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Conceptualizing "Race" and "Ethnicity"

The readings from Ore for this week discuss racial paradigms within the United States and how they’ve been shaped and changed throughout history. Together the readings de-essentialize notions of race and put forth multifaceted and “unstable? ways of understanding racial identities. Key themes in Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s essay “Racial Formations? include race as a social construction, race as ideology, history of racial paradigm in United States. Mary C. Waters discusses the invisibility of white ethnicity, symbolic white ethnicity privilege, and how individualism and plurualism are tied to the unequal structures of capitalism in her essay “Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only??. In “How Did Jews Become White Folks??, Karen Brodkin writes about the history of anti-semitism in U.S. and Jewish ethnic identity as it has been “whitened? to match hegemonic American beliefs.

To conceptualize race as a social construction means to reject biological or essentialist understandings of race, and instead recognize race as something which exists within the cultural imaginary and is held in place by centuries of “scientific? propaganda, legal structure, and cultural norms. The authors present a cultural legacy which has helped to perpetuate essentialism and racism, Marvin Harris’ principle of hypo-descent. Hypo-descent is a concept which racially categorizes a person based on the identity of whatever parent is most socially disenfranchised (i.e. “the one-drop rule?). The authors of this section presents how these pseudo-scientific beliefs have shaped our cultural norms and have together formed a system of racial meaning which is oppressive and hierarchical. Omi and Winant talk about how racial paradigms shift based on changes in the economy. Recently, the U.S.’s turn towards neoliberalism has stereotyped Black people as “dependents? and part of an “underclass?. These stereotypes are shaped by and simultaneously perpetuate the laws which result from neoliberalism’s New Urbanism (i.e. the 100:1 policy for possession of crack vs. cocaine). Similarly, Karen Brodkin discusses how Jewish identity has “whitened? as state policy and economics have varied over time.

Mary C. Waters discusses what it means for white people to claim an ethnic background. She asserts (and I agree) that individuals who are (un)marked as white have agency to select which (if any) ethnicities with which they would like to identify. White privilege is highlighted in ability to pick and choose what and when to be marked as a “hyphenated? white American. Unlike the ways ethnicity is often assigned to people of color in ways they may not appreciate or have little control over, white people who wish to claim an ethnicity often do so symbolically. Symbolic ethnicity is individualistic, and has little social cost for the person who claims it. In this model, people can select which parts of their ethnicity to promote (i.e. cultural practices that are generally regarded as positive) and ignore/make invisible the parts of their ethnicity that are less socially well-regarded.

While reading this essay I was reminded of someone I met in my first year of college who very often identified as a German-American. Her family would serve traditional German foods during holidays, and she owned many items which pictured the German flag or other nationalist images. However, she would decide when and how her ethnicity would be deployed, and for that reason she enjoyed the privilege of not having stereotypes and racist legacies ascribed upon her.

Regardless of privilege, institutions of power ask us to rely on cultural pluralism (and/or multiculturalism) to negotiate legacies of institutional racism. This model does not require individuals to alter their beliefs but rather “be more inclusive? on the surface-level of their interactions. Like capitalism, pluralism relies on an “invisible hand? which regulates outside forces to ensure a common good. Like capitalism, this notion is flawed at its core, as it cannot account for “externalities? which occur because of unequal and invisible power structures which perpetuate inequities.


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I have always wondered why when you speak of an American it essentially portrays someone who is white, their unmarked and clearly priviledged state is something that they also have no control over. it is something that they were born into just like black americans, hispanic americans and the like...what needs to be focused on is the cycle that replenishes this belief that one race is left unmarked while other races have to have some kind of clarification to differentiate themselves when at the root of it all, we are all American. Needless to say that priveledges can be abused and misused and sometimes it could be just that unawareness that comes with its invisibility and the fact that it has never been a outright public controversy. i believe that as people become more aware of this, there is going to be an equal awareness to avoid leaving a certain group unmarked because every one needs to be acknowledged and recognized in the growing diversity that we are going to be living in.