Unit 8 – Race and Ethnicity | The Socjournal


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

1.  Describe the concept of master narratives and buried knowledge.

2.  Discuss the historically poor treatment of various ethnic groups (Chinese, South Asian, Native, and black).

3.  Understand the four elements of racism, i.e., master narratives and the construction of superiority, prejudice, discrimination, and power.

4.  Understand how ethnicity is socially constructed as the result of the activities of different groups of people (i.e., a colonizing people, ethnic elites, and even subjugated minorities)

Core Readings:

Steckley, J., & Letts, G. K. (2007). Chapter Twelve: Race and Ethnicity.


So, in this chapter, we are going to look at the issue of race and ethnicity. Of course, this is actually a very big and controversial subject in sociology (and in the “real” world) and the textbook doesn’t go into a lot of detail. However, it does make several important points that I’d like to go over briefly here. Now in my opinion, the most important point that the textbook makes is when it (or rather the authors) come out immediately and dismiss the concept of “race” as an irrelevant and illusory concept with no empirical grounding in reality. The textbook is quite clear. Although there is some support for the idea that certain geographically rooted ethnic groups can carry with theme certain genes or diseases associated with them, beyond that, there is no scientific basis for the notion of race. That is, “race” as a “skin color” based categorization of human beings (i.e., white, black, yellow, green, or whatever) simply doesn’t exist. The idea of race is a social construct. It’s something that individuals “dreamed up” in order to accomplish various social or political tasks (i.e., subjugation and exploitation).

Now, the argument against race isn’t that hard to understand. Basically, the problem with the concept of race is that there isn’t enough distinct genetic variation between the so called races to justify categorization. That is, you are just as likely to have genetic similarities to a native South African as you are to a white European and as a result, the concept of race as a biological reality fails. Like it or not, we are all part of the same “human” species.

Unfortunately, as the textbook points out, the genetic non existence of race hasn’t stopped people from constructing racial typologies and racializing social, political, and economic discourse. What this means basically is that individuals have looked at externally based difference in individual appearance (skin color for example) and, in line with the theme of our class, have constructed social realities around the typologies of race. We can do this politely[1] and informally as we do in Canada by silently denying equal opportunity (take a quick look at http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/6174/hidis.html) or we can be overt and explicit by openly expressing racial epithets and/or engaging in overt acts of violence and exclusion.

Now, you may be asking yourself at this point, how racism occurs. How does it get to the point where we can engage in subtle or overt acts of political or economic exclusion. We are all taught to be moral and fair in our treatment of others as we grow up, so how does it come to the point where we can engage, without thinking and without guilt, in acts of racist (or even gendered) exclusion? Well, it really has little to do with morality and has a lot to do either with how we selectively apprehend aspects of reality (i.e., see only what we want to see) or see only what other people have instructed us to see. This becomes quite clear when we consider the existence of master narratives. Master narratives are basically stories that “countries construct about themselves.” These master narratives become part of the school curriculum (i.e., they are repeated in history textbooks and form the foundation for national identity. In Canada, we have a master narrative that presents us as polite, industrious, fair, and equitable. We tell ourselves we are a tolerant country and emphasize historical stories that paint us as helpful and cooperative. The problem is, like all other master narratives, the portrayal is inaccurate. Canada has a long history of racial suppression, oppression, and even violence, but unfortunately, these stories are excluded from our consciousness. This allows us to believe that we are something that we are not by presenting us with an illusion of identity that conveniently ignores the realities of our racist past.

But, that’s only the first step. Simply telling ourselves that our ancestors were more tolerant and open than they were does not create the conditions to support racism in the modern world. Thus, in addition to a master narrative that excludes historical realities, you also need a racial or ethnic (see below) ideology which dehumanizes. That is, in order to support exclusion and discrimination, you need to convince yourself (and others) that the people you are discriminating against are “worthy” of discrimination. This usually involves the creation of some kind of ideology centering around the biological inferiority/superiority of one “race” over another. Of course, this is not something we find only in Canada. There’s actually a very long history of this extending all the way back to Aristotle’s suggestion that dark people were cowards and white people were courageous fighters.[2]

Now, once you have a master narrative that presents you in a positive light and once you have an ideology that constructs a racial (or ethnic) hierarchy of unworthiness, then it becomes easy to prejudge and exclude people. You look at an individual and you draw conclusions about their motivations, their intelligence, and their capabilities not on an objective assessment, but on the constructs you learned as a child in school, from your parents, and friends. Once you’ve done that, then it’s easy to take the next step which is to discriminate against them. We decide not to hire a specific individual, not to give a promotion, or not to rent a house not because we are racist, but because “those people” don’t work hard, don’t have respect for property, or whatever ideological reasons we come up with. Because they are not as capable, we give them lower skilled jobs, pay them less, expose them to unnecessary scrutiny, and so on—and that is why we experience racism. We create master narratives that present an illusion of equality while at the same time constructing ideologies that allow us to justify exclusionary practices based on the imaginary characteristics of race or ethnicity. From the slavery of Africans in America, to the destruction of Africville in Canada, to the Komagata Maru incident, this is how it is done.

The only thing that’s left to be added to this is the dimension of power. As your textbook points out, the final dimension of racism is power. You can be prejudiced against others, but without the power to exclude or harm another, you can’t be racist because racist requires some form of discrimination and discrimination can only occur in the context of an unequal relationship of power.

Now as far as sociology is concerned, race is a non issue. We study it because it’s a salient social phenomenon, but we don’t give it any scientific credence. The same thing can’t be said for ethnicity however. Ethnicity is a real social phenomenon. We can define ethnicity as basically the particular social grouping you identify with whether that be Hutu or Croation or Canadian or whatever. For example, I’m a first generation Canadian. I was born in Canada and I identify with my Canadian ethnicity. My father was born in Yugoslavia and that is his ethnic background.

