This article describes the sociology of race and related concepts.*
There are four case studies in the coloured boxes, for those who want to dig deeper:
- Race in three nations (USA, South Africa and Australia)
- Does Reverse racism exist?
- Is transracialism real?
- How does race influence ethnicity?
The concept of race is ubiquitous yet tricky; people think race is obvious because, if you are visually abled, you can tell that people are different based on their skin colour and other physical signs. Yet there is much more than meets the eye. Sociologists describe race as a social construction. This means that race is not based on some innate and immutable scientific fact, but rather, that this concept describes the social meanings ascribed to racial categories. Race is a category that groups together people who share biological traits that a society believes to be socially significant (from genetics to phenotypic characteristics). It’s not that biological differences don’t exist that makes race a social construction, but rather that people’s understanding of these differences are shaped by the culture they live in. Who is counted as “Black” or “White” in South Africa is different from in Australia, as I show further below. The social construction of race is underpinned by an ideology that favours White and lighter-skinned people. Ideology is the cultural beliefs that serve the interests of dominant groups, which are used to maintain social stratification (a system of ranking categories of people into a hierarchy to justify inequality).
Race is distinct from ethnicity. While race describes categories of physical appearance, genetic biology plays a small or insignificant role in the formation of ethnic categories. Instead, ethnicity describes cultural groups whose bond is forged through social interaction and shared ideas of culture, including language, customs and institutions.
1.1 Social Construction of Race
The reason sociologists say race is a social construction is because what it means to be “White,” “Black,” “Latin,” “Asian,” and so on, is defined according to culture, time and place. The meanings of these categories have changed over time. What has not changed, is that racial groups are placed into a hierarchy, with White or lighter-skinned people at the top; non-Indigenous people of colour subjugated beneath lighter skinned people; Black and Indigenous people at the bottom of the racial system. (In Australia, Indigenous people are both Black and Indigenous.)
As an example of these shifting ideas about race, one of Australia’s first federal laws after federation is the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which is known as the White Australia Policy. This law was used to control immigration. White people from Britain were allowed entry, however, “non Whites,” such as people from Southern Europe and Asia, were turned away through the use of unfair language tests (some times given in languages other than English and their own language) and through scare campaigns. Small waves of people of colour were allowed entry in this early colonial period, such as Chinese migrants during the Gold Rush, but these groups endured strong discrimination, such as the “Yellow Peril” campaign in the 1890s. These racist narratives still inform xenophobia in the present-day, from politics to big-budget movies to the property boom.
In the 1950s, when Australia was short on working class labourers, Southern Europeans were allowed entry, and they were initially considered “not White.” Over time, however, laws were forced to change, so that by the mid-1970s, when this policy was formally abolished, Southern European migrants already had Australia-born children. Over time, most of them, such as Italians and Greeks, were eventually considered White but not Anglo (the ideal “White” Australian). So they are still subjected to racial prejudice as “wogs,” derogatory slang used on most non Anglo-Celtic migrants (but not usually Asian people, who are called by other racist phrases).
The social mechanisms by which certain groups are shifted into another racial category varies, but it’s always the outcome of political and social forces. For example, a middle-class, light-skinned Han-Chinese person belongs to the majority group in China and Taiwan. Present-day racial categories in China draw on early 19th century narratives which position minorities such as Tibetans or non-Han Chinese people (55 ethnic minority groups), migrants and people with darker skin in lower social positions. But if that Han-Chinese person moves to Australia, they will be classified as “Asian,” regardless of their ethnic identity (that is, their culture). Despite their lighter skin, they may be exposed to racism in Australia, but not in the same way in which racism affects Indigenous Australians. That Chinese person, irrespective of how they see their personal identity, will not likely be able to adopt a “White” identity, if their physical features are not “read” or recognised by other Australians as “White.”
The fact that lighter skin is revered in many countries is a facet of colonialism, which was used to expand the wealth of empires. As such, there is a close link between the social construction of race, patriarchy (the historical, ideological and material ways in which societies are structured to preserve men’s dominance), and capitalism (an economic system in which natural resources and the production of goods and services are privately controlled for profit of elite groups). The ideology of race spread over the centuries through art, literature, media and economic interests. A modern-day example of the link between race, patriarchy and capitalism is advertising; an enterprise that has invested heavily in racist constructions of beauty across the world.
For these reasons, race is an externally imposed social category. Unlike ethnicity, which describes both aspects of ancestry as well as culture and personal identification, race is ascribed by society. That is, we are all placed into racial groups whether or not we recognise this as a legitimate or meaningful label. This is because race rests on ideas of physical traits, and thus describes what people in power think we look like, with little regard for how we see ourselves.
Sociologists do not see racial categories as a “fixed” truth, because racial labels tell us nothing significant about the cause-and-effect of human behaviour and biology. For example, while science has attempted to show a relationship between race and intelligence, there is no valid and reliable evidence that shows Black and Latin people are less intelligent than White people because of their race. Instead, research shows that social inequalities that do persist are the outcome of structural disadvantage, as minority groups, especially in low socio-economic areas, receive fewer resources and opportunities to advance their education.
This is why, although race is a social construction (what it means to be Black, White or Asian is determined by culture), race has real consequences because racial categories were invented for the sole purpose of reinforcing inequality.
