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Deconstructing Race: A Series On WYSO

Kimberly Barrett is the vice president of multicultural affairs and community engagement at Wright State University.
Asha Brogan

Deconstructing Race is a series of commentaries about racial identity by Miami Valley residents. It's co-curated by Dr. Kimberly Barrett, vice president of multicultural affairs and community engagement at Wright State University. The series features ten people of varying ages and racial identities responding to one or more of the following questions: What is your experience with racial identity? Are there pieces of your identity that are frequently misunderstood, invisible, or visible in complicated ways? If you could make one wish about race and identity, what would it be?  

Submissions are still open. Send your answer to one or more of the questions above, in 200 words or less, to lwallace@wyso.org. If your submission is accepted, it will be edited by WYSO and you’ll be asked to come in and record.

Dr. Barrett starts us off with a few segments exploring the concept of race, transcribed here:

Part I: What is Race?  

The tragic shootings in South Carolina, the recent discussions about race and policing and the controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s racial identity have left me with several compelling questions. First, how can we best address racism in ways that reflect the times in which we live? And more fundamentally, what exactly is race and who determines racial identity?  


Race is socially constructed. That is, it’s a cultural idea and not a biological one. The contemporary idea of race, in particular black and white, is an American invention. It gained popular use in the 1700s in order to justify the permanent enforced inequality of slaves and indigenous people, and later others in the Americas. The idea of race was created to rationalize a certain economic and social order.   


Despite this fact, most people assume it is biological—even though science shows there is no significant genetic variation between racial groups. In other words these groups all represent the same range of intellectual potential, physical abilities and possibilities for acting in ways that harm or support others.   


When we try to understand the differences in opportunity and achievement that have resulted from centuries of institutionalized discrimination, we sometimes confuse the very real effects of racism with the myth of race. For everyone’s benefit, it seems to me that it is time to debunk this myth. 


Part II: How is race determined?   

Historically, through both law and custom, whites in the U.S. have been strict gatekeepers of the membership in racial groups in order to preserve their privileged status at the top. For example, we have all heard of the one drop rule that in practice meant that a person with any ancestry of color, particularly black, would be classified as non-white and therefore less privileged. Now, we know that if this notion was taken to its logical conclusion, we would all be black since our whole species began in Africa.


But, over the past few decades, oppressed groups have begun to claim and redefine the categories into which they have been placed. Take for example the black power activism that began in the 1960s, or the more recent queer, mixed-race and Crip justice movements. Individuals, rather than tradition, are defining who they are through these movements. This is quite literally the case with race whenever you self-identify by checking a box on a form that asks about it.    


Since race is actually a complex interplay of culture, class and our desire to belong, it is always evolving . This move to greater self-determination based on our lived experience can be seen as a step in our social evolution toward a world in which race will one day be irrelevant and treated as the myth that it is.   

Part III: A Radical Approach To Combating Racism


We’ve established that race is nothing more than a cultural idea that is perpetuated and given meaning by each of us every day through our words and actions—often with terrible consequences. I have a radical idea. What would happen if we did away with race on our forms, in our conversations, in decisions we make about relationships and so on? What would society look like if we all began to act as if we understood that race is a myth?


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about being color blind or doing away with federal protections against discrimination or other proactive programs that address the current effects of centuries of racism.  Instead, I’m proposing that we try to understand who we are in ways that better reflect our lived experience today and its connections to our ethnic backgrounds.


Although I have spent most of my career doing work related to diversity, my understanding of the inadequacies of the construct of race has been most significantly transformed by my family.  I’m a mother who identifies as black, and I gave birth to and raised a child who identifies as white. I’m married to a man who identifies as white, but is also a card carrying member of a Native American tribe. This has helped me see how inaccurate race is in describing who any of us are. So a world without race is not hard for me to imagine, what about you?     


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