December 21, 2007

What's in a name? Race and Ethnicity in the United States

By Janis Prince Inniss

Recently I departed from my custom of styling my own hair, and tried to find a beauty salon for a new hairstyle. I needed someone who could style my hair texture, so I called nearby salons and asked whether they style black hair (even though I recognize that race is a social construct and that hair textures vary widely). I spoke with several stylists that day and they all used the term “ethnic hair” in response to my inquiries.

  • A few nights ago, as I was watching an interior decorating television show, a woman described the bright blue color of her bedroom walls as “ethnic color”.
  • On a recent broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show television show, Dr. Mehmet Oz made the following statement: “African Americans get colon cancer earlier and it’s more aggressive when they get it which means they die more often from it.”
  • I was filling out an Institutional Review Board form lately and was faced with the following question: “Estimate how many Other/Non Hispanic or Latino participants you plan to enroll in this study.”

These incidents are examples of how confused we are about race and race-related concepts, and are probably indicative of the complex emotions we have about these issues. Are race and ethnicity interchangeable? In this posting—and others in the future—I’ll try to explain and define these sometimes confusing terms.

Ethnicity captures historically based practices related to culture such as language, custom, and ancestry; Irish Americans and Chinese Americans are examples of ethnic groups. We might think of ethnicity as a reflection of what we learned growing up that makes us culturally different from others. People who are of the same ethnicity share a common identity based on their values and norms. 

Race, however, is tied to visual cues based on physical characteristics such as skin color by which we rank people. In decoding the human genome, scientists have found the DNA of any two people are 99.9 percent identical (watch the Nova video to learn more about this) and that there is “no scientific basis for race”, notwithstanding that about 10 percent of the genetic code that does vary can differentiate people by race. As I discussed in one of my previous posts, race is a social construct. 

Keep in mind, to say that race is a social construct does not negate the very real impact race and racism has on the lives of people in a race conscious society. One indication that race is a social construct is that is defined differently around the globe: A person who is considered black in America may be considered white in Brazil, for instance. 

Regardless of what genetic evidence may be found to distinguish races, given that we live in a social world, it will always be a complicated to task to tease apart the societal contributions to behavioral and physical differences. As a genetic researcher told the New York Times

I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life researching how much genetic variability there is between populations,” said Dr. David Altshuler, director of the Program in Medical and Population Genetics at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. “But living in America, it is so clear that the economic and social and educational differences have so much more influence than genes. People just somehow fixate on genetics, even if the influence is very small.

Let’s return to the examples I mentioned at the beginning. What did stylists mean by “ethnic hair”? Everyone has ethnicity, although the importance and choice of ethnic identities vary for many reasons. Hair cannot have ethnicity; only a person can. In its natural state, the hair textures of black people vary along the continuum of loose to tight curls, and although I’m no hair stylist, based on observation, other hair types also vary but are naturally straighter. 

I’m left to assume that ethnic hair means black hair and the use of “ethnic hair” is meant to convey some sense of sophistication or sensitivity. What are some other interpretations? And what could “ethnic color” mean? Color certainly cannot have ethnicity, although some ethnic and racial groups are associated with bright colors. I think these two examples indicate the mistaken perception by many people that ethnicity applies only to “people of color”.

With regard to Dr. Oz’s comment, to whom is he referring when he talks about African Americans and colon cancer? What, if anything, does his statement have to do with me and with my immediate family, given that none of us are African American, although we are of African descent? Are my relatives who watch The Oprah Winfrey Show from their homes in Antigua and Guyana at risk? Do I need to be concerned because I reside in the United States and am of African descent? 

Does Dr. Oz’s statement imply that there is a genetic link between African Americans and colon cancer and does that link apply to people of African descent all over the world? What is the relationship between early cancer detection rates and lifestyle factors of African Americans? Is the higher mortality rate for African Americans related to screenings being done when colorectal cancer has progressed to advanced stages when treatment options are diminished? And why might this be the case? 

Perhaps African Americans face socioeconomic barriers to care, such as a lack of health insurance. Dr. Oz’s comment sparks this long list of questions because the term African American is both racial and ethnic; it is a description of ethnicity, but is commonly used in the U.S. as an updated racial category instead of “black”. This example also highlights some of the confusion that arises when information about apparent race differences is reported without an explanation for the root cause of such differences.

C:\Users\Janis\Pictures\Microsoft Clip Organizer\j0303318.gif

What would you say the question on the Institutional Review Board form tells us about race and ethnicity in the U.S.?


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"race, however, is tied to visual cues based on physical characteristics such as skin color by which we rank people. In decoding the human genome, scientists have found the DNA of any two people are 99.9 percent identical (watch the Nova video to learn more about this) and that there is “no scientific basis for race”, notwithstanding that about 10 percent of the genetic code that does vary can differentiate people by race. As I discussed in one of my previous posts, race is a social construct. "

This is the Lewontin fallacy (see AWF Edward's 2003 paper). Explained here by Steve Hsu:

Further technical comment: you may have read the misleading statistic, spread by the intellectually dishonest Lewontin, that 85% percent of all human genetic variation occurs within groups and only 15% between groups. This neglects the correlations in the genetic data that are revealed in a cluster analysis. See here for a simple example which shows that there can be dramatic group differences in phenotypes even if every version of every gene is found in two groups (i.e., 100% of the variation is found within each group) -- as long as the frequency or probability distributions are distinct. Sadly, understanding this point requires just enough mathematical ability that it has eluded all but a small number of experts.)

people have to have use titles to refer to people. If you do not refer to the people and different groups or sects. how will be different? Yes we all come from different regions of the world and the world is not the same. We have to becareful when refering to someone race, culture, or ethnic background.

