Being Human: Social and biological explanations for race and variation

As part of our first year Being Human module, students write an essay where they consider social and biological anthropological perspectives on a key topic in anthropology.  This week, our featured essay is by Meenal Warrier.
Meenal Warrier
Meenal’s bio: I am a first year anthropology student. Anthropology became a field of interest for me because of how much I loved secondary school geography – especially when we learnt about different cultures. Also having immigrated from India to the UK when I was young gives me some personal experience in observing how differently humans interact in different parts of the world.

Race is a topic that is studied heavily within anthropology, regarding its definition and whether it is even real and how that impacts racism. Anthropology is a study of culture which plays an important role in defining and understanding race. In this essay, I aim to explore the meanings of race in the social and biological fields and determine whether I believe race is real or not.

Race is extremely difficult to define. It could be your cultural identity or the colour of your skin. However that would still be a vague definition ‘because “race” is a metaphor, a social construct, a human invention’ (Mevorach, 2007, p. 239). It’s used as a means of differentiation between people but what real value does it hold? It can be a means of identifying with your cultural roots, but it can also be used to oppress. I also don’t believe we can just act ‘colour blind’ either because there are serious consequences attributed to the existence of race as well. Anthropology is one of the earliest fields to truly challenge the idea of ‘race’, especially within a biological framework. It challenged ‘central elements in the racial worldview, particularly the existence of biological races” within the species of Homo sapiens and the belief in American racial categories as universal and rooted in nature’ (Mukhopadhyay & Moses, 1997, p. 520). The fact that anthropology could create such significant strides in changing this mindset shows that a combined understanding of social and biological explanations is necessary.

In biology, there are many theories to favour the argument that race isn’t real. In fact, ‘what we refer to as human races are not biological units’ (Fuentes, 2012, p. 16). They are determined by culture, geographical location and production of melanin – which does not correlate with genetic diversity in humans. This means things such as the local climate can impact your skin colour instead of this being purely your DNA and inheritance. Variation in skin colour arises from ‘environmental pressure’, ‘gene flow’, ‘clothing and natural or artificial tanning’. These are mostly not even biological factors, especially clothing which is more of a cultural and social component. This therefore doesn’t support the idea of ‘division’ of human beings into different races (Fuentes, 2012, p. 17). Instead, races are merely just ‘cultural constructs’ (Fuentes, 2012, p. 19). The lack of a biological basis for race is a strong factor in race not being considered real for biological anthropologists. Furthermore, diversity is based around various external pressures and doesn’t signify anything to do with the human DNA. However, this does not take away from the social effects caused by racism.

While race itself might be non-existent, there is said to be large amounts of racial inequality within the healthcare system. There’s ‘well-defined inequalities for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, certain cancers’ and various other diseases, especially in the USA (Gravlee, 2009, p. 47). This may be due to a wide range of reasons, for example misdiagnosis or inaccessibility to good quality healthcare. There has been reported ‘substantial racial inequalities in morbidity and mortality’, especially in the comparisons between Black and White Americans (Gravlee, 2009, p. 48). However, this data has been criticised for ignoring other racial groups despite the long history of inequality between these two racial groups. There’s also a default assumption about ‘racial differences’ being ‘genetic in origin’ (Gravlee, 2009, p. 49). Despite the fact there is much biomedical research to counteract this assumption, race and ethnicity does not play a role in your gene pool (Gravlee, 2009, p. 49). People may believe that race has a biological association because ‘we can test our DNA’ and determine ancestry (Fuentes, 2012, p. 21). However, geographic distribution cannot be told through a DNA test and they can be unreliable. Race is also mostly reliant on your physical appearance and not your genetics.

The assumption that racial differences are genetic could mean that medical professionals associate health symptoms to a racial category. This misconception could therefore create biases which are unfounded and not backed up by scientific research. Furthermore, if medical professionals are using racial biases to perform their care, this could impact other parts of the healthcare sector.

Despite racial inequalities, omitting race from the data collection altogether would be a poor choice. ‘Whitewashing “race” out of public health databases and the census will not advance understanding of how racism harms health’ (Krieger, 2000, p. 213). This is an extremely important point to make as biology not supporting the idea of race does not mean the influence of race can be ignored in biological anthropology. Ignoring race altogether not only ignores the influences brought by racism, but also the discrimination and inequality in the sector. Even if skin colour isn’t the root cause of health conditions, we cannot ignore the gaps and differences in the treatment and care being given to white patients and patients of colour.

Institutionalised racism is a key player in healthcare inequality. Simply stating that race isn’t real doesn’t absolve or challenge the ‘reductionism and genetic determinism of contemporary biomedical science or popular culture.’ (Gravlee, 2009, p. 53). It can make us ignorant of the ‘sociocultural phenomena’ that arises as a result of race relations and the ‘biological consequences’ of racism (Gravlee, 2009, p. 53). Associating race solely with its genetic basis or lack thereof, we can forget that race has a large role in our society and everyday interactions with people. In my opinion, simply stating race isn’t real doesn’t reduce or alter the impacts that racism plays daily. There is still racist behaviour seen all around us. It is ‘embedded in political and economic structures that sustain racial thinking’ (Gravlee, 2009, p. 53). This could suggest that the social consequences and explanations for race hold greater significance than the biological explanations.

