Race and Racial Identity

Although race has no genetic or scientific basis, the concept of race is important and consequential. Societies use race to establish and justify systems of power, privilege, disenfranchisement, and oppression.

The notion of race is a social construct designed to divide people into groups ranked as superior and inferior. The scientific consensus is that race, in this sense, has no biological basis – we are all one race, the human race. Racial identity, however, is very real. And, in a racialized society like the United States, everyone is assigned a racial identity whether they are aware of it or not.

Race as Social Construction
​The dictionary’s definition of race is incomplete and misses the complexity of impact on lived experiences. It is important to acknowledge race is a social fabrication, created to classify people on the arbitrary basis of skin color and other physical features. Although race has no genetic or scientific basis, the concept of race is important and consequential. Societies use race to establish and justify systems of power, privilege, disenfranchisement, and oppression.

American Anthropological Association states that "the 'racial' worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent." To understand more about race as a social construct in the United States, read the AAPA statement on race and racism.

What is Racial identity?

  • Racial identity is externally imposed: “How do others perceive me?
  • Racial identity is also internally constructed: “How do I identify myself?

Understanding how our identities and experiences have been shaped by race is vital. We are all awarded certain privileges and or disadvantages because of our race whether or not we are conscious of it.

Race matters. Race matters … because of persistent racial inequality in society - inequality that cannot be ignored.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor United States Supreme Court

Developmental models of racial identity
Many sociologists and psychologists have identified that there are similar patterns every individual goes through when recognizing their racial identity. While these patterns help us understand the link between race and identity, creating one’s racial identity is a fluid and nonlinear process that varies for every person and group.

Think of these categories of Racial Identity Development [PDF] as stations along a journey of the continual evolution of your racial identity. Your personal experiences, family, community, workplaces, the aging process, and political and social events – all play a role in understanding our own racial identity. During this process, people move between a desire to "fit in" to dominant norms, to a questioning of one's own identity and that of others. It includes feelings of confusion and often introspection, as well as moments of celebration of self and others. You may begin at any point on this chart and move in any direction – sometimes on the same day! Recognizing the station you are in helps you understand who you are.

No One is Colorblind to Race
The concept of race is intimately connected to our lives and has serious implications. It operates in real and definitive ways that confer benefits and privileges to some and withholds them from others.  Ignoring race means ignoring the establishment of racial hierarchies in society and the injustices these hierarchies have created and continue to reinforce.

Understand More About the Dangers of Ignoring Race

Read this article, “When you say you 'don't see race,' you’re ignoring racism, not helping to solve it.

Reflection:

• What are some experiences or identities that are central to who you are? How do you feel when they are ignored or “not seen”?

• The author in this article points out how people often use nonvisual cues to determine race. What does this reveal to us about the validity of pretending not to see race?

Either America will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States

W.E.B. DuBois

RACISM = Racial Prejudice (Unfounded Beliefs + Irrational Fear) + Institutional Power 

Racism, like smog, swirls around us and permeates American society. It can be intentional, clear and direct or it can be expressed in more subtle ways that the perpetrator might not even be aware of.

Racism is a system of advantage based on race that involves systems and institutions, not just individual mindsets and actions. The critical variable in racism is the impact (outcomes) not the intent and operates at multiple levels including individual racism, interpersonal racism, institutional racism, and structural racism. 

  • Individual racism​ refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of individuals that support or perpetuate racism in conscious and unconscious ways. The U.S. cultural narrative about racism typically focuses on individual racism and fails to recognize systemic racism.

    Examples include believing in the superiority of white people, not hiring a person of color because “something doesn’t feel right,” or telling a racist joke.
     
  • Interpersonal racism​ occurs between individuals and includes public expressions of racism, often involving slurs, biases, hateful words or actions, or exclusion.
     
  • Institutional racism​ occurs in organizations These are race-based policies and practices that give unfair advantages to whites over people of color.These institutional policies often never mention any racial group, but the intent is to create advantages.

    Example: A school system where students of color are more frequently distributed into the most crowded classrooms and underfunded schools and out of the highest-resourced schools.
     
  • Structural racism​ is the overarching system of racial bias across institutions and society. These systems give privileges to white people resulting in disadvantages to people of color.

    Example: Stereotypes of people of color as criminals in mainstream movies and media.

Source: Adapted from Terry Keleher, Applied Research Center, and Racial Equity Tools by OneTILT

Breaking the Silence
Silence on issues of race hurts everyone. Reluctance to directly address the impact of race can result in a lack of connection between people, a loss of our society’s potential and progress, and an escalation of fear and violence. Silence around other issues of identity can also have the same negative impact on society. Silence on race keeps us all from understanding and learning. We can break the silence by being proactive - by learning, reflecting and having courageous conversations with ourselves and others.

VIDEO: Watch below as Franchesca Ramsey discusses racism on MTV’s Decoded (warning: adult language):

Take a moment to reflect

Let's Think

  • How are you thinking about your own racialized identity after learning more about race?

Let's Talk

  • Ask a friend who has a different racial identity than yours to discuss how cultivating a positive sense of racial identity about yourself and others can interrupt racism at every level (personally, socially, and institutionally)?

Let's Act

For concerned citizens:

  • Try this exercise to recognize the everyday opportunities you may have that can promote racial equity: Exercise on Choice Points.
  • Activity: Try this group activity for talking about race effectively

For Families and Educators:
Here are some ways to address race and racism in your classroom: