What are the implications of classifying people according to "race"?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Classifying people according to race is inherently problematic because race is a socially constructed idea.  There are as many genetic differences within people of a given "race" as there are between the different "races."  Therefore, race is not a good criterion by which to classify people.

Classifying people by race can have a number of important implications:

  • It encourages us to identify ourselves based on physical characteristics rather than on cultural attitudes or other attributes.  I, for example, am half Asian and half "white."  I am culturally more "white" than Asian, but I tend to be identified as Asian because of my physical looks.
  • It discourages people from classifying themselves according to other characteristics that (to some) are more important.  For example, people tend to focus on race instead of looking at things like socioeconomic status or "class."  Arguably, these latter two criteria are more important than one's looks, but we focus on the physical because we are so caught up in issues of race.
  • Finally, it can set up false ideas about which peoples are similar.  For example, it can make us think that a Dominican is essentially like an African American because they are both "black."  The same is true of recent immigrants from Africa and African Americans whose ancestors have been here for 400 years.

All of these are serious implications of our tendency to see race as the most important criterion for classifying people.

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