It is difficult to have a conversation about race in the United States without discussing its history of slavery, segregation and discrimination. These historical transgressions continue to shape the way we live in America and have a direct impact on our nation’s most pressing issues, such as poverty, isolation, inequality and violence. But simply sweeping our past under the rug will only result in these problems reappearing as we move into the future. This is why it’s important to critically examine the very concept of race and ethnicity.
In the US, race is a social construct that many sociologists believe does not exist in a biological sense. This view is based on the idea that a person’s racial identity is a result of their culture, experiences and beliefs. Sociologists have found that it is hard to place someone in a single racial category because of the wide array of cultural influences that shape one’s identity. As such, researchers have come to understand that a person’s racial designation is not an objective reality but rather a subjective creation (Berger & Luckmann, 1963).
For example, consider someone with two parents who are both white and black. American society typically calls this individual a black or African American and they may adopt this as their own racial identity. However, if this person had only one black parent and three white parents, they would technically be considered white according to the new definition of a “race” from the 1997 Office of Management and Budget guidelines.
This is why it is essential to reexamine the meaning and value of race and to acknowledge that it does not reflect biological differences. The racial categories listed by the U.S. Census Bureau—Black or African American, White, Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and Hispanic or Latino—can include individuals who are either biracial or multiracial, but these individuals are often misunderstood and mistreated based on their racial identities.
Additionally, it has been found that people who are of predominantly white or non-Hispanic ancestry tend to have more positive self-perceptions about the role of their race in their lives than people who are from groups with a larger share of racial minorities. This is reflected in the fact that more whites than Hispanics and other minority groups say their race has helped them get ahead (45% vs. 37% and 5%, respectively). As a result of these negative perceptions, it is vital for everyone in our country to have a conversation about the power of race in our daily lives and the ways that we interact with each other. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is time to address our country’s legacy of racism in order to make a better future for all Americans. This will only be possible if we are willing to embrace a conversation about race in its full complexity. The avoidance strategy that has been employed for so long is no longer an option.