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For more than a century, hundreds of psychologists have studied race and ethnicity. Yet this scholarship, like American culture at large, has been ambivalent, viewing race and ethnicity both as sources of pride, meaning, and motivation as well as sources of prejudice, discrimination, and inequality. Underlying this ambivalence is widespread confusion about what race and ethnicity are and why they matter. To address this ambivalence and confusion, as well as to deepen the American conversation about race and ethnicity, the article first examines the field's unclear definitions and faulty assumptions.
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Content Preview
Are Latino and Black interests at odds in the South? Will
Pride, Prejudice, and Ambivalence: Toward a
Asians form a coalition with Whites in California? These
Unified Theory of Race and Ethnicity
conversations, while animated, are tinged with ambivalence
and confusion. Many Americans feel that paying attention
Hazel Rose Markus
to ethnic and racial differences is at odds with our ideals of
Stanford University
individual equality and our belief that, at the end of the
day, people are people. Doesn’t highlighting racial and eth-
nic differences come close to stereotyping? And isn’t even
talking about race and ethnicity sort of, well, racist and
ethnocentric—not to mention possibly illegal? What are
For more than a century, hundreds of psychologists have
race and ethnicity, anyway?
studied race and ethnicity. Yet this scholarship, like
For many psychologists, ambivalence and confusion
American culture at large, has been ambivalent, viewing
about race and ethnicity are not new. I know they have
race and ethnicity both as sources of pride, meaning, and
been with me at least since I was an undergraduate, when I
motivation as well as sources of prejudice, discrimination,
began my research career coding New York Times articles
and inequality. Underlying this ambivalence is widespread
about political conflict (Feierabend, Feierabend, & Nes-
confusion about what race and ethnicity are and why they
vold, 1971). For each article, my first task was to deter-
matter. To address this ambivalence and confusion, as well
mine whether racial groups or ethnic groups were involved
as to deepen the American conversation about race and
in the conflict. To explain the difference between race and
ethnicity, the article first examines the field’s unclear
ethnicity, my graduate student supervisor gave the example
definitions and faulty assumptions. It then offers an
of ethnic and racial ghettos: People choose to live in ethnic
integrated definition of race and ethnicity— dynamic sets of
ghettos, but not in racial ghettos. This example did not
historically derived and institutionalized ideas and
help me much, and at the time, I could not really under-
practices—while noting that race, although often used
stand the difference between race and ethnicity.
interchangeably with ethnicity, indexes an asymmetry of
My confusion about race and ethnicity only grew in
power and privilege between groups. Further, it shows
graduate school. I remember proposing a study on gender
how psychology’s model of people as fundamentally
and the self-concept and another on race and the self-con-
independent, self-determining entities impedes the field’s—
cept. It was Ann Arbor in the 1970s, and nobody said no.
and the nation’s— understanding of how race and ethnicity
Yet my advisors suggested that I would be better off study-
influence experience and how the still-prevalent belief that
ing just the self-concept. Their advice drew on a widely
race and ethnicity are biological categories hinders a more
held, implicit distinction between what is basic and what is
complete understanding of these phenomena. Five first
peripheral, what is process and what is content: The self is
propositions of a unified theory of race and ethnicity are
basic; being a self is process. Gender, race, and ethnicity
offered.
are peripheral; they are content.
Keywords: race, ethnicity, diversity, culture, cultural psy-
At about this time, James Jackson proposed the first
chology
nationally representative survey of Black Americans. Many
at the Institute for Social Research insisted that he include
Americans now talk daily about race and ethnicity. What is
a White comparison group. Otherwise, they said, his re-
it like to be Black in America? Does Obama’s candidacy
search would not be sound—never mind that 30 years of
mean that America can finally confront race? Is it a sign
surveys without Black or Latino comparison groups were
that America is postrace? Do Black churches influence the
presumably robust. The debates raged. I walked away from
Black vote? Do White churches influence the White vote?
these two graduate school incidents with two new types of
confusion: Why isn’t studying gender, race, and ethnicity
“basic” science? And if race and ethnicity are so periph-
Editor’s Note
eral, why does everyone get so tense when they talk about
Hazel Rose Markus received the Award for Distinguished
these topics?
Scientific Contributions. Award winners are invited to de-
Then in 1992, as a University of Michigan faculty
liver an award address at the APA’s annual convention. A
member, I designed my first cultural psychology course,
version of this award address was delivered at the 116th
with sections on selves in European American, Japanese,
annual meeting, held August 14 –17, 2008, in Boston, Mas-
Chinese, Indian, African American, Latino American, and
sachusetts. Articles based on award addresses are re-
Asian American contexts. Many colleagues and students
viewed, but they differ from unsolicited articles in that they
were enthusiastic, but one colleague was inconsolable. His
are expressions of the winners’ reflections on their work
family had survived the Holocaust, and he demanded to
and their views of the field.
know how a social psychologist could teach a course that
November 2008 ● American Psychologist
651

he called Stereotyping 101. My head hurt: As a social psy-
definitions of race and ethnicity and describe a view of the
chologist, I shared my field’s passion for drawing attention
person that readily accounts for how race and ethnicity
to the evils of prejudice and discrimination. But also as a
influence behavior.
social psychologist, I shared my field’s passion for identi-
Finally, I sketch five initial propositions of a unified
fying patterns in social behavior. Where did science end
theory of race and ethnicity. A complete theory will re-
and stereotyping begin?
quire multiethnic, multiracial networks of psychologists
Grappling with race and ethnicity caused me problems
with expertise in psychology, in race and ethnicity, and in
again in 1995. My research lab was discussing the power
the social histories of these phenomena both in America
of popular media to create and maintain stereotypes. I was
and in a global context. In the meantime, closely examin-
arguing that Pocahontas (Pentecost, Gabriel, & Goldberg,
ing and integrating the psychological research on race and
1995), unlike earlier Disney movies, included some posi-
ethnicity will be extremely valuable for psychological sci-
tive representations of underrepresented minorities. An
ence and practice.
