Week 3 – Race

It is important to know how race is defined and demographically classified within the United States by looking at how the US Census Bureau makes the distinction. Within the past couple years, there has been countless news reports and discussion about how “White” will eventually become a minority, and I have wondered how this is possibly, by looking at the numbers. Based of the 2010 Census, race is based on self-identification:

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The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically. In addition, it is recognized that the categories of the race item include racial and national origin or socio-cultural groups. People may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture, such as “American Indian” and “White.” People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.”

  • White. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as “White” or report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian.
  • Black or African American. A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa. It includes people who indicate their race as “Black, African Am., or Negro”; or report entries such as African American, Kenyan, Nigerian, or Haitian.
  • American Indian and Alaska Native. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment. This category includes people who indicate their race as “American Indian or Alaska Native” or report entries such as Navajo, Blackfeet, Inupiat, Yup’ik, or Central American Indian groups or South American Indian groups.
  • Asian. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam. It includes people who indicate their race as “Asian Indian,” “Chinese,” “Filipino,” “Korean,” “Japanese,” “Vietnamese,” and “Other Asian” or provide other detailed Asian responses.
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands. It includes people who indicate their race as “Native Hawaiian,” “Guamanian or Chamorro,” “Samoan,” and “Other Pacific Islander” or provide other detailed Pacific Islander responses.
  • Two or more races. People may have chosen to provide two or more races either by checking two or more race response check boxes, by providing multiple responses, or by some combination of check boxes and other responses.
  • The concept of race is separate from the concept of Hispanic origin. Percentages for the various race categories add to 100 percent, and should not be combined with the percent Hispanic.
  • Non-Hispanic White alone persons. Individuals who responded “No, not Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” and who reported “White” as their only entry in the race question. Tallies that show race categories for Hispanics and non-Hispanics separately are also available.

There are separate list for social, economic, housing, and demographic characteristics within each state. Illinois http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/17000lk.html

To allow for Census 2010 respondents who do not identify with any of the above five OMB race categories, OMB approved Census Bureau’s inclusion of a sixth race category: Some Other Race. Space was provided on the questionnaire to allow respondents to also write in their race if their selected response category was Some Other Race. Because of needs to have census data comparable with the reporting categories used by state and local agencies and for compiling other administrative data used in producing population estimates and projections, the Census Bureau developed a procedure to assign an OMB race to those who reported Some Other Race.

From this Some Other Race category, they modified race categories, which includes 31 race groups total.

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This is not reflected in the Census number, only used from 2010 data to estimate and project population changes.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant tackle the idea of race from a sociological point of view in The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race. The goal is to determine what we mean by the term, race. Tracing the history of race, Winant states:

Before (roughly) World War II, before the rise of Nazism,…. before the urbanization of the U.S. black population and the rise of the modern civil rights movement, race was still largely seen in Europe and North America (and elsewhere as well) as an essence, a natural phenomenon, whose meaning was fixed, as constant as a southern star.

Then W.E.B. DeBois, among others, “conceived of race in a more social and historical way.” Now, race is recognized as a socially constructed and labeled by Winant and Omi, as the racial formation process. “The central task is to focus attention on the continuing significance and changing meaning of race.” Also debunk past assumptions about what race is, specifically that race is not “an ideological construct, nor does it reflect an objective condition.” Both race as an ideological construct and race as an objective condition are explored to show why they are invalid and then offers an alternative approach.

Historian Barbara Fields states, “the concept of race arose to meet an ideological need: its original effectiveness lay in its ability to reconcile freedom and slavery” and this position can be sustained “only if race is defined as innate and natural prejudice of color.” Fields considers race as being a constant, “racial ideology persists because people insist on thinking racially.” Winant argues Fields theory is limited because it “only accounts for the origins of race thinking and only in one social context” ignoring the changing social construct. Secondly, that have no racial identity is like have no identity. “U.S. society is so thoroughly racialized that to be without racial identity is to be in danger of having no identity. To be raceless is akin to being genderless.”

In regards to race as an objective condition, race is treated as an “object fact”. “One simply is one’s race” and placed within the five color-based racial categories: black, white, brown, yellow, and red.  This racial classification is absurd and limited. It acts a constant and not allowing critique of this construct. Winant argues this theory fails because it ignores racial identity and meaning transform and denies social and historical context.

Omi and Winant approach to race theory falls in between the two concepts described. In response, “ the importance of the historical context and contingency in the framing of racial categories and the social construction of racially defined experiences.” Three conditions are set for this new critical racial formation theory:

  • It must apply to contemporary political relationships
  • It must apply in an increasingly global context
  • It must apply across historical time

Omi and Winant traced the how the term race has changed contexts, from being seen as a natural condition, to an illusion, to now being a “marker of the infinity of variation we humans hold as common heritage and hope for the future.”

Krista Thompson’s essay, The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-hop, correlates the visual culture of hip-hop with art history references. Thompson addresses the history of hip hop and how it changed from music with cultural, political point to emphasizing the visual expression of material consumption and the idea of Bling!

Many musicians used hip-hop to critically and creatively respond to the poor conditions of the black and Latino communities in postindustrial urban America, to the social and economic changes wrought by the Reagan era….From politics to pleasure.


