NOTES DEMONSTRATING THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF RACE*

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NOTES
DEMONSTRATINGTHE SOCIALCONSTRUCTIONOF RACE*
BRIANK. OBACH
Universityof Wisconsin
obvious teachingor consciousinculcation.
within
social
science
disciRace becomes 'common sense'" (p. 62).
widely accepted
Omi
and
Winant
The
plines(HaneyLopez 1996;
seeminglyconsistentcategorizationof
Waters
this
to
1986;
1990).Relating concept
people based upon identifiablephysicalatcan
a
serious
tributesreinforcesthe notionthatthesecatestudents,however,
present
like
most
tend
challenge.Students,
people,
gories are objectivegroupings.This can be
to view their world as an objectivereality seen in the fact thatstudentsoftenresistthe
divorced,in manyways, frominterpretation idea that "white"or "black"or the other
or constructedmeaning.This is also trueof racialclassifications,as they are commonly
the racialcategoriesthat are presentedand conceived,are not objective,scientific,bioreified throughoutsociety, but which are logicalcategories,but rather,thattheyrepnonetheless,socially defined. Throughthe resentnotionsthatdevelopedhistoricallyand
use of an abstractexercise, removedfrom thathave no biologicalsignificancebeyond
to themby thememingrainednotions of race, the absence of the meaningattributed
naturalgroupingsandthe socialconstruction bers of society. Enablingstudentsto overof suchcategoriescan be moreclearlypre- come this conceptualframeworkand to see
sented. In this paper, I describe such an the social embeddednessof racial underexercise and demonstratehow the insights standingscanbe very challenging.
The socialconstruction
of raceis, in many
achievedcan then be easily appliedto concepts of race, offering students a better ways, more difficultto presentto students
of raceas a socialconstruct. than the constructednatureof other social
understanding
Mostsocial scientistsrecognizethatexist- categoriessuch as that of gender. Unlike
ing racialcategoriesdevelopedduetopartic- race, genderhas the corresponding
biologiular historicalcircumstances(HaneyLopez cal categoryof sex. While the biological
1996;OmiandWinant1986;Waters1990). categoriesof sex are evident, studentscan
Yet, studentsoften thinkof race as a given recognizehow the roles and characteristics
biologicalfactbasedon establishedscientific associatedwiththe sexes are, in manyways,
distinctions,ideas that are stronglyreified unrelatedto biology.Thus,whenaddressing
throughoutsociety by the media, through this issue, the biologicalcategoriesof "sex"
governmentpolicy and by individualswho serve as a referencepoint from which to
oftenembracea racialidentity.Accordingto demonstratethe socially constructedcateOmi and Winant(1986), "Everyonelearns gories of "gender."However, unlike the
some combination,some version, of the relationshipbetween sex and gender, race
rules of racialclassification...oftenwithout has no parallelin termsof naturalbiological
categories.Most studentscan easilyunderwhile
thistechnique teaching
at stand the social natureof racial prejudice
"*Ideveloped
SantaMonicaCollege.I wouldlike to thank and stereotypes.Yet unlike explainingthe
KathyShameyfor makingthatpossible.Please biological categoryof sex and the social
addresscorrespondence
to the authorat the basis of gender, here we must convey the
of
of Wiscon- notionthatnotonly areracialstereotypesthe
DepartmentSociology,
University
sin, 1180 Observatory
Drive, Madison,WI productof social processes,but that race,
53706;e-mail:[email protected]
is likewise socially constructed.In
Editor'snote:Thereviewers
were,in alpha- itself, no racesexist.
Natureonly provides
nature,
beticalorder,CarlBankston,
CraigEckert,and
a vast arrayof physicalvariationsthathave
William
Smith.
THEIDEA
THATrace is socially constructed is
Teaching
Sociology,Vol.27, 1999(July:252-257)
252
SOCIALCONSTRUCTIONOF RACE
been used to constructcategoriesthat are
ultimatelyascribedmeaningfar beyondthe
hazy physicaldifferencesthatserve as their
basis.
