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Is “race” an “ugly word”?

When NYU sociologist Ann Morning began researching the term’s meaning across borders, that was one jarring description she was confronted with.

“We knew that there were transatlantic differences in terms of how willing people might be to talk about race and the importance they thought that race had in their respective societies,” Morning explains. “In Italy, in talking with people about race, we kept getting this reaction from people who would viscerally recoil from even using the word ‘race,’ and they would say, oh, ‘Che brutta parola,’ which means ‘What an ugly word.’ ”

The comment became the title for the 2022 book An Ugly Word: Rethinking Race in Italy and the United States that she co-authored with University of Milan-Bicocca sociologist Marcello Maneri in an effort to find a common language for talking about race across national borders.

The San Lorenzo Market in Florence Italy. Photo credit: FilippoBacci/Getty Images. Two friends are walking in San Lorenzo market in Florence, Italy. They are shopping together.

The San Lorenzo Market in Florence Italy. Photo credit: FilippoBacci/Getty Images.

“The term ‘race’ may not mean the same thing, have the same connotations, or be used in the same ways or to the same degree—if at all—in different settings,” the authors observe, though in their research they did find significant common ground for a word whose meaning can be elusive.

“Our starting point is the observation that race is just one of a family of concepts,” says Morning, who has served as a statistician for the US Census Bureau and who recently worked with publishers in developing racial classifications that are applicable across cultures. “It has a resemblance to other classification systems—like ethnicity or tribe or caste. And we argue that what those classification systems all have in common is that, at the heart of them, they’re all ideas about shared ancestry, shared inheritance, and shared descent.”

Questions about our ever-evolving understanding of race in the US context today are as urgent as ever, with proposed changes to the US Census classifications, an impending Supreme Court decision that could end race-based affirmative action in college admissions, and ongoing debate about reparations for slavery—among other issues on which public opinion remains divided.

NYU sociologist Ann Morning. Photo by Tracey Friedman

NYU sociologist Ann Morning. Photo by Tracey Friedman

NYU News talked with Morning, who will become NYU’s dean for the social sciences this fall, about the larger impact of racial classifications and how our perceptions and categorizations of race have influenced how we see ourselves in realms from athletics to advertising.

The Biden administration is currently considering changes to the 2030 Census that would expand racial and ethnicity classifications. Why are these significant?

I think something that people don’t often realize is that our census racial categories, which have been in the US Census since the very first one in 1790, are always changing—from almost every decade to the next. When we take a census, we usually tinker with, if not outright overhaul, our race questions and race categories. So these kinds of changes are the rule rather than the exception.

When we think about the impact of these categories, beyond what it means for the numbers, we have to realize that the race question and now the ethnicity question, which is a more recent creation, are on the US Census to serve policy purposes. They are there because they are supposed to be providing the data that the US government needs to implement certain policies.

Over time, these kinds of categories have underwritten what we would call today very exclusionary and oppressive policies. If we go back to the origins of the race question on the US Census in 1790, we see in subsequent decades, and in conjunction with the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which determined that slaves in the US would only be counted as three-fifths of other members of US society, that it was part of an oppressive machinery.

But today we collect data on race and ethnicity for inclusionary purposes. We’re collecting these data because we want to be able to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws. We want to be able to have the data that lets us track whether racial discrimination is taking place on a large scale or within specific industries or areas of the country.

Beyond policies, census categories also have kind of a life of their own in that they also shape how everyday people think about which groups are important in US society, which groups are large, and which are salient to us. The current proposed changes mainly would have the effect of making two groups more salient in terms of our way of counting people by race in the US. One recommendation the Biden administration is bringing forward is to include, for the first time, a Hispanic or Latino box on our race question. There was previously a separate question asking people if they were of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, but by bringing in that box, the idea is to help people who identify as Latino to answer the race question better. And second, the administration is proposing to include a new box for people of Middle Eastern and North African origin. This would be an entirely new box on the US Census, and it would bring to national prominence a rather small but growing group of Americans.

An Ugly Word surfaced a number of differences in how race is viewed in Italy vs. the US However, when it comes to athletics, you find a shared perception—one that erroneously links race and anatomy: “The US and Italian interviewees’ shared convictions about the special athletic properties of Black—and usually male—bodies were evident in several ways,” you write. Why is this stereotype so persistent? 

For my first book, I conducted interviews with US college students and professors about their understandings about race. By chance, I found that when the conversation turned to the question of sports, people who were otherwise hesitant to speak about race had newfound enthusiasm, were excited to talk about racial difference, and had lots to say about it. They had lots of beliefs about inborn, natural physical differences between the races. Often their whole discourse about biological and racial differences in sports might even be at odds with what they would say in the rest of the interview—where they might actually reject a biological interpretation of race.

