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In this essay I will be discussing the term ‘race’ and how it can be considered to have a history. I will be considering certain themes such as Enlightenment, I will discuss how race was viewed in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century. Firstly I will put forward the various theoretical definitions of race, Secondly I will discuss my main theme which is the enlightenment and how race was viewed during that time, I will then move on to my main part of the essay which is to look at arguments for and against race being a biological element/factor or it being a social construct- something that is created by society itself.
I will then suggest some ways that the concept of race can be challenged and also mention some institutions that construct race to become visible to people in society for example; media discourse. I will finally conclude the essay by summarising all the points I have made to state my personal view backed up by evidence on the topic of whether race can be considered to have a history or not.
People have certain beliefs or presumptions to define the concept of race. Some of these beliefs might not be very high-powered. For example, they may include the thought that individuals or in other human beings with very different skin colours are of different races or that peoples race is determined by the race of their parents. But, in relation to this simple ideational theory, all of these beliefs have the same property or have come to the same conclusion (Appiah, 1996).
Race as a biological concept has various meanings. Race is often described as any distinguishable type within a species, such as dark coloured and light coloured variants of small mammals (Feldman, Lewontin and King, 2003). However, other definitions Include race being a discourse, suggesting that it has been created after years and years of knowledge and speaking of it whether unknowingly or knowingly. According to Stuart Hall race operates like a language and it is discursive (Davis, 2004). Contrarily, Du bois has formed a definition of race that suggests it is something “always of common history, traditions and impulses etc.” (Bell, Grosholz and Stewart, 1996).
It can be argued that theoretically race is about division and difference. The logic behind this view is that everything needs to have a label in order to fit in. Racial classification is to place individuals/human beings into differentiated groups. While some of Leroi’s argument adheres to this logic. For example; sorting people into five continental races, he dedicates a lot of space to apologise for this certain type of logic and he also undermines this logic (“what fraction of your genes are African, European or East Asian”?). The important question is why should a question be used a concept when it has an underlying logic at odds with genetic evidence? Racial categorization is undermined in order to fit the facts of “multiracial” people.
Leroi’s suggests that race is a shorthand that seems to be needed.” But in fact, there are better much more useful and appropriate ways to discuss our genetic inheritance than race; and ones that do not necessarily have “the problematic, even cruel, history of the word ‘race”” (Thompson, 2006). The enlightenment was an intellectual movement when people became more open to empiricism which states that thought and knowledge is based upon empirical facts. Progression from the beliefs of 17th Century Rationalists (“reason’) a new combination of previously separate philosophical traditions rationalism and empiricism: only reason and observation will yield knowledge of reality. The discourses of race originate in a specific period of Enlightenment thought, during the enlightenment there was an awakening of rationality and reason, the belief arose that the world both natural and social was ordered according to laws and that these could be discovered by inductive logic (Eze, 1997).
The Enlightenment notion of universalism was very important as science and logic had a greater influence in shaping people’s ideas, there was the belief that everyone was on the same level and had the same amount of knowledge. After discourses of race are produced a production of knowledge is created and that leads to knowledge on race. Rational and scientific thoughts transformed the understanding of humanity’s relation to nature and society and established a new ‘science of human nature’ hope to reform society rationally. (Eze, 1997). Humboldt states that “whilst we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time must repel the depressing assumption of the superior and inferior races of men.”
This states that no race is superior or inferior to another and we should remove this assumption from our minds because this idea can cause injustice and it is a harmful notion to believe in as it can affect society (Eze, 1997). The enlightenment not only led to Individualism when people started having their own ideas and views but it also was a starting point for all knowledge and action, there was also more freedom and toleration there was a call for an end to feudal and traditional constraints on beliefs, trade, social interaction, it also led to secularism: opposition to traditional religious authority (Eze, 1997).
In the late-eighteenth to nineteenth century there were more discussions of race in Thomas Jefferson’s Autobiography (third president of US) he continues to discuss physical subject matters and their visual consequences for example; hairlessness, kidneys, sweat before moving on to talk about questions regarding the moral character of the negro such as bravery, lustfulness, crudeness of feeling shallowness and the incapacities of black people. This brought together considerations that what we are likely to think should be kept distinct. We should always remember why the intellectual incapacity of blacks their inferior reason is invoked: this is not to justify unequal treatment, but Jefferson believed that due to catalogue of differences, blacks and whites couldn’t live together as fellow-citizens. Even though this is suggested that superiority wasn’t seen as a major factor.
