March 25, 2009

The Social Construction of Race, Ethnicity, Sex, and Gender

Sally By Sally Raskoff

Is it easier to conceive of race/ethnicity or sex/gender as socially constructed categories? A recent assessment of students’ learning on our campus suggest that it’s easier to consider race and ethnicity as socially constructed categories than it is to think of sex and gender that way.

Why might this be so?

Census form

While both sets of identity categories seem to be taken for granted as natural or biological, there are plenty of examples of people who "passed" as members of a category. Actors sometimes play a character of a different race or ethnicity, but it’s much more rare to see an actor take on the role of a character who is a different sex or gender unless it involves a transgender situation or comedic drag. Audiences accepted Robert Downey, Jr.” passing” as an Australian actor playing an African American character in the comedy Tropic Thunder. Hilary Swank won an academy award for her performance as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, a female whose gender identity was male.

There are many other examples of “passing” in real life, including the recent book Black Like Me, and the story of Billy Tipton, a musician whose female sex wasn’t known until after his death, even after two marriages to women. Yet we may hear about the racial/ethnic examples much more than those involving sex and gender. We may also assume that people are born and socialized into these categories and thus they stick – for most of us.

Which of these categories are more malleable? Do we assume that we can change our racial and  ethnic identity with some cultural markers or minor physical alterations? Are there obvious bodily markers of specific race and ethnic categories that are not just stereotypes? Many physical features may be perceived as belonging to particular groups yet they are in fact shared by many different groups and are not expressed in every member of that group. For example, I have a colleague of Latino background who travels widely in Mexico and is accepted there as a local. He is also considered a local in tropical island locales as his skin tone and build suggest some of their patterns. If he were to travel to various countries in the Middle East and Far East, he might also be accepted as a local in those places because his physical features may also be interpreted differently in different contexts.

We do know from research that physical features and genetic markers have tremendous diversity and are spread across groups in complex ways. From the sickle cell gene to nose shapes, many different groups from different geographic and cultural regions share s traits yet are not considered to be in the same racial groups. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists clarify this in their Statement on Biological Aspects of Race.

Most of us are assigned a sex and gender at birth (or earlier) and most of us assume that is what we are, case closed. We do learn in sociology classes that sex is a physical construct and gender is the social construct thus theoretically, gender may be more mutable than sex. However, considering the high rate of intersex births (1 in 500 according to some estimates, 1 in 2,000 births for the more conservative estimates) one must consider that both sex and gender exist on a continuum. Learning about other cultures that have more than two gender categories helps to make this clearer. 

Census 2

Consider childhood encounters with race and sex categories – when we fill out forms for school, the sex or gender question has consistency yet the racial and ethnic questions offer us many choices and, since 2000, the Census has allowed us to choose more than one category of race.

While you might learn about the social construction of both race/ethnicity and sex/gender in a sociology class, our personal experience with standardized forms helps us presume a firm sex/gender category. Does seeing new choices for race/ethnicity make it easier to understand how these categories are social constructions?

 

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Comments

Great article, but the premise that categories on forms make it harder to see gender as a social construct may be more true in some regions than others.

For example, I am a student in San Francisco, and I would say that students here are more conscious of the problems with the gender binary because they see it being openly broken not just in their sociology theory classes but in their everyday lives.

The point being that there's other factors besides exposure to forms that influence the reification or rejection of the gender binary. Exposure to those who break gender norms may be one of these factors.

This is honestly something I guess I wasn't really aware of or thought about. Race and ethnicity seem more flexible in a way. People don't consider this to be a trait that influences how you behave necessarily. A gender or sex role seems more firm, at least in our society. We expect men to be more aggressive, females more tender and passive. Our gender roles seem as though they should be more socially constructed. The results of the assessment that you mentioned surprise me. I would think that they would be the exact opposite. Cultures lay down a certain way that members of a gender should be, even if they may be stereotypical. Race and ethnicity seems like it should be something that you are born into. Whereas gender roles seem to be influenced more by a society.

This article is really fascinating to me. I had never really thought about sex/gender and race/ethnicity in terms of social constructs. I recently learned about constructs in my Sociology class and see now how these ideas can relate. I always kind of believed that race and ethnicity as well as gender and sex are constructs that we are born with and somewhat set in stone. However, I can see how each of these can be shaped and altered by society. The statement about the forms we fill out for school and how the sex/gender part says just male or female, but how the ethnicity/ race section has an entire list of options, really made me think. While constructionists believe that gender is socially determined, I am not sure I agree completely. I think we are born a certain sex or gender but that for some people societies stereotypes of how those genders are supposed to act, look, behave, etc can be impactful. When it comes to race/ethnicity we cannot escape who we are and where we come from, but we can choose to accept it and embrace it or not. I guess I am torn about the issues discussed in the article but am intrigued by the studies done and examples in the media. I think it is truly hard to determine how much society really does impact us.

