Race as a Social Construct

Reflect on the Following Scenario:

Beginning her high school journey, Maya, a bright and ambitious Black student with a passion for mathematics, was meeting with her guidance counselor to choose classes for the upcoming semester.

Despite her potential, Maya found herself consistently placed in applied math classes where opportunities for advancement were scarce, and resources much more limited than the academic classes. The guidance counselor explained that the applied math class was a better fit for Maya’s abilities, but Maya couldn’t help but notice that her grades were much higher than some of the white students being placed into academic streams. 

The subtle but pervasive influence of systemic racism is silently steering the futures of Maya and her racialized classmates. The academic classes, filled with resources and opportunities, become out of reach for students like Maya, confining them to a predetermined path and fueling the already biased and prejudiced education system.

Research conducted by the Coalition for Alternatives to Streaming in Education in Ontario schools found that “Black, Indigenous, racialized, low-income, and special needs students are significantly more likely to be placed into applied or locally developed classes which lead to worse learning outcomes and postsecondary options than those of their academic peers.”

Students’ educational attainment can predict several life outcomes, such as employment opportunities, income, social mobility, housing, and food security. 

There have been recent shifts in addressing some of the structural barriers created by streaming in Ontario schools. However, there is still much more work to be done to challenge systemic racism in our education systems and create a barrier-free and just learning environments for our youth. 

Watch this 3-minute video to learn more about the social construction of race and its real-life implications:

What does it mean to say race is a social construct?

Understanding race as a social construct instead of a biological difference is important when considering how power and privilege are ingrained in our society. Throughout history, whiteness has been associated with categories such as high income, education, and ownership. At the same time, blackness has historically been linked to stigma and marginalization. Over time, these ideologies created by the dominant group, have shaped how we view race as defined categories. But race is not biological; there are no genes that are exclusive to all white, black, or racialized people. 

Race is the social meaning we attach to these physical differences, but are critically supported by political and economic forces that we use to form assumptions about an individual’s or group’s identity. This social meaning shows up in biases, misperceptions, prejudice, and discrimination. Although race is a social construct with no biological basis, racism and the experiences of systemic inequalities are very real. Understanding that racial categories are made up can give us an important perspective on where racism came from in the first place. Anti-racist work in schools begins with creating an understanding of the basis of race as a social construct, and with this knowledge we can work to challenge the systemic inequities present in our school policies and practices.

Reflect on the following questions:

  1. What are the dangers of categorizing people based on race in the school system?

  2. How have the assumptions and misconceptions about race become part of the practices and policies that impact your school system?

  3. How can you challenge systemic racism in your classroom and support all students in reaching their fullest potential?

Race and racism igniting student voice

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