by Angela Barian, Ph.D., assistant professor, sociology

To introduce the topic of race and ethnicity in my Introdution toSociology class, I adapt a classic in-class demonstration.[1] We start by talking about saliva.
“Saliva is great,” I say. “It lubricates your mouth and throat so you can eat your grilled cheese sandwich without choking. It has enzymes that start to help you digest your food before it even hits the stomach. It even helps to clean our teeth! Saliva is amazing stuff.
“So,” I say as I spit out a bit onto a spoon, “who wants some?”

I suppose I don’t have to tell you, no one wants some. But here’s where it gets interesting.
“Why?” I ask the students.
“It’s gross,” they say.
“What do you mean, it’s gross? You all have some in your mouth yourself!”
“Well, it’s not mine, it’s yours,” they say.
“I don’t want other people’s saliva touching me,” they say.
“Is there ever a situation where you might have other people’s saliva touching you? When you were a kid, did your mom ever lick her thumb and wipe off dirt on your face?”
At this point they usually get frustrated and say something like, “Look, Dr. B. No one wants your spit, okay?”
“Ah, so at first it was saliva. Now it’s spit. When it’s in your mouth helping you digest your food, it’s saliva. When it’s someone else’s, on a spoon, that’s spit.”
“Okay,” they say. “What’s your point?”
Here’s my point: To social scientists, the difference between races is like the difference between spit and saliva. The difference that matters is the difference that we notice. In other words, as sociologists say, race is a social construction: it’s a set of categories that we collectively create and firm up through everyday practice. Evolutionary biologists like Joseph Graves have shown for years that there’s no gene that’s shared among solely one race and not the other – in fact, at the level of the genome, Graves argues, we’re all identical twins.[2]
But this can be confusing. If race “isn’t real,” then why can we look around us and see racial differences so easily? Why can we be so sure of who we are? Well, here’s the deal – we all look different, certainly. We come from different places and have different genetic backgrounds. There are similarities between people with shared heritage, for sure. The important part here is that the categories we use are sloppy stand-ins for profound complexity.
But, just because there’s no biological basis for race, that doesn’t mean “race doesn’t matter.” As it turns out, it matters a lot for our identities. Think about the foods you grew up eating. The holidays you celebrate. The way your parents disciplined you. Think about the hardships you’ve faced and the opportunities you’ve had. Those things that make up your identity aren’t entirely determined by your race and ethnicity, but they’re most definitely shaped by it. In this respect, though race is a biological myth, it is most definitely a social reality.
This is what’s known as the Thomas Theorem: William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas wrote in 1928, “If [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”[3] So, in this case, our racial identity plays an important role in determining our lived experiences, the opportunities and challenges we have, and our beliefs about the world around us. Race is a collective understanding; through socialization we internalize these racial categories, absorbing the collective understanding into our sense of self. So, what shapes a person’s identity? We do. Together.
Of course, race isn’t the only part of our identity. For some of us, it’s vitally important. Others barely think about it in their daily lives. It’s complicated. And there’s recent evidence that our racial identification is not fixed and immutable for everyone, but more changeable than previously thought.[4] In addition, interracial marriages in the U.S. have risen 28% in a decade – and the number of people identifying as multiracial continues to climb, highlighting how demographic changes alter the malleability of racial category and identification.[5]
In that respect, racial identity is a social process. It’s a complex, multifaceted, and never-ending negotiation of what is real, what is valuable, and what is important. As I tell my students in that demo, this is a hopeful, wonderful thing: it means that “who we are” can change. And that can change the world.
[1] Brouillette, John R. and Ronny E. Turner. “Creating the Sociological Imagination on the First Day of Class: The Social Construction of Deviance.” Teaching Sociology, Vol. 20, No. 4, Gifts: 20 Great Ideas for Teaching Sociology (Oct., 1992), pp. 276-279.
[2] Graves, Joseph. The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America. Plume Publishing, 2005.
[3] Thomas, William Isaac and Dorothy Swaine Thomas. The Child In America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf, 1928: 571–572.
[4] Saperstein, Aliya, and Andrew Penner. “Racial Fluidity and Inequality in the United States.” American Journal of Sociology, Volume 118, Number 3 (November 2012): 676–727
[5] No Author. 2010 Census Shows Interracial and Interethnic Married Couples Grew by 28 Percent over Decade. US Census. Retrieved from