To explore the interaction of genes and culture in producing the concept of race.
In this lesson, students will reflect on the concept of the "social construction of race." This phrase refers to the widespread practice of grouping people into a category called "race" and believing it to be a scientific property. It is not. Race is a political concept and practice that groups people in ways that reflect the dominant power interests of a society, based on superficial traits of how people look.
To understand how DNA, environment, and culture interact to influence human variation, the class will explore the basic components of modern biology by watching the video Our Molecular Selves. Before that, they will prepare with two quick, engaging, motivational exercises. Then, they will watch the video together to develop a shared baseline knowledge about DNA and the human genome. Following, they will complete a student sheet to note key biological features of biology's central dogma: DNA makes RNA makes proteins, and proteins perform all cellular tasks that determine an organism's form and function.
To develop their understanding, they will apply their knowledge and reflections in a "Learning Letter" writing exercise. To do this, they will write to the oldest person they know with their thoughts on this quote: "When you begin to understand the biology of human variation, you have to ask yourself if race is a good way to describe that."
Note that the Our Molecular Selves online video is short, 3.5 minutes, yet information-dense on the basics of DNA, RNA, and protein production. It moves quickly. Plan to watch it two times. First as a group, second, if school resources allow and there is enough computer access, with students working alone or in small groups. But you can also watch it as a group the second time as reflective preparation for completing the student sheet to become familiar with the biological basis for variation.
Misconceptions about genes and race abound, so be alert for common misconceptions such as:
- False: Race is a scientific concept. True: Race is a cultural construction using descriptive opinions, not scientific evidence.
- False: There is a race gene and, therefore, separate genomes for separate races. True: All humans share essentially the same genes, collectively called the human genome. We look different because different trait-specific genes are activated in each of us, making slightly different proteins that create a unique person.
- False: Organisms, and therefore people, are a product of their genes exclusively. True: In recent years, the science of epigenetics has provided hard, reliable, laboratory evidence for the role of environmental effects on gene expression. This means DNA is influenced by "outside actors" in the environment beyond the cell, such as stress—either emotional or physiological (for example, poor nutrition).
Here are some websites you could consult prior to the lesson to help you guide it:
- Why Phenotypic Races May Not Disappear
- Matters of Race
- The Biology Project
- Human Genome Project Information Archive
- PCR Virtual Lab
- A Short History of the Race Concept
Begin the lesson with these two quick-start exercises that visually engage students to introduce the two main ideas of this unit: 1) that humans are one species sharing a common genome, and 2) humans vary greatly due to differences in gene expression, effects of epigenetics, and effects of culture.
Quick Start 1: Introduce the concept of biological phenotypes. The phenotype refers to the external anatomic traits of an organism and is determined by the genotype—the set of genes—the organism's cells contain. Listen for student preconceptions and confusion about race by displaying on an overhead projector or SmartBoard the family portrait from this Why Phenotypic Races May Not Disappear blog post. Note: The text of the blog post itself is quite advanced in its writing style and level of genetic analysis. Focus on the image during class discussion, asking: "What do you see? Describe how this family looks. These girls are twins, born to the same parents at the same time. Yet they look very different. Name the traits you see, and what geographic region of the earth you might associate them with." See the Race Discussions Prompts & Teaching Points for tips on guiding the discussion.
Quick Start 2: Explore the subjectivity of race classifications. Working as a class, project an Internet site exercise on the overhead or SmartBoard to take the Sorting People challenge, based on a PBS televised special on race. It is a drag-and-drop exercise that asks participants to sort facial images of people into one of four commonly perceived "racial categories" that society—not biology—has organized. The Sorting People site provides feedback about the actual heritage of the people whose faces were sorted. This sparks productive discussion about the fallability of racial assumptions as a meaningful category of information. Emphasize that race is a cultural category people made up, not a biologically determined scientific trait. There is no race gene or set of genes.
Some discussion questions to engage and lead your students through their learning process:
- Were you surprised by how difficult it was to match phenotypes (what people looked like) with their "racial categories" in that activity?
- Do you believe "race" is socially constructed? If so, how does the concept of race still have real impacts on peoples' lives? If not, how do you define race?
