In the United States, race is a colonial project forged in Indigenous dispossession and African enslavement. It has been shaped through multiple historical events, including independence from the British colonial sovereign, rapid western expansion and further dispossession, the internal ethical and capitalist crisis of the Civil War, the false promises of emancipation, the absorption of Mexican states and peoples into the US Southwest, the conscription of indentured Asian laborers subsequently subjected to anti-immigration laws and antisedition surveillance, the brutality of the Jim Crow South, the achievement of desegregation during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the liberalization of immigration law to end racial quotas in 1965. Many tellings of the history of race in the United States go on to claim that those civil rights efforts resulted in the establishment in the early 1970s of ethnic studies programs and American Indian studies curricula at universities where students could finally learn the histories and cultures of diverse peoples of color with connected but different relationships to the United States.

As programs in ethnic and women’s studies began to get institutionalized, though, the state and the academy alike found ways to fold multiculturalism into their liberal self-images, substituting insurgent demands (for the redistribution of power, wealth, and access to education, for example) for investments in equal representation. By reducing the initiatives of oppositional movements to the pursuit of inclusion, universities redirected demands for justice into normative pursuits of “excellence and uplift” (R. Ferguson 2012, 7). Equality supplanted equity as the goal, and color blindness, which asserts that all people, regardless of race, have equal opportunity before the law, became the law of the land. Throughout this history, white supremacy has worked through hierarchical taxonomies of race and gender, presenting such categories as biologically determined, dehumanizing those who did not fall under the ever-changing historical category of normative whiteness. This keyword entry pushes beyond such understandings of race that settle into the complacencies of liberal multiculturalism, color blindness, and biological determinism.

In this essay, we tell the story of racial struggle and racial discourse, especially as these overlap with stories of gender and sexuality, with a focus on the US context. As a collective of Black, Native, Jewish, Arab, Latinx, Asian, and white women, queers, and trans people consciously writing together in the tradition of feminist collectivity, we speak relationally, across our differences of positionality and opinion, to challenge the stability of racial categories and the narratives told about race. One of the most enduring of these “common sense” narratives we refute is biological essentialism: the belief that biologically, humans can be categorized into fixed races based on phenotypical differences, such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. The idea of race as biological emerged with the Enlightenment-era impulse to classify and order all species and alongside a political desire to prove that social hierarchies reflect “natural” human hierarchies. This served to rationalize the apparent contradiction between Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality and the violence of enslavement and colonial expansion (Schiebinger 2004, 145). Nineteenth-century biologists such as Louis Agassiz debated whether all humans belonged to the same species; anatomists measured skulls and dissected bodies, often of non-European, enslaved, or Indigenous people, hypothesizing that cranial shape and size could provide empirical evidence for racial ranking and intelligence (Stepan 1991; TallBear 2013, 34). Well into the twentieth century, eugenicists relied on a biological conception of race to argue for the extinction and social control of people deemed outside of white, able-bodied, heterosexual norms. Many often assume that eugenic science is distinct from scientific projects that deploy racial categories. Black feminists, though, argue that all attempts to ground race in biology are complicit in scientific racism (D. Roberts 2011, 27).

With the mapping of the Human Genome Project through the 1990s, scientists proved that humans, as a species, share 99.9 percent of our DNA with each other—that is, race has no real scientific or genetic basis. But new forms of racial categorizing have emerged, and many still rely on a notion that biological race is something real. Corporations like 23andMe can analyze our genetic ancestry to hypothesize about which continents and regions our distant ancestors came from, producing data that reproduces and relies on preexisting racial categories. Genetic ancestry testing can be used to shed light on lost genealogical information, particularly for people with enslaved or displaced ancestors (A. Nelson 2016), but DNA is also fetishized. For example, Indigenous DNA is assumed to be geographically, and thus genetically, isolated. Geneticists, worried that Indigenous DNA would soon “vanish” through urbanization, migration, and displacement, have called for urgent projects to collect Indigenous “genetic signatures” (TallBear 2013, 2–3; D. Roberts 2011, 66). Assumptions about the distribution of particular genetic mutations across “racial” categories result in medical racial profiling (D. Roberts 2011, 211). These ongoing practices make clear that the idea of race as biology is still treated as factual within science, affecting social policy and political decision-making.

