Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, recently released an autobiography entitled Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. As a biracial man born and raised in South Africa, he shares fascinating insights into how we racially categorize people, and the consequences of such categorization. He recounts how, as the son of a Black mother and a White father, his biracial status put in him a middle ground, considered “inferior” by half of his family and “superior” by the other half. After all, in South Africa there have historically existed many gradations of whiteness and blackness as social categories, each of which comes with different social standing. For instance, Noah describes how his Black grandmother was much less severe with him, relative to his Black cousins, given his privileged status as half-White. He also explains how under the apartheid system one’s racial category or status could change, both socially and legally.
This is in sharp contrast to how race is conceptualized in the US, where the “one drop rule” has long dominated. Although American culture recognizes the biracial category, people are generally considered Black (and treated as such) if they have descended from any Black relatives to any degree. That is, even a “drop” of Black blood has rendered someone Black (but even this varies depending on whether the perceiver is White or Black, among other factors). As such, even being 1/16th Black historically resulted in your categorization as Black. (Incidentally, the Nazis held similar views, where having Jewish ancestry, even in a distant sense, categorized one as Jewish). This is known as hypodescent, a process whereby a biracial person is categorized fully or primarily in terms of the lower status (or disadvantaged) social group. The fact that status plays a role in social categorization clearly demonstrates that categorization (e.g., as White, as Black) is a social construction.
Yet when I talk about race in class it becomes apparent that students grapple with the notion of race as a social construction. Some will say “But I can see race. I can see that you’re White, that she is Asian, and that he is Black”. Others, including those in the media, are suspicious of the notion of race as social construction, fearing that such ideas represent a left-wing ploy. A trick. A trap.
But recognizing race as a social construction does not make race less “real”. Marriages are social constructions, but they have serious legal, cultural, and interpersonal implications. Oftentimes the social aspect is what makes a phenomenon so central to our lives. So what do we mean by social construction in the racial context? Rather than draw on scientific or philosophical discussions of race and essentialism, my goal here is to describe some concrete examples that might help to elucidate what is meant by race as social construction.
Let’s start with President Barack Obama. When he was running for president we witnessed a range of responses from the voters and pundits. To some he was clearly “too Black”. For others he was clearly “not Black enough”. Even within social groups there were disagreements. For some Black Americans he was not Black enough because he did not descend from slavery in an American context (i.e., his father moved from Kenya). The fact that there exists disagreement, whether between Whites and Blacks, or within Whites and Blacks, drives home the point of this article: race is a social construction with no true or absolute biological basis. If we can disagree about whether someone is of Race X or Y, and if there are consensual rules for determining such designations (e.g., based on social status, slave history), and if such a designation can change over time or across cultures (e.g., US vs. South Africa), then we are dealing with a social construct not a biological one. As a society we develop cultural rules about race and then we apply these rules when psychologically categorizing people.
Need more convincing? Let’s turn to some interesting science. Kemmelmeier and Chavez (2014), using a variety of different methods across studies, exposed White participants to a range of photos of Barack Obama. Cleverly, the researchers darkened or lightened the photos systematically. The task of the participant was to identify which photo reflected Obama’s true skin colour. In both studies, those higher in symbolic racism (i.e., feeling resentment toward Black demands for equality; denial of anti-Black discrimination) selected the darker photos to reflect his true colour, and this was true both before and after each election cycle. Interestingly, those with stronger identification as a Republican supporter also perceived Obama’s skin to be significantly darker, but this latter effect was observed only prior to the election, not after the election.
Think about that for a minute. Political partisanship predicted “how Black” Obama is, but only in the context of a political race where a Black man might subsequently take or retain power of the White House. In the words of the authors, “… partisan biases in the perception of skin tone are activated as a function of political intergroup conflict” (p. 149). Put simply, Obama’s “blackness” was systematically determined by racial biases of the perceiver, by the political partisanship of the perceiver, and by the temporal proximity of the testing session to an election. These patterns reflect social construction of race. If Obama were Black or biracial simply as a matter of biological race, we would not see such patterns, whereby his degree of Blackness is a moving target and a topic of debate. Obama is who he is, but people categorize him as more or less Black as a function of their own psychological processing. When the target stands still but his categorization “as X” or “as Y” moves, there is a reasonable conclusion: categorization is a social construction with psychological roots.
