Professor Marshall

LESSON 11: Race and Ethnicity

Lesson 11

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Define terms basic to the study of race and ethnicity from a sociological point of view

Analyze issues of race and ethnicity by using sociological theories

Explain historical reasons for racial tension in the United States today

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can explain the differences between "race" and "ethnicity

You can define various types of groups in the context of racial inequality

You can compare and contrast stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination and racism on a spectrum

You can compare the different experiences of various racial and ethnic groups in the United States

You can apply theories of intergroup relations, race and ethnicity to groups in the United States

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 11 of your text.

3. COMPLETE the lesson below.

Race in Contemporary American Society

 Do biological races exist? Watch the two videos below:


Social Construction of Race

As part of our discussion on stratification we mentioned the work of Dorothy Smith. Dr. Smith has spent most of her professional career developing the concept of white privilege.

It's difficult sometimes for white people to fully grasp and appreciate the concept of white privilege – as a psychological barrier, we want to negate that we as individuals has been historically privileged in American society. Dorothy Smith (along with myriad data and myriad other researchers who agree with her point of view)   would have us think otherwise.

HERE is an packet which contains an excerpt from the article that Dr. Smith wrote in the 1980s — of course, some of the information in this excerpt might be outdated today however much of it is still relevant. In addition, after the first two pages of this excerpt you'll find an article titled "I Can Fix It!" Which discusses how racism is encouraged by white who refuse to see that their experiences are different than those of people of color. Finally there's a short article at the end of this packet which is thought-provoking and which examine the spirit that white people have when having to think about issues related to white privilege.

Often, it is easier to blame other groups for our unfortunate circumstances. When we refuse to learn about and understand how white privilege is helped to shape our understandings of race in American society it allows us to scapegoat other groups. Watch below as Tim Wise, a well-respected antiracist educator, discusses white privilege:

What the work of McIntosh and Wise shows us is that race is a social construct. Social construction theory tells us that powerful interests in our society help to shape how we see reality (for more on social construction theories, see the lesson for chapter 4).


We simply cannot digest information on race as if it is merely historical--we are not past race issues in America. Even though credible research has shown that biological differences between races simply aren't meaningful in the context of our definitions of race, racial issues still exist and have real and significant impacts. Access to governmental resources (social service provision, health care, etc.), educational resources, meaningful employment and other institutions in society are still often thought of--and distributed within our stratified society--in terms of race.


Intersectionality suggests that expressions of oppression are interdependent--they work together and reinforce one another. For example, we must examine socialization processes, class structures, social constructions (gender, race), and social institutions (education, government, family, religion, etc.) to fully understand how oppression is experienced. For example, knowing an African American lives in a racist society is not enough information to describe that person's experiences--it is also necessary to know that person's gender, class, sexual orientation AND society's attitude toward each of these things.... These things ADD UP to create the lived experience of an oppressed individual--taken alone, each does not give us a complete picture. Taken together, we begin to see how intersectionality FRAMES the lives of minorities and other disenfranchised groups.

While this line of thinking originated in the research of oppression of women in society, it is used by sociologists today to describe the experiences of many different marginalized groups. It began in the late 1960s as a response to the multiracial feminist movement and became a significant "lens" through which up and coming feminist researchers could examine social reality as well as through which new research could be presented. It highlighted the shortcomings of early feminist thought in that it finally gave voice to groups who had not been heard in feminist research in the US. It also challenged the notion that "gender" is the primary determining factor in the realities of women's social experiences. Perhaps, this idea asserts, race, age, and other factors have equal (an multiplicative) impacts.

In addition, feminist theorist have continued to develop their thoughts about how statuses and identifications impact experiences; this line of thinking is called "intersectionality." Intersectionality is an important theoretical advance, not only for feminist theory, but for general sociology, cultural studies and anthropology. The earliest mention was by Kimberle Crenshaw (a prominent law professor who has researched impacts of myriad "isms" in her career) in 1989, who coined the term. While intersectionality itself is a theory, it can be used as a method to highlight the relationships we have with others which are often summarized by social and cultural categories beyond individual control (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) These multiple identities contribute to social inequality and to oppression. Further, intersectionality highlights how forms of oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) do not exist independent of each other--they exist in an interrelated way which creates INTERSECTIONS in the system of oppression.

This concept was further explored by Patricia Hill Collins in the 1990s, who crafted the "Matrix of Domination" to illustrate how intersectionality works as a system of oppression:

Matrix of Domination

Martix of Domination Theory

Collins reintroduced us to ideas surrounding oppression in her work on black feminism. Intersectionality replaced her previously coined expression "black feminist thought," and opened the doors for her work to be applicable not only to African American women, but to all women. While all factors of oppression are important to note (sexual orientation, age, gender, etc.), Collins and other multicultural feminist researchers would assert that race is at the "crossroad" of oppression. Understanding this important concepts is a necessary component to improving social and political equity in our institutions.

Reviewing the Key Concepts of Intersectionality

  • The interlocking matrix of oppression - how differences serve as oppressive measures toward females and ultimately change their experiences of women living in society today.
  • Standpoint - recognizing that knowledge is distinct and individual--it varies depending on the social conditions under which is was created/produced. Our standpoints are our own, and researchers must understand, acknowledge and appreciate individual standpoints are relevant and real.
  • The Outsider Within - This is a standpoint that recognizes the experiences of the oppressed minorities of society as having to "fit into" a culture which is not theirs. This gives the individual of a feeling of "one foot in and one foot out" of their social world. It is closely related to W.E.B. Du Bois' concept of "double consciousness."
    • Double Consciousness: WEB Du Bois (lived in the 1800s-early 1900s and is considered one of the first American social theorists to explore the experiences of African Americans in society) coined this term to describe the reality of black people who are forced to have a "place" in two worlds--one white and one black. He expressed that minorities are forced to integrate to the world of the dominant group while also attempting to live within their own culture. He called this dual world existence "code switching," meaning that African Americans learn to act one way among their own group and another way in white society. Note the time period in which Du Bois made his observations--Collins reinterprets Du Bois' work on the oppression of African Americans to show how women are oppressed in contemporary America. While the short video below is about Standpoint Theory, WEB Du Bois concept of Double Consciousness is also discussed. Note the similarites with Smith's concept of Bifurcated Consciouness:
  • Resisting Oppression - Domination always involves objectification (being defined by others as an object). Resistance to this form of oppression requires one to evaluate one's self and to define one's own reality. This preserves the view of self as important and self-aware and helps one to avoid being dehumanized by oppressive influences. While research on marginalized groups often begins with the notion of "otherness," at some point, the gained group status must be claimed and reinterpreted by the individual. If group otherness is allowed to flourish, stereotypes and misrepresentation is bound to occur. At this point, individual psychological oppression happens. Having a strong sense of self-worth and a solid self-definition is a form of oppression resistance which helps to overcome these generalizations.

Further Reading 

In the field of sociology, we are concerned that race has become intertwined with class to the point that the two can have devastating impacts: Herbert Gans: Race as Class

Another concern for sociologists is the denial of the experiences of people of color via the "Colorblind" movement in America: Sociologists on the Colorblind Question


Race, gender and class are the three most significant areas of study for sociologists who research social inequality in America today. You are encouraged to do additional research on your own to learn more about the impacts of these and other forms of oppression.