The Concept of Race | Facing History & Ourselves
Black ink etching on white paper with the words "I do not always feel colored" written repeatedly. The ink gets smudged and illegible toward the end

The Concept of Race

Students analyze the socially constructed meaning of race and examine how it has been used to justify exclusion, inequality, and violence throughout history.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust


About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students began the “We and They” stage of the Facing History scope and sequence by examining the human behavior of creating and considering the concept of universe of obligation. This lesson continues the study of “We and They,” as students turn their attention to an idea—the concept of race—that has been used for more than 400 years by many societies to define their universes of obligation. 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 concept of race was in fact invented by society to fulfill its need to justify disparities in power and status among different groups. The lack of scientific evidence about race undermines the very concept of the superiority of some “races” and the inferiority of other “races.”

Race is an especially crucial concept in any study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, because it was central to Nazi ideology. However, the Nazis weren’t the only ones who had notions about race. This lesson also examines the history and development of the idea of “race” in England and the United States.

Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

  • What is race? What is racism? How do ideas about race affect how we see others and ourselves?
  • How have race and racism been used by societies to define their universes of obligation?

Students will define and analyze the socially constructed meaning of race, examining how that concept has been used to justify exclusion, inequality, and violence throughout history.

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

  • 6 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 1 video
  • 3 handouts
  • 1 reading
  • 2 assessments
  • 2 extension activities

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 color, eye shape, and hair form. The 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 categorizing people by race. According to microbiologist Pilar Ossorio:

Are the people who we call Black more like each other than they are like people who we call white, genetically speaking? The answer is no. There’s as much or more diversity and genetic difference within any racial group as there is between people of different racial groups. 1

As professor Evelynn Hammonds states in the film Race: The Power of an Illusion: “Race is a human invention. We created it, and we have used it in ways that have been in many, many respects quite negative and quite harmful.” 2

When the scientific and intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment came to dominate the thinking of most Europeans in the 1700s, 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 the United States and European empires. 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. 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, England, Germany, and the United States, used “race science” to give legitimacy to the race-based divisions in their societies. Journalists, teachers, and preachers popularized their ideas. Historian Reginald Horsman, who studied the leading publications of the time, describes the false messages about race that were pervasive throughout the nineteenth century:

One did not have to read obscure books to know that the Caucasians were innately superior, and that they were responsible for civilization in the world, or to know that inferior races were destined to be overwhelmed or even to disappear. 3

Some scientists and public figures challenged race science. In an 1854 speech, Frederick Douglass, the formerly enslaved American political activist, argued:

The whole argument in defense of slavery becomes utterly worthless the moment the African is proved to be equally a man with the Anglo-Saxon. The temptation, therefore, to read the Negro out of the human family is exceedingly strong. 4

Douglass and others who spoke out against race science were generally ignored or marginalized.

By the late 1800s, the practice of eugenics emerged out of race science in England, the United States, and Germany. Eugenics is the use of so-called science to improve the human race, both by breeding “society’s best with the best” and by preventing “society’s worst” from breeding at all. Eugenicists believed that a nation is a biological community that must be protected from “threat,” which they often defined as mixing with allegedly inferior “races.”

In the early twentieth century, influential German biologist Ernst Haeckel divided humankind into races and ranked them. In his view, “Aryans”—a mythical race from whom many northern Europeans believed they had descended—were at the top of the rankings and Jews and Africans were at the bottom. Ideas of race and eugenics would become central to Nazi ideology in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

Despite the fact that one’s race predicts almost nothing else 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 leads to racism. As scholar George Fredrickson explains, racism has two components: difference and power.

It 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. 5

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.

  • 1Pilar Ossorio, Race: The Power of an Illusion, Episode 1: “The Difference Between Us” (California Newsreel, 2003), transcript accessed May 2, 2016.
  • 2Evelynn Hammonds, interview, Race: The Power of an Illusion, Episode 1: “The Difference Between Us (California Newsreel, 2003), transcript accessed April 12, 2017.
  • 3Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), 157.
  • 4Frederick Douglass, The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered: An Address Before the Literary Societies of Western Reserve College, at Commencement, July 12, 1854 (Rochester, NY: Lee, Mann & Co., 1854), 8–9.
  • 5George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 9.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Race and racism are often difficult subjects for teachers and students to navigate. For this reason, you may want to briefly return to the class contract and to the agreed-upon norms of classroom discussion at the beginning of this lesson. You may also want to explore the lesson Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations (specifically Activities 2 and 3) for additional strategies and guidance.