We move onto colonialism below. (Or jump up. ↑)
Racial categories have their origins in colonialism; the historical and political processes by which groups and nation states enrich themselves through economic and social control of other countries and sub-groups. Colonial forces used violence and ideology to legitimate the idea that White people were superior to other groups. Writing in 1903 in “The Souls of Black Folk,” Black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois showed that Black people have navigated a double consciousness as a result of colonial subjugation. This term describes how Black people carry dual notions of how they see themselves, while at the same time negotiating how they are seen through the lens of racial oppression. Other theorists such as by Professor Paul Gilroy have shown how racial domination and slavery were instrumental to the global spread of capitalism. At the same time, double consciousness has given rise to hybrid expressions of identity across the Black diaspora (a population displaced through political forces or natural disaster, unable to return to their original homeland for years or generations for fear of persecution or because they lack the material means to do so).
Both religion and science have been instrumental in establishing colonial domination. Various religious groups used religious arguments about the moral superiority of “technologically advanced” civilisations to legitimise slavery, murder, rape and dispossession of groups perceived to be “savages.” In nations now considered “Western societies,” Christian colonisers argued that indigenous groups and enslaved groups needed spiritual salvation (ignoring pre-existing religions they considered “primitive”). In Australia, Evangelical Christians were key enforcers and beneficiaries of colonialism, from the early 1900s to the late 1960s, and facilitated the enslavement, dispossession, removal and forced resettlement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into missions.
Science devised a more formal value system to classify physical traits (skin colour, “blood lines,” head shape, and more) to establish their claim over the land and resources of Indigenous groups and justify slavery. Racist biological theories by Charles Darwin and social Darwinism by Herbert Spencer were used to craft and legitimate racist social policies, with heavy philanthropic investment gaining ground in the early 1930s (see the Pioneer Fund in the USA). Sociologists have played a role along with every other scientific field. From Durkheim describing Aboriginal people as primitive in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, to British sociologist Francis Galton drawing on eugenics to justify sterilisation of poor people—sociolology has contributed to colonialism as any other science. While sociology has also invested in developing the theoretical tools to undo the harm of scientific racism, this colonial history is yet to be fully redressed in sociology and other fields.
As various nations colonised other lands, the idea of race spread, so that in the present-day, nations with a history of colonialism still continue to believe that race is a biological fact, rather than a shifting, ideological tool. Colonialism has spread distinct patterns of ideology (for example the denigration of Black and Indigenous people through the use of blackface or cultural appropriation) and in terms of socio-economic disparities (such as the race/gender pay gap).
1.2.1 Colonialism in Australia
In Australia, British colonisers killed and enslaved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, taking their land, raping and kidnapping women, and removing up to 100,000 children from their communities, forcing them to forget family, language, spirituality and Country (see the Stolen Generation). Scientific racism was heavily involved in normalising policies of eugenics that especially targeted Indigenous people and other stigmatised groups like the poor (which doubly impacted Indigenous people). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were considered “flora and fauna” and not counted as people until the 1967 Referendum. It’s only been 50 years since Indigenous people have been counted in the Census and laws were made to protect them; up to this recent time, Australia enforced racial segregation, forced labour and underpaid wages, and denied basic amenities like housing.
In 1992, Eddie Mabo won a legal case that overturned “terra nullius” (the edict that declared Australia was land belonging to no one). The win recognised for the first time that Murray Island belonged to Torres Strait Islanders. This opened the door to other Native Title claims, which legally acknowledge Indigenous Australians as traditional custodians of Country.
Colonialism continues to shape modern-day race relations in other ways. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody documented that Indigenous people are incarcerated at alarming rates. A quarter of a century later, we’ve gone backwards. Most of the recommendations have not been adopted, and incarceration rates have increased, mostly due to over-policing of petty crimes, especially unpaid fines, even leading to death. Indigenous children removed from their families at a rate higher than ever before, and 9.5 times higher than non-Indigenous children. Indigenous education and health remain a major problem that impacts on the social mobility of entire communities.
The legacy of colonialism maintains inequalities of race so diligently that society makes very little progress on basic human rights, as we see with the case of Ms Dhu—a young Aboriginal woman who died in custody due to police and medical neglect.
1.2.2 Colonialism in Latin America
Colonial dynamics play out differently in other societies, but the outcomes are the still the same: social stratification where Black and Indigenous people are stigmatised, as well as economically and politically marginalised. In Latin America, for example, there is the myth that all Latin people are a happy mix of races: Indigenous people, the White colonisers, Black slaves, migrants brought in as cheap labour and their mixed descendants. In Peru, the myth of mestizaje, a supposedly homogenous and harmonious mixed-race population, obscures the fact that colonial hierarchies persist, and that class is often a stand-in for race. The trouble with this is that racial stratification persists: White people are a numerical minority but dominate politics and the media; they are also more affluent and are seen as the ideal in terms of beauty. The majority of the population are “mixed race” (or the racial norm) who make up the middle classes (but are not well-off). Black people face intense racism and are predominantly lower class, while Indigenous people are marginalised and belong to an underclass. In Latin American nations, race and class are more overtly interlinked.
There is also a complex class dynamic in colourism where, even among dark-skinned people, those with lighter complexions receive favourable treatment and benefits amongst people from the same ethnic group, despite still being subjected to racism by broader society. In Brazil, the social and media discourses paint Black people as deviants. A discourse is a particular way of thinking and talking about social issues in ways that reflect the interests of groups with cultural power. During the Brazil protests in 2013, Black people were removed from their homes (in favellas—poor housing areas) and were subjected to intense police violence. The media only reported on cases where White people were hurt.
