Just because the idea of distinct biological human races is not a valid scientific concept does not mean, and should not be interpreted as implying, that “there is no such thing as race” or that “race isn’t real.” Race is indeed real but it is a concept based on arbitrary social and cultural definitions rather than biology or science. Thus, racial categories such as “white” and “black” are as real as categories of “American” and “African.” Many things in the world are real but are not biological. So, while race does not reflect biological characteristics, it reflects socially constructed concepts defined subjectively by societies to reflect notions of division that are perceived to be significant. Some sociologists and anthropologists now use the term social races instead, seeking to emphasize their cultural and arbitrary roots.
Race is most accurately thought of as a socio-historical concept. Michael Omi and Howard Winant noted that “Racial categories and the meaning of race are given concrete expression by the specific social relations and historical context in which they are embedded.” In other words, racial labels ultimately reflect a society’s social attitudes and cultural beliefs regarding notions of group differences. And since racial categories are culturally defined, they can vary from one society to another as well as change over time within a society. Omi and Winant referred to this as racial formation—“the process by which social, economic, and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories.”
Definition: racial formation
The process of defining and redefining racial categories in a society.
The process of racial formation is vividly illustrated by the idea of “whiteness” in the United States. Over the course of U.S. history, the concept of “whiteness” expanded to include various immigrant groups that once were targets of racist beliefs and discrimination. In the mid 1800s, for example, Irish Catholic immigrants faced intense hostility from America’s Anglo-Protestant mainstream society, and anti-Irish politicians and journalists depicted the Irish as racially different and inferior. Newspaper cartoons frequently portrayed Irish Catholics in apelike fashion: overweight, knuckle dragging, and brutish. In the early twentieth century, Italian and Jewish immigrants were typically perceived as racially distinct from America’s Anglo-Protestant “white” majority as well. They were said to belong to the inferior “Mediterranean” and “Jewish” races. Today, Irish, Italian, and Jewish Americans are fully considered “white,” and many people find it hard to believe that they once were perceived otherwise. Racial categories as an aspect of culture are typically learned, internalized, and accepted without question or critical thought in a process not so different from children learning their native language as they grow up.
A primary contributor to expansion of the definition of “whiteness” in the United States was the rise of many members of those immigrant groups in social status after World War II. Hundreds of suburban housing developments were constructed on the edge of the nation’s major cities during the 1940s and 1950s to accommodate returning soldiers, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944 offered a series of benefits for military veterans, including free college education or technical training and cost-of-living stipends funded by the federal government for veterans pursuing higher education. In addition, veterans could obtain guaranteed low-interest loans for homes and for starting their own farms or businesses. The act was in effect from 1944 through 1956 and was theoretically available to all military veterans who served at least four months in uniform and were honorably discharged, but the legislation did not contain anti-discrimination provisions and most African American veterans were denied benefits because private banks refused to provide the loans and restrictive language by homeowners’ associations prohibited sales of homes to nonwhites. The male children and grandchildren of European immigrant groups benefited tremendously from the act. They were able to obtain college educations, formerly available only to the affluent, at no cost, leading to professional white-collar careers, and to purchase low-cost suburban homes that increased substantially in value over time. The act has been credited, more than anything else, with creating the modern middle class of U.S. society and transforming the majority of “white” Americans from renters into homeowners. As the children of Irish, Jewish, Italian, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, and Eastern European parents grew up together in the suburbs, formed friendships, and dated and married one another, the old social boundaries that defined “whiteness” were redefined.
Race is a socially constructed concept but it is not a trivial matter. On the contrary, one’s race often has a dramatic impact on everyday life. In the United States, for example, people often use race—their personal understanding of race—to predict “who” a person is and “what” a person is like in terms of personality, behavior, and other qualities. Because of this tendency to characterize others and make assumptions about them, people can be uncomfortable or defensive when they mistake someone’s background or cannot easily determine “what” someone is, as revealed in statements such as “You don’t look black!” or “You talk like a white person. Such statements reveal fixed notions about “blackness” and “whiteness” and what members of each race will be like, reflecting their socially constructed and seemingly “common sense” understanding of the world.
Since the 1990s, scholars and anti-racism activists have discussed “white privilege” as a basic feature of race as a lived experience in the United States. Peggy McIntosh coined the term in a famous 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which she identified more than two dozen accumulated unearned benefits and advantages associated with being a “white” person in the United States. The benefits ranged from relatively minor things, such as knowing that “flesh color” Band-Aids would match her skin, to major determinants of life experiences and opportunities, such as being assured that she would never be asked to speak on behalf of her entire race, being able to curse and get angry in public without others assuming she was acting that way because of her race, and not having to teach her children that police officers and the general public would view them as suspicious or criminal because of their race. In 2015, MTV aired a documentary on white privilege, simply titled White People, to raise awareness of this issue among Millennials. In the documentary, young “white” Americans from various geographic, social, and class backgrounds discussed their experiences with race.
White privilege has gained significant attention and is an important tool for understanding how race is often connected to everyday experiences and opportunities, but we must remember that no group is homogenous or monolithic. “White” persons receive varying degrees of privilege and social advantage, and other important characteristics, such as social class, gender, sexual orientation, and (dis)ability, shape individuals’ overall lives and how they experience society. John Hartigan, an urban anthropologist, has written extensively about these characteristics. His Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999) discusses the lives of “white” residents in three neighborhoods in Detroit, Michigan, that vary significantly socio-economically—one impoverished, one working class, and one upper middle class. Hartigan reveals that social class has played a major role in shaping strikingly different identities among these “white” residents and how, accordingly, social relations between “whites” and “blacks” in the neighborhoods vary from camaraderie and companionship to conflict.
Hartigan, John. Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.” Working Paper 189. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1988.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. New York: Routledge, 2014.
- Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 64. ↵
- Ibid., 61 ↵
- For more information about the social construction of whiteness in U.S. History see Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People; Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995). For more information about the economic aspects of the construction of whiteness both before and after World War II, see David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Chicago, IL: Haymarket, 2007) and George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998). ↵
- For a detailed discussion of this process see Douglas S. Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993) and Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005). ↵
- For more information on these historical developments and their social ramifications, see Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998) or David Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White—The Strange Journey From Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York: Basic Books, 2005). ↵
"Race and Ethnicity" by Justin D. García, Millersville University of Pennsylvania. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.