Teaching Race

Update: This post on “Teaching Race” was written in 2012. For more recent material using the textbook Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human? see the lecture:

Teaching Race Anthropologically

One of my favorite articles for teaching race anthropologically is John Relethford’s 2009 Race and global patterns of phenotypic variation. It’s readable, concise, and provides a perhaps better short phrase for teaching race as a “culturally constructed label that crudely and imprecisely describes real variation” (2009:20).

Another favorite article for teaching race is the fantastic How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality by Clarence Gravlee. Gravlee’s article won the 2010 Rudolf Virchow Award as a best article in Medical Anthropology, and was the most downloaded article for the year in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. It is also anthologized in the four-field Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader. This is one reason to still consider adopting that reader, and I have used Gravlee’s article in my Introduction to Anthropology courses.

For biological anthropology textbooks, my preferred sections for teaching race would be “Just How Different is Different? (On Race)” in The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology (Jonathan Marks, 2017) and “Race and Human Variation” in The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology (John Relethford, 2012, 333-353). Adam Van Arsdale, an anthropology blogger and a professor who has a lot of experience teaching about race in biological anthropology, uses the Jonathan Marks Alternative Introduction. It’s also a relatively inexpensive text. Relethford’s textbook includes a summary of his work in the Race Reconciled volume; Relethford’s textbook is also well written and nicely illustrated.

One very good article for teaching race in a reader is “Ten Facts about Human Variation” by Jonathan Marks in Human Evolutionary Biology (2010). This reader was initially only available as expensive hardcover, but a paperback offering makes it much more reasonable. With articles by Nina Jablonski, Barry Bogin, and Lawrence Schell, it seems worth considering.

Although there probably won’t be many undergraduates talking about “Lewontin’s Fallacy” (some may have heard of that Stephen Jay Gould re-study), it is nevertheless important when teaching race to include post-2005 materials that consider recent genetic research. Older articles like Jared Diamond’s Race without Color just won’t cut it anymore. For a summary of a more genetics-driven approach, Henry Harpending introduced me to the work of Guido Barbujani–the 2010 piece Human genome diversity: frequently asked questions (co-authored with Vincenza Colonna) provides an impressive overview, and cites several pieces from Race Reconciled.

For classroom exercises and innovative ways of teaching race, check out the Guess My Race app by Michael Baran. This app is more geared at the United States. For an offline and more international version, see Take the race test at Guido Barbujani’s website (in collaboration with Todd Disotell). For a discussion of how to use these concepts in Introduction-to-Anthropology via research in Rwanda, see the Torso and Oblong blog-post Race and Consequence: “Reality” and Social Constructs.

Some might wonder to what extent it is necessary to teach race as a social construction. In my discussion of Traditional Race Ideas I noted how I spend less time these days talking with undergraduates about social construction and more time talking about racism. The query from Michel-Rolph Trouillot: “Is racism a delusion about race? Or is race made salient by racism? That is the crux of the matter” (Adieu Culture: A New Duty Arises, 111) has been rattling around in my mind ever since I tried to write The Headline We Should be Reading. Unfortunately, I have too often believed that clearing up delusions about biological race would diminish racism, rather than tackling how racism makes race salient–see Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine.

Nevertheless, as sociologist Daniel Buffington reminded me in an e-mail, Ann Morning’s 2011 studies on The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference demonstrate how an essentialist and biological determinist perspective is still prevalent, even among people who should know better. Indeed, 2012 saw evolutionary biologists Jerry Coyne and David Barash reveal they have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to the scientific literature on race and human variation. Buffington’s research is on the formation or construction of racial identity in sport, where deterministic accounts are alive and well (the topic of sport reminds me of the intersection with Olympic Sex Verification and Fixing Sex).

There is more material available on the page titled Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race as well as the adjoining sections Race Revival: Anthropology Attacked on Race & Science and Race Becomes Biology.

It’s a lot to keep up with–I’ve had even more great book suggestions and updates for the post on Whiteness is a project, not a skin tone–so there are a lot of resources on teaching race–and racism–anthropologically.

Updates on Teaching Race Anthropologically

  • 2014: These resources for teaching race anthropologically received renewed attention in the wake of the book by Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance. I’ve looked back at the references and see them as good teaching race resources. It is possible to understand that while anthropology can still say Race is a Social Construction, this scientific pronouncement should be weighed with the political consequences that the Social Construction of Race has been a Goldmine for Conservative Politics. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot queried: “Is racism a delusion about race? Or is race made salient by racism? That is the crux of the matter” (2003:111). For some of the latest research see Anthropology of Race: Genes, Biology, and Culture
  • 2013: Interesting to revisit how David Barash’s Brainstorm on Race begins with a picture of Trayvon Martin. For Barash, Martin of course is “African American” and although he hints awkwardly at the complexities of that label for someone like Barack Obama, Barash never discusses George Zimmerman. Again, back to Trouillot:

    What matters here is how the changing construction of whiteness intersects with the maintenance of a white/black divide that structures all race relations in the United States. Whether significant numbers of the people now called Latinos or Asian Americans–or the significant numbers of their known “mixed” offspring with whites–will become probationary whites and thus reinforce the structure is an important indicator of the future of race relations in the United States. (Global Transformations, 2003:151)

    For more, see White-Race Problems: White Hispanic, White Black, Geraldo Rivera and then Coalition of the Diverse.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2012. “Teaching Race Anthropologically: Course Resources.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/teaching-race-anthropology/. First posted 23 July 2012. Revised 1 July 2021.

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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