Tag Archives: race/ethnicity: Multiracial

The Census and the Social Construction of 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):

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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)
And slaves

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:

White
Black
Mulatto
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:

White
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”)
Indian
Chinese
Japanese

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.

For more on the social construction of race, start with this simple lesson, then see these great posts: black and white twins! wha’!?, Obama looks just like his white grandfather, judging racial phenotypes in China, and figuring out “Creole”.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

What is Creole?

creoleThe Original Creole Orchestra.

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.

In his book, Authentic New Orleans: Tourism, Culture, and Race in the Big Easy, 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.  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

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… to this portion of an essay from another travel website:

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The term continues to be contested. For example, this website claims that it carries cultural and not racial meaning):

Capture4

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

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

Capture3

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.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How and Why People of Color are Included in Advertising: 7th in a Series

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:

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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!

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Next up: Subordination.

Also in this series:
(1) Including people of color so as to associate the product with the racial stereotype.
(2) Including people of color to invoke (literally) the idea of “color” or “flavor.”
(3) To suggest ideas like “hipness,” “modernity,” and “progress.”
(4) To trigger the idea of human diversity.
(5) To suggest that the company cares about diversity.

How are they included?
(6) They are “white-washed.”

Race/Ethnicity, Assimilation, and Asian American Marriages

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.

Special 2008 Presidential Election Round-Up!

In honor of the election, we offer you a summary of all our election 2008 posts.

This election has certainly brought racial tensions front and center. We highlighted two racist caricatures of Obama: on a waffles box and as a cannibal. We also discussed the cover of The New Yorker on which Barack and Michelle Obama were caricatured as terrorists. Whether or not this was racist was widely discussed and offered an interesting opportunity to ask “Who decides what we talk about?” In response to the argument that we were being too sensitive about the caricatures, we offered some evidence that caricatures of black people do not need to be racist.

Anti-Obama propaganda also included comparison with OJ Simpson, a monkey, celebrities, Osama Bin Laden, fascists and communists, a terrorist, a terrorist again, and a “half-breed Muslin.” See here for other racist anti-Obama propaganda.  Gwen asked “So what if Obama is an Arab?” (Note, too, this satirical T-shirt.)

We saw racialization–or the active production of racial meaning–in the fist bump controversy, in calling Michelle Obama a “baby mama,” and in asserting the whiteness of the White House. We discussed the resemblance between Obama and his Grandfather and the meaning of “Main Street” to illustrate the social construction of race.  And we offered examples of white privilege: in one we discuss the option of white ethnics to emphasize their ethnicity; in two we discuss a cartoonist who calls Colin Powell a race traitor for endorsing Obama and a Howard Stern clip that suggests that Blacks only endorse Obama because he’s Black.  We also remark on how easy it is to deride social theories of inequality.

The McCain/Palin ticket was no stranger to derision.  See also our post in which the McCain/Palin ticket is said to be favored by Nazis, another in which Palin effigy is lynched, and a third that discusses ageism in the election.

We’ve also seen plenty of sexism in this campaign. Hillary Clinton has been represented as a nut buster, asked to “iron my shirt,” critiqued for crying, and called a “bitch.” There are more examples here and here.  Also see this montage of sexism among political pundits. Both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were sexualized. See here, here, and here for Clinton and here, here, here, here, and here for Palin. (By the way, Barack Obama was sexualized as well, see here, here, and here.)

We commented, more sociologically, on the gender politics of this election. We discussed the mothering of baby Trig, conservative feminism, the politics of pink, and took a humorous look at the women’s vote with Sarah Haskins.

We also pointed to the way in which Obama and Clinton attempted to appeal to small town people and the ease with which we make fun of them.

For the intersection of race and gender, see our post in which Michelle Obama is called an angry black woman, is said to need to “soften” to be a First Lady, and our post that features the Bros Before Hos T-shirt (scroll to the bottom). For the intersection of race and class, see our post on Obama’s negotiation of the “elitist” label.  And, in making intersectionality invisible, see the SNL skit, “bitch is the new black.”

Looking more broadly at politics and media coverage, we discussed the portrayal of evil in the Reverend Wright scandal, McCain’s trivialization of war, the linking of a Democratic adminstration with a terrorist attack, pundit hypocrisy, political networks, a voter registration campaign that uses bondage imagery, suspiciously delicious polling techniqueshow cell phones shape polling findings, and trends in media coverage of Obama versus Clinton and Obama versus McCain.

In addition, we offered some examples of punditry from alternative media: on young voters, a call for alliance from the labor movement, a call to get your Jewish grandparents to vote for Obama, a political revival of the Budweiser Wassap video, and two examples of art inspired by the election (here and here).

We also put up posts of figures representing public opinion on blacks, a woman president, and politician parents.  And we offered images illustrating how the world would vote.

Finally, our favorite: “We’re not sociologists, we’re Americans!”

What Does “Black” and “White” Look Like Anyway?: Obama and his Grandpa

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:

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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.

See also our Pinterest pages: what color is flesh? and the social construction of race.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

How and Why People of Color are Included in Advertising: 5th in a Series

Why are people of color included in advertising aimed at mostly white people?

1.   To associate the product with a racial stereotype.
2.  To give a product “color” or “flavor.”
3.  To invoke ideas of “hipness,” “modernity,” “progressive” politics and other related ideas.
4.  To trigger the idea of human variation itself.

And, 5., as these ads show, to make you think that the company cares about diversity and racial/ethnic equality (whether they do or not).

(found here)

Text: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”  (found here)

Next up:  How people of color are included, starting with “white-washing.”

 

Stigmatizing Obama

Tony S. brought my attention to this yard sign about Obama that has become quite famous (found at BlackPoliticsontheWeb):

A Florida man put it up in his yard, and it has, not surprisingly, led to some complaints and a lot of online discussion.

Obviously this is fascinating for a discussion of how Obama’s race continues to be emphasized by some opponents, despite the chorus of media voices saying that we’re a “post-racial” nation now. This is a bit of a new twist, in that most examples of opponents referring to Obama’s race have tended to focus exclusively on his Black ancestry. Here he’s referred to as a “half-breed.” Whereas highlighting his Blackness brings up one set of stereotypes that might seem threatening to White voters, “half-breed” brings up a whole other issue that might make some voters uncomfortable–racial mixing. There’s also the association with Islam.

Aside from the specific reference to Obama, there’s an interesting linguistic element here. Why would calling someone a half-breed Musli[m] be automatically recognizable as a slur? It says something about how Muslims are currently viewed in our society that, for at least some Americans, all you have to do is refer to someone as a Muslim to imply that they are unworthy of office. Similarly, the word half-breed is stigmatizing in a way that, say, “multiracial” isn’t. Imagine a similar sign that said, say, “Obama: Multiracial Lutheran.” Doesn’t have quite the same effect, because being multiracial and Lutheran aren’t stigmatized the way half-breed and Muslim are. It might also be good for a discussion of how groups might adopt new terms (such as multiracial) to try to counter the negative associations of others, like half-breed.

However, the other thing I found interesting about this was how every account I could find of this sign online mentioned that he misspelled Muslim as “Muslin.” I’m a stickler for language and misspellings actually give me pain in any kind of formal writing, but I was struck by the fact that many of the comments about the sign focused not on the offensive racial element, but on the misspelling. It seems many people dismiss this guy as a nutjob not because he’s trying to draw on the old knee-jerk fear of racial mixing, but because he misspelled something on his handmade sign. That’s…well, weird.

Thanks, Tony!

NEW!  In our comments, Zach also pointed us to this picture he took in Ohio:

ALSO NEW!  Velanie W. sent in this clip from Al Jazeera English where people associated Obama with Islam and terrorism:

Thanks, Velanie!