American Indian student retorted, “White people would
Separate but Relevant Literatures
think that.” I was used to push-back in this lab, but I was
surprised to hear myself called a White person. After all
My sense that the time is right for an integration of re-
these years studying race and ethnicity, I had somehow
search on race and ethnicity within psychology developed
failed to realize that I “have” race, too. Moreover my ob-
when I was director of the Center for Comparative Studies
servation that things were getting better for American Indi-
in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University. In my work
ans was experienced as reflecting this White perspective.
with colleagues from many fields, I have noticed that psy-
More recently, I discovered that the struggle over what
chologists are more likely to accept race and ethnicity as
to think, say, and do about race and ethnicity is poured
facts of the world than are many other scholars. As a field,
into the very concrete of my office. The Stanford Psychol-
we have done a good job discovering the universal causes
ogy Department resides in a building named after David
and consequences of prejudice but not such a great job
Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford and, like many
uncovering the history and specifics of the American case.
educational leaders of his time, a noted eugenicist. Over
We are less likely to ask what race and ethnicity are,
the building’s entryway is a statue of Louis Agassiz, a
where they came from, and what psychology has done to
Swiss American naturalist, champion of the scientific
create and perpetuate particular understandings of these
method, highly accomplished Harvard professor, and pro-
phenomena (for a significant recent exception, see Helms,
ponent of the belief that some races are just biologically
Jernigan, & Mascher, 2005). With respect to ethnicity, we
better than others. How is it that Jordan Hall, home to gen-
have shown increasing interest in comparing Americans
erations of scientists trying to counter prejudice, stereotyp-
with Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans or with Asian Ameri-
ing, and discrimination, features the name and image of
can or Latino American participants, and in characterizing
two people whom some might now call racists? What do
differences among these groups in various psychological
we do about the Jordan name, the Agassiz statue?
tendencies. At the same time, we have been much less as-
My confusion and ambivalence about race and ethnicity
tute in recognizing that “everyone is ethnic” and in exam-
do not stem from a lack of interest, effort, or goodwill.
ining how mainstream European American behavior is also
They are also not mine alone. Instead, they reflect the as-
ethnically and racially grounded.
sumptions and anxieties of the field of psychology, which
Within psychology, researchers across subfields study
in turn embodies the assumptions and anxieties of Ameri-
race and ethnicity, generating a variety of distinct litera-
cans as a whole.
tures that could be well integrated. One robust, empirical
With race and ethnicity moving to the fore of our na-
literature now demonstrates that race shapes psychological
tion’s consciousness, the time has come for psychologists
experience (for reviews see, e.g., Adams, Biernat,
to examine our own ambivalence and confusion so that
Branscombe, Crandall, & Wrightsman, 2008b; Cuddy,
we may spell out, clearly and compellingly, what race and
Fiske, & Glick, 2007; Dovidio & Gaertner, 2004; Eber-
ethnicity are and why they matter for behavior. Here I of-
hardt & Goff, 2005; Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Jackson,
fer a first step toward that end: the beginnings of a unified
Chatters, & Taylor, 2004; J. M. Jones, 1997; Major &
theory of race and ethnicity. I first argue that psychology’s
O’Brien, 2005; Richeson & Shelton, 2007; C. M. Steele,
ambivalence and confusion stem from four sources: (a)
1997). We now know from this research that racial identity
disagreements over the definitions of race and ethnicity, (b)
can be an important predictor of attitudes, beliefs, motiva-
a view of the person that inhibits our ability to understand
tion, and performance. In contrast to conventional wisdom,
how race and ethnicity might shape experience, (c) the
racial identity need not pose a barrier to finding commonal-
stubborn persistence of the idea that race and ethnicity are
ities with other groups (e.g., Cross, Parham, & Helms,
biological categories, and (d) psychology’s inattention to
1991; Gurin, Gurin, Matlock, & Wade-Golden, 2008;
its own role in fostering this ambivalence. I then offer new
Helms, 1990; Oyserman, Kemmelmeier, Fryberg, Brosh, &
652
November 2008 ● American Psychologist

Hart-Johnson, 2003; Sellers & Shelton, 2003). We also
health, and well-being were like water to the fish—invisi-
know that racial stereotypes are often automatically acti-
ble. These studies are also important in highlighting differ-
vated and have powerful behavioral consequences both for
ent conditions of societal treatment and integration and
those who hold the stereotypes and for those who are the
their consequences for health-related outcomes.
target of them. One groundbreaking theory and finding is
A fourth literature that attends to both race and ethnicity
that racial prejudice and discrimination do not require indi-
comes from the pioneering work of W. E. B. Dubois and
vidual negative attitudes or hostile intent. Instead, what
other Black scholars from the early 20th century and from
Claude Steele and his colleagues describe as a “threat in
the Black psychology movement (Gaines & Reed, 1995).
the air”—a stereotype about one’s group that is active in
This literature reflects Guthrie’s (1976) observation and
the sociocultural context—is enough to impair performance
book title that in psychology, Even the Rat Was White.
in domains relevant to the stereotype (e.g., C. M. Steele, in
One explicit goal of this research has been to blend per-
press; C. M. Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002).
spectives from mainstream research on race, discrimination,
Another robust but separate literature demonstrates that
and prejudice with research that focuses on the unique his-
ethnicity (often called culture) shapes individual experience
torical and cultural experience of African Americans (e.g.,
(for reviews see, e.g., Brewer & Yuki, 2007; Bruner, 1990;
Sellers, Smith, Shelton, Rowley, & Chavous, 1998). These
Chiu & Hong, 2006; Fiske & Fiske, 2007; Greenfield &
studies examine how African philosophies shape the Afri-
Cocking, 1994; Heine, 2008; Kim, Sherman, & Taylor,
can American experience. They also analyze concepts that
2008; Kitayama & Cohen, 2007; Markus & Hamedani,
are meaningful in Black life but that are not represented in
2007; Markus & Kitayama, 2003b; Matsumoto, 2001; Mes-
mainstream or majority experience (for reviews see Boy-
quita & Leu, 2007; Miller, 1999; Nisbett, 2003; Shweder,
kin, 1986; J. M. Jones, 2003; R. L. Jones, 1972; Nobles,
1991, 2003; Tsai, 2007). Labeled cultural psychology, this
1972; Taylor & Manning, 1975; White & Parham, 1990).
