Racial Formation, Social Construction, and You

Any discussion about race inevitably gets emotional and often heated, given how loaded a term “race” has become. But I think that this is a very bad thing, even when the anger is directed against racism. Race may indeed be socially constructed – in fact, it is by definition – but that does not make it a bad thing… necessarily.

Race, unfortunately, has been used to separate people for probably all of human history. While it wasn’t always bad, I think it’s safe to say it usually was. From slavery to segregation to antisemitism, race has put dangerous and often violent lines between people for a long time. But some people take great pride in their race, seeing it as an extension of who they are, as where they came from usually shapes their entire culture.

Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa) immediately brings up an interesting point in the second chapter of his “Interesting Narrative.” He mentions having slaves (or more accurately, his family had slaves), and he doesn’t take time pointing out race. It isn’t until white people show up in his narrative that race becomes a part of his story, and yet slavery – something we so often associate with racism – was present in his story before race became an issue. While I can’t say that Equiano would agree, it seems to me personally, after reading this Narrative, that race (socially constructed or otherwise) is not to blame for slavery’s prevalence, even in the New World.

If racism truly were the reason that white people enslaved so many africans, slavery surely wouldn’t exist in regions inhabited by only one race. This, of course, is not the case, both in Equiano’s own experience and in many, many other areas of the world.

Slavery existed in areas without even two different races, which brings me to my next point: race is, by definition, socially constructed. It is simply a way to group large populations of people together in order to more easily define them. This means that anything can be a definer of race, from skin color to spoken language to religion to hair color. Omi and Winant challenge this idea slightly while still largely supporting it. They claim race is not completely illusionary, but that it is still a product of society.

Omi and Wanant say at one point, “But a deeper difficulty, we believe, is inherent in the very formulation of this schema, in its way of posing race as a problem, a misconception left over from the past, and suitable now only for the dustbin of history,” which is the most significant argument in the entire work in my opinion.

I find myself agreeing very much with Omi and Wanant here. While race certainly can be a bad thing (when it is used to stereotype someone), it can also be used by people to help find their own identities. For example, I identify quite strongly with my Italian roots. I find this association with a race to be helpful as a way of figuring out who I am, regardless of any stereotypes that may follow.

Granted, not many people these days can even name many Italian stereotypes (one of them is that all Italians are greasy, creepy perverts [see: Sylvio Berlusconi]), but even more minor groups that I associate myself have negative stereotypes these days. As an atheist, many people (usually in the South) constantly assume that I am an amoral, violent, evil, hell-bound sinner without remorse or compassion. This is clearly a socially constructed stereotype, as statistically, atheists are actually far less likely to be violent criminals than members of most religions. Religion’s powerful grip on society causes these kinds of opinion to be spread around without any evidence – very much in the same way racist views are constructed. But it’s not always bad: being hated by someone you disagree with means you’re living the way you want to, and no socially constructed bigotry should be able to take that away.


One thought on “Racial Formation, Social Construction, and You

  1. Tom,

    Yes, it’s a consensus of historians that “racism” did not precede slavery. Rather, generations of slavery demanded a theorization of racial difference that provided a post-hoc justification. Technically, this post shouldn’t pass because you forgot to quote Equiano, but I’ll let it slide this time…

    Grade: S.


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