also a major system of social
identity, affecting one's own self-perception and how one is
perceived and treated by others.
But race does have a
biological component, one that can trick us into thinking that
races are scientifically valid, biological subdivisions of the
human species. As noted earlier, geographically localized
populations -- as a result of adaptation, migration, and chance
-- tend to have some characteristic physical traits. While these
may be traits that characterize an entire population, such as
hairy ears, it is more accurate to talk about the relative
frequency of a particular trait, such as blood type O, in one
population as compared to another, or the relative amount of
pigmentation of individuals in a population, relative to other
populations. Some traits, such as skin color, reflect climatic
conditions; others, such as eye color and shape, probably
reflect random, historical processes and migration patterns. The
U. S. was peopled by populations from geographically distinct
regions of the world -- voluntary immigrants, forced African
slaves, and indigenous American groups. Therefore, dominant
northwestern European ethnic groups, such as the English and
Germans, were able to exploit certain visually salient
biological traits, especially skin color, as markers of race.
The effectiveness of these physical traits as markers of one's race depended, of course, on their being preserved in future generations. So dominant cultural groups created elaborate social and physical barriers to mating, reproduction, and marriage that crossed racial lines. The most explicit were the so-called anti-miscegenation laws, which outlawed sex between members of different races, whether married or not. These laws were not declared unconstitutional by the U. S. Supreme Court until the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia (Hyde & DeLamater, 1997). Another vehicle was the cultural definition of kinship, whereby children of interracial (often forced) matings acquired the racial status of their lower-ranking parent; this was the so-called one-drop rule or hypodescent. Especially during the time of slavery, the lower-ranking parent was generally the mother, and thus the long-standing European cultural tradition of affiliating socially "legitimate" children with the father's kinship group was effectively reversed. [paragraph 27]
In contrast, there have been fewer social or legal barriers in the U. S. to mating and marriage between Italians, British, Germans, Swedes, and others of European ancestry. Consequently, the physical and cultural characteristics of European regional populations are less evident in the U. S. With intermarriage, distinct European identities were submerged in the culturally relevant macroracial category of "white" -- more accurately, European American. [paragraph 28]
Thus even the biological
dimension of contemporary racial groupings is the result of
sociocultural processes. That is, humans as cultural beings
first gave social significance to some physical differences
between groups and then tried to perpetuate these "racial
markers" by preventing social and physical intercourse between
members of the groups. Although the dominant racial ideology was
about maintaining racial "purity," the issue was not about
biology; it was about maintaining social, political, and
economic privilege (Smedley, 1998).
We hope we've convinced you
that race isn't biologically "real" and that race in the U. S.
and elsewhere is a historical, social, and cultural creation.
But so what? What is the significance of this way of viewing
race for teachers, students, and society?
1. The potential for
change. First, it is important to understand that, while
races are biological fictions, they are social realities. Race
may not be "real" in a biological sense, but it surely is "real"
socially, politically, economically, and psychologically. Race
and racism profoundly structure who we are, how we are treated,
how we treat others, and our access to resources and rights.
Perhaps the most important
message educators can take from the foregoing discussion is that
race, racial classifications, racial stratification, and other
forms of racism, including racial ideology, rather than being
part of our biology, are part of our culture. Like other
cultural forms, both the concept of race and our racial
classifications are part of a system we have created. This means
that we have the ability to change the system, to transform it,
and even to totally eradicate it. Educators, in their role as
transmitters of official culture, are particularly well poised
to be active change agents in such a transformation.