literature has so far primarily documented diversity in the
Finally, and more recently, scholars in all of these litera-
psychological functioning of European Americans and East
tures are seeking ways to integrate perspectives that em-
Asians, even though culture is a more general term and
phasize the universal aspects of race and ethnicity with
refers to patterns of ideas and practices associated with any
perspectives that highlight the ways that psychological
significant social grouping, including gender, religion, so-
functioning is contingent on history, culture, and context
cial class, nation of origin, region of origin, birth cohort, or
(e.g., Adams, Biernat, Branscombe, Crandall, & Wrights-
occupation. Studies in cultural psychology reveal that much
man, 2008a; Fryberg & Townsend, 2008; J. M. Jones,
of what has been taken for granted in the field of psychol-
2003; Kitayama, Markus, Adams, Keller, & Shelton,
ogy as “basic human psychological experience”—for exam-
2008; Oyserman, in press; Purdie-Vaughns, Steele, Davies,
ple, ways of attending, thinking, feeling, being a self, relat-
Ditlmann, & Crosby, 2008; C. M. Steele, in press; D. M.
ing to others, coping—is actually specific to middle-class
Steele et al., 2008).
European American psychological experience. Japanese,
Race and Ethnicity Defined
Korean, Chinese, and Asian American contexts are often
characterized by different understandings of what is good,
Despite these literatures’ powerful findings and compelling
real, moral, and healthy, as well as by different social and
insights, they have not reached a consensus on what race
material resources. As a consequence, the psychological
and ethnicity are, how they overlap, or how they differ.
processes of those engaged in these contexts can take very
Instead, race researchers publish their findings in different
different forms. The goal of this research is to extend the
journals and textbooks than do ethnicity or cultural re-
scope of psychological theories so that they are useful and
searchers, and the two groups speak at different symposia
relevant to the predictions, descriptions, and explanations
and conferences. A quick review of their findings suggests
of all human behaviors, not just middle-class, Western ones
that this ambivalence is not surprising. In some instances,
(Markus & Kitayama, 2003a).
racial and ethnic differences are viewed positively: They
A third thriving literature examines both race and eth-
unite people and are a source of pride, identity, and moti-
nicity and how they influence mental health and psycho-
vation. In other instances, however, the same differences
therapy (for reviews see Draguns & Tanaka-Matsumi,
are viewed negatively: They divide people and are a source
2003; Marsella & Yamada, 2007; Phinney, 1996). These
of prejudice and devaluation. Moreover, research on race is
analyses focus on the multiple ways minority and/or immi-
about countering assumptions of group difference and dis-
grant status influence emotional and mental health, and the
pelling stereotypes, whereas research on ethnicity and cul-
challenges of counseling across racial and ethnic divides
ture is about identifying and explaining difference and has
(Betancourt & Lopez, 1993; Franklin & Boyd-Franklin,
been accused of generating stereotypes. In addition, Afri-
2000; Leong et al., 2007; Ponterotto, Casas, Alexander, &
can Americans and, more recently, Latino Americans and
Suzuki, 2001; Sue & Sue, 2002). Prior to these compara-
Hispanic Americans are the groups who have “race”;
tive studies, racial and ethnic differences in self, emotion,
whereas Asians, Asian Americans, and sometimes other
November 2008 ● American Psychologist
653

groups such as the Irish, the Italians, the Mexicans, or
sary, natural, or inevitable. Other distinctions can be made
American Indians are the groups who have “ethnicity and
and will be made as historical, political, and economic con-
culture.” Until quite recently, mainstream Whites have had
ditions change.
neither.
The existence and influence of race and ethnicity reflect
In fact, most racial or ethnic identifications reflect an
humans’ unique evolved capacity to make communities
ongoing confluence of the social structural factors and cul-
and then to be shaped by them (Markus & Hamedani,
tural meanings, and a person’s psychological experience
2007). As people ask “Who am I?” they simultaneously
cannot be parsed easily into its racial or ethnic compo-
ask “Who are we?” (e.g., Brewer, 2007; Hogg, 2003;
nents. Groups typically conceptualized as races can for
Turner & Haslam, 2001). Both ethnicity and race are the
some purposes be “ethnicized” and analyzed as ethnic
result of the basic psychological process of creating and
groups, and ethnic groups can be “racialized” (as is cur-
maintaining social distinctions. They are both important
rently the case for people with Middle Eastern heritage in
answers to the universal “Who are we?” question, guiding
the United States, who face increasing discrimination fol-
behavior and sketching blueprints for our worlds. Whether
lowing 9/11) and analyzed as racial groups.
it is possible to create and observe difference among
Meanwhile, in everyday conversation and in a great deal
groups of people without establishing a hierarchy, such that
of social science, medical, and biological research, people
X’s ways of “being” or “doing” are better than Y’s, re-
use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably or com-
mains a contested question (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).
bine them in constructions such as racial-ethnic or eth-
The ideas and practices associated with race and ethnic-
noracial. Both lay people and professionals discuss race
ity are not separate from behavior or overlaid on a set of
and ethnicity as if they were something people “have”—
basic or fixed psychological processes. Instead, these social
some set of attributes, traits, properties, or essences. They
constructions are active in the very formation and operation
then use these presumed attributes to sort people into dif-
of psychological processes. Whether people are aware of
ferent groups.
their race or ethnicity, or whether they claim them as self-
In contrast, scholars in sociology and history have paid
defining, both can influence thoughts, feelings, and actions
more attention to the difference between race and ethnicity
(Markus, 2008).