And yet racial categories have always been unstable, manufactured, and re-created to support different state agendas. For instance, while Jewish, Irish, Italian, and other ethnic European populations were assimilating into US categories of whiteness during the Jim Crow era, the color line between whites and nonwhites intensified. Maintaining that line relied on increased surveillance and disciplining of Black and other nonwhite people to maintain strict separation between perceived racial groups—a separation that, despite its passage into law as a doctrine of “separate but equal,” nonetheless served to maintain racial hierarchy (Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)). Racial segregation obscured the fact that innumerable white men had already crossed the color line not only by raping enslaved women during plantation slavery but also through various parallel forms of enslavement, including the “fancy trade,” in which fair-skinned women of African and European descent were sold into enslavement specifically for sex work (Baptist 2001; Finley 2020). People who have been deemed racially ambiguous are often at the center of heightened dramas of racial categorization: the argument in Plessy v. Ferguson pivots on Homer Plessy’s ability to pass as white and exert his private right—not that of the state—to categorize his race (Karcher 2016).

This was not to be, however, for Plessy or anyone else. Even after emancipation, the idea of partus sequitur ventrem, the 1662 colonial Virginia law stipulating that the racial status of the child follows that of the mother, persisted. Prior to 1865, under that legal precedent, the children of forced or unequal encounters across the racial line were considered Black and thus both enslaved and available for sale by their biological fathers and white owners of human property. The gendering of such genetic inheritance within this history of coerced and profit-based reproduction reveals that the idea of blood family kinship as a fundamental American value (i.e., “family value”) across time is a historical deception specifically geared toward upholding “family” as something that only pertains to white families in which a male is “head of household.”

Often assumed to be the gathering of racial “facts” by a “neutral” bureaucratic arm of a rational and disinterested nation-state, the US census offers a case study in how relations of power, property, and gender—not biology—underlie the identification and consolidation of racial categories. The first census was conducted in 1790 within the sixteen states and territories that then composed the United States. Of these sixteen, five states had already adopted gradual emancipation for enslaved African peoples. The first census divided people into categories of free white, parsed by age and gender; free Other; and enslaved. American Indians were not counted, defined instead as members of “foreign nations” governed under the constitution’s commerce clause. While not officially defined, the census category “head of family” was assumed to be white and male, and married women who lived with these men were counted as their legal property.

Notably, the first census only categorized gender for free peoples, mainly to identify probable property ownership and potential military labor as the settler state sought to stabilize itself. Enslaved peoples were grouped together under one racialized but ungendered category—a process that Hortense Spillers has marked as one of the fundamental violences against African peoples perpetuated by the Middle Passage (Spillers [1987] 2003). In the 1860 census, American Indian men were counted as the head of the household to determine how already limited land allotments were handed out. This move, in conjunction with the Indian Wars and further expansions of the United States that violently domesticated Indian land and bodies, strategically worked to undermine tribal structures and further dispossess Indigenous women of their traditional ownership of land. The very founding of the United States as a settler colonial state relied on the exclusion of Indigenous peoples from the category of human as racialized non-Christian peoples, a transplanting of the early modern category of heretic into a new taxonomy (Wynter 1995). These invented taxonomies rationalized the use of force to deny Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination and thus to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their land and resources. After the Civil War and with the reservation system implemented, other major shifts in the census categories occurred, including the breakdown of Black into eight different categories (S. Lee 1993), the most derogatory of which would last until the 1930s.

At the same time, American Indians who occupied rich land and resource areas were categorized by US legislation into systems of blood quantum or gendered lineal descent, designed to effect their statistical disappearance through intermarriage and consequent transfer of wealth to white landowners. As land dispossession accelerated, these fertile lands were often given first to immigrants originating from “Anglo-Saxon” countries, then to poor whites in the post–Civil War South, and later to ethnic minorities whose property-owning status facilitated their assimilation into whiteness. Marriage and heteropatriarchy continued to structure the inheritance of property and control of labor: non-Black American Indian women were encouraged to marry white men for oil or land rights to pass into white hands. The myth of the American Indian grandmother, famously used by Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Cherokee ancestry, stems from these early attempts to gain oil rights in Oklahoma and the West by claiming American Indian status (Justice 2019).

