The Social Construction of Race

On the one hand, there is this:

“There’s never been good reason to believe that human beings are naturally racist. After all, in the environment of human evolution–which didn’t feature, for example, jet travel to other continents–there would have been virtually no encounters between groups that had different skin colors or other conspicuous physical differences. So it’s not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races.

Nonetheless, people who want to argue that racism is natural have tried to buttress their position with evidence that racism is in some sense biological. For example: studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats.

Well, whatever power that kind of argument ever had–which wasn’t much, since the fact that a psychological reaction has a biological correlate doesn’t tell you whether the reaction is innate–it has even less power now. In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14.

What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.”

There’s a reason the previous sentence says “suggest” and not “prove.” As the authors note, it’s conceivable that “the increasing amygdala response to race [with age] may be driven by intrinsic factors of the child, such as puberty, rather than exposure to cultural messages.” For that matter, the correlation between peer group diversity and dampened amygdala response doesn’t mean the former causes the latter; it could work the other way around: maybe people with a mild response to racial difference wind up with more diverse peers.

But all of this is almost beside the point anyway, because there have always been plenty of reasons to believe that the amygdala response doesn’t reflect an instinctive aversion to the racial “other.” For example: The amygdala’s response to African-American faces had been observed not just in European-American adults but in African-American adults–who aren’t, in this case, the “other.” Apparently whatever cultural information was inculcating a particular response to blacks in whites was having a similar effect in blacks.”

And on the other hand, I am currently reading Laurent Dubois‘s excellent (so far!) Haiti: The Aftershocks of History and it contains this:

“In newly independent Haiti, these protected whites became Haitian citizens, and several of them even ended up serving in high-ranking military positions under the new regime. Officially, they also stopped being white: in his 1805 constitution, Dessalines decreed that all Haitians would “henceforth only be known generically as blacks.” In so doing, he made blackness not so much an issue of color as of allegiance to the project of freedom and independence. The same constitution, however, made it clear that while some approved whites could become part of Haitian society, new ones would face severe restrictions: “No white man, regardless of nationality, may set foot in this territory as a master or landowner, nor will he ever be able to acquire any property.” In a country where most of the population had once been the literal property of whites, this stipulation—maintained almost without exception until the U.S. occupation of the country in the early twentieth century—was meant as a shield against the return of the past.” (42)

There is nothing essential about race, folks. The essentialization of race comes as a product of culture, society and power.

2 thoughts on “The Social Construction of Race

  1. i read that when people with blonde hair blue eyes and white skin arrived in certain aboriginal areas where they were never before seen that the inhabitants thought they were gods and treated them thusly

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