Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

The American Discussion of Race Is Ethnocentric

We need to learn from other cultures in our discussion of race.

Posted Aug 04, 2015

Wikimedia Commons
World map with Eurasia cut in half
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the main themes of this blog is the attempt to disentangle issues of biology and culture in order to better understand the concept of race. For example, two pieces dealing with items in the news are What Race Is George Zimmerman? and What Race Is Rachel Dolezal? The following is a discussion of a more general issue.


While there are perennial calls for "a discussion of race," the subject matter of that discussion is implicitly circumscribed in ways that prevent new insights and limit proposals to a few alternative courses of action.

It is as if the only place that exists is the United States today; the only ways of thinking about race are American ways; the concept of race in all cultures is the same as the current American concept; racial categories, race relations, racial stereotypes, and racial discrimination elsewhere in the world are similar to their American counterparts; and these assumptions imply that when other languages speak about race they do so in word-for-word translations of English. In short, there is nothing we can learn from other cultures that could contribute to our understanding of race, or challenge the categories of our discussion, and that, as far as race is concerned, it is a bad idea to think outside the box.

While public discussion pays lip service to the idea that race is a socially constructed category, there is no consideration of changing the one-drop rule, and no awareness of cultures that do not have a one-drop rule or interest in how they think about race or what we can learn from their different forms of race relations.

For example, in Brazil your race is what you look like, so there are well over a hundred different racial terms. Depending on what they look like, siblings are labeled with different racial terms, and are treated differently socially in accordance with the associated Brazilian stereotypes. In addition, unlike rigid American categories, the terms used to refer to a given individual may vary over time—for example, Brazilians have an expression that "money whitens." And Brazilians know what a negro or preto looks like; they say that a proof that Americans are racist is that we call people black who are not black.

Is there nothing we can learn from a culture that does not have a one-drop rule? Is the only lesson we can learn that Brazilians are racist too, so the details are irrelevant? Is it not possible to think about what America would be like if we ended or modified the one-drop rule: what might be the positive and negative consequences of such a change, and how might we go about making it?

The American discussion of race does not deal with issues such as the perplexity of immigrants who come to this country with their own sets of racial categories, identities, and stereotypes, and find themselves at sea with no cultural compass.

(I go into detail about these and other cultural and biological matters in my book The Myth of Race; and I compare the concept of race in eight different cultures in my multidisciplinary edited volume, Race and Intelligence: Separating Science and Myth.)

This brief listing of topics outside the bounds of the American discussion of race doesn't even include what is known about human biological variation. As with the lip service paid to the idea that race is a socially constructed concept, the idea that the human species has no biological races is also acknowledged and ignored. As a result, there is no discussion of why American pseudo-biological assumptions about European, Asian, and African races are incorrect, what the facts are from evolutionary biology and biological anthropology, and what our scientific understanding has to say about the conceptual underpinnings of American ideas about race.

An oft-quoted maxim, when talking about social policy and race, is that it is crazy to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It is time to apply that maxim to the discussion of race itself.

Image Source:

World map blank-Americas centred:

Wikimedia Commons:Tectonic plates (empty).svg created by Ævar Arnfjörð Bjarmason under PD and based on an USGS map

Check out my most recent book, The Myth of Race, which debunks common misconceptions, as well as my other books at

The Myth of Race is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble

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