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Professor explores definitions of race

Christian Myers | Friday, January 28, 2011

What is race? American Studies professor Jason Ruiz posed this “deceptively simple question” Wednesday in DeBartolo Hall, as he delivered the second lecture in the Martin Luther King Jr. Series for the Study of Race.

Ruiz challenged the audience to work together in pairs and share some of their own definitions of race.

For the first half of the lecture, students, staff and community members shared various definitions of race related to a variety of topics. Several audience members proposed race has no scientific foundation, and one individual described the concept of race as “unnatural.”

The second half of the lecture consisted of Ruiz presenting some of his findings and several points about what race is and is not.

Ruiz first said the meaning and definition of the term race is contextual. It has changed over time and is different in different places. He outlined the origin of the term and concept “race” in the 19th century. He said a modern example is while today he is considered Latino, in the past various terms such as Hispanic, Mexican-American and Mexican would have been used.

“I’m the same person. I haven’t changed, but if I had somehow lived that long I would have been considered all of these different things,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said race is also not biological. Ruiz rejected “essentialism,” the concept there are innate racial characteristics related to intelligence, athleticism and other attributes. He said humans in the same racial group are as genetically distinct as people in different racial groups.

Ruiz said although race is not a biological reality, race is a social reality. He presented a case study of Lake County in Indiana. He showed statistics of demographics, income and high school graduation rate for the towns of Gary, Munster and East Chicago. The study revealed municipalities with larger minority populations had significantly lower income and graduation rates.

Ruiz also used an example from his year of research at a high school in Long Prairie, Minn. For approximately 25 years the Latino community had a high school graduation rate of zero percent.

Ruiz said the problem arose from a cultural miscommunication. He said the mostly Caucasian schoolteachers and administrators believed Latino parents were ambivalent toward their children’s education because they never attended parent-teacher conferences.

Ruiz said he spoke to these parents and found they valued education highly, but were reticent to attend parent-teacher conferences because of cultural taboos against questioning teachers and because the school did not provide translators.

The difference between race and ethnicity needs to be clarified, Ruiz said. Ethnicity is determined by one’s heritage. He said racial categories do not coincide with ethnicities and are not as legitimate.

Ruiz said in America race is used more as verb than as a noun. Americans talk about race in terms of it acting on individuals and their bodies.

Ruiz’s final point was “colorblindness” is not a solution. He said the social reality of race should not be ignored, but instead addressed.