Tuesday, March 15, 2011

another year, another race failure

Every year, I spend a significant amount of time talking about race in my introductory classes (both BioAnth and Cultural). The focus is different in each, but I get up in front of the class and do a song and dance. I have them read multiple articles and the textbook, and I do a couple in-class activities where they look at human biodiversity in a hands-on manner. The major point I try to get across is that any division of human diversity into racial categories is arbitrary. Since different cultures make different arbitrary choices about the physical characteristics that define racial groups, clearly race is a socially-defined characteristic.

It's such a simple concept, but every year I fail to get this point across to at least half the class. It's not that they disagree with me. I would be disappointed, but not a failure, if half the students said "Yeah, whatever. You can say it's arbitrary, but look how skin color correlates with certain facial features and hair texture, etc., so no matter what you say, I'm going to believe there are significant physical differences between the races, and those are scientifically viable."

What students actually say is whatever their kindergarten teacher taught them along the lines of "we're all the same under the skin", or (cringe-worthy) "I don't see color and physical differences." But when asked "why do anthropologists say race is a socially defined characteristic?" half of the students give answers that show they have absolutely no understanding of my argument, whatsoever. They say things like "because we base racial categories on language, customs, dress, and other social traits." (Uh, we do? What country are you living in?) Or they repeat their elementary school lessons about égalité and fraternité in such a way that shows they have no comprehension of the biological differences or similarities between populations. Clearly, they think that's what I want to hear,a chorus of Kumbaya around the anthropological campfire.

I believe this to be one of the most critical topics that anthropologists can teach to the world, but I'm utterly failing to get through. Any ideas? Anyone else finding a way to teach this concept?

(Obviously, I'm in the middle of grading assignments about race. Depressing.)

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