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’ve learned in this lesson. The exit tickets teaching strategy used in the Assessment section is one way to achieve this, but you could also use the 3-2-1 strategy to elicit reflections and feedback from students.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Race
  • Racism

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

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Lesson Plans


  • Race is one of the concepts that societies have created to sort and categorize their members. Before discussing race, this brief opening activity introduces students to the idea that when we sort and categorize the things and people around us, we make judgments 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 the answer to a classmate, using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. What criterion did they use to identify one item as different? Why? Did their partner use the same criterion?
  • Explain that while students’ choices in this exercise are relatively inconsequential, we make similar choices with great consequence in the ways that we define and categorize 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 color and gender) and less meaning to others (such as eye and hair color). You might ask students to brainstorm some of the categories of difference that are meaningful in our society.
  • Tell students that in this lesson, they will look more closely at a concept that has been used throughout history by groups and countries to shape their universes of obligation: the concept of race. Race is a concept that continues to significantly influence the way that society is structured and the way that individuals think about and act toward one another.
  • Before asking students to examine the concept closely in this lesson, it is worth giving them a few minutes to write down their own thoughts and assumptions about what race is and what it means. Share the following questions with students, and give them a few minutes to privately record their responses in their journals. Let them know that they will not be asked to share their responses.
    What is race? What, if anything, can one’s race tell you about a person? How might this concept impact how you think about others or how others think about you?
  • Show students a short clip from the film Race: The Power of an Illusion (“The Difference Between Us,” from 07:55 to 13:10). Before you start the clip, pass out the Race: The Power of an Illusion Viewing Guide and preview the questions with students.
  • Instruct students to take notes in response to the viewing guide questions as they watch the clip. If time permits, consider showing the clip a second time to help students gather additional details and answer the questions more thoroughly.
  • Debrief the video and the viewing guide responses with students. Be sure that students understand the following ideas:
    • Race is not meaningful in a biological sense.
    • It was created rather than discovered by scientists and has been used to justify existing divisions in society.
  • Pass out the Race and Racism handout. Alternatively, you might project the handout in the classroom and instruct students to copy down Frederickson’s definition of racism into their journals.
  • Read the handout aloud to students and ask them to complete the following tasks:
    • Circle any words that you do not understand in the definition.
    • Underline three to four words that you think are crucial to understanding the meaning of racism.
    • Below the definition, rewrite it in your own words.
    • 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 clear up any words they did not understand.
  • Now pass out the reading Growing Up with Racism. Read Lisa Delpit’s letter together, and then lead a discussion about the following questions using the Think, Pair, Share strategy:
    • What has been the impact of racism on Delpit? How has racism influenced the ways that people think and act toward her?
    • How has racism affected how Delpit thinks about herself? According to her observations, how has racism affected how other African Americans think about themselves?
    • How does racism affect how a society defines its universe of obligation?

Finish the lesson by asking students to respond to the following prompt:

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

If you would like to use this response as an assessment, consider asking students to complete it on a separate sheet of paper for you to collect. You might also ask students to complete the reflection for homework.


  • Use the handouts in this lesson to help you gauge students’ understanding of the concept of race. The viewing guide to Race: The Power of an Illusion provides a window into the evolution of students’ understanding in the middle of the lesson, while the student-annotated Race and Racism handout can help you see their ability to articulate their understanding of these concepts.
  • Read students’ written reflection from the end of the lesson to help you see how they are thinking about the broader patterns of human behavior—categorizing ourselves and collecting ourselves into groups—discussed in this lesson.

Extension Activities

The streaming video A Class Divided (53:53) provides a powerful example of how dividing people by seemingly arbitrary characteristics can affect how they think about and act toward themselves and others. It tells the story of teacher Jane Elliott’s second-grade classroom experiment in which she temporarily separated her students by eye color. Consider showing this compelling video to deepen your class discussion of why people create groups and why that behavior matters.

Another way to deepen the discussion of groups and belonging in this lesson is to introduce additional readings from Chapter 2 of Holocaust and Human Behavior for student discussion and reflection. The reading What Do We Do with a Difference? includes a poem that raises important questions about the ways we respond to differences. Other readings in the chapter trace the evolution of the concept of race during the Enlightenment and the emergence of “race science” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Materials and Downloads

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