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Race and Ethnicity:  Prejudice and Racism

Race and Ethnicity: Prejudice and Racism

Author: Zach Lamb

Understand the functions of race and ethnicity in society.

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Race and Ethnicity: Prejudice and Racism

Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. In this lesson, we're going to discuss the sociological concepts of race and ethnicity. They're often thought of as being synonymous, but in fact they express different ideas. So we will elaborate those in this lesson.

Race, for starters, is a socially constructed meaning of human traits such as skin color, facial shape, eye color, and hair texture. Humans are biologically the same all over the world. We're part of the same species, but these traits then, like I just mentioned, mean nothing in and of themselves until human societies and human groups come along and give them meaning. Remember that humans live in a world of meaningful objects, we're meaning-making machines, so we give specific meanings to racial categories in each society.

In fact, race started-- the only reason we have racial differences, it's an adaptation to the environment. So humans evolved originally in Africa, and it was really hot and there was a lot of sun in Africa, so darker skin was more naturally advantageous in the Darwinian sense. So our original human ancestors had darker skin. And then, as human population started to disperse, first they went to Europe and then later over into Asia, the climate was different. And so it started to select for people with lighter skin traits. And then eventually as we populated North America and South America, even some human groups were way up in the Arctic here, we had then lighter skin. As well when you got down to South America, skin changed again. So humans adapt to their environment and change.

We're the same species, though, but yet we have these different trait variations throughout the environment. But they don't mean anything in and of themselves. We give them meaning in human society. So in Spain, being black or being white doesn't mean the same thing as being black or being white in America. And furthermore, there's a historical component as well. Being black and white in America in 1858 doesn't mean the same thing that it does now. Likewise, in Spain. So each society gives these biological traits meaning, and that's what we call race.

Now I'd like to turn from race understood sociologically as a social construction like we just laid out, to talk about ethnicity, a similar concept. Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics or shared ancestral origins. We define ethnicity based on language, ancestry, religion, or culture. The United States is a multiethnic society. We have members of many different ethnicities living in the United States. And the takeaway point is that both race and ethnicity are products of social construction. Race is a socially constructed meaning given to biological traits like I mentioned, and ethnicity is a social construction and meaning of cultural traits and the meaning of ancestry in society.

As you know, the social construction of racial categories are often given negative meanings and result in things of prejudice and stereotypes and even racism. And let's now move in the last part of the lesson to lay out those terms definitionally.

Firstly. Start with a minority. Minority is a group of people that differs from the dominant majority, often smaller in number. The minority relative to the majority, but it doesn't have to be that way. It can be in terms of power. A minority group lacks power relative to the majority group. We often define minority based on race, sex, ethnicity, et cetera.

Next, let's turn to prejudice. Prejudice is an attitude or judgment about another group, usually involving stereotypes. Stereotypes then are widely held and oversimplified beliefs about the character and behavior of all members of a group. So when you apply oversimplified, blanket generalizations about a group in society. They can either be positive or negative. Some stereotypes are good, but yet they're stereotypes nonetheless because they're oversimplified blanket generalizations about groups in society.

And finally, racism. Racism puts ideas of prejudice and stereotypes into action. So the key to delineating racism from prejudice and stereotypes is to see that racism involves action in the world, whereas prejudice and stereotypes are more often thought of as just ideas about racial categories. So racism involves discrimination and widespread mistreatment of people based on their racial characteristics.

Thank you for joining me. This lesson discussed the sociological categories of race and ethnicity as well as some related concepts of negative aspects of the social construction of race and ethnicity like prejudice, stereotypes, and racism.

Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know

Shared cultural characteristics, or shared ancestral origins.


A group that is different from the dominant majority, usually judged according to race, ethnicity, or gender.


An attitude or judgment about another group usually involving stereotypes.


The socially constructed meaning of human traits such as skin color, facial shape, eye color, and hair texture.


Prejudiced ideas and stereotypes put into action.


A statement of questionable validity that is indiscriminately applied to all members of a group.