What do we mean when we say race is a social construct? -- moved from /r/srsdiscussion (self.socialjustice101)

21 ups - 4 downs = 17 votes

The title says it all.

53 comments submitted at 13:38:53 on Sep 24, 2013 by gamer_garl

  • [-]
  • forwardmarsh
  • 19 Points
  • 14:21:25, 24 September

It means that racial identity is social rather than biological. The one-drop rule is a notable example of how social conceptions of race are far more important in its construction than biology. Similarly, how Jewish or Irish people have sometimes been excluded from the umbrella of "White", even though a large amount of them would today be considered white.

An interesting example of how race is socially constructed today can be found in accounts of people's experiences with "passing privilege", where they identify as one race but are often read as another. I wish I could give you some definitive examples, but all I've found after a quick Google are a couple of columns that illustrate the issue well enough, here and here.

  • [-]
  • Nemester
  • 3 Points
  • 16:13:14, 24 September

So I understand what you mean about the one drop rule.

Is there another word other than "race" you would use to describe biological differences between race or ethnicity? Or do those difference just not exist?

  • [-]
  • TheFunDontStop
  • 5 Points
  • 16:29:55, 24 September

there are some physical differences between people that are usually cited for differences between races (like skin color, obviously), but where to draw the line between one "race" and another is completely arbitrary and is a social distinction.

the analogy i like to use is color. color, is a real, physical phenomenon: electromagnetic radiation perceived by our eyes and brains. however, colors are a social construct, because there's nothing about color that tells us where one stops and the other ends. our categories for "red", "blue", "yellow", etc are not physical things, they are socially constructed. different cultures can and do have different categorizations of color.

so yes, there are physical differences between people. but the categorization and grouping of those differences into discrete "races" is a social phenomenon.

  • [-]
  • Nemester
  • 2 Points
  • 16:40:16, 24 September

I'm confused. How do you socially construct a color? Are you saying that my green could be different from someone else's green?

  • [-]
  • IRunInLoops
  • 5 Points
  • 16:47:57, 24 September

I think they're saying that it's a continuous landscape of color, and where we happen to draw the lines, is a matter of accident and historical inertia.

  • [-]
  • TheFunDontStop
  • 3 Points
  • 21:15:48, 24 September

yup, others have answered well. one important point that i forgot in my explanation is that color is continuous, not discrete. in other words, there aren't necessarily obvious division points between colors. where we draw the line between "red" and "orange", or the fact that we consider them different colors at all, is a person-level (aka social) distinction, rather than an inherent, physical one.

and to address your question below:

> But you could still say light at 500 nm (blue, or whatever descriptive word) is objectively different from light at 560 nm (green, or whatever descriptive word) right?

it is objectively different, but so is light at 500 nm compared to light at 502 nm (or whatever the smallest threshold is that our eyes are capable of distinguishing). however, we'd still call both of those blue. why? because that's the tolerance level our culture has for distinguishing between different shades of colors. others might make finer or coarser distinctions. even individual people are probably more or less capable of telling apart different colors, depending on how much they deal with color in their lives.

this is all true for all sorts of continuous spectra. for example, pitch. if two people sing an a, one at 440 hz and another at 442 hz, the average person would think that it's the same note, while a highly trained musician would probably note that the second one was a little sharp. to carry our color (and race) analogy to sound, frequency is a real, continuous, physical phenomenon, but our division of frequency into discrete notes (c, c#, d, d#, etc) is a social construction.

  • [-]
  • Nemester
  • 3 Points
  • 16:42:10, 25 September

The social constructs that currently exist come from a time prior to when a modern understanding of frequency/wavelength was not mature. They were suitable based on the knowledge of the time, even if they were not as precise as is now known to be possible. Actually, they are still very suitable now for certain applications because it is simpler. (kind of like Newtonian mechanics is still very useful despite being wrong in certain conditions.)

With modern knowledge, all of the subjective language still around as a result of convention could be replaced by descriptions of sound and light based exclusively on wavelength and intensity, and both can be described quantitatively to very exacting precision. (IE, out to a number of decimal places with small error bars.) This is of course impractical, but possible and in scientific applications this is precisely what is done.

So I mean, this analogy breaks down on detailed analysis. I don't know much about race, but what if it breaks down in a similar way? Will a perfect understanding of human genomes result in a similar pattern of old imprecise language and objective, complicated scientific language?

  • [-]
  • nowander
  • 0 Points
  • 18:35:38, 25 September

Unlikely, because the human genome isn't on a singular scale. To grab three examples at random, nose size, eye shape and skin color aren't directly linked. This is fairly different from colors which act only on a single scale. At the level of detail needed for a precise inspection you're better off just calling them by their name.

