There are noticeable social inequalities in many societies across the globe that are grounded on external physical characteristics that include but not limited to the shape of the nose, texture of the hair, tone of the skin, and body type. Similarly, differences exist among persons in terms of their personal characters and abilities. This paper will focus on two contrasting perspectives of race by comparing and contrasting race as an essentialist concept and race as a social constructionist concept. In addition, the paper will provide explanation on the different but overlapping applications of ethnicity and race and examine the similarities and differences between the two terms.
Comparing and Contrasting an Essentialist Concept and a Social Constructionist Concept of Race
An essentialist concept of race supports the view that a person`s race is defined by rigid and deeply rooted essence. The essence can be biological or genetic, and this essence gives rise to stable personal abilities and character across different circumstances. An essentialist concept of race holds that human beings can be divided into distinct biological groupings called races and members of each particular racial group are unique in significant and unalterable ways. The notion that a group of individuals have some deeply rooted biological similarities tells a lot about that particular group. Individuals who share that belief are equally likely to have many other beliefs related to group membership (PBS 1). To them, group membership cannot be changed and is passed from parents to children, is inborn and biologically based. To them, a person can only be a member of one race. For example, if you are black, you can never be a member of the white race. These deeply held beliefs have far reaching implications in terms of how individuals in a particular racial group act and think about other people in different racial groups (Higginbotham and Margaret 147).
On the other hand, a social constructionist concept of race refutes the claim that there is a real existence of racial essence. They argue that even scientists are yet to find genetic markers related to race in the human genome. A social constructionist view of race considers racial classifications (such black and white) to be mere constructions done mostly by the dominant group as a way of justifying and rationalizing present inequality between different groups. In addition, classifications are mere convenient labels adopted in a particular society or culture. For instance, an individual may be categorized differently depending on which part of the world he/she is in. For example, how an Indian will be categorized in Brazil is different from the way he will be categorized in the United States. As a result, race from a social constructionist view is subjectively fashioned because of political and social motives in historical contexts. Given that the racial classifications differ from one place to another, any noticeable differences that exist between different races are not a reflection of deeply-rooted differences between these groups. According to Bernasconi and Tommy (15), race is purely a social construction. The conflicts in different parts of the globe today such as Palestine and Israel are not a consequence of biological factors, but are rather socially and politically motivated. Racial classifications and their meanings are shaped by particular societal and historical contexts and that they tend to change with time and between different societies. For example, in the U.S. there is a firm distinction between whites and non-whites. On the other hand, in a country such as Brazil, there are many racial classifications in between whites and non-whites (Rothenberg & Mayhew 15). In other societies, the way races are categorized is itself different. For instance, in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau groups people by race. However, when you look at a particular racial group such as the Latino Americans, they tend to identify themselves more in terms of their cultural characteristics, for example, customs and language.
Despite the remarkable differences an essentialist concept and race as a social constructionist concept of race, they have some common ground, particularly in relation to the biological variation in human beings. Both concepts of race agree that human beings are different biologically, both in terms of phenotype and genetics. Any two human beings who are not related are different by approximately 3 million dissimilar DNA variants. Both concepts of race also agree that these variations are caused by the evolutionary process and that the patterns of variation are closely linked to the geographical location (Lewontin 1).
The Different yet Overlapping Applications of Race and Ethnicity
Race is a human group that is either defined by itself or by others as distinctive because of the supposed shared physical characteristics that are believed to be inherited. The determination of which features form part of the race is a choice made by humans because markers and by extension categories are never pre-programmed by biological factors (Cornell and Hartmann 24). On the other hand, ethnicity refers to a sense of shared ancestry that is premised on cultural attachments, historical linguistic heritage, spiritual affiliations, or certain physical traits (Cornell and Hartmann 19). Consequently, when people are racially grouped as black, may have numerous ethnic identities that can be either based on cultural or African national markers (for example Zulu or Indian) or the newly created transnational identities that developed through socialization of the slaved populations in the Americas (for example African American). Additional features that differentiate ethnicity from race include the fact that racial identity is externally imposed by outsiders. For example, the Negro race was created by the whites as a way of standardizing the numerous ethnic groups they had occupied in Africa or transported as slaves to the U.S. Similarly, race characteristically entails power relations ranging from the most basic power of defining others` race to the much broader power of depriving particular racial groups of their political, economic and social benefits. Furthermore, unlike ethnicity, racial groupings are usually hierarchical, where particular races are considered to be superior to others. Finally, racial identities are regarded as innate; something a person is born with (Cornell and Hartmann 28).
Race is closely linked to biology, while ethnicity is closely linked to culture. Ethnicity and race can clearly overlap, however, they are different. For instance, a Chinese American would perhaps consider himself to be a member of the East Asian race. However, if he is not involved in any of the customs and practices of his ancestors, he may never identify with the ethnicity, rather, he but might consider himself to be American. Both ethnicity and race have a common philosophy of shared ancestry. However, they are different in various ways. To begin with, race is principally unitary in nature. A person can only belong to one race, but can claim numerous ethnic attachments. For example, a person can ethnically identify himself as both Polish and Irish; however, when it comes to race, he is either white or black. The primary difference is that race is imposed socially and is hierarchical in nature. Moreover, one has no discretion of his/her race. It is simply how a person is perceived by others. For instance, if person is born in Japan to Japanese parents, but while still an infant, he gets adopted by a British family in Britain. Ethnically, he feels British; he eats British foods, speaks English and knows British culture and history. He knows nothing about Japanese culture and history. However, when this person visits another country such as the U.S., he is racially considered Asian (Bonilla-Silva 45). Ethnicity is not merely a matter of association; it is also a matter of choice and group membership, and is often linked to a geographic region. Ethnicity and race equally differ significantly in terms of the level of agency that a person can exercise in selecting their identity. As already noted, people rarely have control over their races because of the visual physical characteristics linked with race. At the same time, people have more choice over their ethnic identity because physical differences between people from different ethnic backgrounds is often less outstanding given that a person may choose whether or not to express the cultural practices related with his/her ethnicity. The most compelling argument on the difference between ethnicity and race is that race has become so institutionalized to the extent that it has far reaching social implications on members of various groups.
Bernasconi, Robert, and Tommy Lee Lott. The Idea Of Race. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2000. Print.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism Without Racists. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Print.
Cornell, Stephen and Douglas Hartmann. Ethnicity And Race. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 1998. Print.
Higginbotham, Elizabeth, and Margaret L Andersen.Race And Ethnicity In Society. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006. Print.
Lewontin, Richard. ‘Confusions About Human Races’. Raceandgenomics.ssrc.org. N.p., 2006. Web. 31 Dec. 2014.
PBS.’Interview with Biological Anthropologist, Alan Goodman’.N.p., 2003. Web. 31 Dec. 2014.