Sociology thoroughly embraces the “social construction” of race — that the ways we see, interpret, and act upon people’s “race” are actually created and maintained because of social norms. This line of thinking hasn’t caught on everywhere and medicine — especially since the completion of the Human Genome Project — often treats race as a biological, scientific category. This misunderstanding of race can have detrimental consequences, particularly when medical students are taught to use race as a shortcut for diagnosis.
“Right now, students are learning an inaccurate and unscientific definition of race. It’s simply not true that human beings are naturally divided into genetically distinct races. So it is not good medical practice to treat patients that way.”
She goes on to explain the relationship between race and health:
“It’s not that race is irrelevant to health, but it’s not relevant to health because of innate differences. It’s relevant because racism affects people’s health.”
Sociologist and physician Brooke Cunningham has taken a hands-on approach, giving lectures to first-year students at the University of Minnesota Medical School about race. She says,
“People have been talking about race as a social construction for years and years and years and years and years and years and years. But there’s been a slow uptake of that understanding in medicine.”
Cunningham teaches students about the history of racial categories, which have changed drastically over time and space, and she describes how stereotypes and misunderstandings of race have influenced medicine over time. With the lack of understanding regarding the social construction of race in the medical profession, lectures like Cunningham’s provide a key intervention in the future of health care and the treatment of patients of all races.