“Race is Not Biology, Race is Sociology”

I’m currently reading the book “Americanah” by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and loving it.

"African Negro" - Popular Science Monthly - 'The Races of Mankind', July 1881

“African Negro” – Popular Science Monthly – ‘The Races of Mankind’, July 1881
(Image shows a portrait sketch of a young black man in a suit and tie. The journal identifies him as “Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone’s faithful boy”. Image in Public Domain; links to source.)

There’s a segment in the book where a fictional blog post by the main character talks about what “race” means in America, which I just had to transcribe so you can read it:

Is Obama Anything But Black?

So lots of folk – mostly non-black – say Obama’s not black, he’s biracial, multi-racial, black-and-white, anything but just black. Because his mother was white. But race is not biology, race is sociology. Race is not genotype, race is phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair. Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass had white fathers. Imagine them saying they were not black.

Imagine Obama, skin the color of a toasted almond, hair kinky, saying to a census worker – I’m kind of white. Sure you are, she’ll say. Many American Blacks have a white person in their ancestry, because white slave owners liked to go a-raping in the slave quarters at night. But if you come out looking dark, that’s it. (So if you are that blond, blue-eyed woman who says “My grandfather was Native American and I get discrimination too” when black folk are talking about shit, please stop it already.) In America, you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you. Barack Obama, looking as he does, would have had to sit in the back of the bus fifty years ago. If a random black guy commits a crime today, Barack Obama could be stopped and questioned for fitting the profile. And what would that profile be? “Black Man.”

By coincidence I was with my little niece and nephew when I was reading this, and looking at them and at my sister and my brother-in-law I was reminded of how true this is. My brother-in-law once jokingly referred to himself as “two-hundred pound black man”. He’s right, because that’s what Americans see when they look at him. It doesn’t matter that his father is black Caribbean and his mother is white European. And my niece and nephew have a mix of both of those, along with south Asian. My niece has light skin and light brown-blond hair, while my nephew has dark brown skin and brown-black hair. I’m guessing she will be the beneficiary of some white privilege when she’s older (or at least be considered “exotic”), while he won’t. What “race” will they give as an answer when someone asks them?



  1. Pen says

    I’m a bit confused by your post, I think it’s because of my peculiar status of being not-American but too damn close to America not to have heard the ‘American view of race’ before. You wanted us to see this because?….

    …it confirms your own and your family’s observations of how Americans see race? Because it astonishes you? Or it just sums the American view of race up so beautifully? Or you think some of it is more universally true? I’m getting mixed signals, what with your brother-in-law. who’s a ‘two hundred pound black man’ for a joke or when he’s in America, so presumably he isn’t in other places. I think I would be inclined to call him mixed-race if I met him in London, unless he asked me to call him something else.

    As for your niece and nephew, depending where you live they may not have to wait long before they’re asked what race they are. My daughter’s been asked about twice a month on various forms since we got back to London. It’s tricky for her, eleven is still too young to have much opinion, too old for us to do it for her. I do think cultural affiliation is more important in making the choice in Britain than in America. I also find the immense and confusing differences between the racial categories on the US census and those on the British census and forms very interesting.

  2. says

    Because it illustrates the artificial construct of race in everyday life well; in this particular case, what the category/label “black” means. (My sister and brother-in-law live in America btw.)

  3. rilian says

    I have some confused thoughts about this.
    It seems like in usa race means only “white” or “black”. I have a cousin who is (half?) black but is adopted by white people. It sort of makes sense to still call her black. But I have another cousin who is adopted from korea. It sure doesn’t make sense to call her korean. She’s not korean, she’s american. But if americanness passes from adoptive parents to adopted children, why doesn’t whiteness pass too? I have a friend who was adopted by white people, and he doesn’t exactly look white, he kinds of looks mexican? But he doesn’t know anything about his biological parents. Another one of my cousins’s biological dad was “mexican”, whatever that means, since there are multiple races of people from mexico… anyway my cousin doesn’t look exactly “white” either, buh? I don’t know. I think my cousin and my friend are close enough that people will just call them white? But I don’t know why. Now I’m just so confused I can’t even put anymore thoughts into words.

  4. says

    rillian, the reason it’s confusing is that it’s a sodden, silly, guesstimated mess, the way whiteness is constructed and maintained.

    My long-term bet? Hispanics are going to become “white” within fifty years or so within the US, so whiteness can still claim a majority of the country, in the same way that Irish and Jewish Americans became white in the early part of the 20th C.

