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Examining Conversations About Race with a Multidisciplinary Scope


Book cover, Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century

Changing Perceptions About Race and Ethnicity

“Everyone’s just a little bit racist” is the title of a catchy song with provocative lyrics, sung by Muppet-like characters in the Broadway musical “Avenue Q.” The statement made by the song is also a point of discussion in Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century, a collection of new essays that offers readers a unique interdisciplinary analysis of race and ethnicity in contemporary society.

Doing Race investigates the issues of race and ethnicity through an examination of everyday scenarios, like going to the doctor, renting an apartment, or listening to music. Each common interaction is explored through the lens of a different research perspective, including history, anthropology, and psychology, to name a few. Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century was co-edited by Paula Moya, a professor of English at Stanford University and Hazel Markus, a professor of psychology at Stanford.

In the introductory essay they co-wrote, Professors Moya and Markus describe and analyze eight conversations that Americans commonly revert to when talking about race or ethnicity, including “Everyone’s just a little bit racist.” To Moya and Markus, sentiments like “Everyone’s just a little bit racist” highlight the disparity between the latest race and ethnicity science and scholarship, and the assumptions and misinformation about these topics that persist in public discourse.

Sociology Professor and Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) Director Matthew Snipp, whose contribution to Doing Race is an essay exploring how race is defined in and by governmental organizations, said the volume represents a new generation of ethnic studies. “As a result of the wide scope of scholarship applied to the topics of race and ethnicity, the collection is the first of its kind in terms of a work that is broadly comparative and truly interdisciplinary,” Snipp said at a recent event, when describing Doing Race.

Classroom Inspired Research

In the past eight years, Professors Markus and Moya have team taught the CCSRE core course “Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.” During each session, guest lecturers representing an array of academic disciplines talk to the students about race and ethnicity as they pertain to the scholar’s particular area of academic research. Past presenters have included Stanford professors Marcus Feldman from biology who highlighted the difference between the bio-geographical concept of ancestry groups and socio-historical concept of race, Norman Naimark from history who addressed ethnic-cleansing, genocide, and the state in modern Europe, and Harry Elam from drama who analyzed both current events and contemporary films to explore how, when and where race is performed.

As Professors Moya and Markus worked to make connections between the seemingly disparate lecture topics for the students, it became clear that “having an adequate understanding of what race and ethnicity are and how they work requires examining them from a variety of disciplinary perspectives,” Moya said. While Markus and Moya encourage students taking “Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity” to continue discussions outside the classroom, many students find the task surprisingly difficult, noted Professor Markus. “We [Markus and Moya] started to notice some common challenges that the students were facing outside of the classroom.”

As they state in the Doing Race preface, their students were, “persistently challenged by claims that the study of race and ethnicity divides people, that it is unnecessary in a ‘post-race’ world, that it isn’t relevant to people who are white, and that it doesn’t produce knowledge in the way that studying the human genome or the laws of economics does.” Conversely, the more often Markus and Moya worked with the course material, the more comfortable they became discussing what others perceived to be taboo. “The more we understood about race and ethnicity as systems of social distinction,” explained Professor Moya, “the less we worried about saying the wrong thing at the wrong time or even about marginalizing ourselves by teaching and researching in what some consider to be a ‘special interest’ field.  Such self-regarding concerns paled in light of our growing understanding of how central race and ethnicity are to individuals’ lives and to the workings of society.”

They suspected that more frequent exposure to information and conversations about race and ethnicity would likewise help their students talk more confidently about the issues, which in turn would foster more constructive communication. With this objective in mind, Moya and Markus set out to present the latest race and ethnicity scholarship in a broadly accessible format that would enable students—as well as the general public—to think and talk about race in an educated and holistic way. Professors Moya and Markus were especially interested in addressing the growing acceptance of the idea that America has entered a “post race” era. “People love to say race doesn’t matter anymore. After all, we have a black president. This common conversation confuses the powerful hope for a society where race does not influence one’s opportunities in life and that upholds the notion of racial equality, with the reality of a society where race and ethnicity still organize society and individual experience for most people.” Professor Markus noted.  

8 Misunderstood Conversations

While researching Doing Race, Markus and Moya took note of a number of conversational themes that Americans use when speaking about race or ethnicity. In movies and newspapers and on college campuses and in political forums, Moya and Markus repeatedly encountered conversations based on statements like, “It’s a black thing – you wouldn’t understand,” “I’m ______ and I’m proud,” and “Variety is the spice of life.”

Though prevalent in society, Markus explained that, “no one ever stops to ask what they mean.” In the opening essay of Doing Race Moya and Markus delve into the assumptions and stereotypes that lie at the heart of eight conversations, which although typical, draw on partial and often inaccurate assumptions and in doing so lay the groundwork for the twenty essays that follow.

