Civil debate

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Answer Question based on Page 359-389

· What were the key questions that court’s decision took into account in the Dred Scott case in 1846?

· What questions were raised during the Elk vs. Wilkins Case regarding citizenship and voting behavior as a privilege of citizenship?

· Which of the Supreme Court case occurred before the Civil War?

· Which constitutional amendment prohibited slavery?

· Which U.S. Supreme Court case addressed the definition of a Black person?

· What is the most recent case in a line of cases that consider the rights of same-sex couples?

· Which amendment is the subject of more Supreme Cases than any other provision of the Constitution

· Which Supreme Court case addressed the question of the 14th amendment as it applies to Asian immigrants?

· Which Supreme Court case was the first to address women’s right to vote?

· Which Supreme Court case was the key case in an attempt to topple the separate but equal doctrine?

· Which Supreme Court cases challenged Affirmative action in college admissions?

· What are the questions addressed in Tennessee v. Lane (2004)?

American Constructions of Race and Ethnicity, Sex and
Gender, Social Class, Sexuality, and Disability
A Text/Reader

Seventh Edition

Karen E. Rosenblum
George Mason University

Toni-Michelle C. Travis
George Mason University

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Published by McGraw-Hill Education, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Copyright © 2016 by McGraw-Hill Education.

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Rosenblum, Karen Elaine.

The meaning of difference: American constructions of race and ethnicity, sex and gender, social class, sexuality, and disability /

Karen E. Rosenblum, George Mason University, Toni-Michelle C. Travis, George Mason University.—Seventh Edition.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-07-802702-4 (pbk.)—ISBN 0-07-802702-0 1. United States—Social conditions—1980- 2. Cultural

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KAREN E. ROSENBLUM is a professor of sociology at George Mason

University in Fairfax, Virginia. She has served as the university’s vice

president for university life, was the founding director of its women’s studies

program, and was a Fulbright Lecturer in Japan and South Korea. Professor

Rosenblum received her PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado,

Boulder. Her areas of research and teaching include sex and gender, language,

and deviance.

TONI-MICHELLE C. TRAVIS is a professor of government and politics at

George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Travis received her PhD in

political science from the University of Chicago. Her areas of research and

teaching include race and gender dimensions of political participation,

Virginia politics, and American government. She is a former chair of the

African American Studies program and has served as the president of the

National Capital Area Political Science Association and the Women’s Caucus

of the American Political Science Association. In addition, Professor Travis

has been a fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford University.

A political analyst, she is a frequent commentator on Virginia and national



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Preface xi




1. “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity

Audrey Smedley 51

2. Who Is Black? One Nation’s Defi nition

F. James Davis 61

3. The Evolution of Identity

The Washington Post 70
Personal Account: A Loaded Vacation

Niah Grimes 71

4. Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America

Eva Marie Garroutte 71

5. An Interlocking Panethnicity: The Negotiation of Multiple Identities among

Asian American Social Movement Leaders

Dana Y. Nakano 80

Personal Account: I Thought My Race Was Invisible

Sherri H. Pereira 89

6. Latino Racial Choices: The Effects of Skin Colour and

Discrimination on Latinos’ and Latinas’ Racial Self-Identifi cations

Tanya Golash-Boza and William Darity, Jr. 89


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vi Contents

7. Whiteness as an “Unmarked” Cultural Category

Ruth Frankenberg 101

8. Plus Ça Change . . . ? Multiraciality and the Dynamics of

Race Relations in the United States

Frank D. Bean and Jennifer Lee 107

Personal Account: The Price of Nonconformity

Julia Morgenstern 114

Personal Account: Basketball

Andrea M. Busch 115


9. The Olympic Struggle over Sex

Alice Dreger 115

10. All Together Now: Intersex Infants and IGM

Riki Wilchins 117

11. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society,

and Neurosexism Create Difference

Cordelia Fine 123


12. What’s Class Got to Do with It?

Michael Zweig 127

13. The Silver Spoon: Inheritance and the Staggered Start

Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr. 131

Personal Account: I Am a Pakistani Woman

Hoorie I. Siddique 135

14. The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality

Crisis and What We Can Do about It

Timothy Noah 137


15. Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire

Lisa M. Diamond 142

16. The Biology of the Homosexual

Roger N. Lancaster 147

17. The Heterosexual Questionnaire

Martin Rochlin 158


18. Disability Defi nitions: The Politics of Meaning

Michael Oliver 159

Personal Account: Invisibly Disabled

Heather L. Shaw 163

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Contents vii

19. What Wounds Enable: The Politics of Disability and Violence

in Chicago

Laurence Ralph 163

20. Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World

Harlan Lane 176




21 . Formulating Identity in a Globalized World

Carola Suárez-Orozco 225

Personal Account: Hair

Sarah Faragalla 236

Personal Account: The Americanization of a Reluctant Vietnamese-American

Hoai Huong Tran 239

22 . Latinos and the U.S. Race Structure

Clara E. Rodríguez 242

23 . Everybody’s Ethnic Enigma

Jelita McLeod 248

Personal Account: My Strategies

Eric Jackson 249

24 . From Friendly Foreigner to Enemy Race

John Tehranian 251

Personal Account: Master Status: Pride and Danger

Sumaya Al-Hajebi 258


25 . The Privilege of Teaching about Privilege

Michael A. Messner 261

26 . Proving Manhood

Timothy Beneke 267

Personal Account: Just Something You Did as a Man

Francisco Hernandez 271

27 . “I’m Not a Feminist, But . . .”: Popular Myths about Feminism

Penny A. Weiss 272


28 . Dude, You’re a Fag: Adolescent Male Homophobia

C. J. Pascoe 277

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29 . Gendered Sexuality in Young Adulthood: Double Binds and

Flawed Options

Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth A. Armstrong 287

Personal Account: Living Invisibly

Tara S. Ellison 297

30 . Sexual Orientation and Sex in Women’s Lives: Conceptual and

Methodological Issues

Esther D. Rothblum 297


31 . Cause of Death: Inequality

Alejandro Reuss 303

32 . Why Are Droves of Unqualifi ed, Unprepared Kids Getting into

Our Top Colleges? Because Their Dads Are Alumni

John Larew 307

Personal Account: That Moment of Visibility

Rose B. Pascarell 312

33 . The Myth of the “Culture of Poverty”

Paul Gorski 313


34 . Public Transit

John Hockenberry 317

35 . “Can You See the Rainbow?” The Roots of Denial

Sally French 325

36 . Not Blind Enough: Living in the Borderland Called Legal Blindness

Beth Omansky 331

Personal Account: A Time I Didn’t Feel Normal

Heather Callender 337




37 . Fourteen Key Supreme Court Cases and the Civil War Amendments 359

38 . Blink in Black and White

Malcolm Gladwell 390

Personal Account: Just Like My Mama Said

Anthony McNeill 395

39 . Safe Haven in America? Thirty Years after the Refugee Act of 1980

David W. Haines 395

viii Contents

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40 . Hispanics Are Forgotten in Civil Rights History

Nicholas Dauphine 398

41 . Balancing Identities: Undocumented Immigrant Asian American

Students and the Model Minority Myth

Tracy Poon Tambascia, Jonathan Wang, Breanne Tcheng,

and Viet T. Bui 399

Personal Account: Let Me Work for It!

Isabelle Nguyen 402

42 . Segregated Housing, Segregated Schools

Richard Rothstein 403


43 . Many Faces of Gender Inequality

Amartya Sen 405

Personal Account: He Hit Her

Tim Norton 410

44 . The Not-So-Pink Ivory Tower

Ann Mullen 411

45 . The Gender Revolution: Uneven and Stalled

Paula England 415


46 . Sex Education and the Promotion of Heteronormativity

Tanya McNeill 424

Personal Account: Learning My Own Privilege

Mireille M. Cecil 432

47 . Gaga Relations: The End of Marriage

J. Jack Halberstam 432

48 . Queers without Money: They Are Everywhere. But We Refuse

to See Them

Amber Hollibaugh 439


49 . Rethinking American Poverty

Mark R. Rank 443

50 . Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide

in American Education

Peter Sacks 447

51 . Wealth Stripping: Why It Costs So Much to Be Poor

James H. Carr 452

Contents ix

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52 . Disability Trouble

Bradley A. Areheart 456

53 . Learning Disabilities: The Social Construction of a Special

Education Category

Christine E. Sleeter 468

54 . (Re)Creating a World in Seven Days: Place, Disability, and Salvation

in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
Emily Askew 473



55 . Adolescent Masculinity in an Age of Decreased Homohysteria

Eric Anderson 492

56 . What Can We Do? Becoming Part of the Solution

Allan G. Johnson 502

Personal Account: Parents’ Underestimated Love

Octavio N. Espinal 506

57 . In Defense of Rich Kids

William Upski Wimsatt 507

Personal Account: Where Are You From?

C.C. 511

58 . Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice

Paul Kivel 511

Credits C-1

Index I-1

x Contents

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The Meaning of Difference is an effort to understand how difference is con-
structed in contemporary American culture: How do categories of people come to

be seen as “different”? How does being different affect people’s lives? What does

difference mean at the level of the individual, social institution, or society? What

difference does “difference” make? What is shared across the most signifi cant
categories of difference in America—race, sex/gender, sexual orientation, social

class, and disability? What can be learned from their commonalities? That The
Meaning of Difference is now in its seventh edition makes us hopeful that this
comparative approach can be useful in understanding American conceptions and

constructions of difference.

The Meaning of Difference is divided into four sections. Each section includes an
opening Framework Essay and a set of readings, with the Framework Essay pro-

viding the conceptual structure by which to understand the readings. Thus, the

Framework Essays are not simply introductions to the readings; they are the “text”

portion of this text/reader.

The fi rst section’s Framework Essay and readings describe how categories of

difference are created; the second considers the experience of difference; the third
examines the meanings that are assigned to difference, focusing especially on
education, ideology, law, and public policy; and the fourth describes what people

can do to challenge and change these constructions of difference.
Each of the readings included in the volume has been selected by virtue of its

applicability to multiple categories of difference. For example, F. James Davis’s

conclusions about the construction of race (Reading 2) could be applied to a


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xii Preface

discussion of sexual identity or disability. How much of “x” does it take to locate

someone as gay or straight, disabled or nondisabled, Middle-Eastern or American?

Carola Suárez-Orozco’s discussion of identity formation in a globalized world

(Reading 21) can be applied toward an understanding of racial identity formation

and even to the formation of identities tied to sexuality. Similarly, Michael Oliver’s

rendering of an alternative Survey of Disabled Adults (Reading 18)—which

parallels Martin Rochlin’s classic Heterosexual Questionnaire (Reading 17)—

serves as an example of the insights that can be gained by a change of perspective.

In all, our aim has been to select readings that help identify both what is unique

and what is shared across our experiences of difference.

Five features make The Meaning of Difference distinctive:

• First, it offers a conceptual framework by which to understand the common-

alities among these categories of difference. This encompassing conceptual

approach makes The Meaning of Difference unique.
• Second, no other book provides an accessible and historically grounded discus-

sion of the Supreme Court decisions critical to the structuring of these categor-

ical differences.

• Third, The Meaning of Difference has been designed with an eye toward the
pedagogic diffi culties that often accompany this subject matter. In our experi-

ence, when the topics of race, sex and gender, social class, sexual orientation,

and disability are treated simultaneously , as they are here, no one group can be
easily cast as victim or victimizer.

• Fourth, no other volume includes a detailed discussion and set of readings on

how to challenge and change the constructions of difference.

• Finally, The Meaning of Difference is the fi rst book of its kind to incorporate
disability as a master status functioning in ways analogous to the operation of

race and ethnicity, sex and gender, sexual orientation, and social class.

This edition includes twenty-seven new readings, one new personal account,

and, in Reading 37, a discussion of two important new Supreme Court Cases:

U.S. v. Windsor (2013), which established federal recognition of the rights of
married same-sex couples and Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affi rmative
Action, Integration and Immigration Rights and Fight for Equality By Any
Means Necessary (BAMN) (2013), in which the Court upheld an amendment
to the Michigan state constitution banning affi rmative action in public employ-

ment, education, or contracting.

New to this volume are several readings that focus on education as a key site

for the construction of difference and inequality. Paul Gorski considers how the

myth of the culture of poverty affects teachers; Tracy Poon Tambascia , Jonathan
Wang, Breanne Tcheng, and Viet T. Bui refl ect on the impact of the model minority

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Preface xiii

myth on undocumented immigrant Asian American university students; Tanya

McNeill details the promotion of heterosexual monogamy in the policies of pub-

lic schools; Peter Sacks describes the processes by which, over the last thirty

years, American higher education has come to exclude poor and working-class

students; and Christine Sleeter places the emergence of the idea of learning

disability in the context of the educational reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. In

combination with John Larew’s timeless article on legacy admissions at elite

universities and coverage of several Supreme Court cases about affi rmative action

in higher education, we believe the volume now allows faculty the opportunity

for concentrated focus on education should they choose that.

Several readings new to this edition focus on the dramatic increase of economic

inequality in the United States and the still-unfolding outcomes of the Great

Recession. In “The Great Divergence,” Timothy Noah describes the nature and

extent of U.S. inequality; in “Wealth Stripping,” James Carr details the effect of

predatory “alternative” lending such as pay-day and auto-title loans; in “ Rethinking

American Poverty,” Mark Rank considers the structural factors that shape relatively

high rates of American poverty; and in “(Re)Creating a World in Seven Days,”

Emily Askew analyzes the messages about social class and disability embedded

in ABC’s hit television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition .
In addition to the inclusion of new readings, we have, as always, concentrated

on updating the Framework Essays, as these are the “text” portion of this text/

reader. We aim for essays that offer a conceptual structure for thinking about (and

teaching) this material, but in this edition in particular we thought of the essays

as a place in which to grapple with how, increasingly, American constructions of

difference appear to be both fl uid and stable.
To highlight some of the changes in this edition, the fi rst framework essay now

considers the effects of our 21st century mapping of the human genome—an

accomplishment that many predicted would be the death knell of the idea of race.

What we see instead is that race is surprisingly resilient in both popular opinion

and science, albeit now framed and profi tably marketed as “geographic ancestry.”

In contrast to this persistence, however, the essay also examines the ways that

ideas about race have broadened, especially as revealed by the use of multi-racial

self-identifi cations. As discussed in this essay, increased breadth and fl uidity also

appears to characterize gender and sexuality categorizations, for example in the

increased visibility and acceptance of those who identify as transgender and the

emergence of bisexuality as a viable scientifi c and self-identifi cation category.

In this edition, the second Framework Essay gives special attention to the idea

of intersectionality, that is, the interaction of stigmatized statuses. Long a topic
in women’s studies scholarship, we have tried to make this complicated idea more

accessible to students while also showing the practical consequences of

acknowledging, or failing to acknowledge, intersectionality. Updates to the third

Framework Essay have included the topics of intermarriage and residential

segregation. The readings in the third section—focused on education, ideology,

law, and public policy—are now organized into the master-status subsections used

throughout the book.

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Several readings from the previous edition have been retained not only because

of their wide popularity among students and faculty, but also because they are

classics in the fi eld. Included in this category are F. James Davis’s “Who Is Black?

One Nation’s Defi nition”; Ruth Frankenberg’s “Whiteness as an ‘Unmarked’

Cultural Category”; Michael Oliver’s “Disability Defi nitions”; Sally French’s

“Can You See the Rainbow?”; John Hockenberry’s “Public Transit”; C. J. Pascoe’s

“Dude You’re a Fag”; and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink in Black and White.” We

also believe several readings new to this edition will become classics: Cordelia

Fine’s “Delusions of Gender”; Lisa Diamond’s “Sexual Fluidity”; Laurence

Ralph’s “What Wounds Enable”; David Haines’s “Safe Haven in America?”;

Amartya Sen’s “The Many Faces of Gender Inequality”; and Eric Anderson’s

“Adolescent Masculinity in an Age of Decreased Homohysteria” all have this



Instructor’s Manual/Test Bank

An Instructor’s Manual and Test Bank accompany this volume. In this edition,

we have added a special section of advice on how to teach this material. Instructors

can access this password-protected material on the website that accompanies the

seventh edition of The Meaning of Difference at .

Many colleagues and friends have helped us clarify the ideas we present here.

David Haines has been unfailing in his willingness to help Karen think through

conceptual, technical, and ethical dilemmas. She could not imagine a colleague

more supportive or wise. Theodore W. Travis provided insight on Supreme Court

decisions, their relationship to social values, and their impact on American society.

Since this project fi rst emerged, Victoria Rader has been generous in sharing her

knowledge as a teacher and writer. Her wisdom especially guided our develop-

ment of the “Bridging Differences” section. We are also grateful to our colleague

and friend Beth Omansky for helping us understand the critical relationship of

disability to our work. As a friend and friendly editor, none could be better than

Sheila Barrows. Finally, we owe thanks to our students at George Mason University

for sharing their experiences with us.

For this edition, we again convey our appreciation to Joan Lester and the Equity

Institute of Emeryville, California, for their understanding of the progress that can

be made through a holistic analysis.

Jamie Daron of McGraw-Hill and Melanie Lewis of ansrsource shepherded this

volume to completion. Fred Courtright’s work on acquiring permissions was espe-

cially appreciated. As in previous editions, McGraw-Hill proved itself committed

to a thorough review process by putting together a panel of accomplished scholars

xiv Preface

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with broad teaching expertise. All offered detailed and insightful critiques, and

we are much in their debt:

Naomi Greyser, University of Iowa

Shepherd M. Jenks, Jr., Central New Mexico Community College

Earnest Perry, University of Missouri

Gloria L. Rowe, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

Karen Rosenblum

Toni-Michelle Travis

George Mason University

Preface xv

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2 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

In this book we consider how difference is constructed in contemporary American
society. We explore how categories of people are seen as signifi cantly different

from one another and how people’s lives are affected by these conceptions of

difference. The four sections of the book are organized around what we consider

to be the key questions about difference: how it is constructed, how it is experi-

enced by individuals, how meaning is attributed to difference, and how differences

can be bridged.

We believe that race, sex, social class, sexuality, and disability are currently

the primary axes of difference in American society—they are also what social

scientists would call master statuses. In common usage, the term status means
prestige or esteem. But for social scientists, the term status refers to positions in
a social structure. In this sense, statuses are like empty slots (or positions) that

individuals fi ll. The most obvious kinds of statuses are kinship, occupation, and

age. At any time an individual occupies multiple statuses, including those of race,

sex, social class, sexuality, and disability.

This latter set of statuses—the ones we focus on in this book—are signifi cantly

more powerful than most other social statuses. Social scientists refer to these as

master statuses because they so profoundly affect a person’s life: “in most or all
social situations master status will overpower or dominate all other statuses. . . .

Master status infl uences every other aspect of life, including personal identity.”

These master statuses may be said to “frame” how people are seen by others—

especially strangers—as well as how they see themselves and much of what they

experience in the world.
This does not mean, however, that people always under-

stand the impact of the master statuses or “frames” that they occupy. Indeed, much

of this book is about recognizing that impact.

This text will explore similarities in the operation of these master statuses.

Although there are certainly differences of history, experience, and impact, we

believe that similar processes are at work when people “see” differences of

color, sex and gender, social class, sexuality, and disability, and we believe

that there are similarities in the consequences of these master statuses for

individuals’ lives. Nonetheless, there are risks in our focus on similarities

across master statuses, not the least of which is the assumption that similarity

is a better ground for social change than a recognition of difference.

our focus on similarities across master statuses is literally only one side of

the story.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and diversity have been pervasive topics for dis-

cussion in American society for at least the last fi fty years. Although the substance

of these conversations has changed in many ways—for example, the term diversity
once fl agged the need for equal opportunity but now functions more as a market-

ing tool—the intensity around most of these topics persists. Many Americans have

strong opinions on these subjects, and that is probably also the case for readers

of this text. Two perspectives—essentialism and constructionism—are core to this

book and should help you understand your own reaction to the material.

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Framework Essay 3

The Essentialist and Constructionist Perspectives

The difference between the constructionist and essentialist perspectives is illus-
trated in the tale of the three umpires, fi rst apparently told by social psychologist

Hadley Cantril:

Hadley Cantril relates the story of three baseball umpires discussing their profession.

The fi rst umpire said, “Some are balls and some are strikes, and I call them as they are.”

The second replied, “Some’s balls and some’s strikes, and I call ’em as I sees ’em.” The

third thought about it and said, “Some’s balls and some’s strikes, but they ain’t nothing

’till I calls ’em.”

The fi rst umpire in the story can be described as an essentialist. When he says,

“I call them as they are,” he assumes that balls and strikes exist in the world

regardless of his perception of them. For this umpire, balls and strikes are easily

identifi ed, and he is merely a neutral observer; he “regards knowledge as objective

and independent of mind, and himself as the impartial reporter of things ‘as

they  are.’”

Thus, the essentialist perspective presumes that items in a category all share

some “essential” quality, their “ball-ness” or “strike-ness.” For essentialists, race,
sex, sexual orientation, disability, and social class identify signifi cant, empirically
verifi able differences among people. From the essentialist perspective, each of

these exists apart from any social processes; they are objective categories of real

differences among people.

The second umpire is somewhat removed from pure essentialism. His statement,

“I call ’em as I sees ’em,” conveys the belief that while an independent, objective

reality exists, it is subject to interpretation. For him, the world contains balls and

strikes, but individuals may have different perceptions about which is which.

The third umpire, who says “they ain’t nothing ’till I calls ’em,” is a construc-

tionist. He operates from the belief that “conceptions such as ‘strikes’ and ‘balls’

have no meaning except that given them by the observer.”
For this constructionist

umpire, reality cannot be separated from the way a culture makes sense of

it; strikes and balls do not exist until they are constructed through social processes.

From this perspective, difference is created rather than intrinsic to a phenomenon.

Social processes—such as those in political, legal, economic, scientifi c, and

religious institutions—create differences, determine that some differences are

more important than others, and assign particular meanings to those differences.

From this perspective, the way a society defi nes difference among its members

tells us more about that society than the people so classifi ed. The Meaning of
Difference operates from the constructionist perspective, since it examines how
we have arrived at our race, sex, disability, sexuality, and social class categories.

Few of us have grown up as constructionists. More likely, we are essentialists

who believe that master statuses such as race or sex entail clear-cut, unchanging,

and in some way meaningful differences. Still, not everyone is an essentialist.

Those who grew up in multiple racial or religious backgrounds are familiar with

the ways in which identity is not clear-cut. They grow up understanding how

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4 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

defi nitions of self vary with the context; how others try to defi ne one as belong-

ing in a particular category; and how, in many ways, one’s very presence calls

prevailing classifi cation systems into question. For example, the experience Jelita

McLeod describes in Reading 23 of being asked “What are you?” is a common

experience for multiracial people. Such experiences make evident the social con-

structedness of racial identity.

Most of us are unlikely to be exclusively essentialist or constructionist. As

authors of this book, although we take the constructionist perspective, we have

still relied on essentialist terms we fi nd problematic. The irony of questioning

the idea of race but still talking about “blacks,” “whites,” and “Asians,” or of

rejecting a dualistic approach to sexual identity while still using the terms gay
and straight, has not escaped us. Indeed, we have sometimes used the cur-
rently favored essentialist phrase sexual orientation over the more construc-
tionist sexual preference because sexual preference is an unfamiliar phrase to
many people.


Further, there is a serious risk that a text such as this falsely identifi es people on

the basis of either their sex, race, sexuality, disability, or social class, despite the
fact that master statuses are not parts of a person that can be broken off from one

another like the segments of a Tootsie Roll.
All of us are always simultaneously

all of our master statuses, an idea encompassed by the concept of intersectionality
(a topic to which we will return in the Framework Essay for Section II).

While the readings in this section may make it seem as if these were separable

statuses, they are not. Indeed, even the concept of master status could mislead us

into thinking that there could be only one dominating status in one’s life.

Both constructionism and essentialism can be found in the social sciences.

Indeed, social science research routinely operates from essentialist assumptions:

when researchers report the sex, race, or ethnicity of their interviewees or

experimental subjects they are treating these categories as “real,” that is, as existing

independent of the researchers’ classifi cations. Both perspectives also are evident

in social movements, and those movements sometimes shift from one perspective

to the other over time. For example, some feminists and most of those opposed

to feminism hold the essentialist belief that women and men are inherently dif-

ferent. The constructionist view that sexual identity is chosen dominated the gay

rights movement of the 1970s,
but today, the essentialist view that sexual identity

is something one is born with appears to dominate. By contrast, some of those

opposed to gay relationships now take the constructionist view that sexuality is

chosen and could therefore be changed. In this case, language often signals which

perspective is being used. For example, sexual preference conveys active, human
decision making with the possibility of change (constructionism), while sexual

orientation implies something fi xed and inherent to a person (essentialism).
Americans are now about equally split between those who hold essentialist and

constructionist views on homosexuality—40 percent of those who responded to a

The term sexual identity seems now to be replacing sexual orientation . It could be used in either

an essentialist or a constructionist way.

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Framework Essay 5

2012 Gallup Poll answered that being gay was something a person was born with,

compared to 37 percent who said that being gay was the result of upbringing or

other social factors. Thirty-fi ve years ago those opinions were the reverse, with

56 percent saying sexuality was the result of upbringing or other environmental

This shift toward a more essentialist view of sexuality began in the late

1990s, when, as Roger Lancaster describes in Reading 16, the media focused on

the biological (i.e., essentialist) research on the origin of homosexuality, much of

which has now been discredited. Later in this chapter we will describe what

appears to be another change in attitudes about sexuality, which is a turn toward

a constructionist approach, at least among college students.

This example from journalist Darryl Rist shows the appeal that essentialist

explanations might have for gay rights activists:

[Chris Yates’s parents were] Pentecostal ministers who had tortured his adolescence with

Christian cures for sexual perversity. Shock and aversion therapies under born-again doctors

and gruesome exorcisms of sexual demons by spirit-fi lled preachers had culminated in a

plan to have him castrated by a Mexican surgeon who touted the procedure as a way to

make the boy, if not straight, at least sexless. Only then had the terrifi ed son rebelled.

Then, in the summer of 1991, the journal Science reported anatomical differences
between the brains of homosexual and heterosexual men. . . . The euphoric media—those

great purveyors of cultural myths—drove the story wildly. Every major paper in the country

headlined the discovery smack on the front page. . . . Like many others, I suspect, Chris

Yates’s family saw in this newly reported sexual science a way out of its wrenching impasse.

After years of virtual silence between them and their son, Chris’s parents drove several

hundred miles to visit him and ask for reconciliation. Whatever faded guilt they might have

felt for the family’s faulty genes was nothing next to the reassurance that neither by a per-

verse upbringing nor by his own iniquity was Chris or the family culpable for his urges and

actions. “We could never have condoned this if you could do something to change it. But

when we fi nally understood that you were born that way, we knew we’d been wrong. We
had to ask your forgiveness.”


Understandably, those who are discriminated against would fi nd essentialist

orientations appealing, just as the expansiveness of constructionist approaches

would be appealing in more tolerant eras. Still, either perspective can be used to

justify discrimination, since people can be persecuted for the choices they make

as well as for their genetic inheritance. As Lisa Diamond concludes in Reading 15,

on a topic as politicized as sexuality, there are no “safe” scientifi c fi ndings—any

fi nding can be used for just about any purpose.

Our inclusion here of disability as a social construction may generate an intense

reaction—many will want to argue that disability is about real physical, sensory,

or cognitive differences, not social constructs. However, two factors are at work

here. One involves impairment, that is, “the physical, cognitive, emotional or
sensory condition within the person as diagnosed by medical professionals.”


second is “the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life

of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barri-


This latter dimension, called disability, has been the emphasis of what is
called the “social model” of disability, which contends that disability is created

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6 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

by social, political, and environmental obstacles—that is, that social processes

such as discrimination or lack of access to corrective technologies turn impair-

ments into disabilities.

This form of discrimination is sometimes called ableism.
In the historic words of Britain’s Union of the Physically Impaired against Seg-

regation (UPIAS), one of the fi rst disability liberation groups in the world and

the fi rst run by disabled people themselves:

It is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on

top of our impairment by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full

participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society.

That perspective is refl ected in the 2007 United Nations Convention on the

Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which reads in part:

[D]isability should be seen as the result of the interaction between a person and his or her

environment. Disability is not something that resides in the individual as the result of some

impairment. . . . Disability resides in the society, not in the person. [For example,] in a

society where corrective lenses are available for someone with extreme myopia (nearsight-

edness), this person would not be considered to have a disability, however someone with
the same condition in a society where corrective lenses were not available would be con-
sidered to have a disability, especially if the level of vision prevented the person from

performing tasks expected of this person. . . .

For example, John Hockenberry (Reading 34) describes how mass transit sys-

tems that are inaccessible to wheelchair users “disable” them by making it diffi cult

or impossible to work, attend school, or be involved in social activities. Beyond

architectural, educational, and occupational barriers, disability is also constructed

through cultural stereotypes and everyday interactions in which difference is

defi ned as undesirable. We once heard a student with spina bifi da tell a story

addressing this point: In her fi rst day at elementary school, other students kept

asking what was “wrong” with her. As she put it, she had always known she was

different, but she hadn’t thought she was “wrong.”

Not only can disability be understood as the result of disabling environments

and cultural stereotypes, the categories of impairment and disability are also them-

selves socially constructed through medical and legal processes. “[I]llness, dis-

ease, and disability are not ‘givens’ in nature . . . but rather socially constructed
categories that emerge from the interpretive activities of people acting together in

social situations.”

Learning disabilities are an example of this process.

Before the late 1800s when observers began to write about “word blindness,” learning dis-

ability (whatever its name) did not exist, although the human variation to which it ambiguously

refers did—sort of! People who today might be known as learning disabled may have formerly

been known as “slow,” “retarded,” or “odd.” But mostly they would not have been known as

unusual at all. The learning diffi culties experienced today by learning disabled youth have not

been experienced by most youth throughout history. For example, most youth have not been

asked to learn to read. Thus, they could not experience any reading diffi culties, the most com-

mon learning disability. As we have expected youth to learn to read and have tried to teach

them to do so, many youth have experienced diffi culty. However, until the mid-1960s we

typically did not understand those diffi culties as the consequences of a learning disability.

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Framework Essay 7

The social model of disability fi rst emerged out of the disabled people’s move-

ment in the 1970s in opposition to the “medical model,” which approached dis-

ability as a matter of individual defi ciencies or defects, rather than societal

responses. From the perspective of the medical model, individuals have problems

that need to be treated by medical specialists; from that of the social model, indi-

vidual problems are the result of social structures that need to be changed. Thus,

for adherents of the social model, the important questions are about civil rights

such as equal access. The survey questions posed by Mike Oliver in Reading 18

show how the world is perceived differently from these two perspectives. Still, as

Laurence Ralph describes in Reading 19, the social model of disability becomes

less relevant when we consider the numbers of young black and Hispanic men

disabled by gun violence (second to car accidents, gunshot wounds are the most

common source of disability in urban areas). Ralph describes the case of a group

of Chicago ex-gang members, now paralyzed by spinal cord injuries from gunshots.

Although the social model would argue that society has disabled these young men,

the men themselves operate from the medical model—in their mission to save

teenagers from a similar fate, they focus on the defects of their bodies.

Why have we spent so much time describing the essentialist and construction-

ist perspectives? Discussions about race, sex, disability, sexual identity, and social

class generate great intensity, partly because they involve the clash of essentialist

and constructionist assumptions. Essentialists are likely to view categories of

people as “essentially” different in some important way; constructionists are likely

to see these differences as socially created and arbitrary. An essentialist asks what

causes people to be different; a constructionist asks about the origin and conse-

quence of the categorization system itself. While arguments about the nature and

cause of racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty are disputes about power and

justice, from the perspectives of essentialism and constructionism they are also

disputes about the meaning of differences in color, sexuality, and social class.

In all of this, the constructionist approach has one clear advantage. From that

perspective, one understands that all this talk has a profound signifi cance. Such

talk is not simply about difference; it is itself the creation of difference. In the
sections that follow, we examine how categories of people are named, dichoto-

mized, and stigmatized—all toward the construction of difference.


Difference is constructed fi rst by naming categories of people. Therefore, con-

structionists pay special attention to the names people use to refer to themselves

and others—the times at which new names are asserted, the negotiations that

surround the use of particular names, and those occasions when people are grouped

together or separated out.

Asserting a Name Both individuals and categories of people face similar issues
in the assertion of a name. A change of name involves, to some extent, the claim

of a new identity. For example, one of our colleagues no longer wanted to be called

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8 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

by her nickname because it had come to seem childish to her, so she asked people

to use her “real” name instead. It took a few times to remind people that this was

her new name, and with most that was adequate. One colleague, however, argued

that he could not adapt to the new name; she would just have to tolerate his con-

tinued use of the nickname. This was a small but public battle about who had the

power to name whom. Did she have the power to enforce her own naming, or did

he have the power to name her despite her wishes? Eventually, she prevailed.

A more disquieting example was a young woman who wanted to keep her

maiden name after she married. Her fi ancé agreed with her decision, recognizing

that he would be reluctant to give up his name were the tables turned. When his

mother heard of this possibility, however, she was outraged. In her mind, a rejec-

tion of her family’s name was a rejection of her family. She urged her son to

reconsider getting married.

Thus, asserting a name can create social confl ict. On both a personal and soci-

etal level, naming can involve the claim of a particular identity and the rejection

of others’ power to impose a name. For example, is one Native American,

American Indian, or Sioux; African American or black; girl or woman; Asian,

Asian American, Korean, or Korean American; gay or homosexual; Chicano,

Mexican American, Mexican, Latino/a, or Hispanic? For instance,

[j]ust who is Hispanic? The answer depends on whom you ask.

The label was actually coined in the mid-1970s by federal bureaucrats working under

President Richard M. Nixon. They came up with it in response to concerns that the government

was wrongly applying “Chicano” to people who were not of Mexican descent, and otherwise

misidentifying and underserving segments of the population by generally classifying those with

ancestral ties to the Spanish cultural diaspora as either Chicano, Cuban, or Puerto Rican.

Nearly three decades later, the debate continues to surround the term Hispanic and its

defi nition. Although mainly applied to people from Latin American countries with linguistic

and cultural ties to Spain, it also is used by the U.S. government to refer to Spaniards

themselves, as well as people from Portuguese-speaking Brazil.

Comedian Carlos Mencia (a Honduran-born American) captures this confusion

in a story about talking to college students twenty years ago, but its substance

applies just as easily today: “I said ‘Latinos,’ and they said, ‘We’re not Latin!’

And then I said ‘Chicano,’ and they said, ‘We’re not of Mexican descent.’ So I

said ‘I don’t know what to say—Hispanic? And they said, ‘There’s no such coun-

try as Hispania!’ ”

As of 2011, 33 percent of Hispanic/Latinos preferred His-
panic, 14 percent preferred Latino, but 53 percent had no preference. 21

Deciding what name to use for a category of people is not easy. It is unlikely

that all members of the category use the same name; the name members use for

one another may not be acceptable for outsiders to use; nor is it always advisable

to ask what name a person prefers. We once saw an old friend become quite angry

when asked whether he preferred the term black or African American. “Either one
is fi ne with me,” he replied, “ I know what I am.” To him, the question meant that
he was being seen as a member of a category, not as an individual.

Because naming may involve a redefi nition of self, an assertion of power, and

a rejection of others’ ability to impose an identity, social change movements often

claim a new name, while opponents may express opposition by continuing to use

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Framework Essay 9

the old name. For example, in the 1960s black emerged in opposition to Negro as
the Black Power movement sought to distinguish itself from the Martin Luther

King–led moderate wing of the civil rights movement. The term Negro had itself
been put forward by infl uential leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T.

Washington as a rejection of the term colored that had dominated the mid- to late
19th century: “[D]espite its association with racial epithets, ‘Negro’ was defi ned to

stand for a new way of thinking about Blacks.”

Similarly, in 1988, Ramona H.

Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, proposed that African American
be substituted for black. Now both terms are used about equally. b Among blacks
who have a preference, Gallup polls suggest a gradual trend toward the label “Afri-

can American.” Still, “a clear majority of blacks say they don’t care which label is


and some still prefer the term Negro. “The immediate reason the word
Negro is on the [2010] Census is simple enough: in the 2000 Census, more than
56,000 people wrote in Negro to describe their identity—even though it was already
on the form. Some people, it seems, still strongly identify with the term, which

used to be a perfectly polite designation,” but is now considered by many an insult.

Each of these name changes—from Negro to black to African American —was
fi rst promoted by activists as a way to demonstrate their commitment to a new

social order. A similar theme is refl ected in the history of the terms Chicano and
Chicanismo. Although the origin of the terms is unclear, the principle was the
same. As reporter Ruben Salazar wrote in the 1960s, “a Chicano is a Mexican-

American with a non-Anglo image of himself.”

( Anglo is a colloquialism for
white used in the southwestern and western United States.)

Similarly, the term homosexual was fi rst coined in 1896 by a Hungarian physi-
cian hoping to decriminalize same-sex relations between men. It was incorporated

into the medical and psychological literature of the time, which depicted nonproc-

reative sex as pathological. In the 1960s, activists rejected the pathological char-

acterization along with the name associated with it, turning to the terms gay c and
lesbian rather than homosexual (and using gay to refer to men, or both men and
women). Later, the 1990s group Queer Nation transformed what had been a com-

mon epithet into a slogan—“We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!”

Well, yes, “gay” is great. It has its place. . . . [But] using “queer” is a way of reminding

us how we are perceived by the rest of the world. It’s a way of telling ourselves we don’t

have to be witty and charming people who keep our lives discreet and marginalized in the

straight world.  . . . Queer, unlike gay, doesn’t mean male. . . . Yeah, queer can be a rough

word but it is also a sly and ironic weapon we can steal from the homophobe’s hands and

use against him.

Thus, one can fi nd Black Studies, Afro-American Studies, and African American Studies programs

in universities across the country.
In the 17th century, gay became associated with an addiction to social dissipation and loose moral-

ity, and was used to refer to female prostitutes (e.g., gay girl ). The term was apparently fi rst used in
reference to homosexuality in 1925 in Australia. “It may have been both the connotations of feminin-
ity and those of immorality that led American homosexuals to adopt the title ‘gay’ with some self-
irony in the 1920s. The slogan ‘Glad to Be Gay,’ adopted by both female and male homosexuals,
and the naming of the Gay Liberation Front, which was born from the Stonewall resistance riots
following police raids on homosexual bars in New York in 1969, bear witness to a greater self-
confi dence.”


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10 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Now, all terms—homosexual, gay and lesbian, gay as including both women
and men or just men, queer, and the acronyms GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual,
transgender, and questioning) and LGBTQ—appear to be in common use. People

who identify as asexual, that is, not experiencing sexual attraction, also appears

to be a growing category, with the likelihood that the LGBTQ umbrella will

someday expand to LGBTQA. While “queer” maintains some of its history as

both pejorative and defi ant, it was apparently acceptable enough to serve as the

title of a popular reality show, Queer Eye, that aired from 2003 to 2007.
Just as each of these social movements has involved a public renaming that

proclaims pride, the women’s movement has asserted woman as a replacement for
girl. A student who described a running feud with her roommate illustrates
the  signifi cance of these terms. The student preferred the word woman, arguing
that girl, when applied to females past adolescence, was insulting, almost as if
one could never grow up. Her female roommate just as strongly preferred the term

girl and regularly applied it to the females she knew. Each of them had such
strong feelings on the matter that it was clear they would not last as roommates.

How could these two words destroy their relationship? It appears that English

speakers use the terms girl and woman to refer to quite different qualities. Woman
is understood to convey adulthood, power, and sexuality; girl connotes youth,
powerlessness, and irresponsibility. (The same qualities of age, power, responsibil-

ity, and sexuality operate in the choice between boy and man. ) The two roommates
were asserting quite different places for themselves in the world. One claimed

adulthood; the other saw herself as not having achieved that yet. This explanation

is offered by many females: It is not so much that they like being girls, as that
they value youth and/or do not yet feel justifi ed in calling themselves women.

But  the effort to remain a “girl” can create its own inconsistencies. We once

overheard a woman describe a friend as a “girl”—the friend was fi fty and about

to adopt a child.

It seems to us that college students now often refer to themselves as “girls”

and “boys.” Sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that the use of boys, but more
importantly, guys, speaks to the development of a new age demographic for
American males, specifi cally an extended period in which they are neither depen-

dent (like boys) or responsible (like men). On the use of woman, some of our
students have said that they avoid the word because it is associated with feminism,

and they are right to conclude that it is. After all, it is called the women’s move-
ment, not the girls’ movement! The name conveys an identity: “we cannot be girls
anymore, we must be women.” In a now classic essay, political philosopher Penny

Weiss (Reading 27) “diagnoses” the phrase that has been used by women for at

least the last fi fty years: “I’m not a feminist, but. . . .”

In all, different categories of people may claim a wide range of names for

themselves. A name may refl ect the analysis and aspirations of a social movement,

and it may be the battleground for competing conceptions of the world. The name

invoked by movement activists may have no immediate bearing on the language

used by people in the streets, or everyday language may come to be shaped

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Framework Essay 11

by policymakers external to the social movement. Sometimes, a variety of names

may be in use—each with a constituency that feels strongly that only some words

are appropriate.

Of all the master statuses we are considering in this book, the naming of those

with disabilities is perhaps the least settled. The term handicapped, which pre-
dominated in the period following World War II, shifted to disabled with the
emergence of the disability rights movement in the 1970s. As we have seen,

theorists from the British social model draw a distinction between impairment,
referring to “the physical, cognitive, emotional or sensory condition within the

person as diagnosed by medical professionals,” and disability, which is reserved
for the social processes that disable a person

—but the U.S. disability rights

movement uses disability to cover both of these features. The style guide for the
American Psychological Association urges a “people fi rst” approach, as in “people

with disabilities” rather than “disabled people,” and “people fi rst” terminology has

been formally authorized by some state and local governments. By contrast, one

of the founders of the British disability rights movement—Mike Oliver—argued

that disabled people is ultimately more appropriate:

It is sometimes argued, often by [nondisabled] professionals and some disabled people, that

“people with disabilities” is the preferred term, for it asserts the value of the person fi rst

and the disability then becomes an appendage. This liberal and humanist view fl ies in the

face of reality as it is experienced by disabled people themselves who argue that far from

being an appendage, disability is an essential part of the self. In this view, it is nonsensical

to talk about the person and the disability separately, and consequently, disabled people are

demanding acceptance as they are, disabled people.

In all, the names that we call ourselves and others are rarely a matter of indif-

ference; they are often carefully chosen to refl ect worldview and aspirations, and

they can materially shape our lives.

Creating Categories of People While individuals and groups may assert
names for themselves, governments also have the power to categorize. The history

of the race and ethnicity questions asked in the U.S. Census illustrates this process.

Every census since the fi rst one in 1790 has included a question about race.

By 1970, the options for race were white, Negro or black, American Indian (with
a request to print the name of the enrolled or principal tribe), Japanese, Chinese,
Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean, and Other with the option of specifying. The 1970
census began the practice of allowing the head of the household to identify the

race of household members: before that, the census taker had made that decision.

Thus, in 1970 the Census Bureau began treating race as primarily a matter of

self -identifi cation. Still, it was assumed that a person could only be a member
of one racial group, so respondents were allowed only one option for each house-
hold member.

The 1970 census also posed the fi rst ethnicity question, asking whether the

individual was of Hispanic or non-Hispanic ancestry. (Ethnicity, which generally

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12 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

refers to national or cultural ancestry, is a subject we will return to shortly.) The

Hispanic/non-Hispanic question was added at the recommendation of the Census

Bureau’s Hispanic Advisory Committee as a way to correct for the differential
undercount of the Hispanic population. A differential undercount means that
more people are undercounted in one category than in another; for example, the

census yields a larger undercount of those who rent their homes than of those

who own them. Undercounting primarily affects the data on low-income residents

of inner cities. This is the case because the poor often move and are thus diffi cult

to contact; are more likely to be illiterate or non-English speakers (there was no

Spanish-language census form until 1990); and are more likely to be illegal

immigrants afraid to respond to a government questionnaire. (The Constitution

requires a count of all the people in the United States, not just those who are
citizens or legal residents.) Because census data affect the distribution of billions

of dollars of federal aid, undercounting has a signifi cant impact. Apart from the

apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the census helps

“determine how more than $400 billion dollars of federal funding each year [will

be] spent on infrastructure and services like hospitals, job training centers,

schools, senior centers, bridges, tunnels and other-public works projects, and

emergency services.”

Most important for our purposes, census data can be used to identify patterns

of discrimination and support the enforcement of civil rights. Thus, to improve

the collection of this data, in the 1970s the Commission on Civil Rights reviewed

the race categorization practices of federal agencies, concluding that while “the

designations do not refer strictly to race, color, national or ethnic origin,” the

categories were nonetheless what the general public understood to be minority
groups who were subject to discrimination. 31

This understanding of the meaning of “minority group” was part of a remark-

able bipartisan consensus that characterized the decade following the 1964 Civil

Rights Act.

It was a bipartisan project, including from both parties liberals and conservatives. . . . In

the signature minority rights policy, affi rmative action, the federal government went

beyond African Americans and declared that certain groups were indeed “minorities”—an

undefi ned term embraced by policymakers, advocates, and activists alike—and needed new

rights and programs for equal opportunity and full citizenship. In the parlance of the

period, minorities were groups seen as “disadvantaged” but not defi ned by income or

education. African Americans were the paradigmatic minority, but there were three other

ethnoracial minorities: Latinos, Asian Americans, and American Indians. Immigrants,

women, and the disabled of all ethnic groups were also included and won new rights

during this revolutionary period.

In this context, in 1977, the Offi ce of Management and Budget (OMB)

issued Statistical Directive No. 15, “Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal

Statistics and Administrative Reporting,” which established standard categories

and defi nitions for all federal agencies, including the Bureau of the Census.

Directive No. 15 defi ned four racial and one ethnic category: American Indian

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Framework Essay 13

or Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacifi c Islander, Negro or Black, White, and

Hispanic. “The questions [on the census] follow the categories required by

the  federal Offi ce of Management and Budget for federal statistics.”


the question about Hispanic origin remains the only ethnicity question on the

decennial census. (A question asking respondents to identify their “ancestry

or national origin” is, however, included in the Census Bureau’s annual

American Community Survey, which samples U.S. households). Reading 3,

“The Evolution of Identity,” shows how census questions on race and ethnicity

changed between 1860 and 2000.

Figure  1 shows the relevant questions in the

2010 census.

F I G U R E 1
Questions from the 2010 Census.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census.

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14 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

For our purposes, the most notable recent change in the census has been

recognition that a person may identify himself or herself as being a member of

more than one racial group, although the census did not include a category called

multiracial. This change was one outcome of a comprehensive review and revision
of OMB’s Directive No. 15 that included public hearings, sample surveys of

targeted populations, and collaboration among the more than thirty federal agen-

cies that collect and use data on race and ethnicity. While this change was spurred

by activists who identifi ed themselves as multiracial, the Bureau’s pretesting also

indicated that less than 2 percent of respondents would mark more than one race

for themselves, and thus the historical continuity with previous censuses would

not be compromised. The Bureau’s expectation was close to the mark for the 2000

census—2.4 percent of the population, 6.8 million people, marked two or more

races for themselves. But by the 2010 census, that fi gure had risen to 2.9 percent,

or 9 million people.

One change that has not been made in the census, however, is the inclusion of

an ethnic category called Arab or Middle Eastern, because public comment did
not indicate agreement on a defi nition for this category. For census purposes, white
“refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the

Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicated their race(s)[on

the Census] as “white” or reported entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese,

Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian.”

As in previous censuses, undercounting remains an important fi scal and polit-

ical issue, given the disproportionate undercounting of people of color and the

poor. Still, gay couples may well be the most undercounted population. Since

the 1990 census, the form has provided unmarried partner as a possible answer
to the question of how the people in the household are related to one another.

The 2010 census showed 131,729 same-sex couples who identifi ed as spouses
(which is a rate of 2.3 same-sex spouses per 1,000 male/female spouses) and

514,735 same-sex couples who identifi ed themselves as unmarried partners (a
rate of 70 same-sex, unmarried partners for every 1,000 unmarried male/female


Certainly the unmarried, same-sex partner category is a signifi cant

undercount, attributable to respondents’ reluctance to report.

We end this phase of our discussion with three cautions. First, on a personal

level, many of us fi nd census categorizations objectionable. But as citizens, we
still seek the benefi ts and protections of the laws and policies based on these

data—and as citizens we share the goal of eliminating discriminatory practices.

For example, in the case of racial discrimination,

[r]eliable racial data are crucial to enforcing our basic laws against intentional racial dis-

crimination, which enjoy broad public support. For example, in order to demonstrate that

an employer is engaging in a broad-based “pattern or practice” of discrimination in viola-

tion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a plaintiff must rely on statistical proof that goes

beyond the plight of an individual employee. Supreme Court precedent in such cases

requires plaintiffs to show a statistically signifi cant disparity between the proportion of

qualifi ed minorities in the local labor market and the proportion within the employer’s

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Framework Essay 15

work force. A disparity of more than two standard deviations creates a legal presumption

that intentional discrimination is occurring, since a disparity of that magnitude almost never

occurs by accident.

Demographic information, in other words, provides the “big picture” that places indi-

vidual incidents in context. Voting rights cases require similar proof, as do many housing

discrimination cases and suits challenging the discriminatory use of federal funds. Without

reliable racial statistics, it would be virtually impossible for courts or agencies to detect

institutional bias, and antidiscrimination laws would go unenforced. More fundamentally,

we simply cannot know as a society how far we’ve come in conquering racial discrimination

and inequality without accurate information about the health, progress and opportunities

available to communities of different races.

Second, we need to remember that although the census is a fairly direct count

of how people classify themselves, many other “counts” are taking place that may

not be consistent with census categorization. For example, a student who describes

herself as of multiple race and ethnic ancestry will be considered “Hispanic” by

the federal Department of Education if even one of those categories can be classed

as that, but she will be classifi ed as Asian and Hispanic by the National Center

for Health Statistics. Her birth certifi cate may have no racial designation or an

option for multiple designations; these designations may be assigned by her

mother or by the attending nurse or doctor. In all, we cannot expect consistency

across data collection instruments.

Last, when considering offi cial counts of the population, we must be careful

not to assume that what is counted is real. Although census data contribute to the

essentialist view that the world is populated by distinct, scientifi cally defi ned

categories of people, this brief history demonstrates that not even those who

collect the data make that assumption. As even the Census Bureau notes, “The

concept of race as used by the Census Bureau refl ects self-identifi cation by people

according to the race or races with which they most closely identify. These

categories are socio-political constructs and should not be interpreted as being

scientifi c or anthropological in nature. Furthermore, the race categories include

both racial and national-origin groups.”

Aggregating and Disaggregating

The federal identifi cation policies we have been describing collapse nonwhite

Americans into three categories—American Indians, Blacks, and Asian or Pacifi c

Islanders—and recognize one “ethnic group,” that is, Hispanics. In effect, this

process aggregates categories of people; that is, it combines, or “lumps together,”
different groups. For example, the ethnic category Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish
origin includes 28 different census categories. d While census data distinguishes

The Census Bureau’s Hispanic or Latino origin categories are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban,

Dominican; Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Panamanian, Salvadoran, and Other
Central American; Argentinian, Bolivian, Chilean, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Paraguayan, Peruvian,
Uruguayan, Venezuelan, and Other South American; and fi nally Other Hispanic or Latino, including
Spaniard, Spanish, Spanish American, and All other Hispanic or Latino.


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16 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

many of these groups, in public discussion the more common reference is to

“Hispanics and Latinos,” which both aggregates all those categories and masks

which groups predominate. (The Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community

Survey found that 65 percent of U.S. Hispanics identify themselves as of Mexican

origin, 9 percent as of Puerto Rican origin, 4 percent as of Salvadoran origin,

4 percent as of Cuban origin, and 3 percent as of Dominican origin.)

On top of

that, the category “Hispanic and Latino” is used to encompass recent immigrants,

Puerto Ricans (who are U.S. citizens), and those from some of the earliest settle-

ments in what is now the United States.

The diffi culty with determining who counts as Hispanic is that Hispanics do not appear to

share any properties in common. Linguistic, racial, religious, political, territorial, cultural,

economic, educational, social class, and genetic criteria fail to identify Hispanics in all

places and times. . . .

[Nonetheless], we are treated as a homogeneous group by European Americans and

African Americans; and even though Hispanics do not in fact constitute a homogeneous

group, we are easily contrasted with European Americans and African Americans because

we do not share many of the features commonly associated with these groups.

The groups that are lumped together in this aggregate have historically regarded

one another as different, and thus in people’s everyday lives the aggregate cate-

gory is likely to disaggregate, or fragment, into its constituent national-origin
elements. For example, a 2013 survey of adults found that “when describing their

identity, more than half (54%) of Hispanics say they most often use the name of

their ancestors’ Hispanic origin (such as Mexican, Dominican, Salvadoran or

Cuban).” Only 20 percent said they most often described themselves as “Hispanic”

or “Latino.” (Twenty-three percent reported most often describing themselves as


Not surprisingly, 69 percent of Latinos surveyed in the 2011 Cen-

sus Bureau’s American Community Survey said that they do not share a common

culture with other Latinos.

And how do “Hispanics” identify themselves by race? In 2011, census data

showed that 36 percent identifi ed themselves as white, 10 percent identifi ed them-

selves as black, 26 percent identifi ed themselves as some other race, and 25  percent

identifi ed their race as Hispanic/Latino.

Indeed, most of those who choose “some

other race” on the Census are Latinos.

Nonetheless, as Tanya Golash-Boza and

William Darity, Jr. write in Reading 6, the way that Latinos describe their race is

changeable, because it is responsive to their skin color and experiences of dis-

crimination, and—for those who are recent immigrants—also responsive to defi ni-

tions of race in their home country. All of these factors interact, and not

necessarily in predictable ways.

In the same way that many differences are masked by the terms Latino and
Hispanic, the category Asian Pacifi c American or Asian American includes groups
with different languages, cultures, and religions, and sometimes centuries of mutual

hostility. Like Hispanic / Latino, the category Asian American is based more on geog-
raphy than on any cultural, racial, linguistic, or religious commonalities. “Asian

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Framework Essay 17

Americans are those who come from a region of the world that the rest of the world
has defi ned as Asia.”



Much the same can be said for the terms Middle East and Middle Eastern. As
John Tehranian writes in Reading 24, the term Middle East emerged at the begin-
ning of the 20th century as part of political strategies. As a region that encom-

passes multiple continents, languages, ethnic groups, and religions, “the term is

riddled in ambiguity, sometimes encompassing the entire North African coast,

from Morocco to Egypt and other parts of Africa, including the Sudan and

Somalia, the former Soviet Caucasus Republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and

Armenia, and occasionally Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkistan. The Middle East

is therefore a malleable geopolitical construct of relatively recent vintage.”

Aggregate classifi cations have also been promoted by social movements; terms

such as Latino or Asian American were not simply the result of federal classifi ca-
tions. Student activists inspired by the Black Power and civil rights movements

fi rst proposed the terms. Asian American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and Latino
are examples of panethnic terms, that is, classifi cations that span national-origin
identities. Student activists inspired by the Black Power and civil rights move-

ments supported (and sometimes initiated) these panethnic classifi cations as a way

to highlight the experiences of discrimination that groups within each classifi ca-

tion shared. Thus, panethnic terminology often signaled the development of bridg-

ing organizations and other forms of solidarity across groups.

The concept of panethnicity is useful at many levels, but unstable in practice.

“The elites representing such groups fi nd it advantageous to make political demands

by using the numbers and resources panethnic formations can mobilize. The state,

in turn, can more easily manage claims by recognizing and responding to large

blocs as opposed to dealing with the specifi c claims of a plethora of ethnically

defi ned interest groups.”

At the same time, competition and historic antagonisms

make such alliances unstable. “At times it is advantageous to be in a panethnic

bloc, and at times it is desirable to mobilize along particular ethnic lines.”

The disability movement is similar to panethnic movements in that it has

brought together people with all types of impairments. This approach was a

In census classifi cation, the category Asian includes Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese,

Korean, Vietnamese; Other Asian includes Bangladeshi, Bhutanese, Burmese, Cambodian, Hmong,
Indo-Chinese, Indonesian, Iwo Jiman, Laotian, Malaysian, Maldivian, Mongolian, Nepalese,
Okinawan, Pakistani, Singaporean, Sri Lankan, Thai, and Taiwanese. The category Pacifi c Islander
includes Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro, Samoan; Other Pacifi c Islander includes
Carolinian, Chuukese, Fijian, Kirabati, Kosraean, Mariana Islander, Marshallese, Melanesian,
Micronesian, New Hebridian, Palauan, Papua New Guinean, Pohnpeian, Polynesian, Saipanese,
Solomon Islander, Tahitian, Tokelauan, Tongan, and Yapese.


In 1980, Asian Indians successfully lobbied to change their census classifi cation from white to

Asian American by reminding Congress that historically, immigrants from India had been classed as
Asian . With other Asians, those from India had been barred from immigration by the 1917 Immigra-
tion Act, prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens until 1946, and denied the right to own land
by 1920 Alien Land Law. Indeed, in 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court (in U.S. v. Thind ) ruled that Asian
Indians were nonwhite, and could therefore have their U.S. citizenship nullifi ed.

Thus, for most of

their history in the United States, Asian Indians had been classed as Asian .

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18 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

historic “fi rst,” running counter both to the tradition of organizing around specifi c

impairments and to the fact that the needs of people with different impairments

are sometimes in confl ict. For example, some of the curb cuts that make wheel-

chair access possible can make walking more diffi cult for blind people who need

to be able to feel the edges of a sidewalk with their canes. The aggregating of

disabled people that began with the disability rights movement was reinforced in

the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The terms Native American and African American are also aggregate classifi ca-
tions, but in this case they are the result of conquest and enslavement.

The “Indian,” like the European, is an idea. The notion of “Indians” was invented to distin-

guish the indigenous peoples of the New World from Europeans. The “Indian” is the person

on shore, outside of the boat. . . . There [were] hundreds of cultures, languages, ways of

living in Native America. The place was a model of diversity at the time of Columbus’s

arrival. Yet Europeans did not see this diversity. They created the concept of the “Indian”

to give what they did see some kind of unifi cation, to make it a single entity they could

deal with, because they could not cope with the reality of 400 different cultures.


Conquest made “American Indians” out of a multitude of tribes and nations

that had been distinctive on linguistic, religious, and economic grounds. It was

not only that Europeans had the unifying concept of Indian in mind—after all,
they were suffi ciently aware of cultural differences to generate an extensive body

of specifi c treaties with individual tribes. It was also that conquest itself—

encompassing as it did the appropriation of land, the forging and violation of

treaties, and policies of forced relocation—structured the lives of Native Ameri-

cans along common lines. Whereas contemporary Native Americans still identify

themselves by tribal ancestry, rather than “Native American” or “American Indian,”

their shared experience of conquest also forged the common identity refl ected in

the collective name, Native American.
Similarly, the capture, purchase, and forced relocation of Africans, and their

experience of forcibly being moved from place to place as personal property, cre-

ated the category now called African American. This experience forged a single
people out of a culturally diverse group; it produced an “oppositional racial con-

sciousness,” that is, a unity-in-opposition. “Just as the conquest created the ‘native’

where once there had been Pequot, Iroquois, or Tutelo, so too it created the ‘black’

where once there had been Asante or Ovimbundu, Yoruba or Bakongo.”

Even the categories of gay and straight, male and female, people of color,
and poor and middle class are aggregations that presume a commonality by
virtue of shared master status. For example, the category gay and lesbian assumes
that sharing a sexual identity binds people together despite all the issues that

The idea of Europe and the European is also a constructed, aggregate category. “Physically, Europe
is not a continent. Where is the water separating Europe from Asia? It is culture that separates Europe
from Asia. Western Europe roughly comprises the countries that in the Middle Ages were Latin
Christendom, and Eastern Europe consists of those countries that in the Middle Ages were Eastern
Orthodox Christendom. It was about A.D. 1257 when the Pope claimed hegemony over the secular
emperors in Western Europe and formulated the idea that Europeans, Christians, were a unifi ed
ethnicity even though they spoke many different languages.”


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Framework Essay 19

might divide them as men and women, people of color, or people of different

social classes. And, just as in the cases we have previously discussed, the forma-

tion of alliances between gays and lesbians will depend on the circumstances

and specifi c issues.

Still, our analysis has so far ignored one category of people. From whose

perspective do the categories of Native American, Asian American, African
American, Middle Eastern American, Arab American, and Latino / Hispanic exist?
Since “difference” is always “difference from, ” from whose perspective is “dif-
ference” determined? Who has the power to defi ne “difference”? If “we” are in

the boat looking at “them,” who precisely are “we”?

Every perspective on the social world emerges from a particular vantage point,

a particular social location. Ignoring who is in the boat treats that place as if it

were just the view “anyone” would take. Historically, the people in the boat were

European; at present, they are white Americans. As Ruth Frankenberg frames it

in Reading 7, in the United States “whites are the nondefi ned defi ners of other

people,” “the unmarked marker of others’ differentness.” Failing to identify the

“us” in the boat means that “white culture [becomes] the unspoken norm,” a

category that is powerful enough to defi ne others while itself remaining invisible

and unnamed.


[F]or most whites, most of the time, to think or speak about race is to think or speak about

people of color, or perhaps, at times, to refl ect on oneself (or other whites) in relation to

people of color. But we tend not to think of ourselves or our racial cohort as racially distinc-

tive. Whites’ “consciousness” of whiteness is predominantly unconsciousness of whiteness.

Because whites do not usually identify themselves by race, they do not easily

understand the signifi cance of racial identities.

In all, those with the most power

in a society are best positioned to have their own identities left unnamed, thus

masking their power.

The term androcentrism describes the world as seen from a male-centered
perspective. For example, if we defi ne a good employee as one who is willing to

work extensive overtime, we are thinking from a male-centered perspective, since

women’s child-care responsibilities often preclude extra work commitments. We

may also describe Eurocentric and physicalist 57 perspectives, that is, viewpoints
that assume everyone is of European origin or physically agile. Similarly, the term

heteronormativity turns our attention to the ways that heterosexuality is built into
the assumptions and operation of all aspects of daily life, both sexual and non-


Heteronormativity is one of a set of terms that has emerged to describe

individual- and societal-level treatment of homosexuality. In 1972, in Society and
the Healthy Homosexual, psychologist George Weinberg offered the term
homophobia to describe the aversion to homosexuals that he found among people
at the time. As he said later, “It was a fear of homosexuals which seemed to be

associated with a fear of contagion, a fear of reducing the things one fought

for—home and family. . . . [I]t led to great brutality as fear always does.”


term was a watershed; it defi ned the problem as heterosexual intolerance, not


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20 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Weinberg was not thinking of homophobia in clinical terms,

for example, pho-

bias are usually experienced as “unpleasant and dysfunctional,” which is not the

case with “homophobia.” Nonetheless, the term is now pervasive and routinely

identifi ed as part of the triumvirate, “sexism, racism, and homophobia.” One prob-

lem with that, however, is that homophobia focuses on individual prejudices rather

than societal structures. Thus, in 1990, psychologist Gregory Herek offered the word

heterosexism to describe “an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigma-
tizes any nonheterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship or community.”


A decade later, he suggested that the term sexual prejudice replace homophobia. 62
The more recent concept of heteronormativity turns our attention to all the ways

in which heterosexuality is presumed to be the natural, normal, and inevitable

structure of society. It is the “view from the boat.” First put forward by English

professor Michael Warner, heteronormativity describes heterosexuality as akin to

an “offi cial national culture”;

a “sense of rightness—embedded in things and

not just in sex—is what we call heteronormativity.”

People are constantly encouraged to believe that heterosexual desire, dating, marriage, repro-

duction, childrearing, and home life are not only valuable to themselves, but the bedrock

on which every other value in the world rests. Heterosexual desire and romance are thought

to be the very core of humanity. It is the threshold of maturity that separates the men from

the boys (though it is also projected onto all boys and girls). It is both nature and culture.

It is the one thing celebrated in every fi lm plot, every sitcom, every advertisement. It is the

one thing to which every politician pays obeisance, couching every dispute over guns and

butter as an effort to protect family, home, and children. What would a world look like in

which all these links between sexuality and people’s ideas were suddenly severed? Nonstan-

dard sex has none of this normative richness, this built-in sense of connection to the mean-

ingful life, the community of the human, the future of the world.

. . . [F]rom senior proms to conjugal rights in prison, from couples’ discounts at hotels to

the immediate immigration rights of foreign marital partners, from a nonchalant goodbye

kiss at the airport to incessant male-female couples grinning down from billboards, to fairy

tales with princes rescuing princesses. It is, indeed, diffi cult to fi nd any aspect of modern

life that does not include men desiring women and women desiring men as a premise, as

necessary to being human as thinking and breathing.

In all, naming andocentrism, Eurocentrism, physicalism, and heteronormativity

helps us recognize them as particular social locations, like the other master sta-

tuses we have considered. Indeed, it is possible to argue that, no matter what their

master statuses, all Americans operate from these particular biases because they

are built into the basic fabric of our culture.


Many forces promote the construction of aggregate categories of people. Frequently,

these aggregates emerge as dichotomies. Sociologists have argued that the creation
of dichotomized categories is a regular feature of social life because it is a way

to resolve life’s routine problems, for example, allocating tasks by gender. More

important, dichotomization inevitably yields categories that will be unequally

valued and rewarded; in social life, the two parts of a dichotomy will never be

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Framework Essay 21

“equal.” Categorical inequalities emerge and persist because some benefi t from

them and because there is a societal cost to transitioning out of their use. Thus,

inequality between categories of people becomes “durable” over interactions, time,

space, and lifetimes. The extent of inequality between dichotomous pairs may

vary, the grounds on which categories are established may differ, and the efforts

directed at reducing such inequalities may change, but dichotomized categorical

inequalities are likely a constant of social life.

But to dichotomize is not only to divide something into two parts; it is also to

see those parts as mutually exclusive and in opposition. Dichotomization encourages

the sense that there are only two categories, that everyone fi ts easily in one or the

other, and that the categories stand in opposition to each other. In contemporary

American culture, we appear to treat the master statuses of race, sex, class, sexual

identity, and disability as if each embodied “us” and “them”—as if for each master

status, people could be easily sorted into two mutually exclusive, opposed groupings.

Dichotomizing Race Perhaps the clearest example of the historic and continu-
ing dichotomization of race is provided by the “one-drop rule,” which is described

by F. James Davis in Reading 2. This “rule” became a law but now operates only

as an informal social practice, holding that people with any traceable African

heritage should classify themselves as black. President Barack Obama’s identifi ca-
tion of himself as African American on the 2010 census is consistent with this

practice. The rule, which is unique to the United States and South Africa, grew

out of the efforts of southern whites to enforce segregation after the Civil War,

but over time came to be endorsed by both blacks and whites. Consistent with
this practice, only about 4 percent of black Americans identify themselves as

having ancestry from more than one race, even though a much larger percentage

have Native American and/or white ancestry.

While the one-drop rule applied to the identifi cation of who was black, the

three racial categories identifi ed by the census throughout the 19th century—

White, Negro, and Indian— were functionally collapsed into a white/nonwhite
binary. For example, in 1854, the California Supreme Court in People v . Hall held
that blacks, mulattos, Native Americans, and Chinese were “not white” and there-

fore could not testify for or against a white man in court. (Hall, a white man, had

been convicted of killing a Chinese man on the testimony of one white and three

Chinese witnesses; the Supreme Court overturned the conviction.) The same

dichotomization can be seen in the Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson
(1896) described in Reading 37.

At the insistence of the Mexican government, Mexican residents of the south-

west territories ceded to the United States in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe

Hidalgo were placed on the “white” side of the ledger, and accorded the political-

legal status of “free white persons.”

European immigrants such as the Irish were

initially treated as nonwhite, and lobbied for their inclusion in American society

on the basis of the white/nonwhite distinction.

Springer and Deutsch (1981) coined the term dichotomania to describe the belief that there are male

and female sides of the brain. We think that term also fi ts our discussion.

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22 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

[Immigrants struggled to] equate whiteness with Americanism in order to turn argu-

ments  over immigration from the question of who was foreign to the question of who was

white. . . .

Immigrants could not win on the question of who was foreign. . . . But if the issue

somehow became defending “white man’s jobs” or “white man’s government” . . . [they]

could gain space by defl ecting debate from nativity, a hopeless issue, to race, an ambiguous

one. . . . After the Civil War, the new-coming Irish would help lead the movement to bar

the relatively established Chinese from California, with their agitation for a “white man’s

government,” serving to make race, and not nativity, the center of the debate and to prove

the Irish white.

Thus, historically, American has meant white, as many contemporary Americans
of Asian ancestry learn when they are complimented on their English—a compli-

ment that presumes that someone who is Asian could not be a native-born

A story from the 1998 Winter Olympics illustrates the same point. At

the conclusion of the fi gure skating competition, MSNBC posted a headline that

read “American Beats Out Kwan for Women’s Figure Skating Title.” The refer-

ence was to Michelle Kwan, who won the silver medal, losing the gold to Tara

Lapinsky. But both Kwan and Lapinsky are Americans. While Kwan’s parents

immigrated from Hong Kong, she was born and raised in the United States, is a

U.S. citizen, and was a member of the U.S. team. The network attributed the

mistake to overworked staff and apologized. But for Asian American activists, this

was an example of how people of Asian descent have remained perpetual foreign-

ers in American society.

African American novelist Toni Morrison would describe this as a story about

“how American means white ”:

Deep within the word “American” is its association with race. To identify someone as South

African is to say very little; we need the adjective “white” or “black” or “colored” to make

our meaning clear. In this country it is quite the reverse. American means white, and

Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with . . . hyphen after

hyphen after hyphen.

Insofar as American means white, those who are not white are presumed to be
recent arrivals and often told to go “back where they came from.” Thus, we appear

to operate within the dichotomized racial categories of American / non – American —
these are racial categories, because they effectively mean white / nonwhite.

Yet it is possible that the “white/nonwhite dichotomy” is in the midst of an

ironic transformation, into what Lee and Bean in Reading 8 characterize as a

“black/nonblack” dichotomy. Unlike Latinos and Asian Americans who, with suc-

cess, have come to be seen as similar to whites, African Americans are seen by

whites as dissimilar no matter what their success, just as the children of black-

white parentage are perceived by both blacks and whites as black. This black/

Since the historic American ban on Asian immigration remained in place until 1965, it is the case

that a high proportion of Asian Americans—about 75 percent—are foreign born (although the
percentage who are foreign-born varies by national origin).


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Framework Essay 23

nonblack dichotomy argues for an “African American exceptionalism” to the

incorporation of minority groups into whiteness.

Defi ning Race and Ethnicity But what exactly is race? First, we need to
distinguish race from ethnicity. Social scientists defi ne ethnic groups as categories
of people who are distinctive on the basis of national origin or heritage, language,

or cultural practices. “Members of an ethnic group hold a set of common memo-

ries that make them feel that their customs, culture, and outlook are distinctive.”

Indeed, in Reading 20, Harlan Lane argues that there is a Deaf-World ethnic group

distinct from those for whom deafness is a hearing impairment.

Thus, ethnicity is very much about the intensity of people’s feelings, and
these may be inconsistent, as well as, change over time. For example, being an

Italian American in the 1920s involved much more intensity of feeling, interac-

tion, and political organization than it does now, and being a Jew has become

an ethnic, rather than a religious, identity for many. For others, such as Bosnian

refugees, ethnic identity can involve a painful choice between religion and

nationality—are they Bosnian, Bosnian Muslim, or Muslim, or do they reject

ethnic identity altogether since “ethnic cleansing” made them refugees in the

fi rst place?

Finally, even though ethnic identity is often more important to people than race,

it can be obscured by race. For example, focusing only on race would hide the

important differences between African Americans, Haitians, Somalis, Ethiopians,

or Jamaicans—all black American ethnic groups. Similarly, Americans with

Middle Eastern heritage (who are classifi ed as white in the census) are often
misdescribed as Arabs, which includes only those from Arabic-speaking countries.
A scene in the movie Crash made this point: in vandalizing the store of an Iranian
grocer, the looters left behind graffi ti about “Arabs,” but Iranians speak Farsi and

do not consider themselves Arabic. In all, beneath panethnic terms such as Middle
Eastern, Arab American, Latino, or Asian American, one will fi nd strong ethnic
attachments based on national origin or religion.

The term race fi rst appeared in the Romance languages of Europe in the
Middle Ages to refer to breeding stock. A race of horses described common

ancestry and a distinctive appearance or behavior. Race appears to have been fi rst
applied to New World peoples by the Spanish in the 16th century. Later it was

adopted by the English, again in reference to people of the New World, and it

generally came to mean people, nation, or variety. By the late 18th century,
“when scholars became more actively engaged in investigations, classifi cations,

and defi nitions of human populations, the term race was elevated as the one
major symbol and mode of human group differentiation employed extensively

for non-European groups and even those in Europe who varied in some way from

the subjective norm.”

Though elevated to the level of science, the concept of race continued to refl ect

its origins in animal breeding. Farmers and herders had used the concept to

describe stock bred for particular qualities; scholars used it to suggest that human

behaviors could also be inherited. “Unlike other terms for classifying people . . .

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24 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

the term ‘race’ places emphasis on innateness, on the inbred nature of whatever

is being judged.”

Like animal breeders, scholars also presumed that appearance

revealed something about potential behavior. Just as the selective breeding of

animals entailed the ranking of stock by some criteria, scholarly use of the concept

of race involved the ranking of humans. Differences in skin color, hair texture,

and the shape of head, eyes, nose, lips, and body were developed into an elaborate

hierarchy of merit and potential for “civilization.”

As described by Audrey Smedley in Reading 1, the idea of race emerged

among all the European colonial powers, although their conceptions of it varied.

However, only the British in colonizing North America and South Africa con-

structed a system of rigid, exclusive racial categories and a social order based on
race , a “racialized social structure.” 76 “[S]kin color variations in many regions of
the world and in many societies have been imbued with some degree of social

value or signifi cance, but color prejudice or preferences do not of themselves

amount to a fully evolved racial worldview.”

This racialized social structure—which in the United States produced a race-

based system of slavery and subsequently a race-based distribution of political, legal,

and social rights—was a historical fi rst. “Expansion, conquest, exploitation, and

enslavement have characterized much of human history over the past fi ve thousand

years or so, but none of these events before the modern era resulted in the develop-

ment of ideologies or social systems based on race.”

Although differences of color

had long been noted, societies had never before been built on those differences.

The sciences that emerged from this racialized social structure were also racial-

ized; because scientists presumed that “race” involved more than just color, they

sought the biological distinctivness of race categories. Their belief that they had

found such differences followed from their fl awed assumptions and research meth-

ods. By the early 20th century, anthropologists discovered that the physical fea-

tures that had been used to distinguish the races such as height, stature, and head

shape could be changed by environment and nutrition. Thus, the certainties about

“race” and what it meant—at least in the sciences—began to be questioned.

In effect, science was confronting a kind of “bottom line” about race: while

there are many ways humans can be grouped, those do not correspond to tradi-

tional notions of race.

If our eyes could perceive more than the superfi cial, we might fi nd race in chromosome 11:

there lies the gene for hemoglobin. If you divide humankind by which of two forms of the

gene each person has, then equatorial Africans, Italians and Greeks fall into the “sickle-cell

race”; Swedes and South Africa’s Xhosas (Nelson Mandela’s ethnic group) are in the healthy

hemoglobin race. Or do you prefer to group people by whether they have epicanthic eye

folds, which produce the “Asian” eye? Then the !Kung San (Bushmen) belong with the

Japanese and Chinese. . . . [D]epending on which traits you pick, you can form very surpris-

ing races. Take the scooped-out shape of the back of the front teeth, a standard “Asian” trait.

Native Americans and Swedes have these shovel-shaped incisors, too, and so would fall in

the same race. Is biochemistry better? Norwegians, Arabians, north Indians and the Fulani

of northern Nigeria . . . fall into the “lactase race” (the lactase enzyme digests milk sugar).

Everyone else—other Africans, Japanese, Native Americans—form the “lactase-deprived

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Framework Essay 25

race” (their ancestors did not drink milk from cows or goats and hence never evolved the

lactase gene). How about blood types, the familiar A, B, and O groups? Then Germans and

New Guineans, populations that have the same percentages of each type, are in one race;

Estonians and Japanese comprise a separate one for the same reason. . . . The dark skin of

Somalis and Ghanaians, for instance, indicates that they evolved under the same selective

force (a sunny climate). But that’s all it shows. It does not show that they are any more
closely related in the sense of sharing more genes than either is to Greeks. Calling Somalis

and Ghanaians “black” therefore sheds no further light on their evolutionary history and

implies—wrongly—that they are more closely related to each other than either is to some-

one of a different “race.”

As one anthropologist has put it, “Classifying people by color is very much

like classifying cars by color. Those in the same classifi cation look alike . . . but

the classifi cation tells you nothing about the hidden details of construction or

about how the cars or people will perform.”

By the late 1960s, a “no race” position came to be widely accepted in physical

anthropology and human genetics. This perspective argues that “(1) Biological

variability exists but this variability does not conform to the discrete packages

labeled races. (2) So-called racial characteristics are not transmitted as complexes.

(3) Races do not exist because isolation of groups has been infrequent; popula-

tions have always interbred.”

Yet while there is a kind of “commonsense” under-

standing in the social sciences that race is a social construction, that recognition

has not especially shaped the substance of social science research.

[I]t will suffi ce to point out that virtually all scholars who write about “race and intelligence”

assume that the “races” which they study are distinguished on the basis of biologically

relevant criteria. So accepted is this fact that most scholars engaged in such research never

consider it necessary to justify their assignment of individuals to this or that “race.” . . .

[Thus], the layman who reads the literature on race and racial groupings is justifi ed in

assuming that the existent typologies have been derived through the application of theories

and methods current in disciplines concerned with the biological study of human variation.

Since the scientifi c racial classifi cations which a layman fi nds in the literature are not too

different from popular ones, he can be expected to feel justifi ed in the maintenance of his

views on race.

The complexities of incorporating a “no race” position into social science

research is highlighted by how the professional associations in anthropology and

sociology treat the concept. In 1998, the American Anthropological Association

(AAA) adopted an unambiguous “Statement on Race”: “Racial beliefs constitute

myths about the diversity in the human species and about the abilities and behavior

of people homogenized into ‘racial’ categories.” But for the American Sociological

Association (ASA), that does not mean we should stop collecting data on race: its

2002 statement, “The Importance of Collecting Data and Doing Social Scientifi c

Research on Race,” urges the continued study of race as a social phenomenon
because it affects major aspects of social life—including employment, housing,

education, and health. The title of the ASA’s press release on the topic reads,

“Would ‘Race’ Disappear if the United States Offi cially Stopped Collecting Data

on It?” Their answer to that is clearly “no”; anthropologists would certainly agree.

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26 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Still, the assumption that racial categories are biologically distinctive has not

disappeared—indeed, it gathered strength with the mapping of the human genome

at the beginning of the 21st century. Completion of the Human Genome Project

was met with pronouncements that, fi nally, our notions of race could be put to

rest since humans were found to share shared 99.9 percent of all genetic material.

Yet attention quickly shifted to fi nding groupings within that genetic material and

determining the signifi cance of the 0.1 percent difference. (Because humans and

chimpanzees share 98.7 percent of their genes, for example, that 0.1 percent dif-

ference could make a difference.)

By 2002, in a landmark article published in Science, “researchers announced
that they had ‘identifi ed six main genetic clusters, fi ve of which correspond to

major geographic regions.’” Although race was not mentioned, the “major geo-
graphic regions” that matched the genetic clusters they discovered—Africa,

Eurasia, East Asia, Oceania, and America—were quickly translated into tradi-

tional racial divisions.”

Other research along this line followed, using similar

sampling techniques and contributing to a burgeoning data set. Thus, as legal

scholar Dorothy Roberts frames it, “geographic ancestry” emerged as a proxy

for race.

