Race has become something it was not originally intended for – a way to classify a human by nothing more than their skin color.

Pinning down the definition of race has been a problem since it became a concept. According to an article written for sciencemag.org, race “has historically been used as a taxonomic categorization based on common hereditary traits (such as skin color) to elucidate the relationship between our ancestry and our genes.” However, race has become known as a biological concept, which Holly Dunsworth,  anthropology professor at the University of Rhode Island, said  is not a biologically useful concept.

“People can’t partition up human variation in consistent ways that they can all agree upon,” Dunsworth said.  “And that’s because if you reduce everybody to a single trait you can maybe partition people up into different categories.” She added that with complex beings, such as humans, who have more than one trait, there isn’t one way that everybody can be divvied up.

The article written for sciencemag.org explained that race is a pattern-based concept that has led many people to come up with conclusions about the “hierarchical organization of humans” which connects individuals to a “preconceived geographical circumscribe or a socially constructed group.” Dunsworth said that it is easy to use geographical features to construct group, but that does not separate people either ancestrally or presently.

One of the problems that come with trying to classify people like this is that nobody can agree on what the term really means. Dunsworth said that in her experience the people that believe it is possible to come up with these classifications are pushing it because they believe of a hierarchy within the races.

“It is my experience that people who are pushing that are pushing it because they believe that some races have more value or are more evolved, which doesn’t even exist, or are more superior to others,” she said. “So it is very much linked; the idea that you can have these natural categories in people is pushed the hardest by the people who think some are superior to others, [such as] by white people with mostly European ancestry who think that their DNA is superior to others.”

Dunsworth explained that science has been a big driver of racism, and that from what we know about history, it seems that people were not as racist as we are today. She believes that it has been exaggerated by science. Dunsworth added that just because someone has a scientific way of talking and has many accreditations does not mean we should take anything they discover with anything but “a grain of salt.”

She also discussed how race turns to racism when people put a value on someone or if differences are used to justify oppression of a particular group. She said that because of this people would use it as justification instead of doing something to fix the inequality.

“A lot of people will rest on ‘well if it’s just innate there is nothing society can do to achieve equality,’” she said. Dunsworth added that people could find as much meaning in data as they want and racists find a lot of meaning in it.  She said that other people would find out things about natural history, migration, gene flow and more.

“That’s fascinating and that does not require the additional step of justifying inhumane treatment of people or seemingly less inhumane treatment of people,” Dunsworth said.

The sciencemag.org article said that, historically, racial categories that are infused with notions of superiority have no place in biology. The writers said they “acknowledge that using race as a political or social category to study racism and its biological effects, although fraught with challenges, remains necessary,” because the research is important in understanding many different aspects in defined groups.

“The race of that person doesn’t tell you about that person except for what group they have been assigned,” Dunsworth said. “Yet we use race as a shorthand to make all kinds of assumptions about the person we’re about to see or we’re about to talk to or we see, but we don’t know and that’s so dangerous.”

 

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Caitlyn Picard
Caitlyn is a senior journalism and English major who has been on the Cigar since her sophomore year. Now as co-News Editor, Caitlyn is hoping to gain more experience in the field that she can hopefully use in her life after URI. caitpic@my.uri.edu