Flashback Friday.

Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethnicity are social constructions, not biological categories.  The US government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.”  You can find them on the Census (source):


These categories, however real they may seem, are actually the product of a long process. Over time, the official US racial categories have changed in response to politics, economics, conflict, and more. Here’s some highlights.

In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different than it does today:

Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
And slaves

By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was newly concerned with keeping track of two new kinds of people: “mulattos” (or people with both black and white ancestors) and Indians:

Indian (Native Americans)

Between 1850 and 1870 6.5 million Europeans had immigrated and 60,000 Chinese.  Chinese and Japanese were added for the 1880 Census.

By 1890, the U.S. government with obsessed with race-mixing.  The race question looked like this:

Black (3/4th or more “black blood”)
Mulatto (3/8th to 5/8th “black blood”)
Quadroons (1/4th “black blood”)
Octoroons (1/8th or any trace of “black blood”)

This year was the only year to include such fine-tuned mixed-race categories, however, because it turned out it wasn’t easy to figure out how to categorize people.

In the next 50 years, the government added and deleted racial categories. There were 10 in 1930 (including “Mexican” and “Hindu”) and 11 in 1940 (introducing “Hawaiian” and “Part Hawaiian”).  In 1970, they added the “origin of descent” question that we still see today.  So people are first asked whether they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” and then asked to choose a race.

You might immediately think, “But what do these words even mean?”  And you’d be right to ask.  “Spanish” refers to Spain; “Latino” refers to Latin America; and “Hispanic” is a totally made up word that was originally designed to mean “people who speak Spanish.”

Part of the reason we have the “Hispanic” ethnicity question is because Mexican Americans fought for it.  They thought it would be advantageous to be categorized as “white” and, so, they fought for an ethnicity category instead of a racial one.

Funny story:  The US once included “South American” as a category in the “origin of descent” question.  That year, over a million residents southern U.S. states, like Alabama and Mississippi checked that box.

2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race. They considered a couple other changes for that year, but decided against them. Native Hawaiians had been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the US government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government considered it for 2000, but decided “no.” And whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity was also discussed for that year. They decided to continue to instruct such individuals to choose “white.”

The changing categories in the Census show us that racial and ethnic categories are political categories. They are chosen by government officials who are responding not to biological realities, but to immigration, war, prejudice, and social movements.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

A new tumblr titled Every Word Spoken posted a quote from George Gerbner that goes like this:

Representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.

It’s the rallying cry for writer and performer Dylan Marron, who runs the tumblr. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a movie cut down to feature just the lines spoken by non-white people. He’s just getting started, but it looked to me like so far the longest clip is less than 1 minute long, most are around 30 seconds and this includes a few seconds at the beginning of each where they show the title.

In addition to showing us that people of color with speaking roles are almost non-existent — symbolically annihilated — the roles they play tell disturbing stories. Overwhelmingly, in the videos he’s picked so far, they are in service occupations (500 Days of Summer); literally maids (Enough Said); or with stereotypical accents (Wedding Crashers). And, oh hey movie people, making the only person of color with lines a doctor (The Fault in Our Stars; Black Swan) gets you no bonus points in my book. Nice try.

But THESE. These were the best ones…


Into the Woods:

This project is calling out the movie industry in a simple, powerful way. Just the facts, ma’am. Time for change.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Tanita S. sent along a link to an interesting observation made over at Whatever.  John Scalzi, preparing to make lunch, noticed that he had two bags of an identical food product, except one was named “tortillas” and one was named “wraps.”

John did some sleuthing and discovered that the bag of wraps cost 26¢ more than the tortillas.  Moreover, since there were only 6 wraps in the package of wraps, but 8 tortillas in the package of tortillas, each wrap cost 19¢ more than each tortilla.

So, there is an interesting marketing story here.   Mission has figured out that they can sell their product for a higher price if they name it “wraps” (or, at least, they think they can). Let’s crowd source this.  After all, Mission is counting on our collective network of ideas (and a failure to notice the count difference) to push us towards the wraps instead of the tortillas.  What does “wraps” make you think of?  What else is that word linked to that might make a person prefer it?  Would you feel different bringing home a package of wraps?  In other words, what ideas, lying just beneath the surface, are they tapping into with this marketing strategy?

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Way back in January, Dolores R. sent us a link to an illustration of how not to integrate social studies into the math curriculum, posted at SocialisTexan. Apparently some teachers in Gwinnett County, Georgia, thought it would be good to have some math word problems that connected to lessons from social studies, including racial history and slavery. One of them wrote some questions, which nine different 3rd-grade teachers approved; when the issue came to light, four had distributed them as part of a homework assignment. Parents complained upon seeing the questions, which many felt were inappropriate. For example, some questions asked students to calculate how much cotton or oranges slaves would pick, while another asked, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in 1 week?”:

The teacher who created the questions later resigned and apologized. From all appearances, he really was trying to think of some way to connect different aspects of the curriculum. However, this chosen method was…very poorly thought out. The homework questions are insensitive, seeming to trivialize the violence of slavery rather than reinforce history lessons about it in a useful manner.

