People of colour are not born with racial identities.

Some white people appear to think that non-white people have a strong ethnic or racial identity by default. They may think that if a non-white person is unaware of her race or ethnicity, it is a result of white interference. However, ethnic and racial identities are socially constructed, not genetically inherited.

Infants of colour, for example, are born without knowing their race, their ethnicity, their culture, or their history. These things are learned. Learning culture may involve learning skills, learning history may involve learning knowledge, but learning racial and ethnic identity often involves the internalization of social categories of difference and otherness.

Perhaps white adults have a weak sense ethnic and racial identity—if they have any at all—because they have not had the same experiences with being othered and being different.

In the blog post From Crib to Caste – A Personal Story, the author recounts the formation of his ethnic and religious identities. He begins as a child, having no concept of ethnicity, religion, or race. It is only when his (probably white) kindergarten teacher asks his parents where they are from, that he learns that his parents are from “India”, and that he is “Indian”. It is only when he finds out that his Indian friend speaks a different language and ate different foods, that he learns that he is “North Indian” and that his friend is “South Indian”. He learns that he is “Hindu” in Grade 1, when he is the only child who comes to class with a red tikka on his forehead. (He learns that he is “Punjabi” in Grade 8, and he learns about “caste” in Grade 11.)*

Like the author, I am also a second-generation Canadian of colour. My experiences are similar to his, except I am of a different ethnicity. I do not remember such detail, but I remember being embarrassingly ignorant about things related to my ethnicity and culture, and learning it from others. I remember being confronted with shocking knowledge about my identity coming from the mouth of another, and then going home to ask my parents about it. Society knew more about my racial and ethnic identity than I did, but then again, it is society that constructs these racial and ethnic identities.

* From Crib to Caste – A Personal Story:

The formation of my ethnic and religious identities undertook a rather amusing process. I grew up in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of North York in Toronto, Canada. My family was one of the few Indian (East Indian) families on the block; which was fine by us. I must have been in kindergarten when I learned that I am, in fact, a second-generation Indian. My teacher curiously asked my mother where our family was from. I overheard ‘mummy’ blurt out “India”. Cool! I had no clue. As far as I had known, my siblings and I were Canadians from North York General Hospital.


12 Responses to “People of colour are not born with racial identities.”

  1. Lxy Says:

    My problem with social constructivist theory is that it’s been appropriated by Western “progressives” and intellectuals to downplay the real world salience of a given identity–and ultimately to reinforce the political status quo.

    Some of their arguments effectively suggest that since racial identity is “socially constructed” (i.e. a product of social processes and not biologically based), it therefore is not real, whatever this means.

    These specific constructivist arguments thus tacitly imply that racial identity is not a legitimate basis for community, cultural identification, or political struggle.

    The implicit effect of this argument is not as progressive as some would assert.

    Another thing that gets downplayed in certain social constructivist thinking is that *all* forms of identity are socially constructed–not just race.

    This includes religious identity (Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu); class identity (working class, middle class, bourgeosie); national identity (Canadian, American, etc.); and even gender identity, according to feminists like Judith Butler in her famous work _Gender Trouble_.

    But would one say that since these other forms of identity are socially contructed, they are not real and have no logical legitimacy?

    Would one say that one’s religious, national, class, or gender identity are effectively fictional in nature?

  2. ahimsa Says:

    “Would one say that one’s religious, national, class, or gender identity are effectively fictional in nature?”

    The fact that many facets of identity are socially constructed does not mean the identity is not “real.” It means that biology is not destiny in the way the people used to think. It means that there is a lot more flexibility in these identities rather than being fixed at birth. This new line of thinking is meant to confront those old fashioned “breeding will tell” arguments and discussion of bloodlines. We now know that those old arguments don’t make sense.

    I’m no expert but I hope that my comments are helpful. Perhaps someone else would post a better comment with references and links.

    I do have one link that might help –

    Check out #9 in the list (“Race isn’t biological, but racism is still real.”)

  3. Restructure! Says:

    What ahimsa said.

    Many things are socially constructed by nevertheless real, such as laws, governments, slavery, etc.

  4. Lxy Says:

    “The fact that many facets of identity are socially constructed does not mean the identity is not “real.”

