Race: The Power of an Illusion, Episodes 1&2

Embracing that race might not have any biological significance is baffling but the reasons become clear when looking at history and the evolution of racism. When we watched the film “Race: The Power of an Illusion” I was not too terribly shocked as I had heard the idea of race being a social construction in previous academic circles such as WILL on campus and I had even heard this idea as early as high school at a student diversity leadership conference in Indiana. I remember my first impression of this theory. I was shocked; I did not understand how something¬† such as distinct racial divisions, which seemed so obvious to me, could actually have been constructed for social purposes. I was doubtful about accepting this idea, especially when the Rachel Dolezal case became viral. Now there were people arguing that someone could be “trans-racial.” I though at the time, and still do, that “trans-racial” is a joke. I did not understand how people thought they could equate being transgender with this “trans-racial concept.” There is no correlation.

However, although the concept of being “trans-racial” is preposterous, the idea that race is a social construction is not. I slowly warmed up to the idea and soon found myself actively endorsing this theory. Watching the film in class was great because I found concrete reasons as to how and why race became a social construction. The video delivers the bold statement that the idea of race is a biological myth and race is not based on biology, rather it is an idea that has been ascribed to biology. Genetic variation is actually larger in between the members of a racial/ethnic group than across all racial/ethnic groups. Overall, genetic variation in the human population is very small, seeing as we are the most similar species.

The question is then why have people so readily accepted the false construct that racial differences are based on biology? Well, looking at the history of the United States we can see that this concept was invented as an excuse for social differences. An example is Hoffman’s extinction thesis which postulated that African Americans were an inferior race and would therefore become extinct. He neglected the poverty and social disparity among African Americans, instead using the excuse that since they were “inferior” there was no point in attempting to change their situation. It is clear that Hoffman and others like him did not want to take responsibility for the problems they had caused as a result of racism. Other scientific theories like this one continued to be showcases since science was relatively new and people blindly believed anything that was labelled scientific. This can be seen with the Eugenics Movement which was based completely on the idea of racial purification and that races mixing caused contamination in a person’s genes. This evolution of racism and racist biology can be seen with Cromwell’s allegations that the reason Jesse Owens, a black athlete, won four gold medals was because he was closer to the primitive and therefore a faster runner. However, before his success African Americans were called weak and incapable. It was only when white people needed a justification for their defeat that they turned to “biology.” It is actually geography which explains genetic differences more than race.

Another scientist named Lewonton found that there simply has not been enough time for much genetic variation to occur except for superficial traits. Humans have a history of moving and mixing so similar genetic variation can be found in any group. So if race is a social and historical, not biological, why is it important? Well, there are different cultures among racial and ethnic groups. Furthermore, its social significance determines what schools people attend, having healthcare and many other important things like this. As stated in the video, in the United States, the net worth of the average white family is 8x’s that of a black family. For decades, biology has been used to justify inequalities and it still is being used in racial stereotypes that matter across all sorts of social settings. It is important to recognize the illusory nature of race in order to begin to deconstruct racial inequalities based on years of racism and false science.

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