A College Class Lists the Races

April 14, 2008 | By | 7 Replies More

I’ve stewed on this one for a while. I couldn’t decide whether it made for an interesting post or a snide, judgmental complaint. I think it will ultimately fall somewhere in between.

Last fall, I took an introductory Anthropology course at my large public university of choice. The class fulfilled a general science requirement, so a wide range of students ended up in the course. Near the end of the quarter, as topics had moved through human evolutionary history, we arrived at the topic of race. My instructor, in an attempt to paint race as a meaningless classification, a social construct of sorts, asked students to list all of the different races they could name.

The resulting list proved so mind-blowingly misled that I have wanted to share it with the folks at DI for quite some time. We’ve discussed American ignorance and the failure of our education system frequently on this blog (for a recent post on the subject, see here), and I think this “list of races” serves as another anecdote in the same vein. Each of the following came from a real, honest-to-goodness Anthropology class of around 50 people, all of whom had at least taken basic college biology.

List of Races:

Asian
Italian
African American
Latin
Indian
Spanish
Caucasian
African
Catholic
Arabic

The first thing I notice: Asians and Africans have the misfortune of all being lumped into one race, respectively, regardless of where on each continent they originated. Meanwhile, Europeans received detailed designations such as Italian, Spanish, and so on. The second thing I notice: Native Americans and South Americans have gone totally neglected. The third thing: these students think Catholic and Arabic are races?! And what do they mean by “Latin” and “Indian”? Why “African” and “African American”? Of course, the issues with this list go on and on. The frightening implications go on even longer.

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Category: American Culture, Culture, Education, ignorance

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: Don’t forget to add these races to your list:

    Lilliputians

    Cartesians

    Vegetarians

    Trypanophobians

    Violinists

    Sumarians

    Rastafarians

    Big-endians

    People with Big Ears

    Liechtensteinians

  2. Ben says:

    I took a class called "Asian American Studies". It wasn't like I was especially interested in it beforehand, just filling credit hours, but I ended up enjoying it. We learned about how there are so many different countries and cultures lumped under the term "asian". The course explored the vastly different cultures and how their emmigrants fared in America in the past (and present). Asian countries such as India, Japan, China, Indonesia, Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Philippines, to name a few. (i forget if Russians were included as "asian" in the discussions)

  3. I once met this guy in a backpacker hostel in Egypt. I wasn't really friends with him or anything, but he, I, and another girl happened to be sitting on the roof top together at the same time one day. They were talking about literature (I think he even had a degree in literature) and their preferences . I was a bit peeved, because I felt left out when they were doing this intellectual thing about American literature, especially him ("I like Steinbeck best, more than Hemingway, blabla.") Anyway, I'm not sure if he managed to impress her, but he certainly did not impress me when he asked us, "So, what is the difference between Arabs and Muslims? Is there a difference?" Given that he had just told us that he had recently been traveling around the Middle East for a couple of months this question struck me as quite stupid. Coming from someone with a college degree in literature it seemed even weirder.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    I'd like to use this post as an excuse to publish a link to a previous post that (to me) downplays the purported meaning of "race": "You are African, whoever you are."

  5. Erika Price says:

    Erich: You're right. Race doesn't have the vast meaning we assign to it, and it truly doesn't even exist outside of a funny little concept we created. But the same people who came up with this disturbing list of races use race as cultural shorthand on a regular basis. They apparently divide the world around them into these miserably confused groups. To those people, as phony as the race concept is, it is real and has a palpable impact on the way they relate to others. They see Europeans under a pin-point of specificity, but lump other continents of people all together! How disturbing!

    Projekt: I've heard a somewhat similar confusion between Arab/Middle Easterners and Indian/Bengali/East Asian people countless times. The worse part isn't the confusion of the "races", but in failing to see such different cultures as separate and distinctive.

  6. Even if the genetic differences between the races are not enough to support the use of the term "race", genetic and cultural selection have created certain differences and it might still be useful to keep them in mind. I once read somewhere that Asians for example metabolize drugs differently, meaning, they would need lower doses. That's kind of useful to know, I guess. Or the flush reaction that some Asians experience after drinking alcohol.

    Something else: I once complained to the editor of an academic journal that had published a really stupid article about Asians. He said that my complaint that it was racist was not justified, because race is just a social construct and has no place in science. I didn't find him very logical. I assume that even very smart people, he was a professor in Cambridge, are not really able to be aware of the privileges they experience due the tone of their skin. They don't really care about "race" and what it means because it doesn't affect their life.

  7. Purple says:

    There is only one human "race." There are, however, many different ethnic groups. =]

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