Members of racial communities do possess certain biological traits that make part of that group. However, in anthropology, the phenomenon of race gains an even richer understanding; that of ideological and cultural constructions that need to be demystified and analyzed.
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Race does derive some of its understandings from biology, but this is not the only source of construction. Harrison (146) explains that various identities have been constructed concerning perceptions of what it means to belong to a certain race. Distinct differences arise from members of several racial groups in terms of language. Latin Americans may be able to speak English, but they still communicate in their native tongues. Additionally, South East Asian Americans also possess similar characteristics. The very ability to speak in these tongues already forges particular racial identities even without looking at other aspects of their lives.
However, despite these differences, one should not presume that language alone as a cultural element is enough to testify to the conceptions of race. Existent social structures or power structures do play a large role as well. These differences can be seen in the caste system of the Indian population. Those who are considered superior and at the top of the caste system are predominantly white, while those at the bottom of the pyramid have darker complexions or are perceived as members of another race. Perhaps most important of these cultural factors is the issue of colonial or post-colonial development amongst various groupings. For example, in the South American region, the phenomenon of race has been socially constructed to represent the level of underdevelopment within certain groups (Harrison, 157).
The United States plays a key role in corporate presence as well as a military occupation in these areas. Conversely, the presence of blackness represents backwardness to these South Americans because it is symbolic of some of their predominantly black neighbors invading them. A case in point was Dominicans, who frequently associated blackness with the economically disadvantaged Haitians in their land and whiteness with the presence of US citizens and hence advancement.
How have racial categories changed over time or across different locations?
Buck explains that race is not ‘done’ by individuals, but it is ‘done to us’ by external forces. History shows that it is the controllers and owners of wealth who seem to have a large say in constructing these racial identities (Buck, 33). For example, when the European colonialists arrived in America, he needed a way of organizing labor such that he could benefit directly from it. The Native Americans already owned land and enjoyed the rights associated with this status.
European landowners in areas such as Virginia created a system where Native Americans found themselves in debt. They sold deer skins to these individuals, and this resulted in immense debt. They had to forego their land rights. Colonialists also introduced some addictive substances such as tobacco and alcohol to the natives so that it could make them dependent on European goods, and this would later increase their indebtedness. It was at this point that the Native Americans began offering their labor to the landowners. However, because this community had contacts nearby, most of them would escape from their European masters, or most of them did not need to work because they already had enough property. Landowners needed a more reliable method of accessing labor, and this is how they started exporting slaves.
In the late seventeenth century, certain pieces of the legislature began being passed, so to enforce these rules. Buck (24) argues that the notion of white privilege was invented in order to derail matters of rebellion. Both poor white and black workers were disgruntled with the state of affairs in their country and would soon stage an uprising amongst elite landowners. The latter group was quite worried about the possibility of such an occurrence, so they decided to prevent it by instating a system of racial segregation. Whites were granted access to better jobs, education, and the like, while blacks could not get any of these.
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The system punished rebellious whites for breaking the rules and most blacks for trying to challenge it. This conception of racial differences between the blacks and whites was therefore constructed by powerful white Americans who needed to protect the oppressive forced labor system that had brought them wealth in the first place. There were also some material benefits that relatively poor whites had access to. This created the notion of the superiority of white descent and hence racial divisions. In this regard, it can be said that the people of America did not ‘do race,’ but it was ‘done to them’ by higher powers who needed a detractor to their oppressive systems.
These higher powers were capitalist landowners of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One may wonder what this history has to do with current situations because slavery was long abandoned. Regions all over the United States were products of their past. Misconceptions, ideas, and notions of racial inferiority in the slavery era were never really eliminated. These were passed down from generation to generation (Smedley, 7).
Furthermore, the exploitative system created in the slavery era served to place racial minorities at a disadvantage because of their inability to access economic opportunities. These similarities in disadvantage between that century and modern times have perpetuated the predominant ideas on white and black differences or differences between Americans of European descent and those of other categories.
Conceptions of race have invariably altered with time. Countries that were once race-neutral have changed dramatically. For example, native Indian populations in the Americas were once treated with respect and utmost precedence. However, after the process of colonization, the endless arrival of Europeans, and other members of the white population, the conceptions of the Native Indian race began deteriorating. These countries started associating the latter group with poverty, especially because of their living conditions. Consequently, they only referred to them during nationalistic endeavors where they wanted to remind their current populace or tourists about their past, and the role played by those native populations. Indeed, this exclusion of Native Indian populations from real participation in national affairs has led to several conflicts and confrontations in the latter areas (Harrison, 156).
Additionally, the entry of immigrants in various nations has redefined the understandings of race dramatically. This is because of economic restructuring and changing power relations that emanate from such migratory patterns. Certain native populations have frequently classified foreigners as disorderly or destabilizing forces in their society. For example, in North America and Northwestern Europe, some students have staged attacks against their respective neighbors merely because they thought of them negatively. To these white students, immigrants from developing nations, especially sub-Saharan Africa, were thought to represent dependency and disorderliness.
Furthermore, racial cues, as received from certain kinds of challenges, were also related to the way these underlying groups related to their respective signs with regard to the immediate as well as the distant future. These same reactions are often held by poor or native workers who depend on wage labor. Most of them have started to perceive the entrance of new racial groups as a sign of fewer job opportunities and lower-wage earnings.
These communities are thought to be willing to accept lower wages for their labor, thus putting native populations at a disadvantage. It should be noted that economic studies on the effects of immigrant populations on wage labor have been divergent and even contradictory, so such perceptions are not rooted in reality but in popular perceptions. New immigrant racism is, therefore, a new form of racism that pervades many multicultural societies, such as the United States (Harrison, 152).
How does race impact our understanding of the family?
The race has a profound effect on the understandings of the family because the ways individuals socialize, live, and interact are adversely affected by these notions. In multicultural countries, most of these entities will be found struggling to redefine understandings of race. In this regard, the family and the nature of values carried forward tend to vary by race and may sometimes be understood in a totally different context.
For example, races classified as ‘traditional’ are often known to value family ties, and this can be seen by the fact that a large number of them will be living together with extended families. It should be noted that such perceptions differ with geography since what may be perceived as large family ties in one community may be quite the opposite in another community. Additionally, native western populations tend to compare themselves with immigrant races, such as the Chinese, and it has been assumed that members of the latter race tend to give utmost precedence to the family over and above their personal interests.
Issues about race and culture need to be constantly examined because they are often revised and keep altering. However, one cannot undermine the role of history in determining these understandings as well. Furthermore, race as a product of social structure, economic systems, and identity will always provide a rational explanation for some of the extremities of racism in the world as we know it.
Harrison, Faye. Unraveling race for the twenty first century. Chicago: Chicago University press, 2000.
Smedley, Audrey. The history of the idea of race… and why it matters. American Anthropological Association conference. 2007.
Buck, Pem. Worked to the Bone: Race, class, power and privilege in Kentucky. NY: Monthly Review Press, 2003.