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.


  1. Hi Dalton,

    Thank you for writing this--I'm pleased to find you've been bringing the "braided river" into the classroom and trying out different things to develop the concept. I wrote a bit about this ongoing effort at Anthropology on Race.

    Thank you again,

  2. Jason,

    Thanks for the comment. While it's a challenge, I appreciate hearing about others' efforts in this area. I just read your post and see a lot that rings true with me--especially this statement.

    “My anthropology professor told us not to check off any box for race because ‘race is a cultural construction.’”

    Sometimes, I think the use of the term "cultural construction" can mislead students (I use the term also). I think they come out thinking it means "imaginary" and unimportant as soon as an individual has the "aha moment" of realizing it as a cultural construction. They have a much harder time seeing how such constructions have shaped the fundamental opportunity structure of a society, which translates into biological consequences. They don't, however, have the same problem understanding something like "politics" as a construction and that that has consequences.

    In class, I've increasingly also used the Thomas Theorem when talking about race--if enough people believe something to be true, it can have real consequences. While that statement reifies the distinction between a "material" vs. a "symbolic" does seem to get some important ideas across, such as many brought up in Gravlee's piece (which you introduced me to, thanks again).