As in other Latin countries, Colourism in Brazil operates much the same way, despite having a relatively higher proportion of Black people. An infamous example of colonialism and colourism comes from 2013. Nayara Justino was selected as the Globeleza Carnival Queen, a popular TV role that, for the first time ever, was chosen by popular vote. Justino was the first Black woman to be given the honour. She was subsequently subjected to intense racism, by both White and Black people around the country. She was later denied the prize and removed without official explanation, though everyone understood it was due to racist critiques. Her replacement was much lighter in skin tone.
We’ve learned that race is a social construction describing how groups are placed into categories that are used to justify inequality. In the next section, on racism, let’s explore how racial discrimination plays out in everyday life. There is also the first case study, comparing how race is constructed in three societies. (Or jump up. ↑)
Case study 1: Race in three nations
Professor Karen Farquharson shows how racial categoriess vary in three nations with a similar European colonial history: the USA, South Africa and Australia. Despite sharing a British colonial past, racial categories function differently.
USA: There are around five main race categories in the USA: White; Black/ African-American; Native American/ Pacific Islander, Hispanic/ Latin, and Asian. These categories are shaped by colonisation, slavery, the US Civil War, Jim Crow laws, and the US Civil Rights Movement. The “White” category is the dominant group with the broadest definition, encompassing people of European, Jewish and some Middle Eastern descent, while the “Black” category can include people of mixed race.
South Africa: While there are various Indigenous groups (collectively known as the San and Khoekhoe), racial categories in South Africa are shaped by tensions between White colonisers, who remain a numerical minority. White South Africans initially included the Dutch colonisers (known as Boers or Afrikaners) who arrived in the 1600s, and the British settlers who arrived in 18th century. The Dutch imported slaves (predominantly from Indonesia), and enslaved local Africans. The “coloured” racial category includes people who are mixed race, while “Black” includes various African groups. Racial groups are influenced by this colonial history, the Anglo-Boer War, apartheid, and anti-apartheid movement. With the first democratic election post-apartheid in 1994, the term “Rainbow nation” is supposed to usher in an end to racial categories, but racism persists.
Australia: Established as a penal colony in 1788, Australia’s British colonisers reinforced the myth of Australia as a White nation by declaring “terra nullius,” and decimating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are the rightful custodians of the land. Establishing strict immigration policies, there are four major race categories. First, White people are the numerical majority, and chiefly defined as those of Anglo-Celtic heritage, as well as many people of European descent. Second, for most of Australia’s history, the Black category was chiefly used for Indigenous Australians, but more recent Black-American and African migrants are also considered Black. Third, almost everyone else is placed in what Professor Farquharson calls the “ethnic-looking” category: this includes some Southern Europeans, Middle Eastern people (including people perceived to look “Muslim”), and most other migrants. Another category is Asian people, but Indians separated out of this group (whereas in the UK, Indians are considered Asian). These race categories are shaped by the White Australia Policy, postwar European migration, and multiculturalism policies since the 1970s. (Jump up. ↑)
Before we can define racism, we need to get our heads around related concepts or prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice are individual attitudes based on inflexible and irrational generalisation about a group of people. Prejudices can be positive (“All Australians are friendly”) or they can be negative (“Latin people are not as smart as White people). Racial prejudices include expressions of hostility towards particular racial groups.
Discrimination is the outcome of acting on those prejudices, leading to inequitable treatment of marginalised groups, fortified by social processes that already disadvantage racial minorities. For example, refusing to consider the job application of a person of colour (an act of discrimination) based on racial markers, like their name (prejudice), replicating the excessive rejection these candidates already experience because of widespread racism.
Racism describes the system of racial inequality, based on the belief that some groups are innately superior to other groups. Racism rests on the prejudices (attitudes), symbols (including language), actions and policies (discrimination) that reproduce the false ideology that other groups are inferior to White people. Racism rests on power structures, such as historical and cultural relations established through colonialism, and social institutions (like the law, education, media, and science).
People misunderstand that racism only means overt acts of oppression between individuals, such as calling someone a racial epithet. Instead, racism encompasses both covert prejudice and systemic forms of discrimination. People can be unaware of how they both benefit from, and reproduce, racism, and so their words and actions may have unintended consequences, even if they do not mean to consciously discriminate. Regardless, racism does not require conscious intent. Racism is so deeply ingrained into our socialisation that it affects everyone, whether they are benefiting as White people, or oppressed as people of colour.
In his book, Rethinking Ethnicity, anthropologist Dr Richard Jenkins argues that race (like ethnicity) is an ideology of identification. It depends on creating racial categories, then justifying inequality (“social stratification”) based on these ideas of race. In Race and Racism in Australia, Professor David Hollinsworth sees that racism hinges on ideas, language, practices, representation and the material reality of racial inequality. For example, as we’ve seen, race is used to justify inequality, so there is a close connection between racial discrimination and poverty. Colonialism has entrenched health, educational and other inequalities, whilst scientific racism sustained these disparities by feeding racist social policies.
There are three levels of racism that are generally studied in sociology: individual, institutional and everyday racism.
Individual level racism
First, racism can be defined at the individual level, or the ways in which people express racist ideas, as a conscious ‘set of organised beliefs’, values or attitudes about racial difference. This is the pervasive understanding of racism, but it gives an incomplete picture, because it focuses on whether individuals are either racist or “not racist.” In fact, all people hold unconscious biases, and it requires education and much ongoing critical reflection to identify, manage and overcome these prejudices. Patterns of interpersonal racism shift over time, with newer migrants being targeted and some groups experiencing lower levels of racism. A 2017 study led by Professor Kevin Dunn and Katie Blair found that one third of migrant-Australians experience racism, especially in public places, at work or in their place of education. Indigenous Australians remain one of the biggest targets, and are 25% more likely to experience racism.
