The Concept of Race and Its Impact on Health and Well-Being


Race is a social construct that divides people into groups based on physical characteristics, such as skin color. These groups are often associated with different experiences and varying levels of privilege and access to opportunities and resources. Many people – including anthropologists – believe that the concept of race has been a harmful and destructive force in human history.

Throughout history, people have categorized and assigned meaning to physical differences among humans in order to justify oppression, slavery and genocide. Anthropologists and other scientists have long questioned the validity of the Western concept of race as an innate biological category. The vast majority of genetic variation in the human genome occurs within, not between, races.

Instead, anthropologists agree that the idea of race developed as a result of European colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and migration patterns around the world. Race is a social classification that has been used to define and control the lives of people by assigning them with different treatment, rights, opportunity and privilege.

A person’s identity, experiences and health are directly related to the racial categories in which they are placed, which can have a profound impact on their overall well-being. For example, studies show that the stress of racism can lead to higher blood pressure and weaker immune systems — which can have lasting impacts on a person’s physical health.

For example, consider someone who has one white parent and one black parent in the United States – in American society, this person is often considered to be solely black, even though they have as much ancestry with whites as they do Africans. This is a legacy of the “one drop” rule, which classified anyone with even a single known African ancestor as Black.

Another example is the biracial (or multiracial) golfer Tiger Woods, who was typically described as African American by news media when he first burst onto the scene in the 1990s. However, his ancestry is actually one-half Asian (divided equally between Chinese and Thai) and one-quarter white, making him technically only one-eighth African American.

The US Census allows people to select multiple racial categories when filling out their forms. But anthropologists encourage people to be aware of how the categories they choose are influenced by historical and current social structures, and to think critically about the language used to describe those structures. For instance, the term “White” has been historically linked to European colonialism and oppression, while the term “Black” is a common descriptor of people who have experienced slavery and discrimination.