Defining Race | Facing History & Ourselves

Defining Race

Consider the consequences of who defines race through reflections from individuals who have struggled with the US government's legal definition of their race.   
Last Updated:

At a Glance

reading copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

Imagine that you apply for a copy of your birth certificate, and when you receive it you discover that it lists your “race” as something other than what you and everyone else have always considered it to be. You are white and it says you are black, or you are black and it says you are white. That is exactly what happened to Susie Guillory Phipps, a woman who had always considered herself white, as did almost everyone she met. Sociologist Allan G. Johnson explains:

She had twice married white men, and her family album was filled with pictures of blue-eyed, white ancestors. The state of Louisiana, however, defined her as “colored.”

When she protested to state authorities, they carefully traced her ancestry back 222 years, and found that although her great-great-great-great grandfather was white, her great-great-great-great grandmother was black. Under Louisiana law, anyone whose ancestry was at least 3 percent black was considered black. Thus, even with an ancestry 97 percent white, the state defined her as black.

Susie Phipps spent $20,000 to force Louisiana to change her birth certificate, and in 1983 Louisiana repealed the law. Why did she go to such expense? Beyond the obvious shock to her identity, there are larger issues. Why does the state have a formula for officially deciding what each person’s race is? Why would a tiny percentage of black ancestry cause her to be considered black, while an overwhelmingly white ancestry could not mean she is white?

The key lies in the word “mean” in the previous sentence, for . . . what things objectively are is often less significant to human beings than what things mean in cultural frameworks of beliefs, values, and attitudes 1

Susie Phipps’s dilemma had little to do with biology or genetics and everything to do with the meaning the state of Louisiana attached to the word race. The way race is defined in the United States has often been in flux. Writer Bonnie Tsui explains:

In 1870, mixed-race American Indians living on reservations were counted as Indians, but if they lived in white communities they were counted as whites. Who was “white” evolved over time: From the 1870s to 1930s, a parade of court rulings pondered the “whiteness” of Asian immigrants from China, Japan and India, often changing definitions by the ruling in order to exclude yet another group from citizenship. When mixed-race people became more prevalent, things got murkier still. Who the U.S. Census Bureau designated “colored” or “black” varied, too, before and after slavery, and at times including subcategories for people of mixed race, all details often left up to the whims of the census taker. In 1930, nativist lobbyists succeeded in getting Mexicans officially labeled nonwhite on the census; up until then, they were considered white and allowed citizenship. By 1940, international political pressure had reversed the decision. It wasn’t until 2000 that the Census Bureau started letting people choose more than one race category to describe themselves, and it still only recognizes five standard racial categories: white, black/African-American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. 2

  • 1Allan G. Johnson, Human Arrangements: An Introduction to Sociology (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 353.
  • 2Bonnie Tsui, "Choose