Individual racism can include from being made to feel unwelcome in social settings, but it also extends to missing out on jobs and other more overt forms of discrimination. The cumulative effect of interpersonal racism is that people of colour feel apprehensive about their safety and futures. While migrants feel content with their lives in Australia, they are subjected to daily forms of interpersonal racism, which impacts on migrants’ sense of belonging. At the same time they are much more optimistic about White Australians’ tolerance than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who face additional barriers in their lives and cultural history.
Individual measures are more familiar to lay understanding of racism, but they give us an incomplete picture, because these individual experiences need to be placed in broader societal context.
Institutional level racism
Second, racism can be defined at the institutional level, based on the institutional processes that are used to maintain systematic discrimination. This includes the distribution of power as well as various “unintended consequences” of systematic inequality. Socialisation is one way in which racial difference is asserted; cultural intolerance is built up by what we learn at school as well as what we don’t learn. We learn about how the First Fleet “discovered” Australia, but we do not learn about the Frontier Wars, in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders resisted colonisation. Our school textbooks tell the story of the ANZACs as a group of White soldiers who fought in World War I, but they don’t include names of Indigenous diggers.
Institutional racism describes societal patterns of discrimination, such as educational and employment outcomes, lack of representation in the media and in politics, over-policing and social violence. It shows how individual experiences of discrimination are much more widespread and happening across multiple spheres of life, beyond interpersonal prejudices.
Third, Professor Philomena Essed has identified everyday racism, a concept that is critical of the individual and institutional theories on racism and the distinctions between them, and instead, studies their complex interdependencies. Everyday racism examines minorities’ lived experiences of racism (personal encounters and knowledge of racism). It connects ideological and structural forces of racism with routine situations in everyday life, such as the daily attitudes and interactions that minorities face, which in turn reproduce racism. Racism is maintained in taken-for-granted ways, even when people are unaware of it, through the repetitive or familiar practices of everyday situations.
An example of everyday racism is the question ‘where are you from?’ This is queried of “ethnically and racially marked Australians” are asked during their daily social interactions. People who ask this question think they are satisfying their personal curiosity, but in fact, this question has racist assumptions, that the person they are looking at is “not from here.” As this question is not asked for White Australians, it is a reminder that race mediates who is counted as Australian and who is excluded. “Where are you from?” is a boundary marker; a reminder to non-Indigenous people of colour that racism is ever-present, as expressed in its twin sentiment, “go back to where you came from!,” a racist slur used on migrant people of colour even if they are third-generation.
Hierarchies of race are found in many societies. This is the outcome of colonialism, with different groups dominating over others in different epochs, and as migration increased with enhanced technology and travel. While dominant groups vary across time and place, Indigenous, Black and darker-skinned people are positioned at the “bottom” of racial hiearchies, while people with lighter skin are at the top. Social stigma put on minority groups in one country often travels with them overseas. See the example below, on the stereotypes and everyday racism faced by a Black American living in Japan.
Find out about Whiteness below, or check out the case study on reverse racism. (Or jump up. ↑)
Case Study 2: Does reverse racism exist?
Research by sociologist, Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and colleagues, shows that the idea of “reverse racism” is prevalent amongst White people who hold two paradoxical beliefs: 1) Society hasn’t really got a problem with racism, 2) Minorities get special privileges because of their heritage. White people today mostly understand that saying negative things about minorities is not acceptable. In interviews with the researchers, they will talk about their racist relatives, without thinking of themselves as racist. They will share one-off examples where they’ve had a positive encounter with a person of colour. Yet their negative experiences with minorities take on a different meaning. The positive is an example of a “good” individual. The negative example is an indictment of the entire minority group (racial prejudice). So, White people will say things say things like:
I have, I just have a problem with the discrimination, you’re gonna discriminate against a group and what happened in the past is horrible and it should never happen again, but I also think that to move forward you have to let go of the past and let go of what happened um, you know?
Reverse racism is an attempt to be ahistorical. White people will evoke this concept when they say they don’t understand why some minorities (people of colour who experienced colonialism) still talk about racism when other White groups aren’t “allowed” to talk about “racism.”
those that say we should pay them because they were slaves back in the past and yet, how often do you hear about the people who were Whites that were slaves and the White that were, ah? Boy, we should get reparations, the Irish should get reparations from the English…
A common idea underlying the “reverse racism” discourse is that White people today shouldn’t have to pay for the oppression that happened in the past. As if social relations today aren’t correlated with history and as if racial oppression is no longer happening:
Me, as [a] White person, I had nothing to do with slavery. You, as a Black person, you never experienced it. It was so long ago I just don’t see how that pertains to what’s happening to the race today, so that’s one thing that I’m just like “God, shut up!”
White people feel disconnected to historical processes because they don’t see how these relations affect their present-day life outcomes. Conversely, whenever they see minorities getting ahead in life, they presume it’s due to “reverse racism” rather than individual merit:
No, other than I have applied at jobs and been turned down because I was White. Now, I have nothing against the Black person [if he] was qualified better than I was. But when the guy comes into the interview, and I’m off on the side and I can hear them talking, and he can’t even speak English, he doesn’t know how to read a map, and they’re gonna make him a bus driver and hire him over me… I know why he got the job, and I don’t think that’s fair.
Bonilla-Silva and colleagues argue that the “reverse racism” narrative is a safe way for White people to air out racist ideals without thinking of themselves as racist. This is also known as “colour blind racism.”