The socially constructednatureof racial
by
categoriescan, in part, be demonstrated
reviewinghistoricaldevelopmentsin which
the commonlyused racial categorieswere
establishedin additionto showingthe way in
which those categoriesand their meanings
have changedover time. Severalusefulaccountscan be utilizedfor this purpose.In
Racial Formation in the United States
(1986), MichaelOmi and HowardWinant
focus on how politicalstruggleshave led to
the redefinitionof racial identity. Other
scholarshave drawnattentionto the way in
which economicconditionscontributednot
only to the developmentof racialidentities,
but also to the historicalconstructionof
racialcategoriesthemselves(Ignatiev1995;
Zinn 1980). Perhapsmostusefulfor demonstratingthe socialconstructionof race is Ian
HaneyLopez'sWhiteby Law(1996). Haney
Lopez tracesthe legal rulingsby courtsin
the UnitedStatesthat receivedthe onerous
task of separatingthe membersof various
ethnic backgroundsinto the inherentlyilldefinedracialcategories.He documentsthe
court'srelianceon shifting"scientific"designationsof race and the ultimateembrace
of a "commonknowledge"standard,which
in many ways only restatedexistingprejudices and ad hoc theoriesof race. In the
process,manygroupssaw theirracechange
with each courtruling.'Changesin Census
categories and the vacillating claims of
are also useful issues to raise
"raciologists"
in presentingthe social natureof race and
the absenceof anynaturalbiologicalsignificanceof the concept.
253
analyzingthe factorsthatunderlieracialand
ethnic conflict are essentialcomponentsof
any treatmentof this topic. However,before
analyzingwhy racial categorieswere constructedas they were, it is firstnecessaryto
establish the point that race is, in fact,
socially constructed.The exercise that I
present in this paper offers one way of
relatingthisconcept.However,I havefound
it useful to first introducediscussionquestions thatchallengebasic understandings
of
race.
One discussionstrategyis to ask students
to categorizeethnic groups of somewhat
ambiguousrace, such as those from the
MiddleEastor the PacificIslands,into the
commonly used racial designations. Inarise.Somestudents
evitably,disagreements
arguethat MiddleEasternersare a race in
themselves,while othersinsistthatthey are
white, and still others believe them to be
Asian based on their geographicorigin.
CategorizingPacificIslandersraisessimilar
debates, as do Latinos and those from
Northern Africa. Many students have
claimedthatall Latinosarewhite,sincethey
originatedfromSpain,whilesomedisagree,
claiming Latinosto be a separaterace or
somethingotherthana race. In the face of
such disagreement,studentsmust examine
the basis of their beliefs and recognizeinconsistenciesand ambiguitiesin all systems
of racialclassification.
In my experience, debate often ensues
when studentsare asked to simply list the
racialcategoriesthemselves,againrevealing
the subjectiveaspects of race. Many can
identifythe categoriespresentedon the Census or other governmentforms, but some
desoffer additionalcategoriesor alternative
student
insisted
that
Turks
One
ignations.
representeda distinctrace and severalhave
The Social Constructionof Race: Discus- suggestedthat Jewish people are a race.
Otherstudentshave claimedthat there are
sion Topics
Reviewing the historical conditions under four fundamentalraces specifiedby color
which racial meanings were constructedand (black, white, red, and yellow), and that
of those.
'For example, Asian Indians were determined everyoneelse is somecombination
Some
defend
the
Census
categories,
taking
in
in
to
the
courts
be
non-white
white
1909,
by
the governmentas the final arbiter.Others
1910 and 1913, non-white in 1917, white again
evidence.But most are
cite anthropological
in 1919 and 1920, but non-white after 1923.
254
unableto offer any basis for their beliefs
otherthanhaving"heardit somewhere."
International
studentscan bringinteresting
to
the
discussion,as manyother
perspectives
culturesdo not often refer to the racial
classificationscommonlyused in the United
States. Many Asian students report little
considerationof racial categories, instead
focusing on ethnic differencesamong the
Asian groupspresentin their countriesof
origin. Israeli studentshave reportedthat
Ashkenaziand Sephardicare salientcateunfamilgoriesin theircountry,a distinction
iar to most other students. A Moroccan
studentexplainedthatwhile she wasconsidered to be white in Morocco, here in the
UnitedStatesshe was considerednon-white.