    My point was that certain forms of social constructivism make exactly this assertion–usually implicitly.

    For them, identity is merely “signification” or a “play of signifiers” to use popular theoretical jargon.

    In fact, there is an entire branch of critical thought for which race, gender, class, national, religious, and indeed all forms of identity are merely conditional–if not fictional in all but name.

    They usually come in the form of Postmodernist and Post-structuralist academic theory.

    This phenomenon is not limited to the Ivory Tower but has also impacted politics, where you often hear activists mechancially regurgitate the phrase “race is socially constructed,” as if to say, that it is merely a fiction.

    As a result, they obscure the real world materiality of this “construction” and its durability over time.

    As seen in feminism (and indeed many other political movements), social constructivism has engendered problematic political consequences.

    A fundamental question that often arises is: How can you have a politics based upon the emancipation of women if the very category of “woman” itself is problematic, given its social constructedness?

    A similar question could be asked of race or other politics as well.

    In other words, social constructivism is a dual edge sword.

    While it is certainly necessary as a response to essentialist conceptions of identity (i.e. the “Biology as Destiny” argument that you mention), it can also have a profoundly depoliticizing effect–intended or inadvertent.

  5. Restructure! Says:


    I know many Western “progressives” say “race doesn’t exist” instead of “race is a social construct”, but I assume that it’s another white liberal type of ignorance and misunderstanding, not something fundamentally wrong with the idea that race is a social construct.

    Also, you are using the term social constructivism instead of social constructionism.

  6. Rachel_in_WY Says:


    I like the writings of Kwame Anthony Appiah on this. He argues for the social constructionist view (which is well-supported by history) and notes that other racialized identities (like being Irish or Italian) dissolved once it was socially expedient, and instead became “recreational” identities. I think the idea is that your ethnicity and culture remain, but we stop thinking of races as something that exist in nature (like, biologically) and gives rise to real world differences. Instead, we see the differences as being a result of systemic oppression and work to counteract that.

    One metaphor I’ve heard is this. Imagine that the majority of people still believed in witches – not the pagan sort, but the old idea of a woman who had gained certain powers by sleeping with the devil. Imagine that these people who were identified as witches had been oppressed for many generations, and now we’re trying to rectify that. Instead of saying “witches are equal to everyone else” and trying to help them gain success and respect, we would simply say “the idea that you can gain power by sleeping with the devil is silly and unfounded. There are no ‘witches’ in this sense.” Then you help those families of “witches” who are underprivileged due to generations of oppression to gain the same advantages as everyone else. I don’t know if that helps or not.

    And I second Ahimsa and Restructure on this – thinking that social constructs are not real is simply a profound misunderstanding of social construction theory, and that’s where they need to be corrected. Language, money, etc. are social constructs, but nevertheless very, very real.

  7. Lxy Says:

    “And I second Ahimsa and Restructure on this – thinking that social constructs are not real is simply a profound misunderstanding of social construction theory, and that’s where they need to be corrected. Language, money, etc. are social constructs, but nevertheless very, very real.”

    Well, then apparently, not a few people have a profound misunderstanding of social construction.

    I have heard people (even so-called progressive activists) make the “race is socially constructed” statement precisely in a manner that suggests that race is a fiction and thus not real.

    This is in *irregardless* of whether actually existing social construction theories makes this assertion about race not being real. Indeed, as you suggest, they do not.

    The implicit political agenda seems to discredit any politics based upon racially empowerment. After all, how can you have a politics based upon race if this idea is a fiction, their argument goes. The net effect here is to reinforce a White racist status quo.

    In other words, one has to *distinguish* between the putatative assertions of social constructionism and how this ideology is actually applied in the world outside of the Ivory Tower.

    As I said above, I believe social construction is a double-edged sword in its actual application. While necessary as a corrective to essentialism, social construction theory is also not quite the politically emancipatory ideology many of its adherents believe it to be.

    – A second major problem with social construction theory is a reflection of its post-modern and post-structualist influences.

    Namely, it tends to reduce everything to discourse and a system of differences, while minimizing the issue of political economy–particularly capitalism and (Western) imperialism.

    White supremacy and racism are not merely socially constructed differences that exist as free floating “signifiers.”