What counts as race on the census has changed with each iteration. Even as “white” is an option for racial identification on the census, it is rarely considered to be racial. The definition of whiteness has never been coherent. Although “free white” continued as a category after the first census, European Jewish people and Irish and Italian immigrants were racialized as outside of “white” until the early twentieth century. As these groups accrued economic, political, and cultural power, however, they were folded into the category of whiteness, even as Jewish people continued to suffer anti-Semitism (Ignatiev 1995; Frye Jacobson 1999). Whiteness can even be appropriative itself, as in the example of attributing Aryan heritage to Polynesians to allow white settlers to “claim Polynesian peoples, culture, and crucially lands, as their own heritage—because they were descendants of Aryans” (Arvin 2019b, 45). The 1980 census explicitly noted that Hispanic/Latinx identity is not a race, even though people descended from lands to the south of the United States (who could be white, brown, Black, and/or Indigenous) have been targets of racist violence and exclusion since prior to the first census. As of 2021, Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) people are still considered Caucasian, or white, on the census. And yet the racialized gendering of Arab and particularly Arab-Muslim peoples, across the scale from mass entertainment to state policy and particularly the stereotypes of women as victims and men as terrorists, continues. Racist violence toward MENA people has steadily risen since September 11, 2001, alongside a state of ongoing war against the Middle East, or what some scholars refer to as state Islamophobia (Abdulhadi, Alsultany, and Naber 2011). These examples of conflicted ascendency into whiteness underscore both the malleability of racial categories and what Cheryl Harris has argued is the equation of whiteness both with property and as property (C. Harris 1993; Eng 2010). Overall, the lessons of census history are twofold. First, racial categorization has always been about political and material ends. Second, there is no such thing as a racial categorization without gendered ramifications, and vice versa.

In an effort to intervene in both biologizing and individualizing notions of race that inform liberal multicultural state projects like the census, Michael Omi and Howard Winant called on scholars to attend to the “racial formation” of the United States. The idea of racial formation enables examination of how forms of structural racism, such as housing precarity, police brutality, and anti-immigrant legislation, mutually produce inequality through their everyday administrative functioning (Omi and Winant 1986). Race—which is paradigmatically distinct from ethnicity, religion, nationality, and class while overlapping with them—has less to do with origin stories than it does with a set of processes that shape one’s access to health care, education, and social services; how one passes through social structures such as traffic policing, border crossing, or academic grading; or the siting of voting booths, polluting facilities, and amenities. Thus, like gender and sex, race may be both social (produced within conditions and structures shared with others) and constructed (based on arbitrary and sometimes contradictory assumptions that cannot provide any evidence for their truth status). Even as race is a social construct, it is also materially quite real and made manifest through everyday acts and social structures. Furthermore, racism, understood to exist structurally across legislative, ideological, and economic sectors, is an ideology that must assume the existence of race in order to implement the uneven distribution of resources. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues, racism can be defined as the “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (2007, 28).

Racial discrimination has always proceeded alongside the disciplining of nonnormative gender and sexuality, often with devastating consequences. As scholars of sexuality working in the field of Indigenous studies have shown, this was a strategy honed and sharpened during the early days of European settler colonialism in the Americas. Hernán Cortés, for instance, set his dogs to tear apart Indigenous peoples who did not conform to the gender binary or to heterosexuality (Miranda 2010). Settler records are full of accounts of the Inquisition punishing people for sexual transgressions such as sodomy, a category that encompassed many different sexual acts that were not reproductive intercourse between a cis male and a cis female (Tortorici 2018). The intensified racialization and policing of sexual minorities coincided with the emergence of the clinical category of the homosexual in the late nineteenth century and into the new postemancipation United States (Somerville 2000). In this regime, Black hypersexualization led to stereotypes of Black male and female promiscuity and sexual appetite in addition to the idea that racialized people had an inherent tendency to be lesbian, bisexual, or homosexual. As the segregation of the Jim Crow era escalated, the idea of Black masculinity was rescripted to depict Black men as virile sexual threats to the sexual sanctity of white women. The mere idea that Black men might desire or even look at white women was enough to lead to lynchings (such as the 1955 murder of Emmett Till) and race riots (such as the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921). In such hierarchies of racialized gender formation, the designation of correct “manhood” or “womanhood” is inevitably reserved for whites. If ideals of normative cis womanhood cohered around whiteness (Schuller 2018), sexual deviance was also used to demarcate racial hierarchy, and vice versa.

