“Race” and the Construction of Human Identity

“Race” and the Construction of Human Identity

American Anthropologist
Volume 100, Issue 3 (September 1998)
pages 690-702
DOI: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.3.690

Audrey Smedley, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and African American Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University

Race as a mechanism of social stratification and as a form of human identity is a recent concept in human history. Historical records show that neither the idea nor ideologies associated with race existed before the seventeenth century. In the United States, race became the main form of human identity, and it has had a tragic effect on low-status “racial” minorities and on those people who perceive themselves as of “mixed race.” We need to research and understand the consequences of race as the premier source of human identity. This paper briefly explores how race became a part of our culture and consciousness and argues that we must disconnect cultural features of identity from biological traits and study how “race” eroded and superseded older forms of human identity. It suggests that “race” ideology is already beginning to disintegrate as a result of twentieth-century changes.

…The Non-Problem of “Mixed-Race” People

One of the more tragic aspects of the racial worldview has been the seeming dilemma of people whose parents are identifiably of different “races.” Historically, “race” was grounded in the myth of biologically separate, exclusive, and distinct populations. No social ingredient in our race ideology allowed for an identity of “mixed-races.” Indeed over the past century and a half, the American public was conditioned to the belief that “mixed-race” people (especially of black and white ancestry) were abnormal products of the unnatural mating of two species, besides being socially unacceptable in the normal scheme of things. The tragedy for “mixed” people is that powerful social lie, the assumption at the heart of “race,” that a presumed biological essence is the basis of one’s true identity. Identity is biology, racial ideology tells us, and it is permanent and immutable. The emphasis on and significance given to “race” precludes any possibility for establishing our premier identities on the basis of other characteristics. In this sense it may be argued that the myth of ”race” has been a barrier to true human identities.

The unfortunate consequence of race ideology is that many of the people with this “mixed-race” background have also been conditioned to the belief in the biological salience of “race.” Their efforts to establish a “Mixed-Race” category in the American census forms show a total misunderstandinogf what “race” is all about, and this is, of course, a major part of the tragedy. Their arguments imply a feeling of having no identity at all because they do not exist formally (that is, socially) as a “biological” category.

The fact is that from the standpoint of biology, there have been “mixed” people in North America ever since Europeans first encountered indigenous Americans and the first Africans were brought to the English colonies in the 1620s. The average African American has about one quarter of his or her genes from non-African (nonblack ancestors, although most estimates are likely to be conservative (cf. Marks 1995; Reed 1969). There is a greater range of skin colors, hair textures, body sizes, nose shapes, and other physical features among black Americans than almost any other people identified as a distinct population. Virtually all of them could identify as of “mixed-race.” But the physical markers of race status are always open to interpretation by others. “Race” as social status is in the eye of the beholder. “Mixed” people will still be treated as black if their phenotypes cause them to be so perceived by others. Insistence on being in a separate classification willbnot change that perception or the reaction of people to them…

Read the entire article here.

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