    My great-great-grandmother on my father’s father’s side was a Zulu lady, which means that by some measures in some parts of the US, I would be considered legally Black under the “one drop” laws – which is ridiculous, as I’m a pale-white/blue-eyed English girl in every way, and there’s no way they’d ever put me down as Black, or treat me as though I were, and I have every marker of white privilege.

    It’s a fraught subject, honestly, and full of tangled traps to make sure that people who aren’t “white enough” get screwed every time. That’s the main takeaway of the US’ and, to some extent Canada’s, racial cultures: white gets the pie, and Black gets the plate.

  5. says

    My brother and his wife have a white son and a black daughter. I only see them once a year, but the difference in how they are treated by strangers is all too obvious.

  6. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    What “race” will they give as an answer when someone asks them?

    Human race maybe?


    The way I see it there’s no such thing as “race” just Humanity, race is an unscientific, socially constructed illusion, a dangerous delusion. Problem is, like with religion, too many people still believe in what just isn’t there.

  7. says

    If you lived in a small town, and if people know you come from a non white background, you might have problems even if you would otherwise pass for white.

    Used to be some light skin people would move away and cut off all contact with their families so they could live as white people.

  8. otrame says

    I got an excellent lesson in the “sociology” part when I was a teenager in a public school in South Carolina. I was a freshman the year they finally started to desegregate the local schools (ten years after Brown v. Board of Education). Because we now had a few black kids (they only had a few the first year so the “kids could get used to it”) it was suddenly noticed that some of the kids of Turkish decent in the schools were actually darker in skin tone than some of the black kids.

    This was a subject of endless discussion because the Turkish kids were a significant minority in that particular school and were considered “white”. They were touchy on the subject. They, and many of the white kids, insisted “black” meant from Africa, former slaves, not skin color. It was very revealing to listen to them talk about it. But then, I had the advantage of parents who tried to be non-racists.


    My mother once put “Not Applicable” in the race category on a form registering me for what we now call middle school–in South Carolina in about 1962. She was terribly embarrassed when the NAACP called and asked if she was willing to let me be a test case in an attempt to enforce Brown vs. Board of Education. Note that at that point, 8 years after the ruling came down that made segregated schools unconstitutional, there were no desegregated schools in the state. When she explained we were white, they laughed at their own assumptions and hung up.

    So in honor of that little family story, I have refused to put anything but “Human” on any race question except the US Census and for medical purposes (where it actually matters).

  9. says

    Thanks, all, for your comments. @otrame, that Turkish/black vignette is indeed revealing. I remember being shocked when I visited the Ellis Island museum and discovering that in the 1900s immigration to the US, even southern and eastern europeans were considered undesirable immigrants along with the Asians, chiefly for reasons of “racial impurity”. There’s a nice memoir of sorts by an Italian-American here:

    One reason for this common experience that my father and I share is our similar coloring, hair texture, and certain distinct facial features. Now for the dirty little secret: My father’s family is from Sicily, the bottom of the Italian cultural and racial hierarchy. I was only half-jokingly told as a child to never admit that I was Sicilian. But often, my phenotype could not hide me (these statements came from my mother’s side of the family, of course, who were from the Naples area. This is especially paradoxical because Naples is not exactly northern Italy). Northern Italians are known to be merchants, upper class, cultured, and unmistakably light-skinned. Southerners were historically agricultural and manual laborers, the working poor, notably darker-skinned, and therefore discriminated against within Italian culture.

  10. robertschenck says

    The italian example sounds a bit like what you have, well, basically, everywhere in the world. Dark skinned people tend to be placed lower than light skinned people, whether it’s northern europeans vs mediterraneans, northern vs. southern Indians, dark vs light skinned latin americans, etc. In the US, this gets thrown into extremes, similar to the division of Hispaniola into dark, french, african Haiti, and lighter, spanish, european DR. And just like in all these cases, there are extremely blurry borders and “problematic cases”. Some countries, like South Africa and many latin american countries, have a special ‘mixed’ category, but that tends to only work b/c they have relatively simple ethnic mixes, (euros vs. locals).

    The US is a little different too b/c we have an ‘explicit’ hypo-descent system, where, as the saying goes, ‘one drop of black makes you black’. This was reinforced by laws against so-called ‘miscegenation’, in effect until relatively recently.
    But, as Sunil explains, these are all /social/ factors, not biological ones. The “best” way to determine race in the US would be to ask ‘if this person were thrown into 1820’s Viriginia, would it or would it not be legal to hold them as a slave’, rather than looking at hapoltype groups or some such.

  11. Tecolata says

    Charles Barkley once said that his daughter, whose mother is white, asked him if she was black or white. He told her, “Honey, that was decided a long time ago.” Meaning she will be seen as a black girl/woman despite her white mother. He’s right.

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