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Critical Discussion: The Historical and Contemporary Uses and Notions of “Race”

| January 23, 2017


This paper deals with the historical and contemporary uses and notions of the term ‘race’. The discussion is based on the dismissal of most contemporary scholars of the notion of ‘race; based on 19th century scientific taxonomies.

Historically, the term has been intertwined with the notions of class, people, nation, etc. and is closely related to the concepts of ‘lineage,’ ‘caste’, etc. The term is also used to denote a biological idea, which evolved to mean human physical variations, ethnic identities, human genetics, and racist ideologies. The contemporary use of ‘race’ is focused on the integration and socialisation or re-socialisation of people with other groups of different origin with whom they identify, regardless of age, gender, ethnic identities, religion, etc.


This brief aim to discuss critically the historical and contemporary use(s) and notions of the term ‘race’, taking into account that most contemporary scholars dismiss the notion of ‘race’, as exemplified by the 19th century scientific taxonomies.

According to Donald and Rattansi (2005), ‘race’ refers to social meanings characterised by instability and decentralised ideas, with occurrences of constant transformations from political struggle. Montagu (1997), on the other hand, has referred to it as the most dangerous myth, indicating the relevance of the needed work for this concept. He further surmises that ‘black’ and  ‘white’ must no longer be used to describe society or certain groups of people.  The existence of race is said to be an experience rather than an imagined or even real phenotype (qualities produced by the effect of environment on genes).  Montagu states that the reason why the feeling of ‘race’ is sustained is because of the geographic segregation of people on the levels of community, society, and world-systems.

The historical and contemporary use(s) and notions of the term ‘race’ are discussed below.

Historical Uses and Notions of ‘Race’

In its original conception, ‘race’ pertains to a group of people with common descent and is closely related to the concepts of ‘caste’, ‘lineage’, etc. ‘Race’ has been used to differentiate people of color and Caucasian ones to reflect the construction of classes, which embody very detailed classifications. It has been presented to conduct a systematic analysis of theoretical problems and political ideas (specifically ‘race’ ideas) and the contributions of these ideas to the formation of communities and race-state interrelationships (e.g. Donald and Rattansi, 2005). Voegelin (1998) states that the study of the notion of ‘race’ has spanned a period of around a century and a half, beginning from the late 17th century to mid-19th century and claims that the development of modern history serves as the context for the emergence of the notion of ‘race’.

Historically, the notion of ‘race’ is one that interweaved with the concepts of class, nation, people, ethnic group, and the like, and is expressed through its diverse use, such as in the depiction of ‘human race,’ superior race,’ English race,’ etc. ‘Race’ has appeared in southwestern European languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian) and has likewise been used widely amongst European countries (England, France) (Llobera, 2003). It has already existed in earlier periods of history and in different cultures. In fact a strong link was demonstrated between the European slave trade and the rise of racism in the West; however, Llobera (2003) claims that slavery is not a sufficient explanation for the existence of racism during this period.  The notion of ‘race’ had already existed amongst Greeks and Romans during the ancient period, as they distinguished whites from blacks. However, such distinction did not bear any significant social or cultural impact (Llobera, 2003), indicating the difference with how it was classically perceived and how it was perceived in its later notions, such as the 19th century scientific taxonomies.

From the 14th century to the mid-17th century, the definition of ‘race’ altered the expression of kinship relationships and genealogy towards an emphasis on physical appearance and skin colour. These multiple understandings of the notion of ‘race’ can be summed up as being associated with a transitional period during which a move took place from a definition of ethnicity in which several definitions co-existed with a monolithic modern concept of race. During the renaissance period, the use of ‘race’ was used to denote bloodlines or lineage, such as the concept of a royal bloodline. In addition, religious conversions were able to transform blood identity; for example, a Christian who was a pagan by birth obtained a new racial identity upon conversion to Christianity (Spiller, 2011).  Indeed, as have been clarified by many scholars (e.g. Spencer, 2006; James, 2011), the historical notions of ‘race’ in the early modern era is characterised by overlapping and even opposing concepts of religion and ethnicity. Historic events such as the slave trade and ‘scientific racialism’ (Spiller, 2011:2) clearly seem to have changed European attitudes toward race and identity. Ethnic identities have been used to understand the initial modern notions of ‘race’ (Spiller, 2011).