So how might topics from social studies, math, and other areas of the curriculum be integrated in a useful way? Sylvia Glauster, a middle school math teacher at The Ancona School in Chicago, emailed us about one example that I think connects discussions of racial history to math in a much more constructive manner.

Sylvia said that she often uses Soc Images posts to spark discussion among students, and that some of her students became particularly interested in racist images, including those in a post Lisa wrote several months ago about the historical meanings behind images of African Americans with watermelons: “Initially, they were not sure why some of the pictures could be viewed as racist, and hypothesized that their friends might also miss the connections that the blog post explains.”

So they got busy and developed a study to investigate further. Two students — 5th-grader Morgan and 6th-grader Sara (whose parents gave permission for their names to be used here) — chose five images and surveyed a random sample of 34 other students to see how many found the images racist. The students explain:

We started out by making a survey chart and getting pictures that we thought were racist.  Next, we surveyed people anonymously.  With all our data that we collected we made pie charts [for African Americans, Whites, and Other race/ethnicities].

The students had two hypotheses:

Before we started the survey we thought that the African American people would have more yes’s because they might have had similar racial experiences.  Most of the pictures are targeted at African Americans. We also thought that the 7th and 8th graders would say yes [they are racist] to more of the pictures because they are older than the 5th and 6th graders [and have had more experience].

The overall results:

The students had a good introduction to the research process. While one of their hypotheses was upheld, the other wasn’t:

We found that the 7th and 8th graders said yes to more of the pics.  Our hypothesis was right.  But our hypothesis for the African Americans was wrong.  The Caucasians said yes to more of the pics.

Interestingly, Sylvia says that “students were least likely to find the caricature of Jafar [from Aladdin] racist, which my students think is probably because our culture is more aware of racism against African Americans.”

This, I think, is a more thoughtful cross-curricular activity. It doesn’t just shoehorn some references to slavery or racial history into a math problem in a superficial way. Students thought critically about the topic and the larger social and historical context, all while practicing important skills in math and statistical analysis.

I’m sure that guiding students through a project of this sort takes significantly more planning and effort than writing the word problems did. But that’s part of the point: if you want to help students understand our complicated racial/ethnic history, as well as how race operates in our society today, you can’t do it on the cheap. It takes careful thought and a lot of preparatory work by the instructor to create activities and materials that foster critical thinking in a sensitive, appropriate way. Kudos to Sylvia for providing a good example, and to Sara and Morgan for doing such a nice job on their project!

A couple of years ago I posted a segment from the PBS series Faces of America focusing on the legal efforts by Syrian immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s to be officially recognized as White (and thus eligible for naturalized citizenship). It nicely illustrates the social construction of race and ethnicity, and the way  power struggles are embedded in the categories we recognize and who is assigned to each one.

In Not Quite White: Arabs, Slavs, and the Contours of Contested Whiteness, directors Jamil Khoury and Stephen Combs integrated scenes from Khoury’s play WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole and interviews with scholars from the Arab American and Polish American communities to “reflect upon contested and probationary categories of whiteness and the use of anti-Black racism as a ‘whitening’ dye.”

Thanks to Katrin for the link!

Eleven readers sent in this wonderfully simple campaign to discourage people from dressing up like racial or ethnic caricatures for Halloween.  Or dressing their dogs up as such.

Kudos to the STARS students at Ohio University behind this campaign!  The costumes that they’re holding up, by the way, are real; we’ve featured several of them in previous years at SocImages.

Thanks to Norma M., Amias, Katrin, Dmitriy T.M., A.M.S., Joe F., Sarah D., Sara P., Molly, Patrick C., and Washburn University professor Sangyoub Park!  It’s exciting that so many readers sent this in and that the campaign got so much attention. It suggests that many people were hungry for a clear message against this phenomenon.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Race, sex, religion, color, national origin, age, disability, and veteran status are all what are called protected classes under federal law — characteristics that cannot be used as the basis for discrimination in hiring, housing, or other arenas. There are loopholes, however; one is that it is acceptable to discriminate based on a protected characteristic if you can show that it is “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ). So, for instance, if you can show that being female is a legitimate requirement for being able to perform a particular job, you can refuse to hire men. Hooters used the BFOQ argument when they were sued for sex discrimination because they would not hire men as servers.

The exceptions are race and color, which are not legally seen as ever being legitimate qualifications for doing a job. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website states, “Nor may race or color ever be a bona fide occupational qualification under Title VII.” That is, there is absolutely no good reason that being of one race or another would ever be a legal basis for hiring.

