As Ruth Frankenberg in her book The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters argues, our daily lives are affected by race whether we are aware of it or not. We all see the world through a racial lens that colors our world black, white, Asian, Mexican, minority, or “other”.
Often times the word social construct is thrown around in various theoretical and general works without ever being defined or discussed. However, understanding what is meant by race as a social construct is vital to understanding the capacity race has to intersect and affect other aspects and domains of life and society, as well as how to dismantle it.
To begin, a social construct is ontologically subjective, but epistemologically objective. It is ontologically subjective in that the construction and continued existence of social constructs are contingent on social groups and their collective agreement, imposition, and acceptance of such constructions (for more on the notion of social constructions see The Construction of Social Reality by John Searle). There is nothing absolute or real about social constructions in the same way as there is something absolute and real about rocks, rivers, mountains, and in general the objects examined by physics. For example, the existence of a mountain is not contingent on collective acceptance, imposition, or agreement. A mountain will exist regardless of people thinking, agreeing or accepting that it does exist. Unlike a mountain, the existence of race requires that people collectively agree and accept that it does exist. Franz Boas, a physicist by training, supports this view of race best in his work Race, Language, and Culture where he observes that there is nothing biologically real about race. There is nothing that we have identified as race that exists apart from our collective agreement, acceptance, and imposition of its existence.
Race, although it does not exist in the world in any ontologically objective way, it still is real in society (as opposed to nature). Race is a social construction that has real consequences and effects. These effects, consequences and the notion that race is ontologically subjective is epistemologically objective. We know that race is something that is real in society, and that it shapes the way we see ourselves and others. Many rightly claim that race is conceptually unstable. However, this should not lead us to skepticism about race, i.e. that we cannot have any objective knowledge about race. We can know what race is and how it works regardless of the various shifts in meaning that have occurred through history and occur geographically.
The notion of race as a social construct I am proposing is partially captured by various works. In Takaki’s work A Different Mirror: A history of Multicultural America, race is a social construct produced by the dominant group in society and their power to define. In other words, the dominant group in society imposed the boundaries of group membership by defining race in terms of biology. If you were black, then you were biologically inferior to a white person. Takaki explains that Africans in America were first brought to America as indentured servants. After completing the terms of their servitude they were freed, and had the status of free men. The color line at the time had not been drawn. Nonetheless, with the growing population of free Africans in America, fear of losing hegemonic control began to spread through the white population. Due to this, race as a biological concept was developed and used to justify the enslavement of a growing free black population early in U.S. history. This initial biological understanding of race helped draw the color line. The boundaries of group membership were marked by skin color. Till this day the primary race indicator is skin color.
Frankenberg in her work The Social Construction of Whiteness expands on what race indicators and hence race identify today. She simply explains that race is an indicator of difference, but an indicator of what kind of difference she does not say. As we have seen through Boas’s work, there are no biological differences between different “races”. Additionally, race does not identify differences in culture and is always loosely connected to biology. According to Frankenberg culture is unbounded. We cannot conclusively say on the basis of skin color that someone participates in white, or black cultural practices (although many people still do). This notion of unbounded cultural practices is exemplified in Gary Taylor’s piece White Noise: What Eminem Can Tell Us About White America, where he describes a white man (Eminem) in the hip-hop culture. George Lipsitz in his work Lean on Me: Beyond Identity Politics also discusses how Joe Clark, a black man, engages in a form of racism that perpetuates white privilege and supremacy.
Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s work White Negroes, suggests that the difference Frankenberg speaks of is one of status. The meaning of race developed so far with Takaki, Boas, Frankenberg and now Pieterse suggests that race is a marker of status that includes or excludes one from broader social constructs and enables or disables certain powers. Race typically works through race indicators which are used to indicate which race you are, and consequently what sort of status you have in society, e.g. in President Jefferson’s time race indicated a status of slave or slave master. Since race and race indicators are collectively imposed and defined by the dominant group, so is one’s status. Additionally, since race is a social construct and is ontologically subjective, it continues to work only in virtue of collective agreement and acceptance. Many people may object that they are not part of the collective agreement and acceptance I am describing. Nonetheless, as Frankenberg discusses and admits she herself is evidence of, white people are often blind to racism and do not see the privileges they have due to their skin color. Regardless of white people being anti-racist, they participate within a racialized society which privileges them. As Frantz Fanon described in his book Black Skin, White Masks, many individuals may claim they are not racist while tacitly accept the dominant racist ideology by way of reaping the benefits coffered to them.
Let us summarize what we have said about what race is so far. First, race is a social construct contingent on collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition. Second, race has always been defined by the dominant group in society. Third, race indicates differences in status. The status indicated by which race you are, either includes or excludes one from broader social constructs, and disables or enables certain powers. To illustrate how this sort of understanding of race works let us look at the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case of 1923 and the United States v. Takao Ozawa case of 1922.