So when my co-author and I were conducting interviews in Italy, we thought to ask about race and sports there, too. What we found was that in the domain of sports Italians and Americans were absolutely the most similar to each other in the things that they said—they were actually reading from the same page: that Black people have special physical capacities that nobody else has, they have different muscles, they have special muscles, they have a different composition of body fat.

And they argued that these physical and racial differences explained why Black athletes were disproportionately represented in certain sports, such as track and field or, in the American context, the NFL. 

"An Ugly Word" book cover

What was also very telling was that in neither country did our interviewees actually explain White athletes’ predominance in a sport by referring to their body. So nobody said, “White people dominate in ice hockey or in swimming because they have special muscles or they have special bones” or anything like that.

How do you account for that difference?

This led me to talk about what I call Black biological exceptionalism. Both Americans and Italians had the idea that Africans, in the past—the “ancestors” of today’s athletes—had to develop their physical capacities to deal with their environment. We heard countless stories of Africans having to run away from lions or having to chase down wild animals for their dinner and things like that. And conversely, there is no comparable story about Europeans having to skate away from woolly mammoths during the ice ages—and then they became good hockey players.

Instead, what our interviewees thought in both countries was that Europeans, in order to deal with the challenges of their historical environments, had to develop their mental or intellectual capacities. The fact that this story was exactly the same in two countries across the Atlantic from each other with different histories and different population histories is really telling. And I think we can explain it in a couple of ways. One, of course, is that Americans and Europeans are heirs to a shared historical legacy of belief about race. The notion of race materialized first in Europe, and it really crystallized in the 1700s. But I think it also reflects the ways—in both Italy and the United States—that Whiteness is still considered the racial status that people think of as superior, certainly when it comes to intelligence. So the sports story is a way of reaffirming that old idea of a White intellectual superiority compared to a Black primitiveness.

The number of Americans who identify with more than one race has more than tripled in the last 10 years. Given that the number of multi-racial marriages has risen five-fold since the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, which struck down laws banning them, should we expect that growth to continue or even speed up?

I think what’s going on with the numbers around the multiple race population, especially the census numbers that we have, is kind of tricky because a lot of that tremendous growth registered between 2010 and 2020 actually had to do with people picking the “some other race” box on the Census and combining it with something else—largely, the White category. And that combination of White and some other race, which the Census is counting as mixed race, is actually more a way in which Latinx people are choosing to express their identity as “something sort of as White, but kind of not White, or maybe close to White, but not exactly.” So a lot of that multiple race identification that’s going on is not necessarily coming from people who are expressing “I am half of this and I’m half that,” but rather from people who are sort of trying to, in a sense, signal their Latino identities within the given categories.

But having said that, it’s clear that the population that we would consider mixed race is indeed increasing. And, as you mentioned, interracial marriages are increasing. And my own research with Aliya Saperstein at Stanford University suggests that despite this growth, we’re still really undercounting the mixed-race population in the US. Aliya and I analyzed a survey that we helped design with the Pew Research Center in which we asked people to tell us not just about their own racial identities, but also to categorize by race their parents, their grandparents, and their earlier ancestors. We found that there are a lot of Americans who say they have mixed-race ancestry. It may not appear in how they count themselves—they may not say that they’re mixed race, but they nonetheless acknowledge this mixture. And so when we took these ancestry race reports into account, the share of Americans with mixed-race ancestry was close to 20%. That’s double what was picked up in the most recent 2020 Census. So our argument is that we are still really undercounting the share of Americans who have some kind of multiple-race ancestry.

Along these same lines, we seem to be seeing more and more multiracial couples in advertising in recent years. What do you make of this trend?

I’ve noticed as well. This is an example, I think, of where changes in census classification then have an impact on the rest of society. When the US Census made a change in 2000 to finally let Americans check off more than one race for themselves, they were, in a sense, making it statistically and officially visible that you can be mixed race. Before that, our statistical system just wasn’t equipped to recognize that, so everybody had to, for the most part, be just one race.

So by throwing the doors open and recognizing, oh, actually, there is a mixed-race population in the United States, that made the data and public awareness possible.

I would imagine that these changes in advertising are due to a certain amount of popular pressure, such as people saying they want to see themselves and they want to see their families—their mixed-race families—represented in advertising. But I also think that these changes come with a new openness in the advertising industry to break with old ideas of who is attractive in the sense of who can sell the merchandise. In the past, it would have been taboo to show a Black man with a White woman. Now the idea is that this no longer is a taboo, so advertisers are thinking, “We can show that. And it’s also going to portray us as being progressive, maybe even edgy. It’s going to help us attract customers.” And I’ve also noticed something similar with the inclusion of Asian men in advertising campaigns. That’s a demographic which I think for a long time was really overlooked. So I think there are all kinds of ways that our statistical system makes groups visible in new ways and this has been picked up and followed by folks in the private sector.