Different countries formalize different racial categories. Below are examples of the “race” questions on the Censuses of 9 different countries. They illustrate just how diverse ideas about race are and challenge the notion that there is one “correct” question or set of questions.
The categories in the drop down menu include:
The categories in the drop down menu include:
Black, African Am., or Negro
American Indian or Alaska Native
Guamanian or Chamorro
Other Pacific Islander
Some other race
Social and biological scientists agree that race and ethicity are social constructions, not biological categories. The U.S. government, nonetheless, has an official position on what categories are “real.” You can find them on the U.S. Census (source):
Alvaro V. asked us to talk a little bit about the Census. So, here are some highlights from the hour-long lecture I give in my Race and Ethnicity course.
In the year of the first Census, 1790, the race question looked very different:
Free white males
Free white females
All other free persons (included Native Americans who paid taxes and free blacks)
By 1870 slavery is illegal and the government was 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 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 race category (see Foley, “Becoming Hispanic”).
Funny story: The U.S. 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.
Three recent changes and proposed changes:
1. 2000 was the first year that respondents were allowed to choose more than one race (which, paradoxically, both undermines and reifies racial and ethnic categories).
2. Native Hawaiians have been agitating to be considered Native Americans in order to get access to the rights and resources that the U.S. government has promised Native Americans on the mainland. The government thus far has said “no.”
3. Whether or not Arab American should be considered a unique race or an ethnicity is also being discussed. Currently, they are instructed to choose “white” “non-hispanic.”
The changing categories in the U.S. 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.
If we go by Wikipedia, the term refers to Louisiana-born people with a mixed racial background (including French, Black, and American Indian). New Orleans is a tourist draw, in part, because of a claim to authentic creole food, culture, and people. The Laura Plantation outside of New Orleans (discussed previously), for example, proudly claims itself to be a creole plantation.
But creole, like all other racial and ethnic designations, is a social construction.
But, during the early 1900s, the city of New Orleans racialized the term. In order to bring in more tourists, they needed to whiten the city. White city elites, in search of white travel dollars, needed to convince tourists that New Orleans was a safe and proper destination. Creole, then, was re-cast as a white identity and mixed-race and black people were excluded from inclusion in the category.
The current definition of creole as mixed race, that you may be familiar with today, 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: from the New Orleans Multicultural Tourism Network, to this image from a New Orleans travel website…
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., revealing that the term, like other racial and ethnic terms, is an empty signifier that can be defined and re-defined according to political and economic need. No doubt, the meaning of creole will continue to evolve.
For more posts on the social construction of race and ethnicity, see here, here, and here.
In this series I have offered five explanations of why people of color are included in advertising. Start with the first in the series and follow the links to the remaining four here.
I am now discussing how they are included. Already I have shown how people of color are whitewashed. Here I show that, when people of color are included, they are often chaperoned. That is, people of color are usually outnumbered by white people. Here are some examples:
NEW! This is a two-page ad for Kohls:
I speculate that, if there are more white people than people of color in an advertisement, the inclusion of a non-white person does not threaten the status quo (that whiteness is mainstream and normative) and the product is still clearly marked as mainstream and normative (i.e, white).
NEW (Mar. ’10)!Caitlan V.d.W. sent in a link to Fergy’s friends paper dolls. Notice that Fergy has 3 white friends and one black friend. Anti-racist and also safe!
I just discovered the entirely excellent website Asian Nation, run by C.N. Le and full of great information about the Asian American community. Here are some tables showing what percent of various Asian American groups are married to spouses of the same or other groups, updated as of October 2007 using Census data (an explanation of the three columns follows):
Ok, now to explain the three columns of numbers. The first one presents data for all marriages that include at least one Asian American spouse–this will include large numbers of immigrants who were married before they moved to the U.S. The second column includes only those marriages where at least one spouse was raised in the U.S., defined as either born here or moved here by age 13. The third column includes only those marriages where both spouses were raised in the U.S. According to Le, this group represents less than 25% of all marriages including an Asian partner, but “…has the advantage of including only those who were raised and socialized within American society and its racial dynamics. It is this U.S.-raised population that best represents young Asian Americans, since they are the ones who have the most exposure to prevailing American cultural images and media.”
Not surprisingly, endogamous (in-group) marriage rates drop off significantly among U.S.-raised Asian Americans. There are other interesting gender patterns as well. Notice, for instance, that Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Filipina women are quite a bit more likely to be married to a White partner (the most common out-group spouses) than are men, and for the remaining groups, women are slightly more likely to be married to a White spouse. You might discuss the social and historical factors that might cause that pattern, and compare it to the trend in marriages with a Black and a White spouse, in which the gender pattern is usually reversed–Black men are more likely to be married to Whites than are Black women. It might also be worth noting that Korean and Filipina women are significantly less likely to marry endogamously than the other Asian American ethnic groups.
Below are two photos — one of Barack Obama as an adult and one of a young Obama and his Grandfather, Stanley Dunham (found here and here). I tried a little experiment in class. I put up the photo of adult Obama and I had my students make a list of what characteristics made him identifiably Black, in their view. Every one of them put on their list his nose, lips, and hair, and several made comments about his ears or just that “the combination of all his facial features” was “clearly” Black.
Then I brought up the photo of young Obama and his grandfather alongside it:
It led to a really interesting discussion. Because my students think of Obama as Black, they saw all his features through that racial lens. It was obvious to them that he had “Black” facial features. After viewing the photos next to one another, they talked about how the two men look very similar, but their facial features seem “clearly” Black on one person and “clearly” White on the other because we’re used to believing that Blacks and Whites look very different. Because they believe in racial differences, they see them. This activity seemed to really help students grasp what I meant when I talked about the way we identify things as racial differences when they’re really variations that occur in many different groups that we swear are physically distinct from one another.
It’s interesting because I’d halfway expected my students to argue that Obama doesn’t “really” look Black at all — that they would say his skin color and hair, perhaps, were identifiable as African American, but that they would point out that he’s half-White and argue that in fact he doesn’t have stereotypically Black or White features. I mean, that would made sense, right? But I’ve tried this with three classes now, as well as several random individuals I’ve subjected to it to see if it might work as a class activity, and no one has yet failed to identify a number of the facial features Obama and Dunham share as specifically African-American features when they see them on Obama.
What a great example of racialization and the social construction of race.