The social construction of race is a sociological concept that holds that the category of race is defined in language and culture rather than objective or biological fact (Gergen, 2015).
It emphasizes that race is not a biological fact, but rather a socially constructed concept that is constructed differently across different societies and cultures, and that can change over time.
From this perspective, society is seen as the source of racial categories. To exemplify this model, scholars have shown how the racial category of “white” has change over time. Whereas once Italians were considered non-whites, they tend to be seen as white people today.
Critics, however, argue that the idea that identity categories like race are “socially constructed” lacks any basis in science and fails to acknowledge biological differences between racial groups.
How is Race a Social Construct?
A social construct is a category that is primarily defined socially. Often, we consider gender, social class, and beauty to be ideas that are constructed by society.
The simplest way to understand this idea is to compare current ideas about categories to past ideas about the same things.
For example, 150 years ago, the idea of ideal beauty was different to today. There was a time when plump women were seen as the epitome beautiful because it was a sign that they were wealthy and had good taste for cuisine!
We can then look at this idea for social categories that we tend to believe to be more biological, such as race and gender.
For example, the social idea of a woman as ‘property’ or incapable of leadership was once normal but is now entirely unacceptable. Here, gender as a social construct changed, and now our idea of what a woman is (and is not) has changed (Butler, 2004).
For race, we can look at the era of slavery in the USA. A mere 200 years ago, African-Americans were literally seen as unintelligent and property with the same status as animals. Clearly, the concept of an African-American in the public imagination today versus back then is completely different (Burr, 2015).
Here, we can see that the idea of an African American has been socially constructed, and this social construct has changed over time.
Racialization: From Skin Pigmentation to Moral Capacity
Many scholars argue that race is one of the most important social categories by which arbitrary social hierarchies are created.
The argument is that skin pigmentation, geographical location, and culture were used as key ways to classify people into racialized groups – black, white, etc.
This categorization is seen to be somewhat arbitrary because there are more differences between people within races than across races. Why were intelligence, height, skill, age, or body weight not used as categories for constructing hierarchies instead of skin color?
As Feldman et al. (2022) argue:
“Race is a recent human invention, a social construct designed to divide members of a society into a hierarchy of social, economic, and political advantage or disadvantage based on a set of randomly selected normal human variations in phenotype.”(Feldman et al., 2022)
This isn’t to say that there weren’t physical differences in ethnic groups throughout history, but rather than the idea of race as a key way to construct social hierarchies and prejudices is relatively new in human history.
History shows that choosing race as a key way to produce social heirarchies and prejudices has led to devastating damage to hundreds of millions of people. The effects of the racialization of society continues to this day.
Thus, scholars today attempt to explore how normal variations in phenotype were used to construct race categories that extended beyond just minor physical variations and arbitrarily superimposed ideas about intellect and morality onto social ideas about racial groups:
“The ideology of race became a means of maintaining a social system that stratified people based on physical appearance and assigned individuals from each racial group with inherent cognitive, emotional, physical, behavioral, and moral characteristics, which were ultimately adopted as societal beliefs.”(Morukian, 2022)
Interestingly, a lot of the research on the social construction of disability directly follows-on from this logic.
Note that there are arguments against this perspective, e.g. from medical scientists who explore the unique healthcare disparities across racial categories – see the criticisms section at the end of this piece.
Social Construction of Race Examples
- Racial stereotyping – The central way of exploring social construction of race is to examine the stereotypes that exist in the social imaginary. As stereotypes about racial categories change, the very definition of those categories change. As a result, the ways people interact with racial groups also change, which dramatically affects the lives those people can live.
- Italians as whites – Interesting historical research by Dewhurst (2008) has demonstrated how Italians were not seen as white people in early colonial Australia. As a result, they faced increased discrimination. Over time, as Italian-Australians assimilated and influx of darker-skinned migrants arrived, Italians slowly became included in the category of whiteness in Australian discourse.
- African Americans – Whereas in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, African Americans were considered in parts of the USA as the property of whites, lacking legal rights, and being seen as lesser humans. Over time, thankfully, African-American civil rights have been embraced as social construction of African Americans has changed significantly.
- Orientalism – Famous postcolonial scholar Edward Said wrote in Orientalism that Westerners socially construct people Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific in simplistic and stereotypical ways. They were seen as backward, simple, irrational, and exotic. Over time, as people have increased their understanding of other cultures, this paternalistic perspective has been tempered, leading to a change in the social construction of nonwhite people.
- Police encounters with black people – Most Western nations have reported disproportionately negative encounters between the police and people of color. Often, but not always, this is based on police stereotypes of black people as untrustworthy or criminal. Were people of color socially constructed in a more positive way in dominant discourse, these encounters may change over time.
- Racialized langauge – The way people are spoken about in media, movies, news, etc. affects how they are socially constructed. 150 years ago, the ways people of color were talked about were horrific by today’s standards. That language helped construct in our social imaginary negative racial stereotypes that worked to construct people of color as a particular type of people.
