When people talk about race, it’s often a complicated subject. Whether we are talking about history or today’s society, the word can stir up emotions. It can also lead to misunderstandings or misconceptions about the issues. Here are some facts about the concept of race to help you get a better understanding of how the issue affects us all.
1. Race is a social construct.
Scientists have long questioned the rationale for sorting people into categories that are assigned to them simply because of their physical appearance or skin color. The idea of races was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries as part of an effort to justify slavery by asserting that certain traits innately distinguished one group from another, and that those traits indicated biological superiority or inferiority. In reality, however, there are no measurable differences between humans that can be attributed to a specific racial category.
Researchers have been able to categorize groups of people into broad continental “continental” regions that share similar genetic similarities. But 85% of all genetic variation exists within, not between, such groups. So there is no scientific basis for defining people as members of distinct “races.”
2. The concept of race was based on societal beliefs and economic gain.
Many of the historical factors that led to racial classifications — including colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and migration patterns — also played a role in perpetuating racism. Regardless of its origins, the fact is that racism has serious, negative effects on people’s lives. It can cause stress that aggravates health problems, such as depression and sleep disorders. And it can result in a cascade of negative physical responses, such as heart disease and skin rashes.
3. Racism is a systemic problem that affects all communities, not just those historically discriminated against.
There is no doubt that racism is still alive and well in this country. It can be seen in the way that laws and policies favor some groups over others and in how people are viewed in the media and at work. And it’s a daily reality for many people, particularly those in the minority in our country.
4. A growing body of research shows that racism has a direct impact on a person’s mental and physical health.
Studies have shown that the emotional distress and stress that results from experiencing discrimination can contribute to a variety of physical ailments, from skin rashes and heart disease to gastrointestinal and respiratory troubles. In addition, the chronic nature of racism’s effect on a person can wear away at his or her psychological resilience and make it more difficult to deal with everyday challenges and life stresses.
When talking about people, be careful to avoid using the term white person/people. Instead, try to use more inclusive language like people of color or BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color). You can also ask the individual how they prefer to be identified. And if you are going to mention someone’s racial or ethnic group, consider using the AP Stylebook guidance about when it’s appropriate to do so.