(e.g., Fredrickson, 2002; Omi & Winant, 1986, 1994). Ac-
To capture the important similarities and differences
cording to these views, race implicates power and indexes
between the terms race and ethnicity, Paula Moya and I in
the history or ongoing imposition of one group’s authority
a forthcoming volume (Markus & Moya, in press) offer the
over another. Usually, a racial designation signals that dif-
following definitions (Moya & Markus, in press):
ferences between groups may be the result of one group
Race is a dynamic set of historically derived and insti-
maintaining another group as different (and usually infe-
tutionalized ideas and practices that (1) sorts people
rior). Categorizing a group as a racial group draws atten-
into ethnic groups according to perceived physical and
tion to the difference in the power relationships among this
behavioral human characteristics; (2) associates differ-
group and other groups. Thus, people in groups called
ential value, power, and privilege with these character-
races may dispute that they are different from the dominant
istics and establishes a social status ranking among the
group. In contrast, ethnicity focuses attention on differences
different groups; and (3) emerges (a) when groups are
in meanings, values, and ways of living (practices). People
perceived to pose a threat (political, economic, or cul-
in groups called ethnicities are likely to claim these differ-
tural) to each other’s world view or way of life; and/or
ences and are more likely to agree with generalizations
(b) to justify the denigration and exploitation (past, cur-
about the behavior of the group.
rent, or future) of, and prejudice toward, other groups.
Race and ethnicity are, however, alike in many respects,
Ethnicity is a dynamic set of historically derived and
and for this reason, they can be productively considered
institutionalized ideas and practices that (1) allows peo-
together. Contrary to the popular belief that race and eth-
ple to identify or to be identified with groupings of
nicity are biological entities, both race and ethnicity are
people on the basis of presumed (and usually claimed)
dynamic sets of ideas (e.g., meanings, values, goals, im-
commonalities including language, history, nation or
ages, associations) and practices (e.g., meaningful actions,
region of origin, customs, ways of being, religion,
both formal and routine) that people create to distinguish
names, physical appearance, and/or genealogy or ances-
groups and organize their own communities (for related
try; (2) can be a source of meaning, action, and iden-
tity; and (3) confers a sense of belonging, pride, and
definitions, see Helms, Jernigan, & Mascher, 2005; Kroeber
motivation.
& Kluckhohn, 1952; Phinney, 1996; Shweder, 2003). The
social distinctions of race and ethnicity are inventions—the
These definitions highlight that making and maintaining
result of human activity or meaning making, and these as
difference is a social process that involves both ingroup
well as other categorical distinctions, such as gender, reli-
and intergroup relations, and they dispel some of the con-
gion, social class, nation, and occupation, are not neces-
fusion I have felt in my own career. As an undergraduate
654
November 2008 ● American Psychologist

research assistant whose job was to distinguish between
two groups that have experienced different levels of power
racial and ethnic conflicts, I didn’t understand how the dif-
and privilege— especially when one has enjoyed its power
ference between ethnic and racial ghettos could be my
and privilege at the expense of the other. In this case, al-
guide. To my 18-year-old eyes, ethnic ghettos and racial
though ethnic comparisons are useful and needed, they
ghettos were the same—people with similar languages,
should be made in tandem with racial comparisons that
customs, and regions of origin living together. Yet history
explicitly recognize differences in conceptual and material
matters. Ethnic ghettos arise because people choose to be
resources across time.
with others who share their ways of living. But racial ghet-
tos arise when people have no choice in the matter—as
The Problem With the Independent Self
was the case for Jews in Europe during World War II or
Defining race and ethnicity highlights two critical features
for African Americans in the 1960s who were denied mort-
of both phenomena— other people create them, and they
gages when trying to buy houses in certain neighborhoods.
are not biologically based “things” that people “have.” In-
In the latter cases, more powerful groups justified and
stead, they are socially constructed “doings” or “histori-
maintained the racial ghetto, privileging themselves while
cally situated projects,” as Omi and Winant (1994, p. 55)
claiming and fostering the inferiority of the subordinate
call them. Yet the idea of race and ethnicity as social
group.
transactions is at odds with two powerful cultural assump-
Highlighting the distinction between race and ethnicity
tions: (a) that the individual is the source of all thought,
also clarifies some of my struggles as a graduate student
feeling, and action and (b) that race and ethnicity are bio-
and faculty researcher. Envision a study comparing Black
logical or otherwise essential attributes (Moya & Markus,
and White participants’ political attitudes, coping re-
sponses, communication styles, or emotional patterns, as
in press). These assumptions have considerable historical
the Institute for Social Research scholars wanted Jackson
precedent but little empirical support. Nevertheless, they
to conduct. Now envision a similar comparison between
invisibly scaffold most conversations on race and ethnicity,
Japanese and European Americans—two ethnic groups that
driving much of psychology’s—and Americans’— confu-
are relatively similar in power and prestige. In the former
sion and ambivalence about these phenomena (Gaines &
case, one group helped cast the other group as different
Reed, 1995; Johnson, 2006; Sampson, 1988; Shweder &
and lesser, and so people tend to see the behavior of the
Bourne, 1984; Tajfel & Turner, 1985).
dominant group as normative or good and the behavior of
For its part, the independent model of the person has
the subordinate group as nonnormative or deficient. They
led researchers and lay people alike to look deep inside
may also fail to link group differences to disparities in re-
individual minds for sources of thought and action as well
sources and opportunities. I see now that Jackson may
as to ignore or even deny the influences of the social
have been worried about comparing Blacks and Whites
world. According to the independent model, the person is
because he knew that people were unlikely to recognize
the primary source and center of all thought, feeling, and
how the majority group creates and maintains the Black/
action. Agency resides within the person; it comes from
White divide. When explaining, say, why Whites vote
internal states, capacities, motivations, and dispositions.