Sociologists have a difficult time teaching White students about social privilege because the social benefits of Whiteness are difficult for people to “see” when they are part of the majority. (Jump up. ↑)
The concept of Whiteness explores the social construction of what it means to be White, specifically, how societies establish White culture as the “norm” for social reality. Whiteness studies teaches us to think critically about how social life is organised around White experiences. How does Whiteness establish legitimacy? Whiteness is hegemonic; that is, it is an ideology that has been established over time, first through violent political dominance, and later through cultural institutions that created the fiction that White culture is the natural order. Social institutions funnel White culture so that it is pervasive: it’s the key lens of history and art; it’s the way in which we learn about science; it’s the representations we grow up with in the media; it’s White people filling most positions of authority. Whiteness is everywhere, and while it is the centre of colonial nations, Whiteness also goes unexamined in day-to-day life.
White people in Australia are not asked, “Where are you from?” They are not required to constantly verify that they are Australian. White people don’t have to think too deeply about why there are no Indigenous people in their schoolbooks. White people don’t experience first hand what it’s like to be made to feel uncomfortable at work because of their race. White people don’t fear being mistreated by authority figures simply because of the colour of their skin.
Whiteness is both privilege and power; it means being on top of the social hierarchy but taking the hierarchy for granted. So much so that even White male politicians will take offence at being called White, in the middle of Senate debates when they were trying to get rid of protections from the Racial Discrimination Act.
Professor Susan Schech and Associate Professor Jane Haggis show how, despite multiculturalism being Australia’s official immigration policy, Whiteness remains at the centre of how the nation imagines Australian identity. Put simply, most White Australians have a weak understanding of what Whiteness is, and yet when they talk about what it means to be Australian, they draw exclusively from Anglo-Australian mythology.
In a longitudinal study with Australian youth, Professors Julie McLeod and Lyn Yates found that young people draw on a binary of us “versus them” when they talk about other groups. Sometimes they make distinctions between Asians and Aboriginal people, grouping them together to make a point about “ordinary White Australians.” In other discussions, Asian people were positioned as “more other” (or extraordinarily different as defined against a dominant group; in this instance, White Australians). This was the case when they drew on racist rhetoric about who belongs in Australia. Sometimes Aboriginal people were “less other” than migrants, other times it was the other way round. While these racial hierarchies shifted depending on the issue or groups being compared, one thing was immutable: White people were the universal norm. Their Australian identity was accepted as unproblematic and taken-for-granted.
Power is quintessential to representations of Whiteness and of otherness, because whether difference is portrayed positively or negatively, the other is always constructed against a hegemonic ideal of Whiteness. This allows White people to distance themselves from, and also negate, structural racism.
Whiteness is maintained through various discourses. Discourses buffer White people from having to think critically about race, such as through the idea of “colour blindness.” White people have come to understand that “overt” forms of racism are not permissible. They do not want to be associated with the label “racist,” and so they avoid ever thinking about race, much less applying race to their own lives. So they say things like “I don’t see race, I just see people,” or they will say, “We are all part of the human race; why can’t we all just get along?” This discourse is a ploy: White people can afford to tune in and out of race discussions. To say that they don’t recognise race is to say: “I don’t want to acknowledge how my life chances have been enhanced by my Whiteness.” To say that they “just see people,” is to also deny the impact that race has on the lives of people of colour, who receive daily reminders of how race negatively impacts their safety, acceptance and progress.
The flip side of “I don’t see race” is that fact that White people place people of colour into broad categories and deny them their individuality. We see this at the social level, when minorities are put into the position of explaining crime and “deviance” of minorities from their communities. At the interpersonal level, White people will “confuse” people of colour because they have limited contact, and interest, in people who are not White. And infamous example involved Black American actor Samuel L. Jackson, who rightly refused to smoothe over the racist “mistake.” These examples illustrate how Whiteness pushes individuals into broad categories, even though White people see themselves as individuals who aren’t influenced by race.
3.1 White fragility
As White people are not used to thinking critically about their own Whiteness, they have a tendency to get defensive during discussions of race and racism. This stems from having Whiteness disrupted, such as when people of colour make explicit that White people’s perspectives are driven by their race. Angry or hurt reactions from White people also follow when people of colour share their lived experiences of racism, or when people of colour disagree with, or refusing to protect, White people’s incorrect notions of race. This is known as White fragility, a concept coined by multicultural educator Robin DiAngelo. White fragility is also exposed through people of colour’s leadership, which challenges the power dynamics of Whiteness, or when a White person’s words, actions or values are exposed as racism. White fragility compels White people to expect special treatment and additional time, patience and emotional labour from people of colour. White people feel entitled to be kept comfortable during discussions of race, or they might demand that people of colour educate them on race issues.
Find out how Whiteness feeds into White privilege below. (Or jump up. ↑)
3.2 White privilege
Educator Peggy McInotsh introduced the idea of white privilege, the special benefits, protections and access to power conferred onto White people, which allows them to advance in life without conscious awareness of racial discrimination. She came to this concept as she reflected on her feminist practices. She noticed that even when male colleagues were willing to support women’s efforts to increase gender equity, they were not willing to give up their own status and power. Having tried to include women of colour in her feminist activities with little successful engagement, she came to see how she, as a White woman, had also been reticent to give up her own benefits to make feminism truly inclusive of racial minorities. She notes that educated White people like herself are raised to notice the “bad” aspects of racism, but not the benefits that make her life easier.
