What is Race?

By Victor M. Fernandez RN, BSN


In the Emergency Department the radio squawks with the familiar greetings "MGH this is rescue 3 inbound with a 56 year old black male with complaint of chest pain .. "  The patient arrives and is received by the nurse who asses the patient while the admissions clerk begins with a stream of questions,  including one about race. The patient is treated and admitted to the ICU (Intensive Care Unit), where the nurse begins the admission assessment; again, the question of race comes up on the assessment form. In reviewing the chart the physicians notes reads as follows; "This is a 56 year old black male who presents to the er with .. " flip to the nurses notes, "  .. 56 yo black male, diaphoretic .. "   but what exactly is race?
Many Americans, and it would appear many in our health care system, put an emphasis on classifying everyone by race, not region, or culture. There exist laws that protect people from racial bias, there are racial relation issues, and proportional representation of racial groups. Words like "racial groups", "race" and "racial conflict" are quite common terms in the English language, and they keep cropping up in the press, in TV news, and in casual conversations, but the  meaning of the term race frequently seems ambiguous and vague.

The AAPA (American Association of Physical Anthropology) Statement on Biological Aspects of Race (1994) describes the popular concept of race as "being derived from 19th and early 20th century scientific formulations." The popular American folklore of the three great racial groups has its roots in a system developed in Europe and North America in the 18th century. It was for some time common to divide people into three main races. Caucasian or the so-called white race, for example, native residents of Britain, France Germany. Natives of Uganda, Somalia, and Nigeria in Africa are considered Negroid or part of the black race. Koreans, Chinese, American Indians are all Mongoloid or members of the yellow race. The distinguishing characteristics of these races are based on their visibly observable traits such as skin color, hair form, bone structure and body shape. We must keep in mind that the American system of categorizing groups of people on the basis of race, was developed by what was then a dominant white, European-descended population, and serves as a means to distinguish and control other "non-white" populations in various ways.

Though many definitions exist, there appears to be no established agreement on any scientific definition of race. What we do find though, is the general belief among the scientific community that race has no biological or natural basis and that the "race" related physical variations found in humans have no real significance except for the social/cultural importance put on them by people. Race is a cultural term that Americans use to describe what a person's ancestry is, and that unfortunately brings with it many misconceptions and erroneous biological connotations. The popular tendency to attribute a general inferiority or superiority to a particular race, based on these biological differences, fails to notice that these differences in humans are not only genetic but also influenced by environmental factors.
Further more, those features considered significant for the survival of the species, such as the genetic capacity for intellectual development, have not been found, nor known to occur more frequently in one population than in any other. Despite of our apparent differences, which are only skin deep, all humans around the world are biologically quite similar.

"The concept of race is a social and cultural construction. . . . Race simply cannot be tested or proven scientifically,'' according to the policy statement issued by the American Anthropological Association. "It is clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. The concept of `race' has no validity . . . in the human species.'' Race is a socially defined concept that is used to categorize people according to their physical characteristics, and as such, a biologically meaningless category. It would be obvious by now that most people misuse the term "race," since the 'pure races' or genetically homogeneous human populations alluded to, do not exist, nor is there any valid evidence that they have ever existed. Unfortunately, these antiquated racial concepts persist as social conventions that serve to foster institutional discrimination. Race has a social and political significance because of racism, such ideas as biological superiority or deficits among races, the assumption that intelligence, learning ability, physical endurance and such are somehow linked with genetic characteristics that differ systematically between "races," have often been used to support this racism.

In an apparent attempt to change some of the national attitudes towards the concept of race, the AAPA recommended the U.S. government drop the term "race" from its census categories in favor of   a more useful term such as ethnicity. While race refers to the categorization of people, ethnicity has to do with group identification and reflects the person's culture. Even though nearly all college textbooks have long since dropped the idea that humanity can be neatly divided into races, racial categories were not completely abandoned , instead U.S. censuses now permit people to list themselves in several races if they so choose. As an example on another perspective, the Canadian Census does not collect data by racial categories, only by country of birth. Blacks and whites from Jamaica could classify themselves as British. There remains much debate regarding the concept of race, ethnicity, and appropriate categorization.

 Keep in mind the concepts of race and ethnicity is strictly a cultural construct, and there is simply no physical evidence that ethnic groups are much different from one another. However, there does exist cultural differences and material culture evidence of people's self-defined ethnicity. "Race et culture" (Lévi-Strauss 1979 [1971]), begins with a critique of the idea of race, he shows how pervasive notions of racial difference are in human societies, and how they contribute to the integrity of the group. He further states that far from it being the case that culture is the product of race, "race - or that which one generally means by this term - is one of several functions of culture" (Lévi-Strauss 1979:446)

I will continue to use the term "race" but with occasional reminders that social and behavioral differences among human beings are not genetic or biological and therefore not racial. It would be foolish not to recognize that regardless of whether biological differences exist or not, race plays a role and we need to include it, but with extreme caution.

 Educating people in the United States is not likely to correct their terminology, however, there is a tendency to disregard the wishes of the people affected, and they will likely continue labeling people as they (selfishly) see fit. We may have to continue correcting misconceptions and erroneous biological and genetic connotations to race as we encounter them. It is not your job to sensitize the U.S. population, but it seems we will wallow in stupidity until somebody teaches us otherwise.


1. American Association of Physical Anthropology: Statement on Biological Aspects of Race
Published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 101, pp 569-570, 1996
For further information of Statement on Biological Aspects of Race, see American Association of Physical Anthropologist

2. Lévi-Strauss, Claude - (1979 [1971]) "Race et histoire", in Raymond Bellour and Catherine Clément, eds., Claude Lévi-Strauss, pp. 427-462. Paris: Gallimard (originally published in Revue internationale des sciences sociales, 23(4)


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