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“Race in North America” by Audrey Smedley Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Dec 24th, 2019

Race, ethnicity, and culture are closely intertwined. Those are actually the latter two that create the intrinsic biological difference between the races. Ethnic clusters are people belonging to similar group, practicing common culture, and sharing similar traits.

However, it is these similarities within the cluster that distinguishes them from other people. Audrey Smedley (2012) in his book Race in North America exposes the attitudes and discourse on the differences between races and does not talk of the biological difference between the races, against popular belief.

Race, according to Smedley (2012), was developed from “folk classification” and is “a product of popular beliefs about human differences that evolved from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century” (24).

In other words, Smedley believes that race is a means of social stratification and helps in creation of human identity and it is a construction that has evolved through a process of historical discourse. Consequently, race has been a dominant tool in creating a historical discourse to construct identity.

The book presents a detailed account of Smedley’s point of view regarding race. Smedley (2012) believes that the ideology of “race” evolved in the sixteenth century in the North American colonies and expanded throughout the globe by means of colonization. However, the author points out that there was no clear meaning attached to the word “race” until the eighteenth century.

During the era of slave trade, the term race was used seldom as slaves were usually characterized as “kind, type, variety, stock” and it was only after the eighteenth century that race was elevated to a “major symbol and mode of human group differentiation applied extensively to non-European groups and even to those groups in Europe who varied from the subjective norm” (Smedley, 2012, p. 38).

A new form of definition evolved differentiating these biological disparities. The main aim of the book, according to Smedley (2012), was to present the reason behind the differences that were constructed by the society after the process of colonization in North America.

In North America, with the colonization of the Native Indians by the Europeans, there arose a necessity to create a difference between the two races over and above the apparent biological and physical differences.

Thus, the Irish settlers in North America who had a long history of enmity with the native Indians formulated “savagery” as a means to show the inferiority of the natives and helped in creating the image of the “other” (Smedley, 2012, p. 24).

The image of “savagery” has, therefore, been embedded in the English consciousness and created the image of “civilized” Englishmen. Thus, the race difference between the natives and the Irish in North America was created through the formation of an image of savagery for the natives and civility for the Europeans.

The book discusses how the idea of race developed initially through the advancement of science and technology. Earlier, humans were differentiated by their nations or places they came from. However, with colonization, there was no way to establish separateness or inequality among them.

The development of inequality grew with the emergence of the idea of race. Smedley (2012) believes that race as a cultural invention created this inequality to help the colonizers establish their supremacy over the natives. Race, since then, has become a tool to segregate people from one another and a means of presenting special status, rights, and grants to the privileged.

The difference in the physical features of the natives and the Europeans became the basis of the segregation: “In the context of a colonial society that included peoples from different areas of the world with extensive physical variations among them” (Smedley, 2012, p. 70).

Smedley points out that there was in the persistence of the biophysical differences between the natives and the European settlers in the United States. The Native Americans, therefore, were forced to reinvent their identity in the wake of the new racial distinction conferred upon them by their colonizers.

The newfound construction of the savage race in North America was based on the biological differences between the two races like skin color, eye shape, facial features, etc. The natives were constantly portrayed as inferior to their colonizers and therefore culturally backward and primitive.

This continued portrayal of the inferiority of the natives led to the creation of the construction of race that is prevalent today. Thus, in North America and Africa racial identity found predominance over religion, language, beliefs, ethnic origin and so on (Smedley, 2012).

Author’s Argument

Smedley (2012) argues that the race identity of the natives – Indians and Africans – born in the United States over the ages developed into an inferior identity. However, recently they have developed a process of creating a racial identity that would elevate their identity.

The contemporary Native Indians and Africans born in the United States have certain difference and variation in their cultures and languages, even though most of the migrant settlers of varied races and origins in the United States have imbibed certain traits of the American culture and have seamlessly amalgamated with the American society.

The book by Smedley is a perfect analysis of the origin of race and he does so by tracing back the origin of the concept of race through human history. Smedley first presents that the question of race was not present in the ancient time and has no basis in science or history. The author points out that originally humans were differentiated by their place, country, or ethnic origin.

However, when the categorization took place that created separateness among people and differentiation was based on inequality. Thus, inequality, according to Smedley (2012), is a creation of the construction of race. Moreover, race, from its very inception, was based on human differences.

Thus, the colonizers imbibed this form of categorization for the native people, which they termed as race in order to create a stratified hierarchical structure in the society.


I disagree with the author’s argument that the sense of inferiority among African Americans and native Indians has created their present-day identity. I believe the idea of race presented by Smedley, though based on historical inferences, lacks substantial empirical support. Race, as a construct to differentiate between the cultures, is undeniably true.

The idea that the colonizers used the differences in the physical attributes of the natives as a means to support their claim of own superiority may also find certain support, but the idea that the present generation of African Americans and the native Indians living in the United States continues to internalize these racial attributes is improbable.

The sense of inferiority that the colonizers had instilled in among the Africans and Native Indians cannot become the basis for the race identity of these two ethnicities today.

Though it is true that African Americans and Native Indians have different ethnicity and identity than the white Americans, and it is also true that these two races have not completely merged with the unified American culture as many other ethnic cultures have done, but it should be noted that their professed difference may not be solely from their belief in the racial discrimination of their colonizers.

Their identity may have developed from their deep-rooted belief in their traditional culture.

Lived Experience

It has been my experience that non-Whites or non-Europeans in the United States have developed a distinct philosophy that is an amalgamation of the American way of life together with their ethnic culture. Their art, music, knowledge etc. have become a conglomeration of the ethnic and the acquired American culture.

Hence, not only the African-Americans or Native Indians, but also Asians have developed their own distinct style of culture that tries to hold on to their ethnic culture as well as the culture of America.


Smedley, A. (2012). Race in North America (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Westview Press.

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