She also amazedthe other studentsby explainingthatin her homeland,variationsin
skin tone can result in a child being of a
differentracethanher or his parentsor that
siblings within the same family may be
considered to be of different races. Of
course, these internationalperspectivesrequirethe presenceof a diverseenrollment.
My classestendto be fairlylarge (35 to 50
students)and very diverse, however, some
of these issues are likely to yield disagreements and fruitfuldiscussionseven in less
diversesettings.
I have also foundit useful for studentsto
list the characteristicsused to distinguish
racial categories, thus generatingan accountingof the commonlyused featuresof
skincolor, hair, eyes, and so on.2Whileall
believe these to be consistentmeasuresof
race, I then confrontthemwith suchseemingly arbitrarycategorizationsas a blondhaired,blue-eyed,fair-skinned"white"person from northernEurope with a blackhaired, brown-eyed,dark-skinned"white"
personof southernEuropeandescent.
All of these discussion techniquescan
introducestudentsto the concept of the
2This(in additionto the Latino question raised
earlier) also provides an opportunity to distinguish between the concepts of race and ethnicity.
Some students have suggested accent, language,
or style of dress as a basis for determiningrace.
TEACHINGSOCIOLOGY
social constructionof race. Eachone challenges studentsto seek out and analyzethe
basis of theirbeliefsaboutracialgroupings.
Many realizeupon reflectionthat the basis
for the distinctionswas neverexplicitlyclear
to them. As Omi and Winant(1986) point
out: "Everyone 'knows' what race is,
thougheveryonehasa differentopinionas to
how manyracialgroupsthereare, whatthey
are called,andwho belongsin whatspecific
racial categories"(p. 3). Studentsoften
believethatthey are ableto easilyidentifya
person'srace,yet mostareneverchallenged
to identifywhatit reallymeansor to defend
the underlyingbasisfor the claim.
While these discussions can provide a
foundationfor understandingthe socially
constructednatureof race, moreparticipatory exercisesare oftenbetterat fosteringa
deeper understanding(Dorn 1989). Some
educatorshave developed techniquesfor
activelyinvolvingstudentsin the analysisof
these issues. Marisa Alicea and Barbara
Kessel(1997) describean exercisein which
students circulate around the classroom
guessingone another'sracialor ethnicidentity. Then they contrastthese speculations
with each individuals'own chosenidentity.
someaspectsof
Thosecontrastsdemonstrate
the social characterof race and ethnicity.
However, studentsmay still feel that, deof some
spite the varying interpretations
racial
"real"
individuals,
categoriesdo exist,
even if they are not universallyrecognized.
Whiletheseotherdiscussionsraisequestions
aboutthe socialnatureof racialidentity,the
the lack of
followingexercisedemonstrates
catefor
racial
foundation
any biological
the
idea
that
reinforces
it
race,
gories.Thus,
a
construct.
is
social
itself,
The Social Construction of Race: A
GraphicExercise
In this lesson, I ask studentsto separatea
I ask them to consider what kind of accent I
could have or which clothes I could wear that
would lead them to believe that I am of another
race. This introduces the notion that race is
based on physical attributes while ethnicity is
culturallyrooted.
SOCIALCONSTRUCTIONOF RACE
series of six patternedcircles into two categories (the categories, it will later be revealed, are analogous to races). I print the
circles on a small piece of paper and distributethem to each student in the class. The
circles each have a unique pattern (see Figure 1), but some similarities exist among
them. They vary by internal pattern (filled,
empty, or lined) and the way in which the
circle is divided (halved, quartered, or
whole). Some are rotated in such a way as to
blur their similarities. I instruct the students
to divide the circles into two categories, A
and B, by labeling each circle with the letter
of its category. They do not have to be
divided into two even categories of three and
three, but can be separated into groups of
four and two or even five and one. The key
instruction is that each student divide the
circles into two categories based on whatever characteristicsthey deem most significant.