Do you think race is genetically determined? Recent biological research has led most Americans to believe that it is. The pervasive belief in this idea is one reason why Professors Moya and Markus included it as one of their “8 Conversations About Race.” According to them, the “Race is in our DNA” conversation is inaccurate, or at best incomplete, because it implies that a person is born with certain fixed traits that cannot be altered by changes in environment. “We social scientists know that nothing could be further from the truth.” Markus asserted. “Popular conversation has not absorbed the new scientific understandings about the source and meaning of race.”

Markus and Moya uncovered troubling misconceptions just beneath the surface of another popular race and ethnicity conversation they call “That’s just identity politics.” As detailed in their essay, people often turn to this argument out of frustration when they feel that other people are benefitting from being a certain race or ethnicity. “This conversation is really common among people who think that race and ethnicity are irrelevant to—or else perhaps, a distraction from—the more important universal concerns,” Moya explained. According to this view, race and ethnicity are “superficial and do not mark important or consequential differences in people’s history, contexts, or perspectives.”

“‘That’s just identity politics’ is a favorite of those who think that drawing attention to one’s race or ethnicity is a strategy used by weak people to gain unfair advantage,” Moya continued. “They attach the word ‘identity’ to the word ‘politics’ to convey the idea that someone who advocates for something on the basis of race or ethnicity is acting illegitimately.” A common flaw among all eight conversations, Moya and Markus found, is that the reasoning behind each one is incomplete. In other words, each lacks the larger context within which the phenomenon being discussed is taking place.

For example, Professor Markus pointed out that the “Everyone’s a little bit racist” conversation “usually just stops there, with that observation.”  Unless people go on to ask “what the origins and effects of different kinds of racism might be, then the conversation ends up being a kind of cop-out.  It basically ignores the fact that social, political, and economic power is unequally distributed among different racial groups, and fails to consider ways of rectifying the pernicious effects of ongoing racism. Like stereotypes, Professor Moya maintains, “These eight conversations give us the illusion of understanding, but they are narrowly based on limited, flawed, and of course, unstated assumptions that we take the trouble in our essay to go through. Also like stereotypes, these conversations are pervasive, they are difficult to change and they have powerful consequences for our actions.”

Race Is Not Something We Are, It Is Something We Do

If there’s one message that Moya and Markus want their audience to take away from the scholarship in Doing Race, it is that people do not have a race or ethnicity, but rather that everyday interactions between people create race and ethnicity. “Race and ethnicity come about as a result of social processes that take place over time and across space,” Professor Moya said.  The point she and Professor Markus want to emphasize is that “if a person is associated with a particular race or ethnicity, and if she behaves in particular ways, it is not because of what’s inside, but because of her participation in a web of social relations.”

Linda Darling-Hammond a professor of education at Stanford, drives that point home in her essay, “Structured for Failure,” which illustrates how racism and inequalities persist in the American public school system and are, as stated in her essay, “systematized in this country’s schools in ways that are invisible to most of us.”

Another Doing Race entry, “Racialized Mass Incarceration” co-written by Lawrence D. Bobo, a sociology professor at Harvard and Victor Thompson, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stanford, describe examples of racial bias in American social policies and the U.S. criminal system, which together, continue to fuel anti-black racism. Markus and Moya say that as research changes the way scholars think about race, a new definition of the term is emerging.

“We now know, based on all the science and scholarship that’s gone on, that race is not a quality of people, it does not inhere in individuals or in groups, rather race is much more complex then that.” Professors Markus further said that race “is a product of all of those interactions that people and institutions have with each other and that make up the world in which we live.” “For example, right now in Arizona, a newly enacted law gives police the right to question and detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. The claim is that this law is necessary to protect citizens in Arizona but it creates a very threatening situation for all legal immigrants as well as all non-immigrant Latinos and Latinas who can be stopped at anytime just because of how they look. It is a perfect example of doing race institutionally.” Moya explained. 

She further added that, “Doing race always involves three elements--creating groups based on perceived physical and behavioral characteristics, associating differential power and privilege with these characteristics, and then justifying the resulting inequality.”

Keeping the Focus on Race and Ethnicity

Not losing sight of the classroom, where the need for a new approach to the issues of race and ethnicity first became evident, Moya and Markus stress the importance of incorporating both topics into the education of every American student.

“We want to students to take away that race is a set of systems and practices and that society and organizations create groups based on superficial markings.” Professor Moya also emphasized that, “We want to shift their thinking to understand that race and ethnicity are not inside of the person, but that they are a social constraint.”

Indeed, Moya and Markus want not just students, but all Americans to be more informed about issues of race and ethnicity. More knowledge, they say will give people the confidence to call attention to misconceptions and inaccuracies when they hear them.

Most importantly, professors Markus and Moya want race and ethnicity conversations to be a regular part of the public dialogue.

“Our hope is that after reading this volume people will become increasingly comfortable rejecting the idea that race doesn’t matter anymore.” Moya concluded by saying that she and Markus also want people to, “understand the vital need to continually have conversations about race and ethnicity and about how they influence ourselves and society.”