Actually, we made it all up.
What if I told you that race is a figment of your (our) imagination? What if I told you we, as a collective over time, made it all up? Well, we did.
Race is a belief system, not a reality.
Race exists in our minds. This is called a social construction because a society constructed the meaning of race. We use physical characteristics (phenotypes) to categorize individuals into made up races.
The bad news is that our belief in race and the superiority of whiteness results in very real consequences for real people’s lives. In fact, this was the point of inventing whiteness in the first place. Because our social construction of race is so strong, deeply ingrained, and intertwined with our collective societal identity (in the U.S.), we are unable to see that we made it up.
Money is not real (as a parallel)
Think about cash money and our belief systems. Because we share meaning (social construction) that a 100 dollar bill is valuable, the piece of paper then has value and real world consequences. In reality, this is just a piece of paper. The only thing that makes it important to us is our shared meaning that the bill can be traded for things we want. The bill can only be exchanged for items we want because everyone else in society also believes the paper is worth something.
Race is the same way. If only a few people believed in race and the white supremacist hierarchy that comes with it, there would not be many negative consequences for people of color. But when the entire society believes that our made up concept is real, there are widespread and consistent negative consequences for people of color and advantages for white people. To be clear:
RACISM & ITS NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES ARE REAL, but race is not.
Here’s what we know: Race changes across time
How we think about and talk about race changes over time. For a concrete example, scientists used to claim there were three distinct races on Earth:
Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid.
Did the names of the three races make you a little uncomfortable? If yes, you sensed the racism that was the main driving force of “science.” We even have a name for this practice of using science to justify the made up racial hierarchy of the times (including now): scientific racism. One typical practice was measurement of skulls to justify the superiority and greater intelligence of the caucasoid race (skull measurements are not correlated with intellect).
Please do not use these 3 race terms. Many white people label themselves or other white people as “caucasian.” Using this term calls forth the racism underlying the 3 supposed races that science has proven do not exist. Please use “white” and never “caucasian” unless you are teaching someone about the racism attached to the term. I assume you can already tell that “negroid” and “mongoloid” are also quite offensive.
Science to keep in mind – there is more genetic variability within each race than across races. So our idea that people within each “race” share some genetic or biological connection is false.
Race changes across space
Another way that we know race is a made up social construction is that it changes across space. When we say race changes across space, we mean geography, cultures, and societies. Race does not mean the same thing in all cultures, societies, or spaces around the globe. For the U.S., race has a particular meaning based on our history. In other parts of the world, race is conceptualized as nationality. In some spots, race and caste (similar but not the same as social class) are intertwined with perceived genetic components.
As white allies, we need to know the history of “race” and understand the myth of race as a biological difference. White anti-racism involves educating ourselves and others on the fact that
Race is a belief system, not a reality.
Perhaps you can find ways to incorporate ways to make this myth visible and to deconstruct the idea of race as a fixed biological fact into your courses, if appropriate to your learning goals. This myth that race is real perpetuates the idea that whiteness is not only real, but also biologically superior. Several of the fundamental core tenets in my (evolving) model of anti-racist pedagogy connect back to race as a social construction. Click here for your free access to the model.
Learn more about the White Anti-Racism and Action course I created for (aspiring) white allies and my group coaching program for social justice academics called Choose Your Own Adventure. Drop your email to get social justice updates (resources, tips, and truth-telling).