Introducing the Concept of Race | Facing History & Ourselves
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Introducing the Concept of Race

Use this lesson to help your students understand more about the origins of race as a socially constructed concept and racism as a force that shapes society.


One 50-min class period


English — UK


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About This Lesson

This lesson is a means of introducing the fact that race is a social construct, to help students understand the concept of race and the impact of racism. By giving students an opportunity to reflect on and engage with these issues, students can think about what needs to be done to create a society in which everyone, regardless of their perceived race, is able to thrive. We recommend that you do preparatory work on discussing race with students using the lesson Preparing to Discuss Race in the Classroom if you have not already done so.

  • What is race? What is racism? 
  • How do ideas about race affect how we see others and ourselves? How do they impact how others are treated?

Students define and analyse the socially constructed meaning of race, examining how that concept has been used to justify exclusion, inequality, and violence throughout history, and consider its present day impact on how people are treated.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 6 activities 
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 2 handouts 
  • 1 article
  • 1 classroom-ready PowerPoint

Race is a concept that was invented by society to fulfill its need to justify disparities in power and status among different groups. Contrary to the beliefs of many people, past and present, race has never been scientifically proven to be a significant genetic or biological difference in humans. The lack of scientific evidence about race undermines the very concept of the superiority of some ‘races’ and the inferiority of other ‘races’.

For at least 400 years, a theory of ‘race’ has been a lens through which many individuals, leaders and nations have determined who belongs and who does not. Theories about race include the notion that human beings can be classified into different races according to certain physical characteristics, such as skin colour, eye shape and hair form. This racial theory has led to the common – but false – belief that some races have intellectual and physical abilities that are superior to those of other races. Biologists and geneticists today have not only disproved this claim, they have also declared that there is no genetic or biological basis for categorising people by race. 1  

The concept of race emerged in the 1600s and 17oos, but when the scientific and intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment came to dominate the thinking of most Europeans, they exposed a basic contradiction between principle and practice – the enslavement of human beings. Despite the fact that Enlightenment ideals of human freedom and equality inspired revolutions in the United States and France, the practice of slavery persisted throughout both the US and Europe. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, American and European scientists tried to explain this contradiction through the study of ‘race science’, which advanced the idea that humankind is divided into separate and unequal races. The theory was that if it could be scientifically proven that Europeans were biologically superior to those from other places – especially Africa – then Europeans could justify slavery and other imperialistic practices.

Prominent scientists from many countries, including Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Britain and America, used ‘race science’ to give legitimacy to the race-based divisions in their societies. This pseudo-science was popularised and became a tool that justified the mistreatment and exploitation of fellow human beings, eventually leading to the now rightly maligned practice of eugenics.  

Despite the fact that race predicts nothing about an individual’s physical or intellectual capacities, people still commonly believe in a connection between race and certain biological abilities or deficiencies. The belief in this connection not only leads to racism, it can also be used as a scientific ‘excuse’ for racism and a reason for justifying social hierarchies that place one race above another. As scholar George Fredrickson explains, racism has two components: difference and power.

[Racism] originates from a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the … Other in ways that we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group. 2


The idea that there is an underlying biological link between race and intellectual or physical abilities (or deficiencies) has persisted for hundreds of years. Learning that race is a social concept, not a scientific fact, may be challenging for students. They may need time to absorb the reality behind the history of race because it conflicts with the way many in our society understand it.

  • 1According to microbiologist Pilar Ossorio, ‘There’s as much or more diversity and genetic difference within any racial group as there is between people of different racial groups.’ Pilar Ossorio, Race: The Power of an Illusion, Episode 1: ‘The Difference Between Us’ (California Newsreel, 2003), transcript accessed 2 May 2016.
  • 2George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 9.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts.

Introducing the Concept of Race

This PowerPoint for Lesson 2 of the Discussing Race and Racism in the Classroom mini-unit comes complete with student-facing slides and teaching notes, and is ready to use in the classroom.

