The word “race” is one of those words that is packed with a lot of social and scientific meaning. The word itself was a scientific creation, owed to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who himself took inspiration from his mentor, Carolus Linneaus. The five racial categories he eventually ended up with were his attempt to sort and classify the human race according to the same methods used on other species in the world. However, he sorted them according to his own subjective bias: beauty. This started with the most beautiful, according to him, those living near the Caucasus mountains, and followed downhill from there.

Even though he then took great pains to stress how humanity was not ranked in terms of mental capacity or behaviors (that is, race was not indicative of behaviors in the same way Linneaus had classified Africans as being indolent), that was not remembered by popular culture. What was remembered was that white people were at the top of the racial hierarchy.

This is the end result -- hatred and bigotry based on perceived appearance that continues to be added to, as with this picture I found on a very racist website.
This is the end result — hatred and bigotry based on perceived appearance that continues to be added to, as with this picture I found on a very racist website.

And now, though the entrenched and systemic slavery of his day has passed, we have come to rely on racial categories as a primary way to distinguish people from one another. Even done without the intent to use it as an excuse for hatred, it is still a system that uses markers that don’t necessarily make sense as a means to define one group of people from another. After all, while it’s possible to note the very different appearances of someone from Norway and someone from Nigeria, there are a range of people in between who, when put all together, make it much more difficult to draw lines between where one racial type begins and where another ends.

Here is an example of the wide variation to be found within race.
Here is an example of the wide variation to be found within race.

PBS has set up an activity: Race: The Power of an Illusion. This activity gives you twenty people sorted into five racial categories according to the US census. You are supposed to sort them according to where you think they go. On my first try, I got seven out of twenty right. My second attempt didn’t fare any better. The reason for this? People in different races do not all look like the most extreme example of that race – proof of this could be found in the other activity on the PBS site: “Explore Traits.” Here, it shows the same people, grouped into the correct US census race categories, but this time sorted by skin color, fingerprints, and blood type. No matter which way you sorted them, people across each race were selected for each one; in every instance, people were more likely to be like people not in their racial category than within it.

As we further explore defining racial categories by other physical markers, we go to the DNAI website, where they’ve put together a quiz labeled “How Unique Are You.”

Traits You Others Like you (n)2075 Frequency (N=138611)
Hair color Dark brown
Eye Color brown
Eye Shape no
Skin Color Medium light
Thumb print arch
Dimples none 62973 45%
Tongue Tricks yes 105589 76%
Hitchhiker’s Thumb yes 72432 52%
Hairline peaked 50070 36%
Sex female
Hairy Digits yes 60830 43%
Bent fingers no
Earlobes no 81496 58%
Handy Things right
Dairy yes
Naval Inny horizontal

On the census, I would have been labeled as white (though, I’ve had numerous people, strangers and otherwise, ask me if I was Asian or Native American – so likely I could have been mislabeled in that exercise, too). Here, only 1% of people are exactly like me, and of the traits given I am half part of the majority and half part of the minority. Looking over the disparity, and considering the census activity, I truly get a sense of how pointless these categorizations are. What meaning do these distinctions have? What use is it to categorize people by whether or not their earlobes connect to their heads? If I was to be placed into a racial category based on that, I would be in entirely different groupings based on whether or not my hairline is peaked. It holds no real meaning to who I am or where I come from. Some of these traits would see me separated from my family members (including immediate family).

These results are replicable, for the most part, although I question whether or not some of these might change by age or circumstance (though likely a small enough number to not affect the overall data too much). For instance, my earlobes have always been like this, and unless some accident happened, I foresee them continuing to be this way. So, yes, they are replicable. But they don’t really hold any biological meaning that I’m aware of. At no time in my life have I gone in to a doctor and had them tell me that I have to be aware of such and such issues I might face due to my hitchhiker’s thumbs, or the fact that I don’t have dimples. Nor have I ever seen any articles linking a peaked hairline to some important biological marker.

These distinctions don’t have any use in terms of separating people out. It has no meaning in any cultural, physical, social, or biological sense. The only meaning it might have are those we attach to it, such as what has happened with skin color. And those meanings, as have been explored by people who make it a point to study these things (such as in my introduction), are themselves not particularly useful. We’ve attached meaning to them, but as we saw with the census, they don’t hold any deeper relevance than a sort of quirk of history. After all, if it had been a respected scientist from Africa, or India, or Japan who had come up with the system of races, and that system had been popularized, our idea of what constitutes race would be entirely different.

Chances are, you'd be wrong if you tried to categorize these arms according to the US census.
Chances are, you’d be wrong if you tried to categorize these arms according to the US census.

Throughout this course, I have had success in understanding the underlying meaning of race, and I have had some failure. Sometimes I think I understand, only to need to go back and reconsider what I thought I knew. This module, however, has given me some insight into the reality of the situation, and that is that people do make judgments on others based on their appearances. More than that, we attach social significance to the categories of race, when those categories aren’t always easily defined. People interact with other people based upon stereotypes, bigotry, ethnocentrism, and their own biases – whether or not they even realize what they are doing. The problem with this is that it is not based on human biological variation in any real way, because that variation occurs across populations, with wide diversity even within our socially defined racial categories. The census activity showed this very clearly, and the further variation activity showed how using physical markers is utterly pointless, because each marker is likely to put you in a different racial classification. Race is, perhaps, one of the most unfortunate social inventions humanity has created within the last few centuries.


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