An important aspect of this exercise is
that, based on the way in which the circles
are patterned, there is no single "correct"
way to divide them. Depending on the characteristic selected as most significant, the
circles could logically be divided any number of ways, which is analogous to the
inconsistent designation of racial categories
in different societies. The possibility for
various logical divisions is importantin that
studentswill most likely divide themaccording to different characteristics. Using these
patterns, no more than two thirds of my
255
students have constructed the same categories. In some instances, they have offered
three or more different categorization
schemes.
Once students have created their categories, volunteers describe the logic behind
the way in which they separated their circles. Reproducing the circles on the board
enables the instructor to list the different
categorizations offered by the students. In
my experience, there have always been at
least two different categorization schemes
offered. However, if by chance every member of the class offered the same categories,
the instructorcould easily introduce others.
When all the students have explained their
categorizations, I reveal that the circles represent the human species and the categories
that they have created representraces. I then
use the circles to demonstrate the fact that
the racial categories, themselves, lack any
scientific or objective biological basis.
A good way to begin the discussion is to
first ask students which categorizationstrategy is the right one. This is a trick question
in that there is no definitively correct way of
separating the circles. Each circle is unique
and, depending on the characteristic selected, there are several "correct" strategies. If students did not realize this when
they were creating their own categories, it
becomes clear to them as other students
explain the logic of their alternativeclassification schemes. After students understand
this simple principle, I introducethe parallel
Figure1. A GraphicExercisefor the SocialConstructionof Race
1
6
2
5
4
3
suchthatthereare
Studentsareaskedto dividethesecirclesintotwocategories.Thecirclesarepatterned
severaldifferentways to groupthem. Studentscreatecategoriesbasedon whethercirclescontaina
whethertheycontainany
completelyfilledarea(groupingcircles1, 3, and4 together)or, alternatively,
circles
based
on whethertheyare
and
also
the
unfilled
area
1,
2,
6).
They
separate
(grouping
completely
dividedin half (1, 3, and6). Severalotherpossibilitiesexist for creatingcategoriesdependingon the
of the circlesare analogousto the
characteristic
one selects as most important.The characteristics
andthecategoriesthatstudentsconstructareanalagousto "races."
variationin humanphysialattributes,
256
TEACHINGSOCIOLOGY
with humankindand the lack of any natural
racial categories. The diverse range of human physical characteristics that could be
used as a basis for creating racial categories
are analogous to the different characteristics
of the circles. Those human physical characteristics that are selected out as a basis for
designating racial categories (i.e., hair texture, eye color, etc.) are just a few among
many characteristics that could be used to
distinguish groups, just as it is possible to
conceive of several different circle categories depending on the characteristic that
one chooses to emphasize. It is useful to
reinforce this possibility by raising the fact
that other cultures utilize alternative racial
categories based upon different combinations of physical characteristics.
The non-scientific basis for creating categories can also be revealed by demonstrating
the variabilitywithin the groups that students
created. In my experience, the most common strategyused by studentsis to group the
three circles that have some completely
filled areas together (see Figure 2), leaving
the remaining three as the other category. I
ask the students who utilized this strategy if
the quarteredcircle with the filled quarters
(number 4) is more similar to the halved
circle (number 1), which also contains a
filled area, or to number 2, the other quartered circle (see Figure 3). In other words,
in only looking at two quarteredcircles and
one halved circle, would they still group
them based on the fact that two contain some
filled area? The answer has consistently
been that they would not group them based
on the fact that two contain some filled area,
and that the characteristicof being quartered
seems more salient. The two quarteredcircles, they acknowledge, seem to have more
in common than the two containing some
filled area. In essence, they are discovering
that there may be some members of one
category that actually appearmore similar to
members of the other category than to whose
with which they were initially placed.
Again, I highlight the parallel to racial
Figure2. CommonGroupingof Circles
1
3
4
2
5
6
GroupB
GroupA
Themostcommonlyusedstrategyis to groupcircles1, 3, and4 basedon the factthattheyall havea
completelyfilledarea,leavingtheothersto constitutetheothergroup.
