The Illusion of Race

What You Need



  • Race Literacy Quiz from the California Newsreel site (print out just the first three pages)
The Illusion of Race


To help students understand the ways that we have classified and defined groups, and to help students understand basic genetic traits that we have inherited from our common ancestors.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

Our laws, social policies, even our scientific discoveries have all been shaped by shifting political priorities often informed by using race to define other humans. Race is one of those classifications that has been more recently used in the history of humans but cannot be clearly defined, and is often used to elevate one group to the disadvantage of other groups.

In middle school, students begin to learn about the construct of race, and how we go about identifying others and ourselves by groups, ancestry, common culture, and genetic factors. The idea of race is a controversial one, often considered an artificial means of human classification. We want students to learn about the very recent idea of race, how human beings’ patterns of migration may have affected physical characteristics necessary to adapt to different environments, and how these characteristics are changeable over time.

A newer, perhaps more accurate way of defining membership in a race is done using DNA classification to determine geographic place of origin. Most humans are a mixture of many different groupings of geographical origins. Their lineage or groupings resulted from migratory patterns, usually in search of food and hospitable living environments, which then determined DNA.

Scientists are still unsure about what caused differences in skin color to evolve. In general, people in tropical areas tend to be darker, while northern and southern populations tend to be lighter. Some scientists hypothesize that this variation in skin color is the result of natural selection in response to different levels of ultraviolet light and Vitamin D absorption. Other scientists believe that superficial physical differences arose from cultural preferences, an evolutionary force known as sexual selection. Therefore, it is important to recognize that scientific research has shown us that differences in skin and eye color occurred not by personal choice, but through the process of natural selection: for example, those with lighter skin may have had an advantage over those with darker skin in a particular environment, allowing them to survive better and reproduce more people with lighter skin.

We are all one species, with very little genetic variation among us. In order to do this lesson, it is important for students to understand the concept and definition of what is a species (a group that cannot reproduce or mate with any other group). An example is that dogs can only mate with dogs (not cats), fish with fish, and humans with other humans.

As children try to understand biological and social phenomena, they often over-generalize information about racial and cultural differences. One must be cautious, however, not to assume that children are prejudiced or deliberately using stereotypes when they over-generalize. They simply may be thinking typically for young children trying to make sense out of their limited experiences with other groups (Ramsey, 1986). Research indicates that children in the United States come to understand race and ethnicity concepts between the ages of 3 and 4. At around age 6, children become accurate at sorting people by ethnicity. At around age 7 or 8, children understand that race and ethnicity do not change. By the second or third grade, then, children have an adult-like idea of what race and ethnicity are (McKown & Weinstein, 2003). According to Margo Monteith, Ph.D., many children have definite and entrenched stereotypes about blacks, women, and other social groups by five years of age. (“Where bias begins: The truth about stereotypes,” Psychology Today, May/June 98.)

The goal of this lesson is to have students investigate both genetic and societal consequences of these often-artificial and evolving classifications. Students will examine the long-term repercussions of these classifications that have resulted in racism, wars, and genocide. In order to do this lesson, therefore, students should have basic knowledge of DNA and natural selection.

Read More

Planning Ahead

We suggest that you consult these resources before guiding your students through this lesson:


As a way to stimulate discussion, get students thinking about the idea of classification based on a random assignment such as month of birth date. You can pick a random way to divide students into categories. For instance, you could divide students according to where their birthdays fall in the year—fall, winter, spring, or summer months. Then you should choose one particular group—students with spring birthdays for instance—to receive special privileges for the day while the rest of the class would be left out or ineligible.

Once you’ve conducted this exercise, lead students in a class discussion using questions like these:

  • How did it feel to be overlooked or not have the special privileges that the spring birthday students had?
  • Did it seem unfair to you? If so, in what way? (Ask students to list or describe their reactions.)
  • Was the decision to give the students with spring birthdays extra privileges and attention based on merit? Did they do anything to deserve this?
  • How would you correct the situation so that everyone would be included?
  • How does this reflect the special privileges and racism that some groups in our society experience?


Begin this section by having students take the Race Literacy Quiz from the California Newsreel site. You can provide each student with the print out of this quiz. Ask students to record their answers on the print out you’ve provided. Once students have finished the quiz, hold a class discussion about their answers and their thoughts about the quiz in general. Ask students these questions:

  • What do we know about race?
  • What do we want to learn about race?

Write students’ answers on the blackboard or on large paper, with three columns, one for what we know, one for what we want to learn, and one for what we have learned. Leave the third column blank. At the end of the lesson, have students retake the quiz and compare their answers from the first quiz and the re-taken quiz and then fill in the third column.

In this section of the lesson, students should make extensive use of the PBS resource, RACE—The Power of an Illusion.