And let’s keep in mind some basic differences between cultures in how they think about race. In the US, one has historically been considered “Coloured” (although that term is becoming increasingly disavowed) to the extent that one has Black ancestry. In South Africa, “Coloured” refers to someone of mixed White-Black background, not someone of a Black-only background. In South Africa, therefore, Black is Black and Coloured is mixed White-Black. Comparing these countries it is clear that being “Black” (or not) varies as a function of social and cultural conventions not biology. Obama is widely considered as Black in the US, but as Coloured (and higher status) when he steps off of Air Force One in South Africa. Prior to becoming an international symbol and one of the world’s most powerful men, he would have also been treated very differently as a result of being Black (US) or Coloured (South Africa). Again, race is a social construction, where societies generate informal or formal rules about what we see (i.e., perception) and how to act and treat others (i.e., discrimination).
Scientists generally do not recognize races as biologically meaningful. Yet scientists, including me, discuss race and describe the racial composition of our samples. To be clear, I am not advocating that we ignore race. In fact, there are many dangers in ignoring race as a social topic. Race is “real”. But race is socially real, not biologically real. Socially important categories can be very real and meaningful, but arguably nonetheless arbitrary in nature. From a Social Dominance Theory perspective, “the arbitrary-set system is filled with socially constructed and highly salient groups based on characteristics such as clan, ethnicity, estate, nation, race, caste, social class, religious sect, regional groups, or any other socially relevant group distinction that the human imagination is capable of constructing” (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999, p. 33).
Like race, nations are arbitrary but real. What we call Belgium is not biologically or essentially Belgium; what is called Belgium is a region that the international community agrees is Belgium. It is socially constructed. It might not have the same boundaries in the future, and it certainly did not in the past. This doesn’t make Belgium unreal. On the contrary, it has very real meaning and is of psychological, political, and legal significance. But humans created it as a concept. Belgium itself has no essence in a biological sense, and race works much the same way.
As I’ve argued, the degree to which a person is categorized into a racial category can vary as a function of the social context (e.g., power differentials between groups; temporal proximity to elections), personal factors (e.g., racism in the perceiver; political partisanship in the perceiver), or an interaction between personal and social factors. And how the person personally identifies is yet another valid factor to consider (as is the case with sexual identity, a topic I may revisit in a future column). All of this renders “race” a social construction. We make it, we agree on it, we reward and punish people as a result of it.
As Ruth Frankenberg in her book The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Mattersargues, our daily lives are affected by race whether we are aware of it or not. We all see the world through a racial lens that colors our world black, white, Asian, Mexican, minority, or “other”. How we are seen and how we see others affects various domains of our lives and the lives of others; from the types of jobs we have, the amount of money we make, the kind of friends we make, the places we live, the foods we eat, the schools we go to, etc… The entire social structure we inhabit is affected by at least one social construction, race. Interestingly, most people in the United States (which consist of people of color) are aware of this, but have not dismantled it. Why is that?
Often times the word social construct is thrown around in various theoretical and general works without ever being defined or discussed. However, understanding what is meant by race as a social construct is vital to understanding the capacity race has to intersect and affect other aspects and domains of life and society, as well as how to dismantle it.
To begin, a social construct is ontologically subjective, but epistemologically objective. It is ontologically subjective in that the construction and continued existence of social constructs are contingent on social groups and their collective agreement, imposition, and acceptance of such constructions (for more on the notion of social constructions see The Construction of Social Realityby John Searle). There is nothing absolute or real about social constructions in the same way as there is something absolute and real about rocks, rivers, mountains, and in general the objects examined by physics. For example, the existence of a mountain is not contingent on collective acceptance, imposition, or agreement. A mountain will exist regardless of people thinking, agreeing or accepting that it does exist. Unlike a mountain, the existence of race requires that people collectively agree and accept that it does exist. Franz Boas, a physicist by training, supports this view of race best in his work Race, Language, and Culturewhere he observes that there is nothing biologically real about race. There is nothing that we have identified as race that exists apart from our collective agreement, acceptance, and imposition of its existence.
