Racial Categories: The day I learned race is more of a social construct than a biological certainty

Chapter 8 of Waking Up White: and finding myself in the story of RACE by Debbie Irving

How have you understood racial difference? In terms of biology? Culture? Have you given it much thought? Why or why not?

One of the most startling things I learned in this chapter was “that, genetically speaking, humans have the least intraspecies genetic variation, and the greatest variation occurs within ethnic groups.” I had always thought that things like Negroes being good at sports, and Asians being good at math were enhanced by nurture, but were basically the result of nature. But “no science supports the idea that genetic makeup follows the neat racial lines white people have created. No science links race to intrinsic traits such as intelligence or musical or physical abilities.”

Debbie’s discussion about imagining people being ranked by hair color, reminded me of the old diversity study where the teacher separated the class by eye color, and told the kids that the brown-eyed kids were smarter, more helpful, etc., than the blue-eyed kids. She also treated the brown-eyed kids more kindly, and praised them lavishly, while denigrating the blue-eyed kids. Within a couple of days, the brown-eyed kids were reading better, getting better grades on tests and behaving beautifully, while the blue-eyed kids were causing trouble, and falling behind on their studies. Apparently, intelligence and success in school has less to do with genetics than with societal treatment.

How much intellectual superiority that we see in Japanese children is because of parental pressure and expectations? How are teachers’ attitudes towards kids influenced by early standardized tests? Does an IQ test in kindergarten or first grade either adversely or positively affect the entire rest of that child’s academic career? And how much are the results of that IQ test influenced by whether the parents were at home regularly after school, reading to, and playing with the child.

Imagine a young black man in “the hood”, who understood from everyone around him that his only way out was through sports, or in a coffin. That kid, encouraged by his parents and community, probably won’t even try to excel academically. My guess is that he will spend his afternoons and weekends practicing basketball, even though he might really prefer reading a book.

Or what about the kid who is still “baby-fat” pudgy when entering kindergarten? Suppose she is also not very coordinated yet (it doesn’t matter what race she is). Will she have opportunities in sports? We were always told that African-American women didn’t have “the body shape” to succeed in sports like swimming or gymnastics. But the most recent Olympics have certainly proven us wrong.

If you would like to join me as I blog about my experiences with race, please read the book. It was life changing for me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.