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What is race? Common responses in the Sociology 222 class were, 'race is something we are born with' and 'race is the same as skin colour'. When looking at these statements from a Sociological perspective, we have to ask ourselves a few relevant questions. Why are sociologists critical of the above statements? How do research writers challenge ideas about social construction and institutionalisation of race under apartheid and colonialism?

This essay is going to discuss a number of readings in order to answer the above questions. This essay will also look at the relevance of the Jane Elliot experiment for thinking about, and understanding of race as a social construction. Lastly, this essay will discuss what we can learn about the dynamics of apartheid from the experiences of Sandra Laing in the film 'Skin'. In conclusion this essay will evaluate the various opinions and research done on the matter of race, and how race is socially constructed.

Firstly, we have to look at how and why sociologists are critical of race as a biological phenomenon. Race is widely discussed and debated all over the world. The main sociological focus is the effects of social race and how race is used to categorize people into groups. When we look back in history, we see that race was seen as a biological factor for many centuries. When explorers from Europe in the New World discovered people who looked different, raised questions such as ‘Did God only make one species of humanity?’ and ‘Where do the ‘others’ come from?’

A great debate came in when Europeans of the New World asked whether the ‘natives’ were indeed humans with redeemable souls. The latter included how the ‘native’ should be treated, their expropriation of property, slavery, denial of political rights and complete extermination. (Omi & Winant, 1994:169).

Sociologists refer to race as a verb or social concept, rather than an adjective. Modern social sciences have rejected race as a biological notion. Social race can then be defined as, ‘categories defining social relations between ethnic groups based on historical contexts and events.’ (Omi & Winant, 1994:169).

In the nineteenth century Max Weber voided biological explanations for racial conflict and instead emphasized social and political factors. Also, when we look at contemporary social science literature, we see that race is concept shaped by wider societal forces. (Omi & Winant, 1994:170).

Despite the above discussion, we still have to consider that, in some societies and contexts; race has a defied biological definition. “In the United States, the black/white colour line has historically been rigidly defined and enforced. White is seen as a ‘pure’ category. Any racial intermixture makes one ‘nonwhite’. Americans believe that anyone who is known to have had a Negro ancestor is a Negro.” After looking the above extract, the term ‘hypo-descent’ is of great relevance. The latter can be defined as “an affiliation with the subordinate rather than the super-ordinate group in order to avoid the ambiguity of intermediate identity.” (Omi & Winant, 1994:170).

Secondly, we have to look at institutionalisation. This concept can be defined as “to make something a normal, accepted part of a social system or organization.” (Oxford online, 2013). It is especially important to look at institutionalisation of race during colonialism and apartheid.

Jane Elliot, born in 1933, was a teacher in America. Her study, ‘a classroom divided’ was conducted after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The children in her class did not see other people (black, Asian or Indian) as their ‘brothers’. They reoffered to black people as ‘stupid’ and ‘Negros’. One boy in her class made the flowing statement: “Black people do not get anything in this world because they have a different colour skin.” Elliot started the experiment by dividing her class according to their eye colour.

On the first day, the ‘blue eyes’ were the dominant and favoured group in the class. They were ‘smarter’ and got five minutes extra recess time and the ‘brown eyes’ were not allowed to drink from the drinking fountain. The ‘brown eyes’ were looked down on and when a girl could not find the correct textbook page, Elliot made a comment to the class saying that, “she’s a brown eyed”. During recess, two boys had a fight on the playground because one boy called another boy ‘brown eyes’. Elliot made an important observation. “Why did you call him brown eyes? He had brown eyes yesterday and you did not call him names then.”

After recess, when the class returned, a girl told her friends that, “Miss Elliot is taking us away from our friends”.

On the second day, Elliot told the class that she had lied and that the roles are actually reversed. The brown eyed children were in fact ‘smarter’ and ‘better’. The children had an activity in class where they have to respond to a pack of cards as quickly as they can. On the first day the blue eyed children finished the pack of cards in three minutes. On the second day (when they were the disliked and inferior group) they finished the pack of cards in four minutes. The brown eyed children finished in five and a half minutes on the first day, and two and a half minutes on the second day when they were the ‘better’ and ‘smarter’ ones.

By looking at her experiment, we see how quickly race can be institutionalised. The children in her class immediately stopped mixing with the ‘other’ group. They called them names and did not play with them on the playground. This is also a great example of social construction during colonialism.

During apartheid in South Africa, a very interesting case came forward. Sandra Laing was a white girl, born to white Afrikaner parent. They had an ancestral gene which caused her skin to be dark. When her parents went to register her, they classified her as coloured because of her hair texture and the colour of her skin. They did a pencil test, where they inserted a pencil into her hair. They then asked her to shake her head. If the pencil fell out, she could have been classified as white.

She was also horribly teased in school and was eventually asked to leave. Her father fought for her rights and managed to reclassify her as white, until she fell in love with a black man. she ran away from home, and fell pregnant with the black man’s child. During the Apartheid era, this was against the law. She wrote secret letters to her mother, which her father sat alight. Her father estranged her from her brothers. She then had herself reclassified as coulored, in order to marry the father of her children.

In conclusion, after looking at various extracts, including articles and films, it is clear that race is a social construction. Race is not an adjective, but a verb. Researchers challenge the idea of race as a biological phenomena, because of how is can influence communities and society as a whole. Main influences of race in the world were White Supremecy during apartheid, slavery during colonialism and racism in general.

The issue of race as a ‘skin colour’ will always exists, but sociological research are slowly but surely changing the points of view of the society we live in.

Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1996) Racial Formations, in Eds. Omi, M. & Winant,
H., _Racial Formations in the United States,_ Routledge: New York

Elliot, Jane: A Class Divided, 2013.Youtube

Skin, Directed by Anthony Fabian, 2008

Oxford University Press, (2013). Oxford Dictionaries Online. Accessed: 23 February 2014.

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