I’ve spent the last year writing about Asian stereotypes on the Internet. In one of my recent articles, I asked the question: “Are Asians the Smartest Race?” As I was researching this question, I kept reading that race doesn’t really exist and that it is just a social construct.
Could this be true? Is race really something that WE created to separate ourselves from each other? Or is race real? Are there biological differences between Asian, Africans, Europeans, and others? Needless to say, I’m not qualified to answer this question and for once I decided not to Google it. Instead, I went out and found someone who is qualified.
Professor Clark Barrett is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at UCLA. Professor Barrett received his BA in Biology at Harvard and his PhD in Anthropology at UCSB. He conducts research among the Shuar, an indigenous Amazonian society in Ecuador. His research uses cross-cultural comparisons to examine universals and variation in human cognitive development.
I was lucky enough to ask Professor Barrett a few questions…
What does a biological anthropologist (like yourself) do/study?
Biological anthropologists study human evolution. It is a diverse field that examines all aspects of human physiology, anatomy, genetics, development, behavior, and psychology from an evolutionary perspective.
Is race biologically relevant category for humans? Why or why not?
Biological anthropologists generally agree that races as discrete categories — Black, White, Asian, etc. — are cultural constructs. However, this does not mean that there is not variation among humans in both appearance and many other traits. This variation is, in part, caused by genetic variation. However, human genetic variation is a continuum, without discrete boundaries. Because racial categories are just that — categories — they impose boundaries where in fact there are none. Genes do not cluster in ways that map onto cultural racial categories.
How do people respond to that answer?
Some people confuse it for the claim that people do not differ in appearance in different parts of the world. That part is obviously true. However, any trait that you could use to classify people, such as skin color, is in fact a continuum. People are often surprised to discover, for example, that if you were to assemble all the shades of skin color of people who are classified by the American folk racial category “black,” that set of skin colors would in fact overlap every other folk racial category (White, Asian, etc).
Is there a more accurate way we should classify people from different countries/places?
Not if it sorts people into categories. People are individuals, both genetically and culturally. It’s accurate to say what part of the world a particular ancestor of a person, e.g., your grandmother, came from. However, the set of all ancestors is also a continuum which, for all of us, stretches back to Africa sometime around 50,000 years ago.
Race has been so ingrained into my thinking that it’s difficult for me to even conceive that it is something that was imagined by us humans and not a biological fact. But when I think about it and read Professor Barrett’s answers, I know intrinsically it is the truth. And you know what? It is freeing to think that we (all people, no matter where we live or where our ancestors are from) not only share a common ancestry and biologically but are (in the end) more similar to each other than different.
The fact that race does not exist (or rather, that it is a social construct) serves only to confirm my belief that not one race is better at one thing than any other. To think so continues to perpetuate ignorance, hate, and racism. Nor should one person or his/her actions be used to stereotype an entire group of people. We should look at everyone as individuals. So when you see me driving erratically on the freeway, don’t think that all Asian people can’t drive. Think Koji can’t drive, flip me off, and for gosh sake stay out of my way.