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