Report on the Senior College Colloquium on Race

January 19, 2017 Senior College Centre

Ten participants, including moderator Martin Klein and reporter Philip Sullivan.

Readings and questions suggested by Martin Klein, supplemented by Peter Russell and Philip Sullivan.


We can divide the topic of “race” into two three questions. The first is the scientific question of race. How have scholars in different places and different periods defined race? Is there any scientific validity to these definitions? Do races exist? The second is how race is socially constructed.
The social construction of racial categories often defies any physical categorization. Thus, in the United States, many light-skinned people are defined as Black and in Canada, many native people are physically nodifferent from their supposedly White neighbors. Conversely, in many Arab and African areas, there are dark-skinned people defined as White because they are nobles. In 1950, Anwar Sadat and the late King Hassan of Morocco would have had to ride in the back of the bus in Birmingham, Alabama. The third question is how these ideas shape historical relations between people?

Is racism simply a form of ethnocentrism and xenophobia? How is it shaped by Othering? Why does racism persist in multiracial and highly integrated societies?

The literature on race and racism is very extensive. The suggested readings below are only a selection. We will focus on the idea of race, but the discussion can include the way it has shaped the world we live in. Participants in the colloquium can easily delve further into aspects that interest them. I have marked with an asterisk some readings that will be especially valuable for our discussion.

Some definitions:

Race, as a social construct, is a group of people who share similar and distinct physical characteristics. First used to refer to speakers of a common language and then to denote national affiliations, by the 17th century race began to refer to physical (i.e. phenotypical) traits.

Anthropological definition of race:

  1. (no longer in technical use) any of the traditional divisions of humankind, the commonest being the Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negro, characterized by supposedly distinctive and universal physical
  2. an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics,
    as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
  3. a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture: Her parents wanted her to marry within her race.
  4. a human population partially isolated reproductively from other populations, whose members share a greater degree of physical and genetic similarity with one another than with other humans.

What is the biological definition of race?

In biological classification, a race is an informal taxonomic rank, below the level of a species. It is used as a higher rank than strain, with several strains making up one race. Races may be distinct phenotypic
populations within the same species, or they may be defined in other ways.


*Statement on biological aspects of race, Association of Physical


*Statement on Race by American Anthropological Association: readings:

In Wikipedia:

<> . This
article is short but thorough, but in places, quite technical.

*A debate on whether race exists from Nova:

There is no such thing as race from Newsweek:

A non-racist use of the term race:

The work of Canadian psychologist Philippe Rushton was widely condemned by
other social scientists. This is a sample of his writing.

*K.A. Appiah, Race, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

*Yiannis Gabriel, The other and othering:

*Timeo, S., Farroni, T., & Maass, A. (2016). Race and color: Two sides of one story? Development of biases in categorical perception. Child Development. doi:10.1111/cdev.1256 (see attachment)

*Peter Russell’s forthcoming book, Canada’s Odyssey: A Country Based on Incomplete Conquest contains a chapter on The Nationalization of English Canada,  which deals with the development of Canadian thought on race and nation. It is attached.

Some longer readings:

A philosophers exploration of race: K.A. Appiah, The Tanner Lectures:

George Frederickson, Racism: A Short History. The best short introduction to the history of racism and probably the only truly global one.

Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition. This book was influential in provoking a scholarly reassessment of the idea of race.

Ivan Hannaford, RACE: The History of an Idea in the West.  A wide-ranging exploration of thinking about race and cultural differences.

Thomas Gossett, Race: History of an Idea in America. A study of race and racism in the United States.



The discussion began with a consideration of race as a social construct, a definition which was consistent with the statements of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the American Anthropological Association and elaborated in the Wikipedia article “Race (human categorization).” They argue for the rejection of rigid divisions between human populations in favour of a continuum of visible traits, some of which are hereditary and some environmentally influenced. It was noted, however, that Philippe Rushton’s 1998 article in Mankind Quarterly which was circulated with the preparatory readings specifically attacked the AAA statement as politically motivated and scientifically unsound. A colloquium member who had examined Rushton’s writings in depth at the time of their publication contended that he was highly selective in his research surveys, ignoring studies which did not support his contentions and drawing unwarranted conclusions from the data he chose to present. Professor Rushton’s take having been effectively discredited, discussion turned to possibly relevant but non-genetic biological factors which could be studied scientifically; for example, prenatal influences such as hormones, maternal diet, the aural environment, and in infancy, the survival value of close observation of physical characteristics of caregivers and other members of the group.   This is a behaviour, it was noted, humans share with other primates. However, in human society differences of class and status complicate the observable environment, so that a child may be intimately cared for by people he will be taught to perceive as “other” and inferior a few years down the road. One participant expressed the view that there is a lack of clarity about the meaning of the term ‘social construct’ and suggested that in certain contexts the term “race” remains useful. Other participants disagreed.

The discussion next turned to the etymology of the word “race” and the point at which “race” came to mean more than “nationality.” It was noted that even the word “nationality” blurred distinctions of language or ethnicity formerly important in many societies which appear homogenous by North American standards. Some time was spent comparing the situations of Canada and the United States, two countries where “nationality” has never implied a common hereditary background. Those raised in the United States tended to agree that “colour,” at least, was treated as an all-important genetic characteristic when they were growing up, although this underlined the importance of the legal and cultural context, insofar as membership in the “African-American” community did not mean that one’s heredity was majority African by any means.   “Racial” identity was really an expression of the legal situation, where the descendant of a slave was a slave, and later, a person subject to Jim Crow laws. This was analogous to the situation in Nazi Germany, where the Nuremberg Laws for the “protection of German blood” defined anyone with one Jewish grandparent as a Jew, with all the penalties and disqualifications that status incurred.

Discussion turned to the question of racial identity in indigenous populations. It was noted that North American First Nations bands freely intermarried and adopted children from other tribes; identity was not a question of heredity as we would understand it. An idea of “blood” only entered tribal thinking when a legal definition was required by the colonisers. On the other hand, there is currently a pragmatic use of indigenous identity as a form of political leverage.

In response to a question about the concept of “race” in India, a participant noted that Indians regarded the country as racially completely homogenous: every Indian was a member of the Aryan race. Differences in skin colour were important, with paler skin being more favourably regarded, but only from a cosmetic perspective. Caste, of course, is widely regarded as a vital element of one’s identity, but higher caste does not imply superior genetic makeup, since it is the result of karma, not heredity.    The participant added some remarks on racial discrimination which, in general, is linked to colour, ethnicity, race and jingoism.

However, in practice people in the West make no clear-cut distinction among these attributes. Often they are used interchangeably.

Returning to the question of historical racism, especially in its legal expression, the chairman noted that it was highly influenced by poorly trained scientists arguing for a form of social Darwinism based on the premise that desirable genetic characteristics were represented to different degrees in different, identifiable human groups. As we come to understand more about “gene expression” and the interaction between genetic and environmental factors in all areas of human activity the hereditary basis of racial theory looks increasingly untenable. We concluded that no doubt human beings will find other ways to tribalise.