But how, you may well ask,
can teachers or anybody else make people stop classifying by
race? And are there any good reasons to do so? These familiar
categories -- black, white, Asian, Native American, and so on --
seem so embedded in U. S. society. They seem so "natural." Of
course, that's how culture works. It seems "natural" to think of
chicken, but not rats, as food. But, as we have shown above, the
labels and underlying constructs that we use to talk about human
diversity are unstable, depending on particular social,
political, and historical contexts. Individuals in positions of
authority, of course, have the ability to change them
institutionally. But ordinary people also have the ability to
change how they classify and label people in their everyday
lives. [paragraph 33]
Several questions arise at
this point. Do we as educators consciously want to change our
way of conceptualizing and discussing human biological
variation? What makes the "race as biology" assumption so
dangerous? Are we going to continue to classify people by race,
even while recognizing that it is a social construct? What
vested interests do people have in holding onto -- or rejecting
-- racial categories? How can we become more sophisticated in
our understanding of how systems of classification work while
also becoming more critical of our own ways of classifying
people? Are there alternative ways of thinking about,
classifying, and labeling human beings that might be more
empowering for students, teachers, and community members? By
eliminating or changing labels, will we change the power
structures that perpetuate privilege and entitlement? Moving
beyond race as biology forces us to confront these and other
2. The dangers of using
racial classifications. Categories and classifications are
not intrinsically good or bad. People have always grouped others
in ways that were important within a given society. However, the
myth of race as biology is dangerous because it conflates
physical attributes, such as skin color, with unrelated
qualities, such as intelligence. Racial labels delude people
into thinking that race predicts such other outcomes and
behaviors as achievement in sports, music, or school; rates of
employment; pregnancies outside marriage; or drug use. Race was
historically equated with intelligence and, on that basis, was
used to justify slavery and educational discrimination; it later
provided the rationale that supported the genocide of Jews,
blacks, Gypsies, and other "inferior" races under Hitler. So
using racial categories brings along this history, like unwanted
Macroracial categories are
dangerous in that the categories oversimplify and mask complex
human differences. Saying that someone is Asian tells us
virtually nothing concrete, but it brings with it a host of
stereotypes, such as "model minority," "quiet," "good at math,"
"inscrutable," and so on. Yet the Asian label includes a wide
range of groups, such as Koreans, Filipinos, and Vietnamese,
with distinct histories and languages. The same is true for
"white," a term that homogenizes the multiple nationalities,
languages, and cultures that constitute Europe. The label
"African American" ignores the enormous linguistic, physical,
and cultural diversity of the peoples of Africa. The term
"black" conflates people of African descent who were brought to
the U. S. as slaves with recent immigrants from Africa and the
Caribbean. These macroracial labels oversimplify and reduce
human diversity to four or five giant groups. Apart from being
bad science, these categories don't predict anything helpful --
yet they have acquired a life of their own.
Macroracial categories, such
as those used in the U. S. Census and other institutional
data-collection efforts, force people to use labels that may not
represent their own self-identity or classifying system. They
must either select an existing category or select "other" -- by
definition, a kind of nonidentity. The impossibility, until
recently, of selecting more than one ethnic/racial category
implicitly stigmatizes multiracial individuals. And the term
"mixed" wrongly implies that there are such things as "pure"
races, an ideology with no basis in science. The recent
expansion of the number of U. S. Census categories still cannot
accommodate the diversity of the U. S. population, which
includes people whose ancestry ranges from Egypt, Brazil, Sri
Lanka, Ghana, and the Dominican Republic to Iceland and Korea.
3. How macroracial
categories have served people in positive ways. Having noted
some negative aspects, it is equally important to discuss how
macroracial categories also serve society. Recall that labels
are not intrinsically "good" or "bad." It depends on what people
do with them. During the 1960s, the U. S. civil rights movement
helped bring about consciousness and pride in being African
American. This consciousness -- known by terms such as ethnic
pride and black power -- united people who had been the victims
of racism and oppression. From that consciousness sprang such
educational interventions as black and Chicano history classes,
ethnic studies departments, Afrocentric schools, and other
efforts to empower young people. The movement to engender pride
in and knowledge of one's ancestry has had a powerful impact.
Many individuals are deeply attached to these racial labels as
part of a positive identity. As one community activist put it,
"Why should I give up being a race? I like being a race."
Racial classification can
also have positive impact by allowing educators to monitor how
equitably our institutions are serving the public. Racial
categories are used by schools to disaggregate data on student
outcomes, including achievement, attendance, discipline, course
placements, college attendance rates, and other areas of school
and student performance. These data are then used to examine
whether certain groups of students are disproportionately
represented in any outcome areas. For example, a school might
discover that the percentage of Latino students who receive some
type of disciplinary intervention is higher than that for other
school populations. The school can then consider what it can do
to change this outcome. Teachers might ask, Is there something
about the way Latino students are treated in the school that
leads to higher disciplinary referral rates? What other factors
might be involved? [paragraph
The racial classifications
that educators use to monitor student outcome data reflect our
society's social construction of race. As such, the categories
represent groups that have been historically disenfranchised,
oppressed, or marginalized. Without data disaggregated by race,
gender, and other categories, it would be difficult to identify
problems stemming from race-based institutional and societal
factors that privilege certain groups, such as the widespread U.
S. practice of tracking by so-called ability. Without data
broken out according to racial, gender, and ethnic categories,
schools would not be able to assess the positive impact
intervention programs have had on different groups of students.
4. Shifting the
conversation from biology to culture. One function of the
myth of race as biology has been to distract us from the
underlying causes of social inequality in the United States.
