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 ), 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
2. Lévi-Strauss, Claude -
(1979 ) "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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