What Is Race?

People who belong to a particular racial group share certain physical characteristics, such as skin color and hair texture. They also have a shared history, a sense of identity and a cultural context that is often tied to their ancestry. For centuries, scientists divided the human population into a number of distinct races. They did this based on the assumption that different races were genetically and biologically distinct from one another. The concept of race was widely accepted by scholars and the public until the vast expansion of knowledge in this century undermined the belief that people can be neatly separated into groups based on visible physical differences.

Today, most scientists consider race a social construct. They have largely abandoned the use of the term to refer to clearly defined physiological and genetic traits, instead using the terms phenotype or genotype. They have also come to understand that there is greater genetic variation within a conventional geographic “racial” group than between such groups, and that most of what we see in the world around us is a result of a combination of many different genetic factors, rather than the existence of distinct physical types.

However, the concept of race persists in our language and in our society, and it is important to be clear about what is being referred to when someone mentions a person’s race. People need to understand that the term is not referring to a scientifically established category of humankind, but rather to a socially constructed and historically influenced way of organizing society.

According to OMB standards, the Census Bureau requires that respondents report five categories of race: White, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Asian, and Hispanic or Latino (or Spanish). However, OMB allows respondents to choose more than one racial category when responding to the question about their heritage.

While it is easy to see the distinctions between some of the traditional racial categories, there are some exceptions. It is also worth noting that, when describing someone, it is often more accurate to talk about their nationality or country of origin than to use the term race.

Dani Kao is a PhD student in the Sociology of Culture and Communication program at UCLA, where she studies the sociology of science. Her work focuses on sociocultural perspectives on medicine, health and disease. She teaches a variety of courses on sociocultural theory and research methods. She has an MA in English Composition & Pedagogy and BAs in Women’s Studies, Religious Studies and Sociology.

She lives in Los Angeles, CA.

This article is adapted from a post on her blog. It is used with permission from the author. The original post can be found at http://www.mobypictureblog.com/2007/12/the-concept-of-race.html.

This material may be freely distributed with attribution to the author and a link to this website. If you find it on your blog, please feel free to edit it and add your own information.