- Why do you think people and societies have created racial categories?
- Discuss: How much does genetic makeup impact racial perceptions? How much influence does culture have? How much do other outside influences (stress, environment, etc.) play a role?
(Answers may vary. Encourage students to explain their responses.)
Done as a group, the exercise has potential for creating a raucous environment. Manage it early by explaining the rules of the exercise before you begin and by enforcing them. Students will take turns sorting a face as called on by you. If students seem respectfully able to respond more casually as a self-regulated group without you calling on one student at a time, that is a desirable option. The two hard and fast rules of this exercise are 1) to respect each student's choice of category for sorting and 2) not to tolerate disparaging remarks about groups, individuals, or traits. You could refer to our resource, Managing the Conversation Effectively, for more ideas on how to handle sensitive topics in the classroom.
At the end of these two quick-start motivational exercises, in class or as homework, students should reflect on concepts and feelings the exercises raised by completing the Race: Genes & Culture student sheet. This will be a helpful content resource for them to reference when they are writing the Learning Letter home, described in Development. You can find answers to the questions on the Race: Genes & Culture teacher sheet. Students should use these resources to help them complete the student sheet:
The focus here is on the biology of race, as determined by the interaction of genes and environment. In the Motivation session, students developed an awareness that the concept of race is a cultural construction of opinions, habit, and, sometimes, prejudice—it is not rooted in the biological evidence of the DNA. Now we look at scientific evidence for genetic differences to help explore the learning goals of 1) understanding the genetic similarity of all humans who share a single human genome and 2) understanding the basics of modern biology's Central Dogma, where DNA makes RNA makes proteins.
As a class, watch the DNA video called Our Molecular Selves.
Then assign the students to work individually, in class or as homework, to watch the video again so they can complete the Race: DNA student sheet. If computer resources are limited and this is not an option, it is also possible to watch it again as a group, pausing frequently to pace the video and allow students time to capture information for the student sheet.
Completing the student sheet helps them to execute the writing and science communication component of this lesson. You can check their preparedness with the Race: DNA teacher sheet. Once they have developed a knowledge base, they are to write a Learning Letter to a family member or extended family member.
In the Learning Letter they must: 1) share three scientific facts about genes and race from their studies in this unit; 2) draw an illustration labeling major elements of DNA, RNA, and the protein-making process; and 3) write an opinion to the oldest person they know backed by facts based on this quote: "When you begin to understand the biology of human variation, you have to ask yourself if race is a good way to describe that." Once the letters are written, students should share their letters in small groups, or as a class.
Before students share their letters with "the oldest person they know," you may want to alert students to the fact that they may get some strong reactions from that person. Students also could make use of the Managing the Conversation Effectively resource for pointers on how to engage in a respectful conversation on a sensitive topic.
Several days later, revisit the topic by adding the new information on how family members responded to the letters and the topic. Do students have more to add to their letters? If so, re-writing is an excellent option.
To assess student understanding of the main benchmark ideas about the common genetic unity of the human species, and the roles of DNA and RNA in determining our bodies' form and function, students should use their student esheet to go to and take the online Human Variation Quiz.
When finished, project the site on the overhead and go through the 10 questions and answers together as a class, checking both for knowledge mastery and misunderstandings.
These Science NetLinks lessons could be used as extensions:
To have a more personal learning experience where students explore their own vantage point and experience with race and its social implications, try this "speed dating" conversation activity. This is a useful way to raise sensitive issues and build mutual understanding and empathy among your students. It requires maintaining a respectful environment where students feel safe. Leave enough time for discussion and processing after the conclusion of the activity.
Students sit in two rows, facing one another. One student will get two minutes to respond to a personal question about race and its social implications as it pertains to them. The other student will listen actively without responding verbally. After two minutes, the second student will speak and the first will listen. After round one, students in one line move a chair to the right, and the activity is repeated with a new question.
- When was the first time you encountered the idea of race? When did you realize race was an issue or facet of life?
- Have you been asked to identify your race? How did that feel?
- What benefits do you get from how society views your racial categorization? Is it fair?
- How do you think people will approach race 50 years from now?