Race, although it does not exist in the world in any ontologically objective way, it still is real in society (as opposed to nature). Race is a social construction that has real consequences and effects. These effects, consequences and the notion that race is ontologically subjective is epistemologically objective. We know that race is something that is real in society, and that it shapes the way we see ourselves and others. Many rightly claim that race is conceptually unstable. However, this should not lead us to skepticism about race, i.e. that we cannot have any objective knowledge about race. We can know what race is and how it works regardless of the various shifts in meaning that have occurred through history and occur geographically.
The notion of race as a social construct I am proposing is partially captured by various works. In Takaki’s work A Different Mirror: A history of Multicultural America, race is a social construct produced by the dominant group in society and their power to define. In other words, the dominant group in society imposedthe boundaries of group membership by defining race in terms of biology. If you were black, then you were biologically inferior to a white person. Takaki explains that Africans in America were first brought to America as indentured servants. After completing the terms of their servitude they were freed, and had the status of free men. The color line at the time had not been drawn. Nonetheless, with the growing population of free Africans in America, fear of losing hegemonic control began to spread through the white population. Due to this, race as a biological concept was developed and used to justify the enslavement of a growing free black population early in U.S. history. This initial biological understanding of race helped draw the color line. The boundaries of group membership were marked by skin color. Till this day the primary race indicator is skin color.
Frankenberg in her work The Social Construction of Whiteness expands on what race indicators and hence race identify today. She simply explains that race is an indicator of difference, but an indicator of what kind of difference she does not say. As we have seen through Boas’s work, there are no biological differences between different “races”. Additionally, race does not identify differences in culture and is always loosely connected to biology. According to Frankenberg culture is unbounded. We cannot conclusively say on the basis of skin color that someone participates in white, or black cultural practices (although many people still do). This notion of unbounded cultural practices is exemplified in Gary Taylor’s piece White Noise: What Eminem Can Tell Us About White America, where he describes a white man (Eminem) in the hip-hop culture. George Lipsitz in his work Lean on Me: Beyond Identity Politics also discusses how Joe Clark, a black man, engages in a form of racism that perpetuates white privilege and supremacy.
Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s work White Negroes, suggests that the difference Frankenberg speaks of is one of status. The meaning of race developed so far with Takaki, Boas, Frankenberg and now Pieterse suggests that race is a marker of status that includes or excludes one from broader social constructs and enables or disables certain powers. Race typically works through race indicators which are used to indicate which race you are, and consequently what sort of status you have in society, e.g. in President Jefferson’s time race indicated a status of slave or slave master. Since race and race indicators are collectively imposed and defined by the dominant group, so is one’s status. Additionally, since race is a social construct and is ontologically subjective, it continues to work only in virtue of collective agreement and acceptance. Many people may object that they are not part of the collective agreement and acceptance I am describing. Nonetheless, as Frankenberg discusses and admits she herself is evidence of, white people are often blind to racism and do not see the privileges they have due to their skin color. Regardless of white people being anti-racist, they participate within a racialized society which privileges them. As Frantz Fanon described in his book Black Skin, White Masks, many individuals may claim they are not racist while tacitly accept the dominant racist ideology by way of reaping the benefits coffered to them.
Let us summarize what we have said about what race is so far. First, race is a social construct contingent on collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition. Second, race has always been defined by the dominant group in society. Third, race indicates differences in status. The status indicated by which race you are, either includes or excludes one from broader social constructs, and disables or enables certain powers. To illustrate how this sort of understanding of race works let us look at the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case of 1923 and the United States v. Takao Ozawa case of 1922.
Thind, an Indian American man, filed for citizenship in the U.S. in 1923, and was denied on the basis of his not being white. The U.S. Supreme court found that while Indians were anthropologically categorized as Caucasian, the “understanding of the common man”, wrote Justice George Sutherland, “knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences”. Hence, despite being Caucasian, what many in the past (and almost everyone today) believed to be white, Thind was denied his status as white. The effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling retroactively affected all Indians who had already been granted citizenship. In the Takao Ozawa case in 1922, Takao argued that based on scientific evidence, he was white. Nonetheless, Justice Sutherland argued that he was not Caucasian, and hence could not be white, and consequently denied his citizenship. The rulings denying Takao and Thind’s citizenship strengthened anti-Asian sentiment.