I hadn't given much thought to ethnicity/race and being constructs. I think that society has puts more pressure on gender than on ethnicity. Society influences how we think we should act because of our sex. I don't think society tells us because we are of a certain race we have to act one way or another as much as it does gender.

This is a truly fascinating article. It cleverly sets out to show that nothing is inherent -- rather, everything is a product of social conditioning. Sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and all other seemingly "inherently biological" characteristics of people are merely mirror reflections of social norms and constructs they seek to identify with.
In order to be a truly free thinking and open-minded society we should grant the premise that no identifiable characteristic is inherently biological, and that a person's right to change his/her identification with certain gender/racial norms is completely acceptable and should not be judged as being socially deviant or defying nature.
Everywhere in nature we see gradual sex change, from cheramoya fruit to coral reefs -- no characteristic throughout a living thing's life remains the same (not even sex). Thus we should presume that a desire to change or re-identify with another sex or ethnicity is completely natural and should be tolerated.

This is a truly fascinating article. It cleverly sets out to show that nothing is inherent -- rather, everything is a product of social conditioning. Sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and all other seemingly "inherently biological" characteristics of people are merely mirror reflections of social norms and constructs they seek to identify with.
In order to be a truly free thinking and open-minded society we should grant the premise that no identifiable characteristic is inherently biological, and that a person's right to change his/her identification with certain gender/racial norms is completely acceptable and should not be judged as being socially deviant or defying nature.
Everywhere in nature we see gradual sex change, from cheramoya fruit to coral reefs -- no characteristic throughout a living thing's life remains the same (not even sex). Thus we should presume that a desire to change or re-identify with another sex or ethnicity is completely natural and should be tolerated.

I guess I never really thought about how on surveys and such there are many categories for race, but only two for gender. I'm sure it relates to gender being an ascribed status- just given to us, something we can't choose. It's interesting to think that gender is also something you actually can choose, but no surveys are accommodating that.

I hadn't given much thought to ethnicity/race and being constructs. I think that society has puts more pressure on gender than on ethnicity. Society influences how we think we should act because of our sex. I don't think society tells us because we are of a certain race we have to act one way or another as much as it does gender.

I knew that society really puts labels on things and suspect people to be something specific. Then you look at things like gender and race. I think that those have the strongest of labels. You are labeled a 'guy' or a 'girl' when you are one and you expected to wear clothes, have your hair, and do things that guys do when you are a guy. When you are a girl you are expected to talk like a girl, wear clothes girls wear and walk like a girl. I think society puts a much stronger label on gender than on race. You have people that are mixed races and they aren't expected to act like one race or the other. I do think some races are very stereo typed, but I think that they aren't stereotyped as much as gender. I think that if society wouldn't stereo type anything or anyone then the whole world would be better, but there are just some things that will probably never change.

I have never really thought too much about ethnicity/race being constructs. I believe that society has put a lot of pressure on both gender and ethnicity. Society shows us the "correct" way and the "incorrect" way to act based on our gender. Also, society has had an influence on how people act due to their ethnicity.

This is a great article. A lot of people don't really think about this issue, because it doesn't seem like its a choice to most of us on which sex/gender we are. Rates of people with sexual orientations other then heterosexual are seemingly increasing, this is possibly one form of the "gender choice". It is interesting how we are brought up believing that it is set for everyone, when in all actuality, many people choose to step outside these norms. I've never thought to put it on a level versus race and ethnicity. It was a very interesting read.

This is a good article, but I do not completly understand how someone can have a gender identity of the opposite sex. I feel that you are a gender, male or female, and that is it. So this all is confusing a little bit.

This is a great article, we are all born with a significant race, sex, gender & ethnicity. We are given a name when we are young and born, we don't think about sex & gender until we are mature enough. The media engraves all these sterotypes in our brains through movies, news & radio. etc. The society should accept everything a human being has to give. race, sex & gender should not matter. Our society influences us to think about ourselves if we act a certain way or approach a certain way.

This article gave me a completely new perception about classification both racially, however especially, with gender (i.e. male or female). In fact, this article brings to light a lot of aspects of classification that i never payed any attention to. For instance, the fact that the census is designed to include both race and ethnicity (i.e. latino vs. hispanic). It also seems as though the census is asking if you are white or otherwise. Every other nationality seems to be a variation of being white. This goes back to the misguided social constructs that exist in our society today. Our history has led to a nation that is very divided and in many ways an abomination to the foundation of our constitution, and it seems to be the will of our social constructs with in our society, to keep it that way. Something i find absolutely crazy, however equally concerning to combat

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