  • [-]
  • Nemester
  • 2 Points
  • 19:08:47, 25 September

IDK, the genome is kind of like the wild west. It is hard to say what will eventually be discovered and understood.

  • [-]
  • nowander
  • 1 Points
  • 19:26:45, 25 September

While there are nearly limitless things we might discover, I stand confidently behind my position that we will never discover a one to one connection between skin color and height, much less skin color and social actions.

  • [-]
  • Nemester
  • 1 Points
  • 19:34:36, 25 September

Well, albinism is a one to one thing for skin color. 1 gene, 1 trait. That is a pretty exceptional case though.

More Comments - Not Stored
  • [-]
  • emma-_______
  • 3 Points
  • 17:05:41, 24 September

If you've ever seen a color spectrum, what you call green covers a section of it. That section is arbitrary, and a different section defined as a color would be just as arbitrary. In different cultures, different parts of that spectrum are grouped together. For example, something that's black with a slight red tint in it might be called red by one group and called black by another. In Russian, there's two words that cover what in English would just be called blue. You could divide up that spectrum in any way you wanted, it would be just as arbitrary as the colors in english.

  • [-]
  • Nemester
  • 3 Points
  • 17:44:53, 24 September

It seems like it is the line of discrete distinction you are calling arbitrary, and also the descriptive language. Which is true I think. But you could still say light at 500 nm (blue, or whatever descriptive word) is objectively different from light at 560 nm (green, or whatever descriptive word) right? So it seems like there are two parallel concepts here. One is very objective, and the other is very subjective but both are relevant in the right context.

  • [-]
  • OtakuOlga
  • 5 Points
  • 20:19:42, 24 September

To a Japanese person both 500 nm and 560 nm light are 青い, and splitting them up into two different colors seems just as silly as splitting up 500 nm light and 520 nm light.

Sure, they might not be 100% identical, but different cultures and people draw the "discrete" line of close enough to be called the same thing at different places.

The are probably more similarities between Leonard Nimoy and George Takei than there are between George Takei and Aasif Mandvi, but in the US Takei and Mandvi are both Asian while Nimoy is not.

Everyone is different, that's not the issue. The issue is when you try to classify people as "the same".

  • [-]
  • BlackHumor
  • 5 Points
  • 01:51:53, 25 September

(Technically speaking that is not true; "green" in Japanese is 緑, though historically speaking you are right that this is a relatively recent addition to the language and many green things have been "grandfathered in" as 青い.)

  • [-]
  • Nemester
  • 0 Points
  • 16:20:25, 25 September

This seems like a language problem mostly. The visible color confussion could theoretically be resolved by referring to all colors by their wavelengths. Or very specifically, by characterizing the light as the total number of wavelengths present and the amplitude (indirectly via intensity) of each said wavelength. Though impractical, it is quite possible to do away with all subjective ambiguity.

So a "color" could be described as have 500nm with 2 W/m^2, 521nm with 3W/m^2 and 600nm with .2W/m^2. This would result is some specific color (a kind of green considering how our eyes work). So, color is I think a perfectly objective part of nature which we humans have imperfect language for. However, our subjective language is a human flaw, and not a statement about the objective universe.

  • [-]
  • TheFunDontStop
  • 1 Points
  • 14:29:11, 26 September

> However, our subjective language is a human flaw, and not a statement about the objective universe.

this is exactly the point!

sorry for the bolding, it's just that you're so close to getting it. our colors are imprecise and subjective because they are social constructions. i'll repeat what i started out with: color, the electromagnetic spectrum, is a real, measurable physical phenomenon. colors, our division of the spectrum into discrete elements, are a social construction, i.e. made up by humans.

so to connect it back to race - there's a bunch of different physical attributes that go towards what we think of as someone's race: skin color, facial structure, accent, hair color/type, etc. so all of those individual attributes can be measured and analyzed in objective ways if we wanted, they're all physical truths about a given person. however, the conglomeration of those attributes into categories of "race" is a social construction.

  • [-]
  • Nemester
  • 3 Points
  • 15:08:41, 26 September

I don't know. I think the analogy is bad because if it is exactly analogous, then just as we discuss light imperfectly, that is irrelevant to 100% objective existence of light and our ability (should we choose to do so) to use completely objective and universal descriptions of it. If this is a perfect analogy for race, then in the same way there is a perfectly objective and universal way to describe human biological diversity genetically which "race" only very imperfectly describes.

