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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Race as a Social Construct

There is nothing biologically real about race. Nevertheless, it is very real in a social sense, with consequences for our daily lives, both good and bad. Guest contributor, Sarah Quezada at Mission Year explores what it means to navigate a world in which racial lines are biologically blurred.

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One of my favorite concepts in Sociology (c’mon… you’re honestly telling me you don’t have a favorite Sociological concept??? I don’t buy it…) is the idea of race as a construct. I had to head back to my trusty 101 textbook to help explain.

First of all, I love the distinction spelled out between the words race and ethnicity:
“Whereas people use the term race to refer to supposed biological characteristics that distinguish one people from another… ethnicity and ethnic refer to people who identify with one another on the basis of common ancestry and cultural heritage. Their sense of belonging may center on nation of origin, distinctive foods, dress, language, music, religion, or family names and relationships” (from Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach 6 edition by James M. Henslin, p213).
Now they share an awesome example. The writer speaks of a young girl who has one “white” and one “black” parent in the States and may be labeled as simply “black.” In more recent years, it’s also likely she would be “biracial.” If she were to visit Salvador in Brazil, however, they “have at least seven terms for what we call white and black” (p215). This child would be classified in one of “whiter” categories.

So basically, on her flight, the girl’s racial classification effectively changed. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to our understanding of race because we think race as connected to biology. But in reality, it’s not. Racial categories are used to label biological characteristics, and those groups can change depending on what culture is doing the classifying.

Here’s another great example from Hotel Rwanda, which is a powerful, yet difficult, movie on the Rwandan genocide:

Once, when I was teaching this chapter in my Sociology 101 class, I had the most perfect moment occur. A student raised his hand. He had a tanned complexion and sandy brown-blonde hair, but basically looked the same as many of the guys in this predominately white classroom. “Well,” he told the class. “My dad is Egyptian, so I guess technically I’m African American.”
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It quickly poked a hole in a label we use so frequently for “race,” but it doesn’t really “work” in all situations. Because race is really trying to distinguish skin colors, and that’s just difficult to do.

That’s why I get such a kick out of discussions about my white Latino husband. He doesn’t fit into the description people actually mean when they use refer to someone as “white.” But his skin tone is white nonetheless, and in Guatemala, he is considered white. But his being Latino also confuses people because his skin tone doesn’t match what people expect from folks of that cultural heritage.

Society just keeps shifting the labels of race and ethnicity to try to accommodate all the peoples and cultures of the world.

People can be treated differently based on the race they are perceived as belonging to, regardless of their identity with that race. 
  • How might the student in the example above be treated in the United States? 
    • Will his experiences be the same as others that identify as "African-American"? 
  • If race isn’t biologically real, where does disparity between races come from? 
  • How do you see the fluidity of race play out in your context?

Sarah lives in Atlanta with her Guatemalan husband Billy, and their children Gabriella & Isaac. She blogs about cross-cultural marriage and family life, immigration, and multicultural identity at A Life with Subtitles. She is also Director of Operations at Mission Year, a Christian volunteer program. 

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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