Understanding race and race-making

Many people are talking about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) these days. Across all academic disciplines, many folks wonder what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean for them. This presents a conundrum in STEM disciplines that have long held that their fields were scientific and objective, and thus untouchable by things like bias, racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression.

In the biomedical sciences, diversity, equity, and inclusion work has largely focused on reaching/serving underserved communities and broadening representation in the professions, particularly when it comes to some communities of color. However, few have been happy with the results.

This is because these goals, though noble, have not revisited the premise of the biomedical sciences as being inherently scientific and objective. Some of our top researchers on down to our incoming students are unfamiliar with the history of biomedical research and practice, and how it has always been enmeshed with systems of oppression, including racism, sexism, cisheterosexism, ableism, and beyond.

In not understanding this history, we unknowingly are perpetuating this oppression in our research, our work, and our education. In launching this blog, particularly for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, my hope is to educate our community on this history and the repercussions in the present, as well as highlight initiatives and steps forward to building a socially-just college and field!

To start, let’s look at race and race-making in the United States. What is race? When I ask people what they think of when they hear the word, “race,” I often hear folks equate race to skin color or phenotypes. Still other people note that race is a social construction. These are all fair assessments, but it is this last one, that race is a social construction, that is essential to us understanding race.

If race is a social construction, that means it was made up. But who made it up and why? Given that it is a social construction, it’s implied that many people made it up in society, but where did it start? One of the first to categorize people by what we now understand as race was Swedish Botanist, Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), who is well known as the “father of taxonomy.” Although he specialized first and foremost in plant categorization, Linnaeus also categorized people according to what we now know as race. His categories included Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus with an attached color to each: red, yellow, black, and white, respectively. Beyond his dubious color-coding of humans, Linnaeus also ascribed character attributes to his groups. The Europeanus (his own “white” race), he classified as wise and inventive, whereas Africanus or “Black” he classified as sly, lazy, and negligent (sound like the racist stereotypes we still see/hear today?). As he classified people by color/race, as the character attributes denote, there was a clear hierarchy where Europeans or white people were positioned at the top.

More European scientists followed Linnaeus’s lead, all working to confirm the superiority of Europeans/whites. When Europeans began to colonize what is now considered the United States, they ultimately developed and used race and the racial categories from Linnaeus and others to justify several violent acts against People of Color, particularly the enslavement of Africans and the stealing of Indigenous land.

I will end this short history of race-making by highlighting the ultimate lesson that is so often left out of conversations around race. Race was created by and for white people. Race was a construction developed in service of the white supremacist project. Thus, to treat race as benign categories or as those that are biological or inherent differences in people is to fundamentally misunderstand the oppressive structure that race is and how it works within society…and the biomedical sciences.

Read more:

How Scientific Taxonomy Constructed the Myth of Race

Race: The Power of Illusion