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  • Writer's pictureJ.P. Anderson

Is racism natural?

the word racism in different languages

Is racism natural? Did our ancestors who wondered about the forests and savannas of pre-history view differences in skin tone and hair type as threatening? Is contemporary racism just a continuation of humanity’s inherent “tribalism” and fear of the “other”?


Research on “implicit social cognition” demonstrates that our biases can certainly feel natural. For example, unconscious racial bias can influence our behavior so quickly that it can feel like authentic instinct.


Furthermore, social inequalities based on race and ethnicity are prominent the world over and it’s difficult to find societies without any signs of racial or ethnic discrimination. For example, my own published research shows that racial and ethnic minority groups are overrepresented in prisons in every democratic country that makes its prison data available to researchers. This includes countries that are not typically associated with racism, such as Norway or post-apartheid South Africa. Thus, it can seem like racism is everywhere and therefore a naturally occurring phenomenon.


So perhaps it’s not surprising that people may think of racism as being an ingrained feature of the human mind that can never be truly resolved. However, scientists who study societies and cultures have clarified that racism and even “race” itself is not a natural, biological reality but rather a “social construction.


One way to understand social constructions is to think about a closely related concept: superstition. Superstitions are, in essence, stories about how best to avoid misfortune that many of us accept without any evidence that they are indeed true. Superstitions vary across cultures and examples include the belief that it is unlucky to walk under ladders or that we can ward off bad luck by knocking on wood. The one thing that superstitions all have in common is that enough people abide by them that they become part of our culture and are taught to the next generation, usually by example. For instance, my mom always touched the inside roof of her car when driving through a yellow light and I find myself doing the same thing. And every time I spill salt in the kitchen I throw a pinch over my left shoulder for good luck, just like she does.


Social constructions are similar to superstitions in many respects; they differ depending on culture, are not backed up by evidence, and are passed on through the generations by example. However, rather than being mere habits to avoid bad luck, social constructions often have to do with how we think of ourselves in relation to others. In this way, social constructions deeply impact our identity, behavior, and indeed all of society.


“Race” is a preeminent example of a social construction. We are socialized to see differences of skin tone and other phenotypical traits as important, and many Americans—at least 1 in 3—continue to regard these superficial differences as reliable indicators of a person’s character and potential. But the reality is that phenotypical differences do not reliably indicate character traits or even genetic dissimilarity. Genetic research shows that two people of differing races may be more genetically similar than two persons of the same race. Hence “race” is not a biological distinction among humans, but rather a socially produced distinction that exists as an aspect of our culture.

In fact, every human is roughly 99.9% genetically identical. This doesn’t mean that we are all the same, rather it just means that the importance that some cultures have placed on physical traits like skin tone, nose shape, and hair type is misplaced; these features tell us nothing about who a person is or could be. Yet through the process of social construction, physical features can come to signify whether a person is regarded as trustworthy or capable.


What does the “process” of socially constructing race look like? It varies significantly across time and cultures and is far from inevitable. Ancient Roman culture, for instance, placed little to no significance on skin tone despite the fact that people of varying skin tones lived throughout the empire. If racism is natural, one has to wonder why the Roman Empire—which was rife with inequalities but was also significantly diverse—was an exception.


The social construction of race and the emergence of racism in North America after 1492, on the other hand, is both stark and historically traceable. With the power of the internet, all anyone has to do is commit some time to doing a little research to uncover how American conceptions of racial difference were pieced together over time. They will find that the social construction of race in North America relied heavily on law to establish the existence of distinct races and justify enslavement.


And this begs the question: if racism is natural, then why did it need law to become a fact of American social life? Think about aspects of human experience which are indisputably natural, such as walking upright, using language, and making tools. Is a law necessary to remind people to walk on two legs? Do we need law to enforce our dependence on the use of tools? No, because these are truly natural aspects of being a human being—we just do these things, and have done since well before the existence of anything we might call “the law”. Racism, in contrast, was imposed through law and has been defended by law for most of American history.


There is nothing natural or inevitable about racism. We learn to view our world through the lens of race, and we may learn this so well it feels like second nature. But it is not human nature.

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