Each lesson in this mini-unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans


Race is one of the concepts that societies have created to sort and categorise their members. Before discussing race, this brief opening activity introduces students to the idea that when we sort and categorise the things and people around us, we make judgements about which characteristics are more meaningful than others. Students will be asked to look at four shapes and decide which is not like the others, but in doing so they must also choose the category on which they will base their decision.

Share with students the handout Which of These Things Is Not Like the Others? If possible, you might simply project the image in the classroom. Ask students to answer the question by identifying the object in the image that is not like the others.

Prompt students to share their answers and explain their thinking behind them to a classmate, using the following questions: 

  1. What criterion did you use to identify one item as different? Why?
  2. Did you both use the same criterion? If not, how was it different?

Explain that while students’ choices in this exercise are relatively inconsequential, we make similar choices – that may have much greater consequences – in the ways in which we define and categorise people in society. While there are many categories we might use to describe differences between people, society has given more meaning to some types of difference (such as skin colour and gender) and less meaning to others (such as eye and hair colour). You might ask students to brainstorm some of the categories of difference that are meaningful in our society and why.

Tell students that they will be looking more closely at the concept of race. Explain that race is a concept which continues to significantly influence the way that society is structured and the way in which individuals think about and act towards one another.

Share the following questions with students, and give them a few minutes to privately record their responses in their journals, so that they can reflect on their own thoughts and assumptions about what race is and what it means. Let them know that they will not be asked to share their responses.

  1. What is race?
  2. What, if anything, can one’s race tell you about a person?
  3. How might this concept impact how you think about others or how others think about you?

Give students the handout Nine Things Everyone Should Know About Race to read, then discuss the following questions: 

  1. What meaning did the word ‘race’ originally have in English? Why is this relevant?
  2. What is meant by the statement ‘race has no genetic basis’? 
  3. Why was the modern definition of ‘race’ created? What purpose did it serve?
  4. Why is it important to remember that although ‘race is not biological, racism is still real’?
  5. Is there anything that you found particularly surprising, interesting or troubling in what you have read?
  6. What did you learn from the Nine Things document that supports your journal reflection about the meaning and impact of race? 
  • What did you learn that challenges what you wrote?

Be sure that students understand the following ideas:

  • Race is not meaningful in a biological sense.
  • It was created by society and has been used to justify existing divisions in society.

Explain to students that scientists can predict nothing about an individual’s physical or intellectual abilities if they know their race. Despite this fact, it remains common for people to believe falsely in a connection between race and particular and permanent biological abilities or deficiencies. The belief in this connection not only leads to racism, it can also be used as a scientific ‘excuse’ for racism and a reason for justifying social hierarchies that place one race above another. According to scholar George Fredrickson, racism has two components: difference and power.

Share George Fredrickson’s definition of racism:

[Racism] originates from a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the ... Other in ways that we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group. 1

Then, ask students to complete the following tasks:

  1. Circle any words that you do not understand in the definition.
  2. Underline three to four words that you think are crucial to understanding the meaning of racism.
  3. Below the definition, rewrite it in your own words.
  4. At the bottom of the page, write at least one synonym (or other word closely related to racism) and one antonym.

Allow a few minutes after this activity to discuss students’ answers and clarify any words they did not understand.

  • 1Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History, 9.

Share the first two paragraphs of Amran Farah’s account of the discrimination she’s faced from the article Ready or Nought: It’s Time to Face Race in the UK, finishing on ‘To say that racism is a daily barrier would be a grave understatement’.

Then lead a class discussion using the following questions:

  1. What has been the impact of racism on Farah? You might want to consider how it has influenced her feelings and behaviour.
  2. How has racism influenced the ways that people think and act towards her?
  3. According to her observations, what prevents people from being able to engage with racism in the UK?

Finally, invite students to respond to the following prompts:

  1. When is it harmful to point out the differences between people?
  2. When is it natural or necessary?
  3. Is it possible to divide people into groups without privileging one group over another?

That the meaning of race is socially, rather than scientifically, constructed is a new and complex idea for many students and adults that can challenge long-held assumptions. Therefore, we recommend providing opportunities for students to process, reflect and ask questions about what they have learned using a teaching strategy such as Exit Cards or 3-2-1.

Materials and Downloads

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