Ethnicity is an important sociological concept and just like race, ethnicity can have consequences. Ethnicity can be a social resource and a liability. Being of a certain ethnic group can help you get a job or gain some social support. On the other hand, people can be discriminated against based on ethnicity, denied access to resources, and so on. What’s particularly interesting from my perspective is how power and special interest play so heavy a role in the construction of ethnicity (and therefore, the construction of reality).

Once again, when we take a close look at it, we find it’s not a neutral thing. The historical example of the Tutsi and Hutu is a great example of this. If you don’t know the history, in the early nineties, these ethnic groupings engaged in bloody ethnic violence costing a million plus lives. You would think, based on media portrayal, that ethnic divisions (i.e., tribal rivalries) were the root of the violence. But, it is not so simple. As the textbook points out, the ethnic violence can be traced to colonial interference. What happened was European colonizers needed a new “social class” of people that would help them rule over Rwanda. For the reasons outlined in text, (i.e., they were taller and they came later to the country) the colonizers chose the Tutsi as “superior” to the Hutu and therefore, more deserving of higher status positions of authority.

Following the colonial selection of the “superior” ethnic grouping, the colonizing power began inserting a discriminatory discourse into the consciousness of the country. The preferred “route of injection” was through religion and education. Although before colonization, the ethnic groups did not differ by religion, Christianity (the official religion of the global colonizer) helped create and entrench an ethnic based hierarchy.

The authorities instituted a “height requirement” for getting into Groupe Scolaire (one of the premier schools in Rwanda). A more illogical and apparently senseless entrance requirement can not be envisaged, unless of course you realize the goal of the school was not to treat people fairly, but to to create ethnic division and hierarchy among the Rwandan people that would allow colonial rule to be entrenched. It worked, but of course, it lead to incredible racial violence. Interestingly enough, the text notes that in recent years, Islam has made inroads and it’s Islam that has helped heal the rifts caused by the colonial perpetrators by making people “Muslim first” and Tutsi or Hutu later.

The Rwanda case is quite fascinating and; of course, can be duplicated. The history of this world is the history of racially justified exploitation and discrimination. Probably the best example is the history of slavery in America. The entire slave trade was based on the creation of a master narrative that saw Africans as sub human. That narrative has continued in South Africa even to this day. In a recent trip to South Africa, I learned from a native South African by the name of Peter that some white South Africans used to tie blacks behind vehicles and murder them by dragging them around the yard. This action was justified by calling the blacks baboons, i.e., by racializing, and dehumanizing them to the point where they stood outside the common moral and religious guidelines which prohibit that kind of abuse. Of course, there has been some change. My friend Peter says the worst of it is overdone. But, from stories he told me, the racialized discourse and the construction of a hierarchical ranking based on ethnicity and race still occurs. Racialized ideologies persist when economic control is not relinquished.

A lot more could be said about ethnicity and race, but I’ll leave that for the advanced course on race and ethnicity. Here, I would like to draw your attention back to the class theme which is that sociology is the study of the world that we create. You can see that theme well reflected in this unit. We can see clearly that race and ethnicity are socially constructed. The bottom line is, we create the realities that surround these constructs. We create master narratives that define reality for us, we create ideologies which justify exclusion and discrimination, and we (or rather colonial governments and others with power) even go so far as to construct racialized hierarchies of superiority and moral worth (as for example, the colonial government did in Rwanda) to serve their profane economic interests. By now, it should be clear, sociology is the study of the world we create, but more than this, sociology is also the study of the unequal distribution of power and how, for better or worse, power can be used to define realities and construct the world.


In this assignment, I want you to share with us some of your experiences. If you are an ethnic minority here or in another country, share with us some of your experiences growing up. Share anything that you are comfortable with, whatever you find relevant. The goal of this assignment is to reflect on ethnicity in the context of the chapter and course themes. How do you see ethnicity being constructed around you? What about racist or ethnic ideologies of relative worth, or master narratives. What has been your experience of power and ethnicity? Have you been victimized by individuals with more power than you? If you are not an ethnic minority, consider your own experiences. Have you ever come across racialized discourse or the hierarchical sorting of race. Have you seen others engage in prejudice and/or discrimination based on; for example, skin color or ethnic background. Discuss. Once again, you will be marked on your ability to integrate and understand relevant course concepts.

Study Questions:

  • Why do you think that it is said that White people are more invisible than racialized groups in Canada?
  • Canadians are generally dissatisfied with the high price of gas and the way that the prices are changed during the course of the day (unlike any other product they buy). In the area of a good number of big cities in Canada (especially in southern Ontario and southern British Columbia), the people who own and run the gas stations (but are not responsible for the prices or the price shifting) are South Asian. Do you think as South Asians (and not the rich White owners) become the ‘visible face’ of the gas companies, that this could lead to racial conflicts or to increased prejudice against South Asians?
  • Do you agree with the statement that non-White people cannot be racist in Canada? What are the arguments for either side in this case?
  • Why do you think that it often happens that White people criticize Aboriginal people using newly immigrating people as a point of comparison and that they also often criticize newly immigrating people using Aboriginal people as a point of comparison?
  • Why do you think the idea that biological races still persist despite the lack of scientific evidence?
  • Where do we still see the use of racial classifications in our society (e.g. racial profiling)

[1] Canada is known for its “polite racism.” Sociologists will argue that in Canada, although we like to think of ourselves as a multicultural mosaic with equal opportunity and equal treatment; in fact, considerable discrimination and exclusion goes on. Google “polite racism” and check out this short page on the Canadian Council for Social Development (CCSD) website http://www.ccsd.ca/perception/243/racism.htm.

[2] See the Wikipedia article on “scientific racism” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_science