In the mid-18th century, increasing knowledge of the different appearances of the human being ensued, so that ‘race’ began to be understood in terms of human physical variations. As such, human beings (in the variety of physical forms the human body takes) were seen as parts within a larger systematic structure, which is nature (Voegelin, 1998). It must be noted that as early as the 15th century, biological unity has already been assumed in the notion of ‘race’, as seen in the expression ‘unity of blood’ in the Iberian Peninsula (Llobera, 2003).

In the 20th century, specifically when the Nazi regime came to existence, the notion of ‘race’ has been presented as an extremely controversial term. It includes a range of situations affirming the superiority of one ‘race’ over another. Due to its link to extremely negative moral issues, the word ‘racism’ elicits abuse and must be used with appropriate caution (Llobera, 2003). One can therefore see here that ‘race’ has transformed gradually from one that depicts the classification of classes, ethnicity, religion, etc. to one that functions as a device to evaluate superiority and inferiority.

The notion of race is influenced by suggestions that it should be understood not as a reflection of biological fact but as a reflection of prevailing racist ideologies (e.g. Ferguson, 2013; Beidler and Taylor, 2005). A worthy argument is that if ‘race’ originates as a category that provides hierarchical privileges to  a ruling status, thereby making other groups inferior, then those considered inferior, such as people of colour, are apparently pushed into this derogation (Beidler and Taylor, 2005).

Contemporary Uses and Notions of ‘Race’

The uses and notions of ‘race’ have trailed a different direction in the contemporary understanding of the term. The change in the concept is illustrated in Korean children who grew up in largely black and Latino communities in Los Angeles and who had more in common with their black and Latino peers than with other Korean students. The same is seen amongst black suburban children in largely white communities who have identified more with the cultural values of their white peer group than with their ethnic brothers and sisters (Montagu, 1997).  Despite their different phenotypical characteristics, people can assume the identity of another group (‘race’) through socialisation and re-socialisation. This is contrary to the historical notion of ‘race’, which dealt largely with bloodlines or lineage, or with biological components, or with the perception of superiority and inferiority (e.g. Llobera, 2003; and Spiller, 2011).

‘Race’ is called an ‘experience’ in its contemporary use because of the increasing multi-racial movement worldwide that depicts its existence (Tattersall and DeSalle, 2011). For example, a growing number or Americans have insisted on being regarded as belonging to more than one ‘race’ and maintain their public and private transnational identities. These movements are a reminder that single racialised categories only oversimplify the complexities of culture and ethnicity (Montagu, 1997). According to Donald and Rattansi (2005), when issues of age, gender, class, and religion are made to integrate to culture, ethnicity, and multiculturalism, a realisation that would ensue is that the extent of single-race categorisation (being a dangerous myth) will promote disparaging prejudgments that attach irrelevant distinctions on people. Apparently, this argument is parallel to the idea that it is through socialisation and re-socialisation with different groups that people can assume a new ‘race’ or a new identity (Montagu, 1997).

Montagu (1997) presents the United States as one that brings the notion of ‘race’ as an increasingly dysfunctional way to distinguish human beings. This is because of the presence of economic, political, and demographic factors that demand people to become competent interculturally (e.g. Donald and Rattansi, 2005).  This propensity for intercultural competence blurs the distinction of people based on skin colour and other forms of identity. This is parallel to recognising the cultural and social integration of people of various origins as the new way of their cultural and social belongingness (e.g. Llobera, 2003; Spiller, 2011).

Whitmarsh and Jones (2010) suggest that race and ethnicity function as categories of racial relationships, such as certain racial dualities where fine skin colour distinctions are dominant. Anthropological research (e.g. Whitmarsh and Jones, 2010) reveals that ethnic identities are incongruous and numerous in ways that cannot be reduced to racial classifications. Racial and ethnic categorisations are arbitrarily interwoven with gender and class in various discourses.

