Image description: A close up of a purple and blue DNA model

Race is a Social Construct

The phrase, “race is a social construct” is thrown around frequently amongst liberal college students and often met with generous amounts of eye rolling — perhaps as much as “gender is a spectrum.” This concept, however, is crucial to the understanding of racial relations in the United States and its denial is a large part of how racism is still able to function. In Fatal Invention, Dorothy Roberts defines race as “a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations.”[1] This definition serves to not only invalidate the idea of a “biological race,” but also systematically exposes the contradictions that lie within.

From the very beginning, Roberts states that race is a political category, not a biological one. The flexibility of racial categories in the public mind, as well as the government census, can be presented as evidence. In 1850, the only racial categories were White, Black, and Mulatto.[2] Later in history, new categories such as Chinese, Indian, Quadroon, and Hindu were created as racial categories. The creation of new categories did not mean that new biological races had emerged; rather, their invention shows how society was forced to shift its notions of race as it sought novel ways to accommodate these new bodies that challenged existing racial structures.

Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn

As Roberts’s definition states, race is also used to “govern” others and thus, can be understood as a tool of power. History shows us that this political category has been invoked to not only ascribe citizenship, power, and authority to Whites, but simultaneously take them away from people of color.  Howard Zinn’s piece on “Drawing the Color Line” gives a clear example of how being categorized as White resulted in tangible benefits: “Virgina’s ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied them.”[3] Thus, the shifting of racial categories can also illustrate the evasive maneuvers of white supremacy, as it sought to maintain tight control over power.

Josiah Nott (1868) uses science to "prove" his racist idea that Africans are closer to primates and thus, more primitive.
Josiah Nott (1868) uses science to “prove” his racist idea that Africans are closer to primates and thus, more primitive.

The final part that I would like to analyze from Roberts’s definition of race is its basis on “invented biological demarcations.” This is perhaps where false ideas of biological races arise. However, as Roberts states, the biological basis of race is nothing more than an invention. Many scientists have stated that there is no biological basis for race. In fact, recent genetic research and human genome mapping have shown that all humans are 99.9% identical genetically and more differences exist amongst people of the same race than between people of different races.[4] Others may still argue that race is based on biological traits such as skin color, eye shape, or nose shape. For example, Asians are thought to have peachy skin, monolid eyes, flatter faces, and dark hair—all of which are biological characteristics. However, race’s failing as a biological category can be seen through the exceptions. Asians as a racial group encompasses not only East Asians with the above stated traits, but also people descending from India, Philippines, as well as various minority groups in China that bear very little resemblance to each other. Thus, racial categories are not based on clearly demarcated biological or physical characteristics. Rather, race is a political category in biological disguise.

Ascribing a false sense of scientific knowledge to race is a powerful and dangerous practice. As biology and more broadly, science, are considered to be factual and based on hard truth, biological determinism renders race—as well as its accompanying stereotypes and racism—to be not only true but also inevitable. Race, thus, becomes a foolproof “biological fact” on which institutional and systemic practices of racism can be justified. Much of this can be seen playing out in welfare politics, where Black folks are thought to make up a large portion of welfare recipients because they are inherently lazy or hyperfertile. Such a manner of deeming a race “biologically” disposed to poverty voids the government of responsibility and excuses them for the racist social policies that led to such economic disparities in the first place. In this way, the biological race argument can be seen as another component of this supposed post-racial society that we exist in, where the inner racist workings of the system are rendered invisible

As shown through the arguments above, race is not a biological, genetic or “natural” category but a social construct. However, it should be noted that deeming race a “social construct” does not mean race is not real. Race and racism still has very real social impacts in people’s lives. Especially in a society with increasing affinity for racial genetic testing and discovering the “race” gene, we must be more critically aware of how the rhetoric of biological race serves to further the social impacts of racism.

[1] Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention, (New York: The  New Press, 2012), 13.

[2] Steven Riley, “US Census Race Categories, 1790-2010,”Mixed Race Studies (blog), 2009,

[3] Howard Zinn, “Drawing the Color Line,” A People’s History of the United States, pg. 16.