Yet each decision in this research—sampling isolated (and thereby “pure”)

populations rather than regions like India where people are not easily classifi able,

“cherry picking” population samples that fi t preexisting conceptions of race rather

than pursuing a random sample of the global population, deciding that the statis-

tical analysis of a huge data set is best captured by a model of six rather than

twenty geographic regions, as in the Science article—draws on preexisting con-
ceptions of race.

[R]emember, the number of genetic clusters is dictated by the computer user, not the com-

puter program. . . . Rosenberg [lead author of the Science article] later revealed that his
team also analyzed the data set using six to twenty clusters. . . . The larger number of

clusters identifi ed by the study could just as easily have been highlighted to demonstrate

the diffi culty of dividing human beings into genetic races. There is nothing in the team’s

fi ndings to suggest that six clusters represent human population structure better than ten, or

fi fteen, or twenty.

The six groupings mapped onto conventional notions of race—indigenous people

from fi ve continents plus one isolated group in Northern Pakistan. Instead of talk-

ing about race, we could talk about ancestry.

New marketing opportunities for “ancestry” fl ourish; each reinforces the idea

of biological races. For example, many students in high school learn about DNA

by sending a sample to a company that analyzes it for the geographic origins of

the student’s family (using the same questionable sampling and data sets described

earlier). Because those geographic groupings are broken down into the continents

we associate with race, it is not surprising that the results are read as being one’s

“racial” composition, as if there were “pure” racial groups and we are some mix

of these (“I am 43 percent European, 26 percent Sub-Saharan African, and

31  percent East Asian,” sounds very much like white, black, and Asian).

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Framework Essay 27

But many more lucrative opportunities exist in the realm of race-specifi c med-

ications, the fi rst of which was BiDil, a 2004 drug for heart disease and the fi rst

race-targeted medication approved by the FDA. (BiDil is a combination of two

generic drugs and thus could be patented as something new.) If race were not

“real,” how could the drug be more effective for African Americans, as the man-

ufacturer claimed? Actually, whether BiDil has a differential effect by race remains

unknown. The fi rst clinical trial of the drug found that a small subsample of

African Americans did better than whites. On that basis, the drug went to a full-

scale clinical trial, but only on self-identifi ed African Americans; there was no

comparison with other groups. Why not? Because the drug’s manufacturer,

NitroMed, “had a fi nancial disincentive for fi nding that BiDil worked regardless

of race—its patent (and market monopoly) applied only to its use by African

American patients.”

Ultimately, BiDil was neither especially prescribed nor

used; NitroMed went out of business in 2009.

Certainly, the search for “race”-based drugs continues. These efforts to fi nd the

biological distinctiveness of racial categories function much as earlier efforts did,

that is, as a distraction from the social factors that affect the quality and length
of people’s lives.

By looking at what’s in the blood, [geneticists] avoid the messy stuff that happens when

humans interact with each other. It’s easier to look inside the body because genes, proteins,

and SNP [single nucleotide polymorphisms] patterns are far more measurable than the com-

plex dynamics of society. . . .

When you’re talking about genetic diseases, there’s usually something in the environment

that triggers their onset. Shouldn’t we be talking about the trigger?

Take the case of black men and prostate cancer. African-American males have twice

the prostate cancer rate that whites do. Right now, the National Cancer Institute is search-

ing for cancer genes among black men. They’re not asking, How come black men in the

Caribbean and in sub-Saharan Africa have much lower prostate cancer rates than all

American men?

A balanced approach might involve asking, Is there something in the American environ-

ment triggering these high rates? Is it diet, stress or what?

The primary signifi cance of race is as a social concept. We “see” race; we
expect it to tell us something signifi cant about a person, and we organize social

policy, law, and the distribution of wealth, power, and prestige around it. From

the essentialist position, race is assumed to exist independently of our perception

of it; it is assumed to signifi cantly distinguish one group of people from another.

From the constructionist perspective, race exists because we have created it as a

meaningful category of difference among people.

Race has been characterized as a biological fiction, but a social fact. Yet

the strength of this fiction suggests that it functions like a contemporary folk


Most Americans do not deduce that biological races exist from sound scientifi c evidence

and reasoning. They are inculcated with this belief in the same way a child is raised in a

religion. Children in the United States learn to divide all people into racial groups and come

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28 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

to have faith in race as a self-evident truth, like a traditional creation story that explains

how the world works.

According to folklorist Judith Neulander, for a folk story to persist it must contain “ele-

ments that can be modifi ed without changing what the tale is about,” enabling it “to dodge

later discreditation” Science has been responsible for giving racial folklore its superfi cial

plausibility by updating its defi nitions, measurements, and rationales without changing what

the tale is about: once upon a time human beings all over the world were divided into large

biological groups called races.

Believing in race can be compared to believing in astrology. People who have faith in

astrology fi nd constant confi rmation that horoscope predictions are reliable and that astro-

logical signs determine personality types.

Dichotomizing Sexuality Many similarities have existed in the construction of
race and sexuality categories. First, historically both have been dichotomized—

into black/white, white/nonwhite, or gay/straight—and individuals have been

expected to fi t easily into one category or the other. Scientists have also sought

biological differences between gay and straight people just as they have looked

for such differences between the “races.” Usually the search has been for what

causes same-sex attraction, rather than for what causes heterosexuality—the point

made by Martin Rochlin’s Heterosexual Questionnaire (Reading 17). But, as with

investigations of race difference, the research is suspect here as well, because we

are unlikely to fi nd any biological structure or process that all gay people share
but no straight people have. Still, as Roger Lancaster describes in Reading 16,
the conviction that such differences must exist propels the search and leads to the

popularization of questionable fi ndings.

As with race, sexual identity appears more straightforward than it really is.

Because sexuality encompasses physical, social, and emotional attraction, as

well as fantasies, self-identity, and actual sexual behavior over a lifetime, deter-

mining one’s sexual “identity” may require emphasizing one of these features

over the others. Further, there is no necessary correspondence between identity

and sexual behavior (which Esther Rothblum explores for women in Reading 30).

Someone who self-identifi es as gay is still likely to have had some heterosexual

experience; someone who self-identifi es as straight may have had some same-sex

experience; and even those who have had no sexual experience may lay claim
to being gay or straight. Identity is not always directly tied to behavior. Indeed,

a person who self-identifi es as gay may have had more heterosexual experience
than someone who self-identifi es as straight. Yet just as the system of racial

classifi cation asks people to pick one race, the sexual-identity system has so far
required that all the different aspects of sexuality be distilled into one of two


For example, an acquaintance described the process by which he came to self-

identify as gay. In high school and college he had dated and been sexually active

with women, but his relationships with men had always been more important to

him. He looked to men for emotional and social gratifi cation, as well as for relief

from the “gender games” he felt required to play with women. He had been

engaged to be married, but when that ended, he spent his time exclusively with

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Framework Essay 29

other men. Eventually, he established a sexual relationship with another man and

came to identify himself as gay. His experience refl ects the varied dimensions of

sexuality and shows the resolution of those differences by choosing a single sex-

ual identity.

Until recently, “gay” and “straight” would have been his only real options.

Despite commonplace use of the term, bisexuality has rarely been taken seriously

by sex researchers or those in the gay and lesbian communities, where bisexual-

ity has been demeaned as a phase, a form of homophobia, or simple promiscuity.

The possibility of male bisexuality has especially been discounted by self- identifi ed

gay men.

Describing “biphobia” and “bi erasure,” a newly emerging movement of self-

identifi ed bisexuals has been supported by survey and sexuality research. In 2011,

the Williams Institute, which specializes in LGBT research, reported on their

review of eleven surveys, fi nding that “among adults who identify as L.G.B.,

bisexuals comprise a slight majority.”

Indeed, one of the larger surveys the

Williams Institute reviewed found that more American adults identifi ed them-
selves as bisexual than as gay/lesbian (3.1 percent compared to 2.5 percent).

Similarly, as population sampling and sexuality research methods have broad-

ened, it has become possible to demonstrate patterns of arousal that are bisex-


with one possibility that “what makes a bisexual person may be less about

what they’re strongly attracted to and more about what they’re not averse to.”

While sexual fl uidity has long been seen as a characteristic of women but not

men, even the author of one of our readings, Lisa Diamond, has revised her

opinion. Five years after the publication of her 2009 book (from which our read-

ing is taken), she presented a paper titled “I Was Wrong! Men are Pretty Darn

Sexually Fluid, Too!”

Why has bisexuality been so systematically “erased”? The convenience of

dichotomous thinking, fear of prejudice (people who identify as straight appear

to have more negative attitudes about those who are bisexual than about those

who are gay or lesbian);

lack of visible bisexuals (only 28 percent of people

who identify as bisexual say they are open about it);

and the very contentious

debate about whether sexuality is fi xed and innate or changeable, would all have

contributed to the invisibility of bisexuality. Finally, people may simply want to

reduce the complexity of their lives: “To come out as bisexual now would be like

starting over in a way. My mom and dad would fall over. It was hard enough to

convince them that I was gay.”

To return to our initial comparison of sexual identity and race, one last analogy

bears discussion. Most Americans would not question the logic of this sentence:

“Tom has been married for 30 years and has a dozen children, but I think he’s

really gay.” In a real-life illustration of the same logic, a young man and woman
were often seen kissing on our campus. When this became the subject of a class

discussion, a suggestive ripple of laughter went through the room: Everyone

“knew” that the young man was really gay.

How could they “know” that? For such conclusions to make sense, we

must believe that someone could be gay irrespective of his or her actual behavior.

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30 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Just as it is possible in this culture for one to be “black” even if one looks “white,”

apparently one may be gay despite acting straight. Just as “black” can be estab-

lished by any African heritage, “gay” is apparently established by displaying any

behavior thought to be associated with gays, especially for men. Indeed, “gay”

can be “established” by reputation alone, by a failure to demonstrate heterosexu-

ality, or even by the demonstration of an overly aggressive heterosexuality. There-

fore, “gay” can be assigned no matter what one does. In this sense, “gay” can

function as an essential identity, 97 that is, an identity assigned to an individual
irrespective of his or her actual behavior, as in “I know she’s a genius even
though she’s fl unking all her courses.” Because no behavior can ever conclusively

prove one is not gay, this label is an extremely effective mechanism of social

In all, several parallels exist between race and sexuality classifi cations. At least

until recently, we have assumed there are a limited number of possibilities—

usually two, but no more than three—and we have assumed individuals can easily

fi t into one option. We have treated both race and sexuality as encompassing

populations that are internally homogeneous and profoundly dissimilar from each

other. In both cases, this presumption of difference has prompted a wide-ranging

search for the biological distinctiveness of the categories. Different races and

sexualities have been judged superior and inferior to one another, and members

of each category historically have been granted unequal legal and social rights.

Finally, we have assumed that sexual orientation, like skin color, tells us some-

thing meaningful about a person.

You may notice we used the past tense in the previous paragraph. This is

because it seems to us that the traditional race and sexuality systems are undergo-

ing change, although probably not to the same extent. As with the increasing

presence of people who identify as multiracial, bisexuality has emerged as a

category around which people organize. The outstanding question, however, is

whether bisexuality will emerge as a “third” option, or upend our notions of

sexuality altogether. College students and perhaps young people generally appear

to have an increasing desire to move away from gender and sexuality labels.

Accompanying the increased visibility and acceptance of both gay and transgen-

der people—and the conceptual system that understands these as separate deci-

sions, one about sexuality and the other about sex—there is a case that youth

especially are less inclined to sexuality/gender classifi cations and more open in

their own sexual behavior. We are not sure how widespread this change is, but

have included in the readings an article by Eric Anderson (Reading 55), who

contends that we are now past the era of “homohysteria.” Anderson’s conclusions

are at odds with other readings in this volume, but we think this speaks to the

real lack of clarity about the future of American sexuality and gender systems.

We turn now to the topic of dichotomies in gender.

Dichotomizing Sex and Gender As is the case for sexuality, the meanings of
the terms sex and gender have also become destabilized. Traditionally, research in
the social sciences used sex to refer to females and males—that is, to chromosomal,

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Framework Essay 31

hormonal, anatomical, and physiological differences—and gender to describe the
socially constructed roles associated with each sex, that is, masculinity and femi-

ninity. Over the last thirty or so years, however, gender has come to be used in
popular culture to encompass both biological differences and social behavior. For

example, it has become common to see descriptions of male and female voting

patterns as gender differences, rather than as sex differences. In this same period,
many scholars in the humanities and social sciences began conceptualizing sex in

ways similar to gender, that is, they came to the conclusion that biological sex,

like masculinity and femininity, was socially created. Thus, the language of schol-

arship also turned toward gender and away from sex.
Like sexuality, even physiological/biological sex refers to a complex set of

attributes that may sometimes be inconsistent with one another or with individu-

als’ sense of their own identity. As Alice Dreger in Reading 9 describes, even

those on the Olympic Committee who want to use a hormone-based system to

identify the sex of athletes (rather than letting the athletes self-identify), under-

stand that determining sex is very complicated. As Dreger writes, “There’s no one

magical gene, chromosome, hormone, or body part that can do for us the hard

work of sharp division into male and female leagues.” Ultimately, biological/

physiological sex is the product of a decision.
But in day-to-day life, rather than recognize the complexity of sex, we have

commonly assumed that there are two and only two sexes and that people can be

easily classifi ed as one or the other. Despite the popularity of the word gender,
apart from scholars the language of gender has not signaled a move away from

the idea of biological sex as fi xed and dichotomous. Rather, just as with race and

sexuality categories, people are assigned as male or female irrespective of incon-

sistent or ambiguous evidence. Indeed, as Riki Wilchins describes in Reading 10,

we have tried to make bodies “at the margins” fi t into our existing categories. Out

of the imperative that there be consistency between the physical and the psycho-

logical, some people pursue sex change surgery to produce a body consistent with

their self-identity. Others pursue psychotherapy to fi nd a self-identity consistent

with their body. In either case, it has made more sense to use surgery and/or

therapy to create consistency than to accept inconsistency.

All of this now seems up for discussion. A move away from the idea of bio-

logical sex as unitary, binary, and fi xed has been spurred by transgender activism,

which encompasses people who live as a gender different from their birth assign-

ment, who identify with neither of the currently available biological sexes, who

feel themselves to be both genders simultaneously or sequentially, whose biologi-

cal/physiological sex is inconsistent, who have undergone sex reassignment hor-

mone treatment or surgery, and/or who cross dress occasionally or regularly.

Since the early 1990s when the term was coined, the category trans-gender has come to be

understood as a collective category of identity which incorporates a diverse array of male-

and female-bodied gender variant people who had previously been understood as distinct

kinds of persons, including self-identifi ed transexuals and transvestites. . . . In its collectiv-

ity, the capacity of transgender to incorporate all gender variance has become a powerful

tool of activism and personal identifi cation. And, even more remarkably, in the period since

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32 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

the early 1990s it has already become institutionalized in a vast range of contexts, from

grassroots activism, social service provision, and individual identifi cation, to journalistic

accounts. . . . Most importantly, transgender identifi cation is understood across these

domains to be explicitly and fundamentally different in origin and being from homosexual

identifi cation. . . . In short, “transgender” has changed the terms by which U.S. Americans

understand and differentiate between gendered and sexual variance.

Although it is not yet “mainstream” to treat sex as neither fi xed nor dichoto-

mous, it is not marginal either. For example, in 2014 Facebook added an option

that provided about fi fty different terms people could use to identify their sex;

advertisements run by luxury retailer Barneys New York featured transgender

models; newspaper space was devoted to the experience of parents whose young

children rejected gender binaries; and courts ruled on which bathrooms transgen-

der elementary students may use. Perhaps most important, “transgender” (rather

than transgender ed , which connotes directionality) has become a way to identify
oneself. Intrinsic to that self-identifi cation is movement beyond the simple gender/

sex binary that has predominated until now.

Dichotomizing Class Any discussion of social class in the United States must
begin with the understanding that Americans “almost never speak of themselves

or their society in class terms. In other words, class is not a central category of

cultural discourse in America.”

Indeed, considering the time and attention

Americans devote to sexual orientation, sex/gender, or race, it is hard not to con-

clude that discussion of social class is “the last taboo.”

Because social class is

so seldom discussed, the vocabulary for talking about it is not well developed.

Class analyses . . . are not curricular themes covered in schools at the primary or secondary

level and are seldom included in university-level courses. . . . Every major U.S. daily news-

paper includes a separate business section, but none includes a separate “class” or even

“labor” section. . . . Politicians typically avoid class-based rhetoric, especially the use of

language and policy labels that might openly emphasize or reveal the confl icting economic

and political interests of working-class versus privileged-class members. . . . [P]olitical

candidates, especially presidential candidates, who violate what amounts to an unwritten

rule against framing class inequalities as legitimate public policy issues, risk being accused

of promoting divisive and disruptive “class warfare” by privileged-class-based mainstream

media pundits. . . . Only two exceptions exist to the taboo on public discussions of class

issues. First, it is acceptable to discuss the “middle class” and problems faced by this class.

Because large numbers of Americans identify themselves as middle class, references to

this  group actually serve to disguise and mute class differences because the term is so

inclusive. . . . The second exception to avoidance of class issues includes mass media

glimpses into the lives of the privileged class, as well as tours of the excluded class. . . .

The glamour of life at the top is routinely showcased on both conventional and tabloid style

TV news magazines. . . . The grim realities of life-at-the-bottom experiences turn up most

often on occasional PBS or cable TV documentaries. . . .

Despite its relative invisibility, as Michael Zweig notes in Reading 12, social

class operates in ways quite similar to race and sex. That is, just as American culture

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Framework Essay 33

offers interpretations of what differences in color or sex mean, it also provides

interpretations about what differences in income, wealth, or occupation might mean.

As sociologists Perrucci and Wysong noted in the quote above, social class is also

often dichotomized, usually into those called poor and those called middle class.
What is especially interesting about this language of “poor” and “middle class”

is the degree to which it masks the real polarization of income in American society,

which now can be described as between the rich and everyone else. As Timothy

Noah writes in Reading 14, the share of total income going to the top earners

increased steadily after the 1970s, while the share going to middle- and low-

earners shrank. Social scientists have been aware of this change for some time; it

is especially signifi cant since it reverses the closing of the income gap that took

place between the 1930s and 1970s. As Noah notes, no one would have expected

an advanced industrial democracy to become more unequal over time. The growth
of this gap seems to have been unaffected by the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009:

from 2009 to 2011 the income of the top 1 percent of families grew by 11.2  percent,

while the income of the bottom 99 percent shrunk by 0.4 percent.

Thus, “In simple but stark terms, by the end of the twentieth century all of the

declines in inequality achieved in the New and Fair Deals had been wiped out

and the United States had unambiguously returned to levels of inequality not seen

since the laissez-faire era of the 1920s.”

Despite the recent Great Recession,

the fl eeting Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, and the fact that the vast

majority of Americans have been negatively affected by change in income distri-

bution over the last thirty years, it still can be argued that class is not a central

category of cultural discourse in America. How can this be the case?

Just as American culture offers interpretations of what differences in color or

sex mean, it also provides interpretations about what differences in income,

wealth, or occupation might mean. In the Framework Essay for Section III we

will more thoroughly discuss the concept of ideology —culturally dominating
beliefs which, though widely shared, refl ect the experience of only a few—but

ideology certainly helps understand why social class remains an underdeveloped

concept in American culture.

For example, it is a commonplace American belief that social class refl ects a

person’s merit rather than social or economic forces. Surveys show that over half

of the American public believes “that lack of effort by the poor was the principal

reason for poverty, or a reason at least equal to any that was beyond a person’s

control. . . . Popular majorities did not consider any other factor to be a very

important cause of poverty—not low wages, or a scarcity of jobs, or discrimina-

tion, or even sickness.”

The belief that merit is rewarded—and, conversely, that the lack of merit is

punished—stands as a uniquely American belief. As Noah writes, surveys consis-

tently show that Americans— more than people of any other country —believe that
people are rewarded for their intelligence, skill, and effort. The American attach-

ment to this belief is particularly ironic, since, as Noah discusses, virtually every

developed nation in the world has more income mobility than the United States.

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34 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

That Americans could persist in a belief so detached from reality speaks to the

power of ideology.

But Americans have not always thought this way. In the early part of the 20th

century, those who were poor were more likely to be considered hardworking,

economically productive, constrained by artifi cial barriers, and probably in the

majority. Today, however, “many of the least well off are not regarded as produc-

tive in any respect”

; popular opinion and even social science research are more

likely to explain social class standing in terms of individual attributes and values

rather than economic changes or discrimination.

Although it is beyond the scope

of this text, these ideologies changed in response to new economic assumptions

and policies (generally called neoliberalism). Thus, while ideologies are embed-

ded in social context, but they are not outside historical change.

This attribution of poverty and wealth to individual merit hides not only the

complex reality of American social class, it is an essentialist myth that legitimates

the dramatic and increasing inequality of American society.

Dichotomization and Disability Our discussion of race, sexuality, sex and
gender, and social class has emphasized that each of these categories encompasses

a continuum of behavior and characteristics rather than a fi nite set of discrete or

easily separated groupings. It has also stressed that difference is a social creation—

that differences of color or sex, for example, have no meaning other than what is

attributed to them.

Can the same be said about disability? It is often assumed that people are eas-

ily classed as disabled or nondisabled, but that is no more true in this case than

it is for the other master statuses. Sociologist Irving Zola provided the classic

critique of how our use of statistics contributes to this misconception.

The way we report statistics vis-à-vis disability and disease is generally misleading. If we

speak of ratio fi gures for a particular disease as 1 in 8, 1 in 14, etc., we perpetuate what

Rene Dubos (1961) once called “The Mirage of Health.” For these numbers convey that if

1 person in 10 does get a particular disease, that 9 out of 10 do not. This means, however,

only that those 9 people do not get that particular disease. It does not mean that they are

disease-free, nor are they likely to be so. . . .

Similarly deceptive is the now-popular fi gure of “43 million people with a disability” . . .

for it implies that there are over 200 million Americans without a disability. . . . But the

metaphor of being but a banana-peel slip away from disability is inappropriate. The issue

of disability for individuals . . . is not whether but when , not so much which one but how
many and in what combination. 107

Apart even from how we count the disabled, how do we determine the dis-

ability of any particular person, on any particular day? Zola describes his experi-

ence of being able to work longer hours than others on an assembly line because

his torso was in a brace;

although he was “disabled,” on the line he was also

less disabled than others. This situation, where impairment is relative, is more the

rule than the exception and thus undermines notions about fi xed distinctions

between disability and nondisability.

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Framework Essay 35

Constructing the “Other”

We have seen how the complexity of a population may be reduced to aggregates

and then to a simplistic dichotomy. Aggregation assumes that those who share a

master status are alike in “essential” ways. It ignores the multiple and confl icting

statuses any individual inevitably occupies. Dichotomization especially promotes

the image of a mythical other who is not at all like us. Whether in race, sex,
sexuality, social class, or disability, dichotomization yields a vision of “them” as

profoundly different. Ultimately, dichotomization results in stigmatizing those

who are less powerful. It provides the grounds for whole categories of people to

become the objects of contempt.

Constructing “Others” as Profoundly Different The expectation that “others”
are profoundly different can be seen most clearly in the signifi cance that has been

attached to sex differences. In this case, biological differences between males and

females have been the grounds from which to infer an extensive range of nonbio-

logical differences. Women and men are assumed to differ from each other in behav-

ior, perception, and personality, and such differences are used to argue for different

legal, social, and economic roles and rights. The expectation that men and women

are not at all alike is so widespread that we often talk about them as members of the

“opposite” sex; indeed, it is not unusual to talk about the “war” between the sexes.

While this assumption of difference undergirds everyday life, few signifi cant

differences in behavior, personality, or even physical ability have been found

between men and women of any age. Indeed, there are more differences within
each sex than between the sexes. Psychologist Susan Basow illustrates this point
in the following:

The all-or-none categorizing of gender traits is misleading. People just are not so simple

that they either possess all of a trait or none of it. This is even more true when trait dispo-

sitions for groups of people are examined. Part [a] of Figure 2 [next page] illustrates what

such an all-or-none distribution of the trait “strength” would look like: all males would be

strong, all females weak. The fact is, most psychological and physical traits are distributed

according to the pattern shown in Part [b] of Figure 2 with most people possessing an aver-

age amount of that trait and fewer people having either very much or very little of that trait.

To the extent that females and males may differ in the average amount of the trait they

possess (which needs to be determined empirically), the distribution can be characterized by

overlapping normal curves, as shown in Part [c] of Figure 2 . Thus, although most men are
stronger than most women, the shaded area indicates that some men are weaker than some

women and vice versa. The amount of overlap of the curves generally is considerable. Another

attribute related to overlapping normal curves is that differences within one group are usually

greater than the differences between the two groups. Thus, more variation in strength occurs

within a group of men than between the average male and the average female.

The lack of difference between women and men is especially striking given

the degree to which we are all socialized to produce such differences. Thus, while

boys and girls, and men and women, are often treated differently as well as social-

ized to be different, this does not mean they inevitably become different. Yet, even

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36 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

though decades of research have confi rmed few sex differences, the search for

difference continues and some suggest it may even have been intensifi ed by the

failure to fi nd many differences.

The same expectation that the “other” differs in personality or behavior emerges

in race, class, and sexuality classifi cations. Race differences are expected to

involve more than just differences of color, those who are “gay” or “straight” are

expected to differ in more ways than just their sexual orientation, and social

classes are expected to differ in more than their income. In each case, scientifi c

research is often directed toward fi nding such differences.

Sanctioning Those Who Associate with the “Other” There are also simi-
larities in the sanctions against those who cross race, sex, class, or sexual orien-

tation boundaries. Parents sometimes disown children who marry outside of their

racial or social class group, just as they often sever connections with children who

are gay. Those who associate with the “other” are also in danger of being labeled

a member of that category.

For example, during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the fear

of invisible black ancestry was pervasive among southern whites, because that

heritage would subject them to a restricted life based on de jure segregation.
“Concern about people passing as white became so great that even behaving like

blacks or willingly associating with them were often treated as more important







it 100


a. All-or-none distribution

b. Normal distribution

c. Overlapping normal curves


















Weak Strong



Weak Strong

F I G U R E 2
Three types of distribution for the trait “strength.” (Basow, 1992:8; Figure 1 )

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Framework Essay 37

than any proof of actual black ancestry.”

Thus, southern whites who associated

with blacks ran the risk of being defi ned as black.

A contemporary parallel can be found in gay/straight relations. Those who

associate with gays and lesbians or defend gay rights are often presumed—by

gays and straights alike—to be gay. Many men report that when they object to

homophobic remarks, they simply become the target of them. Indeed, the prestige

of young men in fraternities and other all-male groups often rests on a willingness

to disparage women and gays.

Similarly, few contemporary reactions are as strongly negative as that against

men who appear feminine. Because acting like a woman is so disparaged, boys

learn at an early age to control their behavior or suffer public humiliation. This

ridicule has its greatest effect on young men; the power and prestige usually

available to older men reduces their susceptibility to such accusations. Young men

must avoid a long list of behaviors for fear of being called feminine or gay: don’t

be too emotional, watch how you sit, don’t move your hips when you walk, take

long strides, don’t put your hands on your hips, don’t talk too much, don’t let

your voice show emotion, don’t be too compliant or eager to please, and so on.

Because boys and men who exhibit such traits are often assumed to be gay,

they become targets for verbal and physical abuse. In Reading 28, for example,

C.J. Pascoe describes the ubiquity and function of the “fag trope” in an American

high school:

Fag talk and fag imitations serve as a discourse with which boys discipline themselves and

each other through joking relationships. Any boy can temporarily become a fag in a given

social space or interaction. This does not mean that boys who identify as or are perceived

to be homosexual aren’t subject to intense harassment. Many are. But becoming a fag has

as much to do with failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess, and

strength or in any way revealing weakness or femininity, as it does with a sexual identity.

This fl uidity of the fag identity is what makes the specter of the fag such a powerful disci-

plinary mechanism. It is fl uid enough that boys police their behaviors out of fear of having

the fag identity permanently adhere. . . .

The popular linkage of effeminate behavior with gay sexuality is so strong that

it may be the primary criterion most Americans use to decide who is gay:

A  “ masculine” man must be straight; a “feminine” man must be gay. But gender

and sexual orientation are separate phenomena. Knowing that someone is a mas-
culine man or a feminine woman does not tell us what that person’s sexual ori-

entation is—indeed, our guesses are most likely to be “false negatives”; that is,

we are most likely to falsely identify someone as straight. Because we do not

know who among us is gay, we cannot accurately judge how gay people behave.

In the world of mutual “othering,” being labeled one of “them” is a remarkably

effective social control mechanism. Boys and men control their behavior so that

they are not called gay. Members of racial and ethnic groups maintain distance

from one another to avoid the criticism that might be leveled by members of their

own and other groups. These social controls are effective because all parties con-

tinue to enforce them.

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38 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference


The term stigma comes from ancient Greece, where it meant a “bodily sign
designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of [an

individual].” Such signs were “cut or burnt into the body to advertise that the

bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be

avoided, especially in public places.”

Stigmatized people are those “marked”

as bad, unworthy, and polluted because of the category they belong to: for exam-

ple, because of their disability, or their race, sex, sexuality, or social class category.

The core assumption behind stigma is that internal merit is revealed through

external features—for the Greeks, that a brand or a cut showed a person’s lack

of moral worth. This is not an unusual linkage. For example, physically attractive

people are often assumed to possess a variety of positive attributes. We often

assume that people who look good must be good.
Judgments of worth based on membership in certain categories have a self-

fulfi lling potential. Those who are judged superior by virtue of their membership

in some category are given more opportunity to prove themselves; those who are

judged less worthy by virtue of membership in a stigmatized category have dif-

fi culty establishing their merit no matter what they do. For example, social psy-

chology experiments show that many whites perceive blacks as incompetent,

regardless of evidence to the contrary: white subjects were “reluctant or unable

to recognize that a black person is higher or equal in intelligence compared to


This would explain why many whites react negatively to affi rma-

tive action programs. If they cannot conceive of black applicants being more
qualifi ed than whites, they will see such programs as mandates to hire the less

qualifi ed.

Stigma involves objectifi cation and devaluation. Objectifi cation means treating
people as if they were objects, members of a category rather than possessors of

individual characteristics. In objectifi cation, the “living, breathing, complex indi-

vidual” ceases to be seen or valued.

In its extreme, those who are objectifi ed

are “viewed as having no other noteworthy status or identity. When that point is

reached, a person becomes nothing but ‘a delinquent,’ ‘a cripple,’ ‘a homosexual,’
‘a black,’ ‘a woman.’ The indefi nite article ‘a’ underlines the depersonalized

nature of such response.”

Examples of Stigmatized Master Statuses: Women, Poor People, and Disabled
People Sociologist Edwin Schur argues that because women are subject to both
objectifi cation and devaluation, they are discredited, that is, stigmatized. First, con-

sidering objectifi cation, Schur argues that women are seen

as all alike, and therefore substitutable for one another; as innately passive and objectlike;

as easily ignored, dismissed, trivialized, treated as childlike, and even as a non-person; as

having a social standing only through their attachments to men (or other non-stigmatized

groups); and as a group which can be easily victimized through harassment, violence, and


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Framework Essay 39

Objectifi cation occurs when women are thought of as generally indistinguish-

able from one another; for example, when someone says, “Let’s get the woman’s

angle on this story.” It also occurs when women are treated as nothing more than

their body parts, for example, when young girls are assumed to be sexually pro-

miscuous because they are big-breasted; they are nothing more than their cup size;

they are objects.

The T-shirt designed for a 2012 fraternity party at Amherst College exemplifi es

both objectifi cation and devaluation:

[W]hen a fraternity at self-described “elite” Amherst College in Massachusetts (not a big

university in the South where we stereotypically assume these things occur) designed a

T-shirt for their pig roast party of a pig smoking a cigar and watching a naked woman roast

on a spit with the words ROASTING FAT ONES SINCE 1847, the guys didn’t understand

why that was such a problem. Here’s Dana Bloger, a female student at Amherst, explaining

why the T-shirt is a problem:

The woman on the shirt is depicted as an animal—or rather, as inferior to an animal,

since she has not only replaced the pig on the spit but is being roasted by it. She is

objectifi ed as a literal piece of meat, whose thoughts, feelings, and humanity are rendered

nonexistent and her consent therefore irrelevant. The hypersexualization of her body links

violence with sex, thus perpetuating the notion that violence is sexy and sexuality violent.

While I am not suggesting that this image would ever directly cause the infl iction of

violence on any individual woman, dehumanization is always the fi rst step toward justi-

fying such violence.

African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and gay/lesbian people are often

similarly treated as indistinguishable from one another. Indeed, hate crimes have

been defi ned by precisely this quality of interchangeability, such as an attack on

any black family that moves into a neighborhood or the assault of any woman or
man who looks gay. Hate crimes are also marked by excessive brutality and per-

sonal violence rather than property destruction—all of which indicate that the

victims have been objectifi ed.

Some members of stigmatized categories objectify themselves in the same

ways that they are objectifi ed by others. Thus, women may evaluate their own

worth or the worth of other women in terms of physical appearance. In the process

of self-objectifi cation, a woman “joins the spectators of herself”; that is, she views

herself as if from the outside, as if she were nothing more than what she looked


While young men are also objectifi ed in terms of their bodies, over their

lifetime they are likely to be objectifi ed in terms of wealth and power.

There is a strong case that American women as a category continue to remain

devalued, a conclusion drawn from the characteristics most frequently attributed

to men and women. Research conducted over the last forty years has documented

a remarkable consistency in those attributes. Both sexes are described as possessing

valued qualities, but the characteristics attributed to men are more valued in the

culture as a whole. For example, the female-valued characteristics include being

talkative, gentle, religious, aware of the feelings of others, security oriented, and

attentive to personal appearance. Male-valued traits include being aggressive,

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40 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

independent, unemotional, objective, dominant, active, competitive, logical,

adventurous, and direct.

(Remember that these attributes are only people’s

beliefs about sex differences.)
In many ways, the characteristics attributed to women are inconsistent with

core American values. Although American culture values achievement, individual-

ism, and action—all understood as male attributes—women are expected to sub-

ordinate their own desires for individual achievement to the needs of their family.

Therefore, “women are asked to become the kind of people that this culture does

not value.”

Thus, it is more acceptable for women to display masculine traits,

since these are culturally valued, than it is for men to display the less-valued

feminine characteristics.

Much of what we have described about the stigmatization of women applies

to people who are poor as well. Indeed, being poor is a much more obviously

shameful status than being female. The category poor is intrinsically devalued.
As Paul Gorski describes in Reading 33, it is presumed that there is little com-

mendable to be said about people who are poor; “they” are primarily constructed

as a “problem.” Poor people are also objectifi ed; they are described as “ the poor,”
as if they were all alike, substitutable for and interchangeable with one another.

Most of the writing about poor people, even by sympathetic observers, tells us that they are

different, truly strangers in our midst: Poor people think, feel, and act in ways unlike

middle-class Americans. . . .

We can think about poor people as “them” or as “us.” For the most part, Americans have

talked about “them.” Even in the language of social science, as well as in ordinary conver-

sation and political rhetoric, poor people usually remain outsiders, strangers to be pitied or

despised, helped or punished, ignored or studied, but rarely full citizens, members of a larger

community on the same terms as the rest of us. They are . . . “those people,” objects of

curiosity, analysis, prurience, or compassion, not subjects who construct their own lives and

history. Poor people seem cardboard cutouts, fi gures in single dimension, members of infe-

rior categories, rarely complex, multifaceted, even contradictory in the manner of other


And, like women, those who are poor are not expected to display attributes valued

in the culture as a whole.

Everything that we have described about stigma also applies directly to the expe-

rience of disabled people. The concept of stigma was initially developed by soci-

ologist Erving Goffman with disabled people in mind, and there are so many ways

that the term applies that it is diffi cult to select a single focus. From assumptions

that one is pitiable, sick, unhappy, incompetent, dependent, childlike, unattractive,

“Compared with White women, Black women are viewed as less passive, dependent, status conscious,
emotional and concerned about their appearance. . . . Hispanic women tend to be viewed as more
‘feminine’ than White women in terms of submissiveness and dependence. . . . [A] similar stereotype
holds for Asian women, but with the addition of exotic sexuality. . . . Native-American women
typically are stereotyped as faceless . . . drudges without any personality. . . . Jewish women are
stereotyped as either pushy, vain ‘princesses’ or overprotective, manipulative ‘Jewish mothers’ . . .
working-class women are stereotyped as more hostile, confused, inconsiderate and irresponsible than
middle-class women . . . and lesbians are stereotyped as possessing masculine traits.”


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Framework Essay 41

and sexually undesirable, to notions that disability is a punishment for sin, disabled

people are cast as essentially unworthy.

In addition to the stigma, those who are disabled—like many others in stigma-

tized categories—must also manage the paternalism of those who are not disabled.

Taken from the position of a father toward his children, paternalism is the auto-

matic assumption of superiority.

Paternalism is often subtle in that it casts the oppressor as benign, as protector. . . . Paternal-

ism often must transform its subjects into children or people with childlike qualities. . . .

Paternalism is experienced as the bystander grabs the arm of a blind person and, without

asking, ‘helps’ the person across the street. . . . It is most of all, however, the assumption

that people with disabilities are intrinsically inferior and unable to take responsibility for

their own lives.

For those of us outside the stigmatized group, a paternalistic attitude is

dangerous because it keeps us from actually seeing the person in front of us:

“A person who cannot see or is using a wheelchair for mobility may be a happy,

prosperous, well-adjusted person, but most people encountering him or her

immediately feel pity.”

Stereotypes About People in Stigmatized Master Statuses Finally, in an
effort to capture the general features of what “we” say about “them,” let us con-

sider fi ve common stereotypes about individuals in stigmatized master statuses.

First, they are presumed to lack the values the culture holds dear. Neither

women nor those who are poor, disabled, gay, black, Asian American, or Latino

are expected to be independent, unemotional, objective, dominant, active, com-

petitive, logical, adventurous, or direct. Stigmatized people are presumed to lack

precisely those values that nonstigmatized people are expected to possess.

Second, stigmatized people are likely to be seen as a problem. Certainly black,

Latino, and Native American men and women, gay and lesbian people of all

colors, white women, all disabled people, and people living in poverty are con-

structed as having problems and being problems. Often the implication is that
they are also responsible for many of our national problems. While public celebra-

tions often highlight the historic contributions of such groups to the culture, little

in the public discourse lauds their current contributions. Indeed, those in stigma-

tized categories are often constructed as nothing but a problem, as if they did not
exist apart from those problems. This was once illustrated by a black student who

described her shock at hearing white students describe her middle-class neighbor-

hood as a “ghetto.”

Ironically, this depiction of stigmatized people as nothing but a problem is often

accompanied by the trivialization of those problems. For example, there is a sig-

nifi cant gap between black and white assessments of the persistence of race dis-

crimination. The same gap holds in terms of the perception of sex discrimination:

On the one hand, men and women largely agree that discrimination against women was

much greater in the past compared to the present. . . . [On the other hand], men perceive

the discrimination gap (the relative degrees of discrimination facing women versus men) to

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42 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

be smaller at all time periods than women do. Moreover, men believe that there is now

relatively little difference in the amount of discrimination facing men versus women.

Similarly, despite the participation of thousands of people in annual Gay Pride

marches throughout the country, images from the parades typically trivialize par-

ticipants by focusing on the small number in drag or leather. Indeed, much of

what is disparaged as “gay lifestyle” has been forged by gay and lesbian people

who have been excluded from mainstream, heterosexual society. Finally, despite

dramatic federal reductions in the cash assistance programs to poor people begun

in 1994 under President Bill Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it,”

stereotypes about poor people getting government “handouts” persist. In all, the

problems that stigmatized categories of people create for those in privileged sta-

tuses are highlighted, while the problems they experience are discounted, espe-

cially those problems created by “us.”

Third, people in stigmatized master statuses are often stereotyped as lacking

self-control; they are characterized as being lustful, immoral, and carriers of dis-


Currently, such accusations hold center stage in the depiction of gay men,

but historically such charges have been leveled at African American, Latino, and

Asian American men (e.g., Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century). Poor

women and women of color have been and continue to be depicted as promiscu-

ous, while poor men and women are presumed to be morally irresponsible.

Fourth, people in stigmatized categories are often marked as having too much

or too little intelligence, and in either case as tending to deception or criminality.

Many stigmatized categories of people have been assumed to use their “excessive”

intelligence to unfair advantage. This was historically the charge against Jews,

and now appears to be a characterization of Asian Americans.

[T]he educational achievement of Asian American students was, and continues to be,

followed by a wave of reaction. The image of Asian Americans as diligent super-students

has often kindled resentment in other students. Sometimes called “damned curve raisers,” a

term applied fi rst to Jewish students at elite East Coast colleges during the 1920s and 1930s,

Asian American students have increasingly found themselves taking the brunt of campus

racial jokes.

Fifth, people in stigmatized categories are depicted as both childlike and

savagely brutal. Historically, characterizations of Native Americans, enslaved

Africans, and Chinese immigrants refl ected these conceptions. Currently, the same

is true for the poor in their representation as both pervasively violent and

irresponsible. A related depiction of women as both “virgins and whores” has

been well documented in scholarship over time.

Perhaps because people in stigmatized master statuses are stereotyped as devi-

ant, it appears that those who commit violence against them are less severely

punished. For example, “most murders in the USA are intra-racial, that is, the

alleged perpetrator and the victim are of the same race. . . . Yet of the 845

prisoners executed between 17 January 1977 and 10 April 2003, 53 percent were

whites convicted of killing whites and 10 percent were blacks convicted of killing


Although a number of factors are operating here, one conclusion is

that  stigmatized minority victims are valued less than white victims. The same

ros27020_sec01_001-050.indd 42ros27020_sec01_001-050.indd 42 01/08/15 7:23 AM01/08/15 7:23 AM

conclusion could be reached in terms of the punishment meted out to those

accused of sexual assault. “Major offenses against women, which we profess to
consider deviant, in practice have been responded to with much ambivalence.”


Indeed, some have argued that one way to recognize a stigmatized category of

people is that the violence directed at them is not treated seriously.

Overall, individuals in stigmatized master statuses are represented not only as

physically distinctive but also as the antithesis of the culture’s desired behaviors

and attributes. Such characterizations serve to dismiss claims of discrimination and

unfair treatment, affi rming that those in stigmatized categories deserve such treat-

ment, that they are themselves responsible for their plight. Indeed, many of these

stereotypes are also applied to teenagers, whom the media depict as violent, reck-

less, hypersexed, ignorant, out of control, and the cause of society’s problems.

A Final Comment

It is disheartening to think of oneself as a member of a stigmatized group, just

as it is disheartening to think of oneself as thoughtlessly perpetuating stigma. Still,

there are at least two important points to bear in mind. First, the characteristics

attributed to stigmatized groups are similar across a great variety of master

statuses. They are not tied to the actual characteristics of any particular group; in

a way, they are quite impersonal. Second, people who are stigmatized have often

formed alliances with those who are not stigmatized to successfully lobby against

these attributions.

As we said at the outset of this essay, our hope is to provide you with a frame-

work by which to make sense of what sex, disability, race, social class, and

sexuality mean in contemporary American society. Clearly, these categorizations

are complex; they are tied to emotionally intense issues that are uniquely American;

and they have consequences that are both mundane and dramatic. From naming,

to aggregating, to dichotomizing, and ultimately to stigmatizing, difference has a

meaning for us. The readings in Section I will explore the construction of these

categorizations; the readings in Section II examine how we experience them; the

readings in Section III address the meaning that is attributed to difference; and

the readings in Section IV describe how we can bridge these differences.


ableism Analogous to racism and sexism, a  system of
cultural, institutional, and individual discrimination

against people with impairments. Disablism is the

British term; disability oppression is  synonymous.

(page 6)

aggregate To combine or lump together (verb); some-
thing composed of different elements (noun).

(pages  15)

-centrism or -centric Suffi x meaning centered around,
focused around, taking the perspective of. Thus,

androcentric means focused around or taking the
perspective of men; heterocentric means taking the
perspective of heterosexuals; and Eurocentric means
having a European focus. (page 19)

constructionism The view that reality cannot be sepa-
rated from the way a culture makes sense of it—that

meaning is “constructed” through social, political,

legal, scientifi c, and other practices. From this per-

spective, differences among people are created

through social processes. (page 3)

Framework Essay 43

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44 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

dichotomize To divide into two parts and to see those
parts as mutually exclusive. (page 20)

differential undercount In the census, undercounting
more of one group than of another. (page 12)

disability The loss or limitation of opportunities to
take part in the normal life of the community on an

equal level with others because of physical and

social barriers (page 3)

disaggregate To separate something into its constitu-
ent elements. (pages 16)

essential identity An identity that is treated as core
to a person. Essential identities can be attributed to

people even when they are inconsistent with actual

behavior. (page 30)

essentialism The view that reality exists independently
of our perception of it, that we perceive the meaning

of the world rather than construct that meaning. From

this perspective, there are real and important (essential)

differences among categories of people. (page 3)

ethnic group, ethnicity Those who share a sense of
being a “people,” usually based on national origin,

language, or religion. (page 23)

gender Masculinity and femininity; the acting out of
the behaviors thought to be appropriate for a particu-

lar sex. (page 30)

heteronormativity All the beliefs, norms, and social
structures that contribute to the presumption that

heterosexuality is the natural, normal, and inevitable

structure of society (page 19)

impairment Physical, cognitive, emotional, or sensory
conditions within the person as diagnosed by medi-

cal professionals (page 5)

intersectionality Consideration of the ways that mas-
ter statuses interact and mutually construct one

another. (page 4)

master status A status that has a profound effect on
one’s life, that dominates or overwhelms the other

statuses one occupies. (page 2)

objectifi cation Treating people as if they were
objects, as if they were nothing more than the attri-

butes they display. (page 38)

Other A usage designed to refer to those considered
profoundly unlike oneself. (page 11)

panethnic A classifi cation that spans ethnic identities.
(page 17)

race The conception that people can be classifi ed into
groups based on skin color, hair texture, shape of

head, eyes, nose, and lips. (pages 3)

sex The categories of male and female. (page 3)
status A position in society. Individuals occupy mul-

tiple statuses simultaneously, such as occupational,

kinship, and educational statuses. (page 2)

stigma An attribute for which someone is
considered bad, unworthy, or deeply discredited.

(pages 38)

transgender People who systematically ignore or vio-
late gender expectations; sometimes includes people

who are transsexual. (page 32)


1. Scott and Marshall, 2009:452–53.

2. Ridgeway, 2011. Ridgeway argues that gender “fram-

ing,” i.e., the processes by which behavior is interpreted

through the “lens” of gender, accounts for the contem-

porary inability to fully eliminate inequalities between

women and men.

3. For example see Janet Jacobsen, “Queers Are Like Jews,

Aren’t They? Analogy and Alliance Politics,” in Queer
Theory and the Jewish Question edited by Daniel Boya-
rin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini. New York: Co-

lumbia University Press, 2003, 64–90; Tina Grillo and

Stephanie M. Wildman. “Obscuring the Importance of

Race: The Implication of Making Comparisons between

Racism and Sexism or other Isms,” in Critical Race
Feminism edited by Adrien Katherine Wing. New York:
NYU Press, 1997; Barbara F. Reskin, “Including Mech-

anisms in Our Models of Ascriptive Inequality,” Ameri-
can Sociological Review, 2003, v. 68 Feb: 1–21.

4. Henshel and Silverman, 1975:26.

5. Pfuhl, 1986:5.

6. Ibid.

7. Spelman, 1988.

8. Faderman, 1991; Armstrong, 2002.

9. Saad, 2012.

10. Rist, 1992: 425–26.

11. Omansky, 2006:27.

12. Disabled People’s International, 1982.

13. Barnes and Mercer, 2003; Oliver, 1990, 1996, 2009.

14. Hunt, 2001.

15. Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation, 1973:4.

16. United Nations, 2007.

17. Schneider, 1988:65.

18. Higgins, 1992:53.

19. Schmidt, 2003.

20. Grigsby Bates, 2014.

21. Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, 2013.

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22. Smith, 1992:497–98.

23. Gallup, 2007.

24. Kiviat, 2010.

25. Shorris, 1992:101.

26. Queer Nation Manifesto, 1990.

27. Mills, 1989:102.

28. Omansky, 2006:27.

29. Oliver, 1990:xiii.

30. U.S. Census, 2010.

31. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1973:39.

32. Skrentny, 2002:2.

33. U.S. Census, 2010.

34. U.S. Census, 2012.

35. Ibid.

36. Gates and Cook, nd.

37. Jenkins, 1999:15–16.

38. Saulny, 2011.

39. U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2010a.

40. U.S. Census Bureau, 2006–2008, American Community


41. Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, 2013.

42. Gracia, 2000:204–5.

43. Lopez, 2013.

44. Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, 2013.

45. Ibid.

46. Cohn, 2012.

47. Hu-Dehart, 1994.

48. U.S. Census Bureau, 2001.

49. Espiritu, 1992:124–25.

50. Omi, 1996:180.

51. Omi, 1996:181.

52. Mohawk, 1992:440.

53. Omi and Winant, 1994:66.

54. Mohawk, 1992:439–40.

55. Flagg, 1993:970.

56. Okizaki, 2000:483.

57. Russell, 1994.

58. Warner, 1993.

59. Herek, 2004:7.

60. Ibid.

61. Herek, 1990:316.

62. Herek, 2000.

63. Berlant and Warner, 1998:547.

64. Warner, 1999:47.

65. Dennis, 2004:383.

66. Tilly, 1999.

67. Lee and Bean, 2004.

68. Omi and Winant, 1994.

69. Roediger, 1994:189–90.

70. Morrison, 1992:47.

71. Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends, 2012.

72. Blauner, 1992.

73. Haines, 2007.

74. Smedley, 1993:39.

75. Ibid.

76. Omi and Winant, 1994.

77. Smedley, 1993:25.

78. Ibid.

79. Gould, 1981.

80. Begley, 1995:67, 68.

81. Cohen, 1998:12.

82. Lieberman, 1968:128.

83. Marshall, 1993:117, 121.

84. Roberts, 2011:59 Emphasis added.

85. Ibid., p. 60.

86. Ibid., p. 172.

87. Zuger, 2012.

88. Dreifus, 2005.

89. Roberts, 2011:78.

90. Gates, 2011.

91. Rosenthal, et al, 2011:112–115.
92. Denizet-Lewis, 2014.

93. Ibid.

94. Ibid.

95. Pew Research Center, 2013.

96. Denizet-Lewis, 2014.

97. Katz, 1975.

98. Valentine, 2007:80.

99. Ortner, 1991:169.

100. Perrucci and Wysong, 2008.

101. Perrucci and Wysong, 2008:48–50.

102. Saez, 2013.

103. Massey, 2007:35–6.

104. Schwarz and Volgy, 1992:11.

105. Arrow, Bowles, and Durlauf, 2000:x.

106. Kahlenberg, 1997; Mincey, 1994.

107. Zola, 1993:18.

108. Ibid.

109. Basow, 1992:8.

110. Davis, 1991:56.

111. Goffman, 1963:1.

112. Gaertner and Dovidio, 1986:75.

113. Allport, 1958:175.

114. Schur, 1984:30–1.

115. Ibid., 33.

116. Wiseman, 2013:20.

117. Berger, 1963:50.

118. Baron and Byrne, 2004; Sczesny et al., 2008.
119. Basow, 1992:4.

120. Richardson, 1977:11.

121. Katz, 1989:6, 126.

122. Charlton, 2000:53.

123. Ibid., 55.

124. Bosson, Vandello, Michniewicz & Lenes,


125. Gilman, 1985, 1991.

126. Takagi, 1992:60

127. Amnesty International, 2003.

128. Schur, 1984:7.

129. Males, 1994.

Framework Essay 45

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46 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference



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Valentine, David. 2007. Imagining Transgender: An
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Framework Essay 49

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50 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Weinberg, George. 1973. Society and the Healthy
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Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules
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Heart Drug’s Story, New York Times, December 24.

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READING 1: “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity 51

new social identities, and ethnic identity itself was

fl uid and malleable.

Until the rise of market capitalism, wage labor,

the Protestant Ethic, private property, and posses-

sive individualism, kinship connections also oper-

ated as major indices that gave all peoples a sense

of who they were. Even in the technologically and

politically most advanced societies of the ancient

world such as in Rome, kinship was the important

diacritic of connectedness to the social system. In

all of the mostly patrilineal societies of the Middle

East. Africa, and the Mediterranean, the normal

person was identifi ed by who his or her father was.

The long list of names of who begat whom in the

Old Testament (Book of Genesis) attests to the

importance, especially at the tribal and chiefdom

levels, of genealogical identity.

Another important diagnostic of identity was

occupation. Whether one was a farmer, carpenter,

fi sherman, tanner, brass worker, herdsman, philoso-

pher, government offi cial, senator, poet, healer,

warrior, or harlot, was signifi cantly salient in the

eyes of the ancient world to require the label.

Occupations determined to some extent how people

were viewed and treated, as well as underscored

their contribution to the society.

Throughout much of the period of the early im-

perial states, numerous groups were in contact with

one another, and individuals often traveled from

one region to another as traders, warriors, crafts-

men, travelers, geographers, teachers, and so forth.

From one end of the Mediterranean to another, in

spite of the lack of modern forms of transportation,

many men and women were interacting in an inter-

ethnic melange that included a wide range of cul-

tures and peoples. From time to time, a conquest

state would expand outward and incorporate some

or most of this great variety. Populations did not

necessarily lose any form of ethnic identity, but

change was clearly understood as virtually inevita-

ble as each society learned something new from the

cultures of others. . . .

R E A D I N G 1

“Race” and the Construction
of Human Identity

Audrey Smedley

Historical records, including the Old and New

Testaments of the Bible, evince scenarios of inter-

ethnic interaction that suggest some very different

principles in operation throughout much of human

Ethnic groups have always existed in the

sense that clusters of people living in demarcated

areas develop lifestyles and language features that

distinguish them from others and they perceive

themselves as being separate societies with distinct

social histories. Although some confl icts among

different groups have been characteristic from the

earliest recorded histories, hostilities were usually

neither constant nor the basis on which long-term

relationships were established.

One factor separates many in the contemporary

world, at least some of our understandings of it,

from earlier conceptions of human identity. That

is that “ethnic” identity was not perceived as in-

eluctably set in stone. Individuals and groups of

individuals often moved to new areas or changed

their identities by acquiring membership in a dif-

ferent group. People of the ancient world seemed

to have understood that cultural characteristics

were external and acquired forms of behavior, and

that “barbarians” could learn to speak the lan-

guage of the Romans or the Greeks and become

participants in those cultures, and even citizens of

these states. Languages were indeed avenues to


Audrey Smedley is professor emeritus of anthropology at

Virginia Commonwealth University.

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52 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

When Alexander conquered peoples and lands all

the way to the Indus Valley in India, interacting with

“civilized” populations, nomadic pastoralists, settled

villagers, and a variety of hunting and fi shing peo-

ples, he exhorted his warriors to intermarry with the

peoples they conquered in order to learn their lan-

guages and cultures. Garrisons of military men were

stationed all over the Roman world, from Brittany to

the Danube and the Black Sea, from Gibraltar to the

Tigris/Euphrates valley and the Indian Ocean, and

soldiers often took local women as wives. When

the armies of the Moroccan king brought down the

Songhai empire in 1591, his soldiers stayed on the

Western Sudan frontier area and intermarried with

the local people. Most of northern Africa, including

Egypt of the Delta, has been periodically invaded

and ruled by outsiders for the last three thousand

years or so. Hittites and Hyksos from the mountainous

areas of Turkey, Assyrians, Persians, Syrians, Phoe-

nicians, Greeks, Babylonians, Romans, and various

more recent Turkish and Arabian groups have settled

in the towns of the coasts and interacted with the in-

digenous Berbers and other peoples like the Libyan

groups, the Garamantes, the Carthaginians, Syngam-

brians, and many others. Less well known is the fact

that both the Greeks and the Romans used mercenar-

ies from inner Africa ( Nubians, Ethiopians, Kushites,

among others) in confl icts such as the Persian and

Peloponnesian wars (Herodotus, in Godolphin


Peoples of different cultures coexisted for the

most part without strife, with alien segments often

functioning in distinct roles in the larger cities.

One-third of the population of Athens were

foreigners as early as the Classical period, fi ve

hundred years before the Christian era (Boardman

et al. 1986:222). And the city of Alexandria was

(and still is) a heterogeneous, sophisticated, and

complex community under the Greeks, Romans,

Christians, and Arabs. Carthage was founded in

North Africa by Phoenicians, but peoples from all

over the Mediterranean world and other parts of

Africa made their residence, or served as slaves, in

this great trading city. Moreover, men and women

of different ethnic groups intermarried frequently,

largely because marriage was often used as a

political or economic strategy. Men gave their

daughters and sisters to other men, the historians

tell us, because they desired political and/or eco-

nomic alliances with powerful and wealthy men,

without regard to ethnic origins. Timotheus was the

son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. Samson

married a Philistine woman; Moses married an

Ethiopian woman; and many leaders, and lesser

men, of the Greeks and Romans married women

not from their own societies.

Different societies and localized segments of

larger societies were known either by their ethnic

name for themselves or by the region, town, or vil-

lage of their origins. That identities of this type

were fl uid is indicated by the depictions of indi-

vidual lives. Paul of Tarsus traveled and preached

extensively throughout much of the known Medi-

terranean world during the early Christian era and

encountered individuals of different ethnic back-

grounds. He even identifi ed himself as a Roman on

occasion when it was useful to do so. There are

other examples of individuals in ancient writings

who changed their ethnic identities for personal or

private reasons.

Scholars who have studied African societies, es-

pecially African history, have also been aware of the

malleability of ethnic identity on that continent. New

ethnic groups have emerged out of the colonial pe-

riod, and individuals have been known to transform

themselves according to their ethnic or religious mi-

lieus. One may be a Christian in one context, and a

Muslim in another, with no sense of ambivalence or

deception. I have encountered this phenomenon

myself. Most Africans spoke several different lan-

guages, and this facilitated the molding of multiple

ethnicities by providing immediate access to cultural

knowledge. In situations of potential or real confl ict,

allegiances could be fi rmly established without de-

nial of the extrinsic nature of social/ethnic identities

(Connah 1987; Davidson 1991).

In addition to identities that are predicated on

place of birth, membership in kin groups, or descent

in the male or female line from known ancestors,

language spoken, and lifestyle to which individuals

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READING 1: “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity 53

have been conditioned, another feature critical to

individual identity in the state systems was social

position. Aristocrats seemed to have been recog-

nized even beyond the boundaries of their immedi-

ate societies. And certain men were widely famed

for their specialized skills or crafts that set them

above others. Every society had its large body of

commoners and usually a great number of slaves

captured in war or traded in when this enterprise

became a common regional feature. Slaves were

usually outsiders, but slavery was not considered

by law and custom a permanent condition as slaves

could be manumitted, redeemed by kinspeople,

or  could purchase their own freedom (Smedley

[1993]1999: ch. 6). While enslavement was consid-

ered an unfortunate circumstance and most slaves

did the menial and onerous tasks of society, the

roles of slaves varied widely. There are numerous

examples of slaves rising to political power in the

ancient states of the Mediterranean and in the

Muslim world. Often they held positions as gener-

als who led armies of conquest and were frequently

rewarded for their successes. Whole slave dynasties

like the Mamluks in Egypt reigned in various areas

of the Muslim world (Hitti 1953).

With the appearance of the proselytizing univer-

sal religions, Christianity and later Islam, that be-

came competitors with one another for the souls of

all human groups, a new focus of identity was grad-

ually and increasingly placed on membership in a

religious community. During the Middle Ages of

Europe, Christians and Muslims were competing

not only for land and souls, but for political power

and infl uence. And various sects that developed

within each large religious community complicated

matters by fostering internal dissension and even

warfare inter alia . Whether one was Sunni or Shiite,
Protestant or Catholic, was a critical determinant of

one’s identity locally and in the wider world. As with

other aspects of ethnicity and ethnic differences,

individuals often changed their religious affi liation

under circumstances prompted by self-interest, or

self-preservation, as in the case of the 300,000 or

more Jews who were forced to convert to Catholi-

cism in Medieval Spain during the Inquisition

(Castro 1971). Yet Christians, Jews, and Muslims

had lived together in relative amity, and even inter-

married, for several hundred years after the Muslim

conquests and before the rise of the Christian king-

doms to challenge Muslim power.

What was absent from these different forms of

human identity is what we today would perceive as

classifi cations into “racial” groups, that is, the orga-

nization of all peoples into a limited number of un-

equal or ranked categories theoretically based on

differences in their biophysical traits. There are no

“racial” designations in the literature of the ancients

and few references even to such human features as

skin color. Frank Snowden has demonstrated that

ever since at least the second millennium b.c. the

peoples of the Mediterranean world have interacted

with other groups having a variety of physical traits

that differed from the Italians and Greeks. Artistic

depictions of Africans of clear “negroid” features

have been found, and numerous statues and paint-

ings throughout the classical era show that physical

variations in different populations were recognized

and accurately depicted (Snowden 1983).

Except for indigenous Americans, members of

all three of the large geographic areas that came to

be categorized as “races” in the nineteenth and

twentieth centuries (Mongoloid, Negroid, and

Caucasoid) interacted in the ancient world. Chinese

porcelain vases have been found widely distributed

in the East African coastal trading cities, indicating

trade between these peoples at least two thousand

years old. The peoples of the Malagasy Republic

represent a mixture of African and Asian (Indone-

sian) ancestry dating back several thousand years.

Greek sailors sailed down the Red Sea into the

Indian Ocean and met East Africans long before the

Christian era. The peoples of the Mediterranean

regularly traded with dark-skinned peoples of the

upper Nile valley (and all those in between) north-

west Africa, and the contrasting lighter-skinned

peoples of Northern Europe. Various states of the

Mediterranean called upon and used Ethiopian

warriors as mercenaries in their armies, as we have

seen. Some of the more desired slaves were very

fair-skinned Slavs (from whom the term slave was

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54 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

external physical features. We have been socialized

to an ideology about the meaning of these differ-

ences based on a notion of heredity and perma-

nence that was unknown in the ancient world and in

the Middle Ages.

In the eighteenth century this new mode of structur-

ing inequality in human societies evolved in the

American colonies and soon was present through-

out the overseas territories of the colonizing coun-

tries of Western Europe. “Race” was a form of

social identifi cation and stratifi cation that was

seemingly grounded in the physical differences of

populations interacting with one another in the

New World, but whose real meaning rested in so-

cial and political realities. The term race had been
used to refer to humans occasionally since the six-

teenth century in the English language but was

rarely used to refer to populations in the slave trade.

It was a mere classifi catory term like kind, type, or
even breed, or stock, and it had no clear meaning
until the eighteenth century. During this time, the

English began to have wider experiences with var-

ied populations and gradually developed attitudes

and beliefs that had not appeared before in Western

history and which refl ected a new kind of under-

standing and interpretation of human differences.

Understanding the foundations of race ideology is

critical to our analysis.

English settlers in North America failed to as-

similate the peoples whom they conquered; indeed

they generally kept them at great length and social

distance from themselves (Morgan 1975; Nash

1982). Indigenous Indians were different in both

cultural and biological features, but this was not the

necessary and suffi cient reason for the English hab-

its and policies of separateness. They had had

a  long history of enmity with earlier peoples,

especially the Irish, on their very borders and had

derived) who were traded down the Danube by

German tribesmen. Northern European slaves were

shipped as far away as Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia,

and the Muslim capital at Baghdad (Davis 1966).

What seems strange to us today is that the bio-

logical variations among human groups were not

given signifi cant social meaning. Only occasionally

do ancient writers ever even remark on the physical

characteristics of a given person or people. Herodo-

tus, in discussing the habits, customs, and origins

of different groups and noting variations in skin

color, specifi cally tells us that this hardly matters.

The Colchians are of Egyptian origin, he wrote, be-

cause they have black skins and wooly hair “which

amounts to but little, since several other nations are

so too.”
Most writers explained such differences as

due to natural environmental factors such as the hot

sun causing people to be dark skinned. No structur-

ing of inequality, whether social, moral, intellec-

tual, cultural or otherwise, was associated with

people because of their skin color, although all
“barbarians” varied in some ways from the somatic

norm of the Mediterranean world. But barbarians

were not irredeemably so, and, as we have seen,

nothing in the values of the public life denied

the transformability of even the most backward of


We in the contemporary Western world have

often found it diffi cult to understand this phenom-

enon and assume that differences in skin color must

have had some important meaning. Historians have

tried to discover “racial” meanings in the literature

of the ancients, assuming that these writers had the

same attitudes and beliefs about human differences

found in nineteenth- and twentieth-century North

America. The reason for our myopia has to do with

our deeply entrenched conditioning to the racial

worldview (Smedley 1993, 1998). When “race” ap-

peared in human history, it brought about a subtle

but powerful transformation in the world’s percep-

tions of human differences. It imposed social mean-

ings on physical variations among human groups

that served as the basis for the structuring of the

total society. Since that time many people in the

West have continued to link human identity to

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READING 1: “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity 55

“Race” emerged as a social classifi cation that re-

fl ected this greatly expanded sense of human separ-

ateness and differences. Theodore Allen (1997)

argues that the “invention” of the white race took

place after an early, but unsuccessful, colonial revolt

of servants and poor freedmen known as Bacon’s

Rebellion in 1676. Colonial leaders subsequently de-

cided it would be useful to establish a division among

the masses of poor to prevent their further collabora-

tion against the governmental authorities. As African

servants were vulnerable to policies that kept them in

servitude indefi nitely, and European servants had the

protection of English law, colonial leaders developed

a policy backed by new laws that separated African

servants and freedmen from those of European back-

ground. Over the next half century, they passed nu-

merous laws that provided resources and benefi ts to

poor, white freedmen and other laws that restricted

the rights of “Africans,” “mulattoes,” and “Indians.”

Calling upon the model of the Chain of Being, and

using natural differences in physical features, they

created a new form of social identity. “Race” devel-

oped in the minds of some Europeans as a way to

rationalize the conquest and brutal treatment of Na-

tive American populations, and especially the reten-

tion and perpetuation of slavery for imported

Africans. As an ideology structuring social, eco-

nomic, and political inequality, “race” contradicted

developing trends in England and in Western Euro-

pean societies that promoted freedom, democracy,

equality, and human rights. Europeans justifi ed this

attitude toward human differences by focusing on

the physical features of the New World populations,

magnifying and exaggerating their differences, and

concluding that the Africans and Indians and their

descendants were lesser forms of human beings, and

that their inferiority was natural and/or God-given.

The creation of “race” and racial ideology im-

posed on the conquered and enslaved peoples an

identity as the lowest status groups in society.

Myths about their inferior moral, intellectual, and

behavioral features had begun to develop and these

facilitated proscription of any competition with

Europeans. By the mid-eighteenth century, Negroes

had been segregated from poor whites in the laws

generated out of their hostility with the Irish an

image of “savagery” that became institutionalized

as a major part of public consciousness about “the

other.” The policies and practices of the English in

Ireland functioned to keep those Irish who refused

to accept English domination segregated from

themselves. Failing to even attempt an understand-

ing of Irish customs and institutions, the English

expressed an abiding contempt and hatred for both

Irish culture and people that reached a crescendo

during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

when the English were also settling in the New

World. It was an extreme form of ethnocentrism or

ethnic chauvinism that some historians believe

came close to being racial (Allen 1994; Canny

1973; Liggio 1976).

“Savagery” was an image about human differ-

ences that became deeply embedded in English life

and thought and provided a foil against which they

constructed their own identity as “civilized” Eng-

lishmen. They brought this image of what savagery

was all about with them to the New World where it

was soon imposed on the native populations when

they, too, began to resist English encroachment.

Savagery carried with it an enormous burden of

negative and stereotypic characteristics grotesquely

counterposed against the vision that the English

had of themselves as a civilized people. Every new

experience, along with a growing technological su-

periority, widened the differences and denigrated

all other peoples who were not part of the civilized

world. The concept of “civilized” polities in con-

trast to savagery and barbarism was beginning to

take hold in much of Western Europe, and in this

sense Englishmen were not much different from the

rest of the Western world. But English notions of

their own superiority were enhanced by their tech-

nological, material, and political successes, by their

earlier successful split from the Catholic realm, by

the early rise of merchant capitalism, the develop-

ment of new forms of wealth, notions about indi-

vidual freedom, property rights, and self-suffi ciency,

and by a growing sense of their own uniqueness

even among other Europeans. This was summed up

in the myth of Anglo-Saxonism (Horsman 1981).

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56 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

longer possible. American society had made “race”

(and the physical features connected to it) equiva-

lent to, and the dominant source of, human identity,

superseding all other aspects of identity.

The problems that this has entailed, especially for

the low-status “races,” have been enormous, im-

mensely complex, and almost intractable. Constant

and unrelenting portrayals of their inferiority condi-

tioned them to a self-imagery of being culturally

backward, primitive, intellectually stunted, prone to

violence, morally corrupt, undeserving of the benefi ts

of civilization, insensitive to the fi ner arts, and (in the

case of Africans) aesthetically ugly and animal-like.

Because of the cultural imperative of race ideology,

all Americans were compelled to the view that a ra-

cial status, symbolized by biophysical attributes, was

the premier determinant of their identity. “Race”

identity took priority over religion, ethnic origin,

education and training, socioeconomic class, occupa-

tion, language, values, beliefs, morals, lifestyles, geo-

graphical location, and all other human attributes that

hitherto provided all groups and individuals with a

sense of who they were. The dilemma for the low-

status races was, and still is, how to construct a posi-

tive identity for themselves in the light of the “racial”

identity imposed on them by the dominant society.

In recent decades, one response to this dilemma

on the part of some African Americans has been

Afrocentrism (which is not the same as an older

version of “Negritude” that black intellectuals had

developed earlier in this century). And for some

Indians a new form of “Nativism” has emerged, har-

kening back to a Native American lifestyle. Afro-

centrism seeks to reidentify with the peoples and

cultures of Africa and to elevate Africans to a posi-

tion of esteem by emphasizing valuable aspects of

African cultures. Some Afrocentrists also make

assertions about the positive qualities of African

people and seek to recognize and objectify African-

isms in the behavior of African-descended peoples

who have been scattered all over the New World.

Many assume or operate on the premise that all

peoples who descended from Africans during the

diaspora maintain certain behaviorisms that mark

them off from other peoples. Their arguments seem

of most colonies and transformed into property as

slaves in a state of permanent bondage.

Edmund Morgan (1975) also interpreted the ac-

tions of the early colonists in the process of estab-

lishing “racial” identities as stemming from the

propertied colonists’ fear of poor whites and pos-

sibly slaves engaging in rebellions together. Colo-

nial leaders consciously formulated policies that

would separate poor whites from Indians, blacks,

and mulattoes and proceeded to provide the white

poor, whom they had hitherto treated with contempt

and hatred, with some privileges and special advan-

In time, class divisions diminished in the

minds of poor whites and they saw themselves as

having something in common with the propertied

class, symbolized by their light skins and common

origins in Europe. With laws progressively

continuing to reduce the rights of blacks and

Indians, it was not long before the various European

groups coalesced into a white “racial” category

whose high-status identity gave them access to

wealth, power, opportunity, and privilege.

By the mid-nineteenth century virtually all

Americans had been conditioned to this arbitrary

ranking of the American peoples, and racial ideol-

ogy had diffused around much of the world, includ-

ing to the colonized peoples of the Third World and

among Europeans themselves.

In the United States the biophysical features of

different populations, which had become markers

of social status, were internalized as sources of

individual and group identities. After the Civil War,

although slavery ended, race and racial ideology re-

mained and were strengthened. African Americans

particularly had to grapple with the reality of being

defi ned as the lowest status group in American soci-

ety and with the associated stereotyping that be-

came increasingly part of the barriers to their

integration into American society (Conrad 1969).

And Native Americans had to try to reinvent their

identities, whether in towns or isolated on remote

reservations where traditional lifestyles were no

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READING 1: “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity 57

Historically, “race” was grounded in the myth of

biologically separate, exclusive, and distinct popu-

lations. No social ingredient in our race ideology

allowed for an identity of “mixed-races.” Indeed

over the past century and a half, the American pub-

lic was conditioned to the belief that “mixed-race”

people (especially of black and white ancestry)

were abnormal products of the unnatural mating of

two species, besides being socially unacceptable in

the normal scheme of things. The tragedy for

“mixed” people is that powerful social lie, the as-

sumption at the heart of “race,” that a presumed

biological essence is the basis of one’s true identity.

Identity is biology, racial ideology tells us, and it is

permanent and immutable. The emphasis on and

signifi cance given to “race” precludes any possibil-

ity for establishing our premier identities on the

basis of other characteristics. In this sense it may be

argued that the myth of “race” has been a barrier to

true human identities.

The unfortunate consequence of race ideology

is  that many of the people with this “mixed-race”

background have also been conditioned to the

belief in the biological salience of “race.” Their

efforts to establish a “Mixed-Race” category in the

American census forms show a total misunder-

standing of what “race” is all about, and this is, of

course, a major part of the tragedy. Their arguments

imply a feeling of having no identity at all because

they do not exist formally (that is, socially) as a

“biological” category.

The fact is that from the standpoint of biology,

there have been “mixed” people in North America

ever since Europeans fi rst encountered indigenous

Americans and the fi rst Africans were brought to

the English colonies in the 1620s. The average

African American has about one-quarter of his or

her genes from non-African (nonblack) ancestors,

although most estimates are likely to be conserva-

tive (cf. Marks 1995; Reed 1969). There is a greater

range of skin colors, hair textures, body sizes, nose

shapes, and other physical features among black

Americans than almost any other people identifi ed

as a distinct population. Virtually all of them could

identify as of “mixed-race.” But the physical

similar to that of the biological determinists in the

dominant society, but most would probably not go

so far as to assert a genetic basis to certain “African”-

originated behaviors. Those who take the position

asserting a common African personality or behavior

refl ect the degree to which the ideology of “race”

has been implanted in them. Like most Americans,

they fi nd it diffi cult to think beyond the racial world-

view and draw upon the same strategies as white

racists in claiming superior features for “African”

people. At the same time, there are many Afrocen-

trists who are very conscious of the fact that theirs is

a political position and that they are using the same

biological arguments as racists, the people whom

they theoretically oppose. They fail to realize that

operating within the racial worldview, accepting its

premises that biologically distinct races exist, each

with unique cultural/behavioral features, and simply

denying inferiority while asserting African superior-

ity does nothing to change the racism in our society.

However, we also must understand that what

Afrocentrism is really intended to do is to restore a

sense of pride and dignity to ordinary African

Americans, regardless of how whites and others

regard their positions. By looking to the “real”

Africa, studying her history, learning about and

being involved in certain rituals and festivals that

focus on African arts, dance, dress, music, and so

on, some activists feel that they are engendering

this pride and helping to remove the contempt and

denigration that has accompanied our ideas about

Africa in the past. They understand that for too long

African Americans have been conditioned to the

same negative beliefs about Africa and Africans as

have whites and others and that there is a need to

eliminate the self-deprecation and self-hatred that

black Americans have experienced with regard to

their African ancestry. . . .

One of the more tragic aspects of the racial world-

view has been the seeming dilemma of people

whose parents are identifi ably of different “races.”

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58 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

including American culture, have changed, some

of them drastically, during that time. Cultures con-

stantly change without any corresponding changes

in biological features.

Americans should understand clearly that hu-

mans learn cultural features from one another all the

time because that has been one of the most profound

experiences of human, and especially American,

history. What prevents us from understanding this is

that component in the ideology of “race,” as we

have seen, that holds that each race has separate,

biologically determined patterns of cultural behav-

ior. The racial worldview, with its emphasis on as-

sumptions of innateness and immutability, makes it

possible to interpret all forms of human behavior as

hereditary. In fact, it almost mandates such a per-

spective because of powerful forces within our cul-

ture that preserve and promote hereditarian ideas.

The belief in racially determined cultural behavior,

despite all evidence to the contrary, is perpetuated in

American society by the popular media and as a part

of folk wisdom about human differences. Witness

the inordinate attention to and sales of Herrnstein

and Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994). This belief has
been a necessary component of the ideology of

“race,” because it helps to perpetuate the notion that

major differences between “races” exist.

People who consider themselves of “mixed race”

and experience some form of psychic stress be-

cause they feel they have no identity in American

society, perhaps more than most, need to have un-

derstanding of this history. . . .

Today scholars are beginning to realize that “race”

is nothing more and nothing less than a social in-

vention. It has nothing to do with the intrinsic, or

potential, qualities of the physically differing popu-

lations, but much to do with the allocation of power,

privilege, and wealth among them. This conceptual
separation of actual physical variations within the

markers of race status are always open to interpre-

tation by others. “Race” as social status is in the eye

of the beholder. “Mixed” people will still be treated

as black if their phenotypes cause them to be so

perceived by others. Insistence on being in a sepa-

rate classifi cation will not change that perception or

the reaction of people to them.

What compounds and complicates matters is an-

other lie that is one of the basic tenets, or constitu-

ent components, of the racial worldview: the myth

that biology has some intrinsic connection to cul-

ture. Some advocates of a new “mixed-race” cate-

gory have argued that they want to recognize the

“culture” of their other parent. For example, in a

black/white mixed marriage, a black parent pre-

sumably has “black” culture, and the white parent

has “white” culture. These advocates fail to realize

what anthropologists have long known, that there is

no relationship between one’s culture or lifestyle

and one’s genes or biological features. All native-

born Americans share some basic cultural similari-

ties, and the ancestors of modern African Americans

have been “American” longer than the ancestors of

most European Americans.
It is the ideological

myths of the racial worldview that prevent us from

seeing how very much alike culturally black and

white Americans are. (This is not to suggest that

there are not differences in the way blacks and

whites experience our culture and lifestyle varia-

tions that refl ect social-class differences and the

isolation of inner-city populations.)

On the other hand, if one parent did come from

a very different cultural background (e.g., recently

emigrated from Asia), a child does not automati-

cally have that culture because of the biology of

the parent. Humans acquire culture; it is learned

behavior. In order for Tiger Woods (a golfi ng star)

to have Thai culture, he would have to learn the
language and the elements of Thai culture. One can

learn these without having a single gene from a

Thai parent. Moreover, there is no reason why one

should learn the cultures of ancestors merely

because of some genetic or genealogical connec-

tions. None of us have the cultures of any of our

ancestors two centuries ago because all cultures,

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READING 1: “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity 59

Hazel O’Leary (just appointed as U.S. Secretary of

Energy) and Thurgood Marshall, Justice of the

United States Supreme Court, identifi ed as “black”

in American society when it was obvious that they

were not. I explained some of the history of the

idea of “race” and the interactions among peoples

in the New World. I also pointed out that there is a

great deal more to the identifi cation of African

Americans than similarities in physical traits, that

in fact, biological variations have little to do with

the social categories of race. Indeed the people of

the African Diaspora are a biogenetically diverse

category of people who have an identity derived

from common experiences of exploitation and rac-

ism. It is far more accurate and more fruitful to

scholarship, and possibly to the future of human-

kind, to defi ne African American people by their

sense of community, consciousness, and commit-
ment than by some mystical “racial” essence. It is
the Community into which they were born and

reared, a Consciousness of the historical realities

and shared experiences of their ancestors, and a

Commitment to the perspectives of their “black-

ness” and to the diminishing of racism that is criti-

cal to the identities of the Thurgood Marshalls and

Hazel O’Learys of our society. The social catego-

ries of “race” have always encompassed more than

mere physical similarities and differences. Theo-

dore Allen tells us in the acknowledgements to his

two-volume excoriation of white racism that he has

learned to say, “I am not white” (1994).

Even without all of the intermixtures of peoples,

some Americans have already experienced a high

level of uncertainty about the “racial” status of indi-

viduals with whom they have had some interaction.

Many peoples in the world, from Morocco to the

Persian Gulf, to the islands in the South Pacifi c

Ocean, have physical features that cause them to be

“mistaken” for black Americans. In that broad band

of the earth called the tropics we fi nd indigenous

peoples with tan to brown to dark brown skins, and

hair that may be frizzly, kinky, curly, or straight. As

more and more of these peoples either travel to the

United States or are encountered by Americans on

missions abroad, Americans must deal with their

species from the socially invented characterizations
of them represents a major paradigm shift in how
many scholars now think about the human experi-
ence. Anthropologists and biologists no longer see
“races” as discrete populations defi ned by blood-

group patterns or “types” defi ned by averages of

statistical measurements. Biophysical variations

are seen as continuous and gradual, overlapping

population boundaries, fl uid, and subject to evolu-

tionary changes. In like manner, scholars honestly

examining the history of American attitudes toward

human differences have concluded that “race” was

a social invention of the eighteenth century that

took advantage of the superfi cial physical differ-

ences among the American population and the so-

cial roles that these peoples played, and transposed

these into a new form of social stratifi cation. The

symbols of race identity became the substance.

Recognizing the reality of the racial worldview

and how it developed as a sociocultural reality re-

quires a whole new way of looking at human diver-

sity in all of its many forms. It means that (1) we

can better recognize and comprehend accurately

and objectively the natural causes of human physi-

cal variations around the world without attempting

to homogenize people into limited “racial” catego-

ries; (2) we can liberate ourselves from the need to

utilize physical differences in apprehending human

identities; (3) freed from the myths of racial deter-

minism, we can now improve our understanding of

the true nature of culture and cultural differences

and begin to view the processes of cultural change

in a more accurate light; and (4) we can begin to

understand the real nature of “race” as a social con-

struct and to deal with the problems that racial

identities have imposed on people.

For example, using this new perspective, we

would be able to avoid the problems encountered

when scholars examine the African Diaspora and

attempt to determine which peoples are legiti-

mately black products of this massive process of

displacement. Several years ago, two Asian stu-

dents who had recently immigrated to the United

States came to me confi dentially after class with a

puzzle. They wanted to know why were people like

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60 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

found around the world. Fast foods, music, dance,

dress, Hollywood fi lms, whole industrial complexes

(including the world of computers), and a wide

range of political, religious, and social beliefs have

diffused around the world. Few cultures have not

experienced the impact of such massive infusion of

new traits.

The peoples who have resulted from all this con-

tinuous blending of genetic features and cultural

traits are truly “universal” human beings, regard-

less of what languages they speak or cultures they

participate in. The concept of “universal” human

beings might very well in time obviate racial cate-

gories (but not ethnic identities) and may help to

bring about the elimination of all such designa-

tions. Many persons will come to recognize them-

selves as “universal” human beings, and there

should be perhaps an early census category that

proclaims this reality. What anthropologists must

do is to make sure that the ideas of “ethnicity” and

“ethnic identity” do not become perceived as

hereditary, permanent, and unalterable, but remain

fl uid forms of identity that will make us all

“ multicultural.”

1. Why was the social classifi cation of race


2. Is Afrocentrism a response to racism?

1. Reference materials for this section were taken largely

from the following: Boardman et al. (1986), Godolphin

(1942), and Snowden (1983). But I have read widely in

ancient history and am aware that such materials are not

generally considered part of the anthropological reper-

toire. We need to realize that historical materials are

widely available to all, and we should encourage stu-

dents to avail themselves of them, especially since

American students have been shown to be woefully ig-

norant of history and geography.

2. Herodotus lists more than two dozen different nations

that fought on the different sides in the  Persian wars:

Arabians, Ethiopians, Armenians, Thracians, Libyans,

and many others.

3. The Persian Wars, Book II, p. 130, in Godolphin (1942).

perceptions of these peoples. Some time ago, in the

space of about eight months, I met a Samoan, a

person from the New Guinea area, and a number of

Arabs who in the course of conversations have indi-

cated that they have been “mistaken” for blacks.

Many peoples from the southern regions of Saudi

Arabia look very much like their neighboring

Africans across the Red Sea, having evolved in the

same climate and latitude (and having intermingled

over eons of time). To try to maintain racial catego-

ries based on physical features in the face of the

real world of human biological diversity, I suspect,

will be increasingly diffi cult.

There is another option, one that we have not

yet claimed in the establishing and referencing of

our human identities. We cannot ignore the fact

that since the fi fteenth century, what has happened

in the Americas, and to varying degrees in many

parts of the Third World, has been the fusion of

genetic materials from all of the great continents.

So-called “racial” mixture has occurred exten-

sively in Latin America, and to a lesser extent in

North America, so that most people are descen-

dants of ancestors from Europe, Africa, and the

Americas, and in many places like the Caribbean,

from Asia also (Graham 1990: Morner 1967).

Throughout the colonial world, complex genetic

mixtures among various peoples have taken place;

and increasingly Europeans at home are partici-

pants in, and products of, new genetic combina-

tions with individuals absorbed into their societies

from distant lands.

In addition to the increasing genetic heterogene-

ity of individuals and groups, there is the obvious

fact that cultural features have traveled all over the

world independently of the spread of genetic mate-

rial. In the midst of the Sahara desert, signs pro-

claim “Coca-Cola,” everyone from the Siberian

tundra to the Melanesian forests wears “jeans,”

African clothing and designs are found from Paris

to Sydney, Australia, and Americans eat more piz-

zas and tacos (burritos, tortillas, etc.) than almost

any other people outside of Italy and Mexico. White

boys wear dreadlocks, and Chinese and other Asian,

and increasingly African, ethnic restaurants are

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READING 2: Who Is Black? One Nation’s Defi nition 61

Morgan, Edmund S. 1975 American Slavery: American
Freedom . New York: W. W. Norton and Co.

Mörner, Magnus 1967 Race Mixture in the History of Latin
America. Boston: Little, Brown.

Morsy, Soheir 1994 Beyond the Honorary “White”

Classifi cation of Egyptians: Societal Identity in Historical

Context. In Race . S. Gregory and R. Sanjek, eds. Pp. 175–
198. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Nash, Gary 1982 Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of
Early America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Reed, T.E. 1969 Caucasian Genes in American Negroes.

Science 165 (3,895): 762–768.
Smedley, Audrey [1993]1999 Race in North America: Origin

and Evolution of a Worldview. 2nd edition, revised and
enlarged. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Snowden, Frank M., Jr. 1983 Before Color Prejudice. Revised
edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

R E A D I N G 2

Who Is Black? One Nation’s
Defi nition

F. James Davis

In a taped interview conducted by a blind, black

anthropologist, a black man nearly ninety years old

said: “Now you must understand that this is just a

name we have. I am not black and you are not black

either, if you go by the evidence of your eyes. . . .

Anyway, black people are all colors. White people

don’t look all the same way, but there are more dif-

ferent kinds of us than there are of them. Then too,

there is a certain stage [at] which you cannot tell

who is white and who is black. Many of the people

I see who are thought of as black could just as well

be white in their appearance. Many of the white

people I see are black as far as I can tell by the way

they look. Now, that’s it for looks. Looks don’t

mean much. The things that makes us different is

how we think. What we believe is important, the

ways we look at life” (Gwaltney, 1980:96).

How does a person get defi ned as a black, both

socially and legally, in the United States? What is

4. Morgan claims that the Virginia Assembly “deliberately

did what it could to foster the contempt of whites for

blacks and Indians” (1975:331).

5. For insightful analysis of this process, see also Allen

(1994, 1997).

6. Bohannan and Curtin (1995:13) have observed that half

the ancestors of African Americans were already here in

the United States by 1780 while the median date for the

arrival of European ancestors was “remarkably late,

1890s.” We need more of this kind of honesty in recog-

nizing historical realities on the part of scholars in all


7. See Morsy (1994). When Arabs began to migrate to the

Detroit area several generations ago, many were fre-

quently mistaken for blacks. This became an acute prob-

lem in the area around Dearborn, Michigan, where many

of them settled. There had long been a law in Dearborn

that prohibited blacks from being in the city after sun-

down. The Dearborn police, among others, were often

very confused.

Allen, Theodore W. [1994]1997 The Invention of the White

Race , vols. 1 and 2, London: Verso.
Boardman, John, J. Griffi n, and O. Murray, eds. 1986 The

Oxford History of the Classical World . Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Canny, Nicholas P. 1973 The Ideology of English Colonial-

ization: From Ireland to America. William and Mary
Quarterly (3rd ser.) 30:575–598.

Castro, Americo 1971 The Spaniards . Berkeley: University
of California Press.

Connah, Graham 1987 African Civilizations. New York:
Cambridge University Press.

Conrad, Earl 1969 The Invention of the Negro. New York:
Paul S. Erikson.

Davidson, Basil 1991 African Civilization Revisited.
Trenton, NJ: African World Press.

Davis, David Brion 1966 The Problem of Slavery in Western
Culture . Middlesex, England: Penguin.

Godolphin, Francis R. B., ed. 1942 The Greek Historians ,
vols. 1 and 2. New York: Random House.

Graham, Richard, ed. 1990 The Idea of Race in Latin
America, 1870–1940 . Austin: University of Texas Press.

Hitti, Phillip 1953 History of the Arabs. London: Macmillan
Publishing Co.

Horsman, Reginald 1981 Race and Manifest Destiny . Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Liggio, Leonard P. 1976 English Origins of Early American

Racism. Radical History Review 3(1):1–26.
Marks, Jonathan 1995 Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race,

and History. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
F. James Davis (1920–2012) was professor emeritus of sociol-

ogy at Illinois State University.

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62 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

In his autobiography, Powell recounts some ex-

periences with racial classifi cation in his youth that

left a lasting impression on him. During Powell’s

freshman year at Colgate University, his roommate

did not know that he was a black until his father,

Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was invited to give a

chapel talk on Negro rights and problems, after

which the roommate announced that because

Adam was a Negro they could no longer be room-

mates or friends.

Another experience that affected Powell deeply

occurred one summer during his Colgate years. He

was working as a bellhop at a summer resort in

Manchester, Vermont, when Abraham Lincoln’s

aging son Robert was a guest there. Robert Lincoln

disliked blacks so much that he refused to let them

wait on him or touch his luggage, car, or any of his

possessions. Blacks who did got their knuckles

whacked with his cane. To the great amusement of

the other bellhops, Lincoln took young Powell for a

white man and accepted his services (Powell,


Lena Horne’s parents were both very light in

color and came from black upper-middle-class fam-

ilies in Brooklyn (Horne and Schickel, 1965;

Buckley, 1986). Lena lived with her father’s parents

until she was about seven years old. Her grandfather

was very light and blue-eyed. Her fair-skinned

grandmother was the daughter of a slave woman and

her white owner, from the family of John C.

Calhoun, well-known defender of slavery. One of

her father’s great-grandmothers was a Blackfoot

Indian, to whom Lena Horne has attributed her

somewhat coppery skin color. One of her mother’s

grandmothers was a French-speaking black woman

from Senegal and never a slave. Her mother’s father

was a “Portuguese Negro,” and two women in his

family had passed as white and become entertainers.

Lena Horne’s parents had separated, and when

she was seven her entertainer mother began placing

her in a succession of homes in different states. Her

favorite place was in the home of her Uncle Frank,

her father’s brother, a red-haired, blue-eyed teacher

in a black school in Georgia. The black children in

that community asked her why she was so light and

the nation’s rule for who is black, and how did it

come to be? And so what? Don’t we all know who

is black, and isn’t the most important issue what

opportunities the group has? Let us start with

some  experiences of three well-known American

blacks—actress and beauty pageant winner Vanessa

Williams, U.S. Representative Adam Clayton

Powell, Jr., and entertainer Lena Horne.

For three decades after the fi rst Miss America

Pageant in 1921, black women were barred from

competing. The fi rst black winner was Vanessa

Williams of Millwood, New York, crowned Miss

America in 1984. In the same year the fi rst

runner-up—Suzette Charles of Mays Landing, New

Jersey—was also black. The viewing public was

charmed by the television images and magazine

pictures of the beautiful and musically talented

Williams, but many people were also puzzled. Why

was she being called black when she appeared to be

white? Suzette Charles, whose ancestry appeared to

be more European than African, at least looked like

many of the “lighter blacks.” Notoriety followed

when Vanessa Williams resigned because of the im-

pending publication of some nude photographs of

her taken before the pageant, and Suzette Charles

became Miss America for the balance of 1984.

Beyond the troubling question of whether these

young women could have won if they had looked

“more black,” the publicity dramatized the nation’s

defi nition of a black person.

Some blacks complained that the Rev. Adam

Clayton Powell, Jr., was so light that he was a

stranger in their midst. In the words of Roi Ottley,

“He was white to all appearances, having blue eyes,

an aquiline nose, and light, almost blond, hair”

(1943:220), yet he became a bold, effective black

leader—fi rst as minister of the Abyssinian Baptist

Church of Harlem, then as a New York city council-

man, and fi nally as a U.S. congressman from the

state of New York. Early in his activist career he led

6,000 blacks in a march on New York City Hall. He

used his power in Congress to fi ght for civil rights

legislation and other black causes. In 1966, in

Washington, D.C., he convened the fi rst black

power conference.

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READING 2: Who Is Black? One Nation’s Defi nition 63

perseverance did Jane White make her debut as the

educated mulatto maid Nonnie in the stage version

of Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit (1944). . . .

As the above cases illustrate, to be considered black

in the United States not even half of one’s ancestry

must be African black. But will one-fourth do, or

one-eighth, or less? The nation’s answer to the

question “Who is black?” has long been that a black

is any person with any known African black ances-
try (Myrdal, 1944:113–18; Berry and Tischler,

1978:97–98; Williamson, 1980:1–2). This defi ni-

tion refl ects the long experience with slavery and

later with Jim Crow segregation. In the South it be-

came known as the “one-drop rule,” meaning that a

single drop of “black blood” makes a person a

black. It is also known as the “one black ancestor

rule,” some courts have called it the “traceable

amount rule,” and anthropologists call it the “hypo-

descent rule,” meaning that racially mixed persons

are assigned the status of the subordinate group

(Harris, 1964:56). This defi nition emerged from the

American South to become the nation’s defi nition,

generally accepted by whites and blacks alike

(Bahr, Chadwick, and Stauss, 1979:27–28). Blacks

had no other choice. This American cultural defi ni-

tion of blacks is taken for granted as readily by

judges, affi rmative action offi cers, and black pro-

testers as it is by Ku Klux Klansmen.

Let us not be confused by terminology. At pres-

ent the usual statement of the one-drop rule is in

terms of “black blood” or black ancestry, while not

so long ago it referred to “Negro blood” or ances-

try. The term “black” rapidly replaced “Negro” in

general usage in the United States as the black

power movement peaked at the end of the 1960s,

but the black and Negro populations are the same.

The term “black” is used [here] for persons with

any black African lineage, not just for unmixed

members of populations from sub-Saharan Africa.

The term “Negro,” which is used in certain histori-

cal contexts, means the same thing. Terms such as

“African black,” “unmixed Negro,” and “all black”

called her a “yellow bastard.” She learned that

when satisfactory evidence of respectable black

parents is lacking, being light-skinned implies ille-

gitimacy and having an underclass white parent and

is thus a disgrace in the black community. When

her mother married a white Cuban, Lena also

learned that blacks can be very hostile to the white

spouse, especially when the “black” mate is very

light. At this time she began to blame the confused

color line for her childhood troubles. She later en-

dured much hostility from blacks and whites alike

when her own second marriage, to white composer-

arranger Lennie Hayton, was fi nally made public in

1950 after three years of keeping it secret.

Early in Lena Horne’s career there were com-

plaints that she did not fi t the desired image of a

black entertainer for white audiences, either physi-

cally or in her style. She sang white love songs, not

the blues. Noting her brunette-white beauty, one

white agent tried to get her to take a Spanish name,

learn some Spanish songs, and pass as a Latin

white, but she had learned to have a horror of pass-

ing and never considered it, although Hollywood

blacks accused her of trying to pass after she played

her fi rst bit part in a fi lm. After she failed her fi rst

screen test because she looked like a white girl try-

ing to play black-face, the directors tried making

her up with a shade called “Light Egyptian” to

make her look darker. The whole procedure embar-

rassed and hurt her deeply. . . .

Other light mulatto entertainers have also had

painful experiences because of their light skin and

other caucasoid features. Starting an acting career is

never easy, but actress Jane White’s diffi culties in

the 1940s were compounded by her lightness. Her

father was NAACP leader Walter White. Even with

dark makeup on her ivory skin, she did not look like

a black person on the stage, but she was not allowed

to try out for white roles because blacks were barred

from playing them. When she auditioned for the

part of a young girl from India, the director was

enthusiastic, although her skin color was too light,

but higher management decreed that it was

unthinkable for a Negro to play the part of an

Asian  Indian (White, 1948:338). Only after great

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64 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

American children in recent decades have them-

selves been racially mixed, but often the fractions

get complicated because the earlier details of the

mixing were obscured generations ago. Like so

many white Americans, black people are forced to

speculate about some of the fractions—one-eighth

this, three-sixteenths that, and so on. . . .

Homer Plessy was the plaintiff in the 1896

precedent-setting “separate-but-equal” case of

Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537). This case
challenged the Jim Crow statute that required

racially segregated seating on trains in interstate

commerce in the state of Louisiana. The U.S.

Supreme Court quickly dispensed with Plessy’s

contention that because he was only one-eighth

Negro and could pass as white he was entitled to

ride in the seats reserved for whites. Without ruling

directly on the defi nition of a Negro, the Supreme

Court briefl y took what is called “judicial notice”

of what it assumed to be common knowledge: that

a Negro or black is any person with any black an-

cestry. (Judges often take explicit “judicial notice”

not only of scientifi c or scholarly conclusions, or of

opinion surveys or other systematic investigations,

but also of something they just assume to be so,

including customary practices or common knowl-

edge.) This has consistently been the ruling in the

federal courts, and often when the black ancestry

was even less than one-eighth. The federal courts

have thus taken judicial notice of the customary

boundary between two sociocultural groups that

differ, on the average, in physical traits, not be-

tween two discrete genetic categories. In the ab-

sence of proof of a specifi c black ancestor, merely

being known as a black in the community has usu-

ally been accepted by the courts as evidence of

black ancestry. The separate-but-equal doctrine es-

tablished in the Plessy case is no longer the law, as

a result of the judicial and legislative successes of

the civil rights movement, but the nation’s legal

defi nition of who is black remains unchanged.

are used here to refer to unmixed blacks descended

from African populations.

We must also pay attention to the terms

“ mulatto” and “colored.” The term “mulatto” was

originally used to mean the offspring of a “pure

African Negro” and a “pure white.” Although the

root meaning of mulatto, in Spanish, is “hybrid,”

“mulatto” came to include the children of unions

between whites and so-called “mixed Negroes.”

For example, Booker T. Washington and Frederick

Douglass, with slave mothers and white fathers,

were referred to as mulattoes (Bennett, 1962:255).

To whatever extent their mothers were part white,

these men were more than half white. Douglass was

evidently part Indian as well, and he looked it

(Preston, 1980:9–10). Washington had reddish hair

and gray eyes. At the time of the American Revolu-

tion, many of the founding fathers had some very

light slaves, including some who appeared to be

white. The term “colored” seemed for a time to

refer only to mulattoes, especially lighter ones, but

later it became a euphemism for darker Negroes,

even including unmixed blacks. With widespread

racial mixture, “Negro” came to mean any slave or

descendant of a slave, no matter how much mixed.

Eventually in the United States, the terms mulatto,

colored, Negro, black, and African American all

came to mean people with any known black African

ancestry. Mulattoes are racially mixed, to whatever

degree, while the terms black, Negro, African

American, and colored include both mulattoes and

unmixed blacks. These terms have quite different

meanings in other countries.

Whites in the United States need some help

envisioning the American black experience with

ancestral fractions. At the beginning of miscegena-

tion between two populations presumed to be

racially pure, quadroons appear in the second

generation of  continuing mixing with whites, and

octo roons in  the third. A quadroon is one-fourth

African black and thus easily classed as black in the

United  States,  yet three of this person’s four

grandparents  are white. An octoroon has seven

white great- grandparents out of eight and usually

looks white or almost so. Most parents of black

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READING 2: Who Is Black? One Nation’s Defi nition 65

widely disseminated during the Phipps trial in

1983 (discussed below), fi led as Jane Doe v. State of
Louisiana. This case was decided in a district court
in May 1983, and in June the legislature abolished

its one thirty-second statute and gave parents the

right to designate the race of newborns, and even to

change classifi cations on birth certifi cates if they

can prove the child is white by a “preponderance of

the evidence.” However, the new statute in 1983 did

not abolish the “traceable amount rule” (the one-

drop rule), as demonstrated by the outcomes when

the Phipps decision was appealed to higher courts in

1985 and 1986.

The history in the Phipps (Jane Doe) case goes as

far back as 1770, when a French planter named Jean

Gregoire Guillory took his wife’s slave, Margarita,

as his mistress (Model, 1983:3–4). More than two

centuries and two decades later, their great-great-

great-great-granddaughter, Susie Guillory Phipps,

asked the Louisiana courts to change the classifi ca-

tion on her deceased parents’ birth certifi cates to

“white” so she and her brothers and sisters could be

designated white. They all looked white, and some

were blue-eyed blonds. Mrs. Susie Phipps had been

denied a passport because she had checked “white”

on her application although her birth certifi cate des-

ignated her race as “colored.” This designation was

based on information supplied by a midwife, who

presumably relied on the parents or on the family’s

status in the community. Mrs. Phipps claimed that

this classifi cation came as a shock, since she had

always thought she was white, had lived as white,

and had twice married as white. Some of her rela-

tives, however, gave depositions saying they consid-

ered themselves “colored,” and the lawyers for the

state claimed to have proof that Mrs. Phipps is three

thirty-seconds black (Trillin, 1986:62–63, 71–74).

That was more than enough “blackness” for the dis-

trict court in 1983 to declare her parents, and thus

Mrs. Phipps and her siblings, to be legally black.

In October and again in December 1985, the

state’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the

district court’s decision, saying that no one can

change the racial designation of his or her parents

or anyone else’s (479 So. 2d 369). Said the majority

State courts have generally upheld the one-drop

rule. For instance, in a 1948 Mississippi case a

young man, Davis Knight, was sentenced to fi ve

years in jail for violating the antimiscegenation

statute. Less than one-sixteenth black, Knight said

he was not aware that he had any black lineage, but

the state proved his great-grandmother was a slave

girl. In some states the operating defi nition of black

has been limited by statute to particular fractions,

yet the social defi nition—the one-drop rule—has

generally prevailed in case of doubt. Mississippi,

Missouri, and fi ve other states have had the criterion

of one-eighth. Virginia changed from one-fourth to

one-eighth in 1910, then in 1930 forbade white

intermarriage with a person with any black ances-

try. Persons in Virginia who are one-fourth or more

Indian and less than one-sixteenth African black are

defi ned as Indians while on the reservation but as

blacks when they leave (Berry, 1965:26). While

some states have had general race classifi cation

statutes, at least for a time, others have legislated a

defi nition of black only for particular purposes,

such as marriage or education. In a few states there

have even been varying defi nitions for different

situations (Mangum, 1940:38–48). All states re-

quire a designation of race on birth certifi cates, but

there are no clear guidelines to help physicians and

midwives do the classifying.

Louisiana’s latest race classifi cation statute be-

came highly controversial and was fi nally repealed

in 1983 (Trillin, 1986:77). Until 1970, a Louisiana

statute had embraced the one-drop rule, defi ning a

Negro as anyone with a “trace of black ancestry.”

This law was challenged in court a number of times

from the 1920s on, including an unsuccessful at-

tempt in 1957 by boxer Ralph Dupas, who asked to

be declared white so that a law banning “interracial

sports” (since repealed) would not prevent him from

boxing in the state. In 1970 a lawsuit was brought

on behalf of a child whose ancestry was allegedly

only one two-hundred-fi fty-sixth black, and the

legislature revised its law. The 1970 Louisiana

statute defi ned a black as someone whose ancestry

is more than one thirty-second black (La. Rev.

Stat. 42:267). Adverse publicity about this law was

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66 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

the one accepted by the general public and by the

courts. The Census Bureau counts what the nation

wants counted. Although various operational in-

structions have been tried, the defi nition of black

used by the Census Bureau has been the nation’s

cultural and legal defi nition: all persons with any

known black ancestry. Other nations defi ne and

count blacks differently, so international compari-

sons of census data on blacks can be extremely mis-

leading. For example, Latin American countries

generally count as black only unmixed African

blacks, those only slightly mixed, and the very

poorest mulattoes. If they used the U.S. defi nition,

they would count far more blacks than they do, and

if Americans used their defi nition, millions in the

black community in the United States would be

counted either as white or as “coloreds” of different

descriptions, not as black.

Instructions to our census enumerators in 1840,

1850, and 1860 provided “mulatto” as a category

but did not defi ne the term. In 1870 and 1880,

mulattoes were offi cially defi ned to include “qua-

droons, octoroons, and all persons having any

perceptible trace of African blood.” In 1890 enu-

merators were told to record the exact proportion
of the “African blood,” again relying on visibility.

In 1900 the Census Bureau specifi ed that “pure

Negroes” be counted separately from mulattoes,

the latter to mean “all persons with some trace of

black blood.” In 1920 the mulatto category was

dropped, and black was defi ned to mean any per-

son with any black ancestry, as it has been ever


In 1960 the practice of self-defi nition began,

with the head of household indicating the race of

its  members. This did not seem to introduce any

noticeable fl uctuation in the number of blacks,

thus indicating that black Americans generally

apply the one-drop rule to themselves. One ex-

ception is that Spanish-speaking Americans who

have black ancestry but were considered white, or

some designation other than black, in their place

of origin generally reject the one-drop rule if they

can. American Indians with some black ancestry

also generally try to avoid the rule, but those who

of the court in its opinion: “That appellants might

today describe themselves as white does not prove

error in a document which designates their parents

as colored” (479 So. 2d 371). Of course, if the par-

ents’ designation as “colored” cannot be disturbed,

their descendants must be defi ned as black by the

“traceable amount rule.” The court also concluded

that the preponderance of the evidence clearly

showed that the Guillory parents were “colored.”

Although noting expert testimony to the effect that

the race of an individual cannot be determined with

scientifi c accuracy, the court said the law of racial

designation is not based on science, that “individ-

ual race designations are purely social and cultural

perceptions and the evidence conclusively proves

those subjective perspectives were correctly re-

corded at the time the appellants’ birth certifi cates

were recorded” (479 So. 2d 372). At the rehearing

in December 1985, the appellate court also affi rmed

the necessity of designating race on birth certifi –

cates for public health, affi rmative action, and other

important public programs and held that equal pro-

tection of the law has not been denied so long as the

designation is treated as confi dential.

When this case was appealed to the Louisiana

Supreme Court in 1986, that court declined to re-

view the decision, saying only that the court “con-

curs in the denial for the reasons assigned by the

court of appeals on rehearing” (485 So. 2d 60). In

December 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court was

equally brief in stating its reason for refusing to re-

view the decision: “The appeal is dismissed for

want of a substantial federal question” (107 Sup.

Ct. Reporter, interim ed. 638). Thus, both the fi nal

court of appeals in Louisiana and the highest court

of the United States saw no reason to disturb the

application of the one-drop rule in the lawsuit

brought by Susie Guillory Phipps and her siblings.

When the U.S. Bureau of the Census enumerates

blacks (always counted as Negroes until 1980),

it  does not use a scientifi c defi nition, but rather

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READING 2: Who Is Black? One Nation’s Defi nition 67

race with ethnicity. They consider miscegenation

with any “inferior” people to be the ultimate danger

to the survival of their own group and have often

seen the one-drop rule as a crucial component in

their line of defense. Americans in general, how-

ever, while fi nding other ways to discriminate

against immigrant groups, have rejected the appli-

cation of the drastic one-drop rule to all groups but


Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other

group than American blacks, but apparently the

rule is unique in that it is found only in the United

States and not in any other nation in the world. In

fact, defi nitions of who is black vary quite sharply

from country to country, and for this reason people

in other countries often express consternation

about our defi nition. James Baldwin relates a re-

vealing incident that occurred in 1956 at the Con-

ference of Negro-African Writers and Artists held

in Paris. The head of the delegation of writers and

artists from the United States was John Davis. The

French chairperson introduced Davis and then

asked him why he considered himself Negro, since

he certainly did not look like one. Baldwin wrote,

“He is a Negro, of course, from the remarkable
legal point of view which obtains in the United

States, but more importantly, as he tried to make

clear to his interlocutor, he was a Negro by choice

and by depth of involvement—by experience, in

fact” (1962:19).

The phenomenon known as “passing as white”

is diffi cult to explain in other countries or to for-

eign students. Typical questions are: “Shouldn’t

Americans say that a person who is passing as

white is white, or nearly all white, and has previ-

ously been passing as black?” or “To be consis-

tent, shouldn’t you say that someone who is

one-eighth white is passing as black?” or “Why is

there so much concern, since the so-called blacks

who pass take so little negroid ancestry with

them?” Those who ask such questions need to

leave the reservation are often treated as black.

At  any rate, the 1980 census count showed that

self-designated blacks made up about 12 percent

of the population of the United States.

No other ethnic population in the nation,

including those with visibly non-caucasoid

features, is defi ned and counted according to a

one-drop rule. For example, persons whose ances-

try is one-fourth or less American Indian are not

generally defi ned as Indian unless they want to be,

and they are considered assimilating Americans

who may even be proud of having some Indian

ancestry. The same implicit rule appears to apply

to Japanese Americans, Filipinos, or other peoples

from East Asian nations and also to Mexican

Americans who have Central American Indian

ancestry, as a large majority do. For instance, a

person whose ancestry is one-eighth Chinese is

not defi ned as just Chinese, or East Asian, or a

member of the mongoloid race. The United States

certainly does not apply a one-drop rule to its

white ethnic populations either, which include

both national and religious groups. Ethnicity has

often been confused with racial biology and not

just in Nazi Germany. Americans do not insist that

an American with a small fraction of Polish

ancestry be classifi ed as a Pole, or that someone

with a single remote Greek ancestor be designated

Greek, or that someone with any trace of Jewish

lineage is a Jew and nothing else.

It is interesting that, in The Passing of the Great
Race (1916), Madison Grant maintained that the
one-drop rule should be applied not only to blacks

but also to all the other ethnic groups he considered

biologically inferior “races,” such as Hindus, Asians

in general, Jews, Italians, and other Southern and

Eastern European peoples. Grant’s book went

through four editions, and he and others succeeded

in getting Congress to pass the national origins

quota laws of the early 1920s. This racist quota leg-

islation sharply curtailed immigration from every-

where in the world except Northern and Western

Europe and the Western Hemisphere, until it was

repealed in 1965. Grant and other believers in the

racial superiority of their own group have confused

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68 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

participation for blacks are still formidable, and a

fractionally black person cannot escape these ob-

stacles without passing as white and cutting off all

ties to the black family and community. The pain of

this separation, and condemnation by the black

family and community, are major reasons why

many or most of those who could pass as white

choose not to. Loss of security within the minority

community, and fear and distrust of the white world

are also factors.

It should now be apparent that the defi nition of a

black person as one with any trace at all of black

African ancestry is inextricably woven into the his-

tory of the United States. It incorporates beliefs

once used to justify slavery and later used to but-

tress the castelike Jim Crow system of segregation.

Developed in the South, the defi nition of “Negro”

(now black) spread and became the nation’s social

and legal defi nition. Because blacks are defi ned ac-

cording to the one-drop rule, they are a socially

constructed category in which there is wide varia-

tion in racial traits and therefore not a race group in

the scientifi c sense. However, because that category

has a defi nite status position in the society it has

become a self-conscious social group with an eth-

nic identity.

The one-drop rule has long been taken for

granted throughout the United States by whites and

blacks alike, and the federal courts have taken “ju-

dicial notice” of it as being a matter of common

knowledge. State courts have generally upheld the

one-drop rule, but some have limited the defi nition

to one thirty-second or one-sixteenth or one-eighth

black ancestry, or made other limited exceptions for

persons with both Indian and black ancestry. Most

Americans seem unaware that this defi nition of

blacks is extremely unusual in other countries, per-

haps even unique to the United States, and that

Americans defi ne no other minority group in a sim-

ilar way. . . .

1. Is black a color category or a status?

2. Do you think passing still occurs?

realize that “passing” is so much more a social

phenomenon than a biological one, refl ecting the

nation’s unique defi nition of what makes a person

black. The concept of “passing” rests on the one-

drop rule and on folk beliefs about race and misce-

genation, not on biological or historical fact.

The black experience with passing as white in

the United States contrasts with the experience of

other ethnic minorities that have features that are

clearly non-caucasoid. The concept of passing ap-

plies only to blacks—consistent with the nation’s

unique defi nition of the group. A person who is

one-fourth or less American Indian or Korean or

Filipino is not regarded as passing if he or she inter-

marries and joins fully the life of the dominant

community, so the minority ancestry need not be

hidden. It is often suggested that the key reason for

this is that the physical differences between these

other groups and whites are less pronounced than

the physical differences between African blacks

and whites, and therefore are less threatening to

whites. However, keep in mind that the one-drop

rule and anxiety about passing originated during

slavery and later received powerful reinforcement

under the Jim Crow system.

For the physically visible groups other than

blacks, miscegenation promotes assimilation,

despite barriers of prejudice and discrimination

during two or more generations of racial mixing.

As noted above, when ancestry in one of these

racial minority groups does not exceed one-fourth,

a person is not defi ned solely as a member of that

group. Masses of white European immigrants have

climbed the class ladder not only through education

but also with the help of close personal relation-

ships in the dominant community, intermarriage,

and ultimately full cultural and social assimilation.

Young people tend to marry people they meet in the

same informal social circles (Gordon, 1964:70–81).

For visibly non-caucasoid minorities other than

blacks in the United States, this entire route to full

assimilation is slow but possible.

For all persons of any known black lineage, how-

ever, assimilation is blocked and is not promoted

by  miscegenation. Barriers to full opportunity and

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READING 2: Who Is Black? One Nation’s Defi nition 69

Horne, Lena, and Richard Schickel. 1965. Lena. Garden
City, NY: Doubleday & Co.

Mangum, Charles Staples, Jr. 1940. The Legal Status of the
Negro in the United States. Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press.

Model, F. Peter, ed. 1983. “Apartheid in the Bayou.”

Perspectives: The Civil Rights Quarterly 15 (Winter–
Spring), 3–4.

Myrdal, Gunnar, assisted by Richard Sterner and Arnold M.

Rose. 1944. An American Dilemma. New York: Harper &

Ottley, Roi. 1943. New World A-Coming. Cleveland: World
Publishing Co.

Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. 1971. Adam by Adam: The Autobi-
ography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. New York: Dial Press.

Preston, Dickson J. 1980. Young Frederick Douglass: The
Maryland Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Trillin, Calvin. 1986. “American Chronicles: Black or

White.” New Yorker, April 14, 1986, pp. 62–78.
White, Walter. 1948. A Man Called White: The Autobiogra-

phy of Walter White. New York: Viking Press.
Williamson, Joel. 1980. New People: Miscegenation and

Mulattoes in the United States. New York: The Free Press.

Bahr, Howard M., Bruce A. Chadwick, and Joseph H. Stauss.

1979. American Ethnicity. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co.
Baldwin, James. 1962. Nobody Knows My Name. New York:

Dell Publishing Co.

Bennett, Lerone, Jr. 1962. Before the Mayfl ower: A History
of the Negro in America 1619–1962. Chicago: Johnson
Publishing Co.

Berry, Brewton. 1965. Race and Ethnic Relations. 3rd ed.
Boston: Houghton Miffl in Co.

Berry, Brewton, and Henry L. Tischler. 1978. Race and
Ethnic Relations. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Miffl in Co.

Buckley, Gail Lumet. 1986. The Hornes: An American
Family. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Gordon, Milton M. 1964. Assimilation in American Life.
New York: Oxford University Press.

Grant, Madison. 1916. The Passing of the Great Race. New
York: Scribner.

Gwaltney, John Langston. 1980. Drylongso: A Self-Portrait
of Black America. New York: Vintage Books.

Harris, Melvin. 1964. Patterns of Race in the Americas. New
York: W. W. Norton.

ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 69ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 69 01/08/15 7:32 AM01/08/15 7:32 AM

R E A D I N G 3

The Evolution of Identity

The Washington Post

Decade to decade, the U.S. census has changed its classifications of race and ethnicity. Partially, this reflects the growing diversity of the country. It also
reveals the nation’s evolving politics and social mores. When the first census was taken in 1790, enumerators classified free residents as white or “other,”
while slaves were counted separately. By 1860, residents were classified as white, black, or mulatto. Hispanic origin first became a category in 1970. Here
are the categories used in the decennial counts from 1860 to 2000, as presented by AmeriStat ( ).

1860 1870 1880 1890 1 1900 2 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000























(Negro descent)



















































Amer. Indian






Part Hawaiian












Negro or Black


Indian (Amer.)







Puerto Rican




Other Spanish

(None of these)


Black or Negro





Asian Indian










Mexican Amer.


Puerto Rican


Other Spanish/


Not Spanish/



Black or Negro


Indian (Amer.)



Asian Indian








Other Asian



Other race


Mexican Amer.


Puerto Rican


Other Spanish/


Not Spanish/



Black, African

American or



Amer. Indian or

Alaska Native



Asian Indian


Native Hawaiian


Guamanian or



Other Asian

Other Pacific


Some other race


Mexican Amer.


Puerto Rican


Other Spanish/


Not Spanish/


1 In 1890, mulatto was defined as a person who
was three-eighths to five-eighths black. A
quadroon was one-quarter black and an
octoroon one-eighth black.

2 American Indians have been asked
to specify their tribe since the 1900

Bold letters indicate first usage
since 1860.

NOTE: Before the 1970 Census, enumerators wrote in the race of individuals using the
designated categories. In subsequent censuses, respondents or enumerators filled in circles
next to the categories with which the respondent identified. Also beginning with the 1970
Census, people choosing American Indian, other Asian, other race, or for the Hispanic
question, other Hispanic categories, were asked to write in a specific tribe or group. Hispanic
ethnicity was asked of a sample of Americans in 1970 and of all Americans beginning with
the 1980 Census. The 2000 Census allowed Americans to select more than one race.

Sources: AmeriStat, “200 Years of U.S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions 1790–1990,” U.S. Census Bureau.
FROM: The Washington Post; Federal Page, August 13, 2001.











s o
f D
























READING 4: Real Indians 71


A Loaded Vacation

Every summer since I can remember, I go on vacation

with my aunt and uncle. Last summer, my aunt took my

cousin, brother, and me to Florida. My aunt grew up in

Maryland along with my mother. She was college edu-

cated and until recently worked in corporate America.

Now she owns her own daycare center.

I rarely thought about how my background was differ-

ent from my aunt’s until one night in Florida. We were all

in the hotel suite when she asked me about my plans for

the future and what I wanted to do with my degree, since

I was entering college in the fall. I told her I wanted to be

a lawyer. She told me that was going to be a hard goal to

reach for a black female, but then again she said that

I wasn’t really black. I didn’t understand. She went on to

say that if I make it anywhere in life, it would be because

I talk white. She said, “Just remember that, even though

everything about you is white—your clothes, the way you

talk, your friends—doesn’t mean when they look at you

they don’t still see black.”

I didn’t know what to say. I sat there silently taking it all

in. Was this the same aunt I’d known all my life? She told

my brother that anything he accomplished would be due

to his skin complexion, and that if he had been dark

skinned “he wouldn’t have a shot in hell, because white

people determine how far we get in life.” This went

against everything I believed. I said, “What about my high

GPA and the fact that I’m intelligent? That means noth-

ing?” She said, “Exactly. Even with all of that, you’ll only

go as far as they let you.”

After she finished ranting about how far we would go

in life, she went on to say that we were foolish for having

so many white friends, because white people were the

devil. At that point I had to speak up. I told her that I’ve

never had a problem with any of my white friends and

that she shouldn’t talk about people she’s never met.

She replied by saying, “All white people are the same.

Some are just closet racists.” I said that my best friend

Monica is white. How could she be my best friend if she

was racist? My aunt said, “She may be your friend now,

but if the two of you got into any trouble she would throw

you right under the bus.” The conversation ended with

her telling me how naive I was, and that one day I would

learn the truth.

That day came, and soon. A few months after that

dreadful vacation Monica and I got into trouble. Monica

was only 17, whereas I was 18. Because of my age, I

would not be let off with a phone call home. Monica took

the blame and covered for me. Thanks to her, I don’t have

a criminal record. I thought about calling my aunt to tell

her how wrong she had been, but I decided that there

was no point in arguing. I knew the truth.
Niah Grimes

United States specify a minimum blood quantum in

their legal citizenship criteria, with one-quarter

blood degree being the most frequent minimum re-

(In the simplest instance, an individual

has a one-quarter blood quantum if any one of her

four grandparents is of exclusively Indian ancestry

and the other three are non-Indian.) The remaining

one-third of Indian tribes specify no minimum
blood quantum. They often simply require that any

new enrollee be a lineal (direct) descendant of an-

other tribal member. . . .

Legal defi nitions of tribal membership regulate

the rights to vote in tribal elections, to hold tribal

offi ce, and generally to participate in the political,

and sometimes also the cultural, life of the tribe.

R E A D I N G 4

Real Indians: Identity and the
Survival of Native America

Eva Marie Garroutte

The most common tribal requirement for deter-

mining citizenship concerns “blood quantum,” or

degree of Indian ancestry. . . . About two-thirds of

all federally recognized tribes of the coterminous

Eva Marie Garroutte is a professor of sociology at Boston


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72 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

comes immediately to the minds of many readers.

The legal situation of Indian people, and its atten-

dant opportunities and responsibilities, are the result

of historic negotiations between tribes and the fed-

eral government. In these, the government agreed to

compensate tribes in various ways for the large

amounts of land and other resources that the tribes

had surrendered, often by force.
Benefi ts available

to those who can satisfy federal defi nitions of Indian

identity are administered through a variety of agen-

cies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the

Indian Health Service, the Department of Agricul-

ture, the Offi ce of Elementary and Secondary Educa-

tion, and the Department of Labor, to name a few.

Legal defi nitions also affect specifi c economic

rights deriving from treaties or agreements that

some (not all) tribes made with the federal govern-

ment. These may include such rights as the use of

particular geographic areas for hunting, harvesting,

fi shing, or trapping. Those legally defi ned as Indi-

ans are also sometimes exempted from certain

requirements related to state licensure and state

(but not federal) income and property taxation.
. . .

North American Indians who successfully negotiate

the rigors of legal defi nitions of identity at the fed-

eral level can achieve what some consider the dubi-

ous distinction of being a “card-carrying Indian.”

That is, their federal government can issue them a

laminated document (in the United States, a CDIB;

in Canada an Indian status card) that certifi es them

as possessing a certain “degree of Indian blood.”

. . . Canadian-born country music singer Shania

Twain has what it takes to be a card-carrying Indian:

she is formally recognized as an Anishnabe (Ojibwe)

Indian with band membership in the Temagami

Bear Island First Nation (Ontario, Canada). More

specifi cally, she is legally on record as possessing

one-half degree Indian blood. Given this informa-

tion, one might conclude that Twain’s identity as an

Indian person is more or less unassailable. It’s not.

One’s ability to satisfy legal defi nitions of identifi –

cation may also determine one’s right to share in

certain tribal revenues (such as income generated

by tribally controlled businesses). Perhaps most

signifi cantly, it may determine the right to live on a

reservation or to inherit land interests there.

The tribes’ power to determine citizenship al-

lows them to delimit the distribution of certain im-

portant resources, such as reservation land, tribal

monies, and political privileges. But this is hardly

the end of the story of legal defi nitions of identity.

The federal government has many purposes for

which it, too, must distinguish Indians from non-

Indians, and it uses its own, separate legal defi ni-

tion for doing so. More precisely, it uses a whole

array of legal defi nitions. Since the U.S. Constitu-

tion uses the word “Indian” in two places but de-

fi nes it nowhere, Congress has made its own

defi nitions on an ad hoc basis.
A 1978 congressio-

nal survey discovered no less than thirty-three sep-
arate defi nitions of Indians in use in different pieces

of federal legislation.
These may or may not cor-

respond with those any given tribe uses to deter-

mine its citizenship.

Most federal legal defi nitions of Indian identity

specify a minimum blood quantum—frequently

one-quarter but sometimes one-half—but others do

not. Some require or accept tribal citizenship as a

criterion of federal identifi cation, and others do not.

Some require reservation residency, or ownership

of land held in trust by the government, and others

do not. Other laws affecting Indians specify no def-
inition of identity, such that the courts must deter-

mine to whom the laws apply.
Because of these

wide variations in legal identity defi nitions and

their frequent departure from the various tribal

ones, many individuals who are recognized by their

tribes as citizens are nevertheless considered non-

Indian for some or all federal purposes. The con-

verse can be true as well.

There are a variety of contexts in which one or

more federal legal defi nitions of identity become

important. The matter of economic resource

distribution—access to various social services,

monetary awards, and opportunities—probably

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Twain’s case shows with uncommon clarity that

legal and biological defi nitions are conceptually

distinct. . . .

In their modern American construction, at least,

biological defi nitions of identity assume the cen-

trality of an individual’s genetic relationship to

other tribal members. Not just any degree of rela-

tionship will do, however. Typically, the degree of

closeness is also important. And this is the starting

point for much of the controversy that swirls around

issues of biological Indianness. . . .

Sociologist Eugeen Roosens summarizes such

common conceptions about the importance of

blood quantum for determining Indian identity:

There is . . . [a] principle about which the whites and

the Indians are in agreement. . . . People with more

Indian blood . . . also have more rights to inherit what

their ancestors, the former Indians, have left behind.

In addition, full blood Indians are more authentic than

half-breeds. By being pure, they have more right to
respect. They are, in all aspects of their being, more
integral . 12

Biological ancestry can take on such tremendous

signifi cance in tribal contexts that it overwhelms

all other considerations of identity, especially when

it is constructed as “pure.” As Cherokee legal

scholar G. William Rice points out, “Most [people]

would recognize the full-blood Indian who was en-

rolled in a federally recognized tribe as an Indian,

even if the individual was adopted at birth by a

non-Indian family and had never set foot in Indian

country nor met another Indian.”

Mixed-race in-

dividuals, by contrast, fi nd their identity claims

considerably complicated. Even if such an individ-

ual can demonstrate conclusively that he has some
Native ancestry, the question will still be raised: Is

the amount of ancestry he possesses “enough”? Is
his “Indian blood” suffi cient to distinguish him

from the mixed-blood individual spotlighted by an

old quip: “If he got a nosebleed, he’d turn into a

white man”?

Members of various tribes complain of factio-

nalism between these two major groups—full

bloods and mixed bloods—and they suggest that the

Controversy has engulfed this celebrity because

of an anonymous phone call to a Canadian newspa-

per a few years ago that led to the disclosure of an-

other name by which Shania was once known:

Eileen Regina Edwards. Eileen/Shania was adopted

by a stepfather in early childhood and took the sur-

name of Twain at that time. So far well and good—

except for one thing. Both sides of her biological
family describe themselves not as Indian but as

white. It is only Jerry Twain, her late stepfather,

who was Indian.

As the adopted child of an Anishnabe man,

Shania Twain occupies an unusual status. Though

the U.S. government allows for the assignment of

blood quantum only to biological descendants of

Indian people, Canada allows for the naturalization

of non-Native children through adoption.

Twain has stated that her white mother (now de-

ceased) had told her, in childhood, that her biologi-

cal father (also deceased) had some Indian heritage,

his family denies the suggestion entirely. They say

they are French and Irish. Ms. Twain explains: “I

don’t know how much Indian blood I actually have

in me, but as the adopted daughter of my father

Jerry, I became legally registered as 50-percent

North American Indian. Being raised by a full-

blooded Indian and being part of his family and

their culture from such a young age is all I’ve ever

known. That heritage is in my heart and my soul,

and I’m proud of it.”

Twain has been sharply criticized, in both the

United States and Canada, for not making the full

details of her racial background clearer, especially

to awards-granting agencies such as the First Amer-

icans in the Arts (FAITA), which honored her in

February 1996 as a Native performer. FAITA itself

has made no such complaint. The group states that

it is satisfi ed that “Ms. Twain has not intentionally

misrepresented herself.” And more importantly, her

adopted family defends her. An aunt observes: “She

was raised by us. She was accepted by our band. If

my brother were alive, he’d be very upset. He raised

her as his own daughter. My parents, her grandpar-

ents, took her into the bush and taught her the

[ Native] traditions.”

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74 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Given this standard of identifi cation, full bloods

tend to be seen as the “really real,” the quintessen-

tial Indians, while others are viewed as Indians in

diminishing degrees. The original, stated intention

of blood quantum distinctions was to determine the

point at which the various responsibilities of the

dominant society to Indian peoples ended. The ulti-

mate and explicit federal intention was to use the

blood quantum standard as a means to liquidate

tribal lands and to eliminate government trust re-

sponsibility to tribes, along with entitlement pro-

grams, treaty rights, and reservations. Through

intermarriage and application of a biological defi ni-

tion of identity Indians would eventually become

citizens indistinguishable from all other citizens.

Degree of blood is calculated, with reference to

biological defi nitions, on the basis of the immedi-

acy of one’s genetic relationship to those whose

bloodlines are (supposedly) unmixed. As in the

case with legal defi nitions, the initial calculation

for most tribes’ biological defi nitions begins with a

base roll, a listing of tribal membership and blood

quanta in some particular year. These base rolls

make possible very elaborate defi nitions of identity.

For instance, they allow one to reckon that the off-

spring of, say, a full-blood Navajo mother and a

white father is one-half Navajo. If that half-Navajo

child, in turn, produces children with a Hopi person

of one-quarter blood degree, those progeny will be

judged one-quarter Navajo and one-eighth Hopi.

Alternatively, they can be said to have three-eighths

general Indian blood.

As even this rather simple example shows, over

time such calculations can become infi nitesimally

precise, with people’s ancestry being parsed into so

many thirty-seconds, sixty-fourths, one-hundred-

twenty-eighths, and so on. . . .

For those of us who have grown up and lived

with the peculiar precision of calculating blood

quantum, it sometimes requires a perspective less

infl uenced by the vagaries of American history to

remind us just how far from common sense the con-

cepts underlying biological defi nitions of identity

are. I recall responding to an inquiry from a South-

east Asian friend about what blood quantum was

division arose historically because of mixed bloods’

greater access to the social resources of the domi-

nant society and their enhanced ability to impose

values and ideas upon others.

As Julie M., a citi-

zen of the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indi-

ans, says: “For the Cherokee people, there’s been

this mixed blood/full blood kind of dynamic going

from before the removal [in 1838, also known as the

Trail of Tears]. . . . It’s kind of like us-and-them. . . .

It’s almost been like a war in some cases. . . . It’s a

kind of thing.” Many historians have similarly found

it logical that political allegiances would tend to

shift for those Indian people who formed alliances,

through intermarriage, with members of the domi-

nant society, and that this has made the division bet-

ween full bloods and mixed bloods politically


Modern biological defi nitions of identity, how-

ever, are much more complicated than this historical

explanation can account for. This complexity did not

originate in the ideas and experiences of Indian

tribes. Instead, they closely refl ect nineteenth- and

early-twentieth-century theories of race introduced

by Euro-Americans. These theories (of which there

were a great many) viewed biology as defi nitive, but

they did not distinguish it from culture. Thus, blood

became quite literally the vehicle for the transmis-

sion of cultural characteristics. “‘Half-breeds’ by

this logic could be expected to behave in ‘half-

civilized,’ i.e., partially assimilated, ways while

retaining one half of their traditional culture, accoun-

ting for their marginal status in both societies.”

These turn-of-the-century theories of race found

a very precise way to talk about amount of ancestry
in the idea of blood quantum, or degree of blood.

The notion of blood quantum as a standard of Indi-

anness emerged with force in the nineteenth cen-

tury. Its most signifi cant early usage as a standard

of identifi cation was in the General Allotment

(Dawes) Act of 1887, which led to the creation of

the Dawes Rolls [the “base roll” or written record

of tribal membership in a specifi c year]. It has been

part of the popular—and legal and academic—lore

about Indians ever since.

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his or her own fi nancial affairs.

Blood quantum is

one of the criteria that determines eligibility for
citizenship in many tribes; it therefore indirectly

infl uences the claimant’s relationship to the same

kinds of rights, privileges, and responsibilities that

legal defi nitions allow.

But biological defi nitions of identity affect per-

sonal interactions as well as governmental deci-

sions. Indian people with high blood quanta

frequently have recognizable physical characteris-

tics. As Cherokee Nation principal tribal chief Chad

Smith observes, some people are easily recogniz-

able as Indians because they pass “a brown paper

bag test,” meaning that their skin is “darker than a

#10 paper sack.” It is these individuals who are

often most closely associated with negative racial

stereotypes in the larger society. Native American

Studies professor Devon Mihesuah makes a point

about Indian women that is really applicable to ei-

ther gender: “Appearance is the most visible aspect

of one’s race; it determines how Indian women de-

fi ne themselves and how others defi ne and treat

them. Their appearance, whether Caucasian, Indian,

African, or mixed, either limits or broadens Indian

women’s choices of ethnic identity and ability to

interact with non-Indians and other Indians.”

Every day, identifi ably Indian people are turned

away from restaurants, refused the use of public rest

rooms, ranked as unintelligent by the education sys-

tem, and categorized by the personnel of medical,

social service, and other vital public agencies as

“problems”—all strictly on the basis of their

appearance. As Keetoowah Band Cherokee full-

blood Donald G. notes, a recognizably Indian

appearance can be a serious detriment to one’s pro-

fessional and personal aspirations: “It seems the

darker you are, the less important you are, in some

ways, to the employer. . . . To some, it would be

discouraging. But I am four-fourths [i.e., full-blood]

Cherokee, and it doesn’t matter what someone says

about me. . . . I feel for the person who doesn’t like

my skin color, you know?”

There are circumstances, however, in which it is

diffi cult for the victims of negative racial stereotyp-

ing to maintain an attitude as philosophical as this.

and how it was calculated. In mid-explanation, I

noticed his expression of complete amazement.

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” he burst

out. “Who ever thought of that ?”
The logic that underlies the biological defi nition

of racial identity becomes even more curious and

complicated when one considers the striking differ-

ence in the way that American defi nitions assign

individuals to the racial category of “Indian,” as op-

posed to the racial category “black.” As a variety of

researchers have observed, social attributions of

black identity have focused (at least since the end

of the Civil War) on the “one-drop rule,” or rule of


. . .

Far from being held to a one-drop rule, Indians

are generally required—both by law and by popular

opinion—to establish rather high blood quanta in
order for their claims to racial identity to be ac-

cepted as meaningful, the individual’s own opinion

notwithstanding. Although people must have only

the slightest trace of “black blood” to be forced into
the category “African American,” modern American

Indians must (1) formally produce (2) strong evi-

dence of (3) often rather substantial amounts of

“Indian blood” to be allowed entry into the corre-
sponding racial category. The regnant biological

defi nitions applied to Indians are simply quite dif-

ferent than those that have applied (and continue to

apply) to blacks. Modern Americans, as Native

American Studies professor Jack Forbes ( Powhatan/

Lenape/Saponi) puts the matter, “are always fi nd-
ing ‘blacks’ (even if they look rather un- African),
and . . . are always losing ‘Indians.’ ” 19

Biological defi nitions of Indian identity operate, in

short, in some curious and inconsistent ways. They

are nevertheless signifi cant in a variety of contexts.

And they have clear relationships, both direct and

indirect, to legal defi nitions. The federal govern-

ment has historically used a minimum blood quan-

tum standard to determine who was eligible to

receive treaty rights, or to sell property and manage

READING 4: Real Indians 75

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76 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

want them to know this is an Indian person doing

this. Because I come from a background where if

you looked Indian, you were put in special education

because the schools said you couldn’t learn. And it

wasn’t true. We need Indian people today who look

Indian to show everyone the things we can do.”

A physical appearance that is judged insuffi –

ciently “Indian” can also act as a barrier to partici-

pation in certain cultural activities. Bill T., a Wichita

and Seneca minister in his mid-fi fties, recalls that,

in his youth, he witnessed light-skinned individuals

who attempted to participate in powwow dances

being evicted from the arena. “That kind of thing is

still happening today,” he added sadly, and other

respondents readily confi rmed this observation. A

more unusual instance of the relevance of physical

appearance to cultural participation was volun-

teered by Frank D., a Hopi respondent. His tribe’s

ceremonial dances feature the appearance of pow-

erful spirit beings called kachinas, which are em-

bodied by masked Hopi men. Ideally, the everyday,

human identity of the dancers remains unknown to

observers. Frank commented on the subject of

tribal members whose skin tone is noticeably either

lighter or darker than the norm:

Frank D .: Say, for instance, if a Hopi marries a
black person . . . [and] you get a male child . . . it’s

gonna be darker skinned. It might even be black. A

black kachina just wouldn’t fi t out here [at Hopi].

You see, everybody’d know who it is. He’d be very

visible [in the ceremonial dances]. . . . It’d be very

hard on that individual. Kids don’t work the other

way, too—if they’re real light. . . . Kachinas gotta be

Author: So there are certain ceremonial roles that

people could not fi ll because of their appearance?

Frank D.: Well, they could, but it would be
awful tough. A lot of these [ceremonial] things are

done with secrecy. No one knows who the kachinas

are. Or at least, the kids don’t. And then, say you

get somebody who really stands out, then every-

body knows who that [dancer] is, and it’s not good.

For the ceremony—because everybody knows who

that person is. And so the kids will start asking

In one interview, a Mohawk friend, June L., illus-

trated the potential consequences of public judg-

ments based on skin color. She reminded me of a

terrifying episode that had once unfolded while I was

visiting at her house. Our conversation was inter-

rupted by a phone call informing this mother of fi ve

that her college-student son, who had spent the sum-

mer day working on a roof, had suddenly become ill

while driving home. Feeling faint, he had pulled up

to a local convenience store and made his way inside,

asking for a drink of water. The clerk refused. Dan-

gerously dehydrated, the young man collapsed on the

fl oor from sunstroke. “The worst thing about it,” June

recalled, “was that I have to keep wondering: What

was the reason for that? Did that clerk refuse to help

my son because she was just a mean person? Or was

it because she saw him stumble into the store and

thought, ‘Well, it’s just some drunken Indian’?” Anx-

iety about social judgments of this kind are a fact of

daily life for parents of children whose physical ap-

pearance makes their Indian ancestry clearly evident.

At the same time, June’s remarks showed the

opposite side to the coin of physical appearance. In

some contexts, not conforming to the usual notions

of “what Indians look like” can also be a liability:

My aunt was assistant dean at a large Ivy League uni-

versity. One day she called me on the phone. She had

one scholarship to give out to an Indian student. One

of the students being considered was blonde-haired

and blue-eyed. The other one was black-haired and

dark-skinned, and she looked Indian. The blonde

girl’s grades were a little better. My aunt didn’t know

what to do. She said to me, “Both these girls are tribal

members. Both of them are qualifi ed [for the scholar-

ship]. They’re sitting outside my offi ce. What would

you do?” I told her that, as an Indian person, there was
only one thing I could say. Which was to give the
money to the one with the dark skin. As Indian peo-

ple, we do want to have Indian people that look like
they’re Indian to represent us.

Readers may be surprised by such a candid state-

ment. But June’s pragmatic reasoning takes account

of certain historical realities. As she explained

further, “We like people to know who’s doing those
accomplishments, like getting scholarships. We

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matter how frequently I was blamed by strangers

for not resembling their image of some Hollywood

Sitting Bull, I was still defensive and vulnerable.

‘I’m part Indian,’ I explained.”

Even his tragic death has not safeguarded Dorris

from insinuations about inadequate blood quan-

tum. Shortly after his 1997 suicide, a story on his

life and death in New York magazine reported that
the author’s fair complexion had always caused

some observers to wonder about his racial identity

and archly repeated a rumor: “It is said he . . .

[eventually] discovered tanning booths.”

In short, many Indian people, both individually

and collectively, continue to embrace the assump-

tion that close biological connections to other

Indian people—and the distinctive physical appear-

ance that may accompany those connections—

imply a stronger claim on identity than do more

distant ones. As Potawatomi scholar of Native

American Studies Terry Wilson summarizes, “Few,

if any, Native Americans, regardless of upbringing

in rural, reservation, or urban setting, ignore their

own and other Indians’ blood quantum in everyday

life. Those whose physical appearances render their

Indian identities suspect are subject to suspicious

scrutiny until precise cultural explanations, espe-

cially blood quantum, are offered or discovered.”

1. As Garroutte describes them, what are the vari-

ous ways that one might be defi ned as a “real”

Indian? When might these different defi nitions

of “Indianness” confl ict?

2. Thinking about June’s description of her son

being refused a drink of water and her advice

about who should receive the Indian scholar-

ship, do you see any consistencies or inconsis-

tencies in her approach?

1. Thornton surveyed 302 of the 317 tribes in the lower

forty-eight states that enjoyed federal acknowledgment

in 1997. He found that 204 tribes had some minimum

blood quantum requirement, while the remaining 98 had

questions—“How come that kachina’s so dark, so

black?” or “How come that kachina’s white?” They

start asking questions and it’s really hard. So I

think, if you’re thinking about kids, it’s really better

if kachinas are brown.

Finally, the physical appearance borne by mixed

bloods may not only create barriers to tribal cul-

tural participation; it may also offer an occasion for

outrightly shaming them. Cornelia S. remembers

her days at the Eufala Indian School:

You had to be Indian to be [allowed admission]
there. . . . But . . . if [certain students] . . . didn’t look

as Indian as we did, or if they looked like they were

white, they were kind of looked down upon, like

treated differently because [people would say] “oh,

that’s just a white person.” . . . They just [would] tease

’em and stuff. Say “oh, whatcha doin’ white boy” or

“white girl”—just stuff like that.

Nor is the social disapproval of light-skinned mixed

bloods strictly the stuff of schoolyard teasing. The

same respondent added that even adults confront

questions of blood quantum with dead seriousness:

Us Indians, whenever we see someone else who is

saying that they’re Indian . . . or trying to be around

us Indians, and act like us, and they don’t look like

they’re Indian and we know that they’re not as much

Indian as we are, yeah, we look at them like they’re
not Indian and, ya know, don’t really like why

they’re acting like that. . . . But you know, I’m not

that far off . . . into judging other people and what
color [they are].

The late author Michael Dorris, a member of the

Modoc tribe (California), has written that humilia-

tions related to his appearance were part of his daily

experience. He describes (in his account of his

family’s struggle with his son’s fetal alcohol syn-

drome, The Broken Cord ) an encounter with a hos-
pital admissions staff, to whom he had just identifi ed

himself and his son as Indians. “They surveyed my

appearance with curiosity. It was an expression I

recognized, a reaction, familiar to most people of

mixed-blood ancestry, that said, ‘You don’t look
like an Indian.’ No matter how often it happened, no

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78 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

details on the special, political-economic relationship of

Indians to the federal government in relation to taxation

and licensure, see Gary D. Sandefur, “Economic Devel-

opment and Employment Opportunities for American

Indians,” in American Indians: Social Justice and Public
Policy, ed. Donald E. Green and Thomas V. Tonneson,
Ethnicity and Public Policy Series, vol. 9 (Milwaukee:

University of Wisconsin System Institute on Race and

Ethnicity, 1991), 208–22.

9. Aside from the issue of adopted children, the legal re-

quirements for establishing legal status as Indian in

Canada have been even more complicated and peculiar

than the U.S. ones, and the tensions related to them even

more severe. Until 1985, a Canadian Indian woman who

married a legally non-Indian man lost her legal status as

an Indian, and her children (who might have a blood

quantum of one-half) could never be recognized as

Indian under Canadian law. A non-Indian woman who

married an Indian man, however, gained Indian status

for herself and her children. Men could neither gain nor

lose Indian status through marriage. When a 1985 bill

amended the Indian Act, which governed such matters,

the issue of “real Indianness” came to a head. Many

Canadian Indian women and children sought and re-

ceived Indian legal status, but when they attempted to

return to the reservations, they often got a chilly wel-

come from Indian communities already overburdened

with fi nancial obligations to their existing population.

Like their American counterparts, Canadian Indian

bands continue to struggle with the issue of how to con-

ceive the boundaries of their membership. For a good

discussion of Canadian Indian identifi cation policies,

see Eugeen Roosens, Creating Ethnicity: The Process of
Ethnogenesis ( Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1989).

10. Shania Twain quoted in Jackie Bissley, “Country Star

Shania Twain’s Candor Is Challenged,” Indian Country
Today, 9–16 April 1996.

11. Quoted in Jackie Bissley, “Country Singer Says Stories

Robbing Her of Her Native Roots,” Indian Country
Today, 16–23 April 1996. Even Twain’s unusual
situation does not exhaust the intricate aspects of the

Canadian legal system as it struggles with matters of

Indian identity. Roosens describes other fi ne points of

Indian identity in force north of the border over a period

of several decades:

Since 1951, to be registered as an Indian one has to be

the legitimate child of an Indian father. The ethnic ori-

gin of the mother is irrelevant. . . . Furthermore, if the

grandmother on the Indian side of a mixed marriage

(the father’s mother) is a non-Indian by descent, then

the grandchild loses his or her status at the age of 21.

Thus, one can be offi cially born an Indian and lose

this  status at the age of maturity. (Roosens, Creating
Ethnicity, 24)

none. Russell Thornton, “Tribal Membership Require-

ments and the Demography of ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Native

Americans,” Population Research and Policy Review 16
(1997): 37.

2. The two mentions of “Indians” in the Constitution ap-

pear in passages regarding the regulation of commerce

and the taking of a federal census. The word “tribe” also

appears once in the Constitution, in the Commerce


3. Sharon O’Brien, “Tribes and Indians: With Whom Does

the United States Maintain a Relationship?” Notre Dame
Law Review 66 (1991): 1481.

4. One particularly important law that provides no defi ni-

tion of “Indian” is the Major Crimes Act of 1885 (23

Stat. 385, U.S.C. Sec. 1153). It subjects reservation Indi-

ans to federal prosecution for certain offenses for which

non-Indians would face only state prosecution.

5. For a detailed discussion of legal cases bearing on the

defi nition of “Indian,” see Felix S. Cohen, Handbook of
Federal Indian Law (Charlottesville, Va.: Michie/
Bobbs-Merrill, 1982).

6. Wilcomb E. Washburn, Red Man’s Land/White Man’s
Law: A Study of the Past and Present States of the Amer-
ican Indian (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971).

7. These agencies administer resources and programs in

areas such as education, health, social services, tribal

governance and administration, law enforcement, nutri-

tion, resource management, tribal economic develop-

ment, employment, and the like. The most recently

published source describing various programs and the

requirements for participation is Roger Walk, Federal
Assistance to Native Americans: A Report Prepared for
the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs of the US
Senate (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Offi ce,
1991). In fi scal year 2001, recognized tribes and their

members had access to approximately four billion dol-

lars of federal funding for various social programs. U.S.

Government Accounting Offi ce, Indian Issues: Improve-
ments Needed in Tribal Recognition Process, Report to
Congressional Requesters, Washington D.C.: Govern-

ment Printing Offi ce, November 2001.

8. Non-Indian students in my classes sometimes tell me

that Indians also regularly receive such windfalls as free

cars and monthly checks from the government strictly

because of their race. It is my sad duty to puncture this

fantasy; there is no truth in it. The common belief that

Indians receive “free money” from the government

probably stems from the fact that the government holds

land in trust for certain tribes. As part of its trust respon-

sibility, it may then lease that land, collect the revenue,

and distribute it to the tribal members. Thus, some Indi-

ans do receive government checks, but these do not rep-

resent some kind of manna from heaven; they are simply

the profi ts derived from lands which they own. For

ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 78ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 78 01/08/15 7:32 AM01/08/15 7:32 AM

classifi cations, but at differing rates. Popular conven-

tions of racial classifi cation in America tend to prevent

individuals with any discernible black ancestry from

identifying themselves as Indians. As an interview re-

spondent quoted by anthropologist Circe Sturm ob-

serves, “This is America, where being to any degree

Black is the same thing as being to any degree preg-

nant.” Sturm, Blood Politics, 188.
By contrast, individuals with discernible white an-

cestry are sometimes allowed by others to identify as
Indian. In their case the legitimacy of their assertion is

likely to be evaluated with reference to the amount of
white ancestry, and with beliefs about whether that

amount is enough to merely dilute or to entirely compro-
mise Indian identity. Other factors, such as culture and
upbringing, may also be taken into account. People of

partial white ancestry, in other words, are typically

somewhat more free (although not entirely free) to nego-

tiate a legitimate identity as Indian than are people of

partial black ancestry.

20. For further details on the historical impact of blood

quantum on individuals’ legal rights, see Felix S. Cohen,

Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law (Charlottes-
ville, Va.: Michie/Bobbs-Merrill, 1982).

21. For a listing of the blood quantum requirements that dif-

ferent tribes require for tribal citizenship, see Edgar

Lister, “Tribal Membership Rates and Requirements,”

unpublished table (Washington, D.C.: Indian Health

Service, 1987). An edited version of the table appears

in  C. Matthew Snipp, American Indians: The First of
This Land (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1989),

22. Devon A. Mihesuah, “Commonality of Difference:

American Indian Women and History,” in Natives and
Academics: Researching and Writing about American
Indians, ed. Devon A. Mihesuah (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1998), 42. For a fascinating and de-

tailed discussion of the signifi cance of appearance

among contemporary Cherokees in Oklahoma, see

Sturm, Blood Politics, 108–15.
23. Michael Dorris, The Broken Cord (New York: Harper

Perennial, 1990), 22.

24. Eric Konigsberg, “Michael Dorris’s Troubled Sleep,”

New York Magazine, 16 June 1997, 33. For a related ar-
ticle, see Jerry Reynolds, “Indian Writers: The Good, the

Bad, and the Could Be, Part 2: Indian Writers: Real or

Imagined,” Indian Country Today, 15 September 1993.
25. Terry P. Wilson, “Blood Quantum: Native American

Mixed Bloods,” in Racially Mixed People in America,
ed. Maria P. P. Root (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage,

1992), 109.

12. Roosens, Creating Ethnicity, 41–42. Roosens is discuss-
ing the situation of Canadian Indians, but the same

remarks apply to American Indians.

13. G. William Rice, “There and Back Again—An Indian

Hobbit’s Holiday: Indians Teaching Indian Law,” New
Mexico Law Review 26, no. 2 (1996): 176.

14. Melissa L. Meyer, “American Indian Blood Quantum

Requirements: Blood Is Thicker than Family,” in Over
the Edge: Remapping the American West, ed. Valerie J.
Matsumoto and Blake Allmendiger (Berkeley: Univer-

sity of California Press, 1999).

15. Historians such as Grace Steele Woodward and Marion

Starkey have made this argument. But see also Julia

Coates, “None of Us Is Supposed to Be Here” (Ph.D.

diss., University of New Mexico, 2002) for a revisionist

understanding of Cherokee history.

16. C. Matthew Snipp, “Who Are American Indians? Some

Observations about the Perils and Pitfalls of Data for

Race and Ethnicity,” Population Research and Policy
Review 5 (1986): 249. For excellent and intriguing dis-
cussions of the evolution of ideas about blood relation-

ships among European and Euro-American peoples over

several centuries, and transference of these ideas into

American Indian tribal populations, see Meyer, “Blood

Quantum Requirements,” and Circe Sturm, Blood Poli-
tics: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Cherokee Nation
of Oklahoma (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2002). See further Peggy Pascoe, “Miscegenation Law,

Court Cases, and Ideologies of ‘race’ in Twentieth Cen-

tury America,” Journal of American History 83, no. 1
(June 1996): 44–69. For the processes by which some of

these theories were rejected by scientists, see Elazar

Barkan, Retreat of Scientifi c Racism: Changing Con-
cepts of Race in Britain and the United States between
the World Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1992).

17. Thomas Biolsi, “The Birth of the Reservation: Making

the Modern Individual among the Lakota,” American
Ethnologist 22, no. 1 (February 1995): 28–49; Patrick
Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past
of the American West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988).

18. Naomi Zack, “Mixed Black and White Race and Public

Policy,” Hypatia 10, 1 (1995): 120–32; Ariela J. Gross,
“Litigating Whiteness: Trials of Racial Determination in

the Nineteenth-Century South,” Yale Law Journal 108
(1998): 109–88.

19. Jack D. Forbes, “The Manipulation of Race, Caste, and

Identity: Classifying AfroAmericans, Native Americans

and Red-Black People,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 17,
no. 4 (1990): 24; original emphasis. Indians are “lost,”

in Forbes’ sense, both to black and to white racial

READING 4: Real Indians 79

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80 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Punjabi; Japanese Americans shouting in Chinese;

Korean Americans shouting in Vietnamese.

As a panethnic mobilization, the API contingent

and its linguistically diverse chant run counter to

sociological understandings where panethnicity is

conceptualized as largely subsuming and replacing

single-ethnic identifi cations and orientations de-

pending on context (Espiritu 1992; Itzigsohn and

Dore-Cabral 2000; Vo 2004; Waters 1999). To the

contrary, the multiple languages within this chant

exemplify a broader and persistent ethnic diversity

exercised within panethnic spaces. As such, the

rally’s API contingent raises questions about the re-

lationship between single-ethnic and panethnic

identities and the coexistence of solidarity and di-

versity within a cohesive social movement. . . .

Espiritu (1992:14), in her seminal study, defi nes

Asian American panethnicity as “the development

of bridging organizations and solidarities among

several ethnic and immigrant groups of Asian an-

cestry.” While Asian American panethnicity origi-

nated through the racial lumping of all Asian

ethnicities by outsiders, panethnicity has become a

political resource for insiders (Espiritu 1992).

Scholarship on identity work within panethnic

Asian American contexts describes the outcomes of

such negotiations in two ways: (1) panethnic iden-

tity subsuming single-ethnic identifi cation, and

(2) panethnic and single-ethnic identities coexist

but are situationally exercised depending on con-

text. The fi rst potential outcome places multiple

identities within a salience hierarchy. One identity

is privileged above all others. This rank ordering of

identity is applicable to many of the descriptions of

the earliest incarnations of Asian American paneth-

nic identity. In the late 1960s, activists sought to

construct a monolithic, politicized Asian American

collective consciousness that required a relinquish-

ing of single-ethnic orientations, as well as feminist

and class identities (Liu, Geron, and Lai 2008;

Louie and Omatsu 2006; Maeda 2009; Umemoto

1989; Wei 1993). From this perspective, single-

ethnic and panethnic identities are reconciled by

muting single-ethnic consciousness in favor of a

panethnic Asian American orientation.

R E A D I N G 5

An Interlocking Panethnicity:
The Negotiation of Multiple
Identities among Asian American
Social Movement Leaders

Dana Y. Nakano

Compromise bills—Down down!
Immigrant rights—Ho yea! (Chinese)
[or] Immigrant rights—Phai day! (Vietnamese)
[or] Immigrant rights—Zindabhad! (Punjabi)

Employer sanctions—Down down!
Workers rights—Mabuhay! (Tagalog)

Guest worker slavery—Down down!
Immigrant rights—Mansei! (Korean)

In the early afternoon of an April Sunday in 2006,

the Asian Pacifi c Islander (API) contingent marched

down San Francisco’s Market Street proudly chant-

ing their rallying call.
These API activists ad-

vanced in solidarity within a multicolor sea of

signs and people stretching multiple city blocks in

support of immigrant rights. Numbering in the hun-

dreds, the Asian American protestors came together

from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds advanc-

ing to the beat of Korean drums. The opening chant

is a tactic leaders of the API contingent utilized to

highlight both the collective investment of Asian

Americans in immigration reform debates contem-

poraneously occurring on the fl oor of the United

States Senate and the diversity within the Asian

American population. The inclusion of multiple

ethnic voices is evidence of panethnic solidarity

among discrete Asian American communities. This

solidarity is further underscored by how the chant

is recited. The whole contingent shouts the same

cry in unison, not just in an individual’s own ethnic

language. There are Filipino Americans shouting in

Dana Y. Nakano is a graduate student in sociology at the

University of California, Irvine.

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READING 5: An Interlocking Panethnicity 81

Crenshaw 1991). Anthias (1998) describes intersec-

tionality in identity as a series of different layers of

self and imposed defi nitions that can be worn in

different orders at different times. Rather than only

the top layer as a situational understanding of iden-

tity would predict, the sum of all layers positions
each individual, or group, in the social order

( Anthias 1998). In this way, an individual or group

may be at once Asian American, Chinese American,

female, and working class. Similar to the idea of

situational identity, an individual may differentially

exercise and emphasize one identity under different

circumstances. However, this ability to shift identi-

ties does not detract from the fact that this individ-

ual or group is still defi ned by and draws from all

facets of identity across all situations.

Glenn (2002) pushes the concept of intersec-

tionality further and introduces the concept of in-

terlocking systems of oppression to describe the

experiences of women of color that are starkly dif-

ferent than both white women and men of color

(also see Collins 2005; Crenshaw 1991). Glenn

(2002:7) focuses on the notion of interlockedness

in her assertion that race and gender are not expe-

rienced as “separate or additive” but, rather, are

“simultaneous and linked.” Women of color expe-

rience both race and gender simultaneously. Race

and gender are viewed as relational categories:

“they are positioned and therefore gain meaning in

relation to each other” (Glenn 2002:13). Gender

affects the way racial identity is conceptualized

and vice versa: “gender is racialized and race is

gendered” (Glenn 2002:7). Understanding single-

ethnic and panethnic identities as relational and

interlocking acknowledges the dynamic and shift-

ing understandings of both identities vis-à-vis one

another. As will be demonstrated in this study, un-

derstandings of what it means to be Filipino Amer-

ican, Indian American, or Chinese American are

informed by a panethnic Asian American identity

and how each distinct single-ethnic identity fi ts

under this broad umbrella category. Panethnic

Asian American identity is fundamentally shaped

by the varied single-ethnic groups and identities

that it claims to represent. . . .

In contrast to the fi ndings supporting a salience

hierarchy, studies of contemporary panethnic Asian

American organizing have largely found a situa-

tional exercise of panethnic versus single-ethnic

identity (Espiritu 1992; Kibria 2002; Vo 2004).

These scholars assert panethnic and single-ethnic

identities are utilized singularly, strategically, and

instrumentally according to specifi c contexts. For

example, Espiritu (1992) demonstrates how de-

pending on social, economic, or political situations,

individuals may mobilize themselves along single-

ethnic or panethnic lines. Vo (2004:225) posits “in-

dividuals may have multiple ethnic identities, but

these identities are salient according to constantly

shifting circumstances.” In Vo’s study, respondents

were often involved in both panethnic- and single-

ethnic–focused organizations. Within single-ethnic

contexts such as single-ethnically focused organi-

zations or personal ethnic networks, respondents

chose to deploy their single-ethnicity as their pri-

mary identifi cation. However, when working in pa-

nethnic organizations, Vo’s respondents spoke of

more freely exercising a panethnic Asian American

identity over single-ethnic identifi cation.

For Espiritu and Vo, both single-ethnic and pan-

ethnic identities exist as discrete identities and are

separately exercised at different times and in differ-

ent situations. While this interpretation speaks to

the continued presence of single-ethnic orientations

within the API contingent at the April 2006 march,

the framework is less apt to explain the simultane-
ous display of panethnic solidarity and single- ethnic
diversity within the chant and mobilization. Rather

than viewing single-ethnicity and panethnicity as

situational and separate, I look toward the possibil-

ity of continuous interplay between single-ethnic

and panethnic identities. . . . [This] study explores

the inner workings of single-ethnic and panethnic

coexistence, examining the ways individual leaders

negotiate an interlocking relationship between

single-ethnic and panethnic identities within their

respective organizations. . . .

The concept of interlocking identities, struc-

tures, or categories is strongly related to the concept

of intersectionality (Anthias 1998; Collins 2005;

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82 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

and Nationality Act of 1965, the legitimate reopen-

ing of immigration from Asia, began to impact the

population, the number of ethnic categories began

to show growth. The count of enumerated Asian ra-

cial subgroup categories grew slowly at fi rst to

seven in 1980, then rapidly to eighteen in 1990, and

reached twenty-two by the 2010 Census (Ruggles

et al. 2008; U.S. Census Bureau n.d.c).

Over the same time period, the Asian American

population in the San Francisco Bay Area and

across the nation also increased its diversity in

terms of income, place of residence, political orien-

tation, educational attainment, as well as nativity.