    They are systems of racial dominance that elevate people of European descent (i.e. whites) to a position of supremacy over those not-White.

    These forms of racial dominance are ultimately grounded in and spawned by the systems of (Western) capitalism and imperialism.

    And to fundamentally challenge White Supremacy and racism involves ending the capitalist system and Western imperialism.

    But these issues are not exactly emphasized in postmoderinist influenced thought.

    – Then there is the epistemological issue in social construction, which is too complex to go into detail here.

    To be brief, one can ask the question what isn’t socially constructed?

    Even the idea of Nature itself is socially constructed, as some theorists like Donna Haraway suggest.

    Moreover, as I mentioned earlier vis Judith Butler, “biological identities” like gender can also be considered socially constructed as well.

    In fact, the social constructionist can argue that there is no such thing as an identity that “exists in nature” OF ANY KIND.

    To me, it’s a basic contradiction that some adherents of social construction maintain a belief in Nature or biologically-based identities in general (like gender), even as they somewhat selectively focus on the “social constructedness” of race.

  8. Restructure! Says:

    I’m confused about gender identity, because I’m cisgender. However, it seems that the existence of transgender people means that gender is not socially constructed in the way that race is. People of colour (and white people) are not born with racial identities, but people are born with gender identities.

    See: The Case of John/Joan.

    Thus, thinking of yourself as a man in a woman’s body is valid, but thinking of yourself as a banana is not.

  9. Lxy Says:


    Social construction theory makes a distinction between sex and gender–with the former being one’s “biological” sexual organs and the latter being all those *social* expectations, behaviors, and identities associated with either “male” or “female” genders.

    As I understand it, this theory attempts to suggest that gender does not necessarily need to follow from sex. That is, just because one has, say, XX chromosomes and associated sexual organs, it doesn’t necessarily mean that should be gendered as a “woman” (or vice versa).

    This line of argument suggests that gender identity is something that one is *socialized* into–not born with.

    One implication of all this is that there theoretically could be more than 2 genders beyond male and female–indeed, maybe, an infinite number of genders.

    These ideas are extremely counter-intuitive and seem completely off-the-wall for the “lay person.” I know I had a lot of problems understanding these theories when I first encountered them in graduate school.

    This seems to be a good explanation of how gender is thought to be socially constructed:

  10. Restructure! Says:


    Thanks for the link! That was a good post.

    However, I think the confusion is that trans people, or at least some trans people that I know, use the term “gender” differently. According to this sex/gender distinction, or my understanding of it, “sex” is your genitalia, but “gender” is your gender identity, which you are born with.

    A trans woman (MtF) may not dress femme or feminine, because it’s not about stereotypical gender roles. Some trans people complain that when transitioning during the real-life test, the doctors require that they dress in stereotypical, sexist clothing. For example, if you are MtF, the doctors want you to wear a skirt and high heels.

    The meaning of gender you use seems to refer to gender roles (such as masculine or feminine), while the one that I am thinking of refers to gender identity (such as male, female, or anything in between).

    Obviously, gender roles are socially constructed. I’m generally not a feminine person, but I still identify as a woman.

  11. Eclectic Says:

    I’m a bit late to the discussion, but, if it’s alright, I’ll throw my two cents in.

    Regarding the use of the term “social construction” to imply that race (or anything else) doesn’t exist, Joel Best talks about this as one of the greatest misunderstandings of social constructionism. He refers to the “justness” of social constructionism, meaning that people say “Oh, that’s _just_ a social construction” to imply that whatever is being referred to doesn’t exist and calls this usage “vulgar constructionism.”

    Most constructionists worth their salt would say that “Yes, race/gender/everything is a social construction, but it is _REAL_ in its consequences.”

    Regarding the sex/gender issue, I think it’s worth noting that sex is as equally socially constructed as gender. While our individual physical traits might be considered objective facts, the meanings they carry are the result of social processes. We could just as easily have said “People with penises are males, unless they also have blue eyes, then they’re spivaks. People with vaginas are female, unless they also have index fingers longer than 5 centimetres. In that case they’re nusras.” Voila, four sexes (male, spivak, female, nusra) which could have 4 varying gender roles to go with them.

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