She came to realise that Whiteness was like an invisible knapsack she carried around with her, which protects her from noticing the advantages of race. Noticing her racial privileges, she understood the myth of meritocracy, for in the bag of Whiteness, she finds the key to open many doors that women of colour cannot access. Her skin colour was “an asset” that helped her secure a better education; it made it easy to take for granted that she belonged to the broader culture that facilitated her success, despite the gender inequalities she fought.
I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious… Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us.”
McIntosh began to recognise that “privilege confers dominance.” She came to see that her feminism was oppressive, even though she wasn’t conscious of the benefits of her race; but this is the point: by not being aware of race, she was contributing to inequity. She had failed to notice how the benefits she enjoys are part of a system that disadvantages people of colour. Just as patriarchy positions men as the universal norm, requiring women to adjust their behaviour and expectations to the needs and interests of men, McIntosh recognises how Whiteness pushes her to view the world through a racial lens. She’s encouraged to leave undisturbed the norm that Others should be more like White people, instead of challenging the system.
The “colour blind” approach to feminism is nowadays referred to as White feminism. White feminism is the pursuit of gender equity in a way that systematically ignores—and benefits from—the impact of race, power and dominance of White women in society. While White women are disadvantaged in relation to White men, their White privilege gives them advantages over people of colour of all genders. Sociology Professor Jessie Daniels explains that, while she came from a long line of White women who did not finish high school, she recognises that her White privilege enabled her to be upwardly mobile. Her career was supported by other White women. As a White academic, she benefits from the historical and ongoing benefits of slavery. So, even with gender, class and other disadvantages, White women must recognise that they have greater resources at their disposal in the fight for equal rights. In fact, White feminism positions equality in relation to White men, ignoring the needs, experiences and knowledge of people of colour. This came through in discourses about the Women’s March in early 2017, as White women, who are used to thinking of themselves as lacking equality, were unwilling to engage with the struggles and activism of women of colour.
White privilege is the sum total of various invisible forms of power that White people have, regardless of their social standing. White people are generally made to feel comfortable wherever they go, or at least oblivious of their race. People of colour are routinely made to feel alienated and so they are less confident that they will be treated fairly based on their skin colour. There are various subtle and overt forms of hostility and violence to which White people are never exposed. White privilege is a special form of cultural power; it is the “permission to escape or to dominate.” That is, it is the ability to be oblivious to race (including unconscious bias), or to wield race to one’s advantage (wilful discrimination).
McIntosh came up with a list of 26 examples of White privilege that range from expectations of social decorum (everyday racism, such as people being rude based on your race) while others are about institutional racism (being judged harshly by the criminal justice system based on race).
Due to race and class, McIntosh had an idealised vision of herself as being “not racist,” because she had grown up recognising individual racism (“acts of meanness by members of my group”). She did not see herself benefiting from the established race hierarchy. She explains:
“For this reason, the word ‘privilege’ now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favoured state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to overpower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.”
Even when White people can grasp a loose understanding of White privilege, they still have trouble applying it to their own lives. They may think that because they aren’t wealthy, or because they are a woman, or because they have experienced adversities, that the term has little value. “Everyone has privilege,” is the phrase that’s often used to rebuff this concept. Conversely, White people use it as a surface-level act of contrition, “I know I have White privilege,” they say, and then go on with their day, thinking they have an elevated understanding of racism. This is mistaken.
Most people miss McIntosh’s two key lessons: first, White people should reflect on the invisible benefits they receive due to their race; and second, they must ask themselves what they will do about their invisible bag of Whiteness. How will you give up some of that cultural power? How can you tackle racial injustice? White privilege is a call to action to actively join anti-racism. This means not expecting minorities to become more like White people, but thinking about how to change the system, and elevate the power, potential, comfort, inclusion, leadership, safety and justice of people of colour.
We now need to think through White supremacy. Drop by our next case study on the confounding idea of transracialism along the way. (Or jump up. ↑)
Case Study 3: Is transracialism real?
Transracialism is not widely accepted as a valid concept by race and minority studies scholars. This term has been used to describe people who are born into one race category, but later decide to claim another racial identity. This description misses the point about race, which is about how racial categories are grounded in physical features that become linked to stratification. Public and academic interest in this term grew in the 2015 due to the scandal of Rachel Dolezal, a White American woman who had fraudulently posed as a Black woman, and was later exposed as biologically White by her parents.
While initially denying her scam, she would go on to argue that, because race is a social construction, she identifies as a Black woman because that was her cultural affinity. She cites a superficial understanding of Blackness, such as changing her hairstyle, artificially darkening her skin from 2011 onwards, eventually changing her legal name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, and reading National Geographic as a child (she says the magazine led her to see that “Black is beautiful, Black is inspirational”).
Dolezal actively lied about her race to gain special status, rising to the role of branch president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (“Don’t blow my cover” she told her brother). Pretending to be Black to boost her prominence in civil rights activism is an example of racism, because she used her Whiteness to move through life and education until a certain point. Concealing her Whiteness, she then applied for academic positions and professional associations, using the qualifications gained as a White person, which gave her a leg up over people who are actually Black. That Dolezal has not experienced racial discrimination, one of the consequences of race. This is central to her inherent inability to claim Blackness. While not all Black people will personally experience racial prejudice, the system of racism ensures the threat of discrimination, state violence and injustice is ever-present. This is not the reality for White people.
Race is not about feeling entitled to jump to a more “exotic” group. Race provides great benefits to White people, as has been the case with Dolezal. Race is inextricably linked to material advantages and disadvantages based on how you are socially positioned, due to your physical traits. Race is an imposed identity embedded in inequality. A minority racial identity cannot be assumed by White people in a way that can approximate the reality of another group. While there are historical instances of light-skinned Black people “passing” as White for their survival, or where “light-skinned” Indigenous people were stolen from their families and forced to live with White families (but still treated as second-class), a White person claiming to be Black is an exercise of power.
