Is race a matter of identity (what people think of differences) or is it a biological given?

How is it that the idea of race-as-a-given works to structure and enforce differences (and power relations) within a particular society?


Episode notes

How much is ‘race’ something that is given to us by biology (and genetic inheritance)? In what ways do our assumptions about race overlap with how we understand gender differences? And is there a better way of understanding these?

Even more so than with gender, the problem with race is that it is a way of understanding differences that is based (perhaps almost?) entirely on socially and historically derived ways of thinking.

That is, the common view of this area of study is that there is a biological element of difference (akin to sex divisions between males and females) that is race. And on top of this are all the other ways we talk about such biological differences, that are broadly called ‘ethnicity’ (which is akin to gender, as a social construction based on the biological given).

But once we start applying this approach, the divisions into races becomes very complicated.

If we push this a little further, if racial differences are not solely matters determined by biological givens, then what makes (what we call) different race different are the things that relate to the different groups’ ethnicities, or to use another term, their cultural differences. A lot of work has been done in the field of race studies to explore race differences in terms of cultural differences, indeed it is one of the main premises of the development of cultural anthropology in the twentieth century. When we talk about such cultural differences, we are meaning ‘culture’ in terms of culture as a way of life, as shared systems of meaning — as I discussed back in episode 5 of this podcast series.

In this sense, some would argue we are not talking about race at all — race is just a clumsy, even pseudo-scientific way of talking about cultural differences between groups of people. We just use skin colour and other such markers as an easy (and very imprecise) short cut for referencing those differences.

In short, the study of both gender and race is about how people talk about, think about, experience, and practice certain types of differences. What we need to understand is not how these differences are biological, but rather how and why certain differences are considered important among particular people.


Useful links

The writer mentioned is Ta-Nehisi Coates whose discussion of race and racism can be found online in the Atlantic

Ta-Nehisi Coates new book, Between the World and Me, has recently (July 15) been published. I strongly recommend it. It is well worth a read.

About the Religion Bites Podcast



Religion Bites is a podcast by Malory Nye, an academic and writer based in Perth, Scotland.

The Religion Bites podcast gives you quick and simple intros to the study of religion, to help you think a bit further about the issues of religion and culture in the contemporary world. If we want to understand today’s world, we need to ‘get’ why people are religious – why they ‘do religion’ in the many ways that religion is done. This is not a podcast about being religious, it is about understanding religion and the role that religion has in the contemporary world.