In 1960, the majority of Asian Americans were

native-born. Beginning with the 1970 Census, the

predominant nativity began to shift, with Filipino

Americans becoming a majority foreign-born pop-

ulation. By 1980, Asian Americans as a whole be-

came a majority foreign-born racial group and all

single-ethnic groups, with the exception of Japanese

Americans, were also predominantly foreign-born.

This pattern continues into the present day ( Ruggles

et al. 2008).

The number of ethnic groups and the size of each

group grew tremendously over the second half of

the twentieth century. Leaders of contemporary pa-

nethnic organizations mobilize an Asian American

community that must negotiate more differences

than their predecessors in creating and maintaining

a cohesive panethnic collective identity. If distinct

single-ethnic Asian American communities have

such disparate needs and issues and their individual

populations have grown, one must ask why paneth-

nic organizations continue to exist. As communities

reach critical mass, why not advocate for them-

selves and organize around single-ethnic identities?

The answer to this question is two-fold: First, while

the Asian American population has seen increases,

they remain a numerical minority in the 2010 U.S.

Census. The Asian American population accounted

for less than 6 percent of the total U.S. population

and 15 percent of California. In the San Francisco

Bay Area, Asian Americans constitute a much

higher percentage, 32, but remain a minority popu-

lation. Furthermore, no single-ethnic community

I locate my study in the greater San Francisco

Bay Area, a particularly apt site. The Bay Area

boasts the three continental United States metro-

politan areas with the highest percentage of Asian

American residents: Fremont, 39.8 percent; San

Francisco, 32.6 percent; and San Jose, 28.8 percent

(U.S. Census Bureau n.d.a). The Bay Area is also

home to a long Asian American political history

including the Third World Liberation Front and the

creation of a radical and progressive Asian Ameri-

can politics in the late 1960s (Maeda 2009). The

specifi cities of the Bay Area region speak to the

need to analyze racial identity formations in local

or regional terms (Pulido 2006; Rumbaut 2009;

Vo 2004).

As this project is particularly interested in the

identity work conducted by organizational leaders

and how identity affects organizational processes

and practices, I draw on data from in-depth, semis-

tructured interviews [conducted in 2006] with con-

temporary leaders of Asian American social

movement organizations.

My interview respondents pointed to the syn-

ergy of two social and historical factors in creating

the need for an interlocking panethnicity: (1) the

shifting demographics of an increasingly diverse

Asian American population and (2) the institution-

alization of panethnicity within organizations stem-

ming from the Asian American Movement of the

1960s and 1970s.

The story of Asian America is one of increasing di-

versity. When Yuji Ichioka coined the term “Asian

American” during the 1960s, the U.S. Census only

recorded three distinct Asian American ethnic

groups: Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino. By the

1970 Census, only four ethnic groups were enumer-

ated. While the Census may not accurately portray

the existence of smaller, and hence uncounted, pop-

ulations of other ethnic groups, it provides a sense

of visibility for various ethnic groups during each

Census period. As the effects of the Immigration

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in terms of ethnicity, nativity, and class, serves as a

causal factor for increased awareness of specifi c

issues of single-ethnic communities. This increased

demographic diversity impacts organizations di-

rectly through a diversifi cation of organizational

clients, members, staff, and leadership, forcing or-

ganizations to reconcile single-ethnic differences

under a reimagined panethnic collectivity. The

maintenance of panethnic identity within these

organizations is bolstered by the continued minor-

ity status, even in the San Francisco Bay Area, and

common racialized experiences of Asian Americans.

Panethnic orientations also continue within Asian

American activism due to the legacy of panethnic

organizing reaching back to the 1960s Asian Amer-

ican Movement. The preexisting panethnic organi-

zational forms serve as a model for contemporary

Asian American activism, dictating coalitional ef-

forts among single-ethnic communities, but not the

form those efforts take. As such, panethnicity is still

seen as an effective mobilizing strategy and organi-

zational form, but only if it takes into account the

diverse perspectives and issues facing distinct

single-ethnic communities. . . .

The Asian American Movement, largely taking

place in the early 1970s, sought to expose the com-

mon racialized experience of American peoples of

Asian ancestry and create greater solidarity among

Asian ethnic groups. Wei (1993:272) claims the

identity emerging from the Asian American Move-

ment “transcended the communal and cultural lim-

its of particular Asian ethnic groups to identity with

the past experiences, present circumstances, and

future aspirations” of an Asian American collectiv-

ity. Panethnic Asian American identity is described

as “overcoming the separate ethnic nationalism

that  originally divided them” (Wei 1993:272). In

present-day San Francisco, I observe a contrasting

panethnicity that does not act independently or in

place of single-ethnic identity and mobilization.

accounted for more than 12 percent of the total Bay

Area population (U.S. Census Bureau n.d.c). Pan-

ethnicity continues to provide a competitive advan-

tage in the modern democratic state where there is

power in numbers (Espiritu 1992). Second, even if

certain single-ethnic groups reached critical mass

in the Bay Area, there remains a need to maintain a

panethnic orientation when building coalitions with

organizations in other regions that continue to rely

on panethnic formations due to smaller Asian

American populations. In addition, the panethnic

label continues to provide political recognition via

an institutionally recognized racial category: Asian

American (Espiritu 1992).

Looking at historical trajectories, Espiritu (1992)

argues that among the early reasons Asian

Americans across diverse ethnic groups came

together in panethnic groupings was to secure gov-

ernment funding that favors multiethnic programs

and impacts the highest number of people possible.

Many of these organizations have been in existence

for more than 20 years and have maintained paneth-

nic orientations due to their organizational legacy

and funding realities. Speaking more specifi cally to

the institutionalization and reproduction of paneth-

nicity, some organizations in this study began as

single-ethnic organizations but have shifted toward

panethnic missions in large part due to the need to

attract public and private funds. In favoring multi-

ethnic programs, government agencies have helped

to institutionalize panethnic organizing and identity

among Asian Americans. As organizations have

structured themselves and their missions in accor-

dance with continuing panethnically oriented fund-

ing and service guidelines, they continue to promote

panethnic Asian American identity (Espiritu 1992).

Such panethnic institutionalization is evident in the

organizations represented in this study.

The increased diversity of the Asian American

population from 1960 to the present day, particularly

READING 5: An Interlocking Panethnicity 83

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84 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Despite their diverse backgrounds, participating

leaders hold strikingly similar views on the contem-

porary state of Asian American panethnicity. Lead-

ers felt that signifi cant progress had been made in

recognizing the importance of single- ethnic identi-

ties within the broader panethnic movement. Calvin,

for instance, shared:

I think it’s evolved to the point where an Asian

American identity can encompass people who identify

more as their own ethnic group. Whereas, maybe

20 years ago . . . there was more of this tension “Hey,

give up being Chinese , you should say you’re Asian
so we can have more people power as Asians. ” I think
the movement has gotten to this point where people

can identify primarily as a Vietnamese refugee but

also consider themselves part of the movement.

( emphasis added) . . .

. . . Understanding the reconceptualizations of an

interlocking panethnicity, I now turn to the mecha-

nisms and practices of this new panethnic

orientation within the organizations in this study.

Leaders demonstrate the interlocking nature of

single-ethnicity and panethnicity in the philosophy

and practices within their respective organizations.

In discussing how panethnicity is constructed as a

cohesive collective identity in the presence of dis-

tinct single-ethnic identifi cations, leaders spoke of

the mechanism of an interlocking panethnicity in

fi ve ways: (1) encouraging maintenance of single-

ethnic identities, (2) accounting for linguistic and

cultural diversity, (3) coming to terms with ethnic

and class privilege, (4) leveraging resources for the

panethnic good, and (5) building collaborative and

deliberative organizational frameworks and pro-

cesses. These practices demonstrate the diffi cult

identity work undertaken by leaders and the organi-

zational effect of a reconceptualized panethnic


Rather, panethnic orientations intersect and take

into consideration the diverse single-ethnic experi-

ences that exist within the population. Borrowing

from Glenn’s framework, panethnicity and single-

ethnicity are interlocking structures—simultaneous

and mutually affecting (Glenn 2002).

All leaders [I interviewed] shared a strong com-

mitment to panethnic coalitions and noted their ne-

cessity and effectiveness. As stated by Eleanor, a

Chinese American leader:

I think it’s necessary that we band together. I think we

always have to, bottom line, we have to unite in order

to disunite. . . . We have to unite as Asian Americans

in order to distinguish ourselves from one another.

Similar to the intentions and strategies leveraged

by Asian American activists in the 1960s and

1970s, Eleanor and other contemporary leaders

see panethnic organizing as an important way to

garner political power and visibility with greater

numbers. However, Eleanor’s statement also

demonstrates that panethnicity is not viewed as an

end, but rather as a means for increased recogni-

tion and social justice. The expanded notoriety

gained through panethnic organizing can serve as

a platform for single-ethnic concerns. If paneth-

nic organizing is important for single-ethnic com-

munities to have their claims heard and acted

upon in an overcrowded political fi eld, joining

panethnic coalitions and organizations cannot

erase or override single-ethnic identity. Rather,

leaders in this study note that single-ethnic identi-

ties must be voiced and present in panethnic


Respondents lament and actively work to de-

construct the monolithic perception of, what

Wendy named, an “Asian American mainstream.”

Wendy, a 36-year-old Asian American leader of

mixed heritage, continued by posing a question that

seemed to weigh heavy on the minds of leaders

within this study’s sample: “How do we maintain

our specifi c heritages and identities at the same

time that we stand together as an Asian American


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equipped to fully and accurately represent the needs

and concerns of other single-ethnic communities.

Representation is understood as fundamentally tied

to a lived experience. Single-ethnic identities can

only be truly represented by individuals who come

from particular communities. In order to build pan-

ethnic organizations that are truly representative of

diverse Asian American populations, leaders often

spoke of the intentional invitations to and recruit-

ment of potential leaders from underrepresented

single-ethnic communities.

Accounting for Linguistic
and Cultural Diversity

Maintenance of interlocking single-ethnic identi-

ties and orientations in panethnic organizing are

also important in instrumental terms. . . .

Cultural and language capacities are particularly

important for Asian American community mobili-

zations, as over 37 percent of the Asian American

population in the four-county San Francisco Bay

Area is classifi ed as limited English profi cient

Furthermore, Asian Americans remain a

predominantly foreign-born population, approxi-

mately 70 percent in the four-county region (U.S.

Census Bureau n.d.a). Language and cultural com-

petencies provided by single-ethnically oriented

individuals, then, are instrumentally important and

must be maintained within panethnic organizations

to effectively outreach to and mobilize the large

LEP and foreign-born segments of the Asian

American population. Tristan, a Hapa American,

offers a more concrete description of a mechanism

used to address the linguistic and cultural diversity

of the Asian American population:

A Filipino TV station came and covered the press

conference, which was great, and we actually did

have somebody who spoke Tagalog, but we don’t

always and there are certainly other languages that we

just don’t have represented. And we really try to invite

the API press to these events and many of them cover

it in English and the article they produce may be in

another language. But many of them want to interview

Modeling Single-Ethnic Identity

. . . Leaders in this study speak of a panethnic identity

that encourages the maintenance of single- ethnicity

as integral to the ultimate success of the movement.

They see a need for diverse representation of single-

ethnic organizations within the Asian American or-

ganizational fi eld and within panethnic organizations

themselves. Maintained single-ethnic identity is

demonstrated within organizations as leaders dis-

cussed the strategic importance of “self” representa-

tion of single-ethnic community interests in

leadership and decision-making processes of paneth-

nic organizations. Leaders lead by example by

maintaining their own single-ethnic identity and en-

courage members to speak from the experience of

their particular ethnic communities. The mainte-

nance of single-ethnic identity among leaders is par-

ticularly salient as they discussed whom they feel

they represent within their leadership capacity. While

all study participants hold leadership positions that

engage in panethnic mobilization in some form, they

conceptualize their ability to truly represent in very

narrow terms. “A more progressive Vietnamese com-

munity,” “Chinatown woman activists,” “a hapa, bi-

racial experience,” “Filipino privileged people;” and

“an East Oakland, working class, immigrant, woman

experience” are some examples of this specifi city.

[Two respondents], Briana and Edwin, further ex-

plain the reason for such specifi city:

I don’t know that I feel I am representing any one

mass community because it is extremely diverse and

has a lot of different complexities and complications

to it. . . . I feel like I am representing part of the divi-

sions. (Briana, Indian American)

I hope I represent Asian Americans generally, but

I think I represent other East Asian people better than

other Asian Americans. Particularly, like South

Asians, because I just don’t know that  much about

their culture. (Edwin, Chinese American)

Leaders feel they are only able to represent their

own personal ethnic experience as they feel ill

READING 5: An Interlocking Panethnicity 85

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86 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

structure and privilege within the panethnic com-

munity is left intact. In their quest for racial equal-

ity, Asian American organizations may replicate

the system of oppression they seek to dismantle;

marginalized Asian American ethnic groups may

remain powerless to assert their own issues into

panethnic agendas. . . .

Leveraging Human and Social Capital
for the Panethnic Good

Leaders who hold privileged social positions due

to their ethnic or class background can also lever-

age their elevated human and social capital for

the benefi t of less privileged segments of the

Asian American population and Asian Americans

as a whole. [One respondent] spoke of an organi-

zational process of open dialogue, whereby indi-

viduals learn from those of other ethnic back

grounds and incorporate an understanding of the

issues that affect less visible and less privileged

Asian Americans. Importantly, individuals from

marginalized Asian American communities are

the ones who speak, teach, and lead on these less

familiar struggles. East Asian Americans are con-

fronted with the realities of other Asian American

ethnic groups within the panethnic formation,

which forces them to recognize their own privi-

leged position and alters their engagement with

the organization.

In the process of deconstructing divisive hierar-

chies of privilege, leaders leverage organizational

resources from across the panethnic spectrum to

uplift other less privileged segments of the Asian

American community. Ryan, for example, leads a

sizable and longstanding organization with roots in

the Japanese American community. Across its his-

tory, Ryan’s organization has been able to accrue

many resources, capacities, and connections that

are unavailable to more recently arrived ethnic

communities and recently formed organizations.

Rather than hoard such resources, Ryan expresses a

philosophy of sharing and empowerment:

Over time the organization has grown, its capacity has

increased and the bottom line is [we work with other

somebody in the language they are ultimately going

to write in. That is a big thing on our to-do list.

For Tristan, having linguistic and cultural diversity

represented within his organization and at organiza-

tional events is important for the dissemination of

information to a broader Asian American public.

Aside from communicative importance, a cul-

turally and linguistically competent staff is also

central to a panethnic organization’s ability to pro-

vide direct services to diverse Asian American

communities that continue to speak ethnic-specifi c

languages and practice ethnic-specifi c cultures. As

discussed earlier, demographic shifts in the Asian

American population have had a direct impact on

organizations by increasing the diversity of clients

served by various organizations as well as the

members and leaders who make up the organiza-

tion itself. As organizational clients have increased

in ethnic diversity, organizational leadership has

been forced to grapple with how to provide services

to largely immigrant communities with distinct lan-

guages and cultures. . . .

Coming to Terms with Privilege

. . . The experiences of a perceived homogenous

Asian American population are generally catego-

rized within the model minority paradigm and

therefore lay outside the boundary to “legitimate”

oppression. Asian American organizations may

champion the issues of less privileged segments of

the Asian American population in order to increase

political relevance.
When promoting panethnic

Asian American agendas externally, the issues of

these marginalized Asian Americans take center

stage. This agenda shift, however, is not always

accompanied by an equal shift in ethnic make-up

of decision-makers and visible leadership. While

placing marginalized Asian American concerns at

the forefront of a public panethnic agenda is

empowering and may achieve gains for a

marginalized segment of the population, it also

serves to obscure the ethnic privileges and power

positions held by Japanese and Chinese Americans

within  many panethnic mobilizations. The power

ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 86ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 86 01/08/15 7:32 AM01/08/15 7:32 AM

of hierarchies that is explicitly racialized. Accord-

ing to leaders in this study, fostering collaboration,

open dialogue, and participation among distinct

single-ethnic communities are fundamental to the

success of panethnic Asian American collective ac-

tion. Leaders frequently discussed the need to create

an open atmosphere within their organizations in

order to foster collaboration among members. . . .

Taken together, the evidence drawn from my

interviews with organizational leaders shows that

single-ethnicities persist in panethnic mobilizations

and that this continued presence has mutual effects

on both single-ethnic and panethnic identities.

Building upon the works of panethnicity scholars

Espiritu and Vo, this study demonstrates that exer-

cise of single-ethnic and panethnic identities are

not simply driven by situations and contexts that

favor one identity over the other. Rather, single-

ethnic and panethnic identities are “both simultane-

ous and linked,” informing and altering one another

(Glenn 2002:7). It follows that panethnic identity,

in its contemporary form, may be better understood

as interlocking with single-ethnic identity, rather

than within a salience hierarchy or being situation-

ally determined. The identity negotiations that take

place lead to the coexistence and mutual effect of

multiple identities within a single movement. . . .

1. What are ways to measure panethnic solidarity?

2. What are some of the problems of maintaining

single-ethnic identity when the larger goal is


3. What are some of the mechanisms for creating

an interlocking panethnicity?

1. For the majority of this article, I speak specifi cally about

the panethnic Asian American community, rather than
API. This is a conscious effort not to tokenize the Pacifi c
Islander experience in my analysis. This is not to say

that Pacifi c Islanders should not be included in panethnic

communities] because we can . . . and, in actuality, we

want to. We have been fortunate as an organization to

be able to evolve to do many things. I take a lot of pride

in the fact that there is a Japanese American youth or-

ganization in this country that can serve everybody.

. . . The skills and resources brought to organizations

by different leaders vary widely from accounting

skills and public speaking to network connections

and fundraising. The demographics of the leaders

participating in this study show that all inhabit a priv-

ileged social class position, which is often accompa-

nied by greater social and cultural capital. Leaders in

this study, regardless of ethnicity, are highly conscious

of their privileged positions within their organiza-

tions, within the community, and oftentimes within

society at large. A frequent assertion by study partici-

pants was an earnest interest in using their privileged,

educated positions, and the access to information and

networks that comes with it, for the betterment of the

panethnic community as a whole. In particular, lead-

ers wished to be a conduit of information and access

point for segments of the community that largely do

not have a voice. Privilege is not used as a tool

of  domination over the lower rungs of the class

hierarchy, but rather a means to uplift, educate, and

empower the broadest segment of the community


Collaborative Frameworks and
Privileging Marginalized Voices

In addition to acknowledging privilege and leverag-

ing the resources of privilege for a broader paneth-

nic community, leaders also foster collaborative

processes within their respective organizations to

give voice to the diversity within the Asian American

population. Such practices also stem from the non-

profi t orientation of the Asian American social

movement organizations in this study. Nonprofi t or-

ganizations often utilize nonhierarchical structures

and decision-making processes due to their service

and advocacy- oriented missions (DiMaggio and

Anheier 1990). However, Asian American social

movement organization leaders espouse an ap-

proach to the recognition of privilege and fl attening

READING 5: An Interlocking Panethnicity 87

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88 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Dominicans in the United States.” Sociological Forum

Kibria, Nazli. 2002. Becoming Asian American: Second-
Generation Chinese and Korean American Identities.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Liu, Michael, Kim Geron, and Traci Lai. 2008. The Snake
Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision,
and Power. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Louie, Steve and Glenn Omatsu. 2006. Asian Americans:
The Movement and the Moment. Los Angeles: UCLA
Asian American Studies Center Press.

Maeda, Daryl J. 2009. Chains of Babylon: The Rise of Asian
America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pulido, Laura. 2006. Black, Brown, Yellow and Left: Radical
Activism in Los Angeles. Berkeley: University of California

Ruggles, Steven, Matthew Sobek, Trent Alexander,

Catherine A. Fitch, Ronald Goeken, Patricia Kelly Hall,

Miriam King, and Chad Ronnander. 2008. “Integrated

Public Use Microdata Series: Version 4.0 [machine-

readable database].” Minnesota Population Center [pro-

ducer and distributor].

Rumbaut, Rubén G. 2009. “Pigments of Our Imagination:

On the Racialization and Racial Identities of ‘Hispanics’

and ‘Latinos.’” Pp. 15–36 in How the U.S. Racializes
Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences , edited
by J. A. Cobas, J. Duany, and J. R. Feagin. Boulder, CO:

Paradigm Publishers.

U.S. Census Bureau. n.d.a. American Community Survey,

2010 American Community Survey Five-year Estimates;

generated by Dana Y. Nakano; using American FactFinder

(February 15, 2012).

———. n.d.b. Census 2000, Summary File 1; generated by

Dana Y. Nakano; using American FactFinder ( February 15,


———. n.d.c. Census 2010, Summary File 1; generated by

Dana Y. Nakano; using American FactFinder (February 15,


Umemoto, Karen. 1989. “‘On Strike!’ San Francisco States

College, 1968–69: The Role of Asian American Students.”

Amerasia 15:3–41.
Vo, Linda Trinh. 2000. “Performing Ethnography in Asian

American Communities: Beyond the Insider-Versus-

Outsider Perspective.” Pp. 17–37 in Cultural Compass:
Ethnographic Explorations of Asian America , edited by
M. F. Manalansan IV. Philadelphia: Temple University


———. 2004. Mobilizing an Asian American Community.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Waters, Mary C. 1999. Black Identities: West Indian Immi-
grant Dreams and American Realities. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.

Wei, William. 1993. The Asian American Movement.
Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Asian American formations. Rather, I nod at the limita-

tions of my sample, which only includes one Pacifi c

Islander–identifi ed respondent. She is ethnically mixed

(Filipino, Chamorro, and Samoan) and is treated as a

person of mixed race. References to API are maintained

only in reference to the April 2006 rally and the nomen-

clature explicitly used by interview respondents.

2. While the San Francisco metropolitan area is an apt site

for a study of progressive race-based movement identi-

ties, it also produces some biases. A potentially skewed

conception of panethnic identity may arise as leaders

attempt to mobilize in the generally progressive political

environment of San Francisco. Additionally, the deep

history of panethnic organizing associated with the Bay

Area may create a more easily mobilized base and

heightened consciousness in the community. Lastly, the

high percentages of Asian Americans in the greater San

Francisco Bay Area may also infl uence panethnic iden-

tity formations and mobilization efforts.

3. LEP is defi ned as individuals who speak a language

other than English and have self-rated their profi ciency

in English as less than “very well.” All LEP and nativity

data are derived from the American Community Survey

2010 fi ve-year Aggregate dataset accessed through

American Factfi nder.

4. This is not to say that Chinese or Japanese Americans do

not have legitimate grievances deserving of attention.

Rather, the social position of Southeast Asian Americans

is more justifi able within the normative discourse of

racial inequalities.

Anthias, Floya. 1998. “Rethinking Social Divisions: Some

Notes Towards a Theoretical Framework.” Sociological
Review 46:506–35.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2005. “Black Feminist Thought.”

Pp. 404–20 in Theories of Race and Racism , edited by
L. Back and J. Solomos. New York: Routeledge.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Inter-

sectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against

Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43:1241–99.
DiMaggio, Paul J. and Helmut K. Anheier. 1990. “The Soci-

ology of Nonprofit Organizations and Sectors.” Annual
Review of Sociology 16:137–59.

Espiritu, Yen Le. 1992. Asian American Panethnicity: Bridg-
ing Institutions and Identities. Philadelphia: Temple Uni-
versity Press.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 2002. Unequal Freedom: How Race
and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Itzigsohn, Jose and Carlos Dore-Cabral. 2000. “Competing

Identities? Race, Ethnicity and Panethnicity among

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READING 6: Latino Racial Choices 89

On 19 June 2003, an article in USA Today pro-
claimed that ‘Hispanics outnumber[ed] blacks as the

largest minority group in the USA’.
A few months

later, the US Census undertook a project to predict

what the US’s racial make-up would be in 2050.

The authors of this project, funded by the Minority

Business Development Agency of the US Depart-

ment of Commerce, predicted that non- Hispanic

whites will constitute only 53 per cent of the US

population in 2050, while Hispanic whites will make

up 22 per cent of the total population, Hispanic

blacks 2 per cent and non-Hispanic blacks 13 per cent.

These predictions are based on the problematic

assumption that current patterns of racial and ethnic

R E A D I N G 6

Latino Racial Choices: The Effects
of Skin Colour and Discrimination
on Latinos’ and Latinas’ Racial
Self-Identifi cations

Tanya Golash-Boza and William Darity , Jr

If you had a choice of colors, which one would you

choose, my brother? (Curtis Mayfi eld)

Tanya Golash-Boza is a professor of sociology at the University

of California, Merced. William Darity, Jr is a professor of public

policy, African and African American Studies, and economics at

Duke University.


I Thought My Race Was Invisible

In a conversation with a close friend, I noticed that I am,

to her, a representative of my entire racial category. To

put things in perspective, my friend Janet and I have

been friends for eight years. During this period, it has

come up that I am a third-generation Japanese- American

who has no ties to being Japanese other than a couple

of sushi dishes I learned how to make from my grand-

mother. Nonetheless, whenever a question regarding

“Asians” comes up, she comes to me as if I can provide

the definitive answer to every Asian mystery.

Yesterday Janet asked me if there is a cultural reason

why Asians “always drive so slow.” Not having noticed

that Asians drive slowly (in fact, I have noticed a number

of Asians who actually exceed the speed limit), I com-

mented that perhaps they are law-abiding citizens. She

said that must explain it: “They are used to following the

law.” I thought, “Am I one of ‘they’?” but didn’t comment

further. Before we switched subjects, she noted that she

“knew there had to be a cultural reason” for their driving.

Janet then told me about a Vietnamese woman at the

Hair Cuttery who cut her husband’s hair. As is normal, her

husband talked to the woman as she worked on his hair;

he asked her what she did before working at the Hair Cut-

tery. She said that she used to work in the fields in Califor-

nia (i.e., she was a field hand). Janet told me of the healthy

respect that she and her husband had for a woman who

worked in the fields, put herself through cosmetology

school, moved East, and became a professional hairstyl-

ist. She commented that “Blacks” should follow her exam-

ple and work instead of complaining of their lot in life.

This conversation was interesting and a bit startling.

Janet is a good friend who shares many interests with

me. What I realized from this conversation, and in re-

membering others that were similar, is that she feels that

I am a representative of the whole Asian race. Not only is

this unrealistic, but it is surprising that she would imagine

I could answer for my race given my lack of real cultural

exposure. In relaying the story of the Vietnamese woman,

I had a sense that she was complimenting me, and my

race, for the industriousness “we” demonstrate. It seems

to me that she approved of the “typically” Asian way of

working (quietly, so as not to insult or offend), even

though this woman was probably underpaid and over-

worked in her field hand job. While she approved of her

reticence, Janet did not approve of “Black” complaints.

I realize that to Janet, I will always be Asian. I had not

really thought about it before, but I never think of Janet as

White; her race is invisible to me. I had thought that my

race was invisible too; however, I realize now that I will

always be the “marked” friend. This saddens me a bit, but

I accept it with the knowledge that she is a close friend.

Nonetheless, it is unfortunate to think that even between

friends, race is an issue.

Sherri H. Pereira

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90 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

to answer both the race and ethnicity questions. For

this reason, data from the Census allow social sci-

entists to talk about white Hispanics versus black

Hispanics or to speculate on what it means for a

Hispanic to choose ‘other’ for his or her race.

Although the US Census considers ‘Hispanic’

to be an ethnic identifi er, this category differs in

important ways from other ethnic identifi ers such

as Italian-American or Irish-American. If Hispanic

were ‘merely’ an ethnic identifi er, we would not

expect for it to persist at the individual level for the

next two generations, or at least would expect that

it would dissipate to some extent. Thus, despite

evidence that ethnic identifi ers have generally be-

come less salient over the course of generations, the

current predictions about the future demographics

of the US expect the children of Hispanics also to

be Hispanics.

Most social scientists expect the category ‘His-

panic’ to persist because it is a racialized ethnic

label. (Notably, those who expect it to disappear,

such as Yancey (2003), treat Hispanic as an ethnic

label.) However, we take the position that Hispanic

is a racialized ethnic label because it is used and

applied in a very similar way to other racial labels

in the US – on the basis of physical appearance. In

daily interactions, people in the US do not label

people as Hispanic based on their ancestry, as it

would be diffi cult to conduct genealogical analyses

of people whom we encounter on a daily basis. We

do, however, react to symbolic markers of ancestry,

such as phenotype, accent and other cultural codes,

thereby racializing the category ‘Hispanic’. To the

extent that we, in the United States, associate Latin

American ancestry with a particular somatic image,

we give racial meaning to Latin American ancestry,

and treat people who fi t that somatic norm, not as

whites or blacks, but as Hispanics.

The US Census uses a defi nition of Hispanic

that includes all people whose origin can be traced

to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba or Central or South

America. Given the great diversity of people from

this area, combined with the social practice of as-

sociating a particular somatic norm image with

Hispanicity in the US, we can expect some Latin

identifi cation can be used to predict future identifi –

cation patterns without taking into account the

possibility that Hispanics’ racial and ethnic identi-

fi cations can and do change. Notably, the authors of

the Census project seem to expect the ethnic and

racial identifi cation patterns of Hispanics to remain

unchanged for the next fi fty years. This mode of

thinking runs contrary to the assimilation canon –

most theorists who study assimilation agree that

ethnic identifi cations can be expected to change

(see Alba and Nee (1997) for a discussion of the

assimilation canon and its merits). In addition, re-

cent works by Harris and Sim (2002) and Brown,

Hitlin and Elder (2006) suggest that racial self-

identifi cations can also be expected to change. This

paper takes on the question of what the future face

of the US will look like by developing a theoretical

framework that takes into account the viability of

racial and ethnic identifi ers for Latinos and Latinas

in the US.

. . . In this article, we address the changing struc-

ture of the US racial hierarchy, but also argue that it

is important to consider the factors that infl uence

how individual Latinos/as self-identify in order

better to predict how Latinos/as will identify in

the future.

Before continuing, we should clarify the distinc-

tion between Hispanic as a racial category and His-

panic as an ethnic category. On the 2000 US

Census, there were separate questions for race and

ancestry. The race question was not open-ended.

Respondents had to choose one or more of the fol-

lowing categories as their race: American Indian or

Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American;

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacifi c Islander; and

White. In addition, there was the option of selecting

‘other’. Ethnicity was a separate question, in which

there were two minimum categories: ‘Hispanic or

Latino’ and ‘Not Hispanic or Latino’. Respondents

were asked to choose between: ‘NO, I am not

Hispanic/Latino/Spanish’; ‘YES, Mexican’; ‘YES,

Cuban’; ‘YES, Puerto Rican’; and ‘YES, other’.

People who ethnically self-identifi ed as Hispanic or

Latino also could self-identify with any of the racial

categories, and respondents were asked explicitly

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Studies by Eschbach and Gomez (1998) and Brown,

Hitlin and Elder (2006) demonstrate that Hispanics

are quite likely to change their racial and ethnic

self-identifi cations from one survey to the next.

Predictions about the future racial make-up of the

US are based on self-reports of race and ethnicity,

yet often do not take into account the fl uid nature of

these identifi ers. In addition, it is not only impor-

tant to describe racial fl uidity as these studies have

done, but to develop a theoretical framework that

explains and potentially predicts Latinos’ racial

choices in order to predict what the future face of

America will look like. . . .

. . . We fi nd convincing the arguments that the

racial structure is changing in the United States,

and that Hispanic is emerging as a racial category

but, in this paper, ask the question: what factors in-

fl uence how people currently defi ned as Hispanic

racially self-identify on surveys? Knowing what

factors currently infl uence racial self-identifi cations

will provide us with tools to better predict how peo-

ple will self-identify in the future.

Before we can answer this question, it will be useful

briefl y to review the evidence that indicates that ra-

cial self-identifi cations are subject to change, spe-

cifi cally among Latin Americans. One reason for

this is that processes of racial categorization and

identifi cation in Latin America do not parallel those

of the United States (Rodríguez 1994; Duany 2005).

Scholars are not in full agreement on exactly how

these systems differ, yet it is worthwhile to set forth

some claims. First of all, ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’

are not common racial or ethnic descriptors in Latin

America. (This claim is perhaps the most widely

accepted.) Second, people of African or indigenous

descent in Latin America are more likely to self-

identify as white than similar people in the US

(Wade 1997: 14, 38). Third, the use of terminology

for mixed categories such as mulatto (white/black)

or mestizo (white/Indian) or zambo (black/Indian)

Americans and their descendants not to self- identify

as Hispanic. Specifi cally, we can expect those

Census-defi ned Hispanics who do not fi t this so-

matic norm image to be less likely to self-identify

as Hispanic. We can further speculate that the chil-

dren of this group of people who do not fi t this

somatic norm image will be even less likely to self-

identify as Hispanic, as their relative lack of ethnic

and racial identifi ers render them even less likely to
be identifi ed as Hispanic in daily interactions. As

such, some persons of Hispanic descent could po-

tentially opt out of the Latino category and become

non-Hispanic blacks or whites, while others could

disassociate themselves from both labels, black and

white, and adopt ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ as their ra-

cial identifi cation. The possibility of such a change

in racial and ethnic identifi cation patterns renders

predictions based on projected immigration pat-

terns and birth rates less useful. It means further

that social scientists need to consider how Latinos/

as racially self-identify and what factors affect

those choices.

Social scientists who have considered Latinos’

and Latinas’ racial self-identifi cation do not agree

as to how Latinos/as’ racial identifi cations work

presently or will work in the future. Clara Rodríguez

(2000) tells us that Latinos/as’ racial identifi cations

are fl uid and contextual; Yancey (2003) predicts

that the majority of Latinos/as will become white;

Bonilla-Silva (2004) predicts that the majority will

join the ‘collective black’ and Haney López (2005)

argues that some identify racially as white, others

as black and others as Latino or Latina. Without

understanding the processes that underlie racial

identifi cation for Hispanics, our predictions and

calculations about the future racial make-up of the

United States hold very little water.

Despite the numerous implications of Hispanics

actually becoming the ‘nation’s largest minority’,

social scientists have done remarkably little re-

search on patterns of racial identifi cation among

Latinos/as in the United States. Current research

indicates that racial and ethnic self-identifi ers are

fl uid, and can vary over the course of one’s life, or

even the course of one’s day (Rodríguez 2000).

READING 6: Latino Racial Choices 91

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92 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Bean posit that ‘changes in ethnic and racial

boundaries are a fundamental part of the immigra-

tion incorporation experience’ (2004, p. 226). One

way this could play out is that a person who consid-

ered herself to be ‘white’ in Peru may initially

identify as ‘white’ in the US. However, if she is not

seen as white in the US but as Latina, she may

begin to self-identify as a Latina. Alternatively, she

may resist these categorizations and insist on her

whiteness. It is also reasonable to suggest that this

hypothetical Peruvian immigrant would be able to

pass for white if she had the fi nancial and educa-

tional resources to downplay her ethnic origins.

She also may be able to marry a white American

and pass their collective whiteness on to their chil-

dren. In another scenario, she may not be able to be

classifi ed as white, but her US-born children may

be. At the other end of the spectrum, Bailey (2001)

found that second-generation Dominicans use their

knowledge of the Spanish language to ward off cat-

egorization as black. Given the rapid loss of

Spanish language use and ability across generations,

it is unlikely that their children will have the option

of using Spanish to avoid being categorized as

black. Will these third- (and later-) generation

Dominican-Americans continue to identify as

Hispanics, as black Hispanics, or will they consider

themselves to be simply African-Americans? How

likely are the descendants of immigrants from Peru

to self-identify as Hispanic after they have been in

the US for several generations?

It is important to point out that not only immi-

grants from Latin America might change their ra-

cial classifi cations, but also Latinos/as who are

born in the US. The racial self-identifi cations of

second- and third-generation immigrants from

Latin America may also change over the course of

their lives. As families move out of or into ethnic

enclaves, as students attend university, and as peo-

ple join political movements, it is reasonable to

suggest that their racial or ethnic self- identifi cations

may change. We currently consider Hispanics to be

those people who identify as such on the US Cen-

sus and other national surveys. In addition, social

scientists make predictions about the future ethnic

is more prevalent in Latin America than in the US,

although the use of an array of mixed categories

was also common in the US until the 1920s (Skid-

more 1993; Duany 2005). Fourth, people of African

descent are less likely to self-identify as black in

Latin America than in the US (Cruz-Jansen 2001;

Darity, Dietrich, and Hamilton 2005; Wade 1993).

Finally, many studies have shown that in Latin

America one’s racial status is determined, in part,

by one’s social status. This means that people of

higher economic or class status tend to classify

themselves as whiter than their counterparts in

lower strata, regardless of actual physical character-

istics. In Brazil, for example, non-whites may

change their racial identifi cation to a whiter classi-

fi cation as they move up the class hierarchy (Lovell

and Wood 1998). Notably, Telles (2004) and Wade

(1993) point out that this ability to whiten is limited

to people who hold a racially ambiguous status.

The reality of a distinct racialized social struc-

ture in Latin America has consequences for the ra-

cial self-identifi cations of immigrants from Latin

America who reside in the US. Since these immi-

grants encounter a different system of racial classi-

fi cations in the US, their racial self-identifi cations

may change as they adapt to the US. For example,

this distinct system of racial classifi cation means

that, in Latin America, there are people who self-

identify as white who may not be seen as white in

the United States. In addition, there are people who

could begin to self-identify as black in the US that

may not have considered themselves to be black in

Latin America. Thus, some Latin American immi-

grants to the United States are likely to self-identify

racially as something other than how they identifi ed

in their country of origin. For Dominicans in par-

ticular, Itzigshon, Giorguli and Vasquez (2005,

p. 51) found that Dominican immigrants ‘confront

a racial classifi cation system that classifi es many of

them as black’ despite the fact that many of these

Dominicans do not perceive themselves to be black.

As Latin American immigrants acculturate to

the United States, it is conceivable that they would

be infl uenced by the US system of racial classifi ca-

tion and may even begin to adapt to it. Lee and

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Puerto Rican women, found that about 30 per cent

of their Puerto Rican female respondents on the US

mainland racially identifi ed as Hispanic or Latina,

as compared to only about 10 per cent of their

Puerto Rican female respondents on the island. Sur-

prisingly, the island women were more likely to

choose ‘white’ or ‘black’ as a racial identifi er than

the mainland women. Their results indicate that

some Puerto Ricans may be adopting ‘Latino’ or

‘Hispanic’ as a racial identifi cation in the US, even

if they racially identifi ed as ‘white’ or ‘black’ on the

island. This is also in line with Duany’s (2005,

p.  182) argument that Puerto Ricans respond that

their race is neither white nor black, but ‘other’, be-

cause ‘other’ seems to be increasingly used as a ra-

cialized synonym for Hispanic. Itzigsohn, Giorguli

and Vasquez (2005) found that 21 per cent of the

fïrst-generation Dominicans in their New York City-

based study self-identifi ed racially as Hispanics and

that 5 per cent self-identifi ed as blacks. However,

they also found that 29 per cent thought that others

would racially identify them as Hispanic and that

35 per cent thought that others would identify them

as black. These studies indicate that many Domini-

cans and Puerto Ricans in the US understand

‘Hispanic’ as a racialized category that fi ts into the

US racial hierarchy somewhere between white and

black. What these studies do not provide us with is

an understanding of what factors affect the deci-

sions of that segment of the population that is

defi ned by the US Census as being ethnically Hispanic

to self-identify racially as white, black or ‘other’.

While Hispanic/Latino is in many ways an eth-

nic category, we cannot ignore Latinas/os’ and non-

Latinas/os’ perception of the category as a racial

identifi er. For example, in the 1989 Latino National

Political Survey (de la Garza et al . 1992), 18 per
cent of the 2807 respondents reported their race to

be Latino, Hispanic or their respective national ori-

gin. In addition, 46 per cent of the respondents to

the 2002 National Latino Survey reported their race

to be Hispanic or Latino, and not white or black.

This large increase over the course of twelve years

is in part indicative of the different survey mea-

sures, but is also in part due to the changing racial

and racial make-up of the US on the basis of these

self-reported data. However, we have very little in-

formation on the viability of the category ‘ Hispanic’

and on what factors affect Hispanics’ decision to

self-identify as such on surveys.

This paper is grounded in the theoretical work

on assimilation in the US. Whereas assimilation

traditionally meant that immigrants would become

part  of the Anglo-Saxon core in the US, thereby

abandoning their ethnic affi liations, recent work on

assimilation has contested this idea, and put forth

the notion that there is more than one path of as-

similation. Rumbaut and Portes (2001) and Zhou

(1997), for example, argue that, while some immi-

grants will embark on the traditional path of as-

similation towards the Anglo-Saxon core, others

will retain some of their traditional values and prac-

tices through selective acculturation, and still oth-

ers will experience downward assimilation and

identify with the experiences of non-whites in the

US. This paper builds on this work by highlighting

the importance of racialization for the process of

assimilation. We question the extent to which indi-

viduals who are non-white, even if they have the

necessary accoutrements of middle-class status, can

and will assimilate to the Anglo-Saxon core. . . .

Our current understandings of Latinos/as’ racial

identifi cations are largely based on two sources of

data – ethnographic and interview-based studies,

and small-scale statistical analyses of Puerto Rican

and Dominican racial identifi cations. Clara Rodrí-

guez (2000) found, in her interview-based study of

Latinos/as in New York, that some of her interview-

ees found themselves subject to external pressure to

self-identify as ‘white’ or ‘black’, and that many of

them recognized their whiteness or blackness in this

context but insisted that they were also Latino. Her

case studies demonstrate that many Latinos/as ra-

cially identify as white, black or other, but culturally

identify as Latinos/as or with their national origin.

Landale and Oropesa (2002), in their study of

READING 6: Latino Racial Choices 93

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94 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

higher educational levels and higher incomes are

more likely to identify as white, especially those

who do not have very dark skin. This would also

serve as an indication of Latinos/as’ resistance to

US racial categorizations, which are not based on

social characteristics such as income or education.

Hypothesis 2 – identifi cational assimilation hypothe-
sis : Hispanics who are more assimilated are more
likely to self-identify as ‘white’.

The second hypothesis invokes assimilation as a

central theme. Early theorists of assimilation such as

Gordon (1964) and Park (1950) argued that, over the

course of generations, immigrants eventually would

lose their ethnic ties and fold into the American

melting pot. An outcome of this process, identifi ca-

tional assimilation, means that the immigrant no

longer considers himself to be an Italian-American,

an Irish-American or a Mexican-American, but an

American. This unmarked identity as ‘American’

could be interpreted as becoming ‘white’, since the

unmarked requisite precludes the entry of African-

Americans or Asian-Americans into this category.

For example, Feagin (2000) argues that the unhy-

phenated ‘American’ label refers to those people in

the US who have the luxury of acting as if they do

not have a racial or ethnic status. This category of

people thus includes only white Americans.

According to the traditional model, assimilation

involves upward socioeconomic mobility, residen-

tial integration and intermarriage (Hirschman

2001). In order to determine whether or not the

identifi cational assimilation hypothesis works in the

case of Latino-Americans, it will be necessary to

determine whether Latinos/as who have been in the

US longer, have intermarried with whites and speak

English are more likely to self-identify as white

than Latinos/as who are less acculturated. This anal-

ysis also will allow us to examine the argument

made by Yancey (2003) that nearly all Latino

Americans will eventually adopt a white racial iden-

tity. On the basis of his fi nding that Latinos/as are

likely to have opinions on racialized matters that are

more similar to European Americans than to African

Americans and previous evidence that some

structure in the US, where ‘Latino’ is emerging as a

racialized category. For example, in February 2006,

when there were riots inside a prison near Los

Angeles, the African-American and Latino prison-

ers formulated a written request to separate the in-

mates by ‘race’ to avoid more mayhem. In this

case, the Latinos/as and blacks involved in those

riots saw ‘Latino’ as a racial category that does not

include African-Americans. . . .

In this paper, we will consider three hypotheses

that could explain Latinos’ racial choices and that

could be useful for predicting future demographic

trends. Subsequently, we will test each of these hy-

potheses using two national datasets – the 1989 Latino

National Political Survey and the Pew Hispanic

Center/Kaiser Family Foundation 2002 National Sur-

vey of Latinos. Finally, we will make a case for incor-

porating ideas of racialization into understanding

Latinos’ and Latinas’ current and future racial choices.

Hypothesis 1 – the social whitening hypothesis : His-
panics with higher incomes and higher levels of edu-

cation are more likely to choose ‘white’ for their race,

and less likely to choose ‘black’.

The fi rst hypothesis is that Latinos/as of higher

class statuses are more likely to self-identify as

white. This hypothesis derives from social whiten-

ing arguments made by some scholars who study

Latin America. (For a full discussion of social whit-

ening in Latin America, see Nutini 1997; Wade

1997; Wright 1990; Whitten and Torres 1998; Telles

2004; Twine 1998.) According to these scholars, so-

cial class plays an important role in racial identifi ca-

tion in Latin America. Some of these scholars argue

that social class trumps skin colour insofar as a

dark-skinned person can self-identify as white if he

or she is of high class standing. Others, such as

Telles (2004) and Wade (1993), argue that only peo-

ple who are racially ambiguous are able to experi-

ence social whitening, while people who are clearly

black, such as the Brazilian soccer player Pele, will

be identifi ed as black, no matter their class standing.

It will be useful to understand whether or not this

process carries over to the United States. In the US

context, this would mean that Latinos/as who have

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in the US, while others will not, and that those that

belong to the former group are more likely to self-

identify as Latinos/as and, in this fashion, to

assimilate into the Latino category. This hypothesis

draws on Nagel’s (1994) argument that categoriza-

tions are dialectically related to identifi cations,

meaning that they are both subject to change, and

that they affect one another. In light of this and

other research, it is reasonable to suggest that

Latinos/as’ racial self-identifi cations will be af-

fected by external categorizations.

How do we know how Latinos/as are racially

classifi ed by people in the US? We suggest that

Latinos/as are categorized in the same way as non-

Latinos/as, on the basis of their skin colour. Brown,

Dane and Durham conducted a series of interviews

to fi nd out what features people use to determine

race. They found that ‘[s]kin color was rated the

most important feature, followed by hair, eyes,

nose, mouth, cheeks, eyebrows, forehead, and ears’

(1998, p. 298). In one of the datasets we will be

using, we fortunately have a measure of skin co-

lour, which is the feature that people in the US are

most likely to use to determine another person’s

race. Thus, to test this hypothesis, we will consider

the relationship between skin colour and racial self-

identifi cation among Latinos/as. While we cannot

use skin colour alone to predict how Latinos/as are

categorized racially in the US, it is reasonable to

suggest that skin colour is one of many indicators

that affects racial categorization in the US.

We can predict that skin colour will affect racial

categorization and thus identifi cation. However, we

can also use experiences of discrimination in our

analyses because categorization is a necessary con-

dition for discrimination. In order to discriminate

against a person based on one’s pre-conceived no-

tions about their group, it is fi rst necessary to cate-

gorize them as a member of that group. As such, if

a respondent reports experiences of racial discrimi-

nation, we can conclude that he or she has been

categorized as a member of a racial group. We as-

sume that this discrimination would be based on

the respondent being non-white, since whites are

much less likely to experience racial discrimination

Latinos/as are assimilating residentially and mari-

tally, Yancey contends that Hispanic Americans will

eventually adopt a white racial identity. Neverthe-

less, Yancey’s analyses do not take generational sta-

tus into account, thereby weakening his ability to

predict future trends. The analyses presented in this

paper allow us to test this prediction more directly.

Hypothesis 3 – racialized assimilation hypothesis :
Hispanics who have lighter skin and who have

not experienced discrimination are more likely to

self-identify as white, while Hispanics with darker

skin and who have experienced discrimination are

more likely to self-identify as black or Hispanic.

The third hypothesis draws on recent studies

that have highlighted the dynamic relationship be-

tween external racial categorization and racial self-

identifi cation, as well as on studies of assimilation.

Henry and Bankston (2001) argue that ethnic self-

identifi cation is affected by outsiders’ ethnic

designations. Specifi cally for Latinos/as, Clara

Rodríguez (2000: 140–1) found that dark-skinned

Dominicans in New York recognize a racial

categorization as black, while Ginetta Candelario

(2001) reported that the majority of Dominicans in

the predominantly black city of Washington, DC,

racially identified themselves as black. Steven

Ropp (2000, p. 24) tells us that Asian Latinos/as are

categorized as Asian in daily interactions. These

fi ndings indicate that Latinos/as experience a di-

verse array of experiences of racial categorization

in the US. Some people who fi t the Census’s defi ni-

tion of Hispanic/Latino are racially categorized in

everyday interactions as black, others as white,

others as Asian and still others as Hispanic.

Scholars of race in Latin America and the US are

not in full agreement about the extent to which ra-

cial categories differ in the US and in Latin America.

However, we can say with certainty that, at the very

least, there is one fundamental difference between

Latin America and the US, and that is that the cate-

gories ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ are not commonly

used in Latin America, while they are in the US.

The racialized assimilation hypothesis entails that

that some Latinos/as will be racialized as Latinos/as

READING 6: Latino Racial Choices 95

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96 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

the LNPS, we were also interested in the unique

data on interviewer-coded skin colour.

The LNPS was conducted in forty standard met-

ropolitan statistical areas, and was representative

of 91 per cent of the Mexican, Puerto Rican and

Cuban populations in the United States. All respon-

dents were at least 18 years of age, and had at least

one parent solely of Mexican, Cuban or Puerto

Rican ancestry, or at least any two grandparents of

solely Mexican, Cuban or Puerto Rican ancestry.

The response rate was 74 per cent. . . .

Respondents to the LNPS survey were asked if

they consider themselves to be white, black or

something else, and were asked to specify if they

considered themselves neither white nor black. . . .

A substantial majority of respondents chose to

self-identify racially as white. About 2 per cent –

only fi fty-two respondents – chose to classify

themselves as black. The remainder typically

chose colour-oriented labels intermediate between

black and white or national group labels, either

collective labels like ‘Latino’ or country-specifi c

labels (e.g. ‘ Mi raza es Puertorriqueña ’). In what
follows, we will collapse the latter responses into

a single category, ‘other’, separate from white or

black. Using these three categories, 62 per cent of

respondents in the LNPS said they are racially

white, 2 per cent said they are black and 36 per

cent chose another category, neither black nor

white. The numbers do suggest that Latinos/as in

this sample were not following the dictates of a

‘one-drop rule’ or notions of hypodescent with re-

spect to black self- identifi cation, since it is clearly

the case that more than 2 per cent of the Cubans,

Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the US have some

African ancestry. According to the conservative

estimates included in the 1992 NACLA Report on
the Americas , in Mexico, the African-descended
population is between 1 and 10 per cent; in Puerto

Rico, it is between 23 and 70 per cent; and in Cuba

it is between 34 and 62 per cent (Oveido 1992).

We do not have these sorts of data for the Latin

American population that resides in the United

States, but we are comfortable in assuming that it

than non-whites. As such, Latinos/as who are per-

ceived by others to be white are less likely to be

victims of racial discrimination than those who are

perceived by others to be non-whites. In this sense,

racial discrimination can be used as a proxy for

non- whiteness. Of course, Latinos/as who are per-

ceived to be white may have more access to white

spaces and thus may witness more subtle forms of

discrimination against other Latinos/as. Neverthe-

less, they would be less likely to experience racial

discrimination themselves.

For the analyses, we use two datasets—the 1989

Latino National Political Survey (LNPS) and the

Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation

2002 National Survey of Latinos (NSL). We

chose the LNPS (1989) because of its inclusion of

measures of skin colour and NSL (2002) because

of its recency and its extensive questions pertain-

ing to discrimination. The similarities in these

two datasets strengthen our claims, while the dif-

ferences allow us to put some of our claims into

perspective. Both of these datasets are unique in-

sofar as they are nationally representative sam-

plings of the English- and Spanish-speaking

Latino populations, in contrast with studies such

as the General Social Survey which include only

English-speaking adults.

The LNPS is a representative national sample of the

three largest Latino groups in the USA – Mexicans,

Cubans and Puerto Ricans. The LNPS includes

2,807 respondents, and the interviews were con-

ducted between 1989 and 1990. This dataset is par-

ticularly well suited to addressing the questions

posed in this paper because of the broad sample of

Latinos/as from all over the country and because of

the different generational statuses included. In ad-

dition to the representative sample population of

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historically in national data in Latin American

countries (Andrews 2004). The second and third

generations shift more and more towards self-

classifi cations separate from white or black. In

particular, they demonstrate a growing preference

for the collective national labels as ethnic classifi –

ers, Latino or Hispanic . . .

The 2002 National Survey of Latinos/as is a repre-

sentative sample of the Hispanic population in

2002. This survey was conducted by telephone be-

tween 4 April 2002 and 11 June 2002 among a na-

tionally representative sample of 4,213 adults 18

years and older, including 2,929 Latinos/as and

1,284 non-Latinos. We chose this sample because

of its relative recency and its similarity to the 1989

LNPS survey. . . .

Respondents to the National Survey of Latinos

were asked: ‘What race do you consider yourself to

be? White, Black or African-American, Asian, or

some other race?’ and were given the opportunity

to specify their race if they did not consider them-

selves to be white, black or Asian. In response to

this question, more respondents identifi ed as

Hispanic (1,175) than as white (1,022). Only 157

identifi ed as black, 20 as Asian and 527 as some-

thing else. It is important to note that Latinos/as’

racial self-identifi cation as ‘Hispanic’ as opposed

to white indicates that the respondents see Hispanic

as a racial categorization, similar to white or black.

In contrast to the 1989 LNPS study, the 2002 NLS

survey reveals a moderately declining preference

for the black and Hispanic labels across genera-

tions. It is particularly noteworthy that the prefer-

ence for the ‘other’ label increases from the fi rst to

the second generation, as one would expect fi rst-

generation respondents to be the least accepting of

US racial classifi cations. The second generation

turns out to be the least likely to self-identify

as  ‘white’ and the most likely to self-identify as

‘Hispanic’. . . .

is much more than 2 per cent. In any case, the fact

that we do not have these data points to the need

for better measures of the racial composition of

the Hispanic population in the US.

[Next] we examine how the interviewers’ grad-

ing of individual skin shade corresponded to the

individual’s self-reported race. A slight majority

of participants in the survey were graded as hav-

ing a medium skin shade out of the fi ve categories

used by the interviewers (‘very dark’, ‘dark’, ‘me-

dium’, ‘light’, ‘very light’) closely followed by

those graded as having a light skin shade. Compa-

rable numbers were placed in the dark and very

light categories. The smallest number of respon-

dents (fi fty-nine) was rated as having a very dark

skin tone.

[Individuals self-reported race, however, dem-

onstrates a] general Latino preference in 1989 to be

identifi ed as white. (See Darity, Hamilton and

Dietrich (2002) for a related discussion in the con-

text of labour market discrimination.) While most

of the very dark and dark respondents chose a racial

category other than black or white, more than one-

third [of those] chose to self-identify as white. The

majority of respondents identifi ed as having a me-

dium skin shade by the interviewers self-reported

their race as white. In the two lightest categories,

about 80 per cent of the respondents said they were

white, largely eschewing the ‘other’ categories,

never mind the black category. As skin shade light-

ens, more and more respondents chose white as

their race, but signifi cant proportions of darker-

skinned respondents did so as well.

. . . The preference for racial self-identifi cation

as white among Latinos/as attenuates somewhat the

longer a person is in the USA. The proportion of

Latinos/as self-identifying as white falls with each

generation more distant from immigration. This

contrasts with Yancey’s (2003) prediction that most

Latinos/as will become white. Note, however, in

this survey, there is no evidence of an increasing

preference for a black racial identity. If anything,

black Latinos/as continue to disappear based upon

self-reported race, just as they have disappeared

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98 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

self-identify as ‘black’ or ‘other’ than as ‘white’ net

of all other variables. Notably, when comparing

relatively dark-skinned Latinos/as to lighter-

skinned Latinos/as, very dark-skinned Latinos/as

were 256 times more likely to self-identify as

‘black’, dark-skinned respondents were 48 times

more likely to self-identify as ‘black’ and medium-

skinned respondents were 5.4 times more likely to

self identify as ‘black’ than as ‘white’. . . . [R]es-

pondents who have experienced discrimination are

signifi cantly more likely to self-identify as ‘black’,

‘other’ or ‘Hispanic’ and less likely to self-identify

as ‘white’. Both sets of [data] confi rm the hypoth-

esis that Hispanics who experience discrimination *

are less likely to self-identify as white than those

who do not. We also can confi rm the hypothesis

that, net of all other factors, Hispanics with darker

skin shades are less likely to self-identify as white

than Hispanics of lighter hues. The fi nding that

self- identifi cation as Hispanic is related to experi-

ences of discrimination in the US points to the

politicization of this term and the growing under-

standing of the term as a racialized label. . . .

Skin shade clearly infl uences choice of racial cate-

gory among Latinos/as, but this is complicated by

the fact that so few respondents to the LNPS 1989

survey chose the black category and a signifi cant

share of darker respondents chose the white cate-

gory. Lighter complexioned Latinos/as simply would

not choose black as their racial category, but darker

complexioned Latinos/as often would choose white

as their racial category. This is refl ective of a general

Latino preference for whiteness. Nevertheless, the

results from both survey analyses do show that

darker skin, experiences of discrimination, lower in-

comes and limited Spanish ability all increase the

likelihood that Latinos/as will self- identify as ‘black’

when given a choice to do so. Latinos/as who report

[Our analysis provides] mixed evidence for the so-

cial whitening hypothesis. Respondents to the NLS

who had a family income over $50,000 are less

likely to self-identify as black or Hispanic, and

more likely to identify as white, and Hispanics with

some college or who have graduated from college

are more likely to self-identify as white than as His-

panic. This seems to support the social whitening

argument, the idea that Hispanics with more money

and education are more likely to self-identify as

white. However, these same coeffi cients are not

signifi cant in the analyses using the LNPS data.

And, when we control for skin colour in the com-

parison model, we see that Hispanics whose house-

hold incomes were between $20,000 and $34,999

were more likely to self-identify racially as ‘other’

than as white in the LNPS survey.

One way to understand the differences in the

fi ndings between these two datasets is that the 2002

National Latino Survey does not include a variable

for skin colour. As such, it is possible that Hispan-

ics who earn more money are in fact lighter skinned

in the US. This is a possibility given the strong re-

lationship between social class and skin colour in

Latin America (Rodríguez 2000). . . .

There is also mixed evidence for the identifi –

cational assimilation hypothesis. . . . [Our data]

indicate that Hispanics who have been in the US

for longer prefer to  adopt a Hispanic identity.

Nevertheless, English-dominant Hispanics and

those who have an ‘other’ (perhaps black) spouse

prefer to self- identify as ‘black’. Additionally,

English-speaking respondents are more likely to

self- identify as other than as white. These fi nd-

ings do not support the hypothesis that assimila-

tion leads to self- identifi cation as white. Overall,

these data do not demonstrate a trend towards

whiteness among Hispanics who have structur-

ally or linguistically assimilated into the United

States. . . .

There is the most consistent evidence in

favour of the racialization hypothesis. . . . [D]arker-

skinned Hispanics are consistently more likely to
* Respondents in both surveys were asked about experiences of


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Ethnicity and Preference for Whiteness’, Transforming
Anthropology, vol. 13, no. 2


GARCIA, F. CHRIS and GARCIA, JOHN A. 1992 Latino
National Political Survey, 1989–1990 Computer fi le, 3rd
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University, Institute for Social Research; distributor: Ann

Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and

Social Research, 1998

DUANY, JORGE. 2005. ‘Neither White nor Black: The

Representation of Racial Identity among Puerto Ricans on

the Island and in the US Mainland’, in Anani Dzidzienyo

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Latinos, Blacks, Afro-Latinos, New York: Palgrave Mac-
millan, pp. 173–88

having experienced discrimination on the basis of

their racial or ethnic background are unlikely to self-

identify as white. In the NLS 2002 survey, 61 per

cent of the respondents reported that they had expe-

rienced discrimination on the basis of their race or

ethnicity. They were made to feel not white, and thus

were less likely to self-identify as white during the

telephone survey. The NLS data also demonstrate

that the experience of non-whiteness is not uniform.

Some of those Latinas/os who reported discrimina-

tion self-identifi ed as black, others as Hispanic and

still others as ‘other’.

In sum, these analyses indicate that Hispanics’

experiences in the US are likely to affect their racial

choices. This process of learning to adapt to the US

racial system could be called racialized assimila-
tion. A concept of racialized assimilation takes into
account the overwhelming importance that skin

colour has in shaping our interactions with others.

Just as our racial status can be used to predict where

we live, who we will marry and our life expectancy,

how immigrants are racially categorized by others

will heavily infl uence their path of assimilation. . . .

The fi nding that skin colour and experiences of

discrimination affect racial identifi cations among

Hispanics is evidence that Hispanics do not all ex-

perience the same process of racialization in the

United States. As a consequence, predictions about

the future racial make-up of the United States can-

not rely on predictions based solely on whom re-

searchers identify as Hispanic today. These studies

must also take into account the fact that some His-

panics will become white, others black, and not all

are likely to continue to identify as Hispanic. . . .

1. What impact does discrimination have on

choosing a racial category?

2. What problems might develop if each genera-

tion of Latino/a immigrants chooses to identify

with a different label?

3. Do you think that money will ever be more im-

portant than skin color in the United States?

Why or why not?

READING 6: Latino Racial Choices 99

ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 99ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 99 01/08/15 7:32 AM01/08/15 7:32 AM

100 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

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IL: The Free Press

RODRíGUEZ, CLARA 1994 ‘Challenging Racial Hege-

mony: Puerto Ricans in the United States’, in Steven

Gregory and Roger Sanjek (eds), Race, New Brunswick,
NJ: Rutgers University Press

——— 2000 Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the
History of Ethnicity in the United States, New York: New
York University Press

ROPP, STEVEN MASAMI 2000 ‘Secondary Migration and

the Politics of Identity for Asian Latinos in Los Angeles’,

JAAS, pp. 219–29

2001 Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America,
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

SKIDMORE, THOMAS 1993 ‘Bi-racial USA vs Multi-

racial Brazil: Is the Contrast Still Valid?’, Journal of Latin
American Studies, vol. 25, pp. 373–86

TELLES, EDWARD 2004 Race in another America: The
Signifi cance of Skin Color in Brazil, Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press

TWINE, FRANCE 1998 Racism in a Racial Democracy:
The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil, New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

WADE, PETER 1993 Blackness and Race Mixture: The
Dynamics of Race Mixture in Colombia, Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins University Press

——— 1997 Race and Ethnicity in Latin America, Chicago,
IL: Pluto Press


Forge the Future in the Fires of the Past: An Interpretive

Essay on Racism, Domination, Resistance and Libera-

tion’, in Norman Whitten and Arlene Torres (eds) Black-
ness in Latin America and the Caribbean, Vol. 1.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press

WRIGHT, WINTHROP 1990 Café con Leche: Race, Class.
and National Image in Venezuela, Austin, TX: University
of Texas Press

YANCEY, GEORGE 2003 Who is White? Latinos, Asians,
and the New Black/Nonblack Divide, Boulder, CO: Lynne

ZHOU, MIN 1997 ‘Growing up American: The Challenge

Confronting Immigrant Children and Children of Immi-

grants’, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 23, pp. 63–95


‘Choosing Hispanic Identity: Ethnic Identity Switching

among Respondents to High School and Beyond’, Social
Science Quarterly, vol. 79, no. 1, p. 74

FEAGIN, JOE 2000 Racist America: Roots, Current Reali-
ties, and Future Reparations, New York: Routledge


AMANDA E. 2002 ‘Neither Black nor White? An Em-

pirical Test of the Latin Americanization Thesis’, Race
and Society, vol. 5, pp. 65–84

GOLASH-BOZA, TANYA 2006 ‘Dropping the Hyphen?

Becoming Latino(a)-American through Racialized

Assimilation’, Social Forces, vol. 85, p. 1
GORDON, MILTON M. 1964 Assimilation in American

Life, New York: Oxford University Press
HANEY-LÓPEZ, IAN 2005 ‘Race on the 2010 Census: His-

panics and the Shrinking White Majority’, Daedalus,


‘Who Is Multiracial? Assessing the Complexity of Lived

Race’, American Sociological Review, vol. 67, no. 614

Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 24, pp. 1020–45
HIRSCHMAN, CHARLES 2001 The Educational Enrollment

of Immigrant Youth: A Test of the Segmented- Assimilation

Hypothesis’, Demography, vol. 38, pp. 317–36

OBED 2005 ‘Immigrant Incorporation and Racial Identity:

Racial Self-Identifi cation among Dominican Immigrants’,

Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 50–78
LANDALE, N. S. and OROPESA, R. S. 2002 ‘White, Black

or Puerto Rican? Racial Self-Identifi cation among Main-

land and Island Puerto Ricans’, Social Forces, vol. 81,
pp. 231–54

LEE, JENNIFER and BEAN, FRANK D. 2004 ‘America’s

Changing Color Lines: Immigration, Race/Ethnicity and

Multiracial Identifi cation’, Annual Review of Sociology,
vol. 30


‘Skin Color, Racial Identity and Life Chances in

Brazil’, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 25, no. 3,
pp. 90–109

NAGEL, JOANE. 1994 ‘Constructing Ethnicity: Creating

and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture’, Social Prob-
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no. 3, pp. 227–38

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READING 7: Whiteness as an “Unmarked” Cultural Category 101

be  self-conscious about white power and racial

inequality. In part because of their sense of the

links and parallels between white racial dominance

in the  United States and U.S. domination on a

global scale, there was a complex interweaving of

questions about race and nation—whiteness and

Americanness—in these women’s thoughts about

white culture. Similarly, conceptions of racial,

national, and cultural belonging frequently leaked

into one another.

On the one hand, then, these women’s views of

white culture seemed to be distinctively modern.

But at the same time, their words drew on much

earlier historical moments and participated in long-

established modes of cultural description. In the

broadest sense, Western colonial discourses on the

white self, the nonwhite Other, and the white Other

too, were very much in evidence. These discourses

produced dualistic conceptualizations of whiteness

versus other cultural forms. The women thus often

spoke about culture in ways that reworked, and yet

remained tied to, “older” forms of racism.

For a signifi cant number of young white women,

being white felt like being cultureless. Cathy

Thomas, in the following description of whiteness,

raised many of the themes alluded to by other femi-

nist and race-cognizant women. She described

what she saw as a lack of form and substance:

. . . the formlessness of being white. Now if I was a

middle western girl, or a New Yorker, if I had a fi xed

regional identity that was something palpable, then

I’d be a white New Yorker, no doubt, but I’d still be a

New Yorker. . . . Being a Californian, I’m sure it has

its hallmarks, but to me they were invisible. . . . If I

had an ethnic base to identify from, if I was even Irish

American, that would have been something formed, if

I was a working-class woman, that would have been

something formed. But to be a Heinz 57 American, a

white, class-confused American, land of the Kleenex

type American, is so formless in and of itself. It only

takes shape in relation to other people.

Whiteness as a cultural space is represented here

as amorphous and indescribable, in contrast with a

range of other identities marked by race, ethnicity,

region, and class. Further, white culture is viewed

R E A D I N G 7

Whiteness as an “Unmarked”
Cultural Category

Ruth Frankenberg

America’s supposed to be the melting pot. I know that

I’ve got a huge number of nationalities in my blood, but

how do I—what do I call myself? And hating this coun-

try as I do, I don’t like to say I’m an American. Even

though it is what I am. I hate identifying myself as only

an American, because I have so much objections to

Americans’ place in the world. I don’t know how I felt

about that when I was growing up, but I never—I didn’t

like to pledge allegiance to the fl ag. . . . Still, at this point

in my life, I wonder what it is that somebody with all

this melting pot blood can call their own. . . .

Especially growing up in the sixties, when people

did say “I’m proud to be Black,” “I’m proud to be
Hispanic,” you know, and it became very popular to

be proud of your ethnicity. And even feminists, you

know, you could say, “I’m a woman,” and be proud of

it. But there’s still a majority of the country that can’t

say they are proud of anything!

Suzie Roberts’s words powerfully illustrate the

key themes . . . that stirred the women I inter-

viewed * as they examined their own identities:

what had formed them, what they counted as (their

own or others’) cultural practice(s), and what con-

stituted identities of which they could be proud.

This [discussion] explores perceptions of whiteness

as a location of culture and identity, focusing

mainly on white feminist . . . women’s views and

contrasting their voices with those of more politi-

cally conservative women. . . .

[M]any of the women I interviewed, including

even some of the conservative ones, appeared to

Ruth Frankenberg (1957–2007) was a professor of American

studies at the University of California, Davis. Her work helped

defi ne the fi eld of whiteness studies.

* Between 1984 and 1986 Ruth Frankenberg interviewed 30

white women, diverse in age, class, region of origin, sexuality,

family situation and political orientation, all living in California

at the time of the interviews.  

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102 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

whites stood for sameness. Hence, Margaret Phil-

lips said of her Jamaican daughter-in-law that: “She

really comes with diversity.” In spite of its brevity,
and because of its curious structure, this short state-

ment says a great deal. It implicitly designates

whiteness as norm, and Jamaicans as having or

bearing with them “differentness.” At the risk of

being crass, one might say that in this view, diver-

sity is to the daughter-in-law as “the works” is to a

hamburger—added on, adding color and fl avor, but

not exactly essential. Whiteness, seen by many of

these women as boring, but nonetheless defi nitive,

could also follow this analogy. This mode of

thinking about “difference” expresses clearly the

double-edged sword of a color- and power-evasive

repertoire, apparently valorizing cultural difference

but doing so in a way that leaves racial and cultural

hierarchies intact.

For a seemingly formless entity, then, white

culture had a great deal of power, diffi cult to dis-

lodge from its place in white consciousness as a

point of reference for the measuring of others.

Whiteness served simultaneously to eclipse and

marginalize others (two modes of making the other

inessential). Helen Standish’s description of her

growing-up years in a small New England town

captured these processes well. Since the commu-

nity was all white, the differences at issue were

differences between whites. (This also enables an

assessment of the links between white and non-

white “marked” cultures.) Asked about her own

cultural identity, Helen explained that “it didn’t

seem like a culture because everyone else was the

same.” She had, however, previously mentioned

Italian Americans in the town, so I asked about

their status. She responded as follows, adopting at

fi rst the voice of childhood:

They are different, but I’m the same as everybody

else. They speak Italian, but everybody else in the

U.S. speaks English. They eat strange, different food,

but I eat the same kind of food as everybody else

in  the U.S. . . . The way I was brought up was to

think that everybody who was the same as me were

“Americans,” and the other people were of “such and

such descent.”

here as “bad” culture. In fact, the extent to which

identities can be named seems to show an inverse

relationship to power in the U.S. social structure.

The elisions, parallels, and differences between

characterizations of white people, Americans, peo-

ple of color, and so-called white ethnic groups will

be explored [here].

Cathy’s own cultural positioning seemed to her

impossible to grasp, shapeless and unnameable. It

was easier to know others and to know, with cer-

tainty, what one was not . Providing a clue to one of
the mechanisms operating here is the fact that,

while Cathy viewed New Yorkers and midwestern-

ers as having a cultural shape or identity, women

from the East Coast and the Midwest also described

or mourned their own seeming lack of culture. The

self, where it is part of a dominant cultural group,

does not have to name itself. In this regard, Chris

Patterson hit the nail on the head, linking the power

of white culture with the privilege not to be named:

I’m probably at the stage where I’m beginning to see

that you can come up with a defi nition of white. Be-

fore, I didn’t know that you could turn it around and

say, “Well what does white mean?” One thing is, it’s
taken for granted. . . . [To be white means to] have

some sort of advantage or privilege, even if it’s some-

thing as simple as not having a defi nition.

The notion of “turning it around” indicates

Chris’s realization that, most often, whites are the

nondefi ned defi ners of other people. Or, to put it

another way, whiteness comes to be an unmarked

or neutral category, whereas other cultures are spe-

cifi cally marked “cultural.”

Many of the women shared the habit of turning

to elements of white culture as the unspoken norm.

This assumption of a white norm was so prevalent

that even Sandy Alvarez and Louise Glebocki, who

were acutely aware of racial inequality as well as

being members of racially mixed families, referred

to “Mexican” music versus “regular” music, and

regular meant “white.”

Similarly, discussions of race difference and cul-

tural diversity at times revealed a view in which

people of color actually embodied difference and

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READING 7: Whiteness as an “Unmarked” Cultural Category 103

The claim that whiteness lacks form and content

says more about the defi nitions of culture being used

than it does about the content of whiteness. How-

ever, I would suggest that in describing themselves

as cultureless these women are in fact identifying

specifi c kinds of unwanted absences or presences in

their own culture(s) as a generalized lack or nonexis-

tence. It thus becomes important to look at what they

did say about the cultural content of whiteness.
Descriptions of the content of white culture were

thin, to say the least. But despite the paucity of signi-

fi ers, there was a great deal of consistency across the

narratives. First, there was naming based on color, the

linking of white culture with white objects—the cli-

chéd white bread and mayonnaise, for example.

Freida Kazen’s identifi cation of whiteness as “bland,”

together with Helen Standish’s “blah,” also signifi ed

paleness or neutrality. The images connote several

things—color itself (although exaggerated, and be-

sides, bagels are usually white inside, too), lack of

vitality (Wonder bread is highly processed), and ho-

mogeneity. However, these images are perched on a

slippery slope, at once suggesting “white” identifi ed

as a color (though an unappealing one) and as an ab-

sence of color, that is, white as the unmarked marker.

Whiteness was often signifi ed in these narratives

by commodities and brands: Wonder bread,

Kleenex, Heinz 57. In this identifi cation whiteness

came to be seen as spoiled by capitalism, and as

being linked with capitalism in a way that other

cultures supposedly are not. Another set of signifi –

ers that constructed whiteness as uniquely tainted

by capitalism had to do with the “modern condi-

tion”: Dot Humphrey described white neighbor-

hoods as “more privatized,” and Cathy Thomas

used “alienated” to describe her cultural condition.

Clare Traverso added to this theme, mourning her

own feeling of lack of identity, in contrast with im-

ages of her husband’s Italian American background

(and here, Clare is again talking about perceived

differences between whites):

Food, old country, mama. Stories about a grand-

mother who can’t speak English. . . . Candles, adobe

houses, arts, music. [It] has emotion, feeling, belong-

ingness that to me is unique.

Viewing the Italian Americans as different and

oneself as “same” serves, fi rst, to marginalize, to

push from the center, the former group. At the same

time, claiming to be the same as everyone else

makes other cultural groups invisible or eclipses

them. Finally, there is a marginalizing of all those

who are not like Helen’s own family, leaving a re-

sidual, core or normative group who are the true

Americans. The category of “American” represents

simultaneously the normative and the residual, the

dominant culture and a nonculture.

Although Helen talked here about whites, it is safe

to guess that people of color would not have counted

among the “same” group but among the communities

of “such and such descent” (Mexican American, for

example). Whites, within this discursive repertoire,

became conceptually the real Americans, and only

certain kinds of whites actually qualifi ed. Whiteness

and Americanness both stood as normative and ex-

clusive categories in relation to which other cultures

were identifi ed and marginalized. And this clarifi es

that there are two kinds of whites, just as there are

two kinds of Americans: those who are truly or only

white, and those who are white but also something

more—or is it something less?

In sum, whiteness often stood as an unmarked

marker of others’ differentness—whiteness not so

much void or formlessness as norm. I associate

this construction with colonialism and with the

more recent assymetrical dualisms of liberal hu-

manist views of culture, race, and identity. For the

most part, this construction views nonwhite cul-

tures as lesser, deviant, or pathological. However,

another trajectory has been the inverse: conceptu-

alizations of the cultures of peoples of color as

somehow better than the dominant culture, per-

haps more natural or more spiritual. These are

positive evaluations of a sort, but they are equally

dualistic. Many of the women I interviewed saw

white culture as less appealing and found the cul-

tures of the “different” people more interesting. As

Helen Standish put it:

[We had] Wonder bread, white bread. I’m more inter-

ested in, you know, “What’s a bagel?” in other peo-

ple’s cultures rather than my own.

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104 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

“closer to the truth,” more “down to earth.” And

Marjorie Hoffman spoke of the “earthy humor” of

Black people, which she interpreted as, in the words

of Langston Hughes, a means of “laughing to keep

from crying.” On the one hand, as has been pointed

out especially by Black scholars and activists, the

positions of people of color at the bottom of a social

and economic hierarchy create the potential for a

critique of the system as a whole and consciousness

of the need to resist.
From the standpoint of race

privilege, the system of racism is thus made struc-

turally invisible. On the other hand, descriptions of

this kind leave in place a troubling dichotomy that

can be appropriated as easily by the right as by the

left. For example, there is an inadvertent affi nity

between the image of Black people as “earthy” and

the conservative racist view that African American

culture leaves African American people ill equipped

for advancement in the modern age. Here, echoing

essentialist racism, both Chicanos and African

Americans are placed on the borders of “nature”

and “culture.”

By the same token, often what was criticized as

“white” was as much the product of middle-class

status as of whiteness as such. Louise Glebocki’s

image of her fate had she married a white man was

an image of a white-collar, nuclear family:

Him saying, “I’m home, dear,” and me with an apron


The intersections of class, race, and culture were

obscured in other ways. Patricia Bowen was angry

with some of her white feminist friends who, she

felt, embraced as “cultural” certain aspects of

African American, Chicano, and Native American

cultures (including, for example, artwork or dance

performances) but would reject as “tacky” (her

term) those aspects of daily life that communities

of color shared with working-class whites, such as

the stores and supermarkets of poor neighborhoods.

This, she felt, was tantamount to a selective expan-

sion of middle-class aesthetic horizons, but not to

true antiracism or to comprehension of the cultures

of people of color. Having herself grown up in

a  white working-class family, Pat also felt that

In linking whiteness to capitalism and viewing

nonwhite cultures as untainted by it, these women

were again drawing on a colonial discourse in

which progress and industrialization were seen as

synonymous with Westernization, while the rest of

the world is seen as caught up in tradition and “cul-

ture.” In addition, one can identify, in white wom-

en’s mourning over whiteness, elements of what

Raymond Williams has called “pastoralism,” or

nostalgia for a golden era now gone by (but in fact,

says Williams, one that never existed).

The image of whiteness as corrupted and impov-

erished by capitalism is but one of a series of ways

in which white culture was seen as impure or

tainted. White culture was also seen as tainted by

its relationship to power. For example, Clare Tra-

verso clearly counterposed white culture and white

power, fi nding it diffi cult to value the former be-

cause of the overwhelming weight of the latter:

The good things about whites are to do with folk arts,

music. Because other things have power associated

with them.

For many race-cognizant white women, white

culture was also made impure by its very efforts to

maintain race purity. Dot Humphrey, for example,

characterized white neighborhoods as places in

which people were segregated by choice. For her,

this was a good reason to avoid living in them.

The link between whiteness and domination,

however, was frequently made in ways that both

artifi cially isolated culture from other factors and

obscured economics. For at times, the traits the

women envied in Other cultures were in fact at least

in part the product of poverty or other dimensions

of oppression. Lack of money, for example, often

means lack of privacy or space, and it can be valo-

rized as “more street life, less alienation.” Cathy

Thomas’s notion of Chicanas’ relationship to the

kitchen (“the hearth of the home”) as a cultural

“good” might be an idealized one that disregards

the reality of intensive labor.

Another link between class and culture emerged

in Louise Glebocki’s reference to the working-class

Chicanos she met as a child as less pretentious,

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READING 7: Whiteness as an “Unmarked” Cultural Category 105

both whiteness and nonwhiteness are reifi ed, made

into objects rather than processes, and robbed of

historical context and human agency. As long as the

discussion remains couched in these terms, a cri-

tique of whiteness remains a double-edged sword:

for one thing, whiteness remains normative because

there is no way to name the cultural practices as-

sociated with it as cultural. Moreover, as I have
suggested, whether whiteness is viewed as artifi cial

and dominating (and therefore “bad”) or civilized

(and therefore “good”), whiteness and all varieties

of nonwhiteness continue to be viewed as ontologi-

cally different from one another.