The above cases demonstrate a profound kind of contradiction. The cases demonstrate a contradiction that was overlooked regardless of how obvious it was. Thind was not granted citizenship because he was not white, regardless of being Caucasian, and Ozawa was denied citizenship for not being Caucasian, despite being white. What allowed for this contradictory position to be maintained was the Supreme Court’s dominant status. The power Takaki describes is evident in the courts ruling. The common “white” man, and his status as dominant, allowed him to define the parameters of race, despite contradictions. As a result, Thind and Ozawa were excluded. By being excluded, by way of being denied citizenship, all the various powers enabled by the status of U.S. Citizen were disabled. Such powers included the right to vote, run for political office, and various other legal powers. In addition, other powers that are not as codified or legal, such as access to work unions, certain academic institutions, and certain neighborhoods were also disabled. The effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling trickled down and strengthened racist immigration policies, e.g. the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, as well as affecting the lives of people of color in general.
The above contradiction points out how racist thinking has little to do with skin color, and much to do with status, power and fear. Roediger’s work Working Towards Whiteness exemplifies this point by showing how new immigrants, initially identified as “not white” but with an in-between status (regardless of having white skin), gained a new status (of white) and consequently- power. As we can see from the above cases and analysis, race is consistently utilized to maintain and control power due to fear of losing power and the current dominant position. Oddly enough, the ideology of white supremacy is inspired and maintained due to fear.
W.E.B. Du Bois in his work The Souls of White Folk questioned what it is about whiteness, that enables white men to commit crimes and not be condemned. In other words, he questioned why in virtue of being white, does a person have certain powers. With the analysis we have developed so far, we can answer Du Bois’s question. The answer is there is nothing inherent or intrinsic about white skin that enables white men to commit crimes and not be condemned. What enables white men to do so, is the structure of society in which they live. As we have seen, there is nothing ontologically objective about race and intrinsic or inherent in white skin that makes white people dominant. If there was, race would not be as fluid and unstable, and Thind or Ozawa would have been granted citizenship. Race and status are defined by the dominant group in society politically, economically, socio-culturally, and historically. The process of defining is made possible due to collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition. Additionally, the definition produced by the dominant group in society is constituted by collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition.
Frantz Fanon and his notion of socio-therapy, as developed in Black Skin, White Masks, advises that in order for racism to cease, society must abandon the notion of race. Fanon believed that only after society had realized that race is not real, would it overcome racism. Fanon is logically correct in assuming that racism will end when we no longer see through a racial lens, yet he is wrong in assuming that race is not real and that removing the lens is possible. To illustrate how he is wrong, take for instance Russell Simmons’ position towards homophobia and sexism in hip-hop. Simmons’ position is similar to Fanons. Simmons believes that by eliminating the words “nigger”, “bitch”, and “hoe” from hip-hop, it will solve the problem of homophobia and sexism within hip-hop culture. This is obviously misdirected because it simply evades the root of the problem. Frankenberg’s notion of power-evasive racist discourse can directly critique both Simmons and Fanon.
Thus far, I have repeatedly said that social constructs are contingent on collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition. It seems only natural to suppose that race will disappear altogether, as Fanon had hoped, once society stops collectively agreeing, accepting, and continuously imposing the notion of race. Nonetheless, this is a naïve supposition. Racism is engrained not only in the minds of people, but in the structure of society itself. Our legal system, our prison system, our educational system, our housing system, and various other aspects of society are all racialized. Take for example, Roediger’s assessment of the housing market after the Federal Housing Act in the 1930’s. Roediger shows how even capitalism–a layer in the foundation of U.S. democracy–is racialized by showing that the value of neighborhoods decreased and increased according to how it was racially organized. The more black people lived in a neighborhood the more the value of homes in that neighborhood would decrease. Abandoning the notion of race is not the solution to racism and white privilege. No matter how much we may attempt to make our legal language and documents racially neutral, race will always remain in the minds of people. Frankenberg’s notion of race cognizance seems to be a more viable and productive option. At the least, we have to come to terms with race, not abandon it but be aware of it, and understand it. Nonetheless, the general idea expressed in Fanon’s notion of socio-therapy (change society to cure the patient) seems to be correct. However, the change is not the abandonment of race, but instead a paradigm shift, or a revolution in the way race and differences are understood.