Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Quick Take on Talking about Race

I’m almost finished talking about the “race” concept in my cultural anthropology class. As much as possible, I’m emphasizing two important points--humans are biologically variable and that the usual conception of “race” found in American culture is a social construction that doesn’t adequately describe that biological variation (though it does nicely serve as an ideological justification for social, political and economic stratification).

When talking about human biological variation, I employed the “braided river” metaphor to demonstrate that differences do exist without assuming discrete little bundles of racial groups. I am teaching a class in cultural anthropology at the time, so it’s a bit of a challenge to get across the idea without the benefit previous discussions of population genetics to set the stage. In my recent class, I added the straw man idea of “pure races” to serve as a contrast to a braided genetic history. A “pure race” being a genetically homogeneous human population with great antiquity.

This was helpful as it seemed to resonate with the class and provided a clear opposite to the idea I was attempting to communicate. I found it a good conceptual teaching tool that demonstrates something important in the negative by using a concept that’s easily accessible to students. It’s problematic that they all so quickly understood the idea of “pure races,” but it does create a visible target to deconstruct.


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