It was still important as black people at the time were give a labelled status that was very low, they were still seen as inferior and to some extent also powerless (Appiah, 1996).
Race, as Leroi and others use the term, has the purpose of genetic isolation. The last supported statement in Leroi’s defence is that groups of human beings have experienced an increased amount of genetic isolation that it is reasonable and legitimate to use the term race to depict that isolation. Once again, we are back to social construction it is argued that it is a case of whether or not this is to be the socially agreed upon way, especially within the academic community, to define the diversity that does arise in every descent/lineage (Thompson, 2006).
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the dominant view was that race is biological, races were assumed to be biologically objective categories that exist to put people in classifying systems. Later on came the geographic subspecies concept, it can be defined as a genetically similar breeding population that inhabit their own geographic range. In the middle of the 20th century many biologists began to question the idea that race is a biological construct. The argument that was projected was that theorists claimed that even if non-human subspecies exist, there are no human ones and therefore races don’t exist. It can be argued that there is something called the no subspecies theoretical argument, the support for this argument comes from years of detailed work in human genetics which convey that there is genetic variation within racial groups such as Africans, Asians and Caucasians as there is between them.
Humans are too genetically similar to each other to justify dividing them into races (Andreasen, 2000). There are 2 biological explanations of race, the first is called phenetic classification this defines taxa (the relative level of a group of organisms) in terms of overall similarity, the population is grouped into categories through the criteria of resemblance. Phylogenetic classification, on the other hand, defines taxa, in terms of common ancestry.’ So human beings that share a common ancestor belong to the same genus; human who share a much more distant common ancestor belong to the same family, etc. however these explanations also have problems associated to them. The problem with the phenetic classification is that there’s no reason to assume that overall similarity will apparently represent an objective feature of reality. As Goodman has argued, “comparative judgments of similarity often require not merely selection of relevant properties but a weighting of their importance.” (Andreasen, 2000, p.656).
Blumenbach’s theory was that there are five distinct races such as Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian and American these five races can be perceived to be different according to their skull shape. Blumenbach also considered humans as a single species, he agreed that bone structure, melanin, hair form and expression could change with both climate and culture. Therefore it could be argued that due to the environment or changes in the body factors that signify a person’s racial identity could possibly change because of this there are certain limitations associated with this theory (Poole, 1997). Hegel argues that the difference between the races of mankind is still a natural difference, the difference is very much connected with the geographical differences of those parts of the world where human beings are gathered together in masses, and these parts are called continents. This suggests that people have differences due to being in different places/countries this could be in terms of social, political and economic (Bernasconi and Lott, 2000).
In addition, it can be argued that we can now perceive where many theorists have gone wrong in their reasoning about race. Many presume that similarity should be the foundation of an objective classification scheme without taking into account that race can be defined historically. (Andreasen, 2000). However, today many theorists argue that race is a social construct, this constructivism is formed as a 3 part thesis, the first states that although race constructivism accepts that some biological factors or categorisations might be objective, it denies the biological reality of race.
The second part of the thesis is an explanatory one which displays the idea of race and tries to explain the origins and beliefs in the biological concept of race. It appeals to ideological factors such as the goal of reinforcing social order that perceives racial inequality as legitimate. The third part is a positive thesis about the status of race, many constructivists argue that race is a ‘social fiction’ it exists due to people’s thoughts and ideas regarding human differences, others argue that race plays a key role in social practices amongst humans therefore the social reality of race cannot be denied (Andreasen, 2000).
