Race: The Interpersonal Context

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines race as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.” Race is usually associated with biology and linked with physical characteristics, such as hair texture or skin color. Mindful of the tendency to view race as a biological construct, the reality of the matter is, the concept of race is a deliberate social creation to justify and maintain social distance among groups.

Consider the interpersonal nature of race as manifested in our public school system. As discussed by Robin DiAngelo in her book, “What does it mean to be White”, “despite the fact that the public school population is becoming increasingly racially diverse, more than 80% of elementary and secondary teachers are white. Almost half of the schools in the US do not have a single teacher of color on staff and therefore many students, regardless of their own race, will graduate from high school having been taught only by whites. Eighty to ninety-three percent of all current teacher education students are white and they are being taught by a teacher education profession that is 88% white.”

Isabel Wilkerson, in her book, “Caste: The Origins of our Discontent”, explains that, “Geneticists and anthropologists have long seen race as a man-made invention with no basis in science or biology.” Wilkerson discusses, “Two decades ago, analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same.” She suggests, “We accept the illogic of race because these are the things we have been told.” She concludes her compelling discussion of race by quoting anthropologists, Audrey and Brian Smedley who said, “We think we “see” race when we encounter certain physical differences among people such as skin color, eye shape, and hair texture. What we ‘see’…are the learned social meanings, the stereotypes, that have been linked to those physical features by the ideology of race and the historical legacy it has left us.”

Wilkerson offers a coda by historian, Neil Irvin Painter, “Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstitions.”

So we continue to be defined by this socially constructed concept that uses variations in skin color and arbitrarily selected physical characteristics to categorize people and impact interpersonal connections among humans. Historically embedded and perpetuated for centuries, the negative consequences of the racialized human experience continue to create obstacles to those of the marginalized racial groupings.

Now What

  1. When did you first become aware of your race? 
  2. How did this occur? How does race manifest itself in your work, school life, or academic environment?
  3. Are you comfortable talking about race with people who are different from you? Why or why not?


Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One world.

DiAngelo, R. (2017). What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy-Revised Edition. Peter Lang Incorporated, International Academic Publishers.

Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste (Oprah’s Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House.