Wednesday, May 26, 2010

5b The Cultural Construction of Race

This may be the most important thing you ever learn in college: race is culturally constructed. 

Americans often think that race is physical, stable, and real. But race is actually imagined. Babies are not born knowing their own race. Someone needed to tell you what race you were, and the first time you had to fill out a census form, maybe at the beginning of some standardized test in elementary school, someone probably needed to tell you that the name you had learned for your own race (white, maybe, or Vietnamese) mapped on to some other official name (like Caucasion or Asian) – even though those categories aren’t exactly the same. Americans have never agreed on where the lines between races are. Are Mexicans white? Is Latino a race? What race is a Middle Easterner? What about someone from Guam or Hawaii? No one has ever absolutely settled these questions, because these categories are fluid.

In the early 20th century, when citizenship was legally limited to "free white persons" or anyone born in the United States, U.S. courts actually tried to define race and found that they couldn't. In one case, a Japanese immigrant claimed he had pale skin and therefore deserved citizenship. The judge ruled that although the law said "white," it really meant Caucasian. Then a man from the Caucasian mountain range in India claimed that he was certainly Caucasian, and a different judge ruled that what the law really meant was white-skinned. It would be funny if it weren't so important: it kept non-European immigrants excluded from U.S. citizenship for far too long. Immigration law eventually changed between 1924 and 1965. But those earlier cases remind us that it is impossible to draw a fixed line around who counts as "white."

We are all part of the human race. We all share common ancestors with the first humans in Africa. We have created lines that divide us. Those lines of race pretend to be natural but they are artificial. They change over time and they change in between cultures. 

Here's the second important thing to understand: Even though racial categories are imaginary, they have very real consequences. Ideas about race affect who gets what jobs, lives in what neighborhoods, gets tracked into which school classes, and more. In the past, ideas about race affected who got to vote, testify in court, marry, own land, or have other rights of citizenship. 

Limerick, Hine, Faragher, and Berglund all challenge us to think about the many races who interacted on America's borderlands and frontiers. Consider the official 1781 census list of "Los Pobladores de Los Angeles," the original non-Indian settlers of Los Angeles:

Manuel Camero, age 30, race Mulatto, born in Nayarit, married to Maria Tomasa, a 24-year-old Mulatta. Jose Fernando de Valasco y Lara, age 50, race Spaniard, born in Spain, married to Maria Antonia Campos, a 23-year-old Indian; they had 3 children. Antonio Mesa, age 38, race Black, born in Sinaloa, married to Ana Gertrudis, a 27-year-old Mulatta; they have two children...

The list goes on. There was also a Filipino settler, Antonio Rodriguez, who arrived a few months after the census. There's a lot to think about on this seemingly-dry list. The racial categories (Mulatto, Mestizo, Spaniard) are different than the categories that are common today, and that is one reminder that race is cultural, not biological. Race changes: different cultures draw different racial boundaries between people. On this list, we see older racial categories, but we also see that only two of the 43 original settlers (the two "Spaniards") were what we would call white. All the others are what we might now call Mexican, Latino, Hispanic, African-American, Native American, or mixed-race. The founders of Los Angeles were mixed-race and largely dark-skinned. The more you think about that, the more you may begin to understand that history matters for the present, for who we call an "immigrant" or a "newcomer" or a "true Californian."

As Steve Pitti explains in his book The Devil in Silicon Valley, California history is a particularly good place to see the cultural construction of race. In California in the 1800s, people sorted themselves into racial categories that most of us probably no longer recognize: “Gente de razon” was a Mission Indian, distinct from “Gente Barbaros,” literally, a barbarian. “Californio” was a Mexican who claimed descent from Spanish settlers, even though many Californios had quite dark skin.

Consider this photo. What race do you think he is? His name is Pio Pico. He was governor of California in the 1840s. Do those details help you choose a race?

If you remember your 4th-grade California history, you may recall that California was part of Mexico until 1849. Pio Pico was a Mexican governor of California. But he didn't call himself Hispanic or Latino or any of the racial terms we use today. Pio Pico called himself "Californio," which to him meant descended from Spaniards, Europeans, whites. Pio Pico was considered white although his skin was quite dark, as you can see in this second photo of Pico alongside his pale-skinned wife and nieces. 

Census records list his grandparents as "mestizo" and "mulatto." His darker skin and his facial features make me think he was part African-American, maybe part Native American, certainly what we would now call mixed-race. But he was also wealthy and politically powerful. He once owned more than half the current town of Whittier, along with portions of Camp Pendleton and more. You've probably noticed spaces near Fullerton named after him. There is a saying, "Wealth whitens," and in Pio Pico's case, it did -- at least until 1849, when Anglos took over the state and launched land disputes and legal cases, that, along with gambling debts, led Pio Pico to die in poverty.

Nowadays, few people use the term “Californio,” while many think of “Californians” as blonde surfers, not the Mexicans who first claimed this title. The racial categories have shifted over time. Race is culturally constructed. Pio Pico was white, and then he was not white.

Here's another example, this one drawn from Karen Leonard's Making Ethnic Choices. This is a wedding photo from 1917 of two sisters marrying two brothers. Their mother stands in the back, and their youngest sister sits in the front. What race are they? It's impossible to tell just by looking, of course. Their names may help: Anita Alvarez and Antonia Alvarez are marrying Gopal and Sher Singh. From those names, you may deduce that the women are Mexican-American. But what are the men?

The men in this photo are Sikhs from the Punjabi region of India and Pakistani. What racial category is that? In California in the 1910s, they were called "Hindoos", though their religion is not Hindi. They had traveled, following the routes of the British empire, seeking work. Like many immigrants, single men traveled first. Hundreds of Punjabi men settled in California's central valley in the early 1900s, finding work on California's giant farms. Like many immigrants, they hoped to later help bring over women -- but World War I interrupted immigration from the Punjab.

These men were in California, interested in getting married, but with no Punjabi Sikh women nearby. Their problem was exacerbated by anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriages in California then. So who could they marry? Several hundred of them all reached the same conclusion. They married Mexican-American women. We might consider that a different race, and therefore illegal under California's anti-miscegenation laws, but on their official marriage licenses, the clerk wrote, for both the Singhs and the Alvarez's, "Race: Brown."

You might think that's just silly. There is no race of brown. The point is, there is no race at all. We do not have a clearer understanding of race than any of the people in the past whose racial understanding now appears ridiculous to us. We keep imagining race and then we give these imagined categories real consequences like whether Pio Pico got to keep his fortune and whether the Singh brothers could get married.

As you keep thinking about it, you have to wonder: what race are the Singh-Alvarez children going to be? Their story, I think, is a frontier story worth remembering. It's a story of borderlands, even though it happened in the California Central Valley, a space that isn't geographically close to any international border. It's still a borderland, though, in the many people who migrated there from many directions. It's a place of mixing, adapting, and competing for power (what Patty Limerick called conquest). It's a space that lends much complication to Turner's thesis, but that may help explain your own family's history, perhaps.

The idea that race is culturally constructed is a large idea to understand, but comedian Hari Kondabolu recently went on Letterman to talk about race and history and America. Hari says it better than most professors.

All of this is part of what Limerick means when she declares, "The diversity of the west put a strain on the simpler varieties of racism" (Limerick, 260), and "The West was not where we escaped each other, but where we all met" (Limerick, 291).


  1. Thank you so much for the this essay. It came up when I did a search for social contruction and race. It is a topic that I often discuss with my freshman English composition students at The University of Akron (Ohio).
    Pamela Roeper

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