4. Yetman talks about the arbitrary, irrational, and socially constructed nature of racial
and ethnic categories.
What is meant by the social construction of race? Give three
examples from the reading of the “varied and arbitrary definitions of race.”
To begin, race refers to a social category that is defined on the basis of
physical characteristics, as opposed to ethnicity, which is distinguished by
Racial categories found in each society are
social constructs or conventions
cause biologically, there are no “pure” races. Characteristics that define
one racial group from another are arbitrary and thus are socially defined
So what is meant by the social construction of race? Well, a group is
defined as a race when certain physical characteristics are selected
for special emphasis by members of a society; furthermore, it
means that it is not about a race being classified by their biological
or genetic differences, but by society’s perceptions that these
physical differences relate and reflect other apparently innate
mental, emotional, and moral differences. Many groups possess
physically identifiable characteristics that do not become the basis
for racial distinctions.
Moreover, there have been irrational
categories that have been constructed by separating “races” through
linguistics, religion, and national categories, all of which reinforces
the notion that racial designations are artificial.
Thus, the criteria
selected to make racial distinctions in one society may be
overlooked or considered insignificant by another.
That is why
some scholars have chosen to throw out the word “race” and
instead subsume it under the broad category of ethnic groups.
In much of Latin America, skin color and the shape of lips,
which happens to be an important distinguishing criteria in the
United States, are much less significant than are hair texture,
eye color, and stature. Therefore, a person considered black in
Georgia or Michigan might be considered white in Peru or the
In our own American history in 1926, three members of the
NAACP asked defense lawyer Darrow to defend a Detroit
black man who had been accused of murdering a member of a
white mob that was threatening his home.
“black” man happened to be a dark-skinned man of Puerto
Rican descent that was mixed up as a Negro.
shows that racial identity is not primarily a matter of skin color
or physical appearance.
It is, much more significantly, based
on the social categories to which people are assigned.