An initial attempt at outlining a neuroanthropology of race…
Anthropology and Race
Decades of research in biological anthropology have led to one simple conclusion: Race is a biological fiction; human variation is real. People do indeed vary in their biology all around the world. That variation just does not fall into the simple slots imagined by government forms, discussed in locker rooms, and shown on television. Humans are more complex than white, black, red, and yellow.
Decades of research in cultural anthropology have led to one simple conclusion: Race as a social construction is real, and this social reality shapes people’s everyday lives, including their bodies. Some societies do indeed divide up people by color, and those divisions make a difference in people’s lives. The way those divisions make a difference is not just through stereotypes and race-based thinking, but also through how “races” have divided people in economic and historical terms. People’s lives were not and are not the same because of race as a social phenomenon.
Race as a social phenomenon has real biological effects. We understand now from human development that people’s experiences, from being marginalized to expecting discrimination, have definite, often unhealthy outcomes. The converse of this point is also true: race as white is as embodied as race as black or any other color. In the case of white privilege in the United States, this embodied space often has positive biological effects: better nutrition, less stress, less fear, and so forth. This lack of equality because of race also has another name: injustice.
To read more about race in general, I recommend Jason Antrosio’s Race is a Social Construction – Anthropology on Race and Genetics. For more general statements on how anthropology approaches human difference, Agustin Fuentes is doing some great myth busting.
The Neuroanthropology of Race
Turning now to neuroscience and race, I want to highlight four questions that come up for me in thinking about the neuroanthropology of race.
*How does experience get under the skin?
*How do human judgments, decisions and interactions get instantiated in the brain?
*What role does human variation play in how brains work?
*What role does neuroscience play in reinforcing or questioning the use of race in science and society?
I’ve made all of these questions more general than just about “race.” I do that largely because these sorts of questions come up with all sorts of social phenomena – gender, class, immigrant status, and so forth. But that step back into generality and into dispassioned observation is, ironically enough, a step back into my own white privileged space. I’m protected here – it’s about them, rather than me. And that is a major part of the problem. That is how “race” often works today.