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    The History and Controversy of the Term “Race”

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    Have you ever thought about why you look the way you do? What is race and why is it even called that? The term race has been a controversial topic dating all the way back to 3000 B.C. when the Egyptians would draw pictures on the cave walls of different kinds of people.

    From then on, many more people became interested in race and how it was formed developing more theories to try and make sense of it. Though, the main issue is that everyone has different interpretations on it depending on their field of study causing difficulty in defining it. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of 2001 defines it as, “a group of persons related by common descent or heredity” as Richard A. Jones notes (p. 1590). The simplicity of this definition doesn’t even begin to explain how intricate the topic of race is so I plan to discover these definitions to see how race has come to be.

    So how is race defined? Is it how someone looks? Different cultures? The color of their skin? Their genes? These are all valid, but it all depends on which direction it is taken in. This is why it is so controversial because there are countless ideas and theories about it. As Erika Vora states, from a biologists position it would be defined as “…one of the groups or populations constituting the species homo sapiens [who are] capable of interbreeding with one another, but by virtue of the isolation barriers which in the past kept them more or less separated, exhibit certain physical differences as a result of their somewhat different biological histories” (Montagu, 1951: 48). This definition is helpful in discovering race in evolutionary terms. For example, biologists classify humans as mammals in the order primates and believe that humans have evolved from animals such as monkeys and apes, thus making it easier to just look at race as just “another species who interbreeds with each other”.

    The biological approach can be broken down into three main methods: blood group, genetic differences and physical & physiological measurements. Genetic differences are usually based on thoughts of Gregor Mendel’s independent assortment principle. This principle says that genes from traits are apart from the genes of other traits and gene for traits are independent from innate genes of another trait. Using Mendel’s principle, race was then redefined as “a group of individuals of whom an appreciable majority, taken at a particular time period, is characterized by the possession through common heredity of a certain number of genes phenotypically…selected as marking racial boundaries between them and other groups of individuals of the same species population not characterized by so high a degree of frequency of these particular genes” as Vora notes (Montagu, 1964). This definition makes sense in a biological sense, but results from the Human Genome Project disproves it. As Jones notes,“The Human Genome Project, thus, far has revealed that roughly 99.9 percent of the DNA of every person on the planet is identical. Human variation, in height, skin color, and so forth, is actually determined by a tiny fraction of the Human Genome and genetic variations within ethnic groups are wider than those between different groups …most people have multiple markers referring extensive migration and intermarriage, though ultimately we all carry in our genes the traces of African ancestry” ( Aidid 2002). These findings make race more complex than just about heredity and genes.

    This is when Blood Groups became introduced as one of the many ways to categorize people into races as well. Through Karl Landsteiner’s research in 1909, It was found that, “Blood groups A and B tended] to be concentrated in the middle of continental areas or in centers dense populations, while groupsmore marginal.”(Vora 1981:186) These findings show how blood types correlate with where a person lives. Both genetic difference and blood type are some of the first ways race was classified, but race as we know it today is more looked at on the physical side of things.

    Carolus Linnaeus, known as the father of taxonomy, was one of the first to come out with the idea of race based on physical traits. He classified people in only four groups; “the black-skinned people of Africa (Africanus ne-greus), the white-skinned people of Europe (Europaeus albescens), the darkish-skinned people of Asia (Asiaticus Fucus), and the red-skinned people of America (Americanus rubescens)” (Vora 1981:184). This theory was widely popular during the time due to the fact that he was known as one of the most important contributors to modern biology. While Linnaeus classified people based off of skin color and continents they lived on “Blumenbach proposed dividing people into races on the basis of his study and measurement of human skulls from all parts of the world” (Vora 1981:185). His idea consisted of 5 groups: “Ethiopian (the people of Africa living south of the Sahara Desert), American (the original inhabitants of North America And South America, and their descendants), Malaya (the brown-skinned people of Malaya, the Philippines, New Guinea, and natives of Australia), Mongolian (yellow-skinned peoples of China, Japan, and of eastern and northern Asia),and Caucasian (the people of Europe, southwestern Asia, and North Africa) (Vora 1981;185)” From then on, more anthropologists continued to come up with different classifications of race for almost 200 years with ideas on hair, skin color, shape of body parts, body weight and bones all using them to discern one person from the next. Aside from the biological approach of defining race, there was also a social concept of race. Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest contributed to this concept.