Constructivists are interested in the sociology of race and race relations. They start with the observation that race often plays a prominent role in human social organization. It’s a central part or a key aspect of a person’s identity however, there is a limitation as it is an empirical question what people mean by ‘race, very little empirical research has been done on this issue (Andreasen, 2000). However, Roseau suggest in his thesis the first discourse that “our souls have been corrupted in proportion to the advancement of our sciences and arts towards perfection.” (Deligiorgi, 2005, p.17). His criticism of the enlightened age must be incompatible with the approval of the academy. Roseau and Diderot mention the contradictions that lay beneath an enlightened society showing the shallowness they found coexisting alongside intellectual refinement. The philosophical interrogation of what is considered to be a human being lead Diderot to dismiss both nature and reason as to providing us with plausible answers (Deligiorgi, 2005)
Furthermore, Historian Barbara Fields argues that race only exists in our minds, in other words race is an ideological construct understood in the terms of false consciousness. It is suggested that the concept of race first arose to meet an ideological need, its effectiveness lay in the ability to reconcile freedom and slavery. It can be argued that nothing handed down from the past could keep race alive if we did not constantly reinvent it to fit our own terrain (Winant, 1994). This connotes that race is made to mean, race is a socially constructed concept that has been created by people in society and it gets re-invented throughout different eras and times and this is done through each person’s idea or grasp of what race is and what it personally means to them. Race doesn’t exist but it is made to exist due to people’s notion on However, Leroi’s own writing concedes that genetic data shows that races do exist”.
In other words, it is a matter of insight and how we perceive it, and I would add, agreement on how to look at the data. “There is nothing very essential about the concept of major continental races; they are just the easiest way to divide things up. You could study enough genes in many people and an individual could sort the world’s population into 10, 100, or perhaps even 1,000 groups.” Again, it is subjective, and explicitly a matter of scale. This therefore suggests that there are problems with race being a social construction and being scientific in terms of it being biological. It is difficult to suggest whether it is just biological or if it just a social construct as there is evidence for both, some theorists also believe that there race consists of both elements, it is biological in terms of genes, but it is also a social construct due to people’s views and definitions of the term, in some ways race is made visible (Thompson, 2006).
There are many arguments that challenge the concept of race, some theorists argue that race’ is like a mirage which means that it is an illusion that is made visible also it can be argued race isn’t grounded in biological difference. It is suggested that race’ as a concept has no scientific validity; which displays the idea that it is somewhat pointless as a taxonomical device or as a means of categorising individuals into groups. However, ‘race’ is made real to us in many areas of life popular discourse, media-discourse, everyday life, politics, health, institutions, etc. This connotes that race is not real but it seems real because of the importance pressures institutions place upon the concept, perceiving race and having an idea about what it is and what it constitutes of is made to become the norm in society as well as ideologically for people (Back and Solomos, 1996).
In summary, our data and data from other studies (eg Levin 2000) have proven that the classification of race plays a considerable role in the perception and depiction of faces. When a vital feature acting as a racial marker is present, in addition, classification/categorisation appears to modify or in other words change the storage and representation of peoples own characteristics that enable the face to be subsequently recognized. Clearly it is not that we are unable to recognize other-race faces or that we are unable to derive information from the incentive, as many other hypothesis might suggest. Rather, the ambiguous-race face illusion proposes that other race faces are processed contrarily than same-race faces as a result of the classification/categorisation process. This process may explain why people are less able to recognize faces of another race. This conveys that if a racial marker is not present people cannot identify other races as they have limited or no knowledge on the face that is being presented to them (MacLin and Malpass, 2003).
In addition, as we enter the 21st century critical race theory continues to grow and flourish, this theory not only treats race as being principal to law and policy, but it also looks outside the most popular belief that people hold which is that getting rid of racism means to get rid of ignorance. This theory to some extent does suggest that racism creates race as it focuses on individual’s differences rather than similarities. Critical race theory contains an active element, it tries to not only understand ones social situation but also to change it. It sets out not only to discover how society organises itself alongside racial lines and hierarchies, but to make improvements and to alter it only for the better. Critical race theorists claim that race and races are a product of social thought and relations, they relate to no genetic reality (Delgado and Stefancic, 2012).
Furthermore, society chooses to ignore individual character traits such as personality, intelligence and moral behaviour these scientific truths are consistently ignored. Critical academics have also bought attention to the different ways society racializes different minority groups at different times, for example the media scapegoats and stereotypes. At one point Middle eastern people were fetishized figures wearing veils, wielding curved swords and summoning genies from lamps, but in the era further on they emerge as fanatical religiously crazed terrorists bent on killing innocent people. This suggests that as time moves on the images portrayed of different groups also change, where once they were shown in a positive light changes into the media portraying them in a negative light (Delgado and Stefancic, 2012).
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