Race as a social construct refers to the fact that race is almost assigned by others. That race only has a biological component because we have given it one. In the 1800’s it was common to label the Irish and the Franks a separate race in a world that was still largely monopolized by whites in order to subset ourselves, and then even for Northern American States and Southern American States to differentiate their races by Puritan and Huguenots and Jacobites. The process of such sub setting was a way to create individuality and then bestow inferiority.
A perfect example of this would actually be myself. While my mother’s family can claim French, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh as their heritage, my father’s all come from one small island nation midway between Libya and Italy. The result of the latter is my darker skin and features not normally associated with the sort of whiteness that comes out of France and the British Isles. While many Arabic people say I look white, white people say I look Arabic, and I have even been asked if I am part black, all of which are true. The idea of race being a skin color or continent of origin has always been so foreign and silly to me because no one label can even begin to describe what I am. Do I check the box for black, Arabic, or Caucasian? Should I be individually proud of any of these, or all of them? What am I? To me, race has always been something you can choose for that reason, which would make it my own personal social construct. And that view would then be reinforced by people telling me I am not “Arabic enough” or “African enough” to call myself such, because I do not fit their idea, or construct, of what they identify as through their own thinking of the idea bestowed upon them through socialization.
Being a lifelong student of History, it is easy to see that when America started with its European uniformity, the divisions were mainly based upon where in Europe one was from. The Spanish saw the American natives as inferior but the offspring of cross breeding as perfectly Spanish, the French saw the natives largely as equals but discriminated against Protestants as unequal, and the English, and later Americans, kept themselves separate from the “barbaric” Catholics and Irish, even using the Irish as the earliest slaves before the African slave trade. With American statehood, the lines became drawn at the Mason Dixon line until after the civil war when “blacks” and the Irish and their fellow Catholics once again fell back into the bottom tier of the social ladder. With the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries, the Spanish-American war made the line clear once again that American Protestantism held the Spanish Catholics as inferior barbarians to whom they wish to bestow their own version of Christianity in order to civilize them, which we saw in Cuba and the Philippines, and in the spreading of such institutions as the YMCA. The Spanish-American period was of much significance in this area as much of the justification of the war was that Catholics were inferior.
Perhaps the best example of race as a social construct can be seen in the Ku Klux Klan. In its beginnings, it was an organization created to keep America Anglo and Protestant, and as America evolved, they accepted whites who were not Anglo, and then following the period of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency, the Catholic requirement was dropped because their idea of the white race shifted with the changing demographics. What the Klan viewed as white shifted with the changing construct of what made up the white race. Today, even I might be able to join some branches of the Klan, which I say only to demonstrate how far the definition has shifted and how social the idea of race truly is.