Dolezal and her supporters have also erroneously likened her flawed notion of racial “fluidity” to transgender people. This is a gross misconception of this gender identity. Transgender people’s gender transition brings their physical appearance in line with their personal identity; it is not based on deception, but rather on meaningful understanding of their gender (masculinity/ femininity/ genderqueer/ agender or other position). Transgender people also experience inequality as a result of their transition, and race adds to this inequality. To claim the falsehood that transracialism is akin to transgenderism is simultaneously damaging to Black and transgender people. Author and political scientist Ijeoma Oluo notes that, aside from the fact that Dolezal would never be physically categorised, nor mistaken for a Black woman, her manufactured position is the outcome of racial privilege as a White woman.
If Dolezal’s identity only helps other people born White become Black while still shielding them from the majority of the oppression of visible Blackness, and does nothing to help those born Black become white—how is this not just more White privilege? …Even if there were thousands of Rachel Dolezals in the country, would their claims of Blackness do anything to open up the definition of Whiteness to those with darker skin, coarser hair, or racialised features? The degree to which you are excluded from White privilege is largely dependent on the degree to which your appearance deviates from Whiteness. You can be extremely light-skinned and still be Black, but you cannot be extremely or even moderately dark-skinned and be treated as White—ever.
In other words, transracialism is not a useful concept because it obfuscates the material conditions of race. It blurs the historical and social experiences of racial stratification in a way that elevates White people’s entitlement to choose to slip into another racial group when, and only so long as, it is beneficial for them to do so, while obscuring the real-life consequences of racism. The social construction of race does not ameliorate the fact that individuals who experience racism are unable to move into another racial group without the cultural validation of White people.
As White people are the primary beneficiaries of race categories, having White people control who can be shifted into another group is only another example of White privilege. (Jump up. ↑)
3.3 White Supremacy
White supremacy is one mechanism of racism; it involves the values, conscious or unconscious beliefs, and formal social structures that maintain the ideology that White people are superior to people of colour. Lay understandings of White supremacy evoke images of Nazi Germany during World War II, or the Klu Klux Klan in the USA prior to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, or neo-Nazi movements and other far-right groups like Reclaim Australia. But, in fact, White supremacy is the ideology that sustains prejudice and discrimination in countries where White people are politically dominant.
Whiteness is the process by which White people fail to recognise how race impacts their lives; White privilege is the personal benefits of living in a society where Whiteness is centred; and White supremacy are the political outcomes of this racial buffer. The media’s discomfort with using the phrase White supremacy (preferring instead the “Alt right”) is a good example of how social institutions perpetuate the idea that there is no connection between Whiteness and White supremacy.
In his seminal work, White Nation, anthropologist Professor Ghassan Hage studied White supremacy as an everyday occurrence, through the ways in which White Australians talk about the nation. For example, one woman he interviewed who had pulled off a hijab from a Muslim woman walking down the street relied on racial stereotypes to justify her ideas. She said things like, “Muslims are dirty,” and “Arabs are savages,” (colonial ideologies about the inferiority of Others). She also drew on ethnic and cultural stereotypes passing judgement on Muslims, such as “They don’t know how to look after their kids” (again, another colonial ploy that minorities are not worthy of basic respect). She also expressed outright hatred (“I hate them”).
White supremacy is the deeply held view that White people can set the standards for behaviour, values, and expression for national belonging. Another person sums up Hage’s argument by saying, “They’re really not the sort of people I would like to see coming to this country.”
Edward Said showed illustrated Orientalism through the notion of “otherness.” “Western” discourses elevate racial and ethnic differences as spectacles to be feared, exoticised and dominated. This is established through cultural mechanisms, such as literature and media. Whiteness defines who is “the other,” or the undesirable elements of culture.
It is a daily ritual to hear about the undesirability of certain cultural groups. Read the news or check in with a current affairs show for coded statements about the racial inferiority of people of colour, whether it’s due to perceived criminality, “laziness” or lacking trust. While many White people might recognise such statements as “racist,” they rarely recognise these biases within themselves. White supremacy is why the Australian political landscape has been constantly dominated by race-based scaremongering. White supremacy is Pauline Hanson and One Nation’s persistent presence in federal politics for 20 years. It’s our humanitarian program, which locked away Muslim asylum seekers in offshore jails for 16 years. White supremacy normalises these patterns of racism as someone else’s problem to solve. White people aren’t directly affected and so inequality continues undisturbed.
The next section ties together recurring themes through the lens of intersectionality. (Or jump up. ↑)
The sociology of race uses historical records and empirical investigation to theorise how racial ideologies become established and how they are used to maintain stratification. For example, how they are enforced, how they change over time, and how this varies across societies. Sociologists also analyse how social institutions produce and maintain inequality across race categories. This encompasses how racial inequalities are impacted by other social identities such as gender, class, and sexuality. We also study how institutional processes are influenced by the history and impact of colonialism in the present day. Sociology also analyses how race patterns affect socioeconomic mobility, migration, nationalism, globalisation and intersectionality (how gender and race inequalities are interconnected, and impacted by other social identities).
