Sunday, January 24, 2016

Social Construction of Race and the Structural Power Line

In July I blogged about my experiences at the CARLE Institute, and again in November I wrote about learning to be a white anti-racist educator. My experiences at CARLE have absolutely impacted and shaped the way I currently teach, and I expect to have another major learning experience at April's White Privilege Conference.

I recently had a chance to present some of what I learned at CARLE alongside a colleague, Isabelle de Trabuc Smith, who also attended the institute, and I wanted to post our presentation here. We had only a short amount of time with our faculty, so focused on distilling down the weeklong CARLE experience to a handful of what we felt were impactful, easy to understand, and simple to implement ideas. First, we shared the following bullets, which we felt were critical to the foundation of white anti-racist education:

  • Racism = race prejudice + power
  • The work of anti-racist education cannot rest on the shoulders of People of Color
  • Most radical act a white person can do is begin the conversation with another white person about issues of anti-racism
  • Color blindness is a version of white supremacy - by claiming not to see race, we claim it does not matter
  • Develop your own racial identity and name your whiteness
  • Good intentions do not undo negative impact


Next, Isabelle presented a brief outline of the history of the social construction of race. This was one of the most powerful workshops from CARLE, and one that still astounds me every time I read it:

  • Race is not based in DNA or science, it’s a totally specious construct made by “scientists.”  
  • Johann Blumenbach - German physician and anthropologist who wanted to study the “human races."
  • Examined 60 human skulls, created a system of races on differences in skull formation.
  • “Degenerative Hypothesis”  was the theory of the time.
    • Adam and Eve had come from the Caucus Mountains of Central Asia and were the first people on Earth. As such whites were classified as “Caucasoid.”
    • Other races came about because of exposure to the sun and poor diet.
    • Blumenbach classified races based on specious geographical assignments.
  • “Mongoloids”, or the yellow race, came from Mongolia, including all East Asians and some Central Asians
  • “Australoids” came from Australia.
  • He made up the classification of “Negroid” as there was no one place called “NegroLand.”
  • The system stuck because it benefitted the people, the white men, already in power.
  • It leant “scientific” importance to the classifications which supported slavery and social structure already in place across the continents of Europe and Africa.
  • White men perpetuated the system in America for their fiscal and social benefit.
  • The “American” race was added later - for Native Americans who were commonly referred to as the “red” race.

Finally, we shared a Structural Power Line, along with some notes about how students and teachers can initiate discussions about power and identity:


  • Which identities can you hide if needed?
    • ex: your religion, sexual orientation is not necessarily something people can know just by looking at you
  • Which identities are obvious regardless of context?
    • ex: for some of us, our physical appearance tells others about our race, ethnicity, country of origin, physical ability
  • Do some identities carry more weight than others? When you start combining various identities from above and below the line, which ones help you succeed or hold you back?
    • ex: white woman vs black man; differently abled white man vs able bodied white woman
  • 5th Grade English, Mexican repatriation act of 1930s
    • students couldn't comprehend how legal citizens could be forced to leave US just because they were Mexican, or even just looked Mexican
    • drew power line, asked them to place white Americans and Mexican Americans. Gave them a simplified visual of how people in power can mistreat people without power
    • students started to realize that certain identities could put you below the line, but others, sometimes within your control, can pull you up on top.
    • very basic way to encourage Ss to think about their own identities and what power they lose or are afforded because of those identities