Thind, an Indian American man, filed for citizenship in the U.S. in 1923, and was denied on the basis of his not being white. The U.S. Supreme court found that while Indians were anthropologically categorized as Caucasian, the “understanding of the common man”, wrote Justice George Sutherland, “knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences”. Hence, despite being Caucasian, what many in the past (and almost everyone today) believed to be white, Thind was denied his status as white. The effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling retroactively affected all Indians who had already been granted citizenship. In the Takao Ozawa case in 1922, Takao argued that based on scientific evidence, he was white. Nonetheless, Justice Sutherland argued that he was not Caucasian, and hence could not be white, and consequently denied his citizenship. The rulings denying Takao and Thind’s citizenship strengthened anti-Asian sentiment.
The above cases demonstrate a profound kind of contradiction. The cases demonstrate a contradiction that was overlooked regardless of how obvious it was. Thind was not granted citizenship because he was not white, regardless of being Caucasian, and Ozawa was denied citizenship for not being Caucasian, despite being white. What allowed for this contradictory position to be maintained was the Supreme Court’s dominant status. The power Takaki describes is evident in the courts ruling. The common “white” man, and his status as dominant, allowed him to define the parameters of race, despite contradictions. As a result, Thind and Ozawa were excluded. By being excluded, by way of being denied citizenship, all the various powers enabled by the status of U.S. Citizen were disabled. Such powers included the right to vote, run for political office, and various other legal powers. In addition, other powers that are not as codified or legal, such as access to work unions, certain academic institutions, and certain neighborhoods were also disabled. The effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling trickled down and strengthened racist immigration policies, e.g. the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, as well as affecting the lives of people of color in general.
The above contradiction points out how racist thinking has little to do with skin color, and much to do with status, power and fear. Roediger’s work Working Towards Whiteness exemplifies this point by showing how new immigrants, initially identified as “not white” but with an in-between status (regardless of having white skin), gained a new status (of white) and consequently- power. As we can see from the above cases and analysis, race is consistently utilized to maintain and control power due to fear of losing power and the current dominant position. Oddly enough, the ideology of white supremacy is inspired and maintained due to fear.
W.E.B. Du Bois in his work The Souls of White Folk questioned what it is about whiteness, that enables white men to commit crimes and not be condemned. In other words, he questioned why in virtue of being white, does a person have certain powers. With the analysis we have developed so far, we can answer Du Bois’s question. The answer is there is nothing inherent or intrinsic about white skin that enables white men to commit crimes and not be condemned. What enables white men to do so, is the structure of society in which they live. As we have seen, there is nothing ontologically objective about race and intrinsic or inherent in white skin that makes white people dominant. If there was, race would not be as fluid and unstable, and Thind or Ozawa would have been granted citizenship. Race and status are defined by the dominant group in society politically, economically, socio-culturally, and historically. The process of defining is made possible due to collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition. Additionally, the definition produced by the dominant group in society is constituted by collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition.
Frantz Fanon and his notion of socio-therapy, as developed in Black Skin, White Masks, advises that in order for racism to cease, society must abandon the notion of race. Fanon believed that only after society had realized that race is not real, would it overcome racism. Fanon is logically correct in assuming that racism will end when we no longer see through a racial lens, yet he is wrong in assuming that race is not real and that removing the lens is possible. To illustrate how he is wrong, take for instance Russell Simmons’ position towards homophobia and sexism in hip-hop. Simmons’ position is similar to Fanons. Simmons believes that by eliminating the words “nigger”, “bitch”, and “hoe” from hip-hop, it will solve the problem of homophobia and sexism within hip-hop culture. This is obviously misdirected because it simply evades the root of the problem. Frankenberg’s notion of power-evasive racist discourse can directly critique both Simmons and Fanon.
Thus far, I have repeatedly said that social constructs are contingent on collective acceptance, agreement, and imposition. It seems only natural to suppose that race will disappear altogether, as Fanon had hoped, once society stops collectively agreeing, accepting, and continuously imposing the notion of race. Nonetheless, this is a naïve supposition. Racism is engrained not only in the minds of people, but in the structure of society itself. Our legal system, our prison system, our educational system, our housing system, and various other aspects of society are all racialized. Take for example, Roediger’s assessment of the housing market after the Federal Housing Act in the 1930’s. Roediger shows how even capitalism–a layer in the foundation of U.S. democracy–is racialized by showing that the value of neighborhoods decreased and increased according to how it was racially organized. The more black people lived in a neighborhood the more the value of homes in that neighborhood would decrease. Abandoning the notion of race is not the solution to racism and white privilege. No matter how much we may attempt to make our legal language and documents racially neutral, race will always remain in the minds of people. Frankenberg’s notion of race cognizance seems to be a more viable and productive option. At the least, we have to come to terms with race, not abandon it but be aware of it, and understand it. Nonetheless, the general idea expressed in Fanon’s notion of socio-therapy (change society to cure the patient) seems to be correct. However, the change is not the abandonment of race, but instead a paradigm shift, or a revolution in the way race and differences are understood.