A genuine sadness and frustration about the

meaning of whiteness at this moment in history

motivated these women to decry white culture. It

becomes important, then, to recognize the grains of

truth in their views of white culture. It is important

to acknowledge their anger and frustration about

the meaning of whiteness as we reach toward a po-

liticized analysis of culture that is freer of colonial

and pastoral legacies.

The terms “white” and “American” as these

women used them signifi ed domination in inter-

national and domestic terms. This link is both accu-

rate and inaccurate. While it is true that, by and large,

those in power in the United States are white, it is

also true that not all those who are white are in power.

Nor is the axiomatic linkage between Americanness

and power accurate, because not all Americans have

the same access to power. At the same time, the link

between whiteness, Americanness, and power are
accurate because, as we have seen, the terms

“white”  and “American” both function discursively

to exclude people from normativity—including

white people “of such and such descent.” But here

we need to distinguish between the fates of people

of color and those of white people. Notwith-

standing a complicated history, the boundaries of

Americanness and whiteness have been much

more fl uid for “white ethnic” groups than for

people of color.

There have been border skirmishes over the

meaning of whiteness and Americanness since

the  inception of those terms. For white people,

middle-class white feminists were able to use selec-

tive engagement to avoid addressing their class


I have already indicated some of the problems

inherent in this kind of conceptualization, suggest-

ing that it tends to keep in place dichotomous con-

structions of “white” versus Other cultures, to

separate “culture” from other dimensions of daily

life, and to reify or strip of history all cultural
forms. There are, then, a range of issues that need to

be disentangled if we are to understand the location

of “whiteness” in the terrain of culture. It is, I be-

lieve, useful to approach this question by means of

a reconceptualization of the concept of culture

itself. A culture, in the sense of the set of rules and

practices by means of which a group organizes it-

self and its values, manners, and worldview—in

other words, culture as “a fi eld articulating the life-

world of subjects . . . and the structures created by

human activity”
—is an indispensable precondition

to any individual’s existence in the world. It is non-

sensical in terms of this kind of defi nition to sug-

gest that anyone could actually have “no culture.”

But this is not, as I have suggested, the mode

of  thinking about culture that these women are


Whiteness emerges here as inextricably tied to

domination partly as an effect of a discursive

“draining process” applied to both whiteness and

Americanness. In this process, any cultural practice

engaged in by a white person that is not identical to

the dominant culture is automatically counted as

either “not really white”—and, for that matter, not

really American, either—(but rather of such and

such descent), or as “not really cultural” (but rather

“economic”). There is a slipperiness to whiteness

here: it shifts from “no culture” to “normal culture”

to “bad culture” and back again. Simultaneously, a

range of marginal or, in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s termi-

nology, “bounded” cultures are generated. These

are viewed as enviable spaces, separate and un-

tainted by relations of dominance or by linkage to

other structures or systems. By contrast, whiteness

is conceived as axiomatically tied to dominance, to

economics, to political structures. In this process,

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106 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

much in the context of relationships to imperialism

and capitalism as has the production of whiteness,

though it has been premised on exclusion and resis-

tance to exclusion more than on assimilation. Al-

though not always or only forged in resistance, the

visibility and recognition of the cultures of U.S.

peoples of color in recent times is the product of
individual and collective struggle. Only a short

time has elapsed since those struggles made possi-

ble the introduction into public discourse of cele-

bration and valorization of their cultural forms. In

short, it is important not to reify any culture by fail-

ing to acknowledge its createdness, and not to view

it as always having been there in unchanging form.

Rather than feeling “cultureless,” white women

need to become conscious of the histories and spec-

ifi cities of our cultural positions, and of the politi-

cal, economic, and creative fusions that form all

cultures. The purpose of such an exercise is not, of

course, to reinvert the dualisms and valorize white-

ness so much as to develop a clearer sense of where

and who we are.

1. Why is whiteness considered to be lacking


2. How would you describe the cultural content of


1. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New

York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

2. The classic statement of this position is W. E. B.

Du  Bois’s concept of the “double consciousness” of

Americans of African descent. Two recent feminist

statements of similar positions are Patricia Hill Collins,

Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness,
and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin
Hyman, 1990); and Aida Hurtado, “Relating to Privilege:

Seduction and Rejection in the Subordination of White

Women and Women of Color,” Signs 14, no. 4:833–55.
3. Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack .

London: Hutchinson, 1987.

4. See, for example, Winthrop Talbot, ed., Americanization
(New York: H. W. Wilson, 1917), esp. Sophonisba P.

Breckinridge, “The Immigrant Family,” 251–52, Olivia

however, those skirmishes have been resolved

through processes of assimilation, not exclusion.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in

the United States saw a systematic push toward the

cultural homogenization of whites carried out

through social reform movements and the schools.

This push took place alongside the expansion of

industrial capitalism, giving rise to the sense that

whiteness signifi es the production and consump-

tion of commodities under capitalism.
But recog-

nition of this history should not be translated into

an assertion that whites were stripped of culture

(for to do that would be to continue to adhere to a

colonial view of “culture”). Instead one must argue

that certain cultural practices replaced others. Were

one to undertake a history of this “generic” white

culture, it would fragment into a thousand tributary

elements, culturally specifi c religious observances,

and class survival mechanisms as well as mass-

produced commodities and mass media.

There are a number of dangers inherent in con-

tinuing to view white culture as no culture. White-

ness appeared in the narratives to function as both

norm or core, that against which everything else is

measured, and as residue, that which is left after

everything else has been named. A far-reaching

danger of whiteness coded as “no culture” is that it

leaves in place whiteness as defi ning a set of nor-

mative cultural practices against which all are mea-

sured and into which all are expected to fi t. This

normativity has underwritten oppression from the

beginning of colonial expansion and has had im-

pact in multiple ways: from the American pioneers’

assumption of a norm of private property used to

justify appropriation of land that within their world-

view did not have an owner, and the ideological

construction of nations like Britain as white,

Western feminism’s Eurocentric shaping of its

movements and institutions. It is important for

white feminists not to continue to participate in

these processes.

And if whiteness has a history, so do the cultures

of people of color, which are worked on, crafted,

and created, rather than just “there.” For peoples of

color in the United States, this work has gone on as

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READING 8: Plus ça Change . . . ? Multiraciality and the Dynamics of Race Relations 107

national origin quotas as bases for immigrant ad-

missions (Bean & Bell-Rose, 1999; Reimers,

1992). Many scholars thought the former would

quickly lead to full incorporation of Blacks into

American society (Glazer, 1997), whereas others

generally expected the latter not to generate much

in the way of new immigration, but rather simply to

remove the embarrassment of the country’s dis-

criminatory admissions policies (Reimers, 1998).

What both shared at the time was that each seemed

to offer the prospect of improving racial/ethnic

relations in the United States.

Neither, however, turned out as anticipated.

Blacks did not quickly become economically incor-

porated and millions of new non-White immigrants

unexpectedly came to the country (Bean & Stevens,

2003). But as post–World War II economic prosper-

ity created new job opportunities and its expanding

cities brought persons from different backgrounds

increasingly into contact with one another (Fischer

& Hout, 2006), religious and ethnic group inter-

marriage fl ourished (Pagnini & Morgan, 1990).

The politics of racial identity eventually gained

new, if controversial, traction, leading to height-

ened awareness that tangible benefi ts could accrue

to those with offi cial minority status (Skrentny,

2002). Partly as a result of affi rmative action and

other policies, new movements sprang up at the end

of the century advocating that the offspring of

mixed-race relationships should be allowed to self-

identify as belonging to more than one racial group

in government surveys (Renn, 2009; Rockquemore,

Brunsma, & Delgado, 2009). At fi rst glance, such

changes would seem to portend salutary effects for

race relations in the United States. Not only are

relatively more mixed-marital unions now occur-

ring than previously, but the offspring of such

unions are able to acknowledge their mixed-race

backgrounds if they wish. The old strictures of race

appear to be melting away. . . .

The extent to which the color line has changed

in recent decades, particularly as a consequence of

recent non-White immigration, carries major ana-

lytical signifi cance for research on multiraciality

and multiracial identifi cation. If the color line is

Howard Dunbar, “Teaching the Immigrant Woman,”

252–56, and North American Civic League for Immi-

grants, “Domestic Education among Immigrants,” 256–

58; and Kathie Friedman Kasaba, “‘To Become a

Person’: The Experience of Gender, Ethnicity and Work

in the Lives of Immigrant Women, New York City,

1870–1940,” doctoral dissertation, Department of

Sociology, State University of New York, Binghamton,

1991. I am indebted to Katie Friedman Kasaba for these

references and for her discussions with me about

working-class European immigrants to the United States

at the turn of this century.

5. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.

R E A D I N G 8

Plus ça Change . . . ? Multiraciality
and the Dynamics of Race
Relations in the United States

Frank D. Bean and Jennifer Lee

. . . The issue of race has long cast a shadow on the

founding mythology of the United States. Well

after the end of the Civil War, the country coped

with the contradiction between immigration

and  race by compartmentalizing depictions of

immigrant and slavery experiences, at least at an

intellectual level. Historians tended to embed dis-

cussions of immigration in narratives about the

frontier and industrialization, while confi ning slav-

ery to the history of the South (Davis, 1998). If race

was a problem, scholars viewed it as a regional

issue, not one pertaining to the country as a whole.

This convenient (and patronizing) approach ap-

peared to come to an end during the 1960s, when

the geostrategic exigencies of the Cold War, and the

not-easily ignored claims for equal opportunity of

post–World War II Black veterans, culminated in

1965 in two landmark pieces of legislation: the

Civil Rights Act making discrimination against

Blacks illegal; and the Hart-Celler Act abolishing

Frank D. Bean is a professor of sociology at the University of

California, Irvine.

Jennifer Lee is a professor of sociology at the University of

California, Irvine.

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108 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

for which are a White/non-White divide, a new tri-

racial hierarchy, or a Black/non-Black divide. If, as

W. E. Du Bois said, “the problem of the twentieth

century (was) that of the (Black–White) color line,”

the question of the 21st century is: Where is the

color line now drawn? Below we consider the nature

and contemporary relevance of these three alterna-

tive models of today’s color line(s) that scholars

have articulated.

The Hypothesis of
a White/Non-White Divide

Many observers think a White/non-White divide is

emerging. For one thing, such a divide has been le-

gally enforced throughout the history of the United

States, well into the 20th century. In 1924, for ex-

ample, the state of Virginia passed a Racial Integ-

rity Law that created two distinct racial categories:

“pure” White and all others. The statute defi ned a

“White” person as one with “no trace whatsoever of

blood other than Caucasian,” and emerged to le-

gally ban intermarriage between Whites and other

races. While Blacks were clearly non-White under

the legislation, Asians and Latinos also fell on the

non-White side of the strict binary divide. The stat-

ute refl ected the Supreme Court rulings of Takao
Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v.
Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), in which persons of
Asian origin were not only classifi ed as non-White

but also considered ineligible for U.S. citizenship.

In the fi rst case, Takao Ozawa (a Japanese citizen of

the United States) fi led for U.S. citizenship under

the Naturalization Act of June 29, 1906, which al-

lowed Whites and persons of African descent or

African nativity to naturalize. Rather than challeng-

ing the constitutionality of the racial restrictions to

U.S. citizenship, Ozawa argued his skin color made

him a “White person” and that Japanese persons

should be classifi ed as “White.” The Supreme Court

ruled that only Caucasians were White, and be-

cause the Japanese were not of the Caucasian race,

could not be deemed White, but rather were mem-

bers of an “unassimilable race,” lacking provisions

standing under the Naturalization Act.

roughly the same for Latinos and Asians as it is for

Blacks, then studies of multiracial contextual and

individual manifestations need worry little about

what kinds of multiracial combinations they exam-

ine. What holds true for Black–White multiracial

pairings and individuals would seem likely to apply

to other multiracials as well. However, if one racial

category were found to carry considerably stronger

salience than another, the dynamics could be differ-

ent. For example, if Black–White marriages and

individuals confront greater stigmatization than

Asian-White or Latino-White ones, then the indi-

vidual and social dynamics of multiraciality would

be likely to vary across groups and combinations.

In some ways, this is an obvious point, but it bears

repeating, not only because it carries theoretical

signifi cance, but also because the Black–White di-

vide has so hauntingly preoccupied the history of

the United States that we often transfer ideas about

Black–White dynamics to the cases of other racial/

ethnic minority groups, often without careful con-

sideration of whether these apply. . . .

Given that today’s immigrant newcomers from

Latin America and Asia are neither Black nor

White, the traditional Black–White model of race

relations may inaccurately depict the character of

race/ethnic relations for Asians and Latinos as com-

pared to Blacks. Consequently, an important re-

search issue in U.S. race/ethnic relations is: Are the

experiences of America’s newest non-White immi-

grant groups tracking those of their European pre-

decessors, or are these groups becoming racialized

minorities who see their experiences as more akin

to those of African Americans than to earlier im-

migrants? In other words, do Asians and Latinos,

particularly the later-generation members of these

groups, more closely resemble Whites or Blacks in

the United States at this point in time? An answer to

this question can help to reveal whether the Black–

White color line of the past is evolving into some

sort of other pattern—the three major possibilities

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momentum and popularity in the late 1980s

(Hollinger, 2005). Such omnibus terms combine

all non-White groups on the basis of presumed

racialized minority status, thus connoting that the

individuals to which they refer share a similar

subordinate status vis-à-vis Whites. By homoge-

nizing (and thus reifying the experiences of all

non-White groups), the “people of color” rubric

indicates the boundaries among non-White groups

are less distinct and salient than the boundary sep-

arating Whites from non-Whites. Accordingly, a

White/non-White model of racial/ethnic relations

would envision Asians and Latinos falling closer

to Blacks than to Whites in their experiences in

the United States, suggesting that extent of multi-

raciality and multiracial identifi cation should be

similar for Asians, Latinos, and Blacks.

The Hypothesis of
a Triracial Hierarchy

Other social scientists propose still another

possibility—a triracial stratifi cation system similar

to that of many Latin American and Caribbean

countries. In the United States, this has been viewed

as consisting of Whites, honorary Whites, and col-

lective Blacks (Bonilla-Silva, 2004a, b). Included

in the “White” category would be Whites, assimi-

lated White Latinos, some multiracials, assimilated

Native Americans, and a few Asian-origin people.

“Honorary Whites” would include light-skinned

Latinos, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans,

Chinese Americans, Asian Indians, Middle Eastern

Americans, and most multiracials. Finally, the

“collective Black” category would include Blacks,

Filipinos, Vietnamese, Hmong, Laotians, dark-

skinned Latinos, West Indian and African immi-

grants, and reservation-bound Native Americans.

Because many of today’s new immigrants hail

from Latin America and the Caribbean, Bonilla-

Silva argued that a more complex triracial order

will emerge given what he terms the “darkening” of

the United States. In his view, a triracial order

would also serve to help maintain “White suprem-

acy” by creating an intermediate racial group to

Three months later, in United States v. Bhagat
Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court handed
down a similar ruling, denying citizenship to a man

of Asian-Indian origin. The court ruled that Bhagat

Singh Thind, a native of India, could not be a natu-

ralized citizen despite the fact that anthropologists

had defi ned members of the Indian subcontinent as

members of the Caucasian race. In his case, while

the court did not dispute that Thind was a Cauca-

sian, they ruled that not all Caucasians were White.

According to the Supreme Court, while Thind may

have been Caucasian, he was not a “White person”

as “used in common speech, to be interpreted in ac-

cordance with the understanding of the common

man.” While Takao Ozawa was denied citizenship

because he was not of the Caucasian race, and there-

fore not White, Bhagat Singh Thind was denied citi-

zenship because he was not White according to the

common understanding of Whiteness, even though

the court conceded he was Caucasian. The rulings

refl ected the idea that persons of Asian origin were

not only a distinct racial or color category from

Whites, but were also considered “unassimilable.”

Administrative policies adopted in the latter

half of the 1960s following the Civil Rights Move-

ment reinforced the idea of a White/non-White de-

marcation. Most prominently, affi rmative action

policies were extended to minority groups who

were perceived as “analogous to Blacks” with re-

spect to physical distinctiveness and to having

“suffered enough” to be similarly categorized

(Skrentny, 2002). According to these criteria, Lati-

nos, Native Americans, and Asians became eligible

for affi rmative action programs while disadvan-

taged White ethnics did not. One potential unin-

tended consequence of such policies was that

Asians and especially Latinos may have become

perceived and labeled as racialized minorities

who were more akin to Blacks than to Whites. In

essence, many affi rmative action policies placed

Asians and Latinos on the non-White side of the

divide, fi rmly establishing a delineation between

Whites and non-Whites.

Further cementing the divide was the introduc-

tion of the label “people of color,” which gained

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110 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

of and experiences with multiraciality identifi cation

should occur among Blacks and Latinos because

both are “racial others,” whereas differences would

exist between these two groups and Asians.

The Hypothesis of
a Black/Non-Black Divide

In the 1990s, a number of other social scientists

began to argue that a new racial structure was

emerging that differed from a Black–White, a

White/non-White or a triracial hierarchy. They sug-

gested a new binary color line—a Black/non-Black

divide—that highlighted the continuing and unique

separation of Blacks, not only from Whites but also

from other non-White racial/ethnic groups (Alba,

1990; Gans, 1999; Gitlin, 1995). The concept of the

Black/non-Black divide surfaced in conjunction

with a scholarship documenting the processes by

which previously “non-White” immigrant ethnic

groups such as the Irish, Italians, and Eastern Euro-

pean Jews became “White” (Alba, 1985, 1990;

Brodkin, 1998; Gerstle, 1999; Ignatiev, 1995;

Jacobson, 1998; Roediger, 1991). For example,

Ignatiev (1995) detailed how Irish immigrants—

once referred to as “White Negroes” by the country’s

Anglo-Saxons—became “White” by shifting their

political alliances, achieving economic mobility,

and adopting deliberate and extreme measures to

distance themselves from African Americans. With

economic mobility also came a decoupling of

the  confl ation of national origin differences and

“racial” differences, further contributing to the

development of the idea that for Irish immigrants

(and other European immigrants) race was an

achieved rather than an ascribed status (Alba, 1990;

Haney-Lopez, 1996; Perlmann & Waldinger, 1997;

Waters, 1990). In other words, as economic and cul-

tural differences diminished and eventually faded

between White and non-White immigrants groups,

the Irish, Italians, and Eastern European Jews

became racially reconstructed as White.

Other scholars noted that European immigrants

were not the only ones to have changed their status

from non-White to White. Asian ethnic immigrant

buffer racial confl ict (Bonilla-Silva, 2004b, p. 5).

While a few new immigrants might fall into the

honorary White strata and may even eventually be-

come White, the majority would incorporate into

the collective Black strata, including most Latino

immigrants who he labels as “racial others” whose

experiences with race are seen as similar to those of

Blacks. In this regard, the triracial model differs

fundamentally from the Black/non-Black divide

because Bonilla-Silva posits that Latinos are racial-

ized in a manner similar to African Americans, and

therefore fall on the Black side of the divide.

While some research evidence seems to support

the Latin Americanization thesis, it has not gone

without criticism. For instance, Murguia and Saenz

(2004) argued that a three-tier system predated sub-

stantial Latin American immigration to the United

States. Other social scientists contest the uniform

characterization of Latinos as a monolithic group

(Forman, Goar, & Lewis, 2004; Murguia & Saenz,

2004). For instance, examining Latinos’ social atti-

tudes toward other racial/ethnic groups, Forman et al.

(2004) found that Latinos fall into different seg-

ments of the triracial hierarchy depending on na-

tional origin. For instance, Puerto Ricans differ

from Mexicans in their expressed feelings toward

Blacks, with the former group demonstrating more

positive attitudes if they show darker skin color.

Mexicans, however, are much more uniform in their

feelings toward Blacks and express attitudes that

are closer to non-Hispanic Whites than to non-

Hispanic Blacks, perhaps as a result of the history

of racial mixing in Mexico, which involved very

few Africans, unlike the history of mixing in Puerto

Rico (Forman et al., 2004). In any case, regardless

of skin color, Latinos overall fall closer to non-

Hispanic Whites in their attitudes toward Blacks

than to non-Hispanic Blacks. Such results suggest

considerable variation in the racialization experi-

ences of Latinos in the United States. Contrary to

the Latin Americanization thesis, many Latinos, es-

pecially Mexicans, do not appear to see themselves

as falling into the collective Black category. How-

ever, if the Latin Americanization hypothesis holds

and a triracial hierarchy is forming, similar patterns

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is open to non-Blacks. Slipping through the opening

is, then, a tactical matter for non-Blacks of conform-

ing to White standards, of distancing themselves from

Blackness, and of reproducing anti-Black ideas and

Others like Guinier and Torres (2002) also sug-

gested that throughout the history of the United

States, Blacks have served a critical role in the con-

struction and expansion of Whiteness by serving as

the defi nition of what White is not. Given the rigid-

ity of the boundary surrounding blacks, some social

scientists argue that a Black/non-Black divide is

emerging, in which Asians and Latinos fall on the

non-Black side of the divide. Consequently, a

Black/non-Black model of racial/ethnic relations

would entail Asians and Latinos falling closer to

Whites than to Blacks in their experiences in the

United States, suggesting that extent of multiracial-

ity and multiracial identifi cation should be similar

for Asians and Latinos, but dissimilar to Blacks.

Research Findings Relevant to
the Models of the Color Line

Recent research evidence suggests that Whiteness

has continued to expand to incorporate new immi-

grant groups with Asians and Latinos now appear-

ing to “blend” more easily with Whites than with

Blacks (Gallagher, 2004; Gerstle, 1999; Warren &

Twine, 1997). Furthermore, Gallagher (2004) ar-

gued that many Whites view Asians and Latinos as

more culturally similar to them than to Blacks, and

posits that the United States is currently undergoing

a process of “racial redistricting,” allowing Asians

and Latinos (especially multiracials) to “glide eas-

ily” into the White category. Twine’s research on

multiracial identifi cation reinforces this point; she

found that the children of Black intermarriages are

usually perceived by others as Black (Twine, 1996).

By contrast, the children of Asian and Latino inter-

marriages are not similarly perceived monoracially

as Asian or Latino. Studies of Asian-White multira-

cial youth show that they are equally likely to select

White or Asian as the single category that best

describes their racial background, pointing to the

groups such as the Chinese and the Japanese also

managed to transform their racial status from

“almost Black” to “almost White.” Loewen (1971),

for example, documents how Chinese immigrants

in the Mississippi Delta consciously strove to mod-

ify their lowly racial status through economic mo-

bility, the emulation of the cultural practices and

institutions of Whites, the intentional distancing of

themselves from Blacks, and the rejection of fellow

ethnics who married Blacks and any Chinese-Black

multiracial children they bore. By adopting the

anti-Black sentiment embraced by Mississippi

Whites and by closely following White moral

codes, the Chinese accepted rather than challenged

the existing racial hierarchy and essentially were

able to cross the Black–White color line. Spickard

(1989) noted a similar process of change among

Japanese Americans who, at the beginning of the

20th century, were consigned with Blacks to the

bottom of the racial hierarchy, but whose status

rose dramatically just three quarters of a century

later. Today, so extreme is the shift in America’s

racial hierarchy that Asians, now donning titles of

“model minority” and “honorary Whites,” have be-

come groups against which other non-White groups

are often judged and compared—a far cry from the

derisive designation “yellow horde” that once de-

scribed Asian immigrants at the turn of the twenti-

eth century (Gans, 2005; Zhou, 2004).

While a number of immigrant groups have

changed their status from non-White to White,

African Americans have not been able to do the

same. Gans (2005, pp. 19–20) referred to this as the

pattern of “African American exceptionalism.” He

elaborates, “The only population whose racial fea-

tures are not automatically perceived differently

with upward mobility are African Americans:

Those who are affl uent and well educated remain as

visibly Black to Whites as before.” Warren and

Twine (1997, p. 208) argued this is because the

construction of “Whiteness” depends on the per-

ceived existence of “Blackness.” They note:

[B]ecause Blacks reprcsent the “other” against which

Whiteness is constructed, the back-door to Whiteness

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112 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

A pattern involving fading color lines for Asians

and Latinos implies improvements in U.S. race

relations. However, it also forebodes dangers. For

one thing, it invites misinterpretation about prog-

ress in Black–White relations in the United States.

Because boundaries are loosening for some non-

White groups, many observers might erroneously

conclude that race is declining in signifi cance for

all groups, and moreover, that race relations are

improving at the same pace for all racial/ethnic

minorities. However, the results of the research

discussed above suggest that the social construc-

tion of race is more consequential for Blacks than

for Asians and Latinos. Not accounting for this

difference in research and the formulation of pub-

lic policy could easily lead the endorsement of a

fl awed logic claiming that if race does not impede

the process of incorporation for Asians and Lati-

nos, then it must not matter much for Blacks

either. Not only is this line of reasoning incorrect,

it also risks fostering support for so-called “color-

blind” policies that fail to recognize that race and

the color line have different consequences for

different minority groups (Brown et al., 2003;

Loury, 2002). . . .

1. What criteria do you use to defi ne black?

2. What criteria do you use to defi ne white?

3. If there is a third category, who can move from

that category to white? Why?

Alba, R. (1985). Italian Americans: Into the twilight of eth-

nicity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Alba, R. (1990). Ethnic identity: The transformation of

White America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Bean, F. D., & Beli-Rose, S. (1999). Immigration and

opportunity: Race, ethnicity and employment in the
United States. New York: Russell Sage.

Bean, F. D., & Stevens, G. (2003). America’s newcomers
and the dynamics of diversity. New York: Russell Sage

latitude such adolescents have in designating their

own racial/ethnic heritage (Harris & Sim, 2002;

Saenz, Hwang, Aguirre, & Anderson, 1995; Xie &

Goyette, 1997). Similarly, multiethnic Mexican

Americans exercise a great deal of choice in how

they identify (Jiménez, 2004).

Other empirical studies of multiracial identifi –

cation also report results relevant to the question of

the nature of America’s color lines today. Lee and

Bean (2007) found that both census data and qual-

itative subjective interviews indicate that group

boundaries appear to be fading more rapidly for

Latinos and Asians than for Blacks, signaling that

today’s new non-Whites are not strongly assimilat-

ing as racialized minorities who see their experi-

ences with race as akin to those of Blacks, as

would be predicted by the White/non-White

model. Moreover, these researchers argue that a

triracial hierarchy model that would place Latinos

and most new immigrants into the “collective

Black” category and label them as “racial others”

does not appear to characterize accurately the ra-

cialization process of America’s non-White new-

comers. Instead, both multiraciality and multiracial

identifi cation among Latinos and Asians appear

consistent with hypotheses that place them closer

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114 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

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The Price of Nonconformity

I moved to the United States from Germany three years

ago, and moved in with my American cousin and her

family, which consists of her husband (who is Iranian)

and two children, a boy and a girl. Things were going fine

in the beginning, but then after three months I met my

boyfriend and everything changed. Tony and I had been

dating for about three weeks when I told my cousin I was

seeing someone. She didn’t seem to mind and just asked

me to bring him over one night so she could meet him. A

couple of days later, Tony stopped by the house to pick

me up for dinner. We waited for my cousin to come home

from her job, so they could be introduced. I will never

forget the look on her face when she walked in the door

and saw that Tony is black. Even though she contained

herself quickly, it was obvious that she did not approve of

this interracial relationship. For the next two months, she

tried to keep me away from him by imposing curfews

(I  was 21 at the time), not allowing me to take the car,

prohibiting him from coming into the house, ignoring him

when he picked me up, and not talking to me when I was

at home. All of this happened without her ever having to

say that she didn’t like him because he is black and I am

white. But when all of her attempts to separate us failed,

she had a talk with me that I will never forget.

She told me that I had no idea what I was getting

myself into, and that a relationship between a black man

and a white woman was unacceptable. Since we were

from two different cultures—black vs. white—it would

never work; our friends, family, and society would not ac-

cept it. Tony would never fit into my “white” life, and

I would never fit into his “black” life. My friends would

eventually turn away from me because I am with him,

and also because the differences between my friends—

who she assumed all to be white—and Tony would be

insurmountable. Moreover, she was outraged that

I would even consider having a black man’s children. She

said that my children would always be stigmatized as

black children. They would suffer from prejudice and dis-

crimination, and I was a terrible person for choosing that

life for them.

So in the end, she gave me the choice of ending the

relationship with Tony, or moving out. She said she could

not allow such behavior in her house, since I was sup-

posed to be a role model for her eleven-year-old daughter.

She did not want her daughter to follow in my footsteps.

Since I don’t respond well to ultimatums, especially when

they are as ridiculous and racist as this one, I packed my

stuff and moved out shortly after this conversation.
Julia Morgenstern

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READING 9: The Olympic Struggle over Sex 115



I frequently watch my boyfriend play basketball at an out-

door court with many other males in pick-up games. One

time when I was there, there was a new face among the

others waiting to play—a female face, and she was not

sitting with the rest of the women who were watching.

She was dressed and ready to play. I had never seen her

in all the time I’d been there before, nor had I ever seen

another woman there try to play.

For several games, she did not play. The guys formed

teams and she was not asked to join. It was almost

like  there was a purposeful avoidance of her, with no

one even acknowledging that she was there. Finally, she

made a noticeable effort, and with some reluctance she

was included in the next team waiting to play the winner

of the current game. There were whispers and snickers

among the guys, and I think it had a lot to do with the

perception that she was challenging their masculinity.

A “girl” was intruding into their area. My guess is that they

were also somewhat nervous about the fact that she

really might be good and embarrass some of them.

Anyway, the first couple of times up and down the

court she was not given the ball despite the fact that she

was wide open. The other guys on the team forced bad

shots and tried super hard in what seemed like an effort

to prove that she was not needed. The guy who was sup-

posed to guard her on defense really didn’t pay her much

attention, and that same guy who she was guarding at

the other end made sure he drove around her and scored

on two occasions.

Finally, one time down the court she called for the ball

and sank a shot from at least 16 feet. A huge feeling of

relief and satisfaction came over me. Being a basketball

player myself, I figured she was probably good or would

not be there in the first place, but being a woman I was
also happy to see her first shot go in. I found out later she

had played basketball for a university and she had a

great outside shot.

Even after she made one more shot off a rebound

that ended up in her hands, she was not given the ball

again. I suppose after some of the loud comments from

some of the guys on the sidelines, that she was beat-

ing  the male players out there, she wasn’t going to get

the  ball again. I was kind of shocked that she wasn’t

more accepted even after she showed she was talented.
I haven’t seen her there since.
Andrea M. Busch


R E A D I N G 9

The Olympic Struggle over Sex

Alice Dreger

What is sport ultimately for? That fundamental

philosophical question lies behind the debate over

what to do with women athletes who were raised

as  girls but whose bodies seem to be unusually

masculine. And in that debate, two clear philosoph-

ical camps have emerged.

One camp, led by the International Olympic

Committee (IOC), believes the line imposed be-

tween putative male and putative female athletes

must be biological. These folks—let’s call them the

Anatomists—fully admit that sex is really compli-

cated. They acknowledge there’s no one magical

gene, chromosome, hormone, or body part that can

do for us the hard work of sharp division into male

and female leagues. Says the IOC in its latest

declaration on the problem: “Human biology [. . .]

allows for forms of intermediate levels between the

conventional categories of male and female, some-

times referred to as intersex.”

Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and

bioethics in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern


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116 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

man or woman (only requiring, perhaps, that it be

confi rmed by her or his legal status).

Make no mistake: there are problems with the new

IOC biologically-oriented policy. For one, the policy

doesn’t actually specify what is the permissible level
of functional testosterone for women athletes. As a

result, there is no way for a woman to get herself

tested in private, in advance of the games, to see if she

should avoid the possibility of being plucked out of

play for a sex crime, so to speak. It also seems odd

that apparently the committee isn’t going to decide a

level until they get a case. That’s like writing a crimi-

nal law after you’ve arrested a suspect.

The new policy gives away another problem in its

title: “IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogen-
ism.” Why specify “female”? Because the IOC is

allowing male athletes to play with conditions that

cause them to be hyperandrogenized—sometimes
the very same conditions for which women will be

disqualifi ed! The result is that a woman’s supposed

disease is accepted by the IOC as a man’s natural

advantage. This hardly seems like a fair way to treat

a lady, unless your goal is to keep her down.

Third, the policy appears to be out of whack

with another IOC policy known as “the Stockholm

Consensus,” designed for dealing with male-to-

female transsexual athletes. That policy requires

transgender women—women who were raised as

boys—to medically squash their androgen levels

way down, seemingly well below where the policy

on “female hyperandrogenism” would likely allow

intersex women raised as girls to still play.

And whereas the female hyperandrogenism pol-

icy hints that a women with one of the “problem”

intersex conditions might be chucked out if her

medical records indicate she’s benefi tted from a

lifetime of male-typical functional androgens, the

Stockholm Consensus allows transgender women

with those same lifetime androgen histories to play,

so long as they have endocrinologically obeyed the

IOC’s rules for their womanhood for the previous

couple of years.

In spite of these problems with the new IOC pol-

icy, and even though I fully support the right of any

individual to self-identify socially as any gender she

But the Anatomists still think we should base

our sex division in sports on some sort of biological

feature, even if it means we have to just pick one.

They point out that sports require us to create all

sorts of rules that aren’t simply natural and self-

evident, so why not do it here, too?

And so, the IOC . . . decided that, for the London

Olympic Games, the rule of sex [would] be based

on something called “functional androgens” (or

“functional testosterone”). This means that an ath-

lete who was raised a girl and identifi es as a woman

will be allowed to play as a woman so long as the

IOC does not discover that her body makes and re-

sponds to high levels of androgens. Androgens, of

which testosterone is one type, naturally occur in

both male and female bodies, but higher production

usually means more male-typical development.

Notice that the IOC won’t just be looking at how

much androgens a woman’s body makes , but also
how much her cells respond. This is because some
women are born with testes that make a lot of tes-

tosterone, but they lack androgen-sensitive recep-

tors, so the androgens have little-to-no effect on

their cells. This condition is called complete An-

drogen Insensitivity Syndrome. Those who have

it—women like Spanish hurdler Maria Patino—

develop essentially as girls and women.

The new IOC policy isn’t meant to pick out

these women. The athletes who are targeted by
this policy on “female hyperandrogenism” include

women born with conditions that can result in mas-

culinization—conditions including partial Andro-
gen Insensitivity Syndrome and Congenital Adrenal


This hormone-honing approach to sex divisions

in sports appalls the other camp, whom we might

call the Identifi ers. The Identifi ers, led mostly by

outsiders, believe the line between men and women

athletes ought to be based in self-identity. The Iden-

tifi ers take the messiness of sex development as a

reason to give up on biology as the way to distin-

guish athletes by sex. They argue that, since the

borders between sex categories are naturally open,

we should not attempt to police them. Instead, we

ought to go simply with an athlete’s self-identity as

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READING 10: All Together Now: Intersex Infants and IGM 117

about games —games that have, as their necessary
condition, bodies with bodily differences.

So, much as I am drawn, as a good political pro-

gressive, to the position of the Identifi ers who want

to just let athletes self-declare genders, and as frus-

trated as I am that the IOC still doesn’t have an ad-

equately clear policy on intersex—nor one consistent

with its policy on transsexualism—part of me feels

like we have to admit that the Anatomists are acting

more true to the game.

Does that make me a traitor to progressivism—

acknowledging that people have some biological

differences, such that some people have natural

advantages or disadvantages in some realms of life?

I don’t think so. I know the Identifi ers seem to fear

that if we acknowledge any average differences

between males and females, progress in women’s

rights and transgender rights will collapse. But

I think we are actually mature enough, as a species,

to know what is a game, and what is not.

1. Which side of the Anatomist/Identifi er debate

do you fi nd yourself most sympathetic to?

2. Which side do you think should prevail

in  Olympic competitions or other sports


3. Do Olympic Committee determinations about

sex have any bearing beyond the Games?

R E A D I N G 1 0

All Together Now: Intersex
Infants and IGM

Riki Wilchins

“There is nothing abstract about the power that sci-

ences and theories have to act materially and actually

upon our bodies and our minds, even if the discourse

or he wishes, I fi nd myself sympathetic to the Anat-

omists’ philosophy in this case. Here’s why:

Our history of liberal democracy demonstrates a

grand trend with regard to the relationship between

anatomy and identity, and that is the trend away
from using anatomy to draw distinctions in identi-

ties where social and political rights are concerned.

The Founding Fathers started this trend by chal-

lenging the idea that power must derive from blood-

line. The women’s rights movement, the civil rights

movement, the disability rights movement—all

have successfully dismantled the idea that anatomi-

cal difference should mean some people are treated

as more worthy of rights and resources than others.

As Drs. King and Seuss taught us, in a just and ra-

tional world, having a star on your belly doesn’t

make you special.

Sport has been used as one way to push this lib-

eralizing agenda—with Title IX and major league

racial integration standing as two good examples of

the push. The Identifi ers are now trying to do the

same thing in the debate on sex testing, and in

doing so, are making what might be the most

extreme version of the anti-anatomy argument: we

should not bother thinking about sex anatomy

at all, and just let anyone who says she’s a woman
play as a woman.

But maybe here we’ve fi nally hit the limit of

using sport for this kind of social agenda. I mean,

sure, we could do it—we could force sport to keep

being the Joan of Arc of liberal democracy, and so

we could decide common biological sex differ-

ences don’t matter to gender divisions in sports.

But if we do this, in the process we may be neuter-

ing sport itself.

Because at the end of the day, no matter how lit-

tle we think anatomy should matter to one’s social

and political rights, surely we can’t pretend biology

doesn’t matter in sports. Surely there’s a reason we

don’t let adults play in the t-ball leagues, and a rea-

son most women athletes want their own leagues.

And much as the IOC might try to make it sound

like the Olympic Games represent the ultimate

peace-and-justice movement on Earth, we’re not

actually talking about law and justice. We’re talking
Riki Wilchins is the founding executive director of the Gender

Public Advocacy Coalition.

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118 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

According to Brown University medical re-

searcher Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, one in every

2,000 births is intersex. As intersex activists say,

these are children born with unexpected genitals,

which is to say their genitals are perhaps worse,

maybe better, or at least every bit as good as yours

and mine (well, yours anyway).
Cheryl founded the Intersex Society of North

America (ISNA), a national intersex advocacy

group, and cofounded (with me) Hermaphrodites

With Attitude—an intersex protest group, in itself a

pretty rare thing. I just call her the Head Herm.

“Cheryl” was born as “Charlie,” a fairly happy,

well-adjusted little boy. His doctor, however, was

not as happy or well-adjusted.

For one thing, it must be admitted that Charlie had

a pretty small penis. For another, Charlie had “ova-

ries” that contained both testicular and ovarian tissue.

Language is again a crucial issue here, espe-

cially at the margins, where labeling is the fi rst dis-

cursive act that determines how a thing is seen and

understood. For instance, if a boy has an ovary, is it

still an ovary, especially if it also contains signifi –

cant amounts of testicular tissue, as Cheryl’s did?

Medicine gives us no nonbinary options here,

although the term gonad would do nicely enough.
Charlie was a year and a half old when—after

tests, consultations, and diagnostic conferences—

doctors decided that Charlie was actually a Cheryl.

This meant his small penis was actually an abnor-

mally large clitoris. So they cut it off.

Following the treatment protocols for a diagno-

sis of intersexuality, all evidence of Charlie’s exis-

tence was hidden. Boy’s clothes and toys were

thrown out and replaced with girl’s clothes and

toys. Out blue, in pink.

Cheryl/Charlie’s parents were warned to lie to

her if he ever asked about her history, because the

truth—intersexuality and surgery—would perma-

nently traumatize the child. Doctors feared that

acknowledging a history of intersexuality would

that produces it is abstract. It is one of the forms of

domination, its very expression.”

Monique Wittig , The Straight Mind

As Foucault once pointed out, the effects of discur-

sive power are hard to see once a discourse is in

place. Once we see gay, black, female, or transgen-
der people, it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t

always there. We imagine the cultural discourse

about them just popped up in response; rather, it

was the discourse that created such identities in the

fi rst place.

To clearly see discursive power at work, we need

bodies at society’s margins. Margins are margins

because that’s where the discourse begins to fray,

where whatever paradigm we’re in starts to lose its

explanatory power and all those inconvenient ex-

ceptions begin to cause problems.

We can see the marginalization of such bodies

as  evidence of their unimportance. Or we can see

their  marginalization as important evidence of the

model’s imperfection and begin to admit how

the  operations of language, knowledge, and truth

have shaped our consciousness.

Once we might have turned to women, gays,

transgender people, or even racial minorities for

this kind of understanding. But as each of these

groups has won greater or lesser degrees of social

legitimacy, it has become necessary to look a little

further out to fi nd a really marginal, inconvenient

body. We need a body that is still off the grid of

cultural intelligibility, one that hasn’t “set” yet into

a socially recognized identity. What we need, of

course, is a herm .
Cheryl Chase is a “true hermaphrodite.” This is

a very rare thing, since most intersex people are

“only” pseudo-hermaphrodites.

When most people hear the word hermaphro-
dite, they’re apt to think of a person born with “both
sets of genitals,” although this is actually impossi-

ble. Hermaphrodite is actually an archaic medical
term, and the correct term is intersex.

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a sex, which is a social impossibility anyway, at least

right now. They do advocate forgoing permanent gen-

ital alteration of infants for strictly cosmetic reasons

until they have grown old enough to participate in

life-altering decisions about their own bodies and

sexual health, and to offer informed consent.

A pediatric nurse in one of my presentations com-

plained, “But you don’t mention all these tests we

run to fi nd out the infant’s real sex.” The discourse

on intersex infants is concerned with discovering

what binary sex they “really” are, so we can “fi x”

them properly. The possibility that intersex

infants’ sex might not be immediately available to

us, that they might not have the sort of binary sex

the doctors are so anxious to locate and assign,

just doesn’t register. Neither does the possibility

that intersex bodies have nothing to tell us, or that

these infants are whatever sex they are because

that nonbinary outcome appears to the medical

community (and indeed to most of society) as a

logical impossibility.

As Cheryl notes, intersex is the sex that doesn’t

exist. First because it’s always another sex “under-

neath” and, second, because as soon as it appears,

we erase it. Whatever sex we “discover” in intersex

infants’ bodies is highly dependent upon what

markers we choose—hormones, genitals, overall

body structure, chromosomes, and gonads—and

how we prioritize them.

Words are real; bodies are not.

There is no pretext of transparency here: We

don’t fi t the words to the bodies; instead, it is the

bodies that must fi t the words. The only language

we have for herm-bodies is directed toward

pathologizing—and thereby delegitimating—them.

Nor can we raise the usual argument—“It’s

Nature’s way”—when Sex is questioned. Clearly,

Nature has other things in mind, even if we don’t.

In this vein, I once tried to help a network pro-

ducer who was searching for an intersex person to

interview. He was interested only in one who had

undermine the sense of gender identity they had

created in the child through secrecy and surgery.

Charlie had become Cheryl, but at an enormous

price. The operation had removed a lot what the

doctors thought was Charlie, but it also removed

most of his erotic sensation, and along with it baby

Cheryl’s future ability to have an orgasm.

“Intersexuality is a psychiatric emergency on the part

of the doctors and parents, who treat it by cutting into

the body of the infant, even though the adults—as the

ones in distress—are the real patients.”

Cheryl Chase

“The Academy is deeply concerned about the emo-
tional, cognitive, and body image development of in-
tersexuals, and believes that successful early genital

surgery minimizes these issues.”

Press Release on IGM from the American

Academy of Pediatricians (emphasis added)

“Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made

for cutting.”

Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory

The surgical procedure Cheryl underwent is

sometimes referred to as intersex genital mutila-

tion. IGM refers to cosmetic genital cutting that is

performed solely to make intersex infants resemble

normal males and females. The defi nition of IGM

does not include the small fraction of surgeries that

are preformed to cure functional abnormalities, uri-

nary obstructions, recurring infection, and so on.

It was not until the 1950s that IGM became a

common pediatric practice. Prior to that, unless in-

fants were born with genital deformities that caused

ongoing pain or endangered their health, they were

left alone. Today, according to Fausto-Sterling,

about 1,000 infants are surgically altered for cos-

metic reasons each year in U.S. hospitals, or about

fi ve every day.

Advocacy organizations like ISNA and Gender-

PAC do not advocate raising intersex children without

READING 10: All Together Now: Intersex Infants and IGM 119

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120 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

well-being. IGM is always considered compassion-

ate surgery. Everything was done for his/her “own


Cheryl’s mutilation did not result from the top-

down power held by big institutions. Unlike that

reliable villain, the State, the power involved was

not that of repression and negation, so common

when sex is involved. In fact, the discourse of Sex

where Cheryl was involved did not restrain her
Sex, but rather interpreted it, compelled it, and

demanded it.
Her transformation from Charlie to Cheryl was

carried out in a micro-politics of power: small,

impersonal judgments and practices that involved

myriad individuals, power that was held by no

one  in particular but exercised by practically

everyone—except, of course, Charlie.

The power involved was productive, using lan-

guage and meaning to interpret her genitals as de-

fective, to produce her body as intersexed, and to

require that she be understood through a lens of

normal male and normal female. Through a series

of silences and erasures, it socially produced a new

person, one with a new name, history, wardrobe,

bedroom decor, and toys.

This is not the familiar “big stick” approach to

power that requires policemen, courts, and legisla-

tures. That is something we are familiar with; at

least it is something we know how to fi ght. The

power that attached itself to Charlie’s body is a dif-

ferent kind of power entirely, one we have little ex-

perience in dealing with, let alone have strategies to


The Science involved in Charlie’s surgery was

also of a different order than we are accustomed to.

That Science is logical, objective, and impartial. But

the Science that has attached itself to herm-bodies is

not disinterested at all, but rather interested in the

most urgent way with preserving the universality of

Sex and with defending society’s interest in repro-

duction. In fact, one of IGM’s basic rules is that any

infant who might one day be able to become preg-

nant as an adult must be made into a female.

This kind of Science is characterized by a delib-

erate nonknowing, by its refusal to recognize the

been surgically misassigned the “wrong sex.” Our

conversation went like this:

Producer: We’re looking for someone whose sex

was misassigned and who was then raised as

the wrong sex, like John/Joan.

Me: How do we know if it was the wrong sex?

Producer: If they were really male but assigned

female, or really female but assigned male.

Me: Okay. But what if they were really intersex?

Producer: Right. I get your point. But we’re

looking for someone who was misassigned.

Me: But if they’re really intersex, then any

assignment would be a misassignment.

Producer: Right. I get your point. Really.

Me: Why don’t you interview Cheryl Chase?

She/he’s well known and very articulate.

Producer: Cheryl was misassigned?

Me: Yes. She/he was raised as a boy, then they

decided she/he was a girl.

Producer: So she’s really male?

Me: No, she/he’s really Cheryl.

Producer: Right. I get it. I really do. But she’s

really a girl, right?

Me: Well, to me she/he looks like a woman, but

do you mean hair, hormones, chromosomes,

or genitals?

Producer: You know. Her real sex.

Me: Cheryl’s real sex is intersex.

Producer: Uh-huh. I get it, honest. But can you

give me an intersex person who was


Cheryl/Charlie had no say in what was done to him/

her, nor had she/he complained that anything was

wrong with him/her. The doctors and nurses

involved were not spiteful or intolerant. On the

contrary, they were dedicated healers, trained in pe-

diatrics and deeply committed to Cheryl/ Charlie’s

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Up until a few years ago, the U.S. government

was funding research into the best treatments for

norm-transcending kids. Tax dollars were appropri-

ated to pay for a new sort of knowledge manipula-

tion: the prevention of “sissy boys.” This has helped

fuel a new counterscience devoted to providing bio-

logical basis for homosexuality. Our power over
such bodies is enabled by the kinds of knowledge

we create about them.
By asserting that the knowledge and language

we create is transparent and objective, we confer

enormous authority to it. We insulate it from criti-

cism and deny its political origins; we justify ex-

cesses that might otherwise be unthinkable. At the

margins, Science no longer asks but tells. Nature no

longer speaks the truth, but is spoken to. Here,

where our narrative of Sex breaks down, Knowl-

edge fi nally bares its teeth.

Cheryl can be understood as a genitally mutilated

female, a genitally mutilated male, a transgender

individual, an intersex individual, a man who sleeps

with women, a woman who sleeps with women, or

even a man with a vagina. This proved to be a real

obstacle when Cheryl dealt with identity-based


When we approached the board of a national

women’s organization for help, the organization’s

representatives responded that IGM was a terrible

practice, and someone should stop it. But why, they

wanted to know, was IGM a women’s issue?

We pointed out that the overwhelming majority

of infants diagnosed as “intersex” are otherwise un-

remarkable children whose clitorises happen to be

larger than two standard deviations from the mean—

an arbitrary measure equal to about three eighths of

an inch. It turns out birth sex is like a menu. If your

organ is less than three eighths of an inch long, it’s

a clitoris and you’re a baby girl. If it’s longer than an

inch, it’s a penis and you’re a baby boy.

It is a startling example of the power of lan-

guage, knowledge, and science to create bodies to

most obvious facts of the infant bodies before it.

It is remarkable for its sturdy denial of any facts

or  interpretations that might contradict its own


Medical theories of Sex, like so much of theory, are

concerned with the resolution and management of

difference. Intersex infants represent one of soci-

ety’s most anxious fears—the multiplicity of Sex,

the pinging under the binary hood, a noise in the

engine of reproduction that must be located and


This kind of Science is not limited to bodies. Its

psychiatric counterpart is called Gender Identity

Disorder, or GID. GID does for insubordinate gen-

ders what IGM does for insubordinate genitals.

In GID, noncomplaining children as young as

3  and as old as 18 are made to undergo treatment

that includes behavioral modifi cation, confi nement

to psychiatric wards, and psychotropic medication,

all because they transcend binary gender norms

and/or cross-gender identify. These treatment mea-

sures are intended to help the child fi t back into a

defi ned gender role.

In many cases the psychiatrists who treat GID

believe that norm-transcending “sissy boys” and

“tomboy girls” are more likely to grow up to be

gay, and GID treatment is designed to prevent

homosexuality in adults. Yet gay activists largely

ignore GID because they represent gay and lesbian

Americans, and a 3-year-old doesn’t have that kind

of identity yet.

Of course the effort to regulate gender in chil-

dren is not limited to those “at the margins.” We

have a host of social practices designed to mascu-

linize boys and feminize girls that start at birth.

For instance, infants who cry are more likely to be

described as angry by adults who think they are

boys, sad if they think they are girls. Caregivers

are more likely to stroke and caress babies if they

think they are girls and to bounce them if they

think they are boys.

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122 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

issue? I pointed out that many intersex infants are

heterosexualized as infants, surgically altered sim-

ply to ensure their bodies can accommodate a penis

during intercourse.

Even worse, some doctors perform IGM out of

the antique fear that girls with large clits (which no

man likes) will repel potential husbands (which

every woman needs), interfere with penetration

(which every woman enjoys), and increase their

chance of growing up to be masculinized lesbian

women (which practically no woman wants to be).

IGM was no longer an intersex issue or even a

women’s issue; it had become a gay issue.

I decided to cap my success by addressing a

meeting of transgender organizations. Gender-

queerness was their beat. This would be a walk in

the park. And it was. They understood IGM right

away. It was, they all agreed, a terrible practice, that

someone should stop. But why, they wanted to

know, was IGM a transgender issue?

Soft-pedaling Cheryl’s identities as intersex, fe-

male, or lesbian, I focused like a laser on gender

stereotypes. I pointed out that Cheryl had changed

from one sex to another: She was transgender. Even

more, IGM was a tell-tale example of enforcing ex-

actly the kind of rigid, narrow, outdated gender ste-

reotypes that hurt transgender people. In addition, a

signifi cant minority of transsexuals have some sort

of organ development (such as hormonal imbal-

ances and small or partial gonads) that could easily

have gotten them diagnosed as intersex.

After extended discussion, IGM became a trans-

gender issue.

Of course, none of these groups was ill inten-

tioned or predisposed toward excluding intersex

issues and IGM. They were all progressive, com-

mitted, and compassionate. Yet if national feminist

groups even suspected that doctors performed clito-

ridectomies on thousands of baby girls each year,

they would try to shut down hospitals across the

country. If gay rights activists suspected that doc-

tors were using hormones and surgery to erase

thousands of potential lesbians each year, queer

activists would be demonstrating in the halls of

hospitals and lobbying in the halls of Congress.

realize that, if pediatricians agreed to increase this

rule to, say, three standard deviations from the

mean, thousands of intersex infants would be in-

stantly “cured.”

On the other hand, if they decided to decrease it

to one-and-a half standard deviations, one third to

half of the female readers of this book would sud-

denly fi nd themselves intersexed, and therefore

candidates for genital surgery.

But if it’s in between, you’re a baby herm: The

organ is an enlarged clit, and it gets cut off. The

pediatrician will apologetically explain to your par-

ents that you were born genitally “deformed,”

but—through the miracle of modern Science—they

can make you into a “normal little girl.”

Of course, this never happens in reverse. No pe-

diatrician will ever apologetically explain to your

parents that, “I’m afraid your son’s penis is going to

be too big, maybe eight or nine inches long. No one

will ever be attracted to him but homosexuals and

oversexed women. If we operate quickly we can

save him.”

To help board members of the women’s organi-

zation to understand, I showed them how to make a

diagnosis. Holding up a thumb and forefi nger about

a quarter inch apart, I said, “female.” Moving them

about three-eighths of an inch apart, I said “inter-

sex.” I repeated this fi nger movement from “fe-

male” to “intersexed” over and over until heads

began to nod.

Since many intersex infants were “really”

women, this made IGM a women’s issue. The board

members even accepted Cheryl—a true hermaphro-

dite if ever there was one—as a woman.

Unfortunately, several board members insisted

that since they were a women’s group, I had to ar-

ticulate everything in terms of “intersex” girls, a

term with no meaning that contradicted everything

I was trying to tell them.

Flushed with success, I asked a gathering of

national gay organizations for their support on

IGM, too. After what I thought was an impassioned

presentation, they all agreed that IGM was a terri-

ble practice and someone should stop it. But why,

they wanted to know, was IGM a gay and lesbian

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READING 11: Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference 123

this rigidly adhered-to code. And it is a rigid code.

I recently stood in a clothing store, paralyzed with

indecision as I deliberated which sleeper to

choose for a friend’s new baby girl. The cutest

one had little honking cars on it. Yet even though

my friend lives in England, rather than Saudi

Arabia, I just couldn’t choose it. I knew that if my

friend ever did put her baby in that sleeper (rather

than just toss it in the Goodwill pile thinking, The

sooner Cordelia fi nishes that book on gender the

better . . .), she would spend the rest of the day

correcting strangers who congratulated her on her

beautiful baby boy.

And well before dinnertime she would have

learned that you can dress babies in clothing in-

tended for the other sex or you can avoid being

looked at as if you were insane, but you cannot do

both. And yet this dress code for young children,

despite being so strict, is a relatively recent phe-

nomenon. Until the end of the nineteenth century,

even fi ve-year-old children were being dressed in

more-or-less unisex white dresses, according to

sociologist Jo Paoletti. The introduction of colored

fabrics for young children’s clothing marked the

beginning of the move toward our current pink-blue

labeling of gender, but it took nearly half a century

for the rules to settle into place. For a time, pink

was preferred for boys, because it was “a decided

and stronger” color, a close relative to red, symbol-

izing “zeal and courage.” Blue, being “more deli-

cate and dainty” and “symbolic of faith and

constancy” was reserved for girls. Only toward the

middle of the twentieth century did existing prac-

tices become fi xed.

Yet so thoroughly have these preferences be-

come ingrained that psychologists and journalists

now speculate on the genetic and evolutionary ori-

gins of gendered color preferences that are little

more than fi fty years old.
For example, a few years

ago an article in an Australian newspaper discussed

the origins of the pink princess phenomenon. After

trotting out the ubiquitous anecdote about the

mother who tried and failed to steer her young

daughter away from the pink universe, the journal-

ist writes that the mother’s failure “suggests her

But none of these scenarios have happened, all

because an arbitrary defi nition means that these in-

fants aren’t female or possibly lesbian or even

transgender. They’re this other thing called inter-

sex, which is not an issue for women or gays or

transgender people; it’s a medical issue. Presented

with an enormously damaging and barbaric prac-

tice that harms thousands of kids, no group was

able to embrace IGM as an issue. The rules of iden-

tity meant that intersex infants—the noise in the

system—didn’t fi t. . . .

1. What are particular words, phrases, and con-

cepts that especially contribute to the “need”

for genital surgery?

2. Would you agree that the genital surgeries

Wilchins describes are for cosmetic reasons?

R E A D I N G 1 1

Delusions of Gender:
How Our Minds, Society,
and Neurosexism Create

Cordelia Fine

If you’re ever feeling bored and aimless in a shop-

ping mall, try this experiment. Visit ten children’s

clothing stores, and each time approach a sales-

person saying that you are looking for a present

for a newborn. Count how many times you are

asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?” You are likely to have

a 100 percent hit rate if you try this one spare af-

ternoon. It is so ubiquitous now to dress and ac-

cessorize boys and girls differently, from birth,

that it is easy to forget to wonder why we do this

or to ask what children themselves might make of

Cordelia Fine, professor at the University of Melbourne, is

an academic psychologist and writer.

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124 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Imagine, for a moment, that we could tell at

birth (or even before) whether a child was left-

handed or right-handed. By convention, the parents

of left-handed babies dress them in pink clothes,

wrap them in pink blankets, and decorate their

rooms with pink hues. The left-handed baby’s bot-

tle, bibs, and pacifi ers—and later, cups, plates, and

utensils, lunch box, and backpack—are often pink

or purple with motifs such as butterfl ies, fl owers,

and fairies. Parents tend to let the hair of left-

handers grow long, and while it is still short in

babyhood a barrette or bow (often pink) serves as a

stand-in. Right-handed babies, by contrast, are

never dressed in pink; nor do they ever have pink

accessories or toys. Although blue is a popular color

for right-handed babies, as they get older any color,

excluding pink or purple, is acceptable. Clothing

and other items for right-handed babies and chil-

dren commonly portray vehicles, sporting equip-

ment, and space rockets; never butterfl ies, fl owers,

or fairies. The hair of right-handers is usually kept

short and is never prettifi ed with accessories.

Nor do parents just segregate left- and right-

handers symbolically, with color and motif, in our

imaginary world. They also distinguish between

them verbally. “Come on, left-handers!” cries out

the mother of two left-handed children in the park.

“Time to go home.” Or they might say, “Well, go

and ask that right-hander if you can have a turn on

the swing now.” At playgroup, children overhear

comments like, “Left-handers love drawing, don’t

they,” and “Are you hoping for a right-hander this

time?” to a pregnant mother. At preschool, the

teacher greets them with a cheery, “Good morning,

left-handers and right-handers.” In the supermar-

ket, a father says proudly in response to a polite

enquiry, “I’ve got three children altogether: one

left-hander and two right-handers.”

And fi nally, although left-handers and right-

handers happily live together in homes and com-

munities, children can’t help but notice that

elsewhere they are often physically segregated. The

people who care for them—primary caregivers,

child care workers, and kindergarten teachers,

for  example—are almost all left-handed, while

daughter was perhaps genetically wired that way”

and asks, “is there a pink princess gene that sud-

denly blossoms when little girls turn two?” Just in

case we mistake for a joke the idea that evolution

might have weeded out toddlers uninterested in ti-

aras and pink tulle, the journalist then turns to

prominent child psychologist Dr. Michael Carr-

Gregg for further insight into the biological basis of

princess mania: “The reason why girls like pink is

that their brains are structured completely differ-

ently to boys,” he sagely informs us. “Part of the

brain that processes emotion and part of the brain

that processes language is one and the same in girls

but is completely different in boys.” (Now where

have we heard that before?) “This explains so

much—you can give a girl a truck and she’ll cuddle

it. You can give a boy a Barbie doll and he’ll rip its

head off.”

But what is also overlooked is why , according to
Paoletti, children’s fashions began to change. Dresses

for boys older than two years old began to fall out of

favor toward the end of the nineteenth century. This

was not mere whim, but seemed to be in response to

concerns that masculinity and femininity might not,

after all, inevitably unfurl from deep biological roots.

At the same time that girls were being extended

more parental license to be physically active, child

psychologists were warning that “gender distinc-

tions could be taught and must be.” Some pants,

please, for the boys. After the turn of the century,

psychologists became more aware of just how sensi-

tive even infants are to their environments. As a re-

sult, “[t]he same forces that had altered the clothing

styles of preschoolers—anxiety about shifting gen-

der roles and the emerging belief that gender could

be taught—also transformed infantswear.”

In other words, color-coding for boys and girls

once quite openly served the purpose of helping

young children learn gender distinctions. Today,

the original objective behind the convention has

been forgotten. Yet it continues to accomplish ex-

actly that, together with other habits we have that

also draw children’s attention to gender, as a num-

ber of developmental psychologists have insight-

fully argued.

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have developed the ability to make mental notes

regarding what goes along with being male or fe-

male: they will look longer, in surprise, at a picture

of a man with an object that was previously only

paired with women, and vice versa.
This means

that children are well-placed, early on, to start

learning the gender ropes. As they approach their

second birthday, children are already starting to

pick up the rudiments of gender stereotyping.

There’s some tentative evidence that they know for

whom fi re hats, dolls, makeup, and so on are in-

tended before their second birthday.
And at around

this time, children start to use gender labels them-

selves and are able to say to which sex they them-

selves belong.

It’s at this critical point in their toddler years that

children lose their status as objective observers. It

is hard to merely dispassionately note what is for

boys and what is for girls once you realize that you

are a boy (or a girl) yourself. Once children have

personally relevant boxes in which to fi le what they

learn (labeled “Me” versus “Not Me”), this adds an

extra oomph to the drive to solve the mysteries

of  gender.

Developmental psychologists Carol

Martin and Diane Ruble suggest that children

become “gender detectives,” in search of clues as to

the implications of belonging to the male or female


Nor do they wait for formal instruction. The

academic literature is scattered with anecdotal re-

ports of preschoolers’ amusingly fl awed scientifi c

accounts of gender difference:

[O]ne child believed that men drank tea and women

drank coffee, because that was the way it was in his

house. He was thus perplexed when a male visitor

requested coffee. Another child, dangling his legs

with his father in a very cold lake, announced “only

boys like cold water, right Dad?” Such examples sug-

gest that children are actively seeking and “chewing”

on information about gender, rather than passively

absorbing it from the environment.

In fact, young children are so eager to carve up

the world into what is female and what is male that

Martin and Ruble have reported fi nding it diffi cult

to create stimuli for their studies that children see

as gender neutral, “because children appear to seize

building sites and garbage trucks are peopled

by  right-handers. Public restrooms, sports teams,

many adult friendships, and even some schools,

are segregated by handedness.

You get the idea.

It’s not hard to imagine that, in such a society,

even very young children would soon learn that

there are two categories of people—right-handers

and left-handers—and would quickly become pro-

fi cient in using markers like clothing and hairstyle

to distinguish between the two kinds of children

and adults. But also, it seems more than likely that

children would also come to think that there must

be something fundamentally important about

whether one is a right-hander or a left-hander, since

so much fuss and emphasis is put on the distinction.

Children will, one would imagine, want to know

what it means to be someone of a particular hand-

edness and to learn what sets apart a child of one

handedness from those with a preference for the

other hand.

We tag gender in exactly these ways, all of the

time. Anyone who spends time around children will

know how rare it is to come across a baby or child

whose sex is not labeled by clothing, hairstyle, or

accessories. Anyone with ears can hear how adults

constantly label gender with words: he, she, man,
woman, boy, girl, and so on. And we do this even
when we don’t have to. Mothers reading picture

books, for instance, choose to refer to storybook

characters by gender labels (like woman ) twice as
often as they choose nongendered alternatives (like

teacher or person ). 6 Just as if adults were always
referring to people as left-handers or right-handers

(or Anglos and Latinos, or Jews and Catholics), this

also helps to draw attention to gender as an impor-

tant way of dividing up the social world into


This tagging of gender—especially different

conventions for male and female dress, hairstyle,

accessories, and use of makeup—may well help

children to learn how to divvy up the people around

them by sex. We’ve seen that babies as young as

three to four months old can discriminate between

males and females. At just ten months old, babies

READING 11: Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference 125

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126 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

5. The salience of gender in the social world, and the active

role played by the child in gender development that the

salience and importance of gender motivates, has been

highlighted by a number of researchers, for example

(Arthur et al., 2008; Bem, 1983; Bigler & Liben, 2007;

Martin & Halverson, 1981). The material that follows all

draws on the insights of Gender Schema Theory and

especially Developmental Intergroup Theory.

6. (Gelman, Taylor, & Naguyen, 2004).

7. (Levy & Haaf, 1994).

8. For example (Serbin, Poulin-Dubois, & Eichstedt,

2002), also (Poulin-Dubois et al., 2002), who found that

knowledge was seen earlier in girls than in boys.

9. (Zosuls et al., 2009).

10. (Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002; Martin & Halverson,


11. (Martin & Ruble, 2004), p. 67.

12. (Ruble, Lurye, & Zosuls, 2008), p. 2.

13. (Martin & Ruble, 2004), p. 68.

14. Carol Martin, personal communication, September 9,


15. (Martin, Eisenbud, & Rose, 1995).

Arthur, A. E., Bigler, R. S., Liben, L. S., Gelman, S. A., &

Ruble, D. N. (2008). Gender stereotyping and prejudice in

young children: A developmental intergroup perspective.

In S. R. Levy & M. Killen (eds.), Intergroup attitudes and
relations in childhood through adulthood (pp. 66–86).
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bem, S. L. (1983). Gender schema theory and its implica-

tions for child development: Raising gender-aschematic

children in a gender-schematic society. SIGNS: Journal of
Women in Culture & Society , 8(4), 598–616.

Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L. S. (2007). Developmental inter-

group theory: Explaining and reducing children’s social

stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in Psycho-
logical Science , 16(3), 162–166.

Fine, Cordelia (2011-08-08). Delusions of Gender: How
Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference .
Norton. Kindle Edition.

Gelman, S. A., Taylor, M. G., & Naguyen, S. P. (2004).

III.  How children and mothers express gender essential-

ism. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child
Development , 69(1), 33–63.

Hurlbert, A. C., & Ling, Y. (2007). Biological components of

sex differences in color preference. Current Biology ,
17(16), R623–R625.

Lawson, A. (2007, May 23). The princess gene. The Age , 18.
Levy, G. D., & Haaf, R. A. (1994). Detection of gender-

related categories by 10-month-old infants. Infant
Behavior & Development , 17(4), 457–459.

on any element that may implicate a gender norm

so that they may categorize it as male or female.”

For instance, when creating characters from outer

space for children, it proved diffi cult to fi nd colors

and shapes that didn’t signify gender. Even some-

thing as subtle as the shape of the head could indi-

cate gender in the eyes of the children: aliens with

triangular heads, for example, were seen as male.

(Later, we’ll see why.) And experimental studies

bear out children’s propensity to jump to Men Are

from Mars, Women Are from Venus-style conclu-

sions on rather fl imsy evidence. Asked to rate the

appeal of a gender-neutral toy (which girls and

boys on average like the same amount), boys as-

sume that only other boys will like what they them-

selves like; ditto for girls.

It’s hardly surprising that children take on the un-

offi cial occupation of gender detective. They are

born into a world in which gender is continually em-

phasized through conventions of dress, appearance,

language, color, segregation, and symbols. Every-

thing around the child indicates that whether one is

male or female is a matter of great importance. At the

same time . . . the information we provide to chil-

dren, through our social structure and media, about

what gender means—what goes with being male or

female—still follows fairly old-fashioned guidelines.

1. Fine describes the historical change in fashion

that followed anxiety about shifting gender

roles. Are there contemporary equivalents?

2. Do you think the emphasis on gender differ-

ence in clothing for children is diminishing?

3. How do you assess Fine’s comparison of gen-

der with being left- or right-handed?

1. “What color for your baby?” Parents ’ 14, no. 3 (March

1939), p. 98. Quoted in (Paoletti, 1997), p. 32.

2. (Hurlbert & Ling, 2007; Alexander, 2003).

3. (Lawson, 2007). Quotations from paras. 4, 5, 8, 8, and

10, respectively.

4. (Paoletti, 1997), pp. 30 and 31.

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READING 12: What’s Class Got to Do with It? 127

Poulin-Dubois, D., Serbin, L. A., Eichstedt, J. A.,

Sen, M. G., & Beissel, C. F. (2002). Men don’t put on make-

up: Toddlers’ knowledge of the gender stereotyping of

household activities. Social Development , 11(2), 166–181.
Ruble, D., Lurye, L., & Zosuls, K. (2008). Pink frilly dresses

(PFD) and early gender identity [Electronic Version].

Princeton Report on Knowledge . http://www.princeton

.edu/prok/issues/2-2/pink_frilly.xml. Accessed on

April 23, 2008.

Serbin, L. A., Poulin-Dubois, D., & Eichstedt, J. A. (2002).

Infants’ responses to gender-inconsistent events. Infancy ,
3(4), 531–542.

Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shrout,

P. E., Bornstein, M. H., & Greulich, F. K. (2009). The ac-

quisition of gender labels in infancy: Implications for sex-

typed play. Developmental Psychology , 45(3), 688–701.

Martin, C. L., Eisenbud, L., & Rose, H. (1995). Children’s

gender-based reasoning about toys. Child Development,
66(5), 1453–1471.

Martin, C. L., & Halverson, C. F. (1981). A schematic pro-

cessing model of sex typing and stereotyping in children.

Child Development , 52, 1119–1134.
Martin, C. L., & Ruble, D. (2004). Children’s search for gen-

der cues: Cognitive perspectives on gender development.

Current Directions in Psychological Science , 13(2), 67–70.
Martin, C.L., Ruble, D. N., & Szkrybalo, J. (2002). Cogni-

tive theories of early gender development. Psychological
Bulletin , 128(6), 903–933.

Paoletti, J. B. (1997). The gendering of infants’ and toddlers’

clothing in America. In K. Martinez & K. L. Ames (eds.),

The material culture of gender: The gender of material
culture (pp. 27–35). Hanover, NH, and London: Univer-
sity Press of New England.

R E A D I N G 1 2

What’s Class Got to Do with It?

Michael Zweig

Whether in regard to the economy or issues of war

and peace, class is central to our everyday lives. Yet

class has not been as visible as race or gender, not

nearly as much a part of our conversations and

sense of ourselves as these and other “identities.”

We are of course all individuals, but our individual-

ity and personal life chances are shaped—limited

or enhanced—by the economic and social class in

which we have grown up and in which we exist as


Even though “class” is an abstract category of

social analysis, class is real. Since social abstrac-

tions can seem far removed from real life, it may

help to consider two other abstractions that have

important consequences for fl esh-and-blood indi-

viduals: race and gender. Suppose you knew there

were men and women because you could see the

difference, but you didn’t know about the socially

constructed concept of “gender.” You would be

missing something vitally important about the peo-

ple you see. You would have only a surface appre-

ciation of their lives. If, based only on direct

observation of skin color, you knew there were

white people and black people, but you didn’t know

about “race” in modern society, you would be igno-

rant of one of the most important determinants of

the experience of those white and black people.

Gender and race are abstractions, yet they are pow-

erful, concrete infl uences in everyone’s lives. They

carry signifi cant meaning despite wide differences

in experience within the populations of men,

women, whites, blacks.

Similarly, suppose that based on your observa-

tion of work sites and labor markets you knew

there  were workers and employers, but you didn’t

recognize the existence of class. You would be

blind to a most important characteristic of the indi-

vidual workers and employers you were observing,

something that has tremendous infl uence in their

lives. Despite the wide variety of experiences and

identities among individual workers, capitalists,

and middle class people, it still makes sense to
Michael Zweig is a professor of economics at the State

University of New York, Stony Brook.

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128 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

fi nance, CEOs, chief fi nancial offi cers, chief oper-

ating offi cers, members of boards of directors,

those whose decisions dominate the workplace

and the economy, and whose economic power

often translates into dominant power in the realms

of politics, culture, the media, and even religion.

Capitalists comprise about 2 percent of the U.S.

labor force.

There are big differences among capitalists in

the degree of power they wield, particularly in the

geographic extent of that power. The CEO of a

business employing one hundred people in a city of

fi fty thousand might well be an important fi gure on

the local scene, but not necessarily in state or re-

gional affairs. On the national scale, power is prin-

cipally in the hands of those who control the largest

corporations, those employing over fi ve hundred

people. Of the over twenty-one million business en-

terprises in the United States, only sixteen thousand

employ that many. They are controlled by around

two hundred thousand people, fewer than two-

tenths of 1 percent of the labor force.

Even among the powerful, power is concen-

trated at the top. It’s one thing to control a single

large corporation, another to sit on multiple corpo-

rate boards and be in a position to coordinate strat-

egies across corporations. In fact, if we count only

those people who sit on multiple boards, so-called

interlocking directors, they could all fi t into Yan-

kee Stadium. They and the top political leaders in

all branches of the federal government constitute a

U.S. “ruling class” at the pinnacle of national


Capitalists are rich, of course. But when vice-

president Dick Cheney invited a select few to help

him formulate the country’s energy policy shortly

after the new Bush administration came into offi ce

in 2001, he didn’t invite “rich people.” He invited

people who were leaders in the energy industry,

capitalists. The fact that they were also rich was

incidental. Capitalists are rich people who control

far more than their personal wealth. They control

the wealth of the nation, concentrated as it is in the

largest few thousand corporations. There is no

acknowledge the existence and importance of class

in modern society. In fact, without a class analysis

we would have only the most superfi cial knowledge

of our own lives and the experiences of others we

observe in economic and political activity. . . .

When people in the United States talk about

class, it is often in ways that hide its most impor-

tant parts. We tend to think about class in terms of

income, or the lifestyles that income can buy. . . .

[But class can be better understood] as mainly a

question of economic and political power. . . .

Power doesn’t exist alone within an individual or a

group. Power exists as a relationship between and

among different people or groups. This means that

we cannot talk about one class of people alone,

without looking at relationships between that class

and others.

The working class is made up of people who,

when they go to work or when they act as citizens,

have comparatively little power or authority. They

are the people who do their jobs under more or

less close supervision, who have little control over

the  pace or the content of their work, who aren’t

the boss of anyone. They are blue-collar people

like construction and factory workers, and white-

collar workers like bank tellers and writers of rou-

tine computer code. They work to produce

and distribute goods, or in service industries or

government agencies. They are skilled and

unskilled, engaged in over fi ve hundred different

occupations tracked by the U.S. Department of

Labor: agricultural laborers, baggage handlers,

cashiers, fl ight attendants, home health care aides,

machinists, secretaries, short order cooks, sound

technicians, truck drivers. In the United States,

working class people are by far the majority of the

population. Over eighty-eight million people were

in working class occupations in 2002, comprising

62 percent of the labor force.

On the other side of the basic power relation in

a capitalist society is the capitalist class, those

most senior executives who direct and control the

corporations that employ the private-sector work-

ing class. These are the “captains of industry” and

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READING 12: What’s Class Got to Do with It? 129

able to win for working people. “Middle class

workers” are supposed to be “most people,” those

with stable jobs and solid values based in the work

ethic, as opposed to poor people—those on welfare

or the “underclass”—on one side, and “the rich” on

the other. When people think about classes in terms

of “rich, middle, and poor,” almost everyone ends

up in the middle.

Understanding class in terms of power throws a

different light on the subject. In this view, middle

class people are in the middle of the power grid that

has workers and capitalists at its poles. The middle

class includes professional people like doctors,

lawyers, accountants, and university professors.

Most people in the “professional middle class” are

not self-employed. They work for private compa-

nies or public agencies, receive salaries, and an-

swer to supervisors. In these ways they are like


But if we compare professional middle class

people with well-paid workers, we see important

differences. A unionized auto assembly worker

doing a lot of overtime makes enough money to live

the lifestyle of a “middle class worker,” even more

money than some professors or lawyers. But a well-

paid unionized machinist or electrician or auto-

worker is still part of the working class. Professors

and lawyers have a degree of autonomy and control

at work that autoworkers don’t have. The difference

is a question of class.

It is also misleading to equate the working class

as a whole with its best-paid unionized members.

Only 9 percent of private sector workers belong to

unions, and millions of them are low-paid service

employees. The relatively well-paid manufacturing

industries are not typical of American business,

and they are shrinking as a proportion of the total


The middle class also includes supervisors in the

business world, ranging from line foremen to senior

managers below the top decision-making execu-

tives. As with the professional middle class, some

people in the supervisory middle class are close to

working people in income and lifestyle. We see this

lobby in Washington representing “rich people.”

Lobbyists represent various industries or associa-

tions of industries that sometimes coordinate their

efforts on behalf of industry in general. They repre-

sent the interests that capitalists bring to legislative

and regulatory matters.

Something similar operates for the working

class. Over thirteen million people are in unions in

the United States. Most of these unions—like

the  United Auto Workers (UAW); the American

Federation of State, County, and Municipal Em-

ployees (AFSCME); the Carpenters; and the

International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT)—

maintain offi ces in Washington and in major and

even smaller cities where their members work. In

addition to engaging in collective bargaining at

the workplace, these unions lobby for their mem-

bers and occasionally coordinate their efforts to

lobby for broader working class interests. Sixty-

eight unions have joined under the umbrella of the

American Federation of Labor, Congress of In-

dustrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to pool re-

sources and try to advance the interests of working

people in general. These organizations represent

workers, not “the poor” or “middle-income peo-

ple,” even though some workers are poor and

some have an income equal to that of some in the

middle class.

In between the capitalist and the working classes

is the middle class. The “middle class” gets a lot of

attention in the media and political commentary in

the United States, but this term is almost always

used to describe people in the middle of the income

distribution. People sometimes talk about “middle

class workers,” referring to people who work for a

wage but live comfortable if modest lives. Especially

in goods-producing industries, unionized workers

have been able to win wages that allow home owner-

ship, paid vacations, nice cars, home entertainment

centers, and other consumer amenities.

When class is understood in terms of income or

lifestyle, these workers are sometimes called “mid-

dle class.” Even leaders of the workers’ unions use

the term to emphasize the gains unions have been

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130 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

of the labor force in the United States—sizable,

but far from the majority, far from the “typical”


Like the working class and the capitalists, the

middle class is represented in the political process

by professional associations and small business

groups. There is no “middle-income” lobby, but

there are, for example, the Trial Lawyers Association,

the American Medical Association, the American

Association of University Professors, the National

Association of Realtors.

Clearly, classes are not monolithic collections of

socially identical people. We have seen that each class

contains quite a bit of variation. Rather than sharp

dividing lines, the borders between them are porous

and ambiguous—important areas to study and better

understand. Also, beyond the differences in occupa-

tions and relative power within classes, which lead to

differences in incomes, wealth, and lifestyles, each

class contains men and women of every race, na-

tionality, and creed. Yet, despite these rich internal

variations and ambiguous borders, a qualitative dif-

ference remains between the life experience of the

working class compared with that of the profes-

sional and managerial middle class, to say nothing

of differences both of these have with the capitalists.

1. How is social class like and also different from

race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation?

2. Would you agree with Zweig that “without a

class analysis, we would have only the most

superfi cial knowledge of our own lives and the

experience of others”?

1. For a detailed discussion of the class composition of the

United States, on which these and the following fi ndings

are based, see Michael Zweig, The Working Class Ma-
jority: America’s Best Kept Secret (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press, 2000), chap. 1.

2. Some middle class people are represented by unions,

such as university professors in the American Federation

of Teachers (AFT) and legal aid attorneys in the UAW.

Most union members are in the working class.

mostly at the lower levels of supervision, as with

line foremen or other fi rst-level supervisors. They

often are promoted from the ranks of workers, con-

tinue to live in working class areas, and socialize

with working class friends. But a foreman is not a

worker when it comes to the power grid. The fore-

man is on the fl oor to represent the owner, to exe-

cute orders in the management chain of command.

The foreman is in the middle—between the work-

ers and the owners. When a worker becomes a su-

pervisor, he or she enters the middle class. But just

as the well-paid “middle class worker” is atypical,

so “working class bosses” make up a small fraction

of supervisory and managerial personnel in the

U.S. economy.

