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Societal Dilemmas: Controversial Constructions

Written By Samantha Gibbons, Age 16

Arizona, USA

What do you think of when you think of race? Is it hereditary, or is it something more than that? Many people think of race as a hereditary, biological trait and ethnicity as what a person appears to be based on their “ethnic background”. From time to time, you are asked somewhere to “select your ethnicity and/or race” from those listed below. With this being said, there is a great difference between race and ethnicity, but what does it truly mean? These two words determine the way our society runs as a whole. It affects how we view each other, and how we make judgments solely based on what our physical appearances seemingly appear to be. Scientists and sociologists have been studying this abstract concept of how our society is precisely formed, and there is historical evidence that has allowed us to determine how these classifications impact the constructs of our society.

To clarify some misconceptions, both race and ethnicity are socially constructed. However, there are not scientifically or biologically defined races — race is not a genetic trait. We can use race to categorize people, rather, which tells us how to interact with them. It is a social construct that makes us feel more comfortable in given circumstances. To put it succinctly, race is a socially defined category based on real or perceived biological differences between groups of people. On the other hand, ethnicity can be explicated as a socially defined category based on common language, religion, nationality, history, or another cultural factor. The concepts of both race and ethnicity allow stereotypes to be perpetuated, or labeling a group based on distorted, exaggerated, or oversimplified images of a group. There are both positive and negative stereotypes tied to the societal standards of race.

Occasionally, humans make assumptions about others due to their race and/or ethnicity, which causes racial conflicts to become apparent. A process by which a minority group is denied equal access to the benefits of a society is known as subjugation. There are two subcategories of subjugation, including de jure segregation and de facto segregation. They have the same essential idea, however, de jure segregation consists of denying equal access based on the law rather than common prejudice, which is de facto segregation. An extreme form of racial conflict is a term that is more familiar, which is genocide; a systematic effort to destroy an entire population. A common and vile example of this is the Holocaust, where the German Nazis aimed to exterminate the entire Jewish race.

Another common misconception is the difference between the terms prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is deeply held negative attitudes toward a group and its members, whereas discrimination is acting upon biased opinions by treating people unfairly. Despite these terms having derogatory complexions, they both result in an “us” and “them” mentality within society.

There are theoretical perspectives regarding race and ethnicity and how they form an operating society. From a functionalist point of view, originated by Emile Durkheim, race fulfills roles that each of us plays in our personal society. Racism can foster dysfunction, resulting in violence between groups. Nonetheless, competition for power and authority can be reflected off of someone’s skin color. Conflict is created when the groups work to secure and protest their own interests and power. Majority groups use prejudice and discrimination to maintain their power.

In the English language, many terms that include the word black have negative connotations including terms such as blacklist, black eye, blackball, and black mark. On the other hand, the word white has more positive associations. Phrases like white lie, or “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” all stem from what society has constructed. Prejudice ideas are a learned behavior, as people learn racist remarks from their primary group and begin to internalize them. As a more systemic example, white supremacy is “far more encompassing than simple racism or bigotry” as it attains an ideology that white people are genetically superior compared to those who are not (White Supremacy 1).

Another primary theory to consider is the Critical Race Theory, which studies the relationship between race, power, and the law. This theory exemplifies that racism is ordinary and occurs on a daily basis. Races are categories that society invents, manipulates, and retires when convenient for them. Physical traits are only a small portion of what we have in common. Thus, values and personalities are more important to take into consideration. The unique personalities that each of us possess result from social constraints that we are surrounded by.

There is a duality between contradicting paradigms regarding racism. Idealists, who support the idea that racism is a result of attitudes, thinking, mentality, and can be changed. They believe that we can change the images we portray, words and labels we use, social teaching, etc. Conversely, realists believe that while attitudes are important, racism is actually a means by which society allocates privileges and status.

Notwithstandingly, society has created terms that can be intertwined with one another which causes misconceptions. Neither race nor ethnicity is biologically determined, but they are terms that society has created in order to categorize one another. With all of this taken, we all have a lot more in common than we think we do; both race and ethnicity is a societal label that can determine the way we interact with one another.

Works Cited

News Center. “5 Questions: Alice Popejoy on Race, Ethnicity and Ancestry in Science.” News Center,

“White Supremacy.” Anti-Defamation League,

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