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.

Flashback Friday.

In his book, Authentic New Orleans, sociologist Kevin Fox Gotham explains that originally, and as late as the late 1800s, the term meant “indigenous to Louisiana.”  It was a geographic label and no more.

But, during the early 1900s, the city of New Orleans racialized the term. White city elites, in search of white travel dollars, needed to convince tourists that New Orleans was a safe and proper destination. In other words, white. Creole, then, was re-cast as a white identity and mixed-race and black people were excluded from inclusion in the category.

Today most people think of creole people as mixed race, but that is actually a rather recent development. The push to re-define the term to be more inclusive of non-whites began in the 1960s, but didn’t really take hold until the 1990s.  Today, still racialized, the term now capitalizes on the romantic notions of multiculturalism that pervade New Orleans tourism advertising, like in this poster from 2011:


Like all other racial and ethnic designations, creole is an empty signifier, ready to be filled up with whatever ideas are useful at the time. In fact, the term continues to be contested. For example, this website claims that it carries cultural and not racial meaning:


This book seems to define creole as free people of color (and their descendants) in Louisiana:


Whereas this food website identifies creole as a mix of French, Spanish, African, Native American, Chinese, Russian, German, and Italian:


In short, “creole” has gone through three different iterations in its short history in the U.S., illustrating both the social construction of race and the way those constructions respond to political and economic expediency.


Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans

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

Flashback Friday.

This remarkable newspaper article illustrates how skin color (which is real) gets translated into categorical racial categories (which are not).  The children in the images below — Kian and Remee Hodgson — are fraternal twins born to two bi-racial parents:


The story attempts to explain the biology:

Skin colour is believed to be determined by up to seven different genes working together. If a woman is of mixed race, her eggs will usually contain a mixture of genes coding for both black and white skin. Similarly, a man of mixed race will have a variety of different genes in his sperm. When these eggs and sperm come together, they will create a baby of mixed race.  But, very occasionally, the egg or sperm might contain genes coding for one skin colour. If both the egg and sperm contain all white genes, the baby will be white. And if both contain just the versions necessary for black skin, the baby will be black.

Fair enough.

But then the journalist makes a logical leap from biological determinants of skin color to racial categories. Referring now to genes for skin color as “black” and “white” genes, she writes: “Baby Kian must have inherited the black genes from both sides of the family, whilst Remee inherited the white ones.”  And, of course, while both children are, technically, mixed race*, the headline to the story, “Black and White Twins,” presents them as separate races.

We’re so committed to racial differences that the mother actually speaks about their similarities as if it is surprising that twins of different “races” could possibly have anything in common.  She says:

There are some similarities between them. They both love apples and grapes, and their favourite television programme is Teletubbies.”

This is also a nice example of a U.S.-specific racial logic. This might not have been a story in Brazil at all, where racial categories are determined more by color alone and less by who your parents are.  It is not uncommon there to have siblings of various racial designations.

The twins, by the way, are seven now.

* Of course, identifying them as mixed race also re-inscribes racial categories in that you must believe in two or more racial categories to believe that it is possible to mix them.

Originally posted in 2008.

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

In the U.S., we tend to organize politically according to identities.  For example, we have a Gay Liberation Movement, a Women’s Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, to name three big ones.  All of these are personal characteristics made political.

The cartoon below, by Miriam Dobson, does a great job of showing one of the downsides of fighting for progressive social change in this way.  For one, it can make people who carry multiple marginalized identities (for example, gay black men) feel unwelcome. And, two, it makes it seem like people without the identity can’t be part of the movement.

One solution is to think about oppressions in terms of intersectionality: we are all a mix of identities that resonate with each other in complicated ways.  This is a rich idea, but one lesson that it has taught us is that the strategy of divide-and-conquer has been an effective way to keep multiple groups marginalized.

Instead of emphasizing identities, we could identify issues. And if our issue is oppression, we can join-to-resist.  As the graphic explains: “oppression of one affects us all.”


Via Sociology SourceAnother Angry Woman, and The Sociological Imagination.

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

Here is something quite simple, sent along by Judy B.  It’s a screenshot of Gimp, an open source image editing application.  An optional plug-in, created by a user, offers a series of filters for images, including ones that “beautify.”  One of the options is “skin whitening.”


This is one more reminder that we live in a racist society that conflates whiteness with beauty.  Remember, too, though, that someone — very possibly a set of people — had to make a conscious decision to include skin whitening as an option and position it as a sub-category of beautification.  Then they had to, literally, type the words into the program and make it so.

This shit doesn’t just happen.  It’s not random.  Racism isn’t just an ephemeral cultural thing.  It involves actual decisions made by real people who, if not motivated by racism, are complicit with it.

Cross-posted at Racialicious.

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

Pew Research Center reports that, as of 2010, women make up about 15% of enlisted soldiers and commissioned officers:

Not all types of women are entering the military at the same rate.  Nearly a third of women in the military are Black, about twice their proportion in the general population.  In contrast, about half are white, about 2/3rds their proportion among civilian women.

A larger proportion of women, compared to men, said that they joined the military because it was difficult to find a good civilian job:

They were just as likely as men, however, to report other more common reasons for joining:

Interestingly, women reported high levels of strain re-entering the civilian population and the majority believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not worth fighting:

Nevertheless, a large majority felt that entering the military was good for their personal growth and career opportunities:

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

Last week, the Census Bureau announced that as of July 1, 2011, for the first time the majority (50.4%) of babies under age 1 in the U.S. were not non-Hispanic Whites. Animal New York posted a video by Jay Smooth discussing the reactions to and implications of this news:

You can see the NYT article Jay Smooth parodies here, but note that the graph is mislabeled. The line labeled “White” actually only represents the data for non-Hispanic Whites, while the line labeled “Non-White” includes births to White Hispanics, so the terminology they used doesn’t accurately reflect what the graph illustrates.