We see something similar with small business

owners, the third component of the middle class.

Some come out of the working class and continue

to have personal and cultural ties to their roots. But

these connections do not change the fact that work-

ers aspire to have their own business to escape the

regimentation of working class jobs, seeking in-

stead the freedom to “be my own boss.” That free-

dom, regardless of how much it might be limited by

competitive pressures in the marketplace and how

many hours the owner must work to make a go of it,

puts the small business owner in a different class

from workers.

At the other end of the business scale, senior

managers and high-level corporate attorneys and

accountants share quite a bit with the capitalists

they serve. They have considerable authority, make

a lot of money, and revolve in the same social cir-

cles. But they are not the fi nal decision makers.

They are at a qualitatively different level in the

power grid from those they serve, who pay them

well for their service but retain ultimate authority.

They, too, are in the middle class.

In all three sections of the middle class—

professionals, supervisors, and small business

owners—there are fuzzy borders with the working

class and with the capitalists. Yet the differences in

power, independence, and life circumstances

among these classes support the idea of a separate

middle class. The middle class is about 36 percent

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READING 13: The Silver Spoon: Inheritance and the Staggered Start 131

our parents. The baton is passed, and for a while,

both parents and children run together. When the

exchange is complete, the children are on their own

as they position themselves for the next exchange

to the next generation. Although each new runner

may gain or lose ground in the competition, each

new runner inherits an initial starting point in

the race.

In this intergenerational relay race, children

born to wealthy parents start at or near the fi nish

line, while children born into poverty start behind

everyone else. Those who are born close to the fi n-

ish line need no merit to get ahead. They already

are ahead. The poorest of the poor, however, need

to traverse the entire distance to get to the fi nish

line on the basis of merit alone. In this sense, meri-

tocracy applies strictly only to the poorest of the

poor; everyone else has at least some advantage of

inheritance that places him or her ahead at the start

of the race.

In comparing the effects of inheritance and

individual merit on life outcomes, the effects of

inheritance come fi rst, followed by the effects of in-
dividual merit—not the other way around. Figure 1

depicts the intergenerational relay race to get ahead.

R E A D I N G 1 3

The Silver Spoon: Inheritance
and the Staggered Start

Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr.

To heir is human.

—Jeffrey P. Rosenfeld, Legacy of Aging

A common metaphor for the competition to

get  ahead in life is the foot race. The imagery is

that  the fastest runner—presumably the most

meritorious—will be the one to break the tape at

the fi nish line. But in terms of economic competi-

tion, the race is rigged. If we think of money as a

measure of who gets how much of what there is

to get, the race to get ahead does not start anew

with each generation. Instead, it is more like a

relay race in which we inherit a starting point from

Stephen J. McNamee is a professor of sociology at the Univer-

sity of North Carolina, Wilmington. Robert K. Miller, Jr. is

a  professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina,





F I G U R E 1
The intergenerational race to get ahead. Note: solid lines are effects of

inheritance; dashed lines are potential effects of merit.

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132 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

The solid lines represent the effects of inheritance

on economic outcomes. The dotted lines represent

the potential effects of merit. The “distance” each

person needs to reach the fi nish line on the basis of

merit depends on how far from the fi nish line each

person starts the race in the fi rst place.

It is important to point out that equivalent

amounts of merit do not lead to equivalent end re-

sults. If each dash represents one “unit” of merit, a

person born poor who advances one unit on the

basis of individual merit over a lifetime ends up at

the end of her life one unit ahead of where she

started but still at or close to poverty. A person who

begins life one unit short of the top can ascend to the

top based on an equivalent one unit of merit. Each

person is equally meritorious, but his or her end po-

sition in the race to get ahead is very different.

Heirs to large fortunes in the world start life

at or  near the finish line. Barring the unlikely

possi bility of parental disinheritance, there is

virtually no realistic scenario in which they end

up destitute— regardless of the extent of their

innate talent or individual motivation. Their future

is fi nancially secure. They will grow up having the

best of everything and having every opportunity

money can buy.

Most parents want the best for their children. As

a result, most parents try to do everything they can

to secure their children’s futures. Indeed, that paren-

tal desire to provide advantages for children may

even have biological origins. Under the “inclusive

fi tness-maximizing” theory of selection, for in-

stance, benefi ciaries are favored in inheritance ac-

cording to their biological relatedness and

reproductive value. Unsurprisingly, research shows

that benefactors are much more likely to bequeath

estates to surviving spouses and children than to un-

related individuals or institutions (Schwartz 1996;

Willenbacher 2003). In a form of what might be

called “reverse inheritance,” parents may invest in

children to secure their own futures in the event that

they become unable to take care of themselves. Par-

ents may also invest in their children’s future to re-

alize vicarious prestige through the successes of

their children, which may, in turn, be seen as a vali-

dation of their own genetic endowments or child-

rearing skills.

Regardless of the source of parental motivation,

most parents clearly wish to secure children’s fu-

tures. To the extent that parents are successful in

passing on advantages to children, meritocracy

does not operate as the basis for who ends up with

what. Despite the ideology of meritocracy, the real-

ity in America, as elsewhere, is inheritance fi rst and

merit second. . . .

Inheritance is more than bulk estates bequeathed to

descendants; more broadly defi ned, it refers to the

total impact of initial social-class placement at birth

on future life outcomes. Therefore, it is not just the

superwealthy who are in a position to pass advan-

tages on to children. Advantages are passed on, in

varying degrees, to all of those from relatively priv-

ileged backgrounds. Even minor initial advantages

may accumulate during the life course. In this way,

existing inequalities are reinforced and extended

across generations. As Harvard economist John

Kenneth Galbraith put it in the opening sentence of

his well-known book The Affl uent Society , “Wealth
is not without its advantages and the case to the

contrary, although it has often been made, has never

proved widely persuasive” (1958, 13). Specifi cally,

the cumulative advantages of wealth inheritance

include the following.

Childhood Quality of Life

Children of the privileged enjoy a high standard of

living and quality of life regardless of their indi-

vidual merit or lack of it. For the privileged, this

not only includes high-quality food, clothing, and

shelter but also extends to luxuries such as enter-

tainment, toys, travel, family vacations, enrich-

ment camps, private lessons, and a host of other

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READING 13: The Silver Spoon: Inheritance and the Staggered Start 133

indulgences that wealthy parents and even middle-

class parents bestow on their children (Lareau

2003). Children do not earn a privileged lifestyle;

they inherit and benefi t from it long before their

parents are deceased.

Knowing with Which Fork to Eat

Cultural capital refers to what one needs to know to

function as a member of the various groups to

which one belongs. All groups have norms, values,

beliefs, ways of life, and codes of conduct that

identify the group and defi ne its boundaries. The

culture of the group separates insiders from outsid-

ers. Knowing and binding by these cultural codes

of conduct is required to maintain one’s status as a

member in good standing within the group. By

growing up in privilege, children of the elite are

socialized into elite ways of life. This kind of cul-

tural capital has commonly been referred to as

“breeding,” “refi nement,” “social grace,” “savoir

faire,” or simply “class” (meaning upper class).

Although less pronounced and rigid than in the

past, these distinctions persist into the present. In

addition to cultivated tastes in art and music (“high-

brow” culture), cultural capital includes, but is not

limited to, interpersonal styles and demeanor, man-

ners and etiquette, and vocabulary. Those from

more humble backgrounds who aspire to become

elites must acquire the cultural cachet to be ac-

cepted in elite circle, and this is no easy task. Those

born to it, however, have the advantage of acquiring

it “naturally” through inheritance, a kind of social

osmosis that takes place through childhood social-

ization (Lareau 2003).

Having Friends in High Places

Everybody knows somebody else. Social capital

refers to the “value” of whom you know. For the

most part, privileged people know other privileged

people, and poor people know other poor people.

Another nonmerit advantage inherited by children

of the wealthy is a network of connections to people

of power and infl uence. These are not connections

that children of the rich shrewdly foster or cultivate

on their own. The children of the wealthy travel in

high-powered social circles. These connections

provide access to power, information, and other re-

sources. The difference between rich and poor is

not in knowing people; it is in knowing people in

positions of power and infl uence who can do things

for you.

Early Withdrawals on the
Family Estate

Children of the privileged do not have to wait until

their parents die to inherit assets from them. Inter

vivos transfers of funds and “gifts” from parents to

children can be substantial, and there is strong

evidence suggesting that such transfers account

for a greater proportion of intergenerational trans-

fers than lump-sum estates at death (Gale and

Scholz 1994). Inter vivos gifts to children provide

a means of legally avoiding or reducing estate

taxes. In this way, parents can “spend down” their

estates during their lives to avoid estate and in-

heritance taxes upon their deaths. Furthermore, in

2001 the federal government enacted legislation

that is scheduled to ultimately phase out the fed-

eral estate tax. Many individual states have also

reduced or eliminated inheritance taxes. The im-

pact of these changes in tax law on intergenera-

tional transfers is at this point unclear. If tax

advantages were the only reasons for inter vivos

transfers, we might expect parents to slow down

the pace of inter vivos transfers. But it is unlikely

that the fl ow of such transfers will be abruptly cur-

tailed because they serve other functions. Besides

tax avoidance, parents also provide inter vivos

transfers to children to advance their children’s

current and future economic interests, especially

at critical or milestone stages of the life cycle.

These milestone events include going to college,

getting married, buying a house, and having chil-

dren. At each event, there may be a substantial in-

fusion of parental capital—in essence an early

withdrawal on the parental estate. One of the

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134 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

home only to return later to live with parents. Social

scientists report that 34 percent of young adults are

now moving back in with their parents during their

twenties ( Contexts 2008). The reasons for adult
children returning to live at home are usually fi nan-

cial: adult children may be between jobs, between

marriages, or without other viable means of self-

support. Such living arrangements are likely to in-

crease during periods of high unemployment,

which in early 2009 topped 8 percent of the civilian

labor force.

If America operated as a “true” merit system,

people would advance solely on the basis of merit

and fail when they lacked merit. In many cases

however, family resources prevent, or at least re-

duce, “skidding” among adult children. One of

the authors of this book recalls that when he left

home as an adult, his parents took him aside and

told him that no matter how bad things became

for him out there in the world, if he could get to a

phone, they would wire him money to come

home. This was his insurance against destitution.

Fortunately, he has not yet had to take his parents

up on their offer, but neither has he forgotten it.

Without always being articulated, the point is that

this informal familial insurance against down-

ward mobility is available in varying degrees, to

all except the poorest of the poor, who simply

have resources to provide.

Live Long and Prosper

From womb to tomb, the more affl uent one is, the

less the risk of injury, illness, and death (Budrys

2003; Cockerham 2000; National Center for

Health Statistics 2007; Wermuth 2003). Among

the many nonmerit advantages inherited by those

from privileged backgrounds is higher life expec-

tancy at birth and a greater chance of better health

throughout life. There are several possible rea-

sons for the strong and persistent relationship be-

tween socioeconomic status and health. Beginning

with fetal development and extending through

childhood, increasing evidence points to the

most  common forms of inter vivos gifts is pay-

ment for children’s education. A few generations

ago, children may have inherited the family farm

or the family business. With the rise of the modern

corporation and the decline of family farms and

businesses, inheritance increasingly takes on more

fungible or liquid forms, including cash transfers.

Indeed, for many middle-class Americans, educa-

tion has replaced tangible assets as the primary

form by which advantage is passed on between


What Goes Up Doesn’t Usually
Come Down

If America were truly a meritocracy, we would ex-

pect fairly equal amounts of both upward and

downward mobility. Mobility studies, however,

consistently show much higher rates of upward

than downward mobility. There are two key reasons

for this. First, most mobility that people have expe-

rienced in American in the past century, particu-

larly occupational mobility, was due to industrial

expansion and the rise of the general standard of

living in society as a whole. Sociologists refer to

this type of mobility as “structural mobility,” which

has more to do with changes in the organization of

society than with the merit of individuals. A second

reason why upward mobility is more prevalent than

downward mobility is that parents and extended

family networks insulate children from downward

mobility. That is, parents frequently “bail out,” or

“rescue,” their adult children in the event of life

crises such as sickness, unemployment, divorce, or

other setbacks that might otherwise propel adult

children into a downward spiral. In addition to

these external circumstances, parents also rescue

children from their own failures and weaknesses,

including self-destructive behaviors. Parental res-

cue as a form of inter vivos transfer is not a gener-

ally acknowledged or well-studied benefi t of

inheritance. Indirect evidence of parental rescue

may be found in the recent increase in the number

of “boomerang” children, adult children who leave

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Another reason for the health-wealth connection

is that the rich have greater access to quality

health care. In America, access to quality health

care is still largely for sale to the highest bidder.

Under these conditions, prevention and interven-

tion are more widely available to the more affl u-

ent. Finally, not only does lack of income lead

to poor health, but poor health leads to reduced

earnings. That is, if someone is sick or injured,

he or she may not be able to work or may have

limited earning power.

effects of “the long reach of early childhood” on

adult health (Smith 1999). Prenatal deprivations,

more common among the poor, for instance, are

associated with later life conditions such as retar-

dation, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes

and hypertension. Poverty in early childhood is

also associated with increased risk of adult dis-

eases. This may be due in part to higher stress

levels among the poor. There is also evidence that

cumulative wear and tear on the body over time

occurs under conditions of repeated high stress.


I Am a Pakistani Woman

I am a Pakistani woman, raised in the U.S. and Canada,

and often at odds with the Western standard of beauty.

As a child in Nova Scotia and later growing up in New

York and Indiana, I was proud of my uniqueness. On

traditional Pakistani and Muslim holidays, I got to wear

bright, fun clothes from my country and colorful jewelry.

I had a whole rich tradition of my own to celebrate in ad-

dition to Christmas and Easter. However, as I started

school, I somehow came to realize that being different

wasn’t so great—that in other people’s viewpoint, I looked

strange and acted funny. I learned the importance of fit-

ting in and behaving like the other girls. This involved

dressing well, giggling a lot, and having a superior, but

flirtatious attitude toward boys. I was very outgoing and

had very good grades, so outwardly I was able to “as-

similate” with some success. But my sister, who was

quiet and reticent, often took the brunt of other children’s

cruelty. I realize how proud and ashamed I was of my

heritage when I look at my relationship with my family.

A lesson I learned early on in the U.S. was that being

beautiful took a lot of money. It is painful, as an adult, for

me to consider the inexorable, never-ending pressure

that my father was under to embody the dominant,

middle-class cultural expressions of masculinity, as in

success at one’s job, making a big salary, and owning

status symbols. I resented him so much then for being a

poor, untenured professor and freelance writer. I wanted

designer clothes, dining out at nice restaurants, and a

big allowance. Instead, I had a deeply spiritual thinker,

writer, and theologian for a dad. I love(d) him and am so

very grateful for what he’s taught me, but as a child I

didn’t think of him as a success.

The prettiest girls in school all had a seemingly end-

less array of outfits, lots of makeup and perfume, and

everything by the “right” designers. I hated my mom for

making many of my clothes and buying things on sale

(and my mom was a great seamstress). I felt a sense of

hopelessness that I could never have the resources or

opportunities necessary to compete, to be beautiful.

Instead I found safety in conformity. When I was in

high school, the WASPy, preppy look was hot; it repre-

sented the epitome of success and privilege in America.

I worked hard to purchase a wardrobe of clothes with a

polo-horse insignia, by many hours at an after-school job.

I tried to hide my exotic look behind Khakis, boat shoes,

hair barrettes, and pearl studs. There was comfort in con-

formity. I saw the class “sex symbol” denigrated for wear-

ing tight dresses and having a very well-developed body

for a sixteen-year-old, and the more unique dressers dis-

missed as frivolous, trendy, and more than a little eccen-

tric. You couldn’t be too pretty, too ugly, too different—you

had to just blend in.

Though I did it well, I perpetually felt like an imposter.

This rigidly controlled, well-dressed preppy going

through school with good grades in advanced placement

classes in no way represented what I felt to be my true

Hoorie I. Siddique

READING 13: The Silver Spoon: Inheritance and the Staggered Start 135

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136 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

wealth and health may be related to the psychologi-

cal stress of relative deprivation, that is, the stress of

being at the bottom end of an unequal social pecking

order, especially when the dominant ideology attri-

butes being at the bottom to individual defi ciencies.

Despite the adage that “money can’t buy happi-

ness,” social science research has consistently

shown  that happiness and subjective well-being

tend to be related to the amount of income and

wealth people possess (Frey and Stutzer 2002;

Frank 2007a; Schnittker 2008). This research

shows that people living in wealthier (and more

democratic) countries tend to be happier and that

rates of happiness are sensitive to overall rates of

unemployment and infl ation. In general, poor peo-

ple are less happy than others, although increments

that exceed average amounts of income only

slightly increase levels of happiness. That is, be-

yond relatively low thresholds, additional incre-

ments of income and wealth are not likely to result

in additional increments of happiness. Although

money may not guarantee a long, happy, and
healthy life, a fair assessment is that it aids and

abets it. . . .

The United States has high levels of both income

and wealth inequality. In terms of the distribution of

income and wealth, America is clearly not a middle-

class society. Income and especially wealth are not

evenly distributed, with a relatively small number of

well-off families at one end and a small number of

poor families much worse off at the other. Instead,

the overall picture is one in which the bulk of the

available wealth is concentrated in a narrow range at

the very top of the system. In short, the distribution

of economic resources in society is not symmetrical

and certainly not bell-shaped: the poor who have the

least greatly outnumber the rich who have the most.

Moreover, in recent decades, by all measures, the

rich are getting richer, and the gap between the very

rich and everyone else has appreciably increased.

Overall, the less affl uent are at a health disad-

vantage due to higher exposure to a variety of un-

healthy living conditions. As medical sociologist

William Cockerham points out,

Persons living in poverty and reduced socioeconomic

circumstances have greater exposure to physical

(crowding, poor sanitation, extreme temperatures),

chemical and biochemical (diet, pollution, smoking,

alcohol, and drug abuse), biological (bacteria, viruses)

and psychological (stress) risk factors that produce ill

health than more affl uent individuals. (1998, 55).

Part of the exposure to health hazards is occupa-

tional. According to the Department of Labor,

those in the following occupations (listed in order

of risk) have the greatest likelihood of being killed

on the  job: fi shers, timber cutters, airplane pilots,

structural metal workers, taxicab drivers, construc-

tion laborers, roofers, electric power installers,

truck drivers, and farm workers. With the exception

of airline pilot, all the jobs listed are working-class

jobs. Since a person’s occupation is strongly

affected by family background, the prospects for

generally higher occupational health risks are in

this sense at least indirectly inherited. Finally,

although homicides constitute only a small propor-

tion of all causes of death, it is worth noting that the

less affl uent are at higher risk for being victims of

violent crime, including homicide.

Some additional risk factors are related to indi-

vidual behaviors, especially smoking, drinking, and

drug abuse—all of which are more common among

the less affl uent. Evidence suggests that these behav-

iors, while contributing to poorer health among the

less affl uent, are responsible for only one-third of

the “wealth-health gradient” (Smith 1999, 157).

These behaviors are also associated with higher psy-

chological as well as physical stress. Indeed, the less

affl uent are not just at greater risk for physical ail-

ments; research has shown that the less affl uent are

at signifi cantly higher risk for mental illness as

well  (Cockerham 2000; Feagin and McKinney

2003). Intriguing new evidence suggests that, apart

from material deprivations, part of the link between

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READING 14: The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It 137

Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal Childhood: Class, Race,
and Family Life. Berkeley: University of California

National Center for Health Statistics. 2007. Health, United
States, 2007, with Chart-book on Trends in the Health of
Americans. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health
Statistics, U.S. Department of Health and Human


Smith, James P. 1999. “Healthy Bodies and Thick Wallets:

The Dual Relation between Health and Economic Status.”

Journal of Economic Perspectives 13: 145–66.
Wermuth, Laurie. 2003. Global Inequality and Human

Needs: Health and Illness in an Increasingly Unequal
World . Boston: Allyn Bacon.

R E A D I N G 1 4

The Great Divergence: America’s
Growing Inequality Crisis and
What We Can Do about It

Timothy Noah

During the past thirty-three years the difference in

America between being rich and being middle class

became much more pronounced. People with high

incomes consumed an ever-larger share of the na-

tion’s total income, while people in the middle saw

their share shrink. For most of this time the phe-

nomenon attracted little attention from the general

public and the press because it occurred in incre-

ments over one third of a century. During the previ-

ous fi ve decades—from the early 1930s through

most of the 1970s—the precise opposite had oc-

curred. The share of the nation’s income that went

to the wealthy had either shrunk or remained stable.

At the fi rst signs, during the early 1980s, that this

was no longer happening, economists fi gured they

were witnessing a fl uke, an inexplicable but tempo-

rary phenomenon, or perhaps an artifact of faulty

statistics. But they weren’t. A democratization of

The greater the amount of economic inequality in

society, the more diffi cult it is to move up within the

system on the basis of individual merit alone. In-

deed, the most important factor in terms of where

people will end up in the economic pecking order of

society is where they started in the fi rst place.

Economic inequality has tremendous inertial force

across generations. Instead of a race to get ahead

that begins anew with each generation, the race is in

reality a relay race in which children inherit differ-

ent starting points from parents. Inheritance, broadly

defi ned as one’s initial starting point in life based on

parental position, includes a set of cumulative non-

merit advantages for all except the poorest of the

poor. These include enhanced childhood standard

of  living, differential access to cultural capital,

differential access to social networks of power and

infl uence, infusion of parental capital while parents

are still alive, greater health and life expectancy, and

the inheritance of bulk estates when parents die. . . .

1. On what grounds do McNamee and Miller con-

clude that America is not a middle-class soci-

ety? Is their conclusion supportable?

2. In what ways does America function as a meri-

tocracy and in what ways does it not?

Budrys, Grace. 2003. Unequal Health: How Inequality Con-

tributes to Health or Illness . Lanham, MD: Rowman &
Littlefi eld.

Cockerham, William. 1998. Medical Sociology. 7th ed.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Feagin, Joe. R., and Mary D. McKinney. 2003. The Many
Costs of Racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefi eld.

Frey, Bruno S., and Alois Stutzer. 2002. Happiness and Eco-
nomics: How the Economy and Institutions Affect Well-
being. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1958. The Affl uent Society. New
York: Mentor Press.

Gale, William G., and John Karl Scholz. 1994. “Intergenera-
tional Transfers and the Accumulation of Wealth.”
Journal of Economic Perspectives 8: 145–60. Timothy Noah is a journalist and author.

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138 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

more unequal in recent decades. The trend is global.

A 2008 report by the Organisation for Economic

Co-operation and Development, which represents

thirty-four market-oriented democracies, concluded

that since the mid-1980s, income inequality had in-

creased in two thirds of the twenty-four OECD coun-

tries for which data were available, which included

most of the world’s leading industrial democracies.

But the level and growth rate of income inequality in

the United States has been particularly extreme.

There are various ways to measure income dis-

tribution, and by all of them the United States ranks

at or near the bottom in terms of equality. The most

common measure, the Gini coeffi cient, is named for

an Italian statistician named Corrado Gini (1884–

It measures distribution—of income or any-

thing else—on a scale that goes from 0 to 1. Let’s

imagine, for instance, that we had fi fty marbles to

distribute among fi fty children. Perfect equality of

distribution would be if each child got one marble.

The Gini coeffi cient would then be 0. Perfect in-

equality of distribution would be if one especially

pushy child ended up with all fi fty marbles. The

Gini coeffi cient would then be 1.
As of 2005, the

United States’ Gini coeffi cient was 0.38, which on

the income-equality scale ranked this country

twenty- seventh of the thirty OECD nations for

which data were available. The only countries with

more unequal income distribution were Portugal

(0.42), Turkey (0.43), and Mexico (0.47). . . . When

you calculated the percentage of national income

that went to the top 1 percent, the United States was

the undisputed champion. Its measured income dis-

tribution was more unequal than that of any other

OECD nation.
As of 2007 (i.e., right before the

2008 fi nancial crisis), America’s richest 1 percent

possessed nearly 24 percent of the nation’s pretax

income, a statistic that gave new meaning to the

expression “Can you spare a quarter?” (I include

capital gains as part of income, and will do so

whenever possible throughout this book.) In 2008,

the last year for which data are available, the reces-

sion drove the richest 1 percent’s income share

down to 21 percent.
To judge from Wall Street’s

record bonuses and corporate America’s surging

incomes that Americans had long taken for granted

as a happy fact of modern life was reversing itself.

Eventually it was the steady growth in income in-

equality that Americans took for granted. The di-

vergent fortunes of the rich and the middle class

became such a fact of everyday life that people sel-

dom noticed it, except perhaps to observe now and

then with a shrug that life was unfair. . . .

. . . As late as 1979, the prevailing view among

economists was that incomes in any advanced in-

dustrial democracy would inevitably become more

equal or remain stable in their distribution. They

certainly wouldn’t become more unequal. That

sorry fate was reserved for societies at an earlier

stage of development or where the dictatorial pow-

ers of the state preserved privilege for the few at the

expense of the many. In civilized, mature, and free

nations, the gaps between rich, middle class, and

poor did not increase.

That seemed the logical lesson to draw from U.S.

history. The country’s transformation from an agrar-

ian society to an industrial one during the late nine-

teenth and early twentieth centuries had created a

period of extreme economic inequality—one whose

ramifi cations can still be glimpsed by, say, pairing a

visit to George Vanderbilt’s 125,000-acre Biltmore

Estate in Ashville, North Carolina, with a trip to the

Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

But from the early 1930s through the early 1970s,

incomes became more equal, and remained so, while

the industrial economy lost none of its rude vitality.

As the 1970s progressed, that vitality diminished, but

income distribution remained unchanged. “As mea-

sured in the offi cial data,” the Princeton economist

Alan Blinder wrote in 1980, “income inequality was

just about the same in 1977 . . . as it was in 1947.”

What Blinder couldn’t know (because he didn’t have

more recent data) was that this was already begin-

ning to change. Starting in 1979, incomes once

again began to grow unequal. When the economy

recovered in 1983, incomes grew even more un-

equal. They have continued growing more unequal

to this day.

The United States is not the only advanced indus-

trialized democracy where incomes have become

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Upward mobility is America’s creed. Circum-

stances at the bottom might be hard, but a plucky

young bootblack with his eye on the main chance

can rise in the world through hard work. Americans

believe this more fervently than do citizens of other

advanced industrial democracies. But the limited

data we have show that we demonstrate it less than

most of those other countries do. The United States

today is no longer, by international standards, a

land notably rich in opportunities to move up the

income ladder.

A survey of twenty-seven nations conducted

from 1998 to 2001 asked participants whether

they agreed with the statement “People are re-

warded for intelligence and skill.” The country

with the highest proportion answering in the af-

fi rmative was the United States (69 percent), com-

pared to a median among all countries of about 40

percent. Similarly, more than 60 percent of Amer-

icans agreed that “people get rewarded for their

effort,” compared to an international median of

less than 40 percent. When participants were

asked whether coming from a wealthy family was

“essential” or “very important” to getting ahead,

the percentage of American affi rmatives was much

lower than the international median: 19 percent

versus 28 percent.

The nonprofi t Pew Charitable Trusts sponsored

a U.S. poll on income mobility in March 2009,

when the country was enduring the worst recession

since the Great Depression. Thirty-nine percent of

the respondents agreed with the statement that it

was common for someone in the United States to

start out poor and become rich. A poll taken six

years before by the Gallup organization found that

31 percent of Americans expected to get rich them-

selves before they die, with “rich” defi ned by re-

spondents (according to the median) as an income

of $120,000 per year (roughly in the top 10 per-

cent). Among those age eighteen to twenty-nine,

51 percent expected to get rich.

Economic reality does not match these expecta-

tions. Only 6 percent of Americans born at the

bottom of the heap (defi ned as the lowest fi fth

in income distribution, i.e., those whose family

profi tability in the years following the 2008 fi nan-

cial crisis, income share for the top 1 percent will

resume its upward climb momentarily, if it hasn’t

already. We already know from census data that in

2010 income share for the bottom 40 percent fell

and that the poverty rate climbed to its highest point

in nearly two decades.

In addition to having an unusually high level of
income inequality, the United States has seen in-

come inequality increase at a much faster rate than
most other countries. Among the twenty-four

OECD countries for which Gini-coeffi cient change

can be measured from the mid-1980s to the mid-

aughts, only Finland, Portugal, and New Zealand

experienced a faster growth rate in income in-

equality. Of these, only Portugal ended up with a

Gini rating worse than the United States’. Another

important point of comparison is that some OECD

countries saw income inequality decline during

this period. France, Greece, Ireland, Spain, and

Turkey all saw their Gini ratings go down (though
the OECD report’s data for Ireland and Spain

didn’t extend beyond 2000). That proves it is not

woven into the laws of economics that an advanced

industrial democracy must, during the present

epoch, see its income-inequality level fall, or even

stay the same. Some of these countries are becom-

ing more economically egalitarian, not less, just as

the United States did for much of the twentieth


Many changes in the global economy are making

incomes less equal in many countries outside the

United States, but the income-inequality trend of the

past three decades has been unusually fi erce here in

the world’s richest nation. Americans usually invoke

the term “American exceptionalism” to describe

what it is that makes our country so much more

blessed than all others. But American exceptional-

ism can also describe ingrained aspects of our coun-

try’s economy, or government, or character, that put

us at a disadvantage on the world stage. Income in-

equality is one of the more notable ways that the

United States differs, in ways we can only regret,

even from nations that resemble us more than they

do not. . . .

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140 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

nations of western Europe—what we once called

the Old World.

Short answer: very poorly. A 2007 study by the

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Devel-

opment combined a number of previous estimates

and found income heritability to be greater (and

economic mobility therefore lower) in the United

States than in Demark, Australia, Norway, Finland,

Canada, Sweden, Germany, Spain, and France. Italy

was a little bit less mobile than the United States,

and the United Kingdom brought up the rear.

This ranking was based on a somewhat conservative

U.S. estimate of 47 percent income heritability;

Mazumder of the Chicago Fed . . . puts it at 50 to

60 percent which would rank the United States

either tied with the United Kingdom for last place or

dead last after the United Kingdom. Almost (argu-
ably every) comparably developed nation for which
we have data offers greater income mobility than the
United States. A common American criticism of the

incomes go up to about $25,000) ever make it in

adulthood to the top (defi ned as the highest fi fth in

income distribution, i.e., those whose family in-

comes are above $100,000).

The most striking

fi nding about upward mobility in contemporary

America concerns the relationship between who

your parents are and how much money you can ex-

pect to make. Parentage is a greater determinant of

a man’s future earnings than it is of his height and


Height and weight are infl uenced by the

genes passed from parents to children. Future earn-

ings are not. But you wouldn’t know that from

available data on economic mobility in the United

States. . . .

To summarize the society-wide trend: Upward

mobility in the United States is not as brisk as econ-

omists once believed it was. There’s some evidence

that it has slowed since the 1970s. Certainly it

hasn’t accelerated. Now let’s look at how the United

States stacks up against traditionally class-bound

United Kingdom

Intergenerational Earnings Elasticity

Income Heritability by Country


United States










0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50%

Source: Anna Cristina D’Addio, “Intergenerational Transmission of
Disadvantage: Mobility or Immobility Across Generations? A Review of
the Evidence for OECD Countries,” Social, Employment, and Migration
Working Paper 52 (Paris: OECD, 2007), 33.

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4. The Gini coeffi cient is derived from the Lorenz curve, a

graphic representation of income distribution named for

an American economist named Max Otto Lorenz (1876–

1959). The Lorenz curve plots cumulative percentage

population share (x-axis) against cumulative percentage

income share (y-axis). Perfect equality is when every

population share matches every income share. This hy-

pothetical distribution is represented by a straight line

extending at a forty-fi ve-degree angle. Actual real-world

distribution, which is always unequal to some degree, is

represented by a line that curves underneath the forty-

fi ve-degree line. Imagine the two lines as representing a

bow that you would use to shoot an arrow (only forget

the arrow and forget pulling the string, which must re-

main a straight line). The lower the real-world distribu-

tion dips—the more curved the bow is—the more

unequal the distribution. The Gini coeffi cient is derived

by calculating the area inside the bow and then dividing

that by the sum of the area inside the bow plus the area

below the bow.

5. Growing Unequal ?, 25, 32, 51– 52.
6. Facundo Alvaredo, Tony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty,

and Emmanuel Saez, “The World Top Incomes



7. Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the
United States: 2010 (Washington: U.S. Census Bureau,
2011), 10, 14.

8. Growing Unequal ?, 27, 51. Finland’s very low Gini rat-
ing (0.27) ranks it the seventh most income-equal nation

in the OECD, while New Zealand’s very high Gini coef-

fi cient (0.34) ranks it a mere four places above the

United States’ dismal twenty-seventh out of thirty. Por-

tugal’s disturbingly high level of income inequality and

high rate of increase in income inequality, which exceed

those in the United States, appear to result largely from

the fact that nearly 78 percent of its households are

headed by people who lack a high school degree. By

European standards, that’s an extraordinarily low high

school graduation rate. But even in poorly educated Por-

tugal, the top 1  percent’s income share is just a little

more than half what it is in the United States. To achieve

American-style income inequality, you need lots of poor

people, which Portugal has, and lots of rich people,

which it lacks.

9. 1999 Social Inequality III survey, International Social

Survey Program. Quoted in Julia B. Isaacs, Isabel V.

Sawhill, and Ron Haskins, Getting Ahead or Losing
Ground: Economic Mobility in America (Washington:
Brookings Institution, 2008), 37. Scott Winship, an eco-

nomic studies fellow at Brookings’s Center on Children

and Families, informs me that the question about

whether coming from a wealthy family was “essential”

“socialist” countries of western and particularly

northern Europe is that by providing guaranteed

health care and a social safety net for the poor and

unemployed that is more comprehensive than the

one in the United States, these nations diminish their

economies’ ability to create economic opportunity.

That argument is refuted by the evidence presented

here that western and northern European countries

provide, in fact, greater opportunity than the United
States to move up the economic ladder. . . .

1. How do you explain the strength and persis-

tence of Americans’ belief in the possibility of

their upward mobility? Do you think this has

changed in recent times?

2. How do you assess your own chances for up-

ward mobility?

1. Alan Blinder, “The Level and Distribution of Economic

Well-Being,” Working Paper 488 (Cambridge, MA:

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1980).

2. Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty
in OECD Countries (Paris: Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development, 2008), 27.

3. I would be remiss if I failed to note here the awkward

debt that the science of income and wealth distribution

owes to Italian fascism. Gini was president of Italy’s

Central Institute of Statistics under Benito Mussolini.

Another pioneer in the fi eld was the French-Italian Vil-

fredo Pareto (1848– 1923), inventor of an alternative

measure called the Pareto distribution. Pareto was a

dedicated Fascist who harbored truly repellant beliefs,

but Gini appears to have been much less interested in

politics than in statistics. Il Duce was an enthusiastic

student of statistical science, presumably in the service

of measuring whether the trains were in fact running on

time (and other less praiseworthy effi ciencies). The fas-

cism connection is a ripe opportunity for right-wing

demagogues to condemn all discussion of income distri-

bution—one that, unaccountably, was never seized in

the journalist Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 tome, Liberal Fas-
cism: The Secret History of the American Left, from
Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. But math is math,
and Pareto’s and, especially, Gini’s statistical work have

withstood the test of time.

READING 14: The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It 141

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142 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Lisa Diamond is a professor of psychology at the University of



R E A D I N G 1 5

Sexual Fluidity: Understanding
Women’s Love and Desire

Lisa M. Diamond

In 1997, the actress Anne Heche began a widely

publicized romantic relationship with the openly

lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres after having

had no prior same-sex attractions or relationships.

The relationship with DeGeneres ended after two

years, and Heche went on to marry a man. The ac-

tress Cynthia Nixon of the HBO series Sex and the
City developed a serious relationship with a woman
in 2004 after ending a fi fteen-year relationship

with a man. Julie Cypher left a heterosexual mar-

riage for the musician Melissa Etheridge in 1988.

After twelve years together, the pair separated and

Cypher—like Heche—has returned to heterosex-

ual relationships. In other cases, longtime lesbians

have unexpectedly initiated relationships with

men, sometimes after decades of exclusively same-

sex ties (examples include the feminist folk singer

Holly Near, the activist and writer Jan Clausen,

and Deborah Sundahl, a founding editor of the les-

bian magazine On Our Backs ). What’s going on?
Are these women confused? Were they just going

through a phase before, or are they in one now?

Consider, too, the growing number of popular

terms that have been coined to describe women

with changing patterns of same-sex and other-sex

behavior, such as “heterofl exibility,” “has-bian,”

and “LUG—lesbian until graduation.”
This new

lexicon has been matched by increasing media de-

pictions of women who pursue sexual contact that

runs counter to their avowed sexual orientation,

ranging from the much-ballyhooed kiss between

Madonna and Britney Spears at the MTV Video

Music Awards to fi lms such as Kissing Jessica Stein
and Chasing Amy , which depicts a lesbian becom-
ing involved with a man, contrary to the more wide-

spread depictions of heterosexual women becoming

involved in same-sex relationships. The reason such

cases are so perplexing is that they fl atly contradict

prevailing assumptions about sexual orientation.

These assumptions hold that an individual’s sexual

predisposition for the same sex or the other sex is an

or “very important” to getting ahead was asked once

again in the 2009 Social Inequality IV survey. This time

the international median was an even higher 32 percent.

But the countries polled in 2009 were different from

those polled in 1999, and in 2009 the United States

wasn’t polled on this question at all.

10. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll for Pew Charitable

Trusts Economic Mobility Project, Mar. 12, 2009, at http://



203.12.09.pdf; Gallup poll, “Half of Young People

Expect to Strike It Rich,” Mar. 11, 2003, at http://www

strike-rich.aspx; and Thomas A. DiPrete, “Is This a

Great Country? Upward Mobility and the Chance for

Riches in Contemporary America,” Nov. 28, 2005, at


11. Isaacs et al., Getting Ahead , 19.
12. Bhashkar Mazumder, “Sibling Similarities, Differences

and Economic Inequality,” Working Paper 2004–13
(Chicago: Federal Reserve Bank, 2004), 23.

13. Anna Cristina d’Addio, “Intergenerational Transmis-

sion of Disadvantage: Mobility or Immobility Across

Generations? A Review of the Evidence for OECD

Countries,” OECD Social, Employment and Migration
Working Papers 52 (Paris: OECD, 2007), 33; and Miles
Corak, “Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Les-

sons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational

Earnings Mobility,” Discussion Paper No. 1993 (Bonn:
Institute for the Study of Labor [IZA], 2006), 53, 63.

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READING 15: Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire 143

and experiences. Instead, women of all orientations

may experience variation in their erotic and affec-

tional feelings as they encounter different situa-

tions, relationships, and life stages. This is why a

woman like Anne Heche can suddenly fi nd herself

falling madly in love with Ellen DeGeneres after an

exclusively heterosexual past, and why a longtime

lesbian can experience her very fi rst other-sex at-

tractions in her late forties.

The notion of sexual fl uidity is not a new one.

Rather, evidence for this phenomenon has circu-

lated in the scientifi c literature for decades, though

it has tended to be “submerged in the data rather

than explicitly theorized.” . . .

I am well aware that the notion of sexual fl uidity

is potentially controversial and susceptible to

politically motivated distortions.
For that reason,

I would like to address some of the most common

misconceptions at the outset:

Does fl uidity mean that all women are bisexual ?
No. Just as women have different sexual orienta-

tions, they have different degrees of sexual fl uidity.

Some women will experience relatively stable pat-

terns of love and desire throughout their lives, while

others will not. Currently, we simply do not know

how many women fall into each group because a

number of different factors determine whether a

woman’s capacity for sexual fl uidity will actually

manifest itself.

Does fl uidity mean that there is no such thing as
sexual orientation? No. Fluidity can be thought of
as an additional component of a woman’s sexuality

that operates in concert with sexual orientation to

infl uence how her attractions, fantasies, behaviors,

and affections are experienced and expressed over

the life course. Fluidity implies not that women’s

desires are endlessly variable but that some women

are capable of a wider variety of erotic feelings and

experiences than would be predicted on the basis of

their self-described sexual orientation alone.

Does sexual fl uidity mean that sexual orientation
can be changed? No. It simply means that a wom-
an’s sexual orientation is not the only factor deter-

mining her attractions. A predominantly heterosexual

woman might, at some point in time, become

early-developing and stable trait that has a consis-

tent effect on that person’s attractions, fantasies, and

romantic feelings over the lifespan. What few peo-

ple realize, however, is that these assumptions are

based primarily on men’s experiences because most

research on sexual orientation has been conducted

on men.
Although this model of sexual orientation

describes men fairly accurately, it does not always

apply so well to women.

Historically, women who deviated from this

model by reporting shifts in their sexuality over

time—heterosexual women falling in love with fe-

male friends, lesbian women periodically dating

men—were presumed few in number and excep-

tional in nature. In other words, they were just incon-

venient noise cluttering up the real data on sexual

orientation. Yet as research on female sexuality has

increased over the years, these “exceptional” cases

now appear to be more common than previously

thought. In short, the current conventional wisdom

about the nature and development of sexual orienta-

tion provides an incomplete picture of women’s ex-

periences. Researchers now openly acknowledge that

despite signifi cant advances in the science of sexual-

ity over the past twenty years, “female sexual orienta-

tion is, for the time being, poorly understood.”

This situation is now changing. As scientists have

begun investigating female and male sexual orienta-

tion as distinct phenomena instead of two sides of

the same coin, consensus is gradually building on

why women appear so different from men. Specifi –

cally, we have found that one of the fundamental,

defi ning features of female sexual orientation is its

fl uidity. We are now on the brink of a revolutionary

new understanding of female sexuality that has pro-

found scientifi c and social implications.

Sexual fl uidity, quite simply, means situation-

dependent fl exibility in women’s sexual respon-

siveness. This fl exibility makes it possible for some

women to experience desires for either men or

women under certain circumstances, regardless of

their overall sexual orientation. In other words,

though women—like men—appear to be born with

distinct sexual orientations, these orientations do

not provide the last word on their sexual attractions

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144 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

individuals of the same sex, the other sex, or both

sexes, regardless of whether this pattern of desire is

manifested in sexual behavior. A woman can have a

lesbian orientation but never have a same-sex rela-

tionship, just as she can have a heterosexual orienta-

tion and still pursue multiple same-sex affairs. Most

scientists consider desire, not behavior, the marker

of sexual orientation. “Sexual identity” refers to a

culturally organized conception of the self, usually

“lesbian/gay,” “bisexual,” or “heterosexual.” As

with sexual orientation, we cannot presume that

these identities correspond to particular patterns of

behavior. Nor can we presume that they correspond

to particular patterns of desire. Because sexual

identities represent self-concepts, they depend on

individuals’ own notions about the most important

aspects of their sexual selves. These notions, as

we will see, can vary quite a bit from individual to

individual. Moreover, some people—particularly

women—reject conventional lesbian/gay/bisexual

identity labels in favor of alternative labels such as

“queer,” “questioning,” or “pansexual.” Others re-

ject all identity labels in order to make room for a

broad range of sexual possibilities, as well as to

acknowledge the fact that all labels are somewhat

I devote substantial attention to this

issue later in the book, as it is directly related to the

phenomenon of fl uidity.

Global terms like “homosexuality” or “lesbian-

ism” imply that same-sex desires, behaviors, and

identities cluster together as part of an overall syn-

drome. But again, this is not always true. For this

reason I fi nd such terms to be potentially misleading.

Instead, I use the term “same-sex sexuality” to refer

to all experiences of same-sex desire, romantic affec-

tion, fantasy, or behavior. A person might experience

one and only one form of same-sex sexuality (like

same-sex attractions), or perhaps several (such as

same-sex attraction and a lesbian identity), but I do

not assume that any of these experiences necessarily

cluster together. Correspondingly, I use the term

“other-sex sexuality” to refer to all aspects of other-

sex desire, romantic affection, fantasy, or behavior

(readers will be more familiar with the phrase “oppo-

site-sex,” but researchers have increasingly gravitated

attracted to a woman, just as a predominantly les-

bian woman might at some point become attracted

to a man. Despite these experiences, the women’s

overall orientation remains the same.

Does fl uidity mean that sexual orientation is a
matter of choice? No. Even when women undergo
signifi cant shifts in their patterns of erotic response,

they typically report that such changes are unex-

pected and beyond their control. In some cases they

actively resist these changes, to no avail. This fi nd-

ing is consistent with the extensive evidence . . .

showing that efforts to change sexual orientation

through “reparative therapy” simply do not work.

Does fl uidity mean that sexual orientation is due
to “nurture” instead of “nature”? No. In fact, sex-
ual fl uidity sheds no light on this question, since it

deals with the expression of same-sex and other-sex

attractions rather than with their causes. Questions

of causation typically receive the most debate and

attention, but questions about expression are

equally important. Nonetheless, fl uidity raises im-

portant questions about how we think about bio-

logical versus cultural infl uences on sexuality, and

it highlights the need for more integrative models.

Couldn’t all individuals be characterized as
fl uid? Perhaps, though women appear to be more
fl uid than men. Certainly, few researchers would

argue that sexual orientation is the sole factor deter-

mining each and every instance of sexual desire and

behavior. Human sexual responses have been

shown to be somewhat fl exible, and thus any indi-

vidual should be capable of experiencing desires

that run counter to his or her overall sexual orienta-

For example, many men from different cul-

tures and times have been shown to periodically

pursue sexual behaviors that are atypical of their

overall pattern of desire.
But in general, the degree

of fl uidity in women appears substantially greater

than in men, though we do not yet have enough data

to fully evaluate this possibility. . . .

. . . I use the term “sexual orientation” to mean a

consistent, enduring pattern of sexual desire for

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of a person’s identity or orientation, any experience

with same-sex sexuality—from fantasy to unre-

quited love to sexual behavior—violates societal

norms prescribing exclusive heterosexuality,

thereby making that person a sexual minority.

The writer Minnie Bruce Pratt, refl ecting on the

confusion she experienced when she fi rst discov-

ered her capacity for same-sex sexuality, recalled

being aware that such an abrupt change seemed im-

possible and incongruous:

I didn’t feel “different,” but was I? (From whom?)

Had I changed? (From what?) Was I heterosexual in

adolescence only to become lesbian in my late twen-

ties? Was I lesbian always but coerced into hetero-

sexuality? Was I a less authentic lesbian than my

friends who had “always known” that they were sexu-

ally and affectionally attracted to other women? What

kind of woman was a lesbian woman?

Pratt perfectly captures the conundrum created

by sexual fl uidity. Because our culture believes that

all individuals are, unequivocally, one sexual type

or the other (such that a lesbian must have “always

known” of her essential lesbian nature), women

with more complex and variable patterns of sexual

experience are inherently suspect. No wonder Pratt

felt “inauthentic” when comparing herself with the

cultural prototype of lesbianism as uniformly sta-

ble, early developing, and exclusive.

Yet it is this rigid prototype that is inauthentic, not

experiences like Pratt’s. Greater appreciation and

awareness of sexual fl uidity are critical not only for

building more accurate models of sexuality but also

for communicating to women—young and old, les-

bian and heterosexual, married and single—that fl ex-

ible, changing patterns of sexual response are normal

rather than deviant, and that they can occur in any

woman at any stage of life. This information needs to

be integrated into the numerous educational and ther-

apeutic programs aimed at providing support and ac-

ceptance for individuals coming to grips with their

same-sex desires. If such programs cling to rigid

models of sexual orientation that inadequately

toward “other-sex” because it is more scientifi cally

accurate. The two sexes are certainly different from

each other, but they are by no means opposites).

Terms like “lesbian” and “bisexual” are also prob-

lematic. Do they refer to an individual’s sexual orien-

tation, sexual identity, or sexual behavior? To avoid

confusion, I always pair these terms with the words

“orientation” and “identity.” Hence a “lesbian sexual

orientation” can be taken to mean a pattern of near-

exclusive desire for the same sex, even if a woman

does not call herself a lesbian. A “lesbian sexual iden-

tity,” in contrast, refers to a woman’s self-description

and self-presentation. Thus she might have a bisexual

orientation but a lesbian identity (or vice versa).

When referring to desires and behavior, I use the

descriptors “same-sex” and “other-sex.” I refer to

attractions and behaviors pursued with both sexes

(either concurrently or sequentially) as “nonexclu-

sive.” If being 100 percent attracted to one sex

means that you are exclusively attracted, then all

other patterns of attraction are nonexclusive. I use

this term rather than “bisexual,” which has a wide

range of different defi nitions across cultures and

communities, making it potentially confusing. Of

course, “nonexclusive” comes with its own prob-

lems. Because the term “exclusive” is often used to

describe monogamous sexual relationships, “non-

exclusivity” could be misinterpreted as sexual infi –

delity. This is not what I mean! I use “nonexclusive”

simply to refer to the capacity to experience both

same-sex and other-sex desires and behaviors,

though not necessarily at the same point in time.

Someone with nonexclusive attractions might have

experienced only other-sex attractions up until ado-

lescence, and then only same-sex attractions there-

after. Someone else might experience desires for

both women and men concurrently. All that matters

is that for that person, both types of desire are pos-

sible, in contrast to someone who has always been

exclusively attracted to one sex or the other.

Finally, when speaking in the most general sense

about individuals who have any experience with

same-sex sexuality, at the level of orientation,

desire, behavior, or identity, I use the term “sexual

minority.” This term captures the fact that regardless

READING 15: Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire 145

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146 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

Any model of female sexual orientation that fails to

account for their experiences is no model at all.

1. How does Diamond defi ne sexual fl uidity?

2. Do Americans now generally assume that

women’s sexuality is fl uid? How prevalent is

the assumption of sexual fl uidity?

3. Why is the idea of sexual fl uidity controver-


1. Reviewed in Diamond, 2003b.

2. Reviewed in Mustanski, Chivers, and Bailey, 2002. Also

see Blackwood and Wieringa, 2003, for an anthropologi-

cal perspective on the invisibility of female same-sex


3. Rahman and Wilson, 2003, p. 1371.

4. Kitzinger and Wilkinson, 1995, p. 95.

5. For perspectives on these issues see Brookey, 2000;

Gonsiorek, 2004; Stein, 1994; Tygart, 2000.

6. Drescher, 2002.

7. Bancroft, 1989; Cass, 1990; Money, 1988.

8. Gagnon and Simon, 1968; Garland, Morgan, and Beer,

2005; Herdt, 1984; Laumann et al., 1994; Murray, 2000.

9. See Diamond, 2003a, 2005c; Hollander, 2000; Rust, 2003.

10. Pratt, 1995, p. 11.

Bancroft, J. H. (1989). Sexual desire and the brain. Sexual

and Marital Therapy , 3, 11–27.
Blackwood, E., and S. E. Wieringa. (2003). Sapphic shad-

ows: Challenging the silence in the study of sexuality. In

L. D. Garnets and D. C. Kimmel, eds., Psychological per-
spectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual experiences , 2nd
ed. (pp. 410–434). New York: Columbia University Press.

Brookey, R. A. (2000). Saints or sinners: Sociobiological

theories of male homosexuality. International Journal of
Sexuality and Gender Studies , 5, 37–58.

Cass, V. (1990). The implications of homosexual identity

formation for the Kinsey model and scale of sexual

preference. In D. P. McWhirter, S. A. Sanders, and J. M.

Reinisch, eds., Homosexuality/heterosexuality: Concepts
of sexual orientation (pp. 239–266). New York: Oxford
University Press.

Diamond, L.M. (2003a). Was it a phase? Young women’s

relinquishment of lesbian/bisexual identities over a fi ve-

year period. Journal of Personality and Social Psychol-
ogy , 84, 352–364.

represent the enormous variability in female sexual-

ity, women may end up feeling doubly deviant, their

experiences refl ecting neither mainstream societal

expectations nor perceived norms of “typical” gay

experience. We must refashion science and public

outreach to better represent women’s experiences.

But this brings its own challenges. Almost every

time I present my research publicly, someone raises

their hand and asks, “Isn’t the idea of fl uidity dan-

gerous? Couldn’t it feed right into antigay argu-

ments that sexual orientation can—and should—be

changed?” Let me be clear: fl uidity does not, in

fact, imply that sexual orientation can be intention-

ally changed. But I know from experience that some

people will nonetheless manipulate and misuse the

concept of fl uidity, despite my best efforts to de-

bunk such distortions. Yet the solution to this dan-

ger is not to brush fl uidity under the rug and stick to

outdated, overly simplistic models of sexuality.

Such an approach offers no real protection against

political distortion: the truth is that any scientifi c

data on sexual orientation can be—and pretty much

have been—appropriated to advance particular

worldviews. If scientists discovered tomorrow that

same-sex sexuality was 100 percent genetically de-

termined, some people would say, “Aha, this proves

that homosexuality is normal, natural, and deserv-

ing of social acceptance and full legal status!” Oth-

ers would say, “Aha, this proves that homosexuality

is a dangerous genetic disorder that can be screened

for, corrected, and eliminated!” In short, there are

no “safe” scientifi c fi ndings—all models of sexual-

ity are dangerous in the present political climate.

The only way to guard against the misuse of scien-

tifi c fi ndings is to present them as accurately and

completely as possible, making explicit the conclu-

sions that they do and do not support. . . .

The well-being of all women will be improved

through a more accurate, comprehensive under-

standing of female sexuality in all its diverse and

fl uid manifestations. In short, women like Anne

Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Julie Cypher, and Holly

Near are not “noise in the data” on sexual orienta-

tion. Rather, they are the data with something im-

portant to tell us about the nature of female sexuality.

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READING 16: The Biology of the Homosexual 147

lesbian, gay, and bisexual experiences , 2nd ed. (pp. 227–
269). New York: Columbia University Press.

Stein, E. (1994). The relevance of scientifi c research about

sexual orientation to lesbian and gay rights. Journal of
Homosexuality , 27, 269–308.

Tygart, C. E. (2000). Genetic causation attribution and pub-

lic support of gay rights. International Journal of Public
Opinion Research , 12, 259–275.

R E A D I N G 1 6

The Biology of the Homosexual

Roger N. Lancaster

Three studies, published close on each other’s heels

in the early 1990s, have been widely ballyhooed in

the mass media as establishing the “organic seat,”

the “hormonal link,” and the “genetic cause” of

homosexual desire and gay identity: Simon LeVay’s

“gay brain” research, Michael J. Bailey and Rich-

ard Pillard’s “gay twins” survey, and Dean Hamer’s

“gay gene” study. Major design fl aws, problems

with the defi nition and operationalization of terms,

and alternative interpretations of the data were lost

in the din of blaring headlines: “First Evidence of a

Biological Cause for Homosexuality,” “Genes Tied

to Sexual Orientation; Study of Gay Men Bolsters

Theory,” “Study Shows Homosexuality Is Innate,”

“Genes Linked to Being Gay,” “Report Suggests

Homosexuality Is Linked to Genes,” “Study Pro-

vides New Evidence of a ‘Gay Gene’” . . .

Simon LeVay’s much-cited “gay brain” study was

published, with much fanfare, in 1991. The journal

Science set the tone for press reportage, vigorously
spinning LeVay’s study to the media under its own

press-release headline: “the homosexual brain:

biological basis for sexual orientation?”

————. (2003b). What does sexual orientation orient?

A biobehavioral model distinguishing romantic love and

sexual desire. Psychological Review , 110, 173–192.
————. (2005). What we got wrong about sexual identity

development: Unexpected fi ndings from a longitudinal

study of young women. In A. Omoto and H. Kurtzman,

eds., Sexual orientation and mental health: Examining
identity and development in lesbian, gay, and bisexual
people (pp. 73–94). Washington, D.C.: American Psycho-
logical Association Press.

———— Gonsiorek, J. C. (2004). Refl ections from the con-

version therapy battlefi eld. Counseling Psychologist , 32,

Drescher, J. (2002). Sexual conversion (“reparative”) thera-

pies: History and update. In B. E. Jones and M. J. Hill,

eds., Mental health issues in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and
transgender communities (pp. 71–91). Arlington, VA:
American Psychiatric Publishing.

Gagnon, J. H., and W. Simon. (1968). The social meaning of

prison homosexuality. Federal Probation , 32, 28–29.
Garland, J. T., R. D. Morgan, and A. M. Beer. (2005). Impact

of time in prison and security level on inmates’ sexual

attitude, behavior, and identity. Psychological Services , 2,

Herdt, G. (1984). Ritualized homosexuality in Melanesia.
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hollander, G. (2000). Questioning youths: Challenges to

working with youths forming identities. School Psychol-
ogy Review , 29, 173–179.

Kitzinger, C., and S. Wilkinson. (1995). Transitions from

heterosexuality to lesbianism: The discursive production

of lesbian identities. Developmental Psychology , 31,

Laumann, E. O., J. H. Gagnon, R. T. Michael, and F. Mi-

chaels. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sex-
ual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

Money, J. (1988). Gay, straight, and in-between: The sexol-
ogy of erotic orientation. New York: Oxford University

Murray, S. O. (2000). Homosexualities . Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.

Mustanski, B. S., M. L. Chivers, and J. M. Bailey. (2002). A

critical review of recent biological research on human

sexual orientation. Annual Review of Sex Research , 13,

Pratt, M. B. (1995). S/he. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.
Rahman, Q., and G. D. Wilson. (2003). Born gay? The psy-

chobiology of human sexual orientation. Personality and
Individual Differences , 34, 1337–1382.

Rust, P.C.R. (2003). Finding a sexual identity and commu-

nity: Therapeutic implications and cultural assumptions in

scientifi c models of coming out. In L. D. Garnets and

D.  C. Kimmel, eds., Psychological perspectives on
Roger N. Lancaster is a professor of anthropology and cultural

studies at George Mason University.

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148 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

the resulting numbers lie close to the statistical

margin of error—and that the reclassifi cation of a

small number of brains in the study would render

LeVay’s fi ndings statistically insignifi cant.

To make matters more complicated, LeVay talks

as though identifying, delineating, and measuring

the third interstitial nucleus were a simple matter.

This is not the case.
The nucleus LeVay measured

is a tiny structure by no means clearly differentiated

from the similar neural tissue surrounding it. The

fact that LeVay, rather than a colleague, performed

the measurements, coupled with the absence of a

“blind rater” to confi rm his measurements indepen-

dently, departs from the usual standards in research

of this sort and does nothing to lend credibility to

the fi ndings.

Worse yet, all of the “homosexual” men in
LeVay’s sample died from AIDS-related illnesses.

Both AIDS and HIV medical treatments are known

to affect a variety of brain structures. LeVay’s in-

clusion of six (again, presumably) “heterosexual”

men who died from AIDS scarcely addresses this

Nor does the subsequent examination of

the brain of one gay man who died from causes

other than AIDS.

In serious publications, LeVay rightly acknowl-

edges that his results are open to a variety of inter-

pretations. For instance, even if his results held—and

to date his fi ndings have not been replicated by a

single subsequent study—it is by no means clear

whether LeVay’s average difference would measure

biological “cause” or sociological “effect.” As

LeVay himself puts it, “It is not possible, purely on

the basis of my observations, to say whether the

structural differences were present at birth, and lat-

ter infl uenced the men to become gay or straight, or

whether they arose in adult life, perhaps as a result

of the men’s sexual behavior.”
It is also not possible

to say whether the average structural differences

have anything to do with sexual object choice per se

or with other aspects of life associated with sexual

object choice. Certainly, extended anxieties, social

stress, the experience of inequality, sexual activity

and inactivity, and various other cumulative life ex-

periences affect organic processes, brain structures,

and hormonal systems in human beings. . . .

LeVay found that the third interstitial nucleus of

the hypothalamus (a neural structure at the base of

the brain) is, on the average, smaller in gay men and

straight women than in straight men.
(In theory,

lesbians’ hypothalami would resemble those of

straight men—in other words, where gay men show

a “feminized” pattern, lesbians would show a “mas-

culinized” effect.) . . . The hypothalamus affects

certain endocrine functions and is thought to infl u-

ence “basic urges” such as hunger, thirst, and sex-

ual arousal. . . .

The results of LeVay’s research were widely dis-

seminated in mass-media outlets, but LeVay’s data

are less impressive than the public was led to be-

lieve, and his study is plagued with methodological

problems. LeVay’s study examined the hypothal-

ami of forty-one cadavers. While living, nineteen of

the subjects were described in hospital records as

“homosexual” (a fi gure that includes one “bisex-

ual”). We do not actually know for how long, or

with what degree of consistency, or for that matter

even whether the “homosexual” subjects described
themselves as gay. We know only what someone

saw fi t to observe (speculate?) in their hospital re-

cords. We also do not know how the other subjects

described themselves when they were alive, nor do

we know anything about anyone’s sexual fantasies
or sexual histories, but for purposes of LeVay’s

study, the sixteen other male subjects are presumed

to have been “heterosexual,” and all six women

subjects are presumed to have been “heterosexual.”

Many critics have commented on the vagueness—

indeed, the capriciousness—of the labels and clas-

sifi cations employed by LeVay.

Needless to say, important aspects of LeVay’s

research were not always given due weight in sci-

ence journalism. Note, for instance, that the much-

reported difference between “gay” and “straight”

men in LeVay’s sample is a statistical average, not

an absolute difference. Individual measurements

overlap: Some of the men in the “gay” sample had

larger hypothalami than most of the men in the

“straight” sample. Since many individuals did not

fi t the “average” picture, one could not thus predict

who was what simply by looking at his hypothala-

mus. Such results in such a small sample mean that

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READING 16: The Biology of the Homosexual 149

blood brothers, which would further seem to falsify

the genetic hypothesis. And by defi nition, the mono-

zygotic twins are genetically identical—yet only
half of the pairs were sexually concordant. Given
the conditions and assumptions of Bailey and Pil-

lard’s study, this fi gure could be viewed as surpris-

ingly high or as revealingly low. It could even

indicate that sexual orientation has no genetic basis

This is because twin studies normally use pairs

of identical twins who were separated at birth. Such

studies thus attempt to view the development of ge-

netically identical individuals in (supposedly) dif-

ferent environments.

Since the identical twins in

Bailey and Pillard’s study in fact shared a family
environment, it is a non sequitur to claim that the

comparatively high (although theoretically low?)

degree of concordance is genetically caused. It

might just as easily result from the fact that the two

occupy the same environment. As Hubbard and

Wald put it: “If being a fraternal twin exerts an en-

vironmental infl uence, it does not seem surprising

that this should be even truer for identical twins,

who the world thinks of as ‘the same’ and treats

accordingly, and who often share those feelings of


Gilbert Zicklin goes even further:

“The intensely shared life of identical twins, in-

cluding the phenomena of identifi cation, mirroring,

and imitation, might plausibly constitute fertile

ground for the development of same-sex erotics.”

Zicklin’s suggestion is at least as plausible as the

invocation of “genetic causation” to explain the

52 percent of identical-twin pairs who were concor-

dant and “environmental factors” to account for the

48 percent who were discordant, an accounting that

in no way follows from the data, but that dominated

media presentations of the topic.

Consider the extraordinary anecdote related in

Newsweek ’s 1992 cover story, “Born or Bred: The
Origins of Homosexuality.”

Until the age of twenty-eight, Doug Barnett (not his

real name) was a practicing heterosexual. He was

vaguely attracted to men, but with nurturing parents,

a lively interest in sports and appropriate relations

with women, he had little reason to question his pro-

clivities. Then an astonishing thing happened: his

LeVay has made far less cautious claims in pub-

lic discussions of his study. LeVay’s interpretation

of his results, aggressively forwarded in a variety of

media, is in no small part driven by his personal

conviction that he was “born gay” and from his be-

lief that the innatist scenario advances the social

interests of gays and lesbians. LeVay thus favors a

biologically reductive argument: The hypothala-

mus is the “seat” of sexual desire, and sexual object

choice (or preference, or orientation) is physically

there, in the third interstitial nucleus. As LeVay told
Newsweek, “I felt if I didn’t fi nd any [differences
between gay and straight men’s hypothalami],

I would give up a scientifi c career altogether.”

. . .

Only months later the same year LeVay’s study

appeared, Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard

published the results of a survey they conducted

among gay men and their brothers.

The researchers

recruited respondents by placing ads in gay newspa-

pers across the Midwest and Southwest, ultimately

gathering information on 56 pairs of identical

(monozygotic) twins, 54 pairs of fraternal (dizy-

gotic) twins, 142 non-twin brothers, and 57 pairs of

adoptive brothers. They found that the “concordance

rate” of homosexual self-identifi cation—that is,

the  percentage of pairs in which both brothers

called  themselves gay—was highest for identical

twins (52  percent), next highest for fraternal twins

(22 percent), and lowest for non-twin and adoptive

brothers (roughly 10 percent each).

Once again, methodological concerns and alter-

native interpretations were ignored or brushed

aside. And once again, headlines trumpeted “mount-

ing evidence” of a genetic basis for homosexuality.

How one interprets this data is largely a matter of

the perspective one takes. As Ruth Hubbard and

Elijah Wald dryly observe: “The fact that fraternal

twins of gay men were roughly twice as likely to be

gay as other biological brothers shows that environ-

mental factors are involved, since fraternal twins are

no more similar biologically than are other biologi-

cal brothers.”

Indeed, genetically unrelated adop-

tive brothers show the same concordance rate as

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150 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

study—that is, within the assumption that their re-

sults are meaningful, that their numbers actually

refl ect real trends among siblings. But this is not

necessarily the case.

The authors’ sampling procedure almost gua-

rantees a certain skewing. It is based on the self-

selection of volunteers recruited through gay

newspapers, rather than on a random sample of the

general population. Given the stated aims of the

study, which are clear enough in the ad, and given

the cultural and political background of the question,

which includes the active promotion of “innatist”

scenarios in most gay newspapers, it is altogether

possible that those who were most motivated to par-

ticipate were those who already believed that sexual

orientation is genetically determined. And it is alto-

gether conceivable that those most likely to respond

to the ad—to nominate themselves for study—

would be concordant sets of identical twins.

These are not minor problems. They fatally un-

dermine the study’s reliability. As Zicklin elaborates:

The overrepresentation of concordant MZ [monozy-

gotic, identical] twins is quite possible, since gay MZ

twins are likely to be more interested in studies that

highlight the special meaning of close biological con-

nections, and they might also have less trepidation

about participating since there is a greater likelihood

that they would be “out” with one another than would

any other pair of male siblings. Conversely, some

twins who perceive themselves as discordant on sex-

ual orientation may be motivated to avoid studies

wherein this difference may be revealed. Thus Bailey

and Pillard have a double problem: they attract the

kind of twins who fi t their hypothesis and deter the

ones who might weaken it.

Bailey and Pillard skirt the usual standards of twin

studies, sampling procedures, and logical deduc-

tion. Again, only those already committed to the

notion that homosexuals have biologically marked

bodies would be swayed by this kind of evidence.

The 1993 study by Dean Hamer and his associates

is usually praised for being the most serious,

identical twin brother “came out” to him, revealing

he was gay. Barnett, who believed sexual orientation

is genetic, was bewildered. He recalls thinking, “If

this is inherited and we’re identical twins—what’s

going on here?” To fi nd out, he thought he should try

sex with men. When he did, he says, “The bells went

off, for the fi rst time. Those homosexual encounters

were more fulfi lling.” A year later both twins told

their parents they were gay.

The author of the Newsweek piece relates this tale as
evidence of a fi xed, clear-cut, and genetic basis for

sexual orientation.

That is, no doubt, what the pro-

tagonist, “Doug Barnett,” himself believes. But the

tale could be read just as easily as a demon stration

of the fl ux, ambiguity, and capriciousness—indeed,

the suggestibility —of sexual desire. The subject’s
description of his life as a “practicing heterosexual”

is in no sense unusual. In various surveys, beginning

with the Kinsey study, large percentages of men

whose sexual activity is predominately or exclu-

sively heterosexual agree, in principle, that every-

one experiences “vague feelings” of “occasional

attraction” toward members of their own sex.

Such fi ndings are conveniently forgotten in the cur-

rent rush to geneticize and typologize desire. The

Newsweek anecdote could be understood as a
particularly sharp example of the “twinning”

behavior Zicklin invokes. Indeed, if taken seriously,

it could even be understood from a constructionist

perspective—why not?—as a gauge of the social

force of reductionist theories in shaping personal

life and identity formation.

In the end, even if we take Bailey and Pillard’s

fi gures as reliable ones, we simply do not know

which had more of an effect on the identical twins’

sexuality, shared genes or a shared environment,

and we cannot even be sure whether we are moni-

toring a genetic tendency through degrees of sib-

ling relatedness, a social tendency for twins—

especially identical twins—to be alike, to mimic

mirror, and “twin” each other, or even a homoerotic

tendency among identical twins.

So far, all of these interpretations lie within the

realm of a generous reading of Bailey and Pillard’s

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READING 16: The Biology of the Homosexual 151

(“Hey, Mom, Thanks for the Genes!” is the message

that with minor variations appeared on gay T-shirts

across the country—a line that proved even more

popular than the camp come-on “How Big Is Your


In his scientifi c (as opposed to journalistic or

popularizing) publications, Hamer has been careful

to avoid extreme variants of biological determinist

arguments. Indeed, Hamer himself often points out

that a “link” is not the same as a “cause.” He distin-

guishes between “genetic infl uences” and “genetic

destiny,” and even while in search of a “gay gene,”

he often puts the term inside eyebrow-raising quo-

tation marks.

Still, there is something less than

fully congruous about searching for a “gay gene”

while claiming that one does not exist, and the

problems with Hamer’s study are quite serious.

The pedigree studies invite certain preliminary ob-

servations. First, not all of the families in Hamer’s

samples exhibit the “maternal pattern” highlighted

in the subsequent genetic study of gay brothers.

The results suggest a “signifi cant” but not dramatic

elevation of homosexuality among the maternally

linked relatives of gay men.

Next, some of the raw numbers supporting the

idea of a maternal linkage are in fact quite low.

In  the fi rst pedigree study, 7 of 96 gay men (7.3

percent) reported having a gay maternal uncle, as

opposed to only 2 of 119 (1.7 percent) who reported

a gay paternal uncle. But there is little difference

between the 4 of 52 (7.7 percent) who reported a

gay maternal cousin on their aunt’s side and the 3 of

56 (5.4 percent) who reported a gay paternal cousin

on their uncle’s side.

In consequence, the difference between rates of

homosexuality among maternal and paternal kin is

statistically signifi cant only if one assumes a (rela-
tively low) 2 percent “base rate” of male homosex-

uality. As Edward Stein and others have pointed

out, the difference becomes statistically insignifi –

cant if one assumes a (more plausible) base rate of

4 percent.

Finally, given such small raw numbers, Hamer’s

pedigree analysis is open to charges that it fails to

sophisticated, and careful of the three major studies

purporting to substantiate a link between genes and

male homosexuality.

Hamer’s research team recruited an original

group of 76 gay men for a pedigree study. (A “ped-

igree study” is an attempt to determine how a trait

is distributed among members of a kin group.) One

or more relatives from 26 of these men’s families

were also interviewed, for a total of 122 partici-

pants. Hamer’s team found elevated levels of ho-

mosexuality among gay men’s maternal uncles and

among their maternal cousins, linked by aunts, as

compared to their paternally linked relatives.

Hypothesizing transmission of a homosexual gene

through the X chromosome, the researchers then

recruited 38 pairs of gay brothers for a second ped-

igree study. These pairs of gay brothers were spe-

cifi cally culled from families without known

lesbians or paternally linked homosexuals in order

to eliminate subjects likely to display “nonmater-

nal” routes of “transmission.” The second pedigree

study found a somewhat more pronounced mater-

nal pattern. Finally, the Hamer team performed

DNA linkage analysis on the 38 pairs of gay broth-

ers from the second pedigree study, plus two pairs

of gay brothers from the fi rst study. Hamer et al.

reported that 33 of 40 pairs (or 82 percent) shared a

DNA marker, Xq28, located on the tip of the

X chromosome. (The term “DNA marker” denotes

a strip of DNA that is usually transmitted “whole”

from parent to offspring; it thus allows geneticists

to work with units of a few million base pairs of

DNA, rather than trying to sort out individual genes

from among several billion base pairs. Xq28, as the

authors note, is large enough to contain several

hundred genes.)

Hamer et al. conclude: “We have

now produced evidence that one form of male

homosexuality is preferentially transmitted through

the maternal side and is genetically linked to

chromosomal region Xq28.” The authors suggest

that a thorough mapping of the region will

eventually yield a gene involved in homosexual

expression, but they also suggest that more than

one gene might contribute to sexual orientation,

and that environmental factors also play a role.

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152 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

It is important to specify fi rst what has not been
shown by Hamer’s group. First, no “gay gene” has

been identifi ed. Nor can we safely conclude that

one is there, in Xq28, like a needle in the proverbial

haystack, awaiting discovery. All kinds of traits

“run in families” without having a genetic basis.

And because human populations are quite variable,

when a trait “runs in families,’” a “DNA sequence

that is a marker for a particular trait in one family

may not be associated with that trait in another.”

The complexity of the relationships between genes,

heredity, and even relatively simple phenotypic and

behavioral characteristics has frustrated the search

for genes “for” all manner of things that would ap-

pear far more straightforward than sexual desire.

There also is no genetic on/off switch for homo-

sexuality. Even after a deliberate screening and se-

lection process designed to produce a “maternal

pattern” of “linkages,” if not “transmission,” not all

the pairs of gay brothers whose X chromosomes

were examined shared DNA markers for Xq28.

A subsequent study by the Hamer group reported a

somewhat lower percentage of Xq28 concordance

among gay brothers.

Even a generous interpreta-

tion of these results along the lines laid out by the

authors clearly does not indicate a simple or direct

genetic “cause” for homosexuality.

There is no conceivable genetic “test” for homo-

sexuality. Specifi cally, it has been reported that a

percentage of pairs of self-identifi ed gay brothers,

culled from certain highly selected samples, share a

genetic marker. Note that this selectively culled

group of gay brothers share that marker with each
other , not with unrelated gay men. Thus, even if
Hamer’s results hold, no one can take a blood sam-

ple and look at this genetic marker to determine

whether a person is gay or straight.

Finally, in larger terms, the search for an “or-

ganic seat” or “biological cause” of homosexuality

remains an undemonstrated conceit—a mishmash

of selective citation from the animal kingdom and

speculative parallels to poorly understood human

processes. Although various commentators have

speculated that some gene in Xq28 might play a
role in sexual orientation by way of neurohormonal

account for even the most obvious relevant effects of

gender and family relations in American society.

Women—mothers—play a much greater role than

men in negotiating and cementing family ties, a ten-

dency that is well established in the sociological and

anthropological literature.

As a result, Americans

tend to be closer to and to know more about their

maternal relatives than their paternal ones. This

sociological effect is likely to be even more pro-

nounced in the case of gay men than in society at

large. Given the role of fathers in perpetuating cul-

tural expectations of masculinity, given the cultural

anxieties that a gay son refl ects upon his father, and

given the nature of the idealized maternal role (nur-

turing caregiver), it is certainly conceivable that on

the average, gay men tend to be closer to their moth-

ers and to know more about their maternal, consan-

guineal kin than they are to their fathers, about whose

blood relations they know correspondingly less.

Hamer’s team did attempt to apply a reasonable

check on information provided by the gay men.

They also interviewed at least one relative each for

twenty-six participants (for a total of forty-six rela-

tives interviewed). On this basis, Hamer concluded

that the information provided by the seventy-six

total participants was reliable. One might suggest,

instead, that the claims were merely consistent : that
one relative tended to think pretty much what an-

other relative thought. Since extensive networks of

the gay men’s relatives were not systematically in-

terviewed, either or both of the above sociological

factors could fully account for the maternally

skewed results of Hamer’s pedigree study.

At this point in a review of Hamer’s study, it is usu-

ally conceded: “Yes, but Hamer’s group nonethe-

less found something —a genetic marker—shared
by gay brothers, and that is in itself signifi cant.”

And after all, Hamer’s group claims only to have

established a genetic link for “one form” of male

homosexuality—presumably the kind genetically

transmitted along maternal lines. Still, there is con-

siderably less signifi cance here than one could

glean from media reports, which took Hamer’s

study as the charmed third to seal the argument.

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READING 16: The Biology of the Homosexual 153

infl ated claims in the fi eld of “behavioral genetics,”

the design of Hamer’s study makes it extremely

sensitive to a small number of families matching or

not. The real question is not “Is there a gene for

homosexuality?” but rather, “Is the 82 percent

concordance result suffi ciently different from the

50 percent rate that would occur by chance to be

meaningful?” The concordance rate in the second

study lies considerably closer to the 50 percent rate

that would presumably occur in a DNA linkage anal-

ysis of pairs of brothers chosen entirely at random.

More signifi cant than any technical problems with

Hamer’s research design, however, are fundamental

problems with the conception of the research and

with the untested and untestable assumptions em-

bedded therein. As is frequently the case with such

research, the Hamer study implicitly understands

phenotype (the aggregate physical and behavioral

characteristics of an organism, usually understood

as the product of a dynamic interaction between

genes and environment) as the more or less direct

expression of genotype (the state of the organism’s

genes, or the inherited genetic “givens” that are

brought to the interaction), thus demoting “environ-

mental” factors to an order of secondary impor-

tance. Whereas genes “for” this or that trait are

conceived as playing a stable and “active” role in

constructing the person, the environment serves as a

backdrop and plays an essentially “passive” role,

either speeding along the pre-given results or posing

obstacles for the normal course of their expression.

This conception has the effect of obscuring the

peculiar environment established by the study itself.

Note the selection process that produced the sib-pair

sample: There are always two gay brothers, mater-

nally linked to other homosexual kin. We do not

know how to compare this very specifi c sample

with gay men who do not have gay brothers or other
gay kin. This is no minor quibble, for the sampling

procedure makes it impossible to distinguish envi-

ronmental and social factors from genetic ones.

There might well be major social differences be-
tween the development and experience of sexuality

where a gay sibling is present, as opposed to sexual

links with the hypothalamus, no one has specifi ed

exactly how this might happen, much less tested a

coherent hypothesis. In view of the aforementioned

problems with LeVay’s hypothalamus work, it is

unlikely that they will. . . .

The questions raised about the reliability of

Hamer’s pedigree studies are crucial. Because the

pedigree study is based on such poor design for

sociological research, the likelihood is increased

that the Xq28 concordance rates are the equivalent

of “false positive” readings, results that appear to be

signifi cant but that are not replicated in subsequent

research. (This kind of result happens all the time,

even in unimpeachable, well-designed research.)

Notably, the Hamer group did not try to deter-

mine how many nongay brothers share this region
of the chromosome with their gay brothers, much

less whether pairs of straight brothers exhibit high

rates of Xq28 concordance among themselves. This

is not a trivial matter, because unless we know the

Xq28 concordance rates for gay men with their het-

erosexual brothers, we have no way of interpreting

the meaning of the 82 percent rate among gay

brothers reported in the fi rst study or the 67 percent

rate reported in the Hamer group’s follow-up study.

Hamer’s conclusions—that the gay men received a

maternal chromosome for homosexuality and that

Xq28 is a (or even the ) genetic site involved in sex-
ual orientation—depend on a viable control group

that has never been established. The absence of

such a control group renders Hamer ’s fi rst study’ s
results virtually meaningless.

The follow-up study, which found a lower rate

of Xq28 consonance between gay brothers, did re-

port a very small sample of eleven families in which
two gay brothers shared the Xq28 marker and also

had a nongay brother. It is reported that nine of the

nongay brothers did not share the marker with their

two gay brothers and that two did—but these num-

bers are very small indeed, scarcely adequate for a

viable control group.

Perhaps most signifi cantly, the Xq28 concor-

dance rate for gay brothers fell from 83 percent in

the fi rst study to 67 percent in the second study. As

Jonathan Marks makes clear in his discussion of

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154 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

understandings of genetics and heritability. Headlines

tell us that biologists have unearthed the “roots” of

sexual orientation, or that geneticists have identifi ed

the gene “for” thrill seeking or a love of novelty. . . .

Such reportage, directed at the lay public, inevitably

glosses complex technical questions. But it is not

always clear that the research itself, considered apart

from its splashy publicity, maintains a properly sci-

entifi c approach to the question of heritability or the

role of genetics in biological processes.

In the vernacular, heredity denotes what is

“given,” what is “in” the “blood”: It is the part of

human variation that is “caused” by genetic “na-

ture,” rather than by environmental “nurture.” The

folk conception of heredity also implies “immuta-

bility”: The leopard cannot change his spots, and

short of wearing colored contact lenses, human be-

ings cannot change the color of their eyes.

The biological conception of heritability is more

precise and less deterministic. In biological terms,

heritability is a measure of the likelihood that a trait

present in one generation will recur in subsequent

generations sharing a common gene pool in the

same environment. Expressed as an equation, he-

redity includes both a numerator and a denomina-

tor. Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon

Kamin give that equation this way:

Heritability = H = genetic variance
genetic variance +

environmental variance

where “genetic variance” refers to “the average per-

formance of different genotypes” and “environ-

mental variance” refers to the “variation among

individuals of the same genotype.”

Two important qualifi cations follow from this

formula. First, scientists attempting to determine

the heritability of a trait assess average genetic vari-

ation. They do not measure genetic “causes.” Sec-

ond, environmental variation is part of the

denominator—a basic point that is often forgotten

in genetic research on complex human behaviors.

Note what limited arguments a properly biologi-

cal conception of heritability and genetic factors

development and experience in other kinds of

settings. Hamer has presumably accounted for this

objection by claiming that he has identifi ed “one

form” of male homosexuality—presumably the

kind genetically “transmitted” from mother to son.

But this does not necessarily follow, and there are

no compelling grounds for concluding it, unless one

assumes that Xq28 in fact hides a “gay gene,” which

has not been demonstrated.

An alternative hypothesis, then: If older and suc-

cessfully homosexual relatives serve as role models,

fostering a sense of esteem for the homosexual feel-

ings of younger relatives during crucial periods, then

the “trait” in question might actually be “ transmitted”

socially, from uncle to nephew, from cousin to
cousin, from brother to brother. . . . And the “form”

of homosexuality identifi ed here might mean only

that there is an environmental difference—in that

having a gay brother constitutes a different environ-

ment than not having a gay brother.

In this context, consider the most generous possi-

ble reading of Hamer’s results, on their own terms—

including the assumption that there must be some kind

of “linkage” between genes and sexual object choice.

Even assuming that Hamer’s data, in toto, are reliable,

there is no way of specifying exactly what is shared by
gay brothers in Xq28: some gene directly related to
sexuality and sexual orientation? Or some gene that

has nothing to do with sexuality directly, but that can
become linked, indirectly and under certain circum-
stances, to sexuality? In other words, the question of

cause versus effect—indeed, of multiple causes and

effects—has not been settled. Are consonant sibling

pairs simply expressing a genetic predisposition to-

ward homosexuality? Or are they being subtly social-

ized into homosexuality based on some other

characteristic or set of traits? Or are they indirectly

prodded toward the resolution of various confl icts

through a homosexual outcome? Or even, yet again:

Are they discovering and/or coming to emphasize a

homosexual potential by way of some other character-

istic, or by way of some other affi nity with close kin?

Media reportage of genetic research like Hamer’s

invariably traffi cs in over-simplifi ed, folkloric

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READING 16: The Biology of the Homosexual 155

dramatically to changes in the environment—but

not in any linear or straightforward way.


experiments by Jens Clausen, David Keck, and

William Heisey elegantly illustrate this principle.

The scientists took three clippings each from several

different individual plants of the species Achillea
millefolium . Such clippings will produce “clone”
plants genetically identical to their parent plant and

to each other. The scientists planted the clippings

from each of the different plants in three different

environments to observe how they grew under dif-

ferent conditions: one each at low, medium, and

high elevations. The genetically identical plants

grew to different heights at different elevations, but

some were “tall” at low elevations, “short” at me-

dium elevations, and “tall” again at high elevations.

Others exhibited the opposite relationship: “short,”

“tall,” and “short” from low to high elevation. Some

showed a wide range of variation in different cli-

mates, others a narrow range. Although it was clear

that the plants’ heights were affected by elevation, it

proved impossible to predict just how individuals

would actually respond to different environments.

Let us imagine, then, that homosexuality has a
heritability factor, and that Hamer and his team are

on to something. Even if one takes the Hamer results

at face value—and I have tried to indicate some of

what might be wrong with the research itself—and

even if the fi ndings withstand subsequent restudies,

which is already very doubtful, the correlation of

some form of sexual variation with some kind of

genetic variation has many fewer implications than

the lay public (or for that matter much of the science

establishment) seems to think. Even a relatively

high correlation—a high heritability factor (the

worst-case scenario for partisans of a construction-

ist perspective)—could not preclude dramatic or

unpredictable environmental effects on sexual ori-

entation. Nor could it preclude the possibility that,

under other circumstances, the “trait” in question

could manifest itself differently or among altogether

different kin groups.

Genetic research like Hamer’s almost never

announces itself with anything resembling the

range of caveats appropriate for properly restrained

actually permits. To say that a trait is “highly

heritable”—that a high percentage of phenotypic

variation is correlated to genetic variance—does

not preclude saying that the trait also responds dra-

matically to environmental conditions. For exam-

ple, if we say that height among a group of human

beings has a heritability factor of about .9, or

90 percent, what this implies is that children in that

group tend to be about the same height as their par-

ents, all other things being equal.

But height also

responds, impressively, to environmental factors,

especially to childhood nutrition. Drought in the

Sahel and famine in North Korea produce children

whose height is substantially less than that of their

parents, as is their body weight, among other

things. In much of Asia, a shift away from tradi-

tional rice-and-fi sh staples to a cuisine more

closely resembling the Western diet, with its em-

phasis on red meat, has dramatically raised the

average height—along with body weight, average

cholesterol levels, cardiovascular ailments, and the

like. Heritability, then—even an extremely high

measure of heritability—does not imply inevitabil-

ity, immutability, or even genetic “causation.” To

say that a trait is “highly heritable” for a given

population means only that the trait in question re-

curs at a certain rate among genetically related kin

reproducing in a shared and relatively stable envi-

ronment. It also implies a number of very substan-

tial contingency clauses. If the environment

changes, whether by accident, by migration, or as a

result of changes introduced by the activity of the

population itself, then the trait in question could

also change dramatically.

To make matters yet more complicated, the heri-

tability of a given trait can vary from group to group

and place to place: “Some populations may have a

lot of genetic variance for a character[istic], some

only a little. Some environments are more variable

than others.”

For certain complex traits correlated

to polygenic factors, environmental changes could

signal the appearance of the trait in families where it

was previously absent—or its elimination from lines

where it had previously occurred. Finally, some sim-

ple, highly heritable traits in some species respond

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156 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

4. See Edward Stein’s calculations in The Mismeasure of
Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Ori-
entation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999),

5. Gail Vines, Raging Hormones: Do They Rule Our Lives?
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 112.

John Maddox, “Is Homosexuality Hardwired?” Nature
353 (1991): 13.

6. Gilbert Zicklin, “Media, Science, and Sexual Ideology:

The Promotion of Sexual Stability,” in A Queer World:
The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader , ed.
Martin Duberman (New York: New York University

Press; 1997), 383.

7. See Simon LeVay, The Sexual Brain (Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT Press, 1993), 121–22. William Byne, “LeVay’s

Thesis Reconsidered,” in A Queer World , 325, and Stein,
The Mismeasure of Desire , 201.

8. Stein, The Mismeasure of Desire , 210. Simon LeVay and
Dean Hamer, “Evidence for a Biological Infl uence in

Male Homosexuality,” Scientifi c American 270 (May
1994): 44–49.

9. LeVay, The Sexual Brain , 122.
10. David Gelman with Donna Foote, Todd Barrett, and

Mary Talbot, “Born or Bred?” Newsweek , February 24,
1992, 49. See also Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Ex-
ploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information Is
Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians,
Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators, and Law
Enforcers (Boston: Beacon, 1993), 97–98.

11. Michael J. Bailey and Richard Pillard, “A Genetic Study

of Male Sexual Orientation,” Archives of General Psy-
chiatry 48 (1991): 1089–96. See also Michael J. Bailey
and Richard Pillard, “Are Some People Born Gay?”

New York Times , December 17, 1991.
12. Hubbard and Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth , 97.
13. Actually, adoption procedures tend to select for rela-

tively homogeneous, middle-class environments, even

for twins separated at birth. And it turns out that many

twins called “separated at birth” were not really so sepa-

rated after all. Many such twins are actually reared by

different sets of relatives in the same town.

14. Hubbard and Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth , 97.
15. Zicklin, “Media, Science, and Ideology,” 385.

16. David Gelman et al., “Born or Bred: The Origins of

Homosexuality,” Newsweek , February 24, 1992, 46.
17. I leave aside here a discussion of all those terms that give

away more than they need divulge of the author’s pre-

suppositions, for example, “nurturing” parents, a “lively

interest” in sports, and “appropriate relations with


18. See the section entitled “Homosexual Outlet” in Alfred

C. Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male
(Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1948), 610–66.

19. Zicklin, “Media, Science, and Sexual Ideology,” 384.

biogenetic research. More often than not, it lapses

into an essentially folkloric understanding of herita-

bility; the search for “the” “gay” “gene,” the confu-

sion of “genetic correlation” with “genetic causation.”

That is because biologists, as a group, tend to be

committed to an ideology of biological reductionism,

with its reifi cation of practices into things, even

when such reduction runs contrary to their own best


They also tend to reject the notion that

science cannot answer every question.

Readers will no doubt see where I stand. I do not

believe that homosexuality is really susceptible to

even “good” biological research. As a complex,

meaningful, and motivated human activity, same-

sex desire is simply not comparable to questions like

eye color, hair color, or height. I am not even con-

vinced that “desire” can be defi nitively identifi ed,

isolated from other human feelings, objectively

classifi ed, gauged, or compared. For how are we to

measure the “occurrence” (or non-occurrence) of a

“trait” that is itself relational, subtle, and subject to

varied modalities and modulations? And how are we

to measure environmental constancy across genera-

tions on a subject defi ned by contestation, volatility,

and change?

1. What are some of the fl aws Lancaster identifi es

in this research on sexuality?

2. Should one study sexuality in the same way

that one studies genetic traits such as eye or

hair color?

1. Thomas H. Maugh II and Nora Zamichow, Los Angeles

Times , August 30, 1991. Malcolm Gladwell, Washington
Post , December 17, 1991. Jamie Talan, Newsday ,
December 9, 1991. Kim Painter, USA Today, December 17,
1991. Natalie Angier, New York Times , July 16, 1993. Curt
Suplee, Washington Post , October 31, 1995.

2. Anne Fausto-Sterling, Myths of Gender: Biological The-
ories about Women and Men , rev. ed. (1985; New York:
Basic Books, 1992), 257.

3. Simon LeVay, “A Difference in Hypothalamic Structure

between Heterosexual and Homosexual Men,” Science
253 (1991): 1034–37.

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READING 16: The Biology of the Homosexual 157

Xq28 in Males but Not in Females,” Nature Genetics 11,
no. 3 (1995): 248–56.

29. Jonathan Marks, “Behavioral Genetics,” chapter 5 in

What It Means to Be 98 Percent Chimpanzee (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2002).

30. Natalie Angier, “Variant Gene Tied to a Love of New

Thrills, ” New York Times , January 2, 1996. See Angier’s
follow-up story later the same year, which reports a fail-

ure to replicate the original studies: “Maybe It’s Not a

Gene behind a Person’s Thrill-Seeking Ways,” New York
Times , November 1, 1996.

31. Although the shorthand that refers to genetic “causes” is

appealing when simple Mendelian traits such as eye

color are under discussion, the idea of a genetic “cause”

founders when polygenic traits are in question. Simple

Mendelian traits account for only a small percentage

of human traits. See Hubbard and Wald’s discussion in

Exploding the Gene Myth , 40–42.
32. R. C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin, Not in

Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (New
York: Pantheon, 1984), 97.

33. To be more precise, it means that 90 percent of the

variance in height for a population is accounted for by

genetic variance. See Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin, Not
in Our Genes , 97.

34. Ibid.

35. This important point is meticulously illustrated by

Richard Lewontin, from whom I draw the following

example, in The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and
Environment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 2000), 20–24.

36. Jens Clausen, David Keck, and William Heisey, Experi-
mental Studies on the Nature of Species, Vol. 3: Environ-
mental Responses of Climatic Races of Achillea ,
Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 581

(1958), 1–129.

37. I leave aside certain well-known paradoxes of the scien-

tifi c approach to heritability. Since heritability is a mea-

sure of variance , certain traits that are absolutely genetic
show no variation—hence, zero heritability. (Imagine a

population in which everyone has brown eyes.) Correla-

tively, if certain other traits “run in families” (because of

where the families live) or are socially attached to a ge-
netic trait (like skin color), they display high heritability,

despite having plainly environmental origins. See Edward

Stein’s discussion in The Mismeasure of Desire , 142–44.
38. See Richard Lewontin’s short masterpiece of science

criticism, Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA
(New York: HarperPerennial, 1992).

39. See John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of
Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientifi c Age (Reading,
Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996), and The Undiscovered
Mind—How the Human Mind Defi es Replication, Medica-
tion, and Explanation (New York: The Free Press, 1999).

20. See Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, The Science of
Desire: The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of
Behavior (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 21.

21. Dean Hamer, Stella Hu, Victoria Magnuson, Nan Hu,

and Angela Pattatucci, “A Linkage between DNA Mark-

ers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual Orienta-

tion,” Science 261 (1993): 321–27.
22. Hamer and Copeland, The Science of Desire , 203–4,


23. Stein, The Mismeasure of Desire , 217. Neil Risch, E.
Squires-Wheeler, and B. J. B. Keats, “Male Sexual Orien-

tation and Genetic Evidence,” Science 262 (December 24,
1993): 2063–65.

24. On the matrilateral skewing of American and English

kinship systems, especially but not exclusively patterns

of kinship in the lower classes, see David M. Schneider

and Raymond T. Smith, Class Differences in American
Kinship (1973; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,
1978), 9, 40–43, 53–55. On the signifi cance of maternal

kin work, see Micaela di Leonardo, “The Female World

of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work

of Kinship,” Signs 12, no. 3 (1987): 440–53.
25. See Zicklin, “Media, Science, and Sexual Ideology,” 385.

26. In The Science of Desire and in response to Hamer’s crit-
ics, Hamer and Copeland report that the Hamer team did
attempt other checks: the fi rst was to ponder the distribu-

tion of lesbian relatives of the gay male subjects. Theo-
retically, if the maternal links simply refl ected better

knowledge of one’s maternal kin, then there ought to also

be elevated reportage of lesbianism along maternal lines.

Hamer and Copeland report that the research team found

no such pattern. The second check was to review lesbian

informants’ reportage of gay male relatives from a sepa-
rate study. The authors report that there was no signifi cant

difference between maternal and paternal links for les-

bian subjects (103–4). Of course, these “checks” assume

that communication about relatives’ sex lives occurs in a

transparent environment unaffected by either sexual in-

tolerance or gender inequalities—that talk about sex is

uninfl ected by different maternal as opposed to paternal

(and male as opposed to female, or mother-son, as op-

posed to mother-daughter, etc.) strategies of revelation

and concealment. . . . It is by no means unthinkable that

such factors could differentially distribute family knowl-

edge about gays and lesbians. As Edward Stein demon-

strates in The Mismeasure of Desire (218), it remains
altogether plausible that the elevated maternal pattern of

homosexuality reported by gay subjects is a strictly socio-
logical effect, derived from partial knowledges, selec-

tively revealed and asymmetrically conveyed.

27. Hubbard and Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth , 75.
28. Stella Hu, Angela Pattatucci, C. Patterson, L. Li, D.W.

Fulker, S. S. Cherny, L. Kruglak, and Dean Hamer,

“Linkage between Sexual Orientation and Chromosome

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158 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

8. Why do you insist on fl aunting your hetero-

sexuality? Can’t you just be what you are and

keep it quiet?

9. Would you want your children to be hetero-

sexual, knowing the problem they’d face?

10. A disproportionate majority of child molesters

are heterosexuals. Do you consider it safe to

expose your children to heterosexual teachers?

11. Even with all the societal support marriage re-

ceives, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there

so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?

12. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis

on sex?

13. Considering the menace of overpopulation,

how could the human race survive if everyone

were heterosexual like you?

14. Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be

objective? Don’t you fear that the therapist

might be inclined to infl uence you in the direc-

tion of his or her own leanings?

15. How can you become a whole person if you

limit yourself to compulsive, exclusive hetero-

sexuality and fail to develop your natural,

healthy homosexual potential?

16. There seem to be very few happy heterosexu-

als. Techniques have been developed that might

enable you to change if you really want to.

Have you considered trying aversion therapy?

1. What is your reaction to the Heterosexual


2. What are the assumptions behind these


R E A D I N G 1 7

The Heterosexual Questionnaire

Martin Rochlin

This Heterosexual Questionnaire reverses the ques-

tions that are very often asked of gays and lesbians

by straight people. By having to answer this type

of question, the heterosexual person will get some

intellectual and emotional insight into how oppres-

sive and discriminatory a “straight” frame of refer-

ence can be to lesbians and gays.

1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?

2. When and how did you fi rst decide you were a


3. Is it possible that your heterosexuality is just a

phase you may grow out of?

4. Is it possible that your heterosexuality stems

from a neurotic fear of others of the same


5. If you’ve never slept with a person of the same

sex, is it possible that all you need is a good

gay lover?

6. To whom have you disclosed your heterosex-

ual tendencies?

7. Why do you heterosexuals feel compelled to

seduce others into your lifestyle?

Martin Rochlin (1928–2003) was one of the founders of the

Association of Gay Psychologists and a leader in the campaign

that led to removing homosexuality from the list of mental

disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders .

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READING 18: Disability Defi nitions: The Politics of Meaning 159

modern industrial societies. In this process of identi-

fi cation and classifi cation, disability has always been

an important category, in that it offers a legitimate

social status to those who can be defi ned as unable to

work as opposed to those who may be classifi ed as

unwilling to do so (Stone, 1985). Throughout the

twentieth century this process has become ever more

sophisticated, requiring access to expert knowledge,

usually residing in the ever-burgeoning medical and

paramedical professions. Hence the simple dichot-

omy of the nineteenth century has given way to a

whole new range of defi nitions based upon clinical

criteria or functional limitation.

A third reason why defi nitions are important

stems from what might be called “the politics

of  minority groups.” From the 1950s onwards,

though earlier in the case of alcoholics, there was

a growing realisation that if particular social prob-

lems were to be resolved, or at least ameliorated,

then nothing more or less than a fundamental re-

defi nition of the problem was necessary. Thus a

number of groups including women, black people

and homosexuals, set about challenging the pre-

vailing defi nitions of what constituted these prob-

lems by attacking the sexist and racist biases in

the language used to underpin these dominant

defi nitions. They did this by creating, substituting

or taking over terminology to provide more posi-

tive imagery (e.g., gay is good, black is beautiful,

etc.). Disabled people too have realised that domi-

nant defi nitions of disability pose problems for

individual and group identity and have begun to

challenge the use of disablist language. Whether it

be offensive (cripple, spastic, mongol, etc.) or

merely depersonalising (the handicapped, the

blind, the deaf, and so on), such terminology has

been attacked, and organisations of disabled peo-

ple have fostered a growing group consciousness

and identity.

There is one fi nal reason why this issue of defi –

nitions is important. From the late fi fties onwards

there was an upswing in the economy and an

increasing concern to provide more services for

R E A D I N G 1 8

Disability Defi nitions:
The Politics of Meaning

Michael Oliver

The social world differs from the natural world in

(at least) one fundamental respect; that is, human

beings give meanings to objects in the social world

and subsequently orient their behavior towards

these objects in terms of the meanings given to

them. W. I. Thomas (1966) succinctly puts it thus:

“if men defi ne situations as real, they are real in

their consequences.” As far as disability is con-

cerned, if it is seen as a tragedy, then disabled peo-

ple will be treated as if they are the victims of some

tragic happening or circumstance. This treatment

will occur not just in everyday interactions but will

also be translated into social policies which will

attempt to compensate these victims for the trage-

dies that have befallen them.

Alternatively, it logically follows that if disabil-

ity is defi ned as social oppression, then disabled

people will be seen as the collective victims of an

uncaring or unknowing society rather than as indi-

vidual victims of circumstance. Such a view will

be translated into social policies geared towards

alleviating oppression rather than compensating

individuals. It almost goes without saying that at

present, the individual and tragic view of disabil-

ity dominates both social interactions and social


A second reason why defi nitions are important

historically centres on the need to identify and

classify the growing numbers of the urban poor in


Michael Oliver is professor emeritus of disability studies at the

University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom.

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160 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

This reformulation is not only about methodol-

ogy or semantics, it is also about oppression. In

order to understand this, it is necessary to under-

stand that, according to OPCS’s own fi gures, 2231

disabled people were given face-to-face interviews

(Martin et al., 1988, Table 5.2). In these interviews,

the interviewer visits the disabled person at home

and asks many structured questions in a structured

way. It is in the nature of the interview process that

the interviewer presents as expert and the disabled

person as an isolated individual inexperienced in re-

search, and thus unable to reformulate the questions

in a more appropriate way. It is hardly surprising

that, given the nature of the questions and their di-

rection that, by the end of the interview, the disabled

person has come to believe that his or her problems

are caused by their own health/disability problems

rather than by the organization of society. It is in this

sense that the process of the interview is oppressive,

reinforcing onto isolated, individual disabled peo-

ple the idea that the problems they experience in

everyday living are a direct result of their own per-

sonal inadequacies or functional limitations. . . .

disabled people out of an ever-growing national

cake. But clearly, no government (of whatever per-

suasion) was going to commit itself to a whole

range of services without some idea of what the fi –

nancial consequences of such a commitment might

be. Thus, after some pilot work, the Offi ce of Popu-

lation Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) was commis-

sioned in the late sixties to carry out a national

survey in Britain which was published in 1971

(Harris, 1971). Subsequent work in the interna-

tional context (Wood, 1981) and more recently a

further survey in this country, which has recently

been published (Martin, Meltzer and Elliot, 1988),

built on and extended this work. However, this

work has proceeded isolated from the direct experi-

ence of disability as experienced by disabled peo-

ple themselves, and this has led to a number of

wide-ranging and fundamental criticisms of it. . . .

It could be argued that in polarising the tragic and

oppressive views of disability, a confl ict is being

created where none necessarily exists. Disability

has both individual and social dimensions and that

is what offi cial defi nitions from Harris (1971)

through to WHO [World Health Organization]

(Wood, 1981) have sought to recognize and to op-

erationalize. The problem with this, is that these

schemes, while acknowledging that there are social

dimensions to disability, do not see disability as

arising from social causes. . . .

This view of disability can and does have op-

pressive consequences for disabled people and can

be quite clearly shown in the methodology adopted

by the OPCS survey in Britain (Martin et al., 1988).

[ Table 1 presents] a list of questions drawn from the

face-to-face interview schedule of this survey.

These questions clearly ultimately reduce the

problems that disabled people face to their own per-

sonal inadequacies or functional limitations. It

would have been perfectly possible to reformulate

these questions to locate the ultimate causes of dis-

ability as within the physical and social environ-

ments [as they are in Table 2 ].

TA B L E 1

Can you tell me what is wrong with you?

What complaint causes your difficulty in holding, gripping

or turning things?

Are your difficulties in understanding people mainly due to

a hearing problem?

Do you have a scar, blemish or deformity which limits

your daily activities?

Have you attended a special school because of a long-

term health problem or disability?

Does your health problem/disability mean that you need

to live with relatives or someone else who can help

look after you?

Did you move here because of your health problem/


How difficult is it for you to get about your immediate

neighborhood on your own?

Does your health problem/disability prevent you from

going out as often or as far as you would like?

Does your health problem/disability make it difficult for

you to travel by bus?

Does your health problem/disability affect your work in

any way at present?

ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 160ros27020_rd01-20_051-192.indd 160 01/08/15 7:33 AM01/08/15 7:33 AM

1983). In others, impairments resulting from infec-

tious diseases are declining, only to be replaced by

those stemming from the aging of the population,

accidents at work, on the road or in the home, the

very success of some medical technologies in en-

suring the survival of some severely impaired chil-

dren and adults and so on (Taylor, 1977). To put the

matter simply, impairments such as blindness and

deafness are likely to be more common in the Third

World, whereas heart conditions, spina bifi da, spi-

nal injuries and so on, are likely to be more com-

mon in industrial societies.

Again, the distribution of these impairments is

not a matter of chance, either across different soci-

eties or within a single society, for

Social and economic forces cause disorder directly;

they redistribute the proportion of people at high or

low risk of being affected; and they create new

pathways for the transmission of disorders of all

kinds through travel, migration and the rapid diffu-

sion of information and behaviour by the mass

communication media. Finally, social forces affect

the conceptualisation, recognition and visibility of

disorders. A disorder in one place and at one time is

not seen as such in another; these social perceptions

and defi nitions infl uence both the provision of care,

the demands of those being cared for, and the size

of any count of health needs. (Susser and Watson,

1971, p. 35)

Social class is an important factor here both in

terms of the causes of impairments or what Doyal

(1979) calls degenerative diseases, and in terms of

outcomes, what Le Grand (1978) refers to as long-

standing illnesses.

Just as we know that poverty is not randomly

distributed internationally or nationally (Cole and

Miles, 1984; Townsend, 1979), neither is impair-

ment, for in the Third World at least

Not only does disability usually guarantee the poverty

of the victim but, most importantly, poverty is itself a

major cause of disability. (Doyal, 1983, p. 7)

There is a similar relation in the industrial countries.

. . . Hence, if poverty is not randomly distributed

and there is an intrinsic link between poverty and

Recently it has been estimated that there are some

500 million severely impaired people in the world

today, approximately one in ten of the population

(Shirley, 1983). These impairments are not ran-

domly distributed throughout the world but are cul-

turally produced.

The societies men live in determine their chances of

health, sickness and death. To the extent that they

have the means to master their economic and social

environments, they have the means to determine their

life chances. (Susser and Watson, 1971, p. 45)

Hence in some countries impairments are likely

to stem from infectious diseases, poverty, igno-

rance and the failure to ensure that existing medical

treatments reach the population at risk (Shirley,

TA B L E 2

Can you tell me what is wrong with society?

What defects in the design of everyday equipment like

jars, bottles and tins causes you difficulty in holding,

gripping or turning them?

Are your difficulties in understanding people mainly due

to their inabilities to communicate with you?

Do other people’s reactions to any scar, blemish or

deformity you may have, limit your daily activities?

Have you attended a special school because of your

education authority’s policy of sending people with

your health problem or disability to such places?

Are community services so poor that you need to rely on

relatives or someone else to provide you with the right

level of personal assistance?

What inadequacies in your housing caused you to move


What are the environmental constraints which make it

difficult for you to get about in your immediate


Are there any transport or financial problems which

prevent you from going out as often or as far as you

would like?

Do poorly designed buses make it difficult for someone

with your health problem/disability to use them?

Do you have problems at work because of the physical

environment or the attitudes of others?

READING 18: Disability Defi nitions: The Politics of Meaning 161

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162 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

1. Can you list some words that have changed

meaning over time?

2. Why must minority groups continue to chal-

lenge defi nitions?

Abberley, P. (1987). “The Concept of Oppression and the

Development of a Social Theory of Disability,” Disability,
Handicap and Society, Vol. 2, no. 1, 5–19.

Barrett, D., and McCann, E. (1979). “Discovered: Two Toed

Man,” Sunday Times Colour Supplement, n.d.
Cole, S., and Miles, I. (1984). Worlds Apart (Brighton:


Doyal, L. (1979). The Political Economy of Health (London:
Pluto Press).

Doyal L. (1983). “The Crippling Effects of Underdevelop-

ment” in Shirley, O. (ed.).

Harris, A. (1971). Handicapped and Impaired in Great
Britain (London: HMSO).

Le Grand, J. (1978). “The Distribution of Public Expendi-

ture: the Case of Health Care,” Economica, Vol. 45.
Martin, J., Meltzer, H., and Elliot, D. (1988). The Prevalence

of Disability Amongst Adults (London: HMSO).
Shirley, O. (ed.) (1983). A Cry for Health : Poverty and Dis-

ability in the Third World (Frome: Third World Group and

Stone, D. (1985). The Disabled State (London: Macmillan).
Susser, M., and Watson, W. (2nd ed.) (1971). Sociology in

Medicine (London: Oxford University Press).
Taylor, D. (1977). Physical Impairment — Social Handicap

(London: Offi ce of Health Economics).

Thomas, W. I. (1966). In Janowitz, M. (ed.), Organization
and Social Personality : Selected Papers (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press).

Townsend, P. (1979). Poverty in the United Kingdom
(Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Wood, P. (1981). International Classifi cation of Impair-
ments, Disabilities and Handicaps (Geneva: World Health

impairment, then neither is impairment randomly


Even a structured account of impairment cannot,

however, be reduced to counting the numbers of

impaired people in any one country, locality, class

or social group, for

Beliefs about sickness, the behaviours exhibited by

sick persons, and the ways in which sick persons are

responded to by family and practitioners are all aspects

of social reality. They, like the health care system itself,

are cultural constructions, shaped distinctly in different

societies and in different social structural settings

within those societies. (Kleinman, 1980, p. 38)

The discovery of an isolated tribe in West Africa

where many of the population were born with only

two toes illustrates this point, for this made no dif-

ference to those with only two toes or indeed the

rest of the population (Barrett and McCann, 1979).

Such differences would be regarded as pathological

in our society, and the people so affl icted subjected

to medical intervention.

In discussing impairment, it was not intended to

provide a comprehensive discussion of the nature

of impairment but to show that it occurs in a struc-

tured way. However

such a view does not deny the signifi cance of germs,

genes and trauma, but rather points out that their ef-

fects are only ever apparent in a real social and his-

torical context, whose nature is determined by a

complex interaction of material and nonmaterial fac-

tors. (Abberley, 1987, p. 12)

This account of impairment challenges the no-

tion underpinning personal tragedy theory, that im-

pairments are events happening to unfortunate

individuals. . . .

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READING 19: What Wounds Enable: The Politics of Disability and Violence in Chicago 163

“When wintertime hits, and it’s hard to get peo-

ple to stand on the corner, he goes all bootleg and

starts selling everything,” Justin mutters.

Justin’s back faces me. He’s gripping the arm-

rests of his wheelchair, raising his body up and

down—slow, fl uid movements—his triceps bulge

and his breath labors as he fi nishes his third set of

inverted push-ups. He catches me in his peripheral

vision, studying the latest contraband from a rusted

foldout chair. This “hot” merchandise means it’s

cold outside, as confi rmed by the draft that stings us

from the side door someone has left ajar. Kemo

closes it when he arrives.

“What’s Urkel doin’ here?” Kemo says as he


R E A D I N G 1 9

What Wounds Enable:
The Politics of Disability
and Violence in Chicago

Laurence Ralph

We’re in Kemo’s garage. I sit near a pile of DVD

players, cell phones, car stereos, laptops, and Inter-

net routers.


Invisibly Disabled

I am a disabled individual. I am an invisibly disabled per-

son, which makes me not disabled enough. My earliest

memories are of being in pain. Unfortunately, when

those around me could not see my pain and, when doc-

tors could not diagnose my pain, it was decided for me

that my pain did not exist. If someone grabbed my arm

and it was not “that hard,” I learned I was not supposed

to say it hurt, because it didn’t really hurt—at least not
them. This is when I began to put my disabilities in the


I was 17 years old when I went to a rheumatologist

about my medical problems. I heard the words, “Well,

I am sorry to tell you this, but your daughter has fibromy-

algia.” I smiled with relief to finally find out what it was that

was causing my problems. “Great, so . . . how do we fix

it?” I asked. The look on his face was serious and almost

sad as he told me, “Well, there is no cure. What I mean is

we can treat some of the symptoms.” That is when it hit

me; I would be in pain for the rest of my life. The medica-

tions I have had to take since I was 17 have caused their

own medical conditions. When I was 19, my rheumatolo-

gist realized I had rheumatoid arthritis as well, and when

I was 22, I began showing the signs of what I would later

find out is myoclonic epilepsy. At the age of 27, I experi-

enced a full seizure; my body was flipping around like a

fish out of water on the floor. The only time I ever remem-

ber being so scared was waking up as a child not being

able to feel my legs.

With all that I am because of, in spite of, and thanks

to my disabilities, I continue to try to keep them to myself

and people close to me. Making my disabilities visible to

someone is a choice I do not make lightly, or very often.

From experience, I know they will make certain judg-

ments about me and/or view me differently. Most of all,

I  fear people not believing me. It takes most people a

long time to believe I am in pain at all, and explaining that

I have had a lifetime of masking my pain is always a

pointless endeavor.

I find myself using phrases like “I’m all right” and

“Don’t worry about me” because worrying about me will

do no good, and I am all right—I am not completely help-

less on the ground and unable to move, not yet anyway.

As long as others are seeing me as able, I feel and act

more able. It makes it more of a reality to some extent.

Every time I see someone who is physically disabled

treated poorly because of their disability, I take it person-

ally. I see my own future and become angry, because

I know they would not treat me that way since they view

me as able . . . for now.
Heather L. Shaw

Laurence Ralph is a professor of anthropology and African and

African American Studies at Harvard University.

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164 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

result of car crashes is more common). And for our

purposes, we must note that gun violence is the pri-
mary cause of disability among Hispanics and
blacks; these two populations, in turn, make up the

majority of gang members in Chicago.

This paper is about what injury allows us to see

about the diversity among disabled populations.

My argument is that, while admirable, the focus on

assuaging social difference within the disability

right’s movement has served to obscure key distinc-

tions within disabled communities along the axes

of race and socioeconomic status. While the larger

community of disabled activists in Chicago tends to

use the social model of disability, in which there is

multiple ways to view ability and physical capaci-

ties are not devalued, disabled ex-gang members

rely on a medical model of disability that highlights

physical differences rather than seeking to diminish

them. I contend that the reliance on the medical

model is one (of many) demonstrations of the se-

verity of circumstances for these disabled, African

American ex-gang members.

I demonstrate this point by discussing how no-

tions of debt and obligation surface as critical com-

ponents of gang sociality. When it comes to the

familiar sequence (wherein a gang member shoots

an affi liate of a rival gang, and in response, mem-

bers of the rival gang retaliate) death and injury can

be thought of as forms of debt exchange. I show

that it is precisely because social relations between

gang members are so often solidifi ed through vio-

lence that expressive communication by a disabled

gang member (which transmits knowledge about

the streets and about injury) can be strategically de-

ployed to disrupt a cycle of vengeance. Since the

audience now owes it to the disabled affi liate who

sacrifi ced his life, to change theirs, wounds become
the precondition that enable social transformation.

Social scientists interested in race and urban

America have long pointed out the underbelly of

American exceptionalism. The “land of promise”

“I told you, he’s helping out with the forum.

He’s here to take notes,” Justin says.

“I don’t want you guys mentioning any gang

leaders or any sets by name,” he says, looking back

and forth between the two of us. “No blocks, no

streets, nothing like that. I don’t know who’s gonna

be around, you know.”

“Nah, I don’t do that,” Justin replies. “That’s not

the point of what I do.”

“Well, that’s good . . . that’s good, then.” Kemo

seems pleased.

“But, I am going to talk about the consequences,”
Justin continues. “You know, the consequences of

gang banging. I am going to talk about what hap-
pened to me, and how it’s affected my life.”

“I ain’t got no problem with that,” Kemo says

with a smirk. “But, good luck getting them to listen.

l’ll do my part. I’ll get them there. Then they’re all


Why would a paralyzed, ex-gang member-

turned-activist team up with a gang leader to orga-

nize a community forum on violence? What can

this event teach us about the concept of disability?

And what can this event show us about the seem-

ingly contradictory ways that people disempower

themselves in order to empower others?

In 2009 the rate of violent crime in Chicago was

almost double that of New York City and Los Ange-

les. Among the nation’s 10 largest cities, only Phil-

adelphia had higher rates of murder and violent

crime than Chicago.
What is more, during the

2008–2009 academic year, a record number of pub-

lic school students (38) were murdered. The enor-

mity of these numbers naturally focuses our

attention on murder and death. Such a focus, how-

ever, limits our understanding of urban violence.

Unacknowledged in these disheartening statistics is

a more complex reality: most victims of gun vio-

lence do not die. While the most common cause of

violence in urban areas is gun violence, a victim of

a gunshot wound is four times more likely to end up

disabled than killed. Though guns are no doubt

deadly, equally important is that gunshot injuries

constitute the second most common cause of dis-

ability in urban areas overall (only paralysis as a

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story is therefore an act of empowerment. In Crip
Theory , Robert McRuer brilliantly demonstrates
how, by turning a story of suffering into testimony,

disabled activists who “come out crip,” endow the

pejorative slur “crippled” with a positive valence.

In a similar vein, . . . the wounded storyteller’s dis-

avowal of medical experience is the basis by which

he voices his own experience of suffering. The no-

tion that a person should embrace his own wounded

body as an act of empowerment has been greatly

infl uenced by the Americans with Disabilities Act

of 1990. The Act makes discrimination based on

disability illegal, but just as importantly, it has

made acceptable the idea that people with disabili-

ties face systemic societal barriers that impact their

worldview and the ways in which they navigate

their social environment.

Though the ADA has made great strides in

providing resources for disabled people, one

unintended consequence has been that in the pro-

cess of leveling the playing fi eld, both scholars of

bodily impairment and the public have glossed over

the ways race operates within disabled communi-

My time in Eastwood reveals the perils of

such an omission. Justin’s wheelchair-bound life,

and the way he uses his disability, as we’ll see,

would be nearly unrecognizable—not to mention

incomprehensible—to, for example, a well-off,

white, middle-aged, suburban polio survivor.

. . . I aim to pinpoint how disabled populations

have always had to highlight their differences in

order to advocate for themselves, typically in ways

that are politically strategic and refl ective of their

marginalized status. I ask: how, within a model of

disability rights, do we account for the fact that,

depending on the way a disability was acquired,

what caused it, and the factors that might stop oth-

ers from becoming similarly hurt, disabled people

may choose to defi ne themselves in terms of their


. . . The success of the disability rights move-

ment has created the impression that the medical

model is harmful, an outmoded relic of a discrimi-

natory past, but the efforts of these disabled ex-gang

members suggests that perhaps the disability rights

celebrated in the Constitution of the United States,

they argue, has a fl ipside, which is the construction

of the “defective” black subject.
Whether in the

1890s, when anthropologists measured the skulls of

African descendants to show that behaviors and

abilities corresponded to different racial groups, or

more recently when scholars and government agen-

cies suggested that the socioeconomic plight of

urban blacks was associated with degenerate cul-

tural values, notions of the defective body, born in

the 19th century, continue to shape the 21st.

The nascent literature on disability can thus

serve as a point of intervention—a way to examine

the relationship between biology and culture with-

out invoking ideas of innate dysfunction—since

scholars in this fi eld have been attentive to bodily

injury, yet have also advanced a “social model” of

As these scholars have viewed disability as

an institutionalized source of oppression, compa-

rable to inequalities based on race, gender, and

sexual orientation, they have argued that it is not an

individual’s actual “impairments” which construct

disability as a subordinate social status and deval-

ued life experience but socially imposed barriers

(anything from inaccessible buildings, to limited

modes of transportation and communication, to

prejudicial attitudes).
This “social model,” not sur-

prisingly, is a radical step away from the medical

model of illness, which has dominated Western

thinking since the early 1900s, and which views

disabilities and diseases as physical conditions that

reduce a person’s quality of life, and thus pose clear

disadvantages to that person. In this way, the medi-

cal model echoes the 19th century notion of the

black defective body. It is important to point out

that advocates of disability rights have long re-

jected the medical model of disability, and instead

emphasize a rights-based model that “emphasizes

people’s personal adjustment to impairment and

their adaptation to a medical-rehabilitative regimen

of treatment.”

The medical model is often presumed to silence

a disabled person’s voice . . . because a core expec-

tation of being disabled is surrendering oneself to

the care of a physician. The act of telling one’s own

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166 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

movement has eschewed the medical model all too

soon. Although these ex-gang members in Chicago

face criticism from the wider disability rights com-

munity for highlighting variations in social differ-

ence (between “the normals” and the stigmatized,

the paralyzed and the able-bodied) they feel that

they must do so—since, as they put it, their wounds

enable them to saves lives. Though I focus on the
anti-gang forums hosted by disabled ex-gang mem-

bers, rather than their positionality within the larger

disability rights movement, both these forums, and

the tenuous subject position of the people who run

them, highlight the ways in which disabled com-

munities are stratifi ed along the lines of race, mas-

culinity, and socioeconomic status.

It is the

interplay of these culturally constructed identities

that map the contours of oppression that African

Americans face, allowing us to see the extent to

which violence becomes both a gang and community-

defi ning feature.

Days after Justin and I met with Kemo, I see him

again. Only this time, instead of a garage, he is

holding court in an abandoned lot. A group of

8  teenage boys sit on the rubbled, glass-strewn

ground at his feet. The leader of the local gang set

waves his arms, punctures his words with stares. As

he scolds the small group for failing to police their

neighborhood, Kemo looks like an urban griot.

“You know what? Y’all lack discipline,” he says.

“That’s why you got the Bandits comin’ in here

shooting up the place.” Kemo is referring to a rival

gang set, whose members recently infi ltrated his

territory, injuring two people. Pete, an affi liate who

was shot in the leg during that incident, sits next to

Kemo. The cane he will use for the rest of his life

lies between them. After Kemo praises Pete for his

bravery, and announces to the group that he is one

of the few among them who has “what it takes” to

be a gang leader, he reaches for Pete’s curved han-

dle cane and drags the rubber tip through the dirt,

sketching the boundaries of their block. X’s mark

the places he predicts rival gangs will attempt to

invade. Then he draws a series of arrows that sur-

round the Xs. These are the routes gang members

should travel to safeguard their domain.

“Y’all gotta protect your turf,” Kemo barks:

“ That’s the most important thing.”
Kemo’s depiction of his commercial strategy lit-

erally relies on a marker of disability—the cane. In

other words, the cane is the tool Kemo uses to ex-

plain to his foot soldiers how they are going to main-

tain economic control; the cane is simultaneously

a reminder of the consequences of that task. . . .

Since the 1920s, the term “gang” has been used

to describe all kinds of collectives, from groups of

well-dressed mobsters to petty criminals and juve-

nile delinquents—everything from substitute fam-

ily units to religious groups and entrepreneurial

drug-dealing cartels.

Perhaps the only thing that

has remained consistent about gangs in nearly a

century of research is their characterization as an

internal Other from the vantage point of the law—a

group that lives amongst us but does not abide by

our “normal” rules.

As we saw through Kemo’s inscription in the

dirt, the interplay between wounding and enabling

surfaces in the ways in which gang cultures have

been said to emerge out of the rationalities and

strategies of protecting “turf”—i.e. territory, prop-

erty, access—as a means to accrue good standing in

a society in which people are frequently excluded

from participation in the American polity.

On the

face of it, the violent event associated with injury

allows the disabled gang member to rise in social

stature and moral standing, similar to the war vet-

eran in contemporary American society. And like

the war veteran in contemporary society, the rhe-

torical effect of this patriotism stands in sharp relief

to reality. Unlike the gang member who has been

labeled as a police informant (or “snitch”), disabled

gang members in Eastwood are not given a “dis-

honorable discharge”—rather, they are released

from service. An “honorable discharge” would be

the appropriate analogy here. Of course, some dis-

abled gang members will prefer to resume their ac-

tivities, and in such cases, they are not so much

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of them, so he worried about their effi cacy: “I don’t

know man,” he says to me one day, as we put away

basketballs in the after-school program where he

works and I volunteer, “It’s like they’re preaching

to the choir. The guys who really need to be there,
them boys who really need to hear those stories,
they’re out on the street.”

Justin, however, has a solution: sessions offered

by a very different group of men, forums which dif-

fered from the approaches of what he refers to as

the “out-of-touch” gang-prevention programs. And,

even though Justin himself does not organize these

forums, he identifi es with the people who do. The

men who Justin is speaking of are in their early to

mid-twenties—young enough to relate. Many of

them still communicate with members of the Divine

Knights, so they do not underestimate the gang’s

infl uence in the lives of young people. Plus, their

very presence makes the consequences of gang life

salient for everyone who attends their events—

these men are all in wheelchairs. This group of

paralyzed ex-gang members fi rst met at Eastwood

Hospital. Across the last fi ve years, they partici-

pated in a rehabilitation program that teaches

people suffering from spinal cord injuries how to

adapt to their new lives. After fi nishing the program,

a few of these men petitioned the hospital to sponsor

the next step in their work: with the “In My Shoes”

program, these former gang affi liates—themselves

the victims of gun violence—travel to schools to

discuss what it feels like to have your life perma-

nently altered by a disability.

One day I accompany Justin to Jackson High,

where the school administrators decide to dedi-

cate  the bulk of the day to violence prevention

programming . . .

I watch with the boisterous crowd as four ex-

affi liates form a semi-circle on the stage of the

school’s auditorium . . .

“Welcome to the ‘In My Shoes’ program,” the

leader of the group, Darius, starts.

“What we are is a violence prevention program.

We’re a little different from other programs. Like,

we’re not here to scare you or anything like

that.  We’re basically here to educate you about

willfully ignored as forgotten about, marginalized,

or neglected. Hence, in contrast to members who

die in gang wars and become martyrs—those by-

gone affi liates often emblematized on graffi ti’d

R.I.P. t-shirts—the disabled gang member, who

cannot contribute to the organization in the way

that is most valued (that is, as a street-corner drug

dealer) becomes like the presumably honored war

veteran who begs for change by day, and is tucked

beneath a highway underpass by night.

As disability can signal honor and ignominy at

the same time, wounding as it pertains to disabled

bodies should be read as a commentary on

enabling—whether this is the enabling of gang en-

trepreneurship and the forms of violence associated

with it or, as we will see, the enabling of initiatives

to stop violence. Likewise, enabling should be read
as a commentary on wounding— whether this is the
injury that stems from the drug trade, or the crimi-

nalization of black urbanites, which make them

prone to debilitation. Hence, if this analysis of

wounding is to be read with a negative moral va-

lence, it is not because the notion of disability itself

should be devalued. Rather, the disabled subject

signals the ways in which the intersection of race

and socioeconomics funnels risk of morbidity, un-

employment, incarceration and mortality rates to-

wards young urban residents in Chicago, who are

far more likely than most of those who will read

this article to fall victim to a stray bullet in the

midst of drug-related gang warfare.

In the aftermath of 2009’s record number of shoot-

ings of public school students, community forums

on violence became commonplace in Eastwood, the

west side neighbourhood. . . . These forums were

typically sponsored by non-profi t organizations,

schools, or churches and coordinated by adults

who—though well intentioned by all accounts—

had only a tangential relationship to the troubled

youths they were targeting. . . .

Justin had attended many such forums over the

past year, but had not seen many young men at any

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168 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

places his thumb and index fi nger a couple of inches

apart: “For males it’ll probably go about tha-a-a-a-t
deep inside the pee hole before it starts draining.”

The group of adolescents erupt in a deafening

chorus of gags and grimaces—this, at the mere

thought of using a device in service of something

which seems so natural.

“And this gotta be done every four-to-six hours

for the rest of your life. Cause what can happen is,

either you’re gonna pee all over yourself . . . and

you can imagine you’re on the corner chillin’ and

all of a sudden: You’re wet.”

More groans. Now laughter. Nervous, embar-

rassed laughter. I worry that the kids in the audi-

ence are actually making fun of Darius. Some boys

point at the catheter. But Darius waits out the snick-

ers; he smiles with the kids, willing to indulge their

nervousness, willing to play the role of the hapless,

disabled person.

“Or it can stay in your system,” Darius continues

as the tittering from the crowd dies down. “And,

basically, urine is just waste. So if it stays in your

system, you can get sick, catch infections from it,

and ultimately be hospitalized. What I’ma do is

pass this around so you can check it out. It ain’t

never been used or nothing like that.”

The crowd laughs in relief.

After Darius describes how the most prominent

biological feature of manhood is transformed from

the penetrator to that which is penetrated, another
activist, Aaron, begins to speak.

“One of the most important things that you have

to look out for is the health of your skin, cause it

can also get infected. Y’all know when you’ve been

sitting down for a long time, how your butt starts to

hurt and you get a little uncomfortable. You know,

you gotta fi dget a little bit. Well in a situation like

ours, we can’t feel our butts. So what we have to do

is, we have to be constantly lifting off our chairs,

doing ‘pressure reliefs.’ So you’ll see me every

once and a while do this—” he grabs the armrests

of his chair and lifts his body above it, holding him-

self in an inverted push-up.

‘“Cause what could happen is, I can develop a

‘pressure sore’—also known as a ‘bedsore,’ or a

the  consequences of drug activities and gang life.

As you can see, all of us here have wheelchairs,” he

continues. “And the reason we have wheelchairs is

because we were out in the streets gang banging,

selling drugs. We got shot, and ultimately we got

paralyzed. So what we’re gonna do today is tell you

what happens to your body when you have a spinal

cord injury.”

The “In My Shoes” speakers have two primary

goals in a situation like this. First, they try to coun-

teract the foundational belief that perpetuating vio-

lence unifi es the gang. Next, they argue that when

the gang is no longer around, gunshot victims have

to care for themselves.

“There’s two types of spinal cord injuries,” Dar-

ius begins, “there’s a paraplegic and a quadriplegic.

Par- meaning two: it means two of your limbs are
affected. I’m a paraplegic. I’m paralyzed from the

waist down. A quadriplegic is paralyzed from the

neck down.”

“See, the thing about the spine,” he adds, “is that

it’s one of the few parts of your body that doesn’t

heal for itself. You know how if you break your arm

or you get a cut, your body naturally heals itself,

right? Well, when you have a spinal cord injury or

a  brain injury, that’s permanent because there

ain’t no medicine or no doctor in the world that can

fi x that.”

With a few sentences, Darius establishes his

authority through medical expertise. The teenagers

in the audience still fi dget, hesitant to look directly

at the injured bodies on stage. Then he tells the

crowd how much his life has changed since he has

become paralyzed.

“Aside from your movement, one of the fi rst

things that gets affected is your bladder. Y’all know

when you gotta use the washroom, you get that

feeling, right? Well when you’re in a situation like

ours, you no longer get that sensation. So what hap-

pens is that you gotta be on the clock. You know

every four-to-six hours, you have to manually ex-

tract the urine. And that’s done with one of these.

This right here is a catheter.”

He holds up a cloudy plastic bag, which is met

with a collective groan from the crowd. Then he

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also “outfold” into social space, giving shape and

meaning to the society in which we live. Borrowing

from the Kleinmans, I want to suggest that the sto-

ries of these disabled, ex-gang members are not just

about the interpersonal affects of disability. These

stories outfold as well, inviting “at risk” teenage,

black males to recognize themselves in them.

By  speaking about what it is like to be disabled

former gang members signal the mutual constitu-

tion between wounding and enabling as a means to

respond to the gang’s far-reaching infl uence in


. . . The men at Jackson High show no anger or

resentment towards the medical establishment. To

the contrary, disabled ex-gang members build

their narratives out of the medical model of dis-

ability, in order to emphasize the biological real-

ity of their now “broken” body. They do so to

amplify the magnitude of urban violence. For

members of racial groups who are prone to debili-

tation through gun violence, highlighting one’s

body as broken is a political act. The members of

“In My Shoes,” like Justin and every other dis-

abled ex-gang member I  have met, speak about

the best ways to craft their stories; they borrow

narrative techniques from each other; they re-

hearse, constantly. They learn by hearing them-

selves tell their own stories, absorbing each

others’ reactions, and experiencing their stories

being shared.

On this day, for example, one of

the disabled ex-gang members, Sam, did not

speak at all. He listened and watched, still honing

his own illness narrative in preparation for the

next school assembly when, perhaps, he will feel

ready to testify. In this way, the “In My Shoes”

speakers draw on presuppositions of illness that

enable collectively salient descriptions of disabil-

ity. Crafting their paralysis as undesirable and

preventable is crucial since it helps excavate an

altered vision of a world, already radically trans-

formed by violence. Disabled ex-gang members

hope that by seeing the world through their eyes—

the eyes of the injured—these inner city students

will come to see the effects of violence more


‘ubiquitous ulcer.’ That’s when the bone starts dig-

ging through the skin. It starts off as a little pimple;

but this is one pimple you don’t wanna pop, ’cause

you could make it worse.”

“The thing about these pressure sores is that

I  can get one in a matter of hours. If I was to sit

down in one of those chairs for two or three hours,”

Darius says, gesturing towards the wooden seats

in the crowd, “I could develop a pressure sore.”

“The problem is gettin’ rid of one,” Aaron in-
tervenes. “To get rid of one could take anywhere

from two months to a year. And the only way to

heal it is to stay off it. Bed rest. So you can imag-
ine if it’s the summer. Summer just kicked off, and

I got a pressure sore—now I gotta stay in bed to

heal it.”

“And what a lot of people don’t know,” Oscar

says, taking the reigns, “is that Christopher

Reeves, you know the actor that played Superman;

he actually passed away from one of these. He

caught a pressure sore, it got infected, and it got

into his blood. And you know how blood is con-

stantly traveling through your body? Well, it hit

his heart, and he had a heart attack. What I try to

tell people is that this is Christopher Reeves: this

is Superman. He had Superman money. And he
couldn’t prevent one of these? What’s gonna hap-

pen to one of us from the ’hood? We don’t got that

kind of money. We don’t have that kind of around-

the-clock care.”

Here, Oscar’s reference to Superman does not

merely underscore the gulf in access to medical re-

sources between a world-renowned actor and a

poor person of color. He highlights another register

of wounding: the fact that no one is actually fast

enough to dodge a speeding bullet. Even Superman

can die from a pimple.

The “In My Shoes” presentation at Jackson

High resonates with Arthur and Joan Kleinman’s

insights about the stakes of telling stories through

wounded bodies.

They argue that illness stories

transcend the bodies of the ill. It is not merely that

culture “infolds” into the body through differing

ways to defi ne disease, or varying access to, and

attitudes towards, healthcare. Our bodily processes

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170 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

most of the fi ghts I was getting into wasn’t because

of me, or something I did. It was because of my

friends. That’s why when the paralyzed speakers

came to my new school, it was kinda like a privi-

lege because before I didn’t think it was real.”

“But two of my friends just died over the past

three weeks now,” he continues. “And one of my

cousin’s friends, he died also. I know you heard

about the fi fteen-year-old boy that was found in the

dumpster. That was him. ”
Marcus takes a sip from a glass of water and

looks out of the window. I think about what he has

just told me. The notion that he does not start most

of the fi ghts in which he is engaged could be read as

a convenient excuse (especially with his mother

within earshot). But even so, the stakes of the peer

pressure that he describes are painfully high in a

context in which teenagers are regularly murdered

and debilitated. Trade in injury is so common that

even a hospital bed doesn’t necessarily occasion a

person to orient his life away from the gang. It may

simply lead him to seek revenge.

“I got jumped on a while back. I got put in the

hospital—in the trauma center. She’ll tell you,”

Marcus says, gesturing towards his mother. “When

my momma came in there I was talking to the doc-

tor like: ‘So, umm . . . What’s up? What’s your son’s

name? Can I play video games?’ I was having fun—

not knowing that something could’ve seriously been

wrong with me. When my friends came I was jump-

ing on the bed like, ‘Yeah, man, they ain’t do noth-
ing to me! They ain’t do nothing to me!’”

“I wanted revenge. I didn’t think nothing really

bad could happen. I even put the hospital band—

the one that was on my arm—I put it around my

neck and I wore it as a chain, like a trophy. My

momma said that scared her. She told me that

I could be dead, ’cause I blacked out for a second

while I was fi ghting. In the meantime, I ain’t really

know what was happening.”

“After I got out of the hospital, the next day, my

friends came to my house. They were like, ‘Man,

what up? What you gonna do?’”

“Inside my head I’m like, ‘Do I really want to go

with them, or do I wanna listen to my momma?’”

A couple of days after the assembly I run into

Marcus, a neighbor whom I haven’t seen on the

block in a while. He is a senior at Jackson High;

I ask him what he thought about “In My Shoes.”

Marcus invites me into his house; his mother is

cooking dinner and asks if I want to stay. Marcus

and I sit at the dining room table while she prepares

food in the adjoining kitchen. He tells me about

how the assembly has altered his perspective on

gang life.

“Yeah,” Marcus begins, “it was real deep to hear

them speak, ’cause my mom kept telling me that

my associations will lead me to one day, God

forbid, be in the same predicament. And my heart

was beating like 100 miles an hour, ’cause I could

just see myself in the position they’re in.”

“Most of the people I hang out with are gang

bangers,” he explains. “And I was the type that al-

ways wanted to do right, but did wrong. I didn’t

want my brothers and them fi ghting, but I was right

there in front—fi ghting everybody. But it’s kinda

like . . . over here . . . in this area . . . in the school I

go to . . . thinking about tomorrow is the last thing
you wanna do. Cause you wanna live through today. ”

Marcus’ statement is meant to set the backdrop

for life in Eastwood, where gangs are commonly

imagined as stand-in family units, where even a

teenager who opts not to join the Divine Knights

will be cognizant of who belongs to which set, and

the jurisdictions of each, where young people are

well aware that although most of the gang sets in

their neighborhood fall under the Divine Knights

umbrella, two factions can inspire violence at any

given moment, becoming de facto rivals.

It is for

this reason, at least in part, that a gang’s legacy is

heightened even as the immediacy of “tomorrow”

is diminished.

“You know how it is,” Marcus says. “We got all

the rival gangs. I actually got pulled outta my last

high school ’cause me and my friends got into it

with some Bandits. My momma feared for my life.

And I noticed when she took me out of school that

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. . . In the days after Marcus’ beating, as he

chooses to listen to his mother, a curious thing hap-

pens. He leaves school and comes home. He doesn’t

dawdle on the corner. He stays inside. His friends

stop talking to him. He gets dirty looks. At one

point the leader of his local set even visits him at

home, and says he has turned his back on his friends

and his community. In other words, he is viewed by

other affi liates as abandoning the gang. The crucial

point here is that in refusing to retaliate, by being

willing to look “weak,” by extracting himself from

social activities outside of his home, Marcus for-

goes the opportunity to cultivate bonds with his

brethren; and it is primarily because he withdraws

from a system in which injury is often proposed as

a means for debt settlement, that he is viewed as a


Intimately felt obligations have an immeasurable

impact on the ways in which a teenager like Marcus

navigates his social world. But this sense of indebt-

edness does not always have to wound. It is because

Justin knows intuitively that the most signifi cant

aspect of gang rivalry is its ability to maintain rela-

tionships between affi liates, that he brings a gang

leader to the negotiating table to talk about the crip-

pling violence that the gang set he commands has

become known for. By rechanneling gang notions

of reciprocity—and in the process allowing his

wounds to enable peace, rather than violence—

Justin frames his community forum as a harmoni-

ous way to settle debts between gang members.

In the winter of 2008, Justin decides that he

wants the “In My Shoes” program to sponsor a com-

munity forum on violence. Even though he is not

one of the speakers, he appreciates their approach.

But, when he brings his proposal to the administra-

tors at Eastwood Hospital, they decline. . . . As he

seeks fi nancial support, one of the fi rst people to

contact him is Kemo, on behalf of the Divine

Knights. He pledges to donate funds for the pur-

chase of food and promises to make the event a

mandatory meeting for his constituency.

For the next several minutes, Marcus describes

arguing with his friends about his decision not to

retaliate, and their response that he would look

“weak” if he didn’t. It wasn’t just his reputation that

was on the line, they argued, but that of the whole

set. Still, Marcus insists that he remained adamant

about resisting the temptation to strike back.

“The point is,” Marcus says, “instead of listen-

ing to my friends, I listened to what my momma

said. And they were looking at me like, ‘Dang man,

what’s wrong with you? Why you actin’ like this?”’

He pauses, takes another sip of water. His mother

has stopped preparing dinner; I can’t tell if she is

paying attention.

“So I know how hard it is to get up on stage and

do what they did. I saw one of the speakers, Darius,

the other day and I told him. I said, ‘I take my hat

off to y’all. For y’all to come to my school and have

the courage to say that in front of everybody, that

means a lot. So I thank y’all, man, for real.”’

Marcus’ insights allude to the fact that in East-

wood the obligation to seek vengeance is fre-

quently anticipated, and its fulfi llment relentlessly

planned. Here, vengeance is an enduring ritual of

exchange. Still, it is critical to note that in a context

in which the Divine Knights cultivate feuds over

territory and economic control, violence does not

merely wound. More importantly, as we will see, it

can enable. The fact that my conversation with

Marcus takes place in his mother’s house high-

lights the similarities between their familial bond

and a kind of gang sociality in which members

habitually express social obligations in an idiom of

kinship. Here, the dichotomy between the Divine

Knights’ imagined community and physical debil-

ity does not merely surface through wounds, or the

bodily pain that Marcus endures on behalf of his

gang. It is also evidenced through the invocation of

his mother who, he says, steers him away from

gang affi liation.

But despite Marcus’ discussion

of his choice to stay in the house rather than enact

revenge in the streets (to listen to “what my

momma said”), one should not read my conversa-

tion with this teenage gang member as a story of

redemption, primarily.

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172 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

and would assume I was in the same gang. So now

they started treating me like opposition. It got to the

point where I was already marked as a gang mem-

ber, so I just decided to join the gang.” . . .

“I joined up, and I never really thought twice

about it. It seemed like I was where I should be

because a lot of my friends, my cousins, and my

uncles—even my grandfather—they were all in-

volved in the gang. So it wasn’t nothing new to me.

But after awhile I started going to school less and

less, and I was surrounded by violence more and

more. I saw close family members and good friends

die. I thought, ‘If my friends and my family, they all

died for the gang, then why not me? What makes

me better than them?’ I started telling myself,

‘Man, I’m willing to die for this.’”

“At the time, I needed that mentality because

I started dealing drugs. My two closest friends were

becoming gang leaders and big-time drug dealers.

They were the ones giving the product to everyone

in my neighborhood. One day, there was a meeting

with the high-ranking gang offi cials and the

guy who was supplying both of them said that they

would have to consolidate their gang sets. He said

they could play Rock, Paper, Scissors, for all he

cared, but someone had to step up, and someone

had to fall back. It had to be done, he said. So my

two boys decided to set up a meeting.”

“It was January 3, 2000,” Justin continues after

taking a deep breath, “That day, the friend who

I worked for picked me up and told me what they de-

cided. They were gonna do it like the old-timers: meet

and fi ght, one-on-one. Whoever won the fi ght would

get the neighborhood drug market. The other person

would be the right-hand man, and make his crew fall

in line. They would even shake hands afterwards.”

“They decided to fi ght in an abandoned lot. No

one was there when we arrived, so me and my boy

got out and waited for my other friend to show.”

“After a couple minutes, a car came down the

street. I made eye contact with the driver, but didn’t

recognize him. The car kept going. When it reached

the dead end, it circled back around. It was creeping

up slowly, so my boy said ‘Let’s get outta here.’ But

by the time we got back inside, the car was right

Even though I know Justin and Kemo’s relation-

ship dates back 17 years, when the two of them

were budding gang bangers, I am initially taken

aback when I hear that Kemo, a gang leader, is con-

tributing to the forum that will talk about the haz-

ards of gang life.

One day I ask about the gang leader’s motiva-

tion: “So, Kemo is actually telling his crew to go to

the forum?” I question. “How did you convince him

to do that?”

“I mean, Kemo don’t want the killings either,”

Justin replies. “You gotta remember: some of those

boys are his cousins, and the little brothers of peo-

ple we grew up with. Besides Kemo owes me and
now I’m cashin’ in.”

On the brisk Saturday morning of May 10,

2009—three days after the 36th killing of a Chicago

public school student—Kemo delivers. He person-

ally drops off an Escalade full of young gang mem-

bers at the House of Worship for Justin’s violence

forum. Kemo and some of the leaders from the

other neighborhood gang sets linger outside of

the  church while the members of their respective

constituencies fi le in. . . . Justin is seated in his

wheelchair. He quickly grabs the crowd’s attention

by describing how he got “plugged” into the gang.

“I was raised right here in Eastwood,” Justin be-

gins after introducing himself. “And just like today,

there was a lot of violence when I was growing up.

It was real bad over here.”

“You know, Eastwood is not that big of a com-

munity,” he continues, “but when I was coming up,

there was a lot of different gang sets; and they were

all at war. To make matters worse, there was only

one high school in the entire area. So everybody

within those gang boundaries had to attend that
high school. Being that the school was within a par-

ticular gang’s territory, it was pretty rough. I re-

member in the ninth grade—before I was even in

the gang—I would get frustrated because I had to

cross rival territories to get to school. I was getting

chased, beat up, and robbed constantly. Sometimes

the people from my block would stick up for me. . .

What would happen was, members of the rival

gangs would see me with the boys from my block

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I knew is that my legs wouldn’t work. I was trying

and trying, but I couldn’t move my legs. I couldn’t

get up. I just couldn’t. I laid my head on the grass,

and that’s when I heard footsteps running away and

a car screeching off.”

“I started yelling: ‘ Help, Help. ’ I was screaming
my boys’ names. ‘ Help. ’ One-by-one, I screamed
by cousins’ names and all the people that I was

willing to die for: ‘ Help. ’”
“Then all of sudden I saw this lady look out her

window. I sat up and called out to her, the best

I  could. I said, ‘I’ve been shot. I’ve been shot.

Please, ma’am, help me. I’ve been shot.’”

“While I was waiting to see if she would come

out I tried to get up. I grabbed the storm drain and

lifted my upper body. I remember looking at my

legs and they were dangling. They were dead.

When I saw that, I fell back down.”

“The lady came out with a cell phone and called

the ambulance. If it wasn’t for her, who knows if I’d

be here today. She waited with me and tried to com-

fort me: ‘Everything’s gonna be alright ,’ she said.
‘ Don’t worry , everything’s gonna be alright. ’”

“As she’s telling me this, I see her eyes watering.

Tears are coming down her face. And I just remem-

ber thinking, like, ‘man, I don’t wanna die.’ I re-

member thinking that in my head. All my life I told

myself that, I’m willing to die for this. I was willing

to get shot. I didn’t care. But, when I was lying

there. I was scared to die. I didn’t want to die.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t want to die. ”
Justin ends his story with a somber description

of the day the doctor informs him that he will

“never walk again.” As he begins to recount his

early days in a wheelchair, what strikes me most is

how Justin felt abandoned. The pain of Kemo run-

ning from their car, and his recitation of the names

of his gang brethren while lying in the woman’s

yard, seem to eclipse even the pain of the bullets

lodged in his body.

. . . Today, Justin’s inability to feel—the physical

and psychological wounds of paralysis—enables

him to elicit rare shades of empathy and sorrow

from otherwise unshakeable young gang members.

Days prior to the event, I overheard Kemo telling

beside us. I looked up and the person in the passen-

ger seat had pulled out a pistol.”

“Tink . . . Tink . . . t-t-tink. Tink. Tink. That’s all I
heard. I saw fl ashes. My boy said, ‘ Pull off. Pull off,’
so I started driving. But I was already hit, so I lost

control of the vehicle. Eventually, I crashed. That’s

when I noticed that I was bleeding from my shoulder

and my thigh. I started screaming: ‘I got shot. I got
shot.’ Next thing you know, I hear the car door slam
shut. Just then I realized: one of my friends had left

me, and my other friend wanted me dead.” . . .

During this brief lull, I recall how weeks ago he

told me that Kemo “owes” him because they were

together when he was shot. It hadn’t registered be-

fore now: Kemo had been in the car with Justin. His

words now resonate with what I already knew about

his shooting. Another affi liate, Eric, once told me

that Kemo wanted badly to retaliate against the per-

son who shot Justin, but he forbade it. As Justin had

made a commitment to God to turn his life around

on what he thought was his deathbed, the most he

allowed Kemo to do was to confront the perpetra-

tor, tell him to leave the neighborhood, and warn

him to never come back. Because Kemo hoped that

one day Justin would change his mind and permit

revenge, the gang never informed the police about

the shooter. The assailant escaped without sanction.

As I refl ect on these circumstances, Kemo’s com-

mitment to the forum makes all the more sense—as

does Justin’s willingness, to accept his help.

“I just got out of the car and started running,”

Justin continues. “I cut through an alleyway and

stopped at the fi rst house I saw. I knocked on the

door. Then I knocked harder.”

“All of a sudden the porch lit up. I got excited at

fi rst, but then I realized that the light wasn’t coming

from inside of the house. Headlights were beaming

on the door from behind me. The car from before

was approaching fast.”

“Someone got out and started running towards

me with a gun so I hopped over the porch railing. I

almost reached the back of the house when I heard

a shot go off— BANG. ”
“I just remember falling to the ground. I wasn’t

in pain or anything like that. I was in shock. All

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174 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

their own lifelong friendship. . . . Young gang mem-

bers from rival gang sets are supposed to use

Justin’s life story as a conduit through which to

become more peaceful. Debilitated gang members’

stories of catheters and enemas, pressure sores and

bed rest, stories of their mothers warning them

about their associations, illuminate an invisible as-

pect of gang sociality: disability is a distinct, though

often frequently invisible, reality.

Unlike many researchers, gang members them-

selves acknowledge the fact of disability, and even

place paralyzed members on a pedestal in gang lore.

Disabled ex-gang members like Justin, however,

counter the prominent belief that by sacrifi cing your-

self for  the gang you’ll become a martyr or time-

honored veteran. It is critical that their method of ex-

posing this myth is by fi xing themselves as inhabitants

of imprisoned bodies—as a disabled gang member,

Tony, reminded us in yet another Eastwood forum:

“They say when you gang bang. . . when you drug

deal, the outcomes are either death or jail. You never

hear about the wheelchair. I ain’t know this was an

option. And if you think about it, it’s a little bit of both

worlds cause half of my body’s dead. Literally. From

the waist down, I can’t feel it. I can’t move it. I can’t do

nothing with it. The rest of it’s confi ned to this wheel-

chair. This is my prison for the choices I’ve made.”

This “imprisoned” body, I would add to Tony’s

statement, should not be dismissed as an outmoded

and narrow-minded conception of disability.

Rather, Tony is calling attention to his immobility

to make the argument that the violence to which his

body bears witness can and should be prevented.

1. Was it a surprise to you to learn that disability

resulting from a gunshot wound is so common

in urban areas? Why do you think this is not a

well-known fact?

2. Why might the disabled activists in Chicago

prefer the medical model of disability, rather

than the social model?

3. How effective do you think these anti-gang

forums are?

young affi liates of how Justin sacrifi ced his body so

that he could fl ee in a gun battle. It is for this reason

that Justin should be respected, the gang leader

said. Watching them now, I hope they understand:

not only did Justin sacrifi ce himself. But after doing

so, he forgave the debt that was owed to him and

transformed it into a communal project to stop the

killings. This sacrifi ce, Justin hopes, will help

youngsters like Marcus break free from the obliga-

tions that gang life is built upon.

While traveling to local high schools and talking to

“at risk” youth, disabled ex-gang members are will-

ing to insist on the defectiveness of their bodies in

order to highlight the burden that violence creates

in communities like Eastwood. Their methods con-

trast sharply with the aims of the disability rights

movement, in which constructing physical differ-

ence as an inferior identity is routinely and un-

equivocally criticized. This incongruity suggests

that paralyzed ex-gang members and the larger

world of disabled activists are not fully visible to

each other. The disconnection also points to the fact

that the disability rights movement and the fi eld of

disability studies have generally been silent about

the ways in which race and socioeconomic status

intersect. The success of the disability rights move-

ment has created the impression that the medical

model of disability breeds pity. My examination,

however, reveals another more complex possibility.

The sympathy, disgust, fear, and perhaps even the

relief at being able-bodied, are all indicative of dis-

abled, ex-gang members’ approach to anti-violence.

They essentially disempower themselves in order

to empower others. Their efforts show that a medi-

cal model of disability does not always muffl e the

voices of the injured, but can demonstrate the scale

of the social problems that African Americans

growing up in violent neighbourhoods face.

Justin and Kemo, the organizers of the forum,

attempt to address gang violence by establishing

meaningful bonds between members, a bond that

mirrors the sense of debt and obligation intrinsic to

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10. See Jain, Sarah S. 1999. “The Prosthetic Imagination:

Enabling and Disabling the Prosthesis Trope.” Science,
Technology & Human Values 24, no. 1 (Winter 1999):
31-54. Here, I borrow from Jain (1999) who similarly

views disabled bodies or bodies “dubbed as not fully

whole” through these “richly intertwined (and ulti-

mately inseparable) axes of identity.” Only instead of

socioeconomic status, Jain’s focus on prostheses draws

her to “another category that considers identity as cor-

relate to technology” (32).

11. See Crenshaw, Kimberlé, ed. 1995. Critical Race The-
ory. New York: New Press.

See also Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays
and Speeches. Crossing Press Feminist Series. Truman-
sburg, NY: Crossing Press.

12. For the gang as mobsters see: Adler, Jeffrey S. 2006.

First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chi-
cago, 1875–1920. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univer-
sity Press. Asbury, Herbert. [1940] 2002. The Gangs of
Chicago: An Informal History of the Chicago Under-
world. New York: Thunder Mouth Press. For the gang
as petty criminals and juvenile delinquents see:

Thrasher, Frederic Milton. 1926 [1963]. The Gang: A
Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Abridged ed. Chi-
cago: University of Chicago Press. For the gang as sub-

stitute family units see: Decker, Scott H. and Barrik van

Winkle. 1996. Life in the Gang: Family, Friends, and
Violence. 1st ed.Cambridge University Press. For the
gang as religious groups see: Brotherton, David. 2004.

The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation Street Poli-
tics and the Transformation of a New York City Gang.
New York: Columbia University Press. For the gang as

entrepreneurial drug-dealing cartels see: Venkatesh,

Sudhir Alladi. 2006. Off the Books: The Underground
Economy of the Urban Poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
University Press.

13. Thrasher 1926, Klein 1995, Hayden 2004, Venkatesh


14. Venkatesh 2006.

15. Kleinman, Arthur and Joan Kleinman, “How Bodies

Remember: Social Memory and Bodily Experience of

Criticism, Resistance, and Delegitimation Following

China’s Cultural Revolution,” New Literary History 25
(1994): 710–711.

16. Frank, Arthur W. 1995. The Wounded Storyteller: Body,
Illness, and Ethics. 1st ed. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 50.

17. Frank 1995: 1.

18. Decker and Winkle 1996. For the geography of gang

territories, see: Jankowski, Martin Sanchez. 1991. Is-
lands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society.
Berkeley: University of California Press. For violence as

related to gang rivalries, see: Levitt and Venkatesh 2000.

“An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s

1. In accordance with the Internal Review Board protocol

for the University of Chicago (my institutional affi lia-

tion on when this research was conducted) I have

changed the names of people (i.e. “Justin and Kemo”),

gangs (i.e. “The Divine Knights”), institutions (i.e.

“Eastwood Hospital”) and specifi c neighborhoods (i.e.

“Eastwood”) throughout this study.

2. The Divine Knight gang is split into segments, referred to

by gang members as “sets.” There are currently eight

gang sets of the Divine Knight gang dispersed throughout

Chicago. These sub-groups are overwhelmingly male

and African American. Of this membership, crews of 4 to

6 members serve as “foot soldiers,” responsible for street

level dealing in open-air markets. Approximately 8–10

members fulfi ll other drug-related duties (i.e., runners,

muscle, treasurers) (c.f. Levitt and Venkatesh 2000). The

rest of the affi liates may or may not have an explicit con-

nection to the gang’s drug distribution network. For

them, the gang is primarily a social group.

Levitt, Steven D., and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. 2000.

“An Economic Analysis of a Drug-Selling Gang’s

.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115 (3):


3. These statistics are from the Annual Crime Statistics

released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in

May 2010.

4. See Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. 2010. The Condemna-
tion of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Mod-
ern Urban America. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
University Press. See also Parenti, Christian. 1999.

Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of
Crisis. London: Verso.

5. For an early critique of biologically based theories of

innate dysfunction, see: Boas, Franz. 1910. Changes in
Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants. Washing-
ton, D.C.: United States Immigration Commission. For

a prominent example of a “culture of poverty” thesis,

see: Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1965. The Negro
Family: The Case for National Action. Washington,
D.C.: Offi ce of Policy Planning and Research, U.S.

Department of Labor.

6. Linton, Simi. 1998. Claiming Disability: Knowledge
and Identity. New York: New York University Press.

7. Berger, Ronald and Melvin Juette. 2008. Wheelchair
Warrior: Gangs, Disability, and Basketball. Philadel-
phia: Temple University Press.

See also Siebers, Tobin Anthony 2008. Disability
Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

8. Berger and Juette 2008: 10.

9. For a similar critique see Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie.

2009. Staring: How We Look. New York: Oxford Uni-
versity Press.

READING 19: What Wounds Enable: The Politics of Disability and Violence in Chicago 175

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176 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

small group of visual people (Bahan, 2004; Padden

& Humphries, 1988) who use a natural visual-

gestural language and who are often confused with

the larger group who view themselves as hearing

impaired and use a spoken language in its spoken or

written form. To acknowledge this contrast, often

signaled in the scholarly literature by capital-D

Deaf versus small-d deaf , is not to deny that there is
a gray area between the two; for example, some

hard-of-hearing people are active in the American

Deaf-World; others are not. Oral deaf adults and

late-deafened adults usually consider that they have

a hearing impairment and do not self-identify as

members of the Deaf-World.

This article is concerned exclusively with the

smaller group, the Deaf-World. It aims to show that

the Deaf-World qualifi es as an ethnic group, and that

an unsuitable construction of the Deaf-World as a

disability group has led to programs of the majority

that aim to discourage Deaf children from participat-

ing in the Deaf-World (programs such as oral educa-

tion and cochlear implant surgery) and that aim to

reduce the number of Deaf births, programs that are

unethical from an ethnic group perspective. In other

words, this article makes the case that our ethical

standards for the majority’s treatment of Deaf people

depend, not surprisingly, on whether our representa-

tion of the Deaf-World is that of a disability group on

the one hand or an ethnic group on the other.


Internal Properties

Table 1 shows the criteria that have been advanced

by social scientists for characterizing a social group

as an ethnic group.

Collective Name

The members of this group have a collective name

in their manual-visual language by which they refer

to themselves. We refer to them by that name in

adopting the English gloss of their compound sign:

the Deaf-World .

Finances.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115, no. 3:

19. Though not a central concern of this paper, I use

Marcus’ description of his neighborhood, and the rec-

ollections of his mother’s warnings, to gesture towards

the fact that it is one’s family members-oftentimes,

those who condemn gang lite the most-who become

the primary caretakers for black urban youth who are

disabled (Devlieger et al. 2007). Devlieger, Patrick J.,

Gary L. Albrecht, and Miram Hertz. 2007. The pro-

duction of disabilty culture among young African-

American men. Social Science & Medicine 64, no. 9
(May): 1948–1959.

R E A D I N G 2 0

Ethnicity, Ethics, and the

Harlan Lane

It has become widely known that there is a Deaf-

World in the United States, as in other nations, citi-

zens whose primary language is American Sign

Language (ASL) and who identify as members of

that minority culture. The size of the population is

not known, but estimates generally range from half

a million to a million members (Schein, 1989). The

English terms deaf and hearing impaired are com-
monly used to designate a much larger and more

heterogeneous group than the members of the Deaf-

World. Most of the 20 million Americans (Binnie,

1994) who are in this larger group had conventional

schooling and became deaf after acculturation to

hearing society; they communicate primarily in

English or one of the spoken minority languages;

they generally do not have Deaf spouses; they do

not identify themselves as members of the Deaf-

World or use its language, participate in its organi-

zations, profess its values, or behave in accord with

its mores; rather, they consider themselves hearing

people with a disability. Something similar is true

of most nations: There is a Deaf-World, a relatively

Harlan Lane is a professor of psychology at Northeastern


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READING 20: Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World 177

marriage, in gaining status by enhancing the group

and acknowledging its contributions, in the giving

of culturally related names, in consensual decision

making, in defi ning oneself in relation to the cul-

ture, in distributed indebtedness, in the priority

given to evidence that arises from experience as a

member of the culture, in treasuring the language

of the Deaf-World, and in promoting among

Deaf  people dissemination of culturally salient

information (cf., Lane, 2004a; Mindess, 1999;

T. Smith, 1997).


Deaf people have culture-specifi c knowledge, such

as who their leaders are (and their characteristics);

the concerns of rank-and-fi le members of the Deaf-

World; important events in Deaf history; how to

manage trying situations with hearing people.

Knowing when and with whom to use ASL and

when to use English- marked varieties of sign lan-

guage is an important part of being recognized as

Deaf (Johnson & Erting, 1989).


The Deaf-World has its own ways of doing intro-

ductions and departures, of taking turns in a con-

versation, of speaking frankly and of speaking

politely; it has its own taboos.

Social Structure

There are numerous organizations in the American

Deaf-World: athletic, social, political, literary, reli-

gious, fraternal, and many more (Lane, Hoffmeister,

& Bahan, 1996). As with many ethnic minorities,

there are charismatic leaders who are felt to em-

body the unique characteristics of the whole ethnic

group (A. D. Smith, 1986).


“The mother tongue is an aspect of the soul of a

people. It is their achievement par excellence. Lan-

guage is the surest way for individuals to safeguard

or recover the authenticity they inherited from their

Feeling of Community

Self-recognition, and recognition by others, is a

central feature of ethnicity (Barth, 1969; A. D. Smith,

1986). Americans in the Deaf-World do indeed

feel a strong identifi cation with that world and

show great loyalty to it. This is not surprising: The

Deaf-World offers many Deaf Americans what

they could not fi nd at home: easy communication,

a positive identity a surrogate family. The Deaf-

World has the highest rate of endogamous mar-

riages of any ethnic group—an estimated 90%

(Schein, 1989).

Norms for Behavior

In Deaf culture, there are norms for relating to the

Deaf-World: for decision making, consensus is the

rule, not individual initiative; for managing infor-

mation; for constructing discourse; for gaining

status; for managing indebtedness; and many more

such rules. Cultural rules are not honored all the

time by everyone any more than are linguistic

rules. Such rules tell what you must know as a

member of a particular linguistic and cultural

group; what one actually does or says depends on

a host of intervening factors, including other rules

that have priority.

Distinct Values

The underlying values of an ethnic group can often

be inferred from cultural norms. A value that

appears to be fundamental in the Deaf-World is al-

legiance to the culture, which is expressed in priz-

ing one’s relation to the Deaf-World, in endogamous

TA B L E 1

Collective name Customs

Feeling of community Social structure

Norms for behavior Language

Values Art forms

Knowledge History


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178 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

limited in their ability to communicate with one

another. In this, they are like Diaspora groups, such

as the Jews. And, like the Diaspora ethnic minori-

ties worldwide, prejudice and discrimination in

the  host society encourage them to cultivate their

ethnicity to maintain their dignity despite social


Some scholars maintain that the core of ethnic-

ity lies in the cultural properties we have examined,

so kinship is not necessary for the Deaf-World or

any other group to qualify as an ethnic group

(Barth, 1969; Petersen, 1980; Schneider, 1972;

Sollors, 2001). Others say kinship should be taken

in its social meaning as “those to whom we owe

primary solidarity” (Schneider, 1969). “ Ethnie em-
body the sense of being a large unique family; the

members feel knit to one another and so committed

to the cultural heritage, which is the family’s in-

heritance” (A. D. Smith, 1986, p. 49). What is in-

volved is a sense of tribal belonging, not necessarily

genetic and blood ties. Certainly, there is a strong

sense of solidarity in the Deaf-World; the metaphor

of family goes far in characterizing many Deaf-

World norms and practices.

What kinship is really about, other scholars

contend, is a link to the past; it is about “intergen-

erational continuity” (Fishman, 1989). The Deaf-

World does pass its norms, knowledge, language,

and values from one generation to the next: fi rst

through socialization of the child by Deaf adults

(parent or other) and second through peer social-

ization. Here, however, there is a signifi cant differ-

ence from other ethnic groups: For many Deaf

children, socialization into Deaf culture starts late,

usually when the Deaf child meets other Deaf chil-

dren in school (Johnson & Erting, 1989). Mem-

bers of the Deaf-World have a great handicap and

a great advantage when it comes to intergenera-

tional continuity. The handicap is that their hear-

ing parents usually have a different ethnocultural

identity that, lacking a shared language, they can-

not pass on to their children. Moreover, they com-

monly do not advocate in the schools, community,

courts, and so on for their Deaf child’s primary

language. Minority languages without parental

ancestors as well as to hand it on to generations yet

unborn” (Fishman, 1989, p. 276). Competence in

ASL is a hallmark of Deaf ethnicity in the United

States and some other parts of North America.

A  language not based on sound is the primary

element that sharply demarcates the Deaf-World

from the engulfi ng hearing society.

The Arts

First, the language arts: ASL narratives, storytell-

ing, oratory, humor, tall tales, word play, panto-

mime, and poetry. Theatre arts and the visual arts

also address Deaf culture and experience.


Ethnic groups construct rootedness, with forms of

expression that include history, territory and gene-

alogy. The Deaf-World has a rich history recounted

in stories, books, fi lms, and the like. Members of

the Deaf-World have a particular interest in their

history for “[T]he past is a resource in the collective

quest for meaning [and ethnic identity]” (Nagel,

1994, p. 163). A sense of common history unites

successive generations (Fishman, 1982, 1989;

A. D. Smith, 1986).


Many ethnic groups have a belief in the land of their

ancestors. However, “territory is relevant not because

it is actually possessed but because of an alleged and

felt connection. The land of dreams is far more sig-

nifi cant than any actual terrain” (A. D. Smith, 1986,

p. 34). Land that the Deaf-World in the United States

has traditionally felt an attachment to includes the

residential schools; Deaf travel is often planned

around visits to some of those schools. There is a

Deaf utopian vision of “a land of our own” ex-

pressed in folk tales, novels, journalism, theater,

and political discussions (Bullard, 1986; Lane,

1984; Levesque, 1994; Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989;

Winzer, 1986). Deaf-Worlds are to be found around

the globe, and when Deaf members from two dif-

ferent cultures meet, they feel a strong bond al-

though they share no common territory and are

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READING 20: Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World 179

Many scholars in the fi eld of ethnicity believe

that these “internal” properties of the ethnic group

just reviewed must also be accompanied by an “ex-

ternal” property a boundary separating the minority

from other ethnicities, in particular, the majority

ethnicity (Barth, 1969). Does the Deaf-World in the

United States occupy its own ecological niche?

Does it look to itself for the satisfaction of certain

needs, while looking to the larger society for the

satisfaction of other needs—and conversely?

Ethnic Boundaries

Table 2 shows, at the left, activities that are pri-

marily conducted by Deaf people for Deaf people

in the Deaf-World in the United States; at the

right, activities in the hearing world that impact

Deaf people; and in the middle, areas of overlap.

The more Deaf people celebrate their language

and culture, the more they affi rm their distinct

identity, the more they reinforce the boundary de-

lineating them from the hearing world. Language

comes fi rst for it always plays a powerful role in

maintaining ethnic boundaries, but especially so

in the case of Deaf people because bearing people

are rarely fl uent in visual language and members

of the Deaf-World are rarely fl uent in spoken lan-

guage. Next, Deaf-World social activities are

and community support are normally endangered.

The great advantage of the Deaf-World lies in the

fact that there will always be intergenerational

continuity for sign language because there will al-

ways be visual people who take possession of that

language in preference to any other and with it the

wisdom and values of generations of Deaf people

before them. (Although one can imagine an inter-

vention in the future that would provide high-

fi delity hearing to Deaf children and thus threaten

intergenerational continuity, it seems likely that

most countries will not be able to afford it, and

that most Deaf parents will continue to refuse such

interventions with their Deaf children.)

When we think of kinship, yet other scholars

maintain, what is at stake is common ancestors,

what Joshua Fishman (1977) termed paternity—

real or putative biological connections across gen-

erations. Johnson and Erting (1989) suggested that

what is primary in this biological criterion for kin-

ship is not genealogy but biological resemblance

across generations. In that case, members of the

Deaf-World are kin because Deaf people resemble

one another biologically in their reliance on vision

for language and for much else (Johnson & Erting,

1989). To some extent, like the members of many

other ethnic groups, Deaf people come by their bio-

logical resemblance through heredity more often

than not. The estimate commonly cited is 50% of

all people born deaf with little or no usable hearing

are so for hereditary reasons (Reardon et al., 1992).

However, another 20% are Deaf for reasons un-

known; many of those may be hereditarily Deaf

people not aware of the role of their ancestry

(S. Smith, 1995).

To summarize in the words of social scientist

Arthur Smith

By involving a collective name, by the use of sym-

bolic images of community, by the generation of ste-

reotypes of the community and its foes, by the ritual

performance and rehearsal of ceremonies, by the

communal recitation of past deeds and ancient hero’s

exploits, men and women partake of a collectivity and

its historic fate which transcend their individual exis-

tences. (A. D. Smith, 1986, p. 46)

TA B L E 2

Deaf-World Overlap Hearing world

Sign language

Social activities

Sign language





Arts and leisure




Interpreter services

Religious services

Consumer goods

and services

Deaf history

Deaf education

Deaf service


Spoken language

Law enforcement


(not Deaf related)

Military services

Garbage collection

Medical care



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180 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

people to help them (alcoholism counselors, psy-

chologists, psychiatrists, and others) and special

facilities to care for them, such as detox centers.

However, this understanding of alcoholism dates

from the latter half of the 20th century. In the fi rst

half, the temperance movement branded excessive

drinking as voluntary, and the movement promoted

not treatment but prohibition. With the shift in the

construction of alcoholism from illegal (and im-

moral) behavior to illness, the need was for medical

research and treatment, halfway houses, hospital

wards, outpatient clinics, and specialized hospitals

(Gusfi eld, 1982).

Homosexuality went from moral fl aw, to crime,

to treatable disability, to a minority group seeking

civil rights (Conrad & Schneider, 1980). Shortness

came to be seen as a disability of childhood, not a

normal variation, when growth enzyme was discov-

ered, not before (Downie et al., 1996; Werth, 1991).

Mild mental retardation came to be seen as a dis-

ability, not merely normal human variation in intel-

lect, with the arrival of the IQ test (Gelb, 1987). In

societies in which sign language use is mostly re-

stricted to Deaf people, hearing people commonly

see being Deaf as a serious problem requiring pro-

fessional intervention; but in societies in which

sign language use is widespread because of a sub-

stantial Deaf population—on Martha’s Vineyard

and Bali, for example—being Deaf is simply seen

as a trait, not a disability (Lane, Pillard, & French,


The case of the forest dwellers of Central Africa

is instructive. Their short stature, some 4.5 feet on

average, allows them modest caloric requirements,

easy and rapid passage through dense jungle cover

in search of game, and construction of small huts

rapidly disassembled and reassembled for self-

defense and hunting. The Bantu villagers, formerly

herdsmen, now farmers, have contempt for the pyg-

mies because of their puny size, and they in turn

have contempt for the villagers who are “clumsy as

elephants” in the forest, much too tall to move

swiftly and silently; they “do not know how to

walk” (Turnbull, 1962, p. 79). Each group considers

organized and conducted by Deaf people with

little or no hearing involvement. On the other

hand, law enforcement is a hearing world activity.

Religious services overlap the Deaf and hearing

worlds; there are missions to the Deaf, Deaf pas-

tors, and signed services, but the operation of the

house of worship is generally in hearing hands.

All in all, the Deaf-World keeps to itself for many

of its activities; it collaborates in a few with the

hearing world; and it leaves the really broad re-

sponsibilities such as law enforcement to the

larger society; in this, it is like other ethnic groups,

such as Hispanic Americans.

This brief survey is intended to show that the

Deaf-World in the United States today meets the

criteria put forth for ethnic groups (also see Erting,

1978, 1982; Johnson & Erting, 1979, 1982, 1984,

1989; Markowicz & Woodward, 1978; Padden &

Markowicz, 1976). Classifying the Deaf-World as

an ethnic group should encourage those who are
concerned with Deaf people to do appropriate

things: learn their language, defend their heritage

against more powerful groups, study their ethnic

history; and so on. In this light, the Deaf-World

should enjoy the rights and protections accorded

other ethnic groups under international law and

treaties, such as the United Nations Declaration

of the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or

Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (United

Nations, 2003a).

Is it also appropriate to label the Deaf-World a dis-

ability group? We do not ask whether Deaf people

in fact have a disability because it is not a matter of

fact: Disability, like ethnicity, is a social construct,

not a fact of life, although it is a property of such

constructs that they appear misleadingly to be a fact

of life. For example, the social problem of alcohol-

ism evidently consists of this: Many Americans suf-

fer from alcoholism; there are specially trained

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READING 20: Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World 181

job when the job requires good English; they miss

out on important information because it has not

been provided in their language.

Still, say the Deaf-are-disabled advocates, why

not acknowledge the many things that physically

different people share by using a common label

(Baynton, 2002). After all, some disability activists

make a claim for disability culture, just as there is a

Deaf culture; many oppose mainstreaming, as do

many Deaf activists. Both groups pay the price of

social stigma, and stigmatized groups—among

them disabled people, blacks, women, gays, and the

Deaf—are often claimed to be biologically inferior.

Moreover, both the Deaf-World and disability

groups struggle with the troubled-persons indus-

tries for control of their destiny (Gusfi eld, 1984).

Both endeavor to promote their construction of

their identity in competition with the efforts of

professionals to promote their constructions
(Finkelstein, 1981). Finally, because there are great

differences among disability groups, accommodat-

ing one more with its unique issues need not be a


At one level, oppressed minorities do indeed

share important traits and a common struggle for

the defense and valuing of their diversity. At that

level, disabled people, blacks, women, gays, the

Deaf, and other language minorities can inform and

reinforce one another’s efforts. They can promote

an understanding of the value of diversity, learn

successful strategies from one another, and use

their combined numbers to urge government in the

right directions. At another level, however, many

practical truths apply only to individual minorities,

with their own makeup, demographics, histories,

and cultures. To minimize that diversity with the

same global representation would undermine the

most cherished goal of each group: to be respected

and valued for its difference. After all, beyond

being stigmatized because of their physical differ-

ence, what, practically speaking, do the Deaf have

in common with gays, women, blacks, Little

People, and people with mobility impairment, for

example? Deaf people have been subject to the

the other handicapped by their physical size. Each

fails to appreciate how physical makeup, culture,

and environment are intertwined.

Despite all this evidence that disability is con-

structed in a given society at a given time, many

writers addressing ethics and Deaf people, appar-

ently unaware of disability studies and medical an-

thropology, simply adopt the naïve materialist view

when it comes to disability: “Almost by defi nition

deaf persons . . . have a disability” (Gonsoulin,

2001, p. 554). “I maintain that the inability to hear

is a defi cit, a disability, a lack of perfect health”

(D. S. Davis, 1997, p. 254). And, their ethical con-

clusions turn on this postulate. We understand,

however, that disability is a label that can be applied

with more or with less aptness to a particular group.

That application is not a matter of chance, even less

is it foreordained; it is powerfully infl uenced by the

“technologies of normalization” (Foucault, 1980,

p.  21) that exist to mitigate what is seen as a dis-

ability for they have a great stake in retaining that

conception of the group. In the next section, argu-

ments that have been made for including members

of the Deaf-World among disability groups are

examined critically.

Oppression from Deaf Bodies

Advocates of classifying Deaf people with disabil-

ity groups claim that Deaf people have this in com-

mon with people who avowedly have disabilities:

They are discriminated against because general

social customs do not accommodate their bodies.

Deaf people are indeed discriminated against in

school, on the job, and in gaining access, but it is

much more their language that is the target of dis-

crimination than their bodies: “The major impact of

deafness is on communication” (Baynton, 2000,

p.  391). Thus, the Deaf are more like oppressed

language minorities than oppressed disability

groups. Like many Hispanic Americans, for exam-

ple, many Deaf people have diffi culty learning in

school because the teacher cannot communicate

with them fl uently; they have diffi culty getting a

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182 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

that society and government or surrender some of

those rights in the hope of gradually undermining

that misconstruction. This dilemma is reminiscent

of similarly oppressive choices offered to other

minority groups: for gays to embrace the disability

label and be spared classifi cation as a criminal and

entry into the army; for women to conform to the

masculine idea of the feminine ideal and gain men’s

support and approval.

In principle, it should be possible for members

of the Deaf-World in the United States to base their

demand for language access on existing legislation

and court rulings protecting language minorities.

For example, in the fi eld of education, the U.S.

Congress has passed two types of statutes to rem-

edy the disadvantage experienced by language-mi-

nority students who cannot communicate freely in

the classroom by using their primary language: the

Bilingual Education Act (P.L. 89–10, Title VII,

1965), which provides funding for a variety of pro-

grams promoting the use of minority languages in

the schools, and civil rights statutes (P.L. 88–352,

Title VI, 1964; P.L. 93–380, 1974), which impose

an affi rmative duty on the schools to give children

who speak a minority language an equal educa-

tional opportunity by lowering the English lan-

guage barriers. The provision of language rights in

Deaf education should bring with it appropriate

school curricula and materials, teachers who are

ethnic models, interpreters, real television access

through sign language, and video-telephone com-

munication. But, in practice that would require that

the public come to understand the Deaf-World as

the Deaf-World understands itself. Until this hap-

pens, the Deaf-World can expect scant support from

other ethnic groups.

Among the obstacles to a change from the dis-

ability to the ethnic construction of Deaf people are

the numerous professional organizations predicated

on the disability construction and who wish to own

the problem of Deaf children. “To ‘own’ a social

problem is to possess the authority to name that so-

cial condition a problem and to suggest what might

be done about it” (Gusfi eld, 1989, p. 433). Consider

just two of the many organizations that have Deaf

globalizing disability label, and it has widely led to

the wrong questions and the wrong answers, which

are considered later in this article under reasons to

reject it. This is the pragmatic answer to disability

scholar Lennard Davis’s proposal that Deaf people

abandon the category of ethnicity in favor of a co-

alition with gays, hearing children with Deaf par-

ents, and people with disabilities (L. Davis, 2002):

Their agendas are utterly different.

The Shared Struggle for Rights

Another argument advanced for Deaf people to

embrace the disability label is that it might assist

them in gaining more of their rights (Baynton,

2002). For example, interpreters are not normally

provided in the classroom for members of ethnic

groups; Deaf people have them in many places

under a disability umbrella. However, much that is

important to Deaf people has come through an un-

derstanding of the Deaf-World as an ethnic group.

Let us cite the burgeoning of ASL in high schools

and colleges in the United States and the increasing

acceptance of ASL classes in fulfi llment of the for-

eign language and culture requirement; the mush-

rooming of scholarship in the last 40 years

concerning Deaf ethnicity—history, arts, social

structure, culture, and language; the fl ourishing of

the interpreting profession; the development of the

discipline of Deaf studies; bilingual bicultural Deaf

education; the growing community of nations that

formally recognize their national sign language. All

these gains refl ect an understanding of the Deaf as

an ethnic group.

Although the disability label seems inappropri-

ate for the Deaf-World, its members have not

aggressively promoted governmental understand-

ing of its ethnicity and of the poor fi t of the disabil-

ity label. As a result, the majority’s accommodation

of the Deaf has come under a disability label, and

Deaf people must in effect subscribe to that label to

gain their rights in access to information, in educa-

tion, and in other areas. This is the Deaf dilemma:

retain some important rights as members of their

society at the expense of being mischaracterized by

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READING 20: Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World 183

their families, and the wider society (Conrad &

Schneider, 1980).

When Gallaudet University’s president, I. King

Jordan, was asked on the television program Sixty
Minutes if he would like to be hearing, he replied:
“That’s almost like asking a black person if he

would rather be white . . . I don’t think of myself as

missing something or as incomplete. . . . It’s a com-

mon fallacy if you don’t know Deaf people or Deaf

issues. You think it’s a limitation” (Fine & Fine,

1990). Deaf scholars like I. King Jordan, Tom

Humphries, and MJ Bienvenu in the United States

and Paddy Ladd in England are not rejecting the

disability label because they want to avoid stigma

associated with disability (Ladd, 2003). That would

be to give them little credit. Rather, they are reject-

ing it because, as Tom Humphries has said so well,

“It doesn’t compute” (1993, pp. 6, 14). In ASL, the

sign with a semantic fi eld that most overlaps that of

the English “disability” can be glossed in English

LIMP-BLIND-ETC. I have asked numerous Deaf

informants to give me examples from that category:

They have responded by citing people in wheel-

chairs, blind people, mentally retarded people, and

people with cerebral palsy, among others, but no

informant has ever listed Deaf, and all reject it as an

example of a disability group when asked.

Further examples of how the disability label

does not compute come from Deaf preferences in

marriage and childbearing. Like the members of

many ethnic groups, culturally Deaf people prefer

to socialize with and to marry other members of

their cultural group; as noted, the Deaf have one of

the highest endogamous marriage rates of any eth-

nic group (Schein, 1989). When it comes to Deaf

preferences in childbearing, there are no hard

statistics, but in interviews with the press and

with  me, Deaf parents have expressed a wish for

children like themselves—much as all parents do

who do not see themselves as disabled. “I want my

daughter to be like me, to be Deaf,” one expectant

Deaf mother declared in an interview with the

Boston Globe . She explained that she came from a
large Deaf family, all of whom had hoped that her

baby would be born Deaf (Saltus, 1989; also see

children as clients. The American Academy of

Otolaryngology, with over 10,000 members, has

registered two paid lobbyists in Washington; the

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association,

with l15,925 members, has three (http://sopr.senate

.gov). Members of these organizations collaborate

with government offi cials in approving treatments,

in drawing up legislation, and in evaluating pro-

posed research and training activities. The Deaf-

World has none of these advantages in seeking to

promote an ethnic understanding of being Deaf.


It “Doesn’t Compute”

The overwhelming reason to reject the view of cul-

turally Deaf people as members of a disability

group concerns how Deaf people see themselves.

People who have grown up Deaf and have become

integrated into Deaf culture are naturally aware of

their biological difference, but they do not, as a

rule, see in that difference a reason to consider

them members of a disability group. This is a very

strong argument for rejecting the disability label

because there is no higher authority on how a group

should be regarded than the members of the group

themselves. Some writers, convinced that the Deaf

have a disability and baffl ed by their refusal to ac-

knowledge it, conclude that Deaf people are sim-

ply denying the truth of their disability to avoid

stigma (Baynton, 2002; Finkelstein, 1991; Gon-

soulin, 2001). But, many people have, like the

Deaf, physical differences that are not accommo-

dated (Zola, 1993)—relatively short and tall

people, for example—and they also deny they have

a disability. Surely, in doing so they are not simply

trying to avoid stigma. The gender preferences of

gay men and women were at one time viewed as an

expression of mental illness. In rejecting that dis-

ability categorization, the gay rights movement

was not simply trying to avoid a stigma; it was try-

ing instead to promote a new representation of gay

men and women that would be better for them,

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184 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

when their bodies differ from their parents in im-

portant ways that age alone does not explain. Par-

ents want children like themselves, and if they are

signifi cantly unlike, they will listen to the doctors

who say they can reduce or eliminate the differ-

ence, sometimes harming the child in the process.

It is very tempting to locate the source of the so-

cial stigma with the child rather than the society;

after all, the child is right there and much more

manageable than an entire society. Moreover,

the technologies of normalization are knocking at

the door. However, the medicalization of differ-

ence defl ects us from the real issue, which is the

stigmatizing of difference in our society. When

children who have undergone surgical normaliz-

ing become adults, many decry what was done to

them as children.

For example, it has been the practice in the

United States to operate on children with ambigu-

ous genitalia, most often carving a vagina in

male children because the surgical methods are not

available to create a suitable penis. Once grown to

adulthood, these and other intersexuals have been

campaigning to dissuade urologists from continu-

ing to perform this maiming surgery on children

(Dreger, 1998). Little People, when their parents

are not dwarfs, are frequently subjected as children

to bone-breaking surgery for limb lengthening. It is

painful, it is risky, and it is incapacitating. At best,

it places the child in a no-man’s land, neither short

as a dwarf nor average size, and most adult dwarfs

are utterly opposed to the surgery (Kennedy, 2003).

There are many more victims of the medical-

surgical imperative. One thinks of the horrors

visited on the mentally ill, like frontal lobotomy

(Valenstein, 1986), and those visited on homosexu-

als, such as deconditioning (Conrad & Schneider,

1980). Not all medical intervention in social issues

is bad, of course; sometimes, it serves us well, and

it derives great prestige from doing so. That is just

why it overreaches at times and why we have to be

wary of its abuse.

Cochlear Implant Surgery. Now to label
the Deaf child as having a disability places that

Mills, 2002). Other expectant Deaf parents report-

edly say it will be fi ne either way, Deaf or hearing.

These views contrast sharply with the tendency of

disability groups. A study of blind people, for ex-

ample, reported that they tend to shun the company

of other blind people, associate with each other

only when there are specifi c reasons for doing so,

seek sighted mates, and do not wish to transmit

their blindness to their children (Deshen, 1992).

Leaders of the disability rights movement call for

ambivalence: They want their physical difference

valued, as a part of who they are; at the same time,

they do not wish to see more children and adults

with disabilities in the world (Abberley, 1987;

Lane, 1995).

We should not be surprised that Deaf people

want Deaf spouses, welcome Deaf children, and

prefer to be together with other culturally Deaf

people—in clubs, in school, at work if possible, in

leisure activities, in political action, in sports, and

so on—in short, they see being Deaf as an inherent

good. Do not ethnic groups characteristically value

their physical difference, from the pygmies of the

Iturbi forest in Central Africa to the tall pale inhab-

itants of, say, Finland? Of course they do, so it is

perfectly expected that culturally Deaf people posi-

tively value the Deaf difference and that hearing

folks fi nd in their own cultures a preference for

hearing bodies, despite their poorer performance on

some visual processing tasks compared to the Deaf

(Lane, 2004a).

Thus, embracing the disability label in hopes it

might assist Deaf people in gaining more of their

rights is fundamentally fl awed because Deaf people

do not believe it. For Deaf people to surrender any-

way to how others defi ne them is to misrepresent

themselves, and that is the fi rst reason to reject the

disability label.

Greater Risk for the Deaf Child

There are many penalties for misrepresenting, for

allowing the disability label. An important penalty

concerns the risk to the Deaf child. It appears that

children are at greater medical and surgical risk

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READING 20: Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World 185

surgical team commonly urge oral educational

programs on the parents and discourage sign lan-

guage use (Tye-Murray, 1992). If implanted chil-

dren are unable to learn spoken English and are

prevented from mastering ASL, they will remain

languageless for many years. Developmental mile-

stones for signed languages are similar to those for

spoken languages, and the later the acquisition

of  ASL, the poorer its mastery on the average

(Mayberry & Eichen, 1991; Newport, 1990;

Petitto, 1993). It is inexcusable to leave a child

without fl uent language for years on end. Medi-

cine is coming to realize that it is the overall qual-

ity of life of the person and not just the concerned

organ that must be considered (Reisenberg &

Glass, 1989).

Dubious Benefi ts. Advocates for childhood
implantation acknowledge that “implants do not

restore normal hearing,” and that, after the opera-

tion, “long-term habilitation continues to be essen-

tial” (Balkany et al., 2002, p. 356). According to

a recent report, 59% of implanted children are

judged by their parents to be behind their hearing

peers in reading, and 37% are behind in math

(Christiansen & Leigh, 2004). It seems unlikely

these children will be full-fl edged members of the

hearing world (Lane, 1999; Lane & Bahan, 1998).

We know that early acquisition of ASL facilitates

later mastery of English (Padden & Ramsey, 2000;

Strong & Prinz, 1997). This linguistic intervention

might deliver greater English mastery than implant

surgery; the comparison study has not been done.

On the contrary, every study that has compared the

performance of children with cochlear implants to

an unimplanted control group employed controls

that apparently had not mastered any language

(see,  for example, the literature review in Geers,

Nicholas, & Sedey, 2003). . . .

If medical and surgical procedures used with

children who are Deaf, or intersexuals, or dwarfs

required informed consent from adults like the
child, they would almost never take place. And,

when the parents are like the child, in fact they

rarely take place. . . .

child at risk for interventions like cochlear

implant surgery. Cochlear implant surgery lasts

about 3.5  hours under general anesthesia and

requires hospitalization from 2 to 4 days. A

broad, crescent-shaped incision is made behind

the operated ear, and the skin fl ap is elevated. A

piece of temporalis muscle is removed. A

depression is drilled in the skull and reamed to

make a seat for the internal electrical coil of the

cochlear implant. A section of the mastoid bone

is removed to expose the middle ear cavity. Fur-

ther drilling exposes the membrane of the round

window on the inner ear. Observing the proce-

dure under a microscope, the surgeon pierces

the membrane. A wire about 18mm long is

pushed through the opening. The wire seeks its

own path as it moves around and up the coiled

inner ear. The microstructure of the inner ear is

destroyed; if there was any residual hearing in

the ear, it is likely destroyed as well. The audi-

tory nerve itself is unlikely to be damaged, how-

ever, and the implant stimulates the auditory

nerve directly. The internal coil is then sutured

into place. Finally, the skin is sewn back over

the coil.

Clear Risks. The surgery and general anesthe-
sia entail medical and surgical risks. The incidence

of bacterial meningitis in implanted children is

30  times higher than in age-matched unimplanted

children (Daneshi et al., 2000; Reefhuis et al.,

2003). Other risks include anesthesia risk (Svirsky,

Teoh, & Neuburger, 2004); loss of vestibular func-

tion (Huygen et al., 1995); cerebrospinal fl uid leak

(Reefhuis et al., 2003); facial nerve stimulation

and injury (Kelsall et al., 1997); and damage to

the carotid artery (Gastman et al., 2002). The sur-

gery can have fatal consequences (Jalbert, 2003).

Nine of ten candidates for pediatric implant sur-

gery, those with no or little usable hearing, were

born Deaf (Allen, Rawlings & Remington, 1994;

Center for Assessment, 1992). Such children rarely

receive the main benefi t sought: fl uency in a spo-

ken language (Lane & Bahan, 1998). Compound-

ing the harm, special educators who work with the

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186 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

environment” (1883, p. 46). Residential schools,

where most Deaf children acquired language, iden-

tity, and a life partner, should be closed and Deaf

people educated in small day schools. Sign lan-

guage should be banished; Deaf teachers fi red.

Bell’s Memoir received wide newspaper coverage.
Bell’s actions led many to believe that there would

be, or already were, laws prohibiting Deaf mar-

riage. There was much consternation among Deaf

people contemplating marriage. Some hearing par-

ents of Deaf children chose to have their children

sterilized (Mitchell, 1971).

A 1912 report from Bell’s eugenics section of

the Breeders’ Association cites his census of

blind  and Deaf persons and lists “socially unfi t”

classes to “be eliminated from the human stock”

(American Genetic Association, 1912, p. 3). The

model eugenic law called for the sterilization of

feebleminded, insane, criminalistic (“including the

delinquent and the wayward”), epileptic, inebriate,

diseased, blind, Deaf, deformed, and dependent

people (“including orphans, ne’er-do-wells, the

homeless, tramps, and paupers”). By the time of

World War I, 16 states in the United States had ster-

ilization laws in force. By 1940, 30 states had such

laws (Haller, 1963). Physicians were actively in-

volved in this eugenics movement (May & Hughes,

1987). . . .

Deaf Eugenics Today

Audiometric testing, labeling, special needs school-

ing, genetic research and counseling, surgery, and

reproductive control all are means of currently or

potentially exercising power over the Deaf body. In

1992, researchers at Boston University announced

that they had identifi ed the so-called genetic error

responsible for a common type of inherited deaf-

ness. The director of the National Institute on

Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

[sic] called the fi nding a “major breakthrough that

will improve diagnosis and genetic counseling and

ultimately lead to substitution therapy or gene

transfer therapy” (“BU Team,” 1992, p. 6; “Deaf-

ness gene,” 1992, p. 141). The goal of such efforts

Survival Risk for the Deaf-World

A third argument against the disability label for the

Deaf-World concerns the risk to the Deaf-World as

a whole if that representation prevails. A majority of

people in the Deaf-World have inherited their eth-

nicity. Deaf inheritance and a failure to understand

the ethnic status of culturally Deaf people have his-

torically and at present placed the Deaf-World in

jeopardy of ethnocide and even genocide. Despite

surgical and medical experiments on large numbers

of Deaf children in the 19th century, medicine made

no inroads against the Deaf-World as a whole. How-

ever, developments in biology in the late 19th cen-

tury gave rise to the eugenics movement, which

sought to improve the race and eliminate the Deaf-

World, among other groups considered undesirable,

by selective breeding. From the point of view of the

variety of humankind favored by selective breeding,

the practice is eugenic; from the point of view of the

varieties disfavored, it is genocidal.

The most famous advocate of regulating Deaf

marriage to reduce Deaf childbirth was one of the

founders of oral education in America, Alexander

Graham Bell, who devoted his great wealth and

prestige to these eugenic measures (Lane, 1984).

When the American Breeders Association created a

section on eugenics “to emphasize the value of

superior blood and the menace to society of inferior

blood,” Bell agreed to serve. He engaged the issue of

eugenics and the Deaf population beginning in the

l880s. Sign language and residential schools were

creating a Deaf community, he warned, in which

Deaf people intermarried and reproduced, a situa-

tion fraught with danger to the rest of society. He

sounded the alarm in his Memoir Upon the Forma-
tion of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race , presented
to the National Academy of Sciences in 1883. Be-

cause there are familial patterns of deafness, Bell

wrote, “It is to be feared that the intermarriage of

such persons would be attended by calamitous

results to their off-spring” (Bell, 1883, p. 11).

Bell argued, with breathtaking hubris, that to

avoid this calamity, we must “commence our efforts

on behalf of the deaf-mute by changing his social

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READING 20: Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World 187

and Linguistic Minorities (United Nations, 2003a),

are founded on a belief in the value of protecting

minority cultures. The declaration calls on states to

foster their linguistic minorities and ensure that

children and adults have adequate opportunities to

learn the minority language. It further affi rms the

right of such minorities to enjoy their culture and

language and participate in decisions on the

national level that affect them. Programs that sub-

stantially diminish minority cultures are engaged

in  ethnocide and may constitute crimes against

humanity. . . .

Wrong Solutions

Because they are an ethnic group whose language

and mores were long disparaged, Deaf people com-

monly feel solidarity with other oppressed groups,

the more so as the Deaf-World includes such groups

as people with disabilities, seniors, women, blacks,

and so on. Deaf people have special reasons for

solidarity with hard-of-hearing and late-deafened

people; their combined numbers have created ser-

vices, commissions, and laws that the Deaf-World

alone probably could not have achieved. Solidarity,

yes, but when culturally Deaf people allow their

ethnic identity to be subsumed under the construct

of disability, they set themselves up for wrong solu-

tions and bitter disappointments. After all, mem-

bers of the Deaf-World differ from disabled people

in their language and cultural experience, in their

body of knowledge, in their system of rules and

values, and in their models for selfhood.

If the Deaf-World were to embrace a disability

identity, it would urge on Americans an understand-

ing from which grow solutions that Deaf people

oppose. Priorities of the disabilities rights move-

ment include better medical care, rehabilitation ser-

vices, and personal assistance services (Shapiro,

1993). Deaf people do not attach particular impor-

tance to any of these services and instead campaign

for acceptance of their language and better and

more interpreters. Whereas the disability rights

movement seeks independence for people with dis-

abilities, Deaf people cherish interdependence with

as gene transfer therapy is, of course, to reduce

Deaf births, ultimately altogether. Thus, a new form

of medical eugenics applied to Deaf people is envi-

sioned, in this case by an agency of the U.S. gov-

ernment The primary characteristics of Deaf people

with this particular genetic background to be elimi-

nated are numerous Deaf relatives, sign language

fl uency, facial features such as widely spaced eye-

brows, and coloring features such as white forelock

and freckling (Fraser, 1976).

Imagine the uproar if medical scientists trum-

peted a similar breakthrough for any other ethnic

minority, promising a reduction in that ethnic

group’s children—promising fewer Navajos, fewer

Jews, whatever the ethnic group. The Australian

government indeed undertook a decades-long eu-

genic program to eliminate its aboriginal peoples

by placing their children in white boarding houses

in the city, where it was hoped they would marry

white and have white children. In 1997, a govern-

ment commission of inquiry classifi ed these and

other measures as genocide (National Inquiry,

1997). Under international law, an activity that has

the foreseeable effect of diminishing or eradicating

a minority group, even if it is undertaken for other

reasons and is not highly effective, is guilty of

genocide (National Inquiry, 1997; United Nations,

2003b). Why do governments fail to apply this

moral principle and law to the Deaf? Americans fail

to see the danger of pursuing a genocidal program

in this instance because most Americans see Deaf

people as having a disability arising from an im-

pairment. And, the goal of eradicating a disability,

although it may be in some circumstances unwise

and unethical, is not seen as genocide.

If culturally Deaf people were understood to be

an ethnic group, they would have the protections

offered to such groups. It is widely held as an

ethical principle that the preservation of minority

cultures is a good. The variety of humankind and

cultures enriches all cultures and contributes to the

biological, social, and psychological well-being of

humankind. Laws and covenants, such as the

United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Per-

sons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious

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188 SECTION I: Constructing Categories of Difference

of a people. Native Americans were once seen as

savages; black Americans as property; women as

utterly dependent. The case for Deaf ethnicity built

by the social sciences is powerful. Increasingly, lin-

guists take account of ASL, sociologists of the so-

cial structure of the Deaf-World, historians of its

history, educators of its culture, and so on. It re-

mains to reform those other professions that have an

outdated understanding or a representation that suits

their agenda but not that of Deaf people. The chal-

lenge to the professions that seek to be of service to

Deaf children and adults is to replace the normativ-

ness of medicine with the curiosity of ethnography.

1. Is the ethnic group model of Deaf-World pref-

erable to the disability model as Lane con-

tends? What grounds should be used in making

that calculation?

2. Why hasn’t the ethnic group approach that

Lane recommends so far taken hold in pubic

policy or popular opinion?

Abberley, P. (1987). The concept of oppression and the de-

velopment of a social theory of disability. Disability,
Handicap and Society, 2 , 5–19.

Allen, T. E., Rawlings, B. W., & Remington, F. (1994).

Demographic and audiologic profi les of deaf children in

Texas with cochlear implants. American Annals of the
Deaf, 138, 260–266.

American Genetic Association, Eugenics Section. (1912).

American sterilization laws. Preliminary report of the
Committee of the Eugenics Section of the American Breed-
ers Association to study and to report on she best practical
means for cutting off the defective germ plasm in the human
population. London: Eugenics Educational Society.

Bahan, B. (2004, April). The visual people. Paper presented
at the conference Deaf Studies Today, Utah Valley State

College, Orem.

Balkany, T. J., Hodges, A. V., Eshraghi, A. A., Butts, S.,

Bricker, K., Lingvai, J., et al. (2002). Cochlear implants in

children—a review. Acta Otolaryngologica (Stockholm),
122, 356–362.

Balkany, T., Hodges, A., & Goodman, K. (1999). Authors’

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other Deaf people. These differences in values and

priorities far outweigh the areas, such as fi ghting

job discrimination, in which Deaf goals are poten-

tially advanced by joining ranks with disability

groups. . . .

This article has presented a case that the sign

language–using minority in the United States, the

Deaf-World, is best viewed as an ethnic group, and

it has cited reasons why it is inappropriate to view

the Deaf-World as a disability group: Deaf people

themselves do not believe they have a disability;

the  disability construction brings with it needless

medical and surgical risks for the Deaf child; it

also  endangers the future of the Deaf-World.

Finally, the disability construction brings bad

solutions to real problems because it is predicated

on a misunderstanding.

All of these objections to the disability construc-

tion of culturally Deaf people apply to the proposal

that Deaf people be understood as both an ethnic

group and a disability group at the same time. Tak-

ing up such a position would weaken the Deaf-World

claim on ethnicity (is there any other ethnic group

that is a disability group?) while inviting the risks

and wrong solutions described here. The ethically

troubling practices in which surgeons, scientists, and

educators are engaged—operating on healthy Deaf

children, seeking the means to diminish and ulti-

mately eradicate the Deaf-World, opposing the Deaf

child’s right to full and fl uent language—exist be-

cause this ethnic group is misunderstood as a dis-

ability group. They will not be avoided by affi rming,

contrary to the group’s own judgment, that it is a

disability group but also an ethnic group.

How we ultimately resolve these ethical issues

goes well beyond Deaf people; it will say a great

deal about what kind of society we are and the kind

of society in which we wish to live. Difference and

diversity not only have evolutionary signifi cance

but, I would argue, are a major part of what gives

life its richness and meaning; ethnic diversity is a

basic human good, and to choose to be with one’s

own kind is a fundamental right. There is reason for

hope: Society can adopt a different understanding

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Fine, H., & Fine, P. (Executive Producers). (1990, March).

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Beckenham, Hodder, & Stoughton.

Finkelstein, V. (1991) “We” are not disabled, “you” are. In

S.  Gregory & G. M. Hartley (Eds.), Constructing
Deafness, (pp. 265–271). London: Pinter.

Fishman, J. (1977). Language and ethnicity. In H. Giles

(Ed.), Language ethnicity, and intergroup relations
(pp. 15–57). New York: Academic Press.

Fishman, J. (1982). A critique of six papers on the socializa-

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ence highlights: National research conference on the
social aspects of deafness (pp. 6–20). Washington, DC:
Gallaudet College.

Fishman, J. (1989). Language and ethnicity in minority
sociolinguistic perspective. Philadelphia: Multilingual

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews
and other writings, 1972–1977 . Brighton, UK: Harvester

Fraser, G. R. (1976). The causes of profound deafness in
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194 SECTION II: Experiencing Difference

In the fi rst framework essay, we considered the social construction of difference

as master statuses were named, aggregated, dichotomized, and stigmatized. Now

we turn to experiencing these statuses. A story from a friend provides an illustra-
tion of what we mean by this. Many years ago, she and her husband had wanted

to see Men in Black when it opened in the theaters, but they had not been able
to fi nd a babysitter for their eight-year-old daughter. They had watched many

movies as a family and thought their daughter had a good understanding of the

difference between real and pretend, so they decided it would be all right to take

her with them to the show. They were wrong.

Our perception of the movie was that while there was plenty of action, it was defi nitely a com-

edy. The “alien monsters” were ridiculous to us, inspiring laughter or mild disgust like that of

a yucky bug you fi nd in your bathroom and fl ush down the toilet. Jenny, however, found the

movie to be scary and gross. It was beyond her ability to laugh away as something that was

“pretend.” She hid her eyes through 90 percent of the movie and did not agree with us that it

was funny. She talked for months about how scary it was and chastised us for letting her see it.

This story holds a small lesson about experiencing your social status. What we
notice in the world depends in large part on the statuses we occupy; in this way

we may be said to experience our social status. Jenny thought the movie was scary
both because of the unique person she is and because of her age, a master status.

Her parents did not see the movie that way for the same reasons. All experienced

the movie through their unique personalities and as people of certain ages.

Although we do not specifi cally address age in this book, it operates in ways

that are analogous to race, sex, class, sexuality, and disability. For example, being

young affects the way a person is treated in innumerable ways: at a minimum, it

restricts driving, employment, military enlistment, marriage, access to abortion,

admission to movies, and alcohol and cigarette consumption; being young yields

higher insurance rates and mandatory school attendance; youth also creates the

category of “status offenses” (acts that are illegal only for minors). In addition,

minors are excluded from voting and exercising other legal rights.

In these ways, those defi ned as “young” are treated differently from those who

are not so defi ned. Because of that treatment, those who are younger see the world

differently from those who are older and no longer operating within these con-

straints. The young notice things that older people need not notice, because they

are not subject to the same rules. Our experiences are tied to the statuses we occupy.

A different example of experiencing one’s status comes from the autobiography

of one of the fi rst black students in an exclusive white prep school. She recalls

what it was like to hear white students say, “It doesn’t matter to me if somebody’s

white or black or green or purple. I mean people are just people.” While she

appreciated the students’ intentions, she also heard her own real experience being
trivialized by comparison to the Muppets. Her status helps to explain what she

noticed in these conversations.

In all, you experience your social statuses; you live through them. They are

the fi lters through which you see and make sense of the world, and in large

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Framework Essay 195

measure they account for how you are treated and what you notice. In the sections

that follow, we will focus on the experiences of both privilege and stigma associ-

ated with master statuses.

Just as status helps to explain what we notice, it also explains what we don’t
notice. In the following classroom discussion between a black and a white student,

the white student argues that because she and the black student are both female,

they should be allies. The black woman responds,

“When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?”

“I see a woman,” replied the white woman.

“That’s precisely the issue,” replied the black woman. “I see a black woman. For me,

race is visible every day, because it is how I am not privileged in this culture. Race is invis-
ible to you [because it is how you are privileged].”


Thus, we are likely to be unaware of the statuses that privilege us, that is,
provide us with advantage, and acutely aware of those that are the source of

trouble—those that yield negative judgments and unfair treatment. Indeed, the

mirror metaphor used by the black woman in this conversation emerges frequently

among those who are stigmatized: “I looked in the mirror and saw a gay man.”

These moments of suddenly realizing your social position with all of its life-

shaping ramifi cations are usually about recognizing how some statuses leave you

stigmatized and underprivileged, but they are rarely about how you might be

privileged or advantaged by other statuses.

Examples of Privilege

This use of the term privilege was fi rst developed by Peggy McIntosh from her
experience of teaching women’s studies courses. Over time, McIntosh noticed that

while many men were willing to grant that women were disadvantaged (or “under-

privileged”) because of sexism, it was far more diffi cult for them to acknowledge

that they were themselves advantaged (or “overprivileged”) because of it. Extend-

ing the analysis to race, McIntosh generated a list of the ways in which she, as

a white woman, was overprivileged by virtue of racism. Her list of over forty

white privileges included the following:

I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their daily protection.

I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing

to my race.

I can be sure [that] if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

I can take a job with an affi rmative action employer without having my co-workers on the

job suspect that I got it because of my race.

I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

As she talked to people about her list, McIntosh learned about other white

privileges: “A black woman said she was glad to hear me ‘working on my own

people,’ because if she said these things about white privilege, she would be seen

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196 SECTION II: Experiencing Difference

as a militant.” Someone else noted that one privilege of being white was being

able to be oblivious of those privileges. “Those in privileged groups are educated

[to be oblivious] about what it is like for others, especially for others who have

to be in their presence.”

Privilege makes life easier: it is easier to get around, to get what one wants,

and to be treated in an acceptable manner. For example, perhaps the privilege

least noticed by nondisabled people is the simple ease of getting around— accessing

buildings, restaurants, and movie theaters; easily reading store names, bus stops,

and street signs; riding public transportation; being able to dependably fi nd bath-

rooms one can use; in short, having fairly uncomplicated access to the world. By

contrast, notice the rage and exhaustion that reporter John Hockenberry describes

as he tries to hail a cab or use the Brooklyn subway (Reading 34). Or ponder the

indignity detailed in Tennessee v. Lane , the 2004 Supreme Court case about
county court houses that lacked elevators, which meant that paraplegic people had

to crawl or be carried up the steps (Reading 37). Thus, one usually unnoticed

privilege of not being disabled is the ability to get around. Life is just easier,

because everything is designed for your use.

While privilege makes people’s lives easier, it also makes their lives safer. For

example, many black and Hispanic students describe being closely monitored by

security guards for shoplifting when they are in department stores. Indeed, in one

class discussion of this, an African American student mentioned that she had the

habit of walking through stores with her hands held out, palms open in front of

her, to prove that she was not stealing. Ironically, it is likely easier for white

people to shoplift, since attention is focused on black and Latino customers.

This point was illustrated in a 2009 episode of ABC’s Primetime: What Would
You Do? , which was set in a public park in a predominately white New Jersey
suburb. Called “Teen Vandals,” a hidden camera recorded the reaction of pass-

ersby to a group of white teenagers (who were actors) destroying a car. Almost

no one called the police or attempted to stop them. As one of the white actors

commented later, “I was actually shocked to see how many people would actu-

ally take a good look at what we were doing and just walk on by without even

interfering at all.” By contrast, people did call the police about the black

teenagers who were sleeping in a nearby car waiting for their turn to act as

vandals. Not surprisingly, when it was time for those actors to destroy the car,

there were numerous calls to the police and attempts to stop them. Thus, one

privilege of being white is the presumption that you are not really criminal,

violent, or dangerous to others.

Although whites do not generally assume that other whites are a threat to them,

they often assume that of blacks.
The percentage appears to be declining, but

surveys indicate that about half of whites think blacks are aggressive or violent.

This is especially important because if one assumes that a person or group is

dangerous, taking preemptive action against them to ward off violence is more

likely to be seen as legitimate.

Despite whites’ fear of violence at the hands of African Americans, crime is predominately intra racial.

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Framework Essay 197

The 2013 Florida shooting death of unarmed, seventeen-year-old Trayvon

Martin will unfortunately stand as the classic example of preemptive violence

motivated by beliefs about which categories of people are dangerous. Martin,

visiting his father in a gated community, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman,

a neighborhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman was acquitted in part because he

was protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows the use of

deadly force in self-defense. Such laws—now in effect in about half of U.S.

states—can be expected to especially put African American men like Martin at

risk, since they belong to the group most construed as potentially dangerous. As

one editorialist commented afterward,

One of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s

suspicions. . . . What this means is that black adolescents cannot afford to be normal

American teenagers. They cannot experiment with pot. They cannot fi ght in any way ever,

even if it means protecting themselves from a stranger. They cannot take sophomoric pic-

tures with middle fi ngers, bare chests, or in silly gear. They cannot have improper conversa-

tions on social media. They can’t wear anything society views as menacing. [All of these

were raised as evidence against Martin at Zimmerman’s trial.] And growing up, they can

never make bad choices or mistakes—the types that teach life lessons, foster humility and

build character.

An example of the consequence of the belief that even black women are

dangerous is provided by law professor and author Patricia J. Williams:

My best friend from law school is a woman named C. For months now I have been sending

her drafts of this book, fi lled with many shared experiences, and she sends me back com-

ments and her own associations. Occasionally we speak by telephone. One day, after read-

ing the beginning of this chapter, she calls me up and tells me her abiding recollection of

law school. “Actually, it has nothing to do with law school,” she says.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” I respond.

“Well,” she continues, “It’s about the time I was held at gunpoint by a SWAT team.”

It turns out that during one Christmas vacation C. drove to Florida with two friends. Just

outside Miami they stopped at a roadside diner. C. ordered a hamburger and a glass of milk.

The milk was sour, and C. asked for another. The waitress ignored her. C. asked twice more

and was ignored each time. When the waitress fi nally brought the bill, C. had been charged

for the milk and refused to pay for it. The waitress started to shout at her, and a highway

patrolman walked over from where he had been sitting and asked what was going on.

C.  explained that the milk was sour and that she didn’t want to pay for it. The highway

patrolman ordered her to pay and get out. When C. said he was out of his jurisdiction, the

patrolman pulled out his gun and pointed it at her.

(“Don’t you think,” asks C. when I show her this much of my telling of her story, “that

it would help your readers to know that the restaurant was all white and that I’m black?”

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “And six feet tall.”)

Now C. is not easily intimidated and, just to prove it, she put her hand on her hip and

invited the police offi cer to go ahead and shoot her, but before he did so he should try to
drink the damn glass of milk, and so forth and so on for a few more descriptive rounds. What

cut her off was the realization that, suddenly and silently, she and her two friends had been

surrounded by eight SWAT team offi cers, in full guerrilla gear, automatic weapons drawn.

Into the pall of her ringed speechlessness, they sent a local black policeman, who offered her

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198 SECTION II: Experiencing Difference

twenty dollars and begged her to pay and be gone. C. describes how desperately he was

perspiring as he begged and, when she didn’t move, how angry he got—how he accused her

of being an outside agitator, that she could come from the North and go back to the North,

but that there were those of “us” who had to live here and would pay for her activism.

C. says she doesn’t remember how she got out of there alive or why they fi nally let her

go; but she supposes that the black man paid for her. But she does remember returning to

the car with her two companions and the three of them crying, sobbing, all the way to

Miami. “The damnedest thing about it,” C. said, “was that no one was interested in whether

or not I was telling the truth. The glass was sitting there in the middle of all this, with the

curdle hanging on the side, but nobody would taste it because a black woman’s lips had

touched it.”

The privilege of not being considered criminal was highlighted in a nationwide

review of the cases in which an undercover, plainclothes, or off-duty police offi –

cer had been fatally shot by fellow police offi cers.
For undercover and plain-

clothes offi cers, the review did not fi nd any racial pattern in the shootings because

training and prevention measures have long been in place,

. . . but the reality is strikingly different for off-duty offi cers. As far as we can determine,

1982 was the last year in which an off-duty, white police offi cer was killed in a mistaken-

identity, police-on-police shooting anywhere in the United States. Since then, nine off-duty

offi cers of color have been killed in such shootings. . . .

Thus, white off-duty offi cers who have to display their guns in a police action are

safer than their black or Hispanic colleagues because other offi cers are less likely

to assume they are criminal.

This assumption of white non- criminality is reinforced on a daily basis by
television news reporting. In comparison with actual arrest rates, local news shows

appear to underrepresent whites as perpetrators and overrepresent African

Because television is the primary news source for most Americans,

the underrepresentation of whites as criminals yields a distorted view of the

connection between race and crime.

Even when suspects were clearly white, studies demonstrated that when white [television]

viewers were asked to identify the suspect later, they consistently misidentifi ed the suspect

as African American, a disturbing fi nding that suggests that white viewers have been primed

through years of viewing African Americans almost exclusively as criminals to see all
criminals as African American.


As English and journalism professor Carol Stabile concluded from her review

of U.S. crime news since the 1830s, African Americans have been criminalized

with a persistence unlike that experienced by any other group. While the threats

presumably posed by Irish, Eastern European, and Chinese immigrants were

framed in the same terms as those for African Americans, for those groups the

stereotypes have faded over time. Not so for African Americans. Even metham-

phetamine users, who are predominately white, fare better in the media:

Where crack addicts were cast as people disposed to escape reality and responsibility . . .

white [methamphetamine] users were [cast as] rural, hardworking members of the working

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Framework Essay 199

class. Driven by circumstances to drug use, they found themselves hopeless captives to a

powerful substance. The message was clear: white drug users were victims of their circum-

stances and therefore deserving of sympathy and rehabilitation; black drug addicts were

social parasites, beyond redemption and worthy of nothing more than punishment.

Indeed, the privilege of not being assumed to be a “real” criminal has conse-

quences even in terms of the degree to which certain behaviors are criminalized.

For example,

In the late 1970s, crack fi rst came on the scene in the form of cocaine freebasing. Many of

its users were stockbrokers and investment bankers, rock stars, Hollywood types, and a few

pro athletes. Some of them began to get into trouble with this form of cocaine use, showing

up in hospital emergency rooms and police stations. Congress passed new laws to extend

health insurance coverage to include drug treatment. The treatment industry expanded the

number of beds available.

In the mid-1980s, crack use spread into America’s inner cities among impoverished

African Americans and Latinos. Some of them began to get into trouble with this form of

cocaine use, showing up in hospital emergency rooms and police stations. Congress passed

new laws to extend the length of criminal sentences for crack offenses. The prison industry

expanded the number of cells available.

This comparison of crack cocaine and cocaine powder users is not frivolous.

In the late 1980s, federal sentencing laws established a mandatory fi ve-year sen-
tence for fi rst-time possession of fi ve grams of crack cocaine. By contrast, it took
500 grams (1.1 pounds) of cocaine powder to trigger the fi ve-year sentence—an
intentional 100:1 differential that was established based on the hyperbole that

crack was somehow 100 times more powerful than cocaine. (Crack is cocaine

powder “cooked” with baking soda and water.) The same ratio was applied to the

ten-year mandatory sentence, which was trigged by 50 grams of crack cocaine

but 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of cocaine powder.

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act raised the trigger weights and reduced the

sentencing differential (the weight ratio is now 18:1 rather than 100:1). Nonethe-

less, the stage had been set for the differential imprisonment of black men.

In the early 1970s, blacks were about twice as likely as whites to be arrested for a drug

offense. The great growth in drug arrest rates through the 1980s had a large effect on African

Americans. At the height of the drug war in 1989, arrest rates for blacks had climbed to

1,460 per hundred thousand compared to 365 for whites. Throughout the 1990s, drug arrest

rates remained at these historically high levels.

These differential arrest rates are in contrast to what we know about drug usage.

National surveys have long shown that white high school students self-report more

drug use than black students

and that black and white adults self-report similar

levels of drug use.

The War on Drugs that began in the 1980s produced a cascade of consequences

that is still with us. The prison population has quadrupled since 1980,


2.2  million people now in prison or jail—a rate that exceeds the historic average

in the United States by a factor of nearly fi ve.

Although the incarceration rate

started to decline slightly in 2007 (it declined by 0.3 percent in 2010), the

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200 SECTION II: Experiencing Difference

United  States still has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Comparable

developed nations incarcerate about 100 people per 100,000; the U.S. rate is 500

per 100,000.

These rates vary signifi cantly by race and ethnicity: “Incarceration rates are

signifi cantly higher for Blacks and Latinos than for Whites. In 2010, Black

men were incarcerated at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000 residents; Latinos were

incarcerated at 1,258 per 100,000; and White men were incarcerated at 459 per


When added to the long prison terms mandated by drug sentencing,

these differential incarceration rates have had a devastating effect on black

communities. One in four African Americans has had a parent in prison; pris-

oners experience a signifi cant reduction (by 40 percent) in annual earnings after

they are released.

Thus, as a category, whites experience the privileges of not being presumed

criminal, not being depicted as criminal, not being at risk of preemptive violence,

and able to pursue their “vices” with less chance of punishment. If they do not

appear to be Middle Eastern, both whites and blacks are at little risk of being

considered terrorists; if they do not look like immigrants, especially Hispanic

immigrants, they are at little risk of being detained and deported. These privileges

are the outcome of racial profi ling .
Singling out members of a race or ethnic group for heightened police sur-

veillance, that is racial profi ling , is a way to act on the assumption that whole
categories of people are dangerous. It became the subject of public debate

following a 1996 Supreme Court decision that allowed the police to use routine

traffi c stops to investigate drug possession and other crimes. African Americans

and Latinos argued that they were disproportionately pulled over—guilty of

nothing more than “driving while black,” or “driving while brown.” Research

by several social scientists confi rmed the allegations, and national attention was

focused by a 1998 shooting in which two New Jersey state troopers fi red eleven

shots into a van carrying black and Latino men from the Bronx to a basketball

camp, wounding three of the passengers. At their sentencing, the troopers “said

their supervisors had trained them to focus on black- and brown-skinned driv-

ers because, they were told, they were more likely to be drug traffi ckers.”

Thus, a national consensus against racial profi ling—supported by public opin-

ion, state legislation, and new federal policies barring racial profi ling at the

borders—began to emerge.

That consensus fractured with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Pub-

lic opinion swung dramatically in favor of profi ling Middle Eastern Americans

as well as immigrants and visitors from the Middle East. Indeed, public debate

about racial profi ling only reemerged in 2013 with the shooting death of Trayvon


After the 9/11 attacks special national security measures were implemented—

most notably the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS).

When NSEERS was in place from 2002 until 2011, temporary visitors to the

United States (that is, non-immigrant visa holders) who were male and from a

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Framework Essay 201

Middle Eastern or North African country were required to enter and exit the

country at a designated port, present themselves for an in-person immigration

offi ce visit, and provide notice about any change of address, employment, or


Middle Eastern Americans, unlike most other American minorities and white

women, have not experienced an increase in the protection of their civil rights

over time. Limitations on Arab immigration and access to permanent resident

status, increased FBI surveillance, and restrictions on student visas followed not

only the 9/11 attacks, but also the Gulf War of 1990–1991, the 1979 Iranian

hostage crisis, and the terrorist attacks on the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Indeed, only in 2014 did the New York City Police Department close the surveil-

lance program it had run for eleven years monitoring Muslim neighborhoods by

eavesdropping on conversations, infi ltrating college-student groups, collecting

information on the cars parked at mosques, and maintaining records of where

people ate, prayed, and shopped. “After years of collecting information, however,

the police acknowledged that it never generated a lead.”

As federal immigration laws have changed, not being subject to racial profi ling

has provided those who appear to be native-born, non-immigrants with the privi-

lege of not being detained or deported. By contrast, two laws passed in 1996 (the

Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform

and Immigrant Responsibility Act) made lawful permanent residents deportable
for virtually any crime, from major offenses to shoplifting or drunk driving,

depending on the wording of local statutes. (A lawful permanent resident is a visa
status that allows the person to live and work in the United States, travel outside

the country, and apply for U.S. citizenship after fi ve years.)

The laws are retroactive, in that permanent residents can be deported for crimes

that did not warrant deportation at the time they were committed or that they com-

mitted as minors. The laws are applied even to those who entered the country as

children and have never actually resided in the country to which they are remanded.

If the home country refuses to accept the detainee once the U.S. prison time has

been served, the detainee probably faces lifetime imprisonment in the United

States. Nor can the outcome be changed by an immigration judge: “The legislation

Congress passed in 1996 precluded immigration judges from considering whether

deportation would be excessively harsh in light of the immigrants’ family relation-

ships, community ties, U.S. military service records, or the possibility of persecu-

tion if returned to their country of origin.”

While it is illegal to deport a U.S. citizen, there are increasing reports of that


as citizens are also sometimes swept up in immigration raids and

imprisoned until they are able to convince authorities of their legal status. A 2010

survey of Latinos reported that 5 percent of both native-born and foreign-born

Hispanic adults report being stopped by police or other authorities asking about

their immigration status (down from about 9 percent in 2008).

Because detain-

ees may be sent to any one of 300 detention centers and are likely to be poor,

claims of citizenship are not easily resolved.

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202 SECTION II: Experiencing Difference

Whether the population profi led is Latino, African American, Middle Eastern,

or immigrant, and whether the enforcing agency involves federal immigration, local

police, or airport security, the effi cacy of such profi ling has long been questioned,

specifi cally because race-based evaluations are much less useful than behavior-

based ones. For example, in terms of using traffi c stops to uncover drugs, guns, or

criminals, “when stops and searches are not racialized, they are more productive.”

“Profi ling is a crude substitute for behavior-based enforcement and . . . invites

screeners to take a less vigilant approach to individuals who don’t fi t the profi le,

even if they engage in conduct that should cause concern.”

In all, those of us

who do not look Middle Eastern, black, Hispanic, or foreign-born have the privi-

lege of not being treated like criminals, illegal immigrants, or terrorists.

A quite different kind of privilege, likely to be invisible to those in single-race

families, is the privilege of being recognized as a family. The following account

by a mother illustrates how the failure to perceive a family is linked to the expec-

tation of black criminality.

When my son was home visiting from college, we met in town one day for lunch. . . . On

the way to the car, one of us thought of a game we’d often played when he was younger.

“Race you to the car!”

I passed my large handbag to him, thinking to more equalize the race since he was a

twenty-year-old athlete. We raced the few blocks, my heart singing with delight to be talking

and playing with my beloved son. As we neared the car, two young white men yelled some-

thing at us. I couldn’t make it out and paid it no mind. When we arrived at the car, both of

us laughing, they walked by and mumbled “Sorry” as they quickly passed, heads down.

I suddenly understood. They hadn’t seen a family. They had seen a young Black man with

a pocketbook, fl eeing a pursuing middle-aged white woman. My heart trembled as I thought

of what could have happened if we’d been running by someone with a gun.

Later I mentioned the incident in a three-day diversity seminar I was conducting at a

Boston corporation. A participant related it that evening to his son, a police offi cer, and asked

the son what he would have done if he’d observed the scene.

The answer: “Shot out his kneecaps.”

Turning now from privileges of race to privileges of sexuality, the most obvious
privilege enjoyed by heterosexuals is that they are allowed to be open about their

relationships—which is, after all, what heteronormativity is all about. From idle

conversation and public displays of affection, to the legal and religious approval

embodied in marriage, heterosexuals are able to declare that they love and are

loved. That privilege has not been just denied to people in same-sex relationships;
at least until very recently, they have been actively punished for such expressions

by ostracism, physical assault, unemployment, and even loss of child custody and

visitation—not so surprising given the still uncertain legal recognition of gay


Even the ability to display a picture of one’s partner on a desk at work stands

as an invisible privilege of heterosexuality.

Consider, for example, an employee who keeps a photograph on her desk in which she and

her husband smile for the camera and embrace affectionately. . . . [T]he photo implicitly

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Framework Essay 203

conveys information about her private sexual behavior. [But] most onlookers (if they even

notice the photo) do not think of her partner primarily in sexual terms. . . .

[But] if the photograph instead shows the woman in the same pose with a same-sex

partner, everyone is likely to notice. As with the fi rst example, the photograph conveys the

information that she is in a relationship. But the fact that the partner is a woman overwhelms

all other information about her. The sexual component of the relationship is not mundane
and implicit as with the heterosexual spouse.


Because heterosexual public affection is so commonplace, it rarely conjures up

images of sexual activity. But that is exactly what we may think of when we see a

same-sex couple embrace or even hold hands. This is why gay and lesbian people

are often accused of “fl aunting” their sexuality: any display of affection between
them is understood by many heterosexuals as virtually a display of the sex act.

Still, these attitudes appear to be changing dramatically. As we discuss in

Reading 37, in 2013 the Supreme Court held (in U.S. v. Windsor ) that the 1996
Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which limited “marriage” and “spouse” to

a union of one man and one woman, was unconstitutional because it denied

federal rights to couples in states where same-sex marriage is allowed. (Over a

thousand federal laws, benefi ts, and programs apply to marital unions.) Though

narrowly framed and by only a fi ve to four vote, the Court’s decision was con-

sistent with signifi cant change in American attitudes: in public opinion polls,

support for the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations crossed the

symbolic 50 percent threshold in 2010.

That change is almost entirely attribut-

able to the increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships among men, espe-

cially those younger than fi fty; indeed, the 2010 poll was the fi rst in which men

were more accepting of these relationships than women. Still, appreciating

abstractly supportive poll data is not the same as feeling safe enough to express

affection in public settings. For people in same-sex relationships, it is likely that

will remain diffi cult for some  time.

In the realm of class privilege , several readings in this book address the con-
siderable differences in health, life span, educational access, and quality of life

that accompany American class differences. But these are perhaps the more vis-

ible privileges of being middle and upper class. Less apparent is the privilege of

being treated as a deserving and competent member of the community. Higher

education institutions provide a number of examples of this. One of the boons of

the legacy admission system, described by John Larew in Reading 32, is its invis-

ibility. The students admitted to universities this way—who are predominately

middle- and upper-class whites—don’t have their qualifi cations questioned by

faculty or other students, nor are they likely to agonize about whether they

deserved to be admitted.

Like many children of University of Virginia graduates, Mary Stuart Young of Atlanta, Georgia,

wore Cavalier orange and blue long before she took an SAT or mailed an application.

“Coming here just felt right,” said Young, 21, who expects to graduate with a religious

studies degree. . . . “This was where I should be.”

After all, with two generations of faithful alumni backing her, Young doubled her chances

of getting into Thomas Jefferson’s university.

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204 SECTION II: Experiencing Difference

One of the privileges of being a legacy admission rather than an affi rmative

action admission is that you are treated as a deserving and competent member

of the community.

The assumption that university students are middle or upper class is pervasive

within higher education, so working-class students often fi nd schools oblivious

or even antagonistic to their needs. Students are presumed to understand how

college works, because it is assumed that their parents are college graduates and

can advise them: “In an article on working class students in higher education,

one student was paraphrased as saying that college is a very unforgiving place.

It is unforgiving not of those who don’t know the rules, but rather of those who

did not know the rules before arriving on campus.”

Thus, one of the privileges

of being a college student from the middle or upper classes is that you come

to the university with a good deal of information about how it works.

Also, “[w]orking class students often have diffi culty in their studies partially

because colleges and universities—elite and nonelite—refuse to recognize that

many students must work.”

For example, schools that require unpaid internships,

off-campus experiences, or study abroad trips may forget not only the costs asso-

ciated with these requirements but also the fact that working-class students may

have to quit their jobs to fulfi ll the requirement. The same is true of faculty offi ce

hours—set as if students could easily arrange their schedules to fi t the professor’s.

If working-class students were seen as deserving and competent members of the

community, their needs would be factored in automatically, not as a “special


In all, one of the privileges of being middle or upper class is that higher

education—which is absolutely critical to upward mobility—is in sync with

one’s  experience. In college, middle-and upper-class students can expect to have

their life experiences and perspectives treated as the norm. The institution will be

organized around those experiences in ways large and small, from assuming that

everyone should live on campus (and bear the expense of room and board) to assum-

ing they will be able to cover the cost of texts or forgo employment. In these ways,

students from the middle or upper classes have the privilege of feeling like they


Overall, two privileges shape the experience of those in nonstigmatized sta-

tuses: entitlement and the privilege of being unmarked . Entitlement is the belief
that one has the right to be respected, acknowledged, protected, and rewarded.

This is so much taken for granted by those in nonstigmatized statuses that they

are often shocked and angered when it is denied them.

[After the lecture, whites in the audience] shot their hands up to express how excluded they

felt because [the] lecture, while broad in scope, clearly was addressed fi rst and foremost to

the women of color in the room. . . . What a remarkable sense of entitlement must drive

their willingness to assert their experience of exclusion! If I wanted to raise my hand every

time I felt excluded, I would have to glue my wrist to the top of my head.

Like entitlement, the privilege of occupying an unmarked status is shared by

most of those in nonstigmatized categories. For example, doctor is an unmarked

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Framework Essay 205

status; woman doctor is marked. Unmarked categories convey the usual and
expected distribution of individuals in social statuses—the distribution that does

not require any special comment. Thus, the unmarked category tells us what a

society takes for granted.

Theoretically, the unmarked category might include anyone, but in truth it

refers to white males. How do we know that? Because other occupants of that

status are usually marked: woman doctor, black doctor, and so on. While the

marking of a status signals infrequency—there are few female astronauts or male

nurses—it may also imply inferiority. A “woman doctor” or a “black doctor” may

be considered less qualifi ed.

Thus, a fi nal privilege of those who are not stigmatized is that their master

statuses are not used to discount their accomplishments or imply that they serve

only special interests. Someone described as “a politician” is presumed to operate

from a universality that someone described as “a white male politician” is not.

Because white male politicians are rarely described as such, their anchoring in

the reality of their own master statuses is hidden. In this way, those in marked

statuses appear to be operating from an “agenda,” or “special interest” while those

in unmarked statuses can appear to be agenda-free. Being white and male thus

becomes invisible, because it is not regularly identifi ed as important. For this

reason, some recommend identifying everyone’s race and sex as a way to recog-
nize that we are all grounded in our master statuses.

In all, privilege is usually invisible to those who possess it; they may assume

that everyone is treated as they are. When they learn about instances of dis-

crimination, they may think that the incident was exceptional rather than routine,

that the victim was overreacting or misinterpreting, or that the victim must have

provoked the encounter. Such responses do not necessarily deny that the incident

took place; rather, they deny that the event carries any negative or special


Through such dismissals, those operating from positions of privilege can deny

the experience of those without privilege. For example, college-age students often

describe university administrators as unresponsive until they have their parents

call to complain. If the parents later said, “I don’t know why you had such a
problem with those people; they were very nice to me. Did you do something to
antagonize them?” that would indicate that parents were oblivious to their privi-

leged status in the university setting as well as unaware of their student’s under-

privileged status in it.

Dismissals like these treat the stigmatized person like a child inadequate to

judge the world. Often such dismissals are framed in terms of the very stigma

about which people are complaining. In this way, what stigmatized people say

about their status is discounted precisely because they are stigmatized. The impli-

cation is that those who occupy a stigmatized status are somehow the ones least
able to assess its consequence. The effect is to dismiss precisely those who have

had the most experience with the problem.

This process, called looping or rereading, is described by many who have
studied the lives of patients in psychiatric hospitals.

If a patient says, “The staff

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206 SECTION II: Experiencing Difference

here are being unfair to me,” and the staff respond, “Of course he would think

that—he’s crazy,” they have reread, or looped, his words through his status. His

words have been heard in view of his stigma and dismissed for exactly that reason.

These dismissals serve a function. Dismissing another’s experience of status-

based mistreatment masks the possibility that one has escaped such treatment

precisely because of one’s privilege. If we do not acknowledge that their status
affects their treatment, we need not acknowledge that our status affects our treat-
ment. Thus, we avoid the larger truth that those who are treated well, those who

are treated poorly, and all the rest in between are always evaluated both as indi-

viduals and as occupants of particular esteemed and disesteemed categories.

We have so far considered the privileges conferred by some master statuses; now

we examine the stigma conferred by other master statuses.

In his classic analysis of stigma, sociologist Erving Goffman (1963) distin-

guished between the discredited, whose stigma is immediately apparent to an
observer (for example, race, sex, some disabilities), and the discreditable, whose
stigma can be hidden (for example, sexuality, cognitive disabilities, social class,

and sometimes race and ethnicity). Because stigma plays out differently in the

lives of the discredited and the discreditable, each will be examined separately.

The Discreditable: “Passing”

The discreditable are those who are passing, that is, not publicly acknowledging
the stigmatized statuses they occupy. (Were they to acknowledge that status, they

would become discredited.) The term passing comes from “passing as white,”
which emerged as a phenomenon after 1875 when southern states reestablished

racial segregation through hundreds of “Jim Crow”
laws. At that point, some

African Americans passed as white as a way to get better-paying jobs.

[S]ome who passed as white on the job lived as black at home. Some lived in the North as

white part of the year and as black in the South the rest of the time. More men passed than

women . . . the vast majority who could have passed permanently did not do so, owing to

the pain of family separation, condemnation by most blacks, their fear of whites, and the

loss of the security of the black community. . . . Passing as white probably reached an all-

time peak between 1880 and 1925.

“Passing as white” is now quite rare and strongly condemned by African Americans.

We will use the term passing here to refer to those who have not made their stig-
matized status evident. For example, in Reading 24, John Tehranian describes the

ways Muslim Americans may sometimes mask their identity. “ Passing” is similar to

“Jim Crow” was “a blackface, singing-dancing-comedy characterization portraying black males as

childlike, irresponsible, ineffi cient, lazy, ridiculous in speech, pleasure-seeking, and happy, [and was]
a widespread stereotype of blacks during the last decades before emancipation. . . .”

Whites created

segregation in the South after the Civil War by imposing what were called “Jim Crow” laws.

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Framework Essay 207

the phrase “being in the closet,” which is usually applied to gays. “Passing” probably

plays less of a role in the lives of gay and lesbian people now than it has in the past,

but still it remains a signifi cant concern and topic of discussion for both gays and


One may engage in passing by chance as well as by choice. For example, the

presumption that everyone is heterosexual can have the effect of putting gay

people in the closet even when they had not intended to be. During a series of

lectures on the family, one of our faculty colleagues realized that he had been

making assignments, lecturing, and encouraging discussion under the assumption

that all of the students in the class had, or wanted to have, heterosexual relation-

ships. His actions forced gay and lesbian students to choose between announcing

or remaining silent about their status. Had he assumed that students would be

involved only with others of the same race, he would have created a similar situ-

ation for those in interracial relationships. Thus, assumptions about others’ private

lives—for example, by asking whether someone is married—may have the effect

of making them choose between a lie or an announcement of something they may

consider private.

Since most heterosexuals assume that everyone is heterosexual, many social

encounters either put gay people in the closet or require that they announce their

status. For example, in the fi rst class session of one course, a student opened his

remarks by saying, “Well, you all know I am a gay man, and as a gay man

I  think.  . . .” The buzz of conversation stopped, other students stared at him, and

one asked, “How would we know you were gay?” The student pointed to a pink

triangle he had pinned to his book bag and explained that he thought they knew

that someone wearing it would be gay. (Pink triangles were assigned to gay men

during the Nazi era. Still, his logic was questionable: Anyone supportive of gay

rights might wear the triangle.) This announcement—which moved the student

from a discreditable to a discredited status—may have been intended to keep his

classmates from making overtly antigay comments in his presence. His strategy

was designed to counter the negative consequences of passing.

Every encounter with a new classful of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker,

loan offi cer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets [that] . . . exact from at least gay people

new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even

an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they
know or not [or whether they would care]. . . . The gay closet is not a feature only of the

lives of gay people. But for many gay people it is still the fundamental feature of social

life; there can be few gay people . . . in whose lives the closet is not a shaping presence.

Inadvertent passing is also experienced by those whose racial status is not

immediately apparent. An African American acquaintance of ours who looks white

is often in settings in which others do not know that she is African American—or

in which she does not know if they know. Thus, she must regularly decide how

and when to convey that information. This is important to her as a way to discour-

age racist remarks, since whites sometimes assume it is acceptable to make racist

remarks to one another (as men may assume it is acceptable to make sexist

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208 SECTION II: Experiencing Difference

remarks to other men, or as straights presume it acceptable to make antigay

remarks to those they think are also straight). It is also important to her that oth-

ers know she is black so that they understand the meaning of her words—so that

they will hear her words through her status as an African American woman. Those

whose stigma is not apparent must go to some lengths to avoid being in the closet

by virtue of others’ assumptions.

Those with relatively invisible disabilities also face the tension of inadvertent

passing. Beth Omansky, in Reading 36, describes the experiences of those who are

legally, rather than totally, blind. Observers who assume the person is totally blind

can react with disbelief or even anger when they learn otherwise; some may insist

that the person behave as if they were totally blind, to avoid confusing observers.

Either way, the person suffers the consequence of inadvertent passing.

Still, passing may be an intentional choice. For example, one of our students,

who was in the process of deciding that he was gay, had worked for many years

at a local library, where he became friends with several of his co-workers. Much

of the banter at work, however, involved disparaging gay, or presumably gay,

library patrons. As he grappled with a decision about his own sexual identity, his

social environment reminded him that being gay is still a stigmatized status in

American society. This student did not so much face prejudice personally (since

he was not “out” to his work friends) as he faced an “unwilling acceptance of

himself by individuals who are prejudiced against persons of the kind he can be

revealed to be.”

Thus, he was not the person his friends took him to be. While

survey data indicate that those who personally know a gay man hold more posi-

tive feelings about gays in general,

the decision to publicly reveal a stigma that

others have gone on record as opposing is not made lightly.

Revealing stigma changes one’s interactions, even with those who are not

particularly prejudiced. Such revelations are likely to alter important relation-

ships. Parents sometimes disown gay children, just as they do children involved

in interracial relationships. For the discreditable, “information management” is

at the core of one’s life. “To tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie

or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where.”

Such choices

are faced daily by those who are discreditable—not just by those who are gay

and lesbian, but also by those who are poor, have been imprisoned, attempted

suicide, terminated a pregnancy through abortion, are HIV-positive, are drug or

alcohol dependent, or who have been the victims of incest or rape. By contrast,

those who do not occupy stigmatized statuses don’t have to invest emotional

energy in monitoring information about themselves; they can choose to talk

openly about their personal history.

Passing has both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, passing lets

the stigmatized person exert some power over the situation; the person controls the

information, the fl ow of events, and their privacy. By withholding his or her true

identity until choosing to reveal it, the person may create a situation in which oth-

ers’ prejudices are challenged. Passing also limits one’s exposure to verbal and

physical abuse, allows for the development of otherwise forbidden relationships, and

improves employment security by minimizing one’s exposure to discrimination.

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Framework Essay 209

On the negative side, passing consumes a good deal of time, energy, and emo-

tion. It introduces deception and secrecy even into close relationships. Passing

also denies others the opportunity to prove themselves unprejudiced, and it makes

one vulnerable to blackmail by those who do know about one’s stigma.

The Discredited: The Problems of Visibility

While the discreditable face problems of invisibility, visibility is the problem for
those who are discredited. Those who are discredited suffer from undue attention

and are subject to being stereotyped.

Being discredited means that one’s stigma is immediately apparent to others.

As essayist bell hooks describes, those who are discredited often have little

patience for those who at least have the option of passing.

Many of us have been in dis