more often than Blacks, or why White students score
From the perspective of this “it’s what’s inside that counts”
higher on standardized tests than Black students, some au-
model, people are self-determining, self-motivating, and
diences would fail to account for vast differences in these
morally responsible for their own actions (Fiske, Kitayama,
two groups’ histories, resources, and opportunities. Instead,
Markus, & Nisbett, 1998; Markus & Kitayama, 1991,
they would fall back on the common just-so story that
2003b; Plaut & Markus, 2005; Triandis, 1991). Norma-
Blacks are inferior to Whites—and thereby further justify
tively good actions originate in an independent, bounded,
the social rankings of Blacks and Whites.
autonomous self and are separate or distinct from the
When researchers study groups that are similar in power
thoughts and feelings of others.
and prestige, they can more confidently interpret their find-
The independent model of the self is so thoroughly in-
ings as ethnic differences—that is, differences in ideas,
scribed in American society that we often do not realize
values, and patterns of social life. For example, cultural
that other models of the self exist. It is the basis of the
psychologists, who have found that middle-class European
self-interested rational actor in economic theory, the rea-
Americans tend to view themselves as influencing others
sonable man in the law, and the authentic self in clinical
whereas middle-class Japanese tend to view themselves as
and counseling psychology. Fostering this model of self are
adjusting to others, explain their findings in terms of the
foundational texts such as the Declaration of Independence
different ideas about the self, philosophies, religions, child-
and the Bill of Rights, a legal system that identifies and
rearing practices, educational systems, and even languages
protects individual rights, and a host of social and political
of these two groups. These types of ethnic comparisons
institutions that encourage the development and expression
can be misleading, however, when the contrast involves
of these rights. This powerful model is not just a set of
November 2008 ● American Psychologist
655

values. It is also a to-do list that organizes the flow of ev-
rights, justice, science, choice, control, and self-determina-
eryday life in many American contexts.
tion are a powerful knot of positive associations that recruit
For example, to encourage independence and the devel-
and support one another. In contrast, the concepts of the
opment of personal preferences, goals, and perspectives,
collective, the social, others, custom, culture, convention,
American parents give infants their own bedrooms. Chil-
superstition, sensitivity to social influence, adjustment to
dren choose their own breakfasts and their school activities
others, compliance, and conformity are a countervailing
from a wide array of options. Regardless of the circum-
knot of negative associations.
stances, Americans explain their own actions and those of
Because the ideas of race and ethnicity highlight ties to
others as expressions of individual preferences and choices.
others and social influence, Americans would often prefer
Americans know that they should resist influence by others
just to ignore these phenomena. Doing so is consistent with
and have the courage of their own convictions. Animated
the task of resisting the collective and maintaining inde-
by the independent model, they think they can and they do.
pendence. Moreover, because the independent model is a
They take charge, are in control, and realize their dreams.
description not only of how people are, but also of how
When things go right, individuals get the credit; if not,
they should be, claiming that race and ethnicity matter can
they get the blame.
seem immoral, leaving one vulnerable to multiple charges—
The independent model of the self does acknowledge
a lapse of self-determination, an expression of weakness, a
other people and relationships. After all, Americans make
failure of reason.
friends, love one another, cooperate, volunteer, give to
Meanwhile, because the true story of human nature is
charity, and pull together to solve problems. Yet attention
the “inside story,” according to the independent model of
to and concern for others is cast as intentional and volun-
self, psychologists have usually believed that the primary
tary; it is not necessary or obligatory (Adams, Anderson, &
route to understanding behavior is to analyze those univer-
Adonu, 2004; Markus & Kitayama, 1994). From the per-
sal internal attributes and processes that the human mind
spective of the independent model of the person, people
comprises. This is why my graduate school advisers
can and should choose their own fates and determine their
thought I would be wiser to study the self-concept, ab-
own destinies. This model implies that people can and
stracted from the messiness of particular social worlds.
should choose what, when, and who will influence them,
But who gets to be the universal, generic person with
and this includes choosing if and how race and ethnicity
the self-concept? The fact that a study or a survey with all
will affect them.
Japanese participants or all Black participants seems in-
Americans did not just dream up this particular model
complete and requires a White comparison group, whereas
of the person. Rather, thousands of years of Western philo-
the same study with all White participants does not, reveals
sophical and religious thinking led to it. Plato’s notion that
the extent to which those in the majority can take their
to know something is to discover its underlying essence is
own behavior as standard, neutral, or basic. Why wouldn’t
tied to the Western idea that agency resides within the per-
a study of only Black participants reveal basic processes?
son (Popper, 1957). Likewise, Descartes’ idea that moral
It also reveals why I was surprised to have my observa-
strength comes from inside people, not from outside
tions about Disney’s Pocahontas tied to my race. In the
sources, presages our modern belief that moral action often
movie, Pocahontas sings, “For whether we are white or
requires keeping one’s own counsel and resisting the crowd
copper skinned, We need to sing with all the voices of the
(Taylor, 1989). Philosophers during the late 17th century’s
mountains, We need to paint with all the colors of the
Age of Reason further bolstered the idea of the self-deter-
wind” (from the song “Colors of the Wind,” lyrics by Ste-
mining individual, as did the Enlightenment’s rejection of
phen Schwartz). Although admittedly saccharine, these lyr-
tradition and authority in favor of reason and science
ics to me sounded like a perfectly reasonable call to multi-
(Weizmann, 2004). Jefferson distilled many of these ideas
cultural cooperation. Yet like many majority-group people
when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We
with an independent model of self, I failed to see how my
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created
own social positioning shaped my experience of these lyr-
equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
ics. To one identified as American Indian, a recognition
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and
that one’s group had been devalued and denied the power
the pursuit of Happiness.”
and privilege the majority group gave itself should accom-
In the modern paradigm that took root during this time,
pany the need to paint with all the colors of the wind. As
the autonomous individual is the sole source of meaning
the adage goes, people with power want peace, but people
and truth. Through systematic observation and the use of
without power want justice.