    He claims that people group together in order to survive. Erika Vora explains that, “A major social factor in separating a group from other groups of people is referred to as kinship: the belief that one group is the descendant of ancestors that is different from those of any other group” (1981:188). This shows how the social aspect classifies people based on political divisions tribal affiliations religion, languages, and cultural factors. French naturalist, George Buffon.also had another theory. He used white people as the center for all races and basically “judged variations in human types according to the degree to which they differed from white people. He designated traits of skin color, stature, and bodily figure as the criteria for six race categories. Like his scientific predecessors, Buffon attributed the origin of these physical differences to climate and culture variables, rather than to the genetic blending of fixed hereditary traits”( Fortney 1977:36)

    Although there were many theories on race before the mid twentieth century, those all did not review the evolution of races. As Fortney notes “race had denoted the idea of a transmissible biological type (Linton, 1945). The Idea of descent, that is, carrying common characteristics from common ancestry, was applied to the concept of race at a later time (Fortney 1977:41)”. In 1949 German- American anthropologist, Franz Boas viewed race as a pool of people who shared common mental characteristics with certain body types and genetics based on population and in 1959, Honigman defined race as “socially or geographically isolated population which, by virtue of frequent inbreeding has come to differ from another such population in certain physical characteristics, and in frequency of genes that help to produce those characteristics…” as noted by Nancy D. Fortney (1977:41)

    With extensive research on racial origin physical anthropologists in the 1960s were able to come up with a new theory on race. They broke it down into four processes: gene mutation natural selection genetic drift and population mixture. These all tend to the more elaborate ideas of evolution in race and how other races were formed. Fortner states, “Migration and mixing of different groups may lead to changes in old races or the formation of new ones. Interbreeding between two populations with differing gene pools results in new combinations of genes in the offspring generations of those two populations. For this reason, isolation is a potent factor in race formation. Were it not for the geographical and cultural barriers which separate populations, genes in the human race would be considered as one great gene pool”as stated by Fortney (Coon, Garn, and Birdsell, 1950). From these findings it can be concluded that race derives from migration, mutations and isolation.

    Because we as humans have categorized each other into different races, racism comes with it. Racism doesn’t have as many definitions as race does, but In Edmund Soper’s Racism: A World Issue it is mainly described as “incidences in the world community of animus between groups based on visible physical differences ” as Benjamin P. Bowser notes (Benedict 1945). Nowadays the term”racism” is overused in today’s language. It was even deemed one of the most popular words in the United States to describe conflict in the second half off the 20th century. People use it to describe any act against their race diminishing the meaning. Though, People were not always racist, it was when people decided to think of their race as superior to another that racism started to become more prevalent. It can be broken down into three different types: symbolic racism, color blind racism and unconscious racism. Symbolic racism is, “a form of individual racism that is not influenced somehow by social structure or institutions” (Bowser 2017:576) This means one race might support the idea of equal rights for another race, but won’t take an action to try and help.

    Color blind racism on the other hand is where a race basically knows that they have a discriminatory mindset so they think “if I don’t know your race then I won’t discriminate”. This is because people make assumptions based off of race and they know they will no matter what, so they try to avoid knowing the race which doesn’t solve anything. That specific race is still racist, but they are trying to hide it hence the term color-blind. For example, White americans would try and get questions about race taken off federally funded surveys so that they did not form racial biases. As Bowser states,“The bottom line is that people who claim color-blindness still manage to racially discriminate, and their color-blind public policies still have racially discriminatory outcomes” (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). Unconscious racism, on the other hand, is racial profiling someone because of how they look. As an illustration, this was tested by showing White americans pictures of Black americans and tracking their reactions. Stereotypes were formed in these people’s minds making them cringe more at darker skinned people and associate lighter skinned people with better looks.In the end, racism doesn’t have to be a thing, but its the fact that humans look at each other as different because of their race. If this would stop so would racim. It has definitely declined since the Civil rights Movement, but it still exists today.

    Race has many definitions and theories, but they all share the aspect of being split up in different groups. It has become very influential in how we live our lives and is very important to understand. Although it can be a little confusing, race is a powerful term and does matter.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    The History and Controversy of the Term “Race”. (2022, Jun 03). Retrieved from

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