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1.3 Race as a Social Construct

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    Race as a Social Construct

    Based on the information above, sociologists assert that race is a social construction, a concept that has no objective reality but rather is what people decide it is (Berger & Luckmann, 1963). In this view, race has no real existence other than what and how people think of it; what matters then are the ideas we have attached to race and racial groups.

    The well-known “Thomas theorem” in sociology is defined as follows: “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”.  While we can acknowledge that race is a social construction and not a biological reality, it is also true that our race has an incredible impact on our identity and life chances.  In this way, the effects of the idea of race are real.

    According to historian Milton Meltzer, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade created an incentive to categorize human groups in order to justify the subordination of Africans as slaves. Because Christianity asserted that slavery was a dehumanizing institution and therefore forbidden, a story had to be created that made Black people less than human.  Pseudoscientific theories of people of color being biologically inferior to Whites was that story. As Europeans began to sort themselves and others into groups based on physical appearance, they attributed to members of these groups certain behaviors and capacities that were supposedly deeply ingrained (biological). These supposed physical, intellectual, behavioral, and moral differences soon became part of common folk belief or "conventional wisdom".

    During the time of slavery in the U.S. South, the skin tone of enslaved peoples lightened over the years as babies were born from the Union, often in the form of rape of enslaved individuals, by slave owners and other Whites. As it became difficult to tell who was Black and who was not, many court battles over people’s racial identity occurred. People who were accused of having Black ancestry would go to court to “prove” they were White in order to avoid enslavement or other problems (Staples, 1998). Litigation over race continued long past the days of slavery.

    In a relatively recent example, Susie Guillory Phipps sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records in the early 1980s to change her “official” race to White. Phipps was descended from a slave owner and a slave; thereafter, her other ancestors were White. Despite this fact, she was called Black on her birth certificate because of a state law, echoing the one-drop rule, that designated people as Black if their ancestry was at least 1/32 Black (meaning one of their great-great-great grandparents was Black). Phipps had always thought of herself as White and was surprised after seeing a copy of her birth certificate to discover she was officially Black because she had one African ancestor about 150 years earlier. She lost her case, and the U.S. Supreme Court later refused to review it (Omi & Winant, 1994).

    Following World War II, alongside empirical and conceptual problems with “race,” evolutionary and social scientists were acutely aware of how beliefs about race had been used to justify discrimination, apartheid, slavery, and genocide. This critique gained momentum in the 1960s during the U.S. civil rights movement and the emergence of numerous anti-colonial movements worldwide. Race has real, material effects in housing discrimination, in the legal process, in policing practices, in education, in workplace discrimination, and many other domains of society. As a result, racial groups possessing relatively little power often find themselves excluded or oppressed.

    The social construction of race is also reflected in the changing labels for racial categories; these labels change with the times. It’s worth noting that race, in this sense, is also a system of labeling that provides a source of identity; specific labels fall in and out of favor during different social eras. For example, the category ”negroid,” popular in the nineteenth century, evolved into the term “negro” by the 1960s, which shifted to Black as a result of the Black Power and Black Nationalist movements declaring "Black is Beautiful," and in contemporary times “African American” may also be used. The term African American was intended to celebrate the multiple identities that a Black person might hold, but this word choice is not without its problems: it lumps together a large variety of ethnic groups under an umbrella term while excluding others who could accurately be described by the label but who do not meet the spirit of the term (e.g., Black Americans whose family members come from Haiti or Jamaica). Furthermore, many Black Americans do not relate to the "African" in African American while others relate to African American (due to their knowledge and value of African cultural roots) but do not identify with the label Black.

    Society's conceptualization of beauty is also intertwined with race (racism) as light skin phenotype is often correlated with beauty within the dominant society and social institution of mass media. An example of this is when AAPI (Asian American & Pacific Islander) women elect for cosmetic surgeries such as double eyelid, sculpted nose, or breast enlargement. Each of which produce a more White or European image. The women in Kaw's study indicated that they chose their surgeries to improve their social status, and to gain “symbolic capital,” thus prestige. Therefore, prestige is equated to looking White. Effectively, American culture "motivates women to view their feelings of inadequacy as individually rooted, as opposed to socially induced, thereby effectively convincing them to participate in the production and reproduction of the larger structural inequalities that continue to oppress them” (Kaw, 1993).


    Sociologists also use the term racialization which refers to the processes by which a group of people is defined by their “race.” Through this lens, it is thought that race is something that happens to people and does not come from the individual. In societies in which White people have disproportionate economic, political, and social power, processes of racialization have emerged from a racial hierarchy that places Whiteness at the top and all other groups below them (and typically Blackness at the bottom). 

    How are ideas about race reproduced in society?  American culture and each of its institutions demonstrate ideas about different racial groups.  Let's explore mass media for a moment. Various caricatures can be found in media such as Black Face or Yellow Face characters (when White people play Black or Asian characters and put on makeup and prosthetics to "look" like said race) prevalent in the last century. Today, African American men are often portrayed as criminal or violent, while African American women have been portrayed as sassy or aggressive (angry, black woman trope). The Latinx population has been racialized in many ways, one being sexual.  Latinos as Latin lovers and Latinas as "spicy" and flirtatious. Conversely, Asian American men are rarely portrayed as sexual beings, while Asian American women are often portrayed as "exotic", sexual, and sometimes as sex workers. Lastly, images of American Indians/Alaska Natives are often portrayed as "savages" or lacking human emotion characteristics. We will return to how racialization occurs in society later in the text.

    Dominant Group & Minority Groups

    The dominant group has greater power, prestige, wealth, and status in society and receives greater privilege in everyday interactions. Historically known as WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant), the dominant group in the United States is represented by White, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent (Doane, 2016). A dominant group is positively privileged (Weber,1978), unstigmatized (Rosenblum & Travis, 2011) and generally favored by the institutions of society, (Marger, 1996) particularly the social, economic, political, and educational systems.

    Sociologist Louis Wirth (1945) defined a minority group as “any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics experience differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.” Minority group status can be based on social categories such as age, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, religious beliefs, disability or socioeconomic class status. Minority groups are not necessarily numerical minorities (Griffiths, Keirns, Strayer, Cody-Rydzewsk, Scaramuzzo, Sadler, Vyain, Byer & Jones, 2015). For example, the South African system of apartheid (a system of de jure discrimination) was a major indicator that minority groups are not numerically defined, as 90% of the population of South Africa is Black but until the very early 1990s they were the minority group and the 10% of the population who are White were the dominant group. 

    As there is some controversy with using the concept of minority group, due to the often inferior and pejorative connotation with this label, efforts are made throughout this book to use the concepts, people of color or communities of color. The use of these concepts seeks to call attention to the commonalities of experience that Black or African Americans, American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/AN), Latinx, and Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) share--though as ensuing chapters will also show, the groups have their own distinct history and contemporary experiences.

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