reason and doubt, individuals can develop rational faculties
Another Bad Idea: Race and Ethnicity Are Biological
that allow them to stand strong against the demands of cul-
ture, custom, and other people. The concepts of the indi-
Bound up with the idea of the individual defined by natural
vidual, independence, freedom, liberty, knowledge, reason,
rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the
656
November 2008 ● American Psychologist

powerful idea of equality among individuals. Yet the En-
Notably, the European scientists doing the classifying
lightenment ideal of universal emancipation was deeply at
found their own race to have superior qualities. The notion
odds with everyday reality, in which groups of people who
that some races were inferior to the European race was
differed by race and ethnicity lived in unequal circum-
useful for justifying European dominance. In the face of
stances and received unequal treatment. Indeed, the United
Enlightenment claims that people were equally free and
States’ founders explicitly excluded some groups—African
moral, a racial hierarchy could explain the growing in-
Americans and Native Americans—from their notion of the
equality. The idea of biological differences among people
“men” who were created equal. So Jefferson’s appeal to
also fit the independent model’s claim that behavior arises
the equality of men fomented much questioning about his
from internal attributes. This simple idea served a wide
meaning. Was every human as equal as every other? Were
variety of ideological and social purposes throughout Eu-
they equal in capacity, or before God? How could you
rope and America, and so it stuck.
know? What would be the test of equality? And even if
During World War II, biological thinking inspired Nazi
people believed that all humans were equal in capacity and
ideology and its horrific outcomes, leading to an aversion
worth, then how could they explain the existing inequality?
to the idea of race as biology. Yet Americans never fully
Questions like these preoccupied the country’s founders,
embraced another way of thinking about race and ethnicity.
and the answers they provided have had profound conse-
Instead, people just avoided the topics altogether. The pro-
quences for the history of race and ethnicity as well as for
gressive norm became to claim color blindness—that is,
research on race and ethnicity (Moya & Markus, in press;
the stance that race and ethnicity did not matter, and every-
Stoskopf, 2002).
one should be treated equally. Yet color blindness did not
One convenient answer to the vexing equality question
solve the problem of what type of phenomena race and
ethnicity were. Nor did it grapple with the fact that even
was that people have different biological attributes. Tied to
though race and ethnicity should not matter, they still strat-
the assumption that the person is an independent entity
ified almost every aspect of society. Although research
made up of defining attributes is the idea that race and eth-
studies repeatedly show that race and ethnicity are not bio-
nicity are a result of some qualities or attributes inside the
logically based, they do not suggest better ways to talk
body or blood of people associated with a particular race
about the apparently racial and ethnic differences that are
and that these physical traits reliably indicate how good,
everywhere in plain sight.
smart, or civilized people are capable of being (Markus &
This assumption that differences must be biological is
Moya, in press; Smedley, 1999). Thinking of race as a fact
what drove my colleague to label my cultural psychology
of nature appears to have emerged in the 15th century as
class Stereotyping 101. He was implicitly using a biologi-
part of the Western scientific project of categorizing and
cal definition of race and ethnicity, wherein race and eth-
ordering the world. Classifying people according to their
nicity are fixed, internal entities. He had not yet entertained
race was not, however, a natural or an obvious way to
an alternate conceptualization in which race and ethnicity
think. In fact, many historians of ancient civilizations now
are sets of ideas and practices that change with time and
concur that, although people from the Egyptian, Middle
circumstance. To underscore the view of race and ethnicity
Eastern, Greek, and Roman worlds often interacted, they
as patterns of ideas and practices in the environment and
rarely used race or color as a basis of difference. The
not as entities inside people, I find it useful to say, for ex-
Greeks, for example, distinguished among people on the
ample, “people who have participated in Mexican contexts”
basis of their language (Fredrickson, 2002; Snowden,
rather than “Mexicans,” and “people who are designated or
1983).
who claim themselves as African American or Latino
Racial and ethnic classifications became common, how-
American” rather than “African Americans” or “Latino
ever, with the development of science and with the rise of
Americans.” Although clearly more convenient, the prac-
the nation-state. Europeans viewed the political conflicts
tice of labeling groups with a noun encourages essentialism
between their states as reflections of different national
and assumptions of entitativity.
characters (Weizmann, 2004). As these Europeans began
colonizing Africa, Asia, and the Americas, they developed
Social Construction of the Self, Race, and Ethnicity
a wide array of racial classification systems. According to
Despite the powerful philosophical argument for the self as
one of Linnaeus’s systems, for example, Native Americans
independent, people are not just autonomous, separate, bio-
were reddish, stubborn, and easily angered; Africans were
logical entities; they are also relational, interdependent be-
black, relaxed, and negligent; Asians were sallow, avari-
ings (Markus, Kitayama, & Heiman, 1997). The liberal
cious, and easily distracted; while Europeans were white,
individualism that abstracts and separates the individual is
gentle, and inventive (Linnaeus, 1767, p. 29). Agassiz’s
an engine of a democratic and capitalist society (Augousti-
notions of the biological differences among races built on
nos, 1998; Plaut & Markus, 2005), but it can also obscure
and extended these earlier notions (Gould, 1981).
the ways in which individuality is a product of history and
November 2008 ● American Psychologist
657

social connections. Being a person requires others and their
the group (J. M. Jones, 1997; Omi & Winant, 1994; Rich-
context-specific ideas and practices. In fact, there is no
ards, 2004).
such thing as a neutral, ahistorical, asocial person. People
The move away from thinking of race and ethnicity as
deprived of regular social contact fail to develop into com-
biological entities began early in the 20th century, but
petent, appropriately functioning adults. And so despite the
there have been frequent roadblocks and detours. While
appeal of the independent model, it should not be confused
America was caught in its first panic over too many immi-
with an empirically derived model. Empirically, the picture
grants and how to justify mounting inequalities, some so-
could not be clearer. Virtually all behavior is dependent on
cial scientists took issue with the idea that the cultural, lin-
and requires others.
guistic, and behavioral differences among people were the
A view of the person as necessarily interdependent can
result of a set of inherent and fixed physical characteristics.
