Race is a term commonly used to identify human groups with similar physical traits such as skin color, hair texture, eye formation, and facial features. These differences have been used to create racial hierarchies, to justify discrimination, and to establish and sustain power differentials in society.
The definitions of race have varied over time and across the various languages of the Western world. Some of them have emphasized the underlying biological basis for racial classification, while others have focused on sociological or cultural considerations.
For instance, the earliest definitions of race in the 17th century referred to human ancestry and ethnicity. The modern use of race, however, refers to physical differences among people in a given geographic area or on a continent that are determined by shared physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, eye shape and size, and facial features.
Many racial groups, such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, European Americans, and Hispanics/Latinos, are not defined as races in the United States. These groups are categorized as ethnicities in public health records.
As a result, a person can be considered to belong to both a race and an ethnicity (or be of two or more races), but it may be difficult for individuals to distinguish their racial identity from their ethnic one. In this way, race can exacerbate, or even cause, the development of ethnic tensions.
Racial identities are often extremely important to people’s self-perception, and are a key component of how they feel about themselves and about their world. Moreover, these identities can be especially powerful in shaping relationships with others and in creating social and political structures that benefit or disenfranchise them.
These societal structures have a range of effects, including the disproportionate distribution of resources and power between racial groups, such as schools, employment, health care, housing, public services, and criminal justice. The resulting disparities can be detrimental to the social, economic, and political well-being of all involved.
Despite these negative impacts, the concept of race remains pervasive and influential in our lives. In fact, the prevailing culture in many societies has largely embraced it as a defining characteristic of people’s identities.
While some people have questioned the use of the term “race” for humans, others believe that it is essential to classify and categorize all human groups. This is because the underlying assumption of race is that humans have inherent differences in their physical (phenotypic) traits, which reflect genetic differences. This assumption has been used to justify exploitation, discrimination, and decimation of groups throughout history.
The continued use of the term “race” is a significant obstacle to addressing racism. It is irremediably imbued with tenacious notions of biological differences and hierarchy that have long served to justify discrimination, oppression, and exploitation.
In order to address racism and its consequences, we need to eliminate the concept of race from our vocabulary and to make it clear that we do not want to be categorized as members of certain racial groups. This may require some changes in how racial data are collected and presented, as well as in the standards that must be met when determining the categories on racial data forms.