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date: 25 July 2021

(p. 363) Social Construction and Racial Identities

Abstract and Keywords

Understanding black American social identity has suffered from association with the race idea. Being black American is not a racial designation. The tendency to reduce color-conscious social identity to racial classification is a mistake. Black American social identity gets its “blackness” from traceable African ancestry and is marked by the legacy of slavery. Yet being black American has become an elective identity: Americans with visible African ancestry no longer must count as black. But this hardly threatens black social identity and black solidarity, which continue to represent resistance to dishonor and mistreatment attaching to blackness in the United States.

Keywords: blackness, black solidarity, race, socioancestry, black social identity, social construction, racial identities, mixed race identity, MBW, mixed-race Americans, identity, identification, collective identity, racial norms, racial ontology, cosmopolitanism, identity politics, race, moral character, polylogism, Friedrich Nietzsche, effortful argon, Versuchen, self-knowledge, racialized experiments

The essays in Part III showed that in the contemporary biological sciences, there is no independent support for a taxonomy of human races. And, in considering racism in Part VI, it became evident that racism at this time is less a matter of thoughts and feelings in individuals and more the result of institutional structures and political practices in society. The absence of real biological races and the location of racism in the effects of institutions and politics imply that race and racism are practical and ideological, matters of what people do and of values that benefit some groups in society, rather than how people intrinsically are. In other words, race and racism are the result of historical events and power arrangements. Against that backdrop, it can be claimed that racial identities—what people are—are socially constructed.

In the early twenty-first-century, most social theorists and their readers have an intuitive understanding of the concept of social construction. But this does not mean it is easy to define apart from the kind of facile usage that says, “Of course racial identities are socially constructed!” After examination of such usage, we might consider “social construction” as a topic somewhat independent of race.

Speaking very roughly, the concept of social construction is in play with regard to race whenever beliefs about biological race are dissolved or beliefs about the psyches, character traits, and cultures of different races are shown to be false. That is, if racial divisions and different behavior based on perceived racial differences persist in the lack of a biological reality of race, then what is taken to be real about race must be the result of what has happened and continues to happen in society. Thus, insofar as the biological sciences have not supported (p. 364) ideas of human racial essences as determining the traits of this or that race, the essentialist biological idea of race is a social construction, belonging to past, and now revised, science. And, if members of a given minority “race” do not in reality have the vices or behavior ascribed to them by an oppressive majority race, then these traits and the identities resulting from them are social constructions in society. To say that an identity is socially constructed is to deny that it has the objective reality ascribed to it. Rather, that identity is the result of beliefs and practices in society or specialized segments of society and it may or may not have a factual foundation apart from those beliefs and practices.

John Searle, in The Construction of Social Reality (1995), offers an analysis that relates physical facts to mental facts, which explains social reality. One could account for ideas of race in society by making a distinction between human physicality as physical facts and mental facts such as attitudes and beliefs (and also patterns of behavior based on both the prior physical and mental facts) in the social world. Analyses based on that distinction could account for how the hard physical facts of health as associated with racial difference are in fact embodiments of mental facts (Gravlee 2009). Closer to the subject of race, in several, very famous, short articles, Ian Hacking introduced the idea that people are made up in the social sciences, as well as in lay society:

How does making up people take place? Long ago, “hip” and “square” became common names in white middle-class culture. By a parody of Nietzsche, two new kinds of people came into being, the hip and the square. As is the way of slang imported from another social class, both kinds had short shelf lives. But I am concerned with the human sciences, from sociology to medicine, and they are driven by several engines of discovery, which are thought of as having to do with finding out the facts, but they are also engines for making up people. The first seven engines in the following list are designed for discovery, ordered roughly according to the times at which they became effective. The eighth is an engine of practice, the ninth of administration, and the tenth is resistance to the knowers: 1. Count! 2. Quantify! 3. Create Norms! 4. Correlate! 5. Medicalise! 6. Biologise! 7. Geneticise! 8. Normalise! 9. Bureaucratise! 10. Reclaim our identity!

(Hacking 2006, 5)

Thus, Hacking refers to professional practices of focusing on a population and distinguishing it from other populations according to available scientific and political technologies. If one also considers the importance of naming, then examinations of how specific racial groups are socially reconstructed would be part of Hacking’s tenth “engine,” “Reclaim our identity!”

Finally, and very specifically relating to racial groups over US history, Michael Omi and Howard Winant have provided widely received accounts of how the main US social racial groups came into existence, where before their members were not regarded as races in important or problematic ways. They write: “To say that race is socially constructed is to say that it varies according to time and place” (Omi and Winant 2015, 13). The philosophical task, however, is not so much to relate how past constructions of race occurred, but to show how present and emerging constructions are not the natural or inevitable factually-based realities they are presented as being. The authors in this part examine contemporary racial identities along these lines.