I think that race should not have any color, gender, or nationality. I think that we as people should all be equal no matter what the circumstances.

I think that people should not be defined as race or color i think everyone should be considered equal. Even though every one is different in there own way.

Labeling is a major problem in society and unfortunately labeling probably will never cease.I feel that there are few circumstances where race or culture should identify an individual or group.An example of this would be like if someone is learning about different cultures or maybe when traveling due to safety resasons because not everyone is open minded and willing to accept multiculturalism.

All people are created equal, no matter what race they are. As far as the question on the Institutional Review Board goes, it could be strictly for statistics.

There are so many different terms for different races. People update terms as times change so as to not seem offensive and/or racial. Even though they seem to be more sensitive, there are still underlying judgements and differences. Like with the hair and the colon cancer. How does one decide that one race is more likely to have this type of cancer when there is no genetic difference between races?? I think racism and discrimination against ethnicities is still live and well even though to some it may not be as obvious.

I think that most people dont really understand the difference between what race and ethnicity is. Race is really how you look and dress. Ethnicity is what you believe in. Race is more of what people get from you when they look at you and ethncity is what they get from you when you speck. The question the Institutional Review Board ask make some sense because you want to know what type of people you are dealing with that the study can help or not.

I think that people are created equal and should be treated equal but no matter how hard we try each ethnic group will always be seperated in some way or fashion. It is not only our cultural beliefs, or society influences, but our heritage that play a major role in this.

equality is how this county was started and it is the way i belive it should be!! race and gender shouldn't matter!!

I believe all people are created equal. race, gender, ethnicity none of it matters, we are all the same.

A lot of times, people look at others with different colors as different and that they can't do the same things as a white person could, or something a black person could. People should be treated the same, but the most often case is that we don't treat people the same. Even those who say that they do treat people the same, don't. As for the Institutional Review Board, they could simply be trying a study. They could be trying to see how many different types of race go to a certain study; they might be trying to apply it to that demographic, instead of those who might not go.

I would have to say that the question on the Institutional Review Board show the prime example of what is being discussed in this article. It shows that poeple are very closed minded when it comes to ethnicity in the United States. It shows that really really don't know much when it comes to ethniticity. I beleive that race is a social construct in the way that we as americans think of race. We build our on notions when it comes to race.

race should not b an issue into days world we are all different in many ways, so if race is a problem then this world would not function at all, or many of will have to suck it up and deal with it

Social construct can mean something different in every culture around the globe because some people might think about a race in one part of the world, but that race might be viewed differently in another part. People view a race differently from one another.

everyone is the same no matter what race gender or sexual orientation

Of course, we are all described in different manners whether by race or ethnicity, but are we so insecure in ourselves that we cannot stand for someone to describe us as different from themselves? It is true that we are all created equal, but we also take it too personally by what we are labeled. Does it really matter what we are described like as long as we know who we are and our purpose in life? It is a true mark of great character to be sure of oneself enough to not get offended by others words and turn the other cheek.

Seth Cardwell

I beleive that how we are raised affects who we are more than our race does.Race is just what we can visual see, we all look different that is what makes us unique and special. We can't visual see how a person feels or thinks.Ethnicity isn't as easy to see in general.

I think no one should be labeled were all humanand created equally.The statistic can be made to show anything depends own who answers the questions or recieves the surveys.

I mean we all can sit here and type that everyone should be equal but we all know that will NEVER happen. As long as man is free to think on his own free will and accord, equality will never exist. We can only make strives toward improving ourselves and treating each other with respect.

Race plays a huge role in society. Not as much now as it used to but it shapes the way we initially view a person. All people need to be viewed as equals and race shouldnt be an issue, but it is and will be. Image is a major issue and race is part of the image. The question is simply trying to find a means to diversity and maybe find out what people may think or estimate on the subject as part of the survey.

Race is explained in many different ways. The question that is asked is just one example. Our society ingeneral is based on race. I mean if a colored person wins somethng some say it because they are black. People do not see passed a persons race alot of times. Even on the phone.

A person's race is nothing more than that person's category that he or she is grouped into because of biological makeup or things like that. Race is the hardest thing to overcome though. When a person is walking down the street people often make their own perceptions of the person based on their race. We are a very closed minded people when it comes to race.

I believe that race should not be a difference in our world today. All people were created as equals, regardless of skin color or other categories. So we should look at one another as if we are the same.

To me, people who don't know the proper english for "African American" needs a little bit more education on history. Black people have been called everything but what they are; HUMAN BEINGS! I am so tired of people and their prospective of what black people should be called. We are humans. Just as you are.

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