More Comments - Not Stored
  • [-]
  • adversarial
  • 2 Points
  • 14:02:05, 26 September

> where to draw the line between one "race" and another is completely arbitrary and is a social distinction.

No, it's not. People of certain races pass on certain traits over the generations. That there's blurring at the edges confirms this, not disproves it.

  • [-]
  • TheFunDontStop
  • 1 Points
  • 14:22:05, 26 September

you just posted all over this thread, and looking at your posting history, it's pretty obvious that you're not coming here in good faith. but i'll humor you.

there's not blurring at the edges of racial categories, there's blurring everywhere. go back to the color spectrum analogy. the whole spectrum is smooth and continuous. sure, once you've gone a certain distance, most people would probably agree that you're at a new color. but ideas like "blue" are a social construct. sure, most people will agree for the most part on what counts as blue, but that's because we've been taught what "blue" is! if you were raised without that information from your culture, there's zero reason to believe that you would come up with the same color categories, as evidenced by the fact that different cultures around the world today split up the color spectrum differently. in classical terms, it's related to the sorites paradox: if you remove sand one grain at a time from a heap of sand, when does it stop being a heap?

all of this thinking can be pretty directly transferred to race. you see certain physical attributes as belonging to certain races because that's what your culture has taught you. it's a social construction.

  • [-]
  • forwardmarsh
  • 1 Points
  • 16:46:27, 24 September

I can't answer your questions, I'm afraid! I'm able to give a 101 level response, but I'm not well-read enough on the discussion to go any further. Certainly we might talk about someone being black as a racial identity versus Black as a political and social bloc. One thing I came across that certainly supports the biological differences is the intersection between healthcare and race, but I'm mainly linking it because it begins to touch on the questions you're asking with greater depth and ability than I can offer.

  • [-]
  • IRunInLoops
  • 5 Points
  • 16:23:15, 24 September

These are good points, but I think more exceptions than the rule.

For example, according to a 2005 study I picked off the Wikipedia page on race and genetics, which compared genetic markers to the subjects' opinion of their racial/ethnic group, "of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity".

What would you call these biologically semi-discrete groups, other than races?

  • [-]
  • keakealani
  • 5 Points
  • 17:48:09, 24 September

I'd be very interested to see any information on follow-up studies about "one-drop" and/or mixed race people. I think the color analogy is still fairly appropriate - in a color spectrum, there are certain colors that will be pretty universally agreed-upon as "blue", but there are a lot of colors around the edge that are much more subjective. In the same way, I think there are a lot of racial phenotypes that people will clearly identify with a given race, but there are a lot of subjective differences around the edges. While someone who identifies as White and can trace ethnic lineage pretty cleanly for six generations in Western Europe will not have an ambiguous race, someone else might identify as mixed Latin@ and have some ancestry from Europe as well as some from indigenous people in Latin America and other heritages, and that person might or might not be socially identified as White, but probably wouldn't have as clear a genotype that illustrates Whiteness or lack thereof. Does that makes sense?

In other words, I think it's relatively fair and rational to argue for discrete racial categories based on genotype only insofar as it erases and marginalizes mixed heritage people and does not take into consideration the social interpretations of many heritages outside of the ones represented by a certain categorization. Even in the Wikipedia article you linked, it mentioned East Asian racial identifiers, but not South Asian, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern/West Asian, central Asian, etc. groups which have different cultural and ethnic identities but are often not considered to be part of discrete racial categories based on whom you're talking to. Thus, I think genotyping arguments for race can be one piece of the puzzle, but they do not fully encapsulate the way race is approached socially in a multifaceted context.

  • [-]
  • forwardmarsh
  • 2 Points
  • 16:57:45, 24 September

You would call them races, absolutely. But what that race is, what it entails and how important it is to your identity, is the social construction part of it. My examples were trying to illustrate how when the social cues surrounding race are unclear, it reveals just how fundamental the social aspects of race are.

  • [-]
  • emma-_______
  • 0 Points
  • 17:43:59, 24 September

If you select a bunch of arbitrary genetic characteristics you can usually guess what race someone belongs to, but there's more genetic variation between individuals in general then there is between these races. Those specific genetic characteristics are chosen to try to form groups that correspond to the socially constructed races, but looking at a different set of genetic factors, or the entire genome in general, wouldn't give that same sort of result.

The very next section on that Wikipedia page says that it's not very useful to lump people into genetic races, since members of a given race are often more genetically similar to someone from another race than to people in their own race.

Try looking at this section of Wikipedia which explains how it's a social construct and has no genetic basis, and that there aren't any hard borders between races.