The Way We Talk About Race Matters

People are incredibly diverse, and that diversity is reflected in the way we talk about race. But as NYU sociologist Ann Morning and University of Milan-Bicocca anthropologist Marcello Maneri write in their 2022 book An Ugly Word: Rethinking Race, the term race is so culturally specific and loaded with historical baggage that it can’t be used to describe everyone or even most people.

In the United States, we categorize people based on the color of their skin and other superficial physical traits. It’s a system that’s meant to divide us and reinforce hierarchies that give certain groups disproportionate access to power, privilege, and opportunity. It’s a complex problem that’s deeply intertwined with many of our most pressing issues, including inequality, poverty, and social injustice.

The scientific consensus is that there’s no biological basis for race. But that doesn’t mean the concept of race is a non-issue — it’s an important and consequential one. The racial categories we use are still deeply ingrained in our societies, and they shape the way we think about ourselves and each other.

Race is a cultural construct that has been used to justify discrimination and oppression, but it also helps us understand our shared humanity. It’s important to recognize how arbitrary and problematic it is to define people by their appearance, and to acknowledge the profound effects that it can have on individual lives.

Despite the lack of scientific basis, we continue to assign people racial identities — and that has real world consequences. People’s experiences and interactions with each other are informed by their racial identity, and it’s important to understand how these identities play out in our daily lives.

There are five categories on the Census form that asks you to identify your race — White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Hispanic or Latino (or some combination). The Office of Management and Budget requires the Census Bureau to collect data on these categories, but it’s important to remember that the way we define race is subjective, and that people can choose more than one category to represent their racial makeup.

The way we talk about race is crucial to the ways in which it influences our lives. Race is a powerful idea, and it has implications that are very real. It’s impossible to understand our society without acknowledging how significant a role it plays in our most serious problems — and the ways that we can work together to solve them.