The term bling originally referred to expensive jewelry. The term quickly became a concept that defines this period of hip-hop culture. “The Oxford English Dictionary defined it not only as a “piece of ostentatious jewelry” but also as any “flashy accouterment “that glorifies conspicuous consumption.” The Urban Dictionary definition is closest to how Thompson defines Bling and how rapper B.G. (Baby Gangsta) characterized the word:

–    Jamaican slang that has been adopted by some African American rappers and inserted into popular culture. The term “Bling Bling” refers to the imaginary “sound” that is produced from light reflected by a diamond. See The Silvertones “Bling Bling Christmas” for the earliest known usage of the slang.

–    flashy or gaudy jewelry, named for the sound generated when worn.

Bling is the imaginary sound of light hitting a shiny surface. 

This highlights the attention placed on visual expression in hip-hop. An important piece to understand Thompson’s thesis, is this passage:

Even as bling denotes an investment in the light of visibility, the concept may also be seen to pinpoint the limits of the visible world: the instant that reflected light bounces off a shiny object, it denies and obliterates vision. It saturates the visual plane, ultimately blinding the viewer. Indeed, in the track “Bling, Bling,” B.G. boasts of bling’s blinding power. Bling, then, conveys a state between hyper-visibility and blinding invisibility, between visual surplus and disappearance. It signals a state of the sublime, the physiological–even painful–limits of vision. Bling, in short, illuminates an approach to visibility in which optical and even blinding visual effect has its own representational value.

The aesthetic, using the ocular effect of light, is applied by music video director Hype Williams during the late 90s, Williams distinctive look as described by Thompson described “the focused light and its reflection in surface as both the subject and form” and also this monocular perspective of wide-angle lens, which relates to a Cartesian perspectivism.


Missy Elliott‪ – The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly]

This style exemplifies Thompson’s terms shine, sheen and surfacism, which relates to specifically “late Renaissance, Dutch, and Baroque painting practices in late sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. It is against this historical backdrop that the contemporary resurfacing of surface aesthetic in hop-hop should be situated.”

There is a linkage of visual language from late sixteenth century to now hip-hop culture that is applied to highlight this quest for visual representation of power, at the same time disregarding cultural context and social status and in a way revisionist. There are issues with the image of the black figure, as Thompson addresses sheen and shine, the slave referent, how it is recontextualized to consider the defining characteristic of visual expression in regards to hip-hip culture. Light renders everything in the paintings to have texture, except for white skin, in contrast to how shine was employed to show black skin as an object or commodity during slavery.

This notion of bling accentuates the commodity status of blackness both historically and in contemporary society:

People of African descent were defined as black through the visual logic of Cartesian perspectivism and, subsequently, surface aesthetics as commodities immediately casts light on the blind spots of these ways of seeing and describing, as well as informed critical approaches to representation. “Bling, while foregrounding the historic relation between blackness and the commodity; also ultimately speaks to the representational politics of blackness in the contemporary moment, in the age of black hypervisibility. Gispert’s and Wiley’s works and the popular cultural focus on blinding visibility reflect on how the hyper visualization of black culture has radically transformed the conditions of imaging black subjectivity?

Thompson ends with an important reflection: “What possibilities of black subjectivity lie a the interstices of hypervisibility and disappearance? Might the hypervisibility of bling be another instance of the disappearance of the black subject, a new form of emblazoned invisibility?

The past two weeks have been about identity and the terms we use to define ourselves. I evaluated how what terms I use to define my identity. Specifically, what is important to tell someone that appearance only may not sign? How does one prioritize or create a hierarchy of identifying characteristics of self, in regards to race, religious beliefs, ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender identity?

I place geographically identity and subculture I grew up in near the top of my identity hierarchy. A lot of who I am and my beliefs are influenced by military subculture. I am unsure how I place race, but I do know it is part of my identity. From my experience, culture can be an integral part of identity. Culture is influenced by race and ethnicity. I am interested in how people define themselves and if that reflects who they are.

How I define myself differs from how I am viewed. I do not remember when I realized the color of my skin dictates an ethnic identity and elicits a particular response from people. I know I made the personal distinction of being “black”, when I found out as a teenager, my mother is half-white. And I adopted that into my identity. My sister and I have a similar experience of being told, “you are not black”, or “you do not act black”. That particular statement irritates because I was never informed what it means to be black, independent of historical and social contexts. Not identifying with a race, as Omi/Winant mentioned, is like not have an identity at all. Rejecting my race is rejecting what was fought for and still being fought for in a different degree for my right to do anything. We are not many generations removed from the Civil Rights Movement. Those individuals who led the charge for racial equality are still alive and would be alive today. It would disrespectful of me to not acknowledge that history. There are reasons why recent films like The Butler, 12 Years as a Slave, and Django Unchained still resonate.

That is the point I am trying to get to with the census data and their determination of race. We do not live in a post race society, when governing bodies keep track of race. But the creation of the categorical distinction to estimate population trends is important to realize that this change in self appointed racial category reflects the changing way one is thinking about racial identity. But this is within the United States. It does not reflect the Middle East or other conflict zones that fight over the race, creed, color, and ethnicity.


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