Figure3. AlternativeGroupingof Circles
1
2
4
thatsomecirclesof one groupare
In comparing
circlesfromdifferentgroups,it is oftenacknowledged
than
from
the
more
similar
to
circles
they are to those of their own. In
oppositegroup
actually
oftenacknowledgethatcircles2
students
in
scheme
the
2,
depicted
Figure
categorization
considering
and4, whichhadbeenplacedin oppositegroups,aremoresimilarto one anotherthancircles1 and4,
whichhadbeencategorizedtogether.
SOCIALCONSTRUCTIONOF RACE
categories.As suggestedabove, somemembers of the "whiterace" more closely resemblesome membersof the "blackrace"
thantheydo someother"white"people.
At this point,the racialdefinitions,which
studentsinitiallysee as objectivebiological
classifications,begin to appearmore fluid.
The lack of any naturalcategorizationcan
clearlybe seen in the diverseways in which
studentsgroupedthe circles and in the inconsistenciesin each strategy. While this
simulationis carriedout in the abstractand
categoriesare created individually,it enablesstudentsto recognizethatracialgroupings are in no way naturallygiven, andthat
socialprocessesultimatelyunderliethecreationof such classifications. As discussed
earlier, it is importantto dedicatetime to
reviewingthe historicaldevelopmentsthat
led to the creationof racial categoriesas
they are currentlyconceived.However,this
exerciseenablesstudentsto firstovercomea
significantmentalhurdleto developingsuch
the ideathatracialcategories
understanding:
themselveshave no naturalbasis and that
they are purely the productof social processes.
CONCLUSION
257
sociallyconstructedwith 60 percentindicating that it was "veryuseful." Severalstudentsof mixedor ambiguousracehaveeven
thankedme for helpingthemto understand
wherethey fit or why they fail to fit clearly
in the racialtypologiescommonlyused.
Studentscometo classwiththe notionthat
racial categorieshave objectivebiological
significance.Thesecategoriesare constantly
reified throughoutthe culture. Given how
entrenchedthese beliefs are, it is often
difficultto get studentsto see beyondthis
througha discussionof racealone. Byaltering the context using this simple graphic
exercise,studentssee the lackof anynatural
basis for creatingcategoriesamongthecircles. This insightcan then be easily transof race. Oncethe
ferredto an understanding
idea that naturedeterminesrace has been
overcome, students can comprehendthe
principleof the social constructionof race
morereadily.
REFERENCES
Kessel.1997."The
Alicea,MarisaandBarbara
ExA Simulation
Question:
SociallyAwkward
RacialandEthnicLaercisefor Explaining
bels." TeachingSociology25:65-71.
Games:One
Dorn, Dean. 1989. "Simulation
TeachShelf."
on
the
More
Tool
Pedagogical
That studentsfind the notion of the social
17:1-18.
Sociology
ing
of racedifficultis oftenevident
construction
Lopez, Ian. 1996. Whiteby Law. New
in the discussionaroundthis issue.Review- Haney
Press.
York:NewYorkUniversity
ing historicaldevelopmentsrelated to the Ignatiev, Noel. 1995. How the Irish Became
constructionof race and raising questions White.NewYork:Routledge.
Winant.1986.Racial
thatchallengestudentsto defendracialcate- Omi,Michael
andHoward
States. New York:
United
in
the
and
Formation
consistent
a
as
objectiveprogorization
andKeganPaul.
of the
Routledge
cess can facilitatean understanding
Berkeley,
socially constructednature of racial cate- Waters,Mary.1990.EthnicOptions.
Press.
California
of
CA:
University
this
in
gories. However, my experience,
of the
exercisehas provento behelp- Zinn, Howard.1980. A People'sHistory
participatory
& Row.
UnitedStates.NewYork:Harper
ful in furtherclarifyingthis concept.Many
studentshave told me abouthow muchthey
Obachis a doctoralstudentat the University
enjoyed this exercise and how the visual of Brian
Wisconsin,Madison.His researchfocuseson alpresentationhelped them to grasp the concepts. In a year-end survey, 96 percent of
the students identified the exercise as useful
in enabling them to understand that race is
lianceformation
organizations.
amongsocialmovement
He has taughtcoursesat the Universityof Wisconsin,
SantaMonicaCollege,and MountSaintMary's College in Los Angeles.
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