Having spent decades researching the lives of migrant women, in 1989, sociologist Professor Gillian Bottomley and anthropologist Dr Marie de Lepervanche published Ethnicity, Class and Gender in Australia, a volume that focused on the intersections of social identities that impacted women’s experiences of inequality. The collection showed how racist ideology normalised migrant women’s social position, but it also showed how culture, religion and class were used by migrants to mobilise change. Three years later, Intersexions examined the relationship between gender, class, culture and ethnicity, showing how migrant and Indigenous women were simultaneously negotiating gender inequality in their ethnic communities as well as racism from broader society. This body of work before and since emphasised the need to empirically explore multiple forms of oppression with gender and racism as the focus.
At the same time, most academic analyses still separate the concepts of race and gender, unless they are studying the lives of minority women. This leaves Whiteness as the default position for all other research, which, in turn, reproduces racial inequality in academia.
In Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, Dr Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a Geonpul woman, illustrates exactly this point, by showing how Australian feminism is governed by Whiteness. White privilege and power become normalised and colonialism is reproduced. White women are allowed to represent all women, often in ways that denigrate, silence or damage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges. Dr Moreton-Robinson argues that Indigenous perspectives need to be brought to the centre of academia, to reformulate Australian feminism and academic practice more broadly. Similarly, examining sexuality from an Indigenous perspective opens up a more cohesive understanding of race and colonialism.
Explore our final case study on intersectionality, and find further resources below. (Or jump up. ↑)
Case Study 4: Intersections of identity
Like race, ethnicity is a social construction, because again, it describes how groups come to define their cultural belonging. Some notions of ethnicity may encompass ideas of an innate sense of social kinship, bloodlines, ancestry, and the inheritance of a local culture. More to the point, however, ethnicity is made distinct by shared beliefs about a common descent: what people do together to maintain their cultural heritage. Ethnicity relies on social interaction, both amongst members of the ethnic group, who come to agree on certain cultural traits, as well as between minority and majority groups, who delineate their similarities and differences. That is to say, there can be no notion of “us,” without “them.”
As Gillian Bottomley puts it in her paper, “Identification,” ethnicity is a claimed identity (it’s about how we feel about our cultural origins), but it is also “a combination of self-identification and identification of others.” Some groups are not allowed to easily claim their ethnicity due to racist processes, such as migrant-Australians who might feel equally Greek-Australian, or a second-generation migrant born in Australia who has no strong connection to their parents’ birthplace. They might feel “fully Australian,” but are nevertheless, not considered “Australian” by the White Australian majority.
We can see how ethnicity is socially constructed, but also impacted by race, gender, sexuality, class and other social dimensions when we think about the role of social context.
In my early research, I studied the intersections of identity for young, heterosexual migrant women of Latin and Turkish backgrounds. They lived in predominantly working class, and multicultural Western suburbs of Melbourne. Most were tertiary educated. The women had strong connections to their families’ background culture. The Latin women mostly identified with their parents’ country-of-origin (for example, they had an identity of being Argentinian) and they also connected with a panethnic identity of being “Latin.” Some of these women said they called themselves Latin-Australian, but only one felt solely Australian (that is, she rejected her Chilean background due to negative gender experiences).
The Turkish women saw themselves as being equally Turkish-Australian, though some identified more as Muslim-Turkish-Australian. For these women, religious identity was more important than being Turkish or Australian. Like the Latin participants, the Turkish women had trouble expressing their Australian identities because people didn’t consider them Australian. They were constantly told they didn’t “look” Australian. Both the Turkish and Latin women were constantly questioned about their ethnicity in Australia, with people asking “where are you from?” so often, many were weary of this question and its implication that they would never be accepted as Australian. All the women faced racism, which also made it harder to call themselves Australian, even though most of them felt partly-Australian. As one Latin woman said, in order to be accepted as Australian, “You have to be Anglo and not look like me [laughs]. I know that’s really superficial but that’s what people see initially. They’re not going to stop to think about your personality when you first introduce yourself.” (Jump up. ↑)
When they travelled overseas, however, all the women felt their “Australian side” strongly. Even during visits with family in their parents’ country-of-origin, other people noticed they were different. Overseas, most people called them Australian: they dressed and talked differently to everyone else, and they had different ideas about life. One woman explains:
“In Uruguay I’d be called ‘The Aussie’, ‘The Kangaroo’, coz they knew I was from here. They’d be like, ‘You’re Aussie, you’re Aussie!’ And to be quite honest, when I was over there I was actually quite proud to be Australian!”
In Australia, despite not being seen as Australian, all the women were engaged with Australian values which they defined as egalitarianism and multiculturalism. Gender equality in particular informed their idnetities, as they worked to transform gender norms in their families, ethnic communities and broader Australian society. Focusing on multiculturalism was also a way to reject notions of Whiteness, which marginalised their experiences. They emphasised the ways in which their cultures contributed to the nation, as a way to make sense of the racism and sexism they were exposed to.
- What is Otherness?
- Access my academic research on race free from my website
- My long-read posts on race on this blog
- All of my writing on race and racism
- Shorter sociology posts on my Tumblr:
- Download the high-resolution list of 26 examples of White privilege as an A3-sized PDF poster (free)
- Check out my sociology of race Pinterest for links https://othersociologist.com/sociology-of-race/to other resources
Zevallos, Z. (2017) ‘Sociology of Race,’ The Other Sociologist, 9 June. Online resource: https://othersociologist.com/sociology-of-race/
This work is based on my early research and my various publications. It is a living document, meaning that I will add more information and resources to this over time.
Image sources: All images by Z. Zevallos. Header photo credit: includes photo by K-Girl, CC 2.0, via Flickr, adapted by Z. Zevallos. (Jump up. ↑)