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Growing up with ideas of race

Updated Tuesday, 26th June 2007

With more difference within, rather than between, human groups, we ask how are children growing up with ideas of race?

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Children playing with leaves

"One of the great truths to emerge from this triumphant expedition inside the human genome is that in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 percent the same."
- President Clinton, announcing the completion of a "working draft" of the human genome by the Human Genome Project on 26th June 2000

It has been increasingly popular, amongst scientists and politicians alike, to claim that "there is no such thing as race" and to emphasise the similarities and common heritage of all human groups. In part they are striving to raise public awareness about longstanding scientific evidence which shows quite clearly that genetically-distinct 'racial' groups do not exist – evidence that has been confirmed by recent advances in genetic research. At the same time they are also striving to tackle the beliefs which lead to discrimination against particular groups and have such a profound impact on people's lives and people's bodies.

We know, for example, that ethnic minorities in Britain and the United States are often discriminated against in education and employment in ways that directly contribute to lower incomes and worse health. But in the face of such inequalities, what are people to make of the claim that "there is no such thing as race"? And what are they to make of the differences they can see with their own eyes between human groups classified by physical appearance (be it skin colour and/or hair texture), or of the genetic tests scientists have used to explore the geographical ancestry of different individuals?

Aren't these differences 'real'? If so, don't they justify classifying different groups as genetically-distinct races? Don't they justify racial stereotypes and treating particular groups in different ways? And is it any wonder that children grow up believing that what they experience in their racialised societies is evidence of innate and 'natural' differences between different groups?

We'll try to answer these questions by considering :

  • why the belief in genetically-distinct racial groups has been discredited
  • why this belief has nonetheless had important effects on people's lives and bodies
  • what these effects mean for children growing up in multi-ethnic societies

The discredited belief in genetically-distinct racial groups
Scientists have known for some time that there are not any genetically distinct groups of humans that can be described as 'races', they simply do not exist. This is because the groups of people that society often see as 'racial' groups change from time to time and place to place in much the same way that 'ethnic' groups do (as Paul Connolly describes in his essay on Children and Ethnicity).


The key point is that there is more genetic variation within groups of similar appearance, culture and geographical origin than there is between them and other groups. This means that it is impossible to predict whether an individual has a specific genetic trait simply by knowing the group(s) to which they belong.

The impact of racial theories on people's lives
But we must face up to the fact that many people still firmly believe that racial groups are real and genetically distinct. Stereotypes about innate racial differences are still used to justify treating different groups of people in different ways. It is crucial to realise that doing this can in itself produce and enhance the very differences that the stereotypes assume.

In this way race has become a 'self-fulfilling prophecy' because the belief that some groups are inherently different has led us to classify them in ways that can be distinguished genetically and treat them differently in ways that produce the very differences we believed were there in the first place.

So, it is fair to claim that "there is no such thing as race" since there are no naturally-occurring genetically-distinct racial groups. But, on the other hand, the way that racial groups have been classified and treated have had very real consequences for people's lives and bodies – not least in the worse health amongst some ethnic minority groups in societies like Britain and the United States where the concept of race is still part of many people's thinking.

Growing up in racialised societies
In his essay on Children and Ethnicity, Paul Connolly describes how children develop an awareness of their ethnic identity and make sense of ethnicity by comparing the world around them with their own experiences. This results from our natural tendency to classify the physical and biological world around us and to do the same for our social environment. So, the way that children think about social groups depends on how these are thought about and talked about by the people around them.

Unfortunately, because of this, children often learn to think about 'racial' groups as natural and genetically-distinct entities, and can learn negative associations for certain groups . Also, children quickly recognise that racial hierarchies do exist within racialised societies and can learn racist explanations for these. In particular, children from minority groups tend to develop an awareness of their own group identity at an earlier age than those from majority populations – partly in response to the way their group membership impacts on their family's identity and partly in response to discrimination they experience from the rest of society.

Racial identities are almost always more about the negative impact of discrimination than about a positive celebration of differences in culture or heritage in the way that ethnic identities can be. As we saw earlier, this is precisely why politicians and scientists have been keen to argue that "there is no such thing as race" – to discredit any justification for discrimination and encourage people to disregard race as a meaningful part of their identity. Parents who are keen to challenge the negative impact of racial attitudes in their children should follow the three steps outlined in Paul Connolly's related essay on Children and Ethnicity.

Further reading
Race, Place and Globalization: Youth Cultures in a Changing World
Anoop Nayak, published by Berg

The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism
Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin, published by Rowman & Littlefield

Apes, People and Their Genes
Jonathan Marks, published by University of California Press

Text of Remarks on the Completion of the First Survey of the Entire Human Genome Project from the White House website

How do Children See Race? by Marguerite Wright for Hand In Hand

Racism, Gender Identities and Young Children: Social relations in a multi-ethnic inner-city primary school
Paul Connolly, published by Routlege

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