Dismantling the myth of race as biology means that we must now
shift our focus to analyzing the social, economic, political,
and historical conditions that breed and serve to perpetuate
social inequality. For educators, this means helping students to
recognize and understand socioeconomic stratification, who
benefits and who is harmed by racial discrimination, and how we
as individuals and institutional agents can act to dismantle
ideologies, institutions, and practices that harm young people.
There is another, more
profound implication of the impermanence of race. Culture,
acting collectively, and humans, acting individually, can make
races disappear. That is, we can mate and marry across
populations, thus destroying the racial "markers" that have been
used to facilitate categorization and differential treatment of
people of different ancestry and social rank. An understanding
of human biological variation reveals the positive, indeed
essential, role that intermating and intermarriage have played
in human evolution and human adaptation. Rather than
"mongrelizing" a "pure species," mating between different
populations enriches the genetic pool. It is society, rather
than nature -- and socially and economically stratified
societies, for the most part -- that restricts social and sexual
intercourse and severely penalizes those who mate across racial
and other socially created lines.
about race informs us about what race is and is not, but it
cannot guide educational decision making. The underlying goal of
social justice can help educators in making policy decisions,
such as whether to use racial and ethnic categories to monitor
educational outcomes. As long as we continue to see racially
based disparities in young peoples' school achievement, then we
must monitor and investigate the social conditions that produce
these disparities. We must be careful, however, to avoid
"biologizing" the classification; that is, we must avoid
assuming genetic explanations for racial differences in
behaviors and educational outcomes or even diseases.
As we pursue a more socially
just world, educators should also continue to support young
people's quest for knowledge about the history and struggles of
their own people, as well as those of other groups, so that
students in the future will not be able to point to their
textbooks and say, "My people are not included in the
curriculum." In the process, we can encourage both curiosity
about and respect for human diversity, and we can emphasize the
importance that historical and social context plays in creating
social inequality. We can also encourage comparative studies of
racial and other forms of social stratification, further
challenging the notion that there is a biological explanation
for oppression and inequality. In short, students will
understand that there is no biological explanation for a group's
historical position as either oppressed -- or oppressor. We can
encourage these studies to point out variations and fine
distinctions within human racial groupings.
In addition to viewing the
treatment of race and racial categories through a social-justice
lens, we would apply another criterion that we call "depth of
knowledge." We believe that it is important to challenge and
inspire young people by exposing them to the best of our current
knowledge in the sciences, social sciences, and other
disciplines. Until now, most students in our education system
have not been exposed to systematic, scientifically based
teaching about race and human biological variation. One reason
is that many social studies teachers may think they lack
sufficient background in genetics and human biology. At the same
time, many biology teachers may feel uncomfortable teaching
about race as a social construct. The null move for teachers
seems to be to say that we should all be "color blind." However,
this does not help educate students about human diversity, both
biological and social. In rare cases when students have the
opportunity to engage in studies of race, ethnicity, culture,
and ways to end racism, they are both interested and
intellectually challenged (Donaldson, 1996). One high school
teacher who teaches students about race said he wants to dispel
the notion that teaching about diversity is "touchy feely." "We
don't just want to touch diversity; we want to approach it
academically. . . . We feel we have a definite discipline."
(Henze, 2001, p. 539).
Rather than shield students
and ourselves from current scientific knowledge about race,
including its contradictions and controversies, we submit that
educators should be providing opportunities for students to
learn what anthropologists, geneticists, and other scientists,
including social scientists, have to say about human biological
variation and the issue of race. Particularly in middle schools,
high schools, and beyond, students should be involved in inquiry
projects and social action projects, in critical examination of
the labels we currently use, and in analysis of the reasons for
and against using them in particular contexts. Rather than tell
students that they should or should not use racial labels
(except for slurs), educators should be creating projects in
which students explore together the range of possible ways of
classifying people and the implications and political
significance of alternative approaches in different contexts.
We would like to conclude by
offering readers some ideas for student inquiry and by
suggesting some resources that can serve to get teachers in all
subject areas started on the quest to learn about human
biological variation and ways to teach about it.
1. Ideas for student inquiry. Here are some examples of how teachers might engage students in critically examining the social, historical, and cultural construction of racial categories.
2. Resources for teachers.
The following examples will give readers a place to start in
compiling resources available for teaching about race.
Anthropologists recognize an
obligation to disseminate their knowledge of human biological
variation and the social construction of race to the wider
public. We hope that this article and the resources we have
provided will contribute to this effort.
(Editors' note: At time of publication, all hyperlinks referenced in this article are active. We are not responsible for content not hosted by EMME.)
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Recommended Citation in the APA Style:
C.& Henze, R. C. (2004).
Using anthropology to make sense of human diversity.
Electronic Magazine of Multicultural Education [online],
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