seem at odds with the highly prized notions of individual
For example, in 1911, when Franz Boas published The
autonomy and control. Yet saying that other people consti-
Mind of Primitive Man, which included studies on Native
tute the self is not saying that other people determine the
Americans along the northwest coast of the United States,
self. People are indeed individuals; they are intentional
he demonstrated that many of the most significant features
agents who can, if they wish, resist and contest the views
of people’s behavior (their language, values, ways of cook-
of others—parents, priests, and politicians. At the same
ing, kinship ties, child rearing) cannot be tied to inherited
time, people everywhere live in social networks, groups,
bodily differences (Moya & Markus, in press). He argued
and communities, and so their thoughts, feelings, and ac-
that all these features overlap and vary independently of
tions are interdependent with the thoughts, feelings, and
each other. For example, two populations that looked very
actions of others. A significant evolutionary advantage of
similar could speak different languages and behave very
humans is that they enter a world replete with the ideas
differently from each other. Conversely, they could speak
and products of those who have gone before them; they do
the same language and have similar cultural practices but,
not have to build the world anew (Tomasello, 2001). Peo-
in terms of physical features, look very different. Boas’s
ple form bonds with others, help others, depend on others,
research thus allowed social scientists to understand the
compare themselves to others, learn from others, teach oth-
differences they noted among humans in new ways. Boas
ers, and experience themselves and the world through the
was a forceful opponent of the existence of a racial or eth-
images, ideas, representations, and language of others (e.g.,
nic hierarchy in which some groups are more evolved than
Asch, 1952; Bruner, 1990; Shweder, 2003). Such social
others. Rather, he championed cultural pluralism, arguing
influence is both a product and producer of human nature;
that there are a number of equally evolved and viable hu-
it is not a failure of independence.
man cultures. Boas and his students, including Ruth Bene-
People also know themselves and each other through
dict and Margaret Mead, found that differences in ideas
social categories. As a result, they will necessarily be influ-
and practices among people could account for the differ-
enced by how others regard their social groups. Individuals
ences that had previously been ascribed to race. Horace
are African Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Mexicans, and
Kallen (1924), Robert E. Park (1950), and Gunnar Myrdal
so forth. They are also women, Muslims, Republicans,
(1944/1962) also challenged biologism and made the case
Southerners, blue-state dwellers, doctors, joggers, and dog
that ethnicity was a social category.
owners. Such social identities are highly mutable and shuf-
As Omi and Winant (1994) explained, the concept of
fled by context and circumstance, but they have powerful
ethnicity was an extremely significant one because it
consequences for behavior. People respond to and are re-
moved thinking away from the biological thinking associ-
sponded to according to social categories that are signifi-
ated with race. Yet theories of ethnicity created their own
cant in a given situation.
set of problems, and one legacy of these problems is a veil
Like the idea that a person is a bounded, self-determin-
of suspicion between those who focus on race and those
ing entity, the notion that race and ethnicity are primarily a
who concentrate on ethnicity and culture. As the study of
matter of biological essences or entities is a resilient one
“ethnicity” took the place of the study of “race” in the
that, once established, has proven difficult to dislodge from
middle of the 20th century, the assumption was that White
both the popular and scientific imagination. A shift in para-
European immigrant groups and racial minority groups
digm requires recognizing that although people differ in the
could be understood similarly. Yet differences in historical
inherited characteristics of skin color, eye color, or hair
circumstance, in structural barriers, in access to resources,
texture, which are often used to assign race and ethnicity,
and most important, in the terms of their acceptance by the
these characteristics are not the source of observed differ-
White majority undermined any clear analogy between
ences in character, intelligence, and other patterns of be-
White ethnic groups and racial minority groups such as
havior. Instead, race and ethnicity are social categories that
Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians. Underscoring this
involve the historically derived and institutionalized ideas
point, many groups rejected the ethnic identity ascribed to
of those associated with the group and also those outside
them and claimed instead a racial identity.
658
November 2008 ● American Psychologist

Even though the terms race and ethnicity are seldom
ethnicity. Psychology is known for its fight against preju-
defined in psychology, a view of race and ethnicity as dy-
dice, and some of its most impressive contributions are
namic sets of ideas and practices is the framework that
associated with revealing the everyday mechanisms of dis-
implicitly underlies much of the recent research on race
crimination. Yet psychology has also played a powerful
and ethnicity cited in the beginning of this essay. The con-
role in confirming racial hierarchies and in creating and
ceptual location of race and ethnicity is finally shifting.
maintaining the idea of race as a natural or biological fact
Race and ethnicity are not inside people, nor are they enti-
(Winston, 2004). As we consider this history and its conse-
ties that people have. They are instead a result of under-
quences for our science, I believe the field’s wariness to-
standings distributed and institutionalized in the social con-
ward race and ethnicity’s influence will begin to dissipate.
text and used by people to guide their own behavior and
Most discussions of race in psychology begin with the
make sense of the behavior of others. For example, in cul-
work of Francis Galton, who gave psychology the phrase
tural psychology, ethnicity is defined in terms of cultural
“nature versus nurture.” Scholars disagree about the level
patterns, which are “explicit and implicit patterns of histor-
of Galton’s intentional racism and whether or not he fell
ically derived ideas and their embodiment in institutions,
within the continuum of Victorian thinking on the topic
practices, and artifacts” (adapted from Kroeber & Kluck-
(see Fancher, 2004; Winston, 2004). Galton, however, did
hohn, 1952, cited in Adams & Markus, 2004, p. 341; see
advocate eugenic breeding practices that he hoped would
also Atran, Medin, & Ross, 2005; Shweder, 2003). As
help elevate the inferior races to approach the level of civi-
Shweder (2003) noted, when ethnic groups are character-
lized Europeans. Americans initially gravitated to Galton’s
ized in terms of patterns of ideas and practices, there is no
ideas because of worries over the influx of Europeans from
assumption of an absence of dispute among those identified
Southern and Eastern Europe.
with the group or any claim of within-group homogeneity
Psychology’s most specific and powerful role in the
in knowledge, belief, or practice.