The capaciousness of stereotypes to accommodate contradictions in racialized gender and sexuality is evident across a range of examples. For instance, the Page Law of 1875 blocked the immigration of Chinese women, primarily by prohibiting prostitutes while also making it nearly impossible for Chinese women to prove they were not sex workers. The so-called bachelor societies of the late nineteenth century then naturalized the effeminization of Asian masculinity by pointing to the gendered forms of labor, such as laundry and cooking, that Chinese men had to do. Asian Americans have since been figured as simultaneously a model minority excelling at assimilation and a perpetual foreigner forever suspect of betraying US national allegiances, as both sexually too passive or too aggressive but always exotically available for exploitation. Such contradictory dynamics can also be seen in turning attention to that status of Mexicans in the United States. When the US government launched the “bracero” guest worker program in 1942, Mexican laboring men were championed for their docile demeanor and tireless contributions to the US economy, even as “zoot suiters”—mostly Mexican American but also Black and Filipino youth who wore flamboyant, gender-bending attire—were brutalized by police, local government, and members of the military for their perceived laziness, extravagance, and threat to the nation-state during wartime (Flores 2020). Depending on what kind of enemy or what kind of labor was required or needed to be disavowed, racialized gender and sexuality have constantly shifted to uphold the economic and ideological systems of the nation-state.

From the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, such racialized sexualities and their perceived deviances became more officially pathologized, often in the name of public health as applied to national immigration control. For example, at both Ellis and Angel Islands, the immigration ports on the East and the West Coasts, respectively, migrants, especially those from places other than northern and western Europe, were closely scrutinized for signs of disease and any perceived gender or sexual nonnormativity, which could lead to exclusion (Rand 2005). Depictions of Asians as both sterile and a “medical menace” due to their presumed sexual immorality (N. Shah 2001) led to mass killings and the forced removal of Asians from their homes—a practice that would, at the executive order of the president during World War II, put Japanese Americans in internment camps, where they were subjected to routine, dehumanizing physical inspections. In 1991, when Haitians fled a coup, the US government detained and processed them on Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where some three hundred who supposedly tested positive for HIV were left to languish in a detention camp for nearly two years—their sexually transmitted disease, poverty, and Blackness depicted as a triple threat to the US state (Paik 2016). In the mid-twentieth century, the federally funded Moynihan Report leveraged racist social science to pathologize single Black mothers and make the specious claim that restoring patriarchal masculinity to Black men was key to solving racial inequality. The infamous report sought to render heterosexual Black women gender nonnormative and laid the grounds for the stereotype of the welfare mom, who became a central symbol in neoliberal arguments for dismantling the economic protections of the liberal welfare state (Cohen 2004).

In addition to the creation and deployment of controlling images that justify brutal immigration and economic policies, keeping racialized groups in seeming competition with one another for fair wages and better working conditions is another strategy that serves the ends of capitalism. The contradiction between the indisputable evidence of racial categorization across history and the later emergence of white-centered class consciousness moved historians working within the Black radical tradition to develop the term racial capitalism (E. Williams 1994; C. Robinson [1983] 2019). According to this movement, capital has a tendency “not to homogenize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into racial ones” (C. Robinson [1983] 2019, 26). The concept of racial capitalism has been useful for queer and woman of color historical materialists who point out that racial groups excluded from citizenship have been the “surplus labor” of US capitalism: these are populations that can easily be put out of work during recessions or austerity and reintegrated into the workforce during a boom. Differentiating racial groups through sexual and gendered nonnormativity has allowed capital to both enfold difference within capital as surplus labor and exploit and undervalue that labor.

These disparate histories demonstrate why some scholars, in particular those practicing queer of color critique, have moved away from thinking of race as static and toward analyzing racialization as process Queer of color critique involves looking at the combinations of affects, sensations, behaviors, discourses, and gestures to see not only how something or someone came to be designated as racialized and gendered but also what effects those labels have produced. The question is about not what race is but rather how race feels or what race does or, even more specifically, how different peoples or individuals do race (Puar 2007; Musser 2018; Muñoz 1999, 2020; J. Rodríguez 2014). Sometimes affiliated with affect or performance studies, this approach notably features an insistence on the importance of the organic and nonorganic in relation to racialization and sensation: here the question of biology becomes an issue not of racial essence but of the complexity of the physical, neurological, and emotional experience of being a body that is susceptible to an ideological environment shaped by racism, capitalism, and cisgender normativity.

Simultaneously structural in analysis and scalable down to the level of bodies and communities., such an approach to race does not deny the existence of biology or materiality, but it does refute racial-biological essentialism entirely. This methodology also focuses on the pleasures, joys, ecstasies, and experiences of shared ways of being that also constitute being a racialized body. Read in these modes, race becomes a keyword for being in community that can be utopian in its practices and imagined beyond the constraints of and damages incurred by rac_ism_. In this mode, the answer to addressing racism becomes not imagining a postracial world or pretending to be color-blind but imagining a world of more race, more community, more being in relation, and even being in common within difference together (Glissant 1990; Lorde [1984] 2007a).

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