In “Black American Social Identity and Its Blackness,” Lionel McPherson examines two assumptions about black identity: having traceable African ancestry is necessary to be black American and having a certain amount of black ancestry is sufficient to be black American. (p. 365) According to McPherson, black identity cannot be separated from having African ancestry, but this does not mean that everyone who has African ancestry is black. McPherson notes that there is no longer a legal compulsion to identify as black if one has traceable African ancestry, and that some individuals with traceable African ancestry may elect to identify as mixed race or Caribbean American. McPherson then returns to W. E. B. Du Bois, in opposition to K. Anthony Appiah’s critique of him (see Chike Jeffer’s “Du Bois, Appiah, and Outlaw on Racial Identity” in Part IV), to develop an insight about cultural and political solidarity for blacks generally, and black Americans in particular. McPherson accepts Du Bois’s contested notion of race, not as a form of essentialism or some enigmatic metaphysical spirituality, but as the “social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult.” For Du Bois, the social heritage of slavery “binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas.” McPherson interprets Du Bois to mean that the lived experience of being racially black in the United States is the basis of black American identity. And McPherson goes a step further, suggesting that black American identity is not so much racial in the sense of having African ancestry, but socioancestral. McPherson concludes:

Socioancestral groups are a function of color-conscious social dynamics that reflect facts about a particular component of the continental ancestry of a group’s members. These social dynamics are directly grounded in social reality, not in convictions about what races as such are. Black Americans can be more productively thought of as belonging to a larger black group—namely, a group comprising Africa-identified peoples.

Even though they change as social constructions, American racial identities have stability that can be related in historical, familial, and generational accounts of how they become constructed. In “How Mixed Race Is Not Constructed,” I argue that this is not the case for the category of mixed race, particularly mixed black and white race. One obvious reason is that not everyone in a mixed-race person’s family is of the same race. A variety of motives from self-interest, to lack of racial solidarity, to a sense of justice, could motivate choosing mixed-race identity. Passing for the race others think one is not and conforming or not to norms for racial identities raise ethical questions for members of mixed-race groups. Because these groups are the fastest growing racial category of US births, these questions of autonomy or freedom versus loyalty and constraint are not likely to blow over.

Ron Mallon, in “Racial Identity, Racial Ontology, and Racial Norms,” observes that there are widespread or common racial norms, which prescribe or proscribe behavior based on racial identities. Examples range from dressing or speaking in certain ways that are or are not expected given racial identities, to more important actions of solidarity. Mallon takes racial identities to be membership in, or designation as, racial kinds. However, the reality of such kinds is disputable, but even if they were real, it is not clear how racial identities could necessitate racial norms. From a liberal perspective, consent to obligations to other members of one’s group would be required before such obligations could be justly imposed or reciprocity demanded. A strong communal sense of racial identity could support such norms, but that kind of group cohesion is neither evident nor possible in American life, because it is not materially supported by the nature of group life. Before concluding with general skepticism about whether any racial norms can be justified, Mallon writes:

Note first that contemporary American races and ethnicities—African American, Asian American, Italian American, Jewish American, and so on—are not geographically local (p. 366) identities. They are rather big groups of diverse people distributed across the United States, and they have a range of different attitudes and alignments. It is thus implausible to regard all members as in a reciprocal cooperative community with one another. While there may be spatiotemporally local conditions in which race or ethnicity is coextensive with a cooperative community, this is not the typical case for American racial identities.

Jason D. Hill claims that it is not moral to hold a racial identity, boldly proclaiming at the outset of his essay, “The concept of race, simpliciter, is bad. The concomitant practice of holding a racial identity voluntarily and living one’s life as a raciated creature is a form of biological collectivism and racial subjectivism.” Hill presents strong or radical cosmopolitanism as a theory of the self, and a moral system based on rational principles. By contrast, to “hold a racial identity” involves self-deception and willed ignorance about both self and others. Seeing oneself and others in terms of the traits of racial groups is a process of “associating” individuals with groups in ways that obscure their real capabilities and characteristics. Moreover, holding a racial identity is misanthropic, because it precludes ethical interactions with other human beings on an egalitarian foundation. When racial identities are stripped of their racist values, the biological emptiness of race makes them “empty sets.”

Still, Hill does recognize a political and moral need for a self-view that can enable advocating and acting on behalf of those who have been treated unjustly or oppressed, based on racial or other disadvantaged identities. For ethical motivation and political and social values, Hill claims that cosmopolitanism does a much better job than any racial identity:

Not only is [“cosmopolitanism”] a wholesaler in the realm of the moral work it does on behalf of representing seemingly disparate groups of people who are unjustly treated, it is also a viable replacer for racial identities. Unlike holders of racial identities, the cosmopolitan is both the possessor of a distinct self with a unique moral psychology and the holder of an identity suffused with real attributes.

To cap a general consensus that actual moral experience is more important than fixed racial identities, based on understandings that these identities are socially constructed, this part ends with a somewhat pessimistic, but nonetheless strengthening, perspective. Jacquline Scott in “Effortful Agon” proposes a different way to think and feel about race than one optimistically based on the right identity or reassurance that everything will be alright. Scott quotes the poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Truth-tellers are not always palatable. There is a preference for candy bars” as a description of her own advocacy of unpalatable truths about race. Drawing on Nietzsche, who spoke of meaninglessness as a chronic existential disease, Scott suggests that we view racism as a permanent part of our social condition and instead of trying to cure it, “try to fortify our bodies/immune systems and minds/psyches, so that we can better flourish despite this disease.” The ultimate goal would be to “celebrate ourselves as individuals and communities and our power to struggle against seemingly impossible odds.” Scott’s project is to become Nietzschean philosophers or Versuchers—experimenters, tempters, and attempters: “We need to see the possibility of racialized discomfort as potentially being about growth, and not necessarily as a sign that something is wrong. It, therefore, requires courage.”

Gilroy, Paul. (2002). Against Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

(p. 367) Gravlee, Clarence C. (2009). “How Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139 (1): 47–57.Find this resource:

Hacking, Ian. (1999). “Making Up People.” The Science Studies Reader 18: 590. Accessed May 16, 2016. this resource:

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. (2006). Racial Formation in the United States. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Simon and Schuster. (p. 368) Find this resource: