What We Can Learn From Black History Month and the Modern Conceptualization of Race

While many of us know that February is designated as African American history month or Black History Month in the United States and is celebrated now throughout the world, many of us do not know its origins. I would like to raise the question of why it can be so useful in helping us understand what is called another race and another culture, that of the African American community.

First on the definition of race. Many of us feel we understand the word race as it is used in contemporary society. Here we can look at the definition from a commonly used dictionary. RACE—”A local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics. A population of organisms differing from others of the same species in the frequency of hereditary traits; a subspecies.”—The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary This definition has been challenged and there is now a belief that race is a hypothetical construct used to support racist theories of superiority. Invoking “race” to define and describe individuals opens the door to false generalizations. Understanding the history and experience of others whose lives are different from our own helps destroy racial stereotypes.

Learning from Black History Month’s celebrations and activities helps break down these stereotypes and allows us better to see the real person we meet, not our fantasy about them.

(From Wikipedia)—”This article is about human races as a social concept and in anthropology— A race is a grouping of humans based on shared physical or social qualities into categories generally viewed as distinct by society. The term was first used to refer to speakers of a common language and then to denote national affiliations. By the 17th century the term began to refer to physical (phenotypical) traits. Modern scholarship regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race does not have an inherent physical or biological meaning. Social conceptions and groupings of races vary over time, involving folk taxonomies that define essential types of individuals based on perceived traits. Scientists consider biological essentialism obsolete, and generally discourage racial explanations for collective differentiation in both physical and behavioral traits. Though there is a broad scientific agreement that essentialist and typological conceptualizations of race are untenable, scientists around the world continue to conceptualize race in widely differing ways, some of which have essentialist implications. While some researchers use the concept of race to make distinctions among fuzzy sets of traits or observable differences in behaviour, others in the scientific community suggest that the idea of race often is used in a naive or simplistic way, and argue that, among humans, race has no taxonomic significance by pointing out that all living humans belong to the same species, Homo sapiens, and (as far as applicable) subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens. Since the second half of the 20th century, the association of race with the ideologies and theories of scientific racism has led to the use of the word race itself becoming problematic. Although still used in general contexts, race has often been replaced by less ambiguous and loaded terms: populations, people(s), ethnic groups, or communities, depending on context.

Defining Race— Modern scholarship views racial categories as socially constructed, that is, race is not intrinsic to human beings but rather an identity created, often by socially dominant groups, to establish meaning in a social context. Different cultures define different racial groups, often focused on the largest groups of social relevance, and these definitions can change over time. The establishment of racial boundaries often involves the subjugation of groups defined as racially inferior, as in the one-drop rule used in the 19th-century United States to exclude those with any amount of African ancestry from the dominant racial grouping, defined as “white.” Such racial identities reflect the cultural attitudes of imperial powers dominant during the age of European colonial expansion.

This view rejects the notion that race is biologically defined. According to geneticist David Reich, “while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry that happen to correlate to many of today’s racial constructs are real.” These biological differences in geographic ancestral populations are not consistent with zoological definitions of race, and there are no “sharp, categorical distinctions.”

Although commonalities in physical traits such as facial features, skin color, and hair texture comprise part of the race concept, this linkage is a social distinction rather than an inherently biological one. Other dimensions of racial groupings include shared history, traditions and language. For instance in the case of African Americans.

English is a language spoken by most African Americans, the United States. Furthermore, people often self-identify as members of a race for political reasons. When people define and talk about a particular conception of race, they create a social reality through which social categorization is achieved. In this sense, races are said to be social constructs. These constructs develop within various legal, economic, and sociopolitical contexts, and may be the effect, rather than the cause, of major social situations. While race is understood to be a social construct by many, most scholars agree that race has real material effects in the lives of people through institutionalized practices of preference and discrimination.”

Learning about others from their real history and achievements helps us begin an actual understanding of the individual you meet and not the stereotype often created by the concept of “race.”

Fondly Submitted by Cindy for the Diversity Committee

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