Racial Classifications and the Meaning of Race

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Racial Classifications and the Meaning of Race

If we examine racial classifications throughout history. we find that in ancient Greece and Rome a person's race was the group to which she or he belonged. associated with an ancestral place arid culture. Feom the Middle Ages until about the eighteenth century. a person's race was based on family and ancestral ties. in the sense of a line, to a national group. During the e eighteenth century. physical differences such as the darker skin hues of Africans became associated with race, but racial divisions were typicaLly based on differences in religion and cultural tradition rather than on human biology. With the intense (though misguided) efforts that surrounded the attempt to justify black slavery and white dominance in all areas of life during the second half of the nineteenth century. races came to be defined as distinct biological categories of people who were not all members of the same fanlily but who shared inherited inherited physical and cultural traits that were alleged to be different from those traits shared by people in other races. Hierarchies of races were established: placing the "white race" at the top. the "black race" at the bottorn, and others in between. However, racial classifications in the United States have changed over the past century. If we look at U.S. Census Bur eau classifications, for example, we can see how the meaning of race continues to change. First. race is defined by perceived skin color: white or non- :;; white. Whereas one category exists for "whites" (who ivary considerably in ac ual skin color and physical api  pearance), all of the remaining categories are considjered "nonwhite." j( Second, racial purity is assumed to exist. Prior to the g 2000 census. for example, the true diversity of the u.s. population was not revealed in census data because multiracial individuals were forced to either select a single race as being their "race" or to select the vague category of "other:' Professional golfer Tiger Woods is an example of how people often have a-mixed racial heritage. Woods describes himself as one-half Asian American (one-fourth Thai and one-fourth Chinese), one-eighth white, one-eighth Native American. and one-fourth African American (White, 1997). Census 2000 made it possible=for the first time-for individuals to classify themselves as being of more than one race (see "Census Profiles: Percentage Distribution of Persons Reporting Two or More Races"). Third, categories of official racial classifications may (over time) create a sense of group membership or "consciousness of kind" for people within a somewhat arbitrary classification. When people of European descent were classified as "white: some began  to see themselves as different geom "non whita" Consequently, Jewish. Italian, and Irish immigrants may have felt more a part of the Northern European white mainstream in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Whether Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans. Korean Americans, and Filipino Americans come to think of themselves collectively as "Asian . Americans" because of official classifications remains to be seen. In the future. increasing numbers of children in the United States will be likely to have a mixed racial or ethnic heritage such as this student describes:

I am part French, part, part Filipino. and part black. Our family taught us to be aware of all these groups, and just to be ourselves. But I nave never known what I am. People have asked if I am a Gypsy. or a Portuguese. or a Mexican. or lots of other things. It seems to make people curious. uneasy. and sometimes belligerent, Students I don't even know stop me on campus and ask. "What are you anyway?