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Ashlee Rawlings

The Concept of Race

The word race is not a simple one, it is a word tied to a variety of meanings and
countless perceptions. In other words, race is a four-letter word that carries a lot of
history; society and researchers have defined it over time. In society, we regularly hear
the word race attributed to different ideas, people and cultures. Regardless if it is wrong
or right, people have had a desire to categorize objects and people since the beginning of
time. Classification sometimes occurs by using physical characteristics or traits to
categorize things into their specified group, some people use skin color as one of those
physical traits. The word race raises many questions, such as why and how it developed
so many different meanings, perceptions and definitions. When analyzing the concept of
race, there are different perspectives, it is important to also understand the history behind
the word race.
There is a long history behind classifying and grouping living organisms by
physical attributes; one of the first instances of classification based on skin color
that we know of dates back as far as 1350 B.C. and it continues to be used today,
except it is defined far differently than it was first intended. Ancient Egyptians
grouped people into four skin colors that were labeled as red, yellow, white and
black. Surely we know that everybodys skin color is different and by creating four
categories of human skin color was not going to cover all humans, but as ridiculous
as the ancient Egyptian classification system seems, we still attribute dark skinned
people as black and light skinned people as white in 2014.

An important person that classified humans much later than the ancient
Egyptians, but rather similarly, is Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus classified humans into
four basic categories or taxonomies of skin color, which included white Europeans,
red Americans, yellow Asians and black Africans. With Linneasus theory, came the
root of biological determination, attaching a variety of attributes to skin color where
he particularly places Europeans above all others and black as the most inferior.
Johann F. Blumenbach continued research in skin color classification and biological
factors, he added a fifth category to the classification system, the Malayan or
brown variation. However, Blumenbach had an important understanding of the
fault in classifying by skin color, it ignored a lot of people that didnt fit into those
categories and the overlapping of groups. In the book Race and Human Evolution
it says, Blumenbach believed the human race had a single origin and that some
populations came to differ from the original type as they moved into different
environments (Wolpoff 62). Over the period of time that researchers were
expanding on the concept of skin color and the categorization of the human species,
they were creating a biological perspective of what we refer to as race. The
biological definition of race connects physical traits to geographic distribution; it is
the geographically patterned physical variations within a species.
Why does the biological perspective of race differ from the social perspective
that is casually used in modern day? Just like there is a history of categorization in
science, there is also a history of classification in society. The sixteenth century is an
important time in history, not only for the advancements in science but also for the
exploration of European countries that lead to an increased awareness of human

diversity(pg 312). The real beginning of what we consider racism began in the
nineteenth century when skin color was the main source of classification and it
continued in relation to Linneaus hierarchy perspectives on white at the top and
black at the bottom, except the separation between the variations were now
attached to cultural variations in America. Basically, society established a belief that
color and culture were both inherited, which we now consider stereotyping. Many
people believed and supported the idea that different races were a different
species entirely. Suddenly, the word race had a meaning that was based off of
faulty racial differences that people convinced themselves of in order to sustain the
economic growth that slavery assisted in. Racial classification was no longer based
solely on color and biological patterns, but it was now tied to a stigma that
associated social economic status, intelligence level, and morals to color. The
American Anthropological Association Statement on Race stated,
Today scholars in many fields argue that race as it is understood in the
United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century
to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: The English and
other European settlers, the conquered Indian people, and those peoples of Africa
brought in to provide slave labor.
Unfortunately, racism still exists in society and some continue to stigmatize
and discriminate based off of color today. The social perspective of race is based off
of a history that classified humans by biological determinism. Although we have
gained an understanding over time, the word race has a big history that was based
off of false assumptions and misunderstanding. Prejudice and racism are certainly

realities, but they are not rooted in biological differences between people(nanda
Today, it is obvious that humans cant fit into five categories based off of the
color of their skin, and we are aware that all colors and cultures are of one species.
The Cultural Anthropology book states that there are three main problems with
biological race including,
The arbitrary selection of traits used to define races; the inability to
adequately describe within-species variation through the use of racial
categories; and the repeated independent evolution of so-called racial
characteristics in populations with no genetic relationship. (Nada 14)
Differences between people cant be categorized by physical differences alone
because there are so many other traits that arent put into consideration.
Over time there has been a lot of culture adaptation, reproduction between
all colors or races and the biological differences cant be defined by color alone.
Contemporary anthropologists dont support the previous and invalid
concepts/perceptions of race; however, there is continued research in the study of
traits and their relation to population adaptation, mutations, gene flow, etc. Also,
forensic anthropologists receive help in identifying human remains by figuring bone
structures and ancestry. Today, categorizing people by the physical appearance of
color is unethical and viewed as racism. There are laws put in place to prevent racial
categorization, although some people do it almost naturally, it is not supported by

The simple four-letter word, race has been defined by the minds of
the people. Although it is so commonly used, no one can provide an exact, accurate
single definition for the term. Physical appearance has always played a part in
society and perhaps it always will, but it is interesting to know where the word
comes from, how it has been defined throughout history and how it has changed
through time.

Works Cited

Jurmain, Robert, Lynn Kilgore, and Wenda Trevathan. Essentials of Physical Anthropology. 9th Ed. ed.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2013. Print.

Nanda, Serena, and Warms Richard L. Cultural Anthropology. 11th Ed. ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Pub.,
2014. Print.

Smedley, Audrey. "AAA Statement on "Race"" American Anthroplogy Association. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.

Wolpoff, Milford H., and Rachel Caspari. Race and Human Evolution. New York: Simon & Schuster,
1997. Print.