These contemporary uses of ‘race’ have produced overwhelming accounts of racial disparities, ranging from income, education, punishment, medical treatment, and so on, thereby leading some theorists to suggest that the notion of ‘race’ needs to be understood in the context of the related notion of social justice (Whitmarsh and Jones, 2010). This is contrary to the use of ‘race’ as an outcome of socialisation and re-socialisation to a new culture, which Llobera, (2003) has earlier described.

In Lively and Weaver‘s (2006) view, however, racial classifications (without regard to their purpose) tend to stigmatise. Despite efforts to correct the past, notions of racial inferiority may still be present, thereby leading to a politics of racial hostility. However, the current ways to discuss the notion of ‘race’ are through remnants of earlier ways of understanding this concept, making it easy to understand contemporary discussions about itself as a pale reflection of its more vigorous discourse (Ernest, 2009).

Understanding ‘race’ would inform of the fact that there are only trivial physical and biological differences between groups referred to as ‘races.’ There is no convincing empirical case that allows the ascription of common intellectual, psychological, or moral characteristics to individuals based on skin colour. There is certainly no good ethical case to serve as a justification of inequitable treatment on such illogical basis (e.g. Montagu, 1997).  This is seen in the current understanding of this concept based on people’s integration to a different social and/or cultural group, with whom they identify. It has been broadly acknowledged that problematic stances can ensue if the contemporary notions of “race” are applied to the early modern period.  This is the reason why the term is usually enclosed with quotation marks and is highlighted by qualifications (e.g. Beidler and Taylor, 2005).



This paper has provided a critical discussion of the historical and contemporary uses and notions of ‘race’. The term is characterised by unstable and centralised social meanings, within which constant transformations frequently occur. An examination of 19th-century iconography revealed that the historical notion of ‘race’ reflect the construction of classes.

The Renaissance era indicated bloodlines or lineage for the term ‘race.’ Religion and ethnicity also characterised the historical notions of ‘race’ in the early modern period. The modern era, on the other hand, saw the development of this notion as one that originates from the human genetic diversity paradigm to the typological racial model.

‘Race’ as an experience is demonstrated in today’s increasing multi-racial movement in various parts of the world. Disparaging prejudgments that attach irrelevant distinctions on people would be the result of the integration between issues of gender, age, class, and religion on one hand, and culture, ethnicity, and multiculturalism on the other.

‘Race’ is a dysfunctional way to distinguish people because of the presence of economic, political, and demographic aspects that require them to develop intercultural competences.

Moreover, the contemporary notion of ’race’ indicates that there is no convincing empirical and ethical case that justifies ascription of certain qualities to some individuals and treat them  inequitably as a result. ‘Race’, in its contemporary use, can mean a result of socialisation and re-socialisation of people with other groups with whom they identify, regardless of age, gender, ethnic identities, and the like.


Beidler, P. D. and Taylor, G. (2005) Writing Race Across the Atlantic World: Medieval to Modern. NY: Palgrave MacMillan.

Donald, J. and Rattansi, A. (2005) Race, Culture and Difference. London: The Open University.

Ernest, J. (2009) Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.

Ferguson, M. (2013) ‘Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko’ in M. Hendricks and P. Parker (eds.) Women. “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period. NY: Routledge.

James, P. (2011) Religion, Identity, and Global Governance: Ideas, Evidence and Practice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Incorporated.

Lively, D. E. and Weaver, R. L. (2006) Contemporary Supreme Court Cases. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

Llobera, J. R. (2003) An Invitation to Anthropology: The Structure, Evolution, and Cultural Identity of Human Societies. NY: Berghahn Books.

Montagu, A. (1997) Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. CA: Altamira Press.

Spencer, S. (2006) Race and Ethnicity: Culture, Identity and Representation. NY: Routledge.

Spiller, E. (2011) Reading and the History of Race in the Renaissance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tattersall, I. and DeSalle, R. (2011) Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth. First Edition. Texas: Texas A&M University Press.

Voegelin, E. (1998) The History of the Race Idea: From Ray to Carus, Volume 3. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press.

Whitmarsh, I. and Jones, D. S. (2010) ‘Governance and the uses of race’. In I. Whitmarsh and D. S.  Jones (eds.) What’s the Use of Race? Modern Governance and the Biology of Difference. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Social Science