49 Racial Construction and Women as Differentiated Actors
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49 Racial Construction and Women as Differentiated Actors MARTHA R. MAHONEY What is race? A social construct, a concept having no natural truth, no truth separate from historical development, and possibly no truth comprehensible apart from domination. The term has meant different things in this country over time; and its social and cultural meanings continue to change within our own time. In law as well as elsewhere in society the term "race" has been used to stand for several different concepts. Even the Supreme Court, when faced with the question, had to recognize that "race" was a contingent category that shifted over time'! Race is a social construct. However, that does not mean race is not real or that we can "just stop doing it." Even if race is a set of beliefs and cultural meanings subject to change, it is not "just" an idea. The question is, What does it mean for race to be socially constructed ? Race is not only skin color. Social and legal rules have determined racial identification as black when people are phenotypically white,2 and some dark-skinned groups are not consistently socially defined as black in this country. The existence of the concept of "passing for white"-the word "passing"-is itself evidence that color is not race. "Race" is partly about culture: some European cultures have experienced something like racism from people with different cultures but similar skin color. Race is partly about skin color: in the United States "race" has been anchored to an obsession with skin color and phenotype. And it is insistently about domination: the dominant culture uses its power to attempt to define and subjugate the"other." Perhaps dominance is actually the key here. The official rules that define "race" in America have been the white rules, even though the meaning of race has been contested in many ways, and even though African-American culture has had a great, though generally unacknowledged, impact on white culture and perhaps on concepts of race as well. If dominance/subordination is what turns "culture" into "race," does this then define the oppressed person or group as the mere object of the process of social construction? White use of the term "race" is based on definitions of the "other" which imply a normal, neutral, objective, culture-less stance toward whiteness. This does not mean that white culture actually fully succeeds in defining the "other." African-American self-assertions in black culture have a long history in the United States; white appropriation, commercialization , and transformation of parts of that culture have a complex history as well. Nor does it mean only that whites concoct the dominant definition of "other," imposing on society From "WHITENESS AND WOMEN, IN PRACTICE AND THEORY," 5 YALE j. L. AND FEMINISM 217 (1993). Originally published in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material 306 Martha R. Mahoney our vision of people of color. Whites also define whiteness, albeit in ways that we cannot fully see, and then impose that vision on the world as much as we can. If this process does not entirely persuade the rest of the world that our vision is "truth," it surely protects our own perceptions. In a much cited working paper, Peggy McIntosh conceptualizes her white privilege as an invisible, weightless "knapsack" of special provisions, assurances, and blank checks.3 Her knapsack includes both unearned assets (things that should be entitlements of humanity and that everyone should have in a just society, but which in fact are awarded to the dominant race) and unearned power that is systematically conferred (those things that are damaging in human terms even as they bring advantage and are associated only with dominance , such as the freedom not to be concerned about the needs, culture, or reality of others). [See chapter 47. Ed.]. American cities have developed around invisible conveniences that are a social, physical analogue to this invisible knapsack-location of transit and other municipal services, and even the plotting of streets, have often been planned to serve white neighborhoods and preserve their whiteness. Part of white privilege, therefore, is not seeing all we have and all we do, and not seeing how what we do appears to those defined as "other." Whites cannot just opt out of the process of formation of this racial consciousness that takes the form of unconsciousness. This can be painful. For example, note the feeling of exclusion that arises when white college students notice that...