study of race and ethnicity centers around the idea of tests
Highlighting the notion that there are alternate ways to
of intelligence. As American policymakers faced the task
think about race and ethnicity are recent studies examining
of classifying groups of people so they could determine
differences in the theories people hold about the sources of
who was fit for service, schooling, or citizenship, they
racial difference and the consequences of these differences
readily adopted the idea of “mental tests.” James Catell,
(Chao, Chen, Roisman, Chiu, & Hong, 2007; Williams &
who worked with Galton and is known for his efforts to
Eberhardt, 2008). Williams and Eberhardt (2008) found,
strengthen psychology’s scientific credentials, was one of
for example, that those who held a biological conception of
the first American psychologists to attempt to isolate and
race as opposed to a social conception of race were more
measure intelligence through a variety of psychophysical
likely to endorse stereotypes, were more pessimistic about
techniques, including measuring head size (Catell, 1890).
overcoming race-related inequities, had a less diverse
His work was highly influential in the popularization of
groups of friends, and explained inequality in terms of in-
mental testing. The implementation of mass testing quickly
herent racial differences.
fueled the already widespread assumption that intelligence
Yet even as a more accurate and social perspective on
was a fixed attribute of a person and that some persons, by
race and ethnicity becomes established, simple and popular
virtue of their racial group association, were less intelligent
glosses of many new findings in genetics keep the biologi-
than others.
cal hypothesis alive. Population geneticists are now able to
For example, Stanford psychology professor Lewis Ter-
analyze genetic material from humans sampled around the
man assessed the then-common belief that non–Northern
world, from different populations on different continents,
European people were less intelligent than people of North-
and to ask how and why these individuals and populations
ern European origin. Adapting a test that had been devel-
are related (Feldman, Lewontin, & King, 2003; Lee et al.,
oped in France to measure students’ performance on spe-
2008). Notably, the populations used in these studies have
cific academic tasks and to assess their need for tutoring,
very little correspondence with our everyday historically
he followed Goddard’s (1914) lead and suggested that the
and politically derived constructs of race and ethnicity. Yet
test instead measured people’s innate intelligence. After
until people understand that race and ethnicity are social
administering the test to non–Northern European immigrant
constructions, this work will doubtless continue to fuel the
children, Terman concluded: “The tests have told the truth.
assumption that race is a biological thing (Feldman, in
These boys are ineducable beyond the merest rudiments of
press).
training. No amount of school instruction will ever make
them intelligent voters or capable citizens” (Terman, 1916,
Psychology’s Role in Fostering Ambivalence
pp. 91–92).
Along with psychology’s independent model of self and a
In retrospect, these tests, which were touted as efficient
biological model of race, a few unsavory aspects of our
ways of measuring the mental abilities of large groups of
field’s history contribute to the ambivalence about race and
people, are more accurately described as tests of culture-
November 2008 ● American Psychologist
659

specific knowledge. Yet the hypothesis that good perfor-
psychology’s role in promoting racism and a racial hierar-
mance on an IQ test reflects familiarity with ideas, objects,
chy (e.g., Billig, 1988; Tucker, 1994; Winston, 2004).
activities, and approaches that are common in middle-class
Unpacking psychology’s role in fostering ambivalence
contexts never gained popular traction. Instead, differences
about race and ethnicity will require a comprehensive un-
among groups in test scores were left unexplained, and
derstanding of American history and politics. For example,
these IQ scores became facts that were used to explain dif-
many psychologists turned away from the study of race
ferences in educational achievement (Winston, 2004). For
and ethnicity following the controversy surrounding the
example, at the end of Reconstruction, Black schools were
infamous 1965 Moynihan report. This report, titled The
seriously underfunded and in very bad condition. The vast
Negro Family: The Case for National Action, located a
differences in educational opportunities between Blacks
“tangle of pathologies” squarely and rather intractably in-
and Whites might have been an obvious and ready expla-
side African American cultural practices. The report, pub-
nation for differences in achievement, but then as now, the
lished a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, ar-
focus was on the individual and on what is inside the indi-
gued that without fathers in the house, Black families fell
vidual, and differences in test scores and school achieve-
into a cycle beginning with poverty, disorganization, and
ment were explained in terms of innate differences among
isolation and ending with delinquency and crime. At the
racial groups. In spite of the research by Klineberg (1935),
same time, the report failed to highlight how the lack of
who found that lower scoring Southern Blacks who moved
educational and employment opportunities for African
North and were integrated into better-quality Northern
Americans set up the conditions for fathers to leave their
schools had scores equal to those of Northern-born Blacks,
families in the first place. In effect, the Moynihan report
the prevailing argument took the by-now-familiar form that
identified allegedly endemic flaws in African American
the races have fundamentally different psychological char-
families and then blamed African American families alone
acters and destinies (Richards, 2004). The availability of an
for them.
intelligence test came together with what was called the
Because it failed to do the obvious—tie the culture of
poverty to the many sociocultural contexts beyond the fam-
“Negro education debate” and set up a decades-long, on-
ily that created and fostered it—the report succeeded in
again, off-again discussion on racial differences in intelli-
giving “culture” and “ethnicity” a clearly negative connota-
gence.
tion among those interested in the lives of African Ameri-
Most psychologists are well aware of Jensen’s (1969)
cans. It also set up a divide between culture and structure
argument about the inherited deficiencies of Black children,
and used it to erroneously distinguish ethnicity and race.
of Eysenck’s (1971) defense of him, and of Herrnstein and
Cultural (and ethnic) explanations were seen as emphasiz-
Murray’s (1994) revival of these ideas. Yet as a field, we
ing what was unchanging about individuals and families,
have yet to grapple with the powerful causes and conse-
while structural (and racial) explanations were those that
quences, both intended and unintended, of this persistent
emphasized opportunity and changing social conditions.
debate. Richards (2004) found the concern with the biolog-
This divide persists despite the fact that new definitions of
ical basis of race and with the possibility of inherent bio-
culture now locate culture and ethnicity not in attributes or
logical differences to be a “peculiarly American ob

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