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“Race” Is Not a Scientific Term

By Brasil Correio (Selo Postal) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Brasil Correio (Selo Postal) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In studying anthropology recently, I discovered a new perspective on the concept of race. I hadn’t before understood that “race” is not a scientific term, only a cultural one. It’s too vague to be useful for science, as opposed to more specific terms like “ethnicity,” “nationality,” and “skin color.” Because there is hardly any genetic difference between humans of different “races,” and because there are so many overlapping ethnic groups and other complicating factors, anthropologists tend to throw out the term “race” in their work and instead use the more specific terms that focus on explaining concrete features of human ethnicity. 

The cultural concept of race is also not the same across cultures. For example, in Brazil, race is a much looser and more fluid concept than it is here in the United States. For Brazilians, race is about self-identifying with a particular ethnic group. The physical features (such as skin color) of native Brazilians vary widely, and many Brazilians change their “race” periodically by changing their style of dress, behaviors, and so on.¹ For them, “race” is a statement they choose to make about who they are, and it’s something they can change their minds about—whereas for most Americans, “race” is an identifying marker as fixed as one’s birthday.

It’s been interesting to learn about such a different perspective!


¹This is according to my course textbook, Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity by Conrad Phillip Kottak.

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This entry was posted on May 23, 2013 by in Discoveries from Learning and tagged , , , , , , .
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