Defining Race


"Race" is a myth but racism is real 

Have you ever heard statements like the following? Or had some of these thoughts?

  • "We are all the same race—the human race. We are all the same underneath."

  • "There is no biological basis to the concept of race. Race is a myth."

  • "There are differences in skin "colour." Is it racist to notice this?"

  • "White people do not have a race."

How do you define "race"? 

In our experience, most people seem to share a common, general understanding of "racism"—discrimination and unfair treatment based on assumptions about another person's or group's skin colour. This general understanding of racism (and agreement about its wrongness) is a great starting point in your anti-racism work; rarely, if ever, will anyone you are working with dispute this. As well, it can be an important touchstone to return to with participants.

At the same time, we have found (as you may already have) that conflicting understandings of such terms as "race," "racism," "white," and "anti-racism" do circulate in popular discourse. We have also found that many people tend to think of racism more in terms of individual relationships and opinion than in terms of/with historical/systemic processes. From the outset, it is important for you, as educator, to have a clear and thorough understanding of these fundamental terms/concepts so that you can effectively identify and clarify these seemingly conflicting perspectives. 

Definitions of "race"

It is crucial to understand and convey the important differences between misconceptions based on "biological" assumptions and more accurate "social" definitions of "race." Two key points are:

  • There is no biological foundation to "race." Physical differences between individuals and groups of individuals are genetically/scientifically so minute that they are meaningless.

  • What matters are the social meanings that are attached to perceived physical differences, be these skin colour, hair colour, height, etc., and the political and economic forces that support (reinforce, and enforce) these perceptions. In other words, "race" is a social construction.

As found in the The Colour of Democracy:  

‘Race' is a socially constructed phenomenon, based on the erroneous assumption that physical differences such as skin colour, hair colour and texture, and facial [or other physical] features are related to intellectual, moral, or cultural superiority. The concept of race has no basis in biological reality and, as such, has no meaning independent of its social definitions (Henry & Tator, 2006, p. 9). 

Or, put slightly differently in another effective definition, "race" is:

a term for the classification of human beings into physically, biologically, and genetically distinct groups. The notion of race assumes, firstly, that humanity is divided into unchanging natural types, recognizable by physical features that are transmitted "through the blood" and permit distinctions to be made between ‘pure' and ‘mixed' races. Furthermore, the term implies that the mental and moral behaviour of human beings, as well as individual personality, ideas, and capacity, can be related to racial origin, and that knowledge of that origin provides a satisfactory account of the behaviour (Ashcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin, 2002, p. 198).

Other definitions of race include:

"A concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies" (Omi & Winart, 1994, p. 55).

"A category used to classify humankind according to common ancestry and reliant on differentiation by physical characteristics as colour of skin, hair texture and colour, stature and facial characteristics ... The concept of race has no basis in biological reality and, as such, has no meaning independent of its social definitions. But, as a social construction, race significantly affects the lives of people of colour [and Indigenous people]" (Henry & Tator, 2006, pp. 4, 328). 

This system of classification created by white people in positions of political and economic power creates a hierarchy of "value" according (primarily) to skin colour (though geographical location, language, and other assumed features of identity did enter into this system). Not surprisingly perhaps, in Western/European history, "white" people were/are located at the top of this hierarchy, occupying the position of "ideal" or "the norm," with "others" lower on the list presented as deviations from, or less than, this ideal/norm.

The idea—ideology—of humanity being categorized according to assumed physical differences, with some being "better" than others, has been a part of European/Western culture for a long time. European imperialism (the "age of exploration"/building of empires) depended on the ideology of the superiority of white-skinned people to justify the enslavement and dispossession of people of colour and Indigenous peoples. Because "race" is a social construction, a process, racial categories have changed over time as well. For instance, at one point in history, Irish Catholic people were not considered "white," nor were southern Europeans; laws "defining" who is Black or Indigenous have reflected the dominant ideologies of race (often involving "blood quotas") and the values attached to racial categories.

Due to the fact that race is a social construct, the definitions and distinctions are used because they identify the foundational ideology of "race" on which racism in Canada and Alberta is built. (See our section on Racialization)