[4] “Race in a Genetic World.” Harvard Magazine, May 2008. (accessed February 20, 2014).


The White Defense Mechanism

I have recently been researching online for some resources to put together a White Privilege workshop, possibly next year. During my research, I have found some interesting pieces of advice + forecast in talking about issues of privilege with white people. Here is me relaying my new-found wisdom to you, in hopes of making the privilege talks more effective.


The White Defense Mechanism
In discussions of privilege with whites (or people with other aspects of privilege), you will get push back. I had been learning, reading, and talking to other people of color about issues surrounding racism and racial consciousness since the beginning of my college career. I felt that I was now ready to take that first step out of our “safe space,” into the rest of the world, and continue the discussions of race + privilege.

What I did not realize was that the level of discussion I had been having with my friends of color was not representative of the talks I would be having with my white friends. In the community of color, certain ideas or thoughts had been taken for granted — we all saw that racism existed, we all knew that racism hindered social mobility, we all knew that racism was not something that could be blamed on one single individual but rather a society’s ideas or its structure. In my talks with whites, I found that the foundation had to be laid. But when my friend began to argue, “No, race isn’t an issue anymore. Only socioeconomic status is.” I didn’t know how to counter that argument. I hadn’t been taught how to tell someone that racism existed. I had always just known.

Here are some other responses that I have heard in my encounters with white friends + possible ways to turn them around into productive discussion stepping stones:

Barak Obama-United States-Politics1. Counterexamples
This was the first response I got from my white friend that threw me for a loop: “Racism doesn’t exist.” When I argued otherwise, he started to give “counterexamples” about why race was no longer a deciding factor in our society: Martin Luther King’s Day, “look how far black people have come,” a black president (a favorite fallback of many).

Advice: Do not waver in your statement. For some, they need concrete numbers, mind-jarring statistics logically laid down arguments, or personal narratives to wrench their hearts. Have all of them ready, and do what you can to present your argument in multiple different ways. Also remind that sometimes one has to believe it in order to see it.

2. Invalidating POC’s experiencesAnother obstacle that one may encounter in the discussion is the denial or rejection of the POC personal narrative. In trying to convince one of my friends that racism did indeed exist, I told him the story of how people would always ask where I was “really” from, throw random words of Chinese to me (I am not Chinese), or tell me that I speak English well for an Asian. He argued that I cannot draw broad generalizations from my personal experiences, that I was being oversensitive, or flat out that my experiences didn’t mean anything.

Advice: His invalidation cut in deep for me, especially having grown up continuously being silenced as an Asian American woman. Try not to take these responses personally. For most, the white friends response reflects more on them (and their levels of racial consciousness) than your own persuasive abilities. If it feels safe, point out that their denial and invalidation is another display of privilege. These initial barriers need to be overcome in order to even enter the actual conversation on race.


3. Good Intentions, Bad Actions
Modern racism and microaggressions often arise from good intentions. Having grown up in the lily-white rural/suburban areas of Minnesota, I can assure you that white folk have the best intentions. When they want me to say cool things in Korean or ask me why Korean people eat dogs (insinuating that Korea is both exotic and barbaric), I try to understand that they’re just curious. But it doesn’t mean that I just take it. In your arguments, you may receive the response that something isn’t racism because “they meant well.” Sigh.

Advice: From the beginning, make a distinction between intentions + actions. Many of our Minority Peer Counselor workshops have ground rules, one of which is “Trust Intent, but Name Impact.” Because in racism, intentions of an individual does not matter because racism isn’t a prejudiced actions of an individual — it’s a structural system. Acknowledge that intentions are important, but also make sure to let them know that there may be impacts of those actions that they may not have been previously aware of. Even when they don’t mean it, their words and actions can have meaning. Remind them of that.

Once you’ve reached the next level of discussion (“post-acceptance of racism”), there may be some other defense mechanisms that may kick in. Check out The White Defense Mechanism pt. 2. (coming soon!)