First, have students use their The Illusion of Race student esheet to go to and read Human Diversity–Go Deeper. Once students read this resource, they should answer these questions on The Illusion of Race student sheet:

  • What do we each think of when we say the word “race”? (Answers may vary.)
  • What race/races do we identify with? (Answers may vary.)
  • What if you were told that you were actually a different race or had racial characteristics that matched another group than your own? (Answers may vary.)
  • What identifies us scientifically as being of a specific race? (The human species is all one race as identified by our DNA.)
  • Why can’t we map one gene, trait, or characteristic that tells us how to recognize one member of a race from another? (Modern humans haven't been around long enough to evolve into different subspecies and we've always moved, mated, and mixed our genes. Beneath the skin, we are one of the most genetically similar of all species.)
  • Why have other animal species been able to accumulate more gene variants than humans? (They’ve been around longer or they have shorter life spans, allowing them more opportunity to accumulate genetic variants.)
  • How long do you think it takes to accumulate gene variants? (Answers may vary.)
  • Why do we talk in terms of ancestry instead of race when we discuss genetic differences in humans? (Not everyone who looks alike or lives in the same region shares a common ancestry, so using "race" as a shorthand for ancestry can be misleading.)
  • Can you think of any biological consequences of the social reality of race? (Answers may include higher rates of certain diseases among certain groups of people, i.e., African Americans or Native Americans.)

Now, students should use their student esheet to go Human Diversity: How Different Are We? They should read the material in the Explore Diversity section. Once students have read the resource, ask these questions:

  • Scientists have found through the study of population genetics, that human populations are different from one another in very small ways determined by the amounts or proportions of alleles, or genetic components in their DNA, not the overall kinds. This means that we are really only slightly different from one another, but in what ways? Why do we think these differences are so important?
  • Are we more alike or different? What other kinds of findings are there as we study genetics and DNA? (We are very much alike—there is very little difference between people of different categories of skin color or race).
  • What are the markers for skin color, hair color and type, and eye color? Can this change through generations? (Yes, there are DNA markers of inherited traits, and they can change through generations).
  • Can you have a lot of genetic markers in common with the person sitting next to you even though you may be unrelated in any way? What is your genetic family history? (Yes, it is very possible. You may have more in common than with some blood relatives.)

Finally, have students use their esheet to go to and read Race is an illusion, say researchers, a science article about research that scientists conducted in Brazil. Students should answer these questions when they are done reading:

  • What did the researchers in Brazil use to do their research? (They used a set of genetic markers to test how closely physical “race-determining” traits correlated with ancestry in Brazil.)
  • What were the researchers trying to establish or find out in their study? (They were trying to establish if it was possible to determine the genetic background of a person by studying particular physical characteristics normally associated with race.)
  • Why did the researcher, Dr. Peen and his colleagues choose to study the population in Brazil? (They chose to study the population in Brazil because the country has a long history of inter-ethnic mixing between European, African, and Native American lineages.)
  • What did they hope to find out about race? (They wanted to ascertain to what degree the color of a Brazilian individual was predictive of the degree of genomic African ancestry.)
  • What did they find out about the concept of race—classifying humans into groups based on their physical characteristics and genetic ancestry? (They discovered that the concept of race has no basis in science. The new study further supports this view, and for the first time quantifies it.)
  • If you were heading up a research team, what would you investigate about race and what people would you study? (Answers will vary.)
Read More


To assess student understanding, divide students into groups and assign each group a question from Ask the Experts on the Race–Power of an Illusion site. Each group can summarize the response from the expert and present it to the class. As part of its presentation, have each group develop a few questions that the audience needs to answer from the presentation–this encourages students to have guidelines for the presentation and to ensure responsibility on the part of the audience to listen and pay attention to their peers.

Finally, have students take the Race Literacy Quiz again. Collect the individual answer sheets from the first and second times. Have them write down three sentences per question on paper regarding their own thoughts:

  • What do we know about race?
  • What do we want to learn about race?
  • What have we learned?

Hold a class discussion about the students’ thoughts and answers.


To extend the ideas in this lesson, you can lead students through the Science NetLinks lesson, Understanding Stereotypes.

Using a digital camera or video camera supplied by the school, have students take individual portraits of themselves talking about their own identities—their families and where their ancestors came from. They should talk about their own perceptions and how others perceive them—their friends, teachers, neighbors, the media.

What analysis can be done of racism in sports? Students can apply both science and sociology to the reality of sports and determine if racism exists. What perceptions do we have that black people are better at sports than white people? Encourage students to be action researchers and bring their own data. What do the statistics tell us? Refer the students back to the genetics, geographic place of origin, and the societal aspects that they learned in the content instruction and in the website.

Students can view the online exhibit, All of Us Are Related, Each of Us Is Unique, which explores how alike all humans are and how our differences are not biologically “racial.”

A lot of good reading for both you and students can be found at Is Race "Real"?

Have students read Scientific and Folk Ideas About Heredity, a very simple article by Jonathan Marks that questions the assumptions that race as a category is built upon.

Have students view the online exhibit World Against Racism Memorial and answer the questions.

Funder Info
National Science Foundation
Science NetLinks is proud to have the National Science Foundation as a funder of this project.

Did you find this resource helpful?

Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks