Black, white, brown - facts about the idea of race that may surprise you

Kemi Owens-Hart
In this blog post we’re going to talk about RACE. What it is and what it isn’t!

Asian. Black. White. Middle Eastern? Latino/a. What do these words have in common and what do they mean? They are all terms we use in the US to categorize people based on...well, based on what exactly? Geographic location? Since we’re using the United States as a reference point, a person born in the United States who identifies as Middle Eastern did not do so because of his or her nation of birth. So, what else could it be? 

Race is a social construction, not a scientific designation.

Historically, the word “race” has referred to everything from linguistic groups to kinship groups to the Enlightenment-era association of inferiority or superiority based on physical appearance to justify the enslavement of human beings. The definition we use today in the US is, unfortunately, more closely related to the last one than the first two. When we talk about the idea of “race” in the United States, we are referring to phenotypical, meaning physical, characteristics of a certain person or group. Modern-day biology has soundly invalidated the idea that race is anything more than a categorization process created and perpetuated by social norms, not scientific facts. 

As teachers we must understand that just because a student in our class LOOKS like they belong to a certain cultural group, that doesn’t mean we can make assumptions about their abilities, interests, cultural contexts or lived experiences. By focusing on SEL competencies of social- and self-awareness, we can help deconstruct untrue ideas about race and build a more accurate understanding of the way we see ourselves and others.

A VERY short history of racial identity in the U.S.

This country has had a fraught and complicated relationship with racial identity. Legislative and societal perspectives on racial identity have gone through a myriad of changes but upon closer inspection, a common thread is the idea of the “other” as it relates to the idea of “whiteness.” From Native American boarding schools where indigenous children were forced to change their hair, clothes and language to conform to European settler standards to the justification of the enslavement of human beings based their skin color, the standard determiner in these instances was each group’s status as being “non-white.” 

In the 1900s, as immigration from different parts of the world started to change, so did the definition of whiteness. Immigrants of British origin were considered white while those coming from other European countries were not. North African and Arab immigration in the 1900s forced people from these places into “white” categorizations, which still stands today. 

Colorism, or discrimination based on skin tone, was a deciding factor in how some African American people in the US identified, designating “white” for those whose skin tone was light enough to “pass” and “colored” for those who couldn’t. These policies furthered a system of discrimination that, though no longer legal, permeates Psychological and societal perspectives on one’s identity and the treatment of a person based on their physical appearance.

While it goes without saying that discrimination of any sort has no place in the classroom or a SEL-based approach to teaching and learning, informing oneself about the history behind racialized identity practices is an important part of contextualizing current events and responding appropriately. We can combat racism with informed historical perspectives as well as empathy, courage and communication.

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