How Race is Socially Constructed (Still!)
According to poststructural theorists, race is socially constructed whenever it is spoken about. It is through speaking about a race category – repeatedly by many people – that the category is defined and re-defined.
Key ways in which we speak about, and therefore construct, race, include:
- Language – The words we use, the phrases, and the metaphors employed in society all subtly send messages about what to expect of a racial group before you even encounter them.
- Historical Events – The social construction of race can be changed through important historical events. For example, the key events of the Civil Rights era, and the activism of African Americans and allies to change how being black is seen in America, caused a shift in American social understandings of people of color in America.
- Media – Media, including television, movies, and news, all affect how we think about racial groups. Continued negative stereotypes or negative depiction of people of color on media help to perpetuate prejudicial perceptions. Furthermore, the fact media narratives center the experiences of white people contines to caste whites as heroes and non-whites as irrelevant or dehumanized.
- Discourse – Discourse is a term to describe the social narratives that are repeated over and over again until they are seen as natural. Normative racialized discourse is repeated everywhere we look (see also: discourse analysis).
The way race is socially constructed changes upon two axes:
- Time – Across generations, definitions of racial groups change, and so too do our cross-racial interactions.
- Culture – Social constructs also change across cultures. Different cultures may perceive different racial groups in different ways (so, in this case, we can consider race to be culturally constructed)
Criticisms of the Social Construction of Race
1. Race is a Biological Reality
If we took a purely biological perspective on the issue of race, it becomes clear that there are clear biological differences between people that can be categorized under scientific categories of race.
Examples of biological differences include skin pigmentation, facial features, height, and susceptibility to certain diseases. These features are hereditary and biological fact (Burr, 2015).
As a result, many people – particularly in the hard sciences – contest the notion of social construction of race.
The primary argument against this criticism is that there are more biological differences within races than between races. No matter the race, humans share a significant majority of features, and race is but one way to categorize and dissect society. Despite this, societies have gotten very hung up on racial categories as a way to divide and discriminate (Smedley & Smedley,. 2005).
Furthermore, the biological categorization of race in medical science is not fixed, either. As science progresses and changes, so too do the definitions of the categories presented in scientific literature.
2. The Social Constructionist Perspective Detracts from Individual Experiences of Racialized People
Many racialized groups believe that their race is a fixed and essential feature of how they self-identify. For example, the unique experience of being Black in America is something many people choose to celebrate.
For these people, a claim that their race is socially constructed may detract from their experience of identity, much in the same way that claiming homosexuality is socially constructed might undermine an LGBTQI+ person’s claim that their sexuality is an inherent part of who they are (Smedley & Smedley,. 2005)..
Nevertheless, most scholars of social constructionism – whose research comes from a symbolic interactionist, postcolonialist, postmodernist, or poststructuralist perspective – tend to hold both that race is a social construct and that a person’s socially constructed race is a part of that person’s lived experience.
Therefore, they tend to examine how a person has been racialized (their race has been socially constructed, often against their will), and then go on to examine how those people relate to, embrace, subvert, and utilize this social construction as part of their identity (Here’ we’re going deep into postmodernism – for more, see my article on postmodernism here).
Why Study the Social Construction of Race?
If we were to proceed from the premise that race is socially constructed, several lines of academic inquiry are opened up that have important implications.
Most importantly, the knowledge that race is socially constructed opens up opportunities to explore ways to re-construct race in more socially equitable ways.
For example, scholars will often examine how race is constructed in movies and, seeing inequities, advocate for more inclusive representation. This advocacy has made headway in recent years with, as but one example, CBC reality shows committing to a 50% people of color cast for all future seasons.
The idea that race is socially constructed is based on the premise that the definitions of all social categories – including race, gender, and even disability – are socially and culturally mediated. Moving from this premise, scholars can explore how the way we define people can marginalize, normalize, include, or exclude people within society.
Nevertheless, the notion of social constructionism has received significant pushback in recent years, with people arguing that this perspective is undermining reality – i.e. that race is real and we can find objective definitions of racial categories that can last the test of time and, perhaps more importantly, help scientists and researchers focus on improving the health outcomes of people from disadvantaged racial groups.
Read Next: The Social Construction of Childhood
Burr, V. (2015). Social constructionism. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. Cambridge: Routledge.
Dewhirst, C. (2008). Collaborating on whiteness: representing Italians in early White Australia. Journal of Australian Studies, 32(1), 33-49. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/14443050801993800
Feldman, H. M., Blum, N. J., Elias, E. R., Jimenez, M., & Stancin, T. (2022). Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics E-Book. Elsevier Health Sciences.
Gergen, K. J. (2015). An invitation to social construction. An Invitation to Social Construction. London: Sage Publications.
Morukian, M. (2022). Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Trainers: Fostering DEI in the Workplace. American Society for Training and Development.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. London: Sage.Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2005). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American psychologist, 60(1), 16. doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0003-066X.60.1.16
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.