The Differences in How People Define Race

When NYU sociologist Ann Morning began researching how the term “race” is used in different countries, she was struck by the fact that the word doesn’t mean the same thing—or has the same connotations—across borders. As the co-author of 2022’s An Ugly Word: Rethinking Race in America and Italy, she found that despite cultural differences, there are also significant commonalities in how people discuss the issue.

For starters, racial terms are inherently socially constructed and therefore prone to interpretation. The definition of a given racial category is shaped by social and political contexts, including cultural norms, historical legacies, and current policies. For example, the way that people define race can influence the results of a survey or questionnaire. And different definitions can lead to wildly different outcomes.

In the United States, for instance, the Census Bureau collects data on race in order to ensure that policies serve the needs of all racial groups and monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws. It’s important to note, however, that the Census Bureau does not attempt to determine a person’s racial identity biologically or anthropologically. Respondents are able to mark more than one race on their Census form, and the categories have evolved over time.

It was in the 17th century that the notion of racial categories gained currency in Europe. Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus classified humans into racial varieties, distinguishing them by everything from skin color to cranial structure. His distinctions received the stamp of scientific approval, even though he didn’t consider how phenotypical characteristics could differ within the same family.

More importantly, his classifications did not account for the fact that individuals could mix genes from different sources or how a gene’s variants can change over time. And as genetic evolution demonstrates, it is impossible to establish a line of descent that explains the variation seen among people with similar phenotypic characteristics.

Today, scientists know that the idea of a single biological human race is not only false, but it has also prevented us from focusing on the real causes of disparities in health, wealth, and life expectancy. Instead, we need to continue studying human genetic variation free of the shackles of the arbitrary concept of race.

The chapters in this edited volume highlight social science research that is rethinking the way we understand and talk about race and ethnicity, ranging from an analysis of how different measures of racial identification reflect and shape inequality to a study of how new ways of classifying races can provide a more complete picture of societal inequality. The work exhibited in this book represents an important step toward moving beyond the limitations of traditional race-based research. But there is still a long road ahead. Just as the astronomers of old thought that the sun revolved around Earth, the people of today must continue to reject the notion that any of the socially constructed categories of race have any biological validity.