From a social anthropological perspective, race is very much a real concept and exists as a fundamental presence in various structural forms. The idea of race being considered as “real” is largely due to its connection to, or causation behind, racism. ‘Racial categories are produced and reproduced ideologically and culturally’ (Baker, 1998, p. 10). The idea that it spreads through cultural practices allows it to become deeply embedded and rooted within everyday practices. Therefore, it allows people to ignore the science and create their own beliefs behind the idea of race. In the United States, the idea of ‘racial inferiority’ was used to discriminate against those that identify as, or look like, African Americans (Baker, 1998, p. x). Anthropology as a field is hugely defined by culture, and as a result race. Baker (1998, p. xi) says that anthropology has contributed to the ‘meaning and structure of race’. This can be both positive and negative. It was used to excuse racism and provide explanations for it initially, and used to claim the ‘racial superiority of whites’ (Baker, 1998, p. 20). The fact that this field was founded on such discriminatory terms personally removes some of the significance of the social anthropology arguments as they were founded in such hostile environments. However, Baker (1998, p. 57) calls this misleading as this was simply in line with the ‘larger public discourse’ of the 19thcentury.

Anthropology also worked to ‘dismantle the American racial worldview’ (Mukhopadhyay & Moses, 1997, p. 518). It was one of the first academic forms to truly question this ideology by exploring concepts such as culture and language and how they connect with biology. The fact that racial theory and exploring it was such a large component of early anthropology only highlights its importance. It’s ‘real’ as it still plays a key role in modern day studies as well. In fact, ethnographic studies were carried out to challenge racist beliefs. ‘Anthropologists demonstrated the problematic aspects of the old racial classifications and argued for the socially and culturally constructed nature of race’ (Mukhopadhyay & Moses, 1997, p. 519). This created more nuance in our understanding of race. These efforts are especially boosted by African American anthropologists whose roles cannot go unnoticed as they collaborated with white academics during an era of immense racial tensions and difficulties in the workplace.

Race doesn’t just affect politics but economics too. In fact, there is reported to be a huge wealth disparity between White and Black American households (Mills, 1999, p. 38). Differences in household income can show that the economic structures in place are systemically working against Black people, and people of colour, within the United States. With lesser income, it affects your quality of life drastically: schooling, housing, healthcare, access to goods, etc. Moreover, this would be trapping people in a cycle of a decreased quality of life due to a system working against them, and jobs with unequal pay. Racism here is extremely detrimental, hard to ignore and a grave social consequence because of the relationship between race and racism. Mills (1999, p.36) calls the distribution of global wealth ‘colour coded’ and the ‘racial contract’ something that upholds ‘national white privilege’. This system of superiority and hierarchy being emphasised shows that race isn’t something we can dismiss as being ‘unreal’ as its impacts are still being greatly felt. There is talk of inferiority/superiority and privilege within our global culture because of it.

Xenophobia and hostility towards immigrants also arise as a result of racism. Racism is said to ‘attribute unequal status’ to others (Stolcke, 1995, p. 7). Western racism rationalises ‘claims of national superiority or socio-political disqualification’ (Stolcke, 1995, p. 7). The fact that people can claim to be superior due to their race shows that it’s a prevalent concept. This hierarchical racial system not only perpetuates inequality, but also the value placed on these categories of ‘race’ show that despite biology stating its irrelevance on our genetics, it’s still considered to be an important marker of identity. Specially to separate and discriminate. Stolcke (1995, p. 7) writes that ‘Race is construed as the necessary and sufficient natural cause of the unfitness of “others” and hence of their inferiority’. This ideology of ‘others’ makes it seem as if different races are outside the normal. This creates an us vs. ‘them’ mentality which forces people to look down on each other. Perhaps it’s this nature of othering people that’s causing racist repercussions and it’s the existence of these categories that are causing the problems. In which case, saying race isn’t ‘real’ like in biological anthropology could reduce the negative impacts.

In conclusion, I agree with the idea that ‘race is not biology, but it does matter.’ (Fuentes, 2012, p. 22). The social consequences are too severe and prevalent to solely base this argument around biology. Despite the negative biological evidence, our society is still dependent on these categories. These ideas were used to colonise, justify wars and uphold systems which keep certain ‘races’ on top. The different races, Black, White, Brown etc. may have no biological variation, but there is a variation in every other facet of life – from economics to politics and everything in between. Race cannot be a ‘discarded concept’ or an ‘invalid scientific theory’ as long as its effects are still being felt today (Mukhopadhyay & Moses, 1997, p. 520).


Baker, L., 1998. From Savage to Negro : Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954. 1st ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fuentes, A., 2012. Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You : Busting Myths about Human Nature. 1st ed. Berkerley: University of California Press.

Gravlee, C. C., 2009. How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139: 47-57.

Krieger, N., 2000. Refiguring “Race”: Epidemiology, Racialized Biology, and Biological Expressions of Race Relations. nternational Journal of Health Services, 30(1), pp. 211-216.

Mevorach, K. G., 2007. Race, Racism, and Academic Complicity. American Ethnologist, 34(2), pp. 238-241.

Mills, C., 1999. Racial Contract. 1st ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Mukhopadhyay, C. & Moses, Y., 1997. Reestablishing “Race” in Anthropological Discourse. American Anthropologist, 99(3), pp. 517-533.

Stolcke, V., 1995. Talking Culture: New Boundaries, New Rhetorics of Exclusion in Europe’. Current Anthropology, 36(1), pp. 1-24.



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