Monday, March 27, 2017

To What Extent Are Race and Ethnicity Social Constructs?

Rachel Dolezal (now Nkechi Amare Diallo) is back in the news.
To refresh your memory, she is the young woman who identified as Black, and ended up resigning as president of the Spokane branch of the NAACP after being outed by her parents as Caucasian.  She has now authored a book, "In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World", to be released March 28.  In the book, she tells her side of the story.  Certainly she has been the center of her share of controversy.  The pre-release reviews on Amazon aren't promising, most of them awarding only one or two stars.  Some questions have been raised about how reliable a narrator she is.  However, one can sympathize with her struggles to provide for her children and make a living. She says that now no one will hire her and she is not far from being homeless. Her family's decision to out her in a very public way seems unnecessarily cruel.
To me, she raised a legitimate question when she stated:
"I wish Americans understood that race is a social construct, even if we don't want it to be," Dolezal argued. "The system of racial classification is fiction, and we need to thoughtfully evaluate whether perpetuating it rigidly or allowing fluidity across the spectrum best supports human rights and social justice."
Certainly she is not the first or only person to ever identify with a race or ethnicity they were not born into.  The earliest instance of this that I know of is Ruth in the Old Testament, who told her mother-in-law Naomi, "Your people shall be my people." The protagonist of the movie, Dances With Wolves, ended up by identifying as Native American.  I am acquainted with a young woman in our town who was born to Caucasian parents of European ancestry. There were problems in her family of origin.  She married a man who was a Mexican immigrant. The marriage ended in divorce, but she retained her Spanish surname. She speaks fluent Spanish and is dark haired and dark eyed. Her children have Spanish names, are bilingual, and she socializes mainly in the immigrant community. If they didn't know her prior to her first marriage, most people wouldn't guess that she grew up Anglo.
The problem seems to be when people attempt to deceive, or to turn the identity that they adopted to their personal gain or advantage, which is an objection that is voiced to Ms. Diallo's identifying herself as Black.


  1. Race is definitely a social construct; the person’s self identity and what other people think they are can be different. I think of myself as Catholic, American, Christian, European in that order. (European includes British, German, Polish and Lithuanian but those are very washed out. My grandparents thought of themselves as those nationalities; my parents hardly at all, they knew only a few words of German and Polish ) I am sure that Blacks and Hispanics would say I am White.

    The question is whether there are any good biological reasons for classifying people. Obviously some racial groups appear to be more susceptible to some diseases than others which presumably has some genetic basis (but could also have cultural and environmental backgrounds). So I guess when all the gene background has been sorted out what would be the best way to classify people for health care purposes if at all. Maybe we will all have long files that will tell heath providers what they need to know before treating us. Will there by shorter id’s (e.g. middle eastern, Scandinavian) that make it easier for them and other professionals to be alert to the possibility of certain conditions and will they look anything like today’s race? I have my doubts.

  2. But the physical differences between races are factual, aren't they? My ex-husband was Japanese and he had certain physical traits that were different than mine - he was lactose intolerant, for instance, and he didn't really have body odor as most Caucasians do, because of of his Asian genes.

    Culturally someone could identify with another race - they could be raised by people unlike themselves - but it seems misleading to assert you are of a race you physically aren't without clarifying that you mean that only culturally.

  3. Classifying someone by race is not "scientific," and the "black race" is certainly a social construct. But that doesn't mean it is "fiction" or that it is based on nothing. It is simply a lie to claim to be "black" or "African American" if you have no evidence of (recent) African ancestry. We might well be better off if we abandoned the social construct of race. But just because something is a social construct doesn't mean there is nothing to it at all.

  4. We have twisted ourselves in knots over this (I mean our culture has). I've just finished reading a book of statistics mostly on the demographics of the U.S. Catholic church. The biggest stand-out in nomenclatures is "non-Hispanic blacks." (I'm guessing that's mostly African-Americans). They are classified with Native Americans in the minority category along with Hispanic immigrants. Of course, both have been here longer than most of us, so not immigrants. "Non-Hispanic blacks" does match up with "Non-Hispanic whites"--we know who they are! And anyone who lives in cities with large Hispanic populations knows that "Hispanic/Latino" doesn't do it...Puerto Ricans (U.S. citizens at birth) are not Cubans. ETC.....
    And there's the ongoing discussion of when the Irish became white...

  5. Margaret, I agree. This topic came up a lot in my lit class this term. We read William Wells Brown's pre-Civil War novel, Clotel, in which racial and cultural identity becomes very fluid. Brown seems to want to make education and the condition of slavery, not ethnicity, the real cultural division. However, the Irish don't come off too well. They are either hillbillies, overseers, or slave traders, and they seem to be less assimilated than black Americans. I suppose in 1851, when the book was written, perhaps that was the case.

    1. Maybe the Scotch-Irish??...a different social construct.

  6. Something about this discussion reminds me that we seem to be in an era in which people are expected to decide what there sex is, often at a pretty early age. Sex seems, though, to be more basic than race, which is, as David says, an unscientific classification. Race exists along a continuum -- "if you're brown, stick aroun; if you're black, stay back" -- so a person can be anything she wants to be as long as it's plausible. Which thanks to the morals of old Southern Gentlemen, it often can be. Long ago, white jazz musicians did all they could to "play black," which, for many,involved trying to "think black." That didn't hurt American music a bit.

  7. Tom, yeah, I was thinking about the gender issues in connection with this article too. A lot of people who came down pretty hard on Ms. Dolezal-Diallo are more willing to cut people some slack who don't identify with their birth gender.

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  9. Gender is on a continuum because .....

    "Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another ....

    When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person's anatomical or physiological sex. What's more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body."