And yet, there’s still at least one arena where race is blatantly and openly used as a basis for hiring: Hollywood casting. Back in 2006, Russell Robinson, a faculty member at the UCLA School of Law, looked at the sex and race/ethnicity characteristics specified in “breakdowns” — the summaries of characteristics presented in casting announcements. As Robinson explains in the article “Casting and Caste-ing: Reconciling Artistic Freedom and Antidiscrimination Norms,” his sample certainly doesn’t include all roles in the process of being cast during that period. Roles aimed at big stars who don’t go through the typical audition process may never be released as a breakdown, since there’s no intent to recruit for the role. But

Robinson’s team looked at all breakdowns for feature films released between June 1 and August 31, 2006, excluding calls for extras and stunt people. As they reported in the research brief “Hollywood’s Race/Ethnicity and Gender-Based Casting: Prospects for a Title VII Lawsuit,” the vast majority of the breakdowns explicitly state the race of the character, with only 8.5% of roles open to any race/ethnicity:

Notice that African Americans and Latinos are particularly under-represented compared to their proportion of the total U.S. population. And while 22.5% of breakdowns specifically said the character should be White, almost half included language that designated the role as implicitly White — for instance, including only White actors in a list of prototypes for the role. In fact, interviews with casting directors indicate that roles are presumed to be White unless the breakdown specifically says otherwise.

Almost all breakdowns specified the sex of the character; 59% of the breakdowns specified the role was for a man, while 35% of roles were for women.

Robinson also analyzed the cast of 171 films released in 2005 that made at least $1 million. The majority of all roles were reserved for men. An overwhelming 73% of leads were men, and even supporting roles were predominantly for men:

Of the leads in those films, 81.9% were White non-Hispanic:

Robinson’s work shows that Hollywood still explicitly uses protected classes in hiring decisions, including race/color, which have been excluded from the BFOQ loophole. For more on this, see our posts on race and roles in recent trailerscasting Whites in Asian roles, Hollywood’s discomfort with Asian lead roles, gendered positioning in promotional posters, race and representation in Hollywood, the Smurfette Principle in movies, who goes to see movies, anyway?, Anita Sarkeesian on male-centric plots, and the lack ofra African Americans on Friends.

Thanks to Dolores R. for the tip about Robinson’s study, which she originally saw at Racialicious.

Cross-posted at North Atlantic Books Communities.

Edward Said famously argued that the West uses the East as an inverted mirror, imagining them to be everything the West is not.  In a book titled Orientalism, he showed us how this perceived binary separating the Semitic East and the Christian West has traditionally manifested itself in art through romanticized scenes of Eastern cultures presented as alien, exotic, and often dangerous.

European painters of the 19th century turned to backdrops of harems and baths to invoke an atmosphere of non-European hedonism and tantalizing intrigue. Ingre’s 1814 Grande Odalisque , for example, depicts a concubine languidly lounging about, lightly dusting herself with feathers as she peers over her shoulder at the viewer with absent eyes. The notions of hedonistic and indulgent sex are bolstered by hints to opium-induced pleasure offered by the pipe in the bottom right corner. Images like this prompted viewers to imagine the Middle East as a distant region of sex, inebriants, and exciting exotic experiences.

Orientalism continues to inflect popular culture, but because we see ourselves differently now, we see them differently as well.  The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the East, and the corollary Islamophobia of the West has shifted the focus to violence coupled with religious fervor. Take for example an image from a February New York Times article entitled “Afghan Official Says Women’s Shelters are Corrupt.”

The story is about the Afghan government’s desire to take over all Western-established shelters which they claim are “more concerned with the budget than the women.” It’s an article about bettering women’s support, community and safe havens, an act many Westerners would deem progressive in a way they wouldn’t usually view the region. However, the photo that was chosen for this article offers all the classic stereotypes held about the Middle East by depicting entirely veiled women who are shut indoors surrounded only by symbols of religion. The viewer sees two women, in both a hijab and niqab, separated onto two beds with looks of utter despondency; one looks down at her hands while the other stares off into the space ahead of her. In the center of the room is a young girl, blurred by the long exposure of the camera which attempted to capture her in the act of seemingly fervent prayer. Behind the praying young woman is an even younger girl sitting on a bed with a baby on her lap. Rather than depicting the officials who are rallying for female empowerment and institutional improvement, the photo that was chosen paints an image of silenced religious females.

Often imagery is more powerful and memorable than words and in some cases the photographs chosen to accompany the news are less than representational of the story at hand. This instance is typical of the Western media’s predilection for reinforcing Western notions about the East through imagery, instead of finding common ground between two regions that many believe are naturally separated by ideology. Thus orientalism lives on, transformed from its roots but maintaining its destructive stereotypes.


Adam Schwartz is an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley entering his final year in the Media Studies program. He is currently preparing to write his thesis analyzing the gender and racial implications of the American Apparel advertising campaigns. When he isn’t in school he can be found biking along the beautiful California coast or working for the Berkeley Student Cooperative.

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