Sociology Categories and Identities

Introduction to Sociology Unit 5 Lecture Notes

Groups), (Race and Ethnicity), (Gender)

Categories and Identities

Consider the following reflection:

In Bulgaria and Guam, I am considered simply as other. However, in Australia, I am labeled more specifically as a non-aboriginal other. In Canada, it is somewhat more complex; I am labeled as non-aboriginal Southeast Asian who is not a member of an Indian Band or First Nation or a Treaty Indian or Registered Indian as defined by the Indian Act of Canada. In Mexico, my non-aboriginal background is once again emphasized simply as non-indigenous. In Brazil, I am categorized not by my origins, but by my skin tone as yellow. Across the Atlantic, I am categorized as any other Asian background in England and as Indian or Asian in South Africa. In the United States today, recent attempts to be more specific have resulted in giving me the opportunity to indicate that I am a non-Hispanic Chinese Vietnamese person. However, in the United States in the past, I would have been forced to exclusively identify as Chinese from 1890 to 1970 and Vietnamese from 1980 to 1990.

These preceding statements are responses to actual census questions on race and ethnicity from different countries around the globe as well as across time in the United States. Why is there so much variation in my racial and ethnic identity if, in fact, race and ethnicity are assumed to be natural and absolute? The mutability of my racial and ethnic identity over time and space illustrates that race and ethnicity are very much socially-constructed concepts and that the racial and ethnic options afforded to me are dependent on the circumstances of a particular society at a particular point in time. What about the options for my son who is mixed-race? Will his identity as half-Asian take precedence over his half-white identity in the U.S. given the legacy of the one-drop rule, in which the minority status will always take precedence? Take, for example, President Barack Obama, who is similar to my son in that he is mixed-race. However, more often than not, President Obama is identified in public discourse simply as black. Likewise, Tiger Woods, who self-identifies as Cablinasian in an attempt to be recognized as Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian by others, is still nonetheless simply labeled as black in mainstream media despite his multi-racial background.

The complexity of my identity, in addition to my sons, Obamas, and Woods identities, exemplifies the need to move beyond mutually-exclusive and inflexible interpretations of race and ethnicity, especially considering that interracial marriages are observably on the rise in the United States.

In this section of the course, we will continue to examine the complexities of being a member of society, specifically in terms of how society mediates our identities. Perhaps it will tell you some things about yourself!


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