Sunday, October 14, 2012

On "race" and ethnicity

On the Anthro-L email list someone asked:
For the uninitiated, could someone please tell me what distinction anthropologists make between race & ethnicity?
First have a look at a post on this blog some time back: "Paging Dr. Gupta: ethnic skin?!?"

Now then, briefly:

Both race and ethnicity are cultural categories used for sorting humans into groups.  The "race" category alleges that biological features can be used to do this, but it is not valid.  "Race" is equivalent to "subspecies," and it doesn't work even for non-human animals. For instance, the "Florida panther" is an alleged subspecies of mountain lion, Puma concolor coryii. It is a figment of people's imagination, although... the informal designation might be useful for conservation purposes: "the panthers that happen to live in Florida need to be protected."  The taxonomic label is simply invalid.

Ethnic group, as a category, alleges that people share language and culture, at least partly or mostly due to their having a common origin, coming from a place.  "African-American" comes to mind, of course. The Garifuna in Central America are an interesting example, because many of them appear to be of African descent, but they speak an Arawakan language: a nice example of the independent variability of biology and culture.

By the way, in the US at least, SAE (standard average European) is the unmarked ethnic category.  Other people belong to "ethnic groups," but not them (us?).  This is one facet of the trap Gupta fell into.  Of course, to be human is to belong to an ethnic group: without language and culture, we are not human.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments and feedback are welcome, as long as they conform to normal standards of civility and decency. I will delete comments that do not meet these standards.