In recent years I’ve heard people say things like “there’s no such thing as race” or “race is merely a social construct”, and I want to tell these well-meaning people that they need to take a laxative, because they’re full of it. Race most definitely is a thing, and it’s more than just a social construct, and that’s because the way that most of us use those terms is different from the ways that those people are using it. It’s sort of like the difference between the scientific meaning of the word “theory” and its common everyday English meaning; a difference which has led to people saying things like “But evolution is just a theory”, when evolution is not just a hypothesis. But that’s another discussion for another time.
Is there such a thing as race? Yes, just as clearly as I can see it on your face, and yours, and yours. And just as clearly as you can see it on my face, and hers, and his, and the faces of those people over there. Race is a thing. There are certain gene pools of people with similar appearances. On a minor scale, we probably call those ethnicities. Many people can tell a Brit from a Pole from an Italian, from a Dane. Many people can tell a Korean from a Vietnamese from a Japanese from a Chinese. On a major scale we have what we common people call race…the obvious difference between any Scandinavian and any Asian. The obvious difference between any Native American and any African. And so on. This is what most of us think of when we think of race.
So what isn’t there that isn’t race? Or to try to put it more simply, what is it that those who say that there is no such thing as race say doesn’t exist? The idea of each race as a separate species, or subspecies, or to use a term from the canine world…breed. We’re not as different as a Labrador is from a beagle is from a poodle is from a Chihuahua. Or…maybe I don’t know enough about dogs, and they’re more similar to each other than we are.
And what about the idea that race is merely a social construct? I’ll grant you that it is, but what the people who say this seem to be implying is that race is merely a western social construct, and by definition, that makes it suspect at the least, and most likely dead wrong. But you know something…I’m willing to bet you that when the Native Americans saw the first Vikings get off that boat in Newfoundland, they said something that translated to “Who are those white people?” And I’m betting that people in Japan said the same thing when they first encountered Europeans.
Is race a social construct? Of course it is! It describes people from here who really obviously don’t look like people from there.
Now, it’s been argued that race doesn’t exist because if you walk north to south from the very tip of Scandinavia to the bottom of Africa, or west to east from Ireland to Japan, the differences you see every day will be so slight that you don’t really notice them until about midway in your journey. I could use the same argument to say that color doesn’t exist and is merely a social construct, because if you start at one position on the spectrum and slowly move to the end, the differences will be so small that you don’t really notice them until about midway through. In fact, color is a social construct, because there are some languages that have no word for purple…it’s just another shade of blue.
But continuing on with the color theme, we can all pretty much agree on the difference between red and yellow, or yellow and blue; but what about orange? At what point does red become orange? At what point does orange become yellow? And how about green? At what point does yellow become green and green become blue?
The simple fact of the matter is that for practical purposes race exists just as surely as colors exist. Just as there are different large color groups in that box of Crayolas, there are different large racial groups in this world of people.
It just is, and denying that it is isn’t going to make it go away. We will always need some way to describe the people whose ancestors came from here (wherever “here” is) as opposed to those whose ancestors came from there, there, or there. Now…what you do with that information is another issue entirely.