What is “race”?

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Questions about “race”

Is “race” real?  How many “races” are there?  Why does our government want to know what “race” we are?


The answers depend on who you ask.

Lawyers use the legal definitions of race that coincide with hate crime laws.  Biologists refer to phenotype: the appearance of an organism based on a multifactorial combination of genetic traits and environmental factors.  Anthropologist use  the word cline (A gradation in a phenotype within a species).  Sociologists and politicians use the social construct definition – the superficial-blurry-one-drop-myth-of-hypodecent; but even this pseudo-science doesn’t say how far back to count the drop; nor what the label is for people who have half a drop. All humanity originated in Africa; so in turn, people who accept the one-drop-myth-of-hypodecent would reason that everyone in the world is “Black”.


But how many “races” are there?

‎”Write-ins from the race item numbered over 300 separate race responses and approximately 600 different American Indian tribes.” –Modernizing the U.S. Census


And why does the government want to know what “race” we are?

For a modern reason, I’m still trying to figure that out. For historical reasons there was the Three-Fifths compromise and old immigration policies based on “race”.  For further detailed information you can read “Legal History of the Color Line” by Frank W. Sweet


My experience

When I found out that “race” is largely a social construct, I started using the word “ethnicity” – even when I meant “race”. I was protesting the word “race” because I had learned “race” wasn’t real. Someone sent me a YouTube link that “proved” race was real. Then I went back to using both terms. It took me a while to learn all the correct terms. It’s sad that the U.S. government asks for our “race” then they provide check boxes for ethnicity.

I’ve been confused and frustrated regarding the check boxes that I’ve had to fill out my whole life. The icing on the cake was when my daughter’s school required us to fill in only one “race” (for “No Child Left Behind” stastics). If we would have refused to fill in her “race,” the school would guess her “race” and fill it in for us.

To learn more about what we are, check “What Makes us Who We Are” on my Community Village blog.



  1. says

    The NCLB requirement for one race really, really bothers me too! This year there was some testing form on a computer that my oldest child has to fill out on his own. It asked him to select his race, and his options were listed alphabetically. He clicked African-American first and then fully intended to click Caucasian/white next, but the system closed so that he couldn't click both choices. He was upset about it, but the school told him not to worry. They know me and they know his background. The school knows, the Census asks, but apparently our Department of Education does not want kids to identify themselves as multiracial. 

    • says

      That testing form is really outdated (to be programmed that way) because the federal government has allowed children to “be” more than one “race” since 2007  http://www2.ed.gov/policy/rschstat/guid/raceethnicity/index.html
      I would hope that at the bottom of that list on the computer was a check box that said “other” where one could write in their “otherness”. 

  2. Marie says

    I get really annoyed with the whole race question because it feels like I should check two to thre eboxes everytime.

  3. J Olivarez-Mazone says

    Otherness, sad, in the Year 2010 our only viable option is other.  Scoring sytems just segregate us further into believeing one "race" is more intellectual.