Unit II: Challenging Binary Systems and Constructions of Difference


“Concepts of race did not exist prior to racism. Instead, it is inequality and oppression that have produced the idea of essential racial differences” (Ferber, 2009: 176).

In the context of the United States, there is a binary understanding of race as either Black[1] or white. This is not to say that only two races are recognized, just to say that these are the constructed “oppositional poles” of race. What do we mean by race? What does Abby Ferber in the quote above mean by race? More than just descriptive of skin color or physical attributes, in biologized constructions of race, race determines intelligence, sexuality, strength, motivation, and “culture.” These ideas are not only held by self-proclaimed racists, but are woven into the fabric of American society in social institutions. For instance, prior to the 20th Century, people were considered to be legally “Black” if they had any African ancestors. This was known as the one-drop rule, which held that if you had even one drop of African “blood,” you would have been considered Black. The same did not apply to white “blood”—rather, whiteness was defined by its purity. Even today, these ideas continue to exist. People with one Black and one white parent (for instance, President Barack Obama) are considered Black, and someone with one Asian parent and one white parent is usually considered Asian.

Many cultural ideas of racial difference were justified by the use of science. White scientists of the early 19th Century set out to “prove” Black racial inferiority by studying biological difference. Most notable were studies that suggested African  American skulls had a smaller cranial capacity, contained smaller brains, and, thus, less intelligence. Later studies revealed both biased methodological practices by scientists and findings that brain size did not actually predict intelligence. The practice of using science in an attempt to support ideas of racial superiority and inferiority is known as scientific racism.

This drawing exaggerates the differences between the heads of two individuals and their skulls, labeled "Greek" and "Negro," while exaggerating the similarities between a "Chimpanzee" and a "Negro."
“Indigenous Races of the Earth (1857)” by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon is in the Public Domain, CC0

Traces of scientific racism are evident in more recent “studies” of Black Americans. These studies and their applications often are often shaped by ideas about African Americans from the era of chattel slavery in the Americas. For instance, the Moynihan Report, also known as “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action” (1965) was an infamous document that claimed the non-nuclear family structure found among poor and working-class African American populations, characterized by an absent father and matriarchal mother, would hinder the entire race’s economic and social progress. While the actual argument was much more nuanced, politicians picked up on this report to propose an essentialist argument about race and the “culture of poverty.” They played upon stereotypes from the era of African-American slavery that justified treating Black Americans as less than human. One of these stereotypes is the assumption that Black men and women are hypersexual; these images have been best analyzed by Patricia Hill Collins (2004) in her work on “controlling images” of African Americans— images such as the “Jezebel” image of Black women and the “Buck” image of Black men discussed earlier. Slave owners were financially invested in the reproduction of slave children since children born of mothers in bondage would also become the property of owners, so much so that they did not wait for women to get pregnant of their own accord but institutionalized practices of rape against slave women to get them pregnant (Collins, 2004). It was not a crime to rape a slave—and this kind of rape was not seen as rape—since slaves were seen as property. But, since many people recognized African American slaves as human beings, they had to be framed as fundamentally different in other ways to justify enslavement. The notion that Black people are “naturally” more sexual and that Black women were therefore “unrapable” (Collins 2004) served this purpose. Black men were framed as hypersexual “Bucks” uninterested in monogamy and family; this idea justified splitting up slave families and using Black men to impregnate Black women. The underlying perspectives in the Moynihan Report—that Black families are composed of overbearing (in both senses of the word: over-birthing and over-controlling) mothers and disinterested fathers and that if only they could form more stable nuclear families and mirror the white middle-class they would be lifted from poverty—reflect assumptions of natural difference found in the ideology supporting American slavery. The structural causes of racialized economic inequality— particularly, the undue impoverishment of Blacks and the undue enrichment of whites during slavery and decades of unequal laws and blocked access to employment opportunities (Feagin 2006)—are ignored in this line of argument in order to claim fundamental biological differences in the realms of gender, sexuality and family or racial “culture.” Furthermore, this line of thinking disparages alternative family forms as dysfunctional rather than recognizing them as adaptations that enabled survival in difficult and even intolerable conditions.

Of course, there are other racial groups recognized within the United States, but the Black/white binary is the predominant racial binary system at play in the American context. We can see that this Black/white binary exists and is socially constructed if we consider the case of the 19th Century Irish immigrant. When they first arrived, Irish immigrants were “blackened” in the popular press and the white, Anglo-Saxon imagination (Roediger 1991). Cartoon depictions  of Irish immigrants gave them dark skin and exaggerated facial features like big lips and pronounced brows. They were depicted and thought to be lazy, ignorant, and alcoholic nonwhite “others” for decades.

This drawing of the profiles of three individuals, an "Irish Iberian," an "Anglo-Teutonic," and a "Negro" exaggerates the similarities between the "Iberian" and the "Negro" while exaggerating the differences between these two and the "Anglo."
“Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View (1899)” by H. Strickland Constable is in the Public Domain, CC0

An illustration from the H. Strickland Constable’s Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View shows an alleged similarity between “Irish Iberian” and “Negro” features in contrast to the higher “Anglo-Teutonic.” The accompanying caption reads:

“The Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been out-competed in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior races.”

Over time, Irish immigrants and their children and grandchildren assimilated into the category of “white” by strategically distancing themselves from Black Americans and other non-whites in labor disputes and participating in white supremacist racial practices and ideologies. In this way, the Irish in America became white. A similar process took place for Italian-Americans, and, later, Jewish American immigrants from multiple European countries after the Second World War. Similar to Irish Americans, both groups became white after first being seen as non-white. These cases show how socially constructed race is and how this labeling process still operates today. For instance, are Asian-Americans, considered the “model minority,” the next group to be integrated into the white category, or will they continue to be regarded as foreign threats? Only time will tell.


  1. Here, we capitalize Black and not white in recognition of Black as a reclaimed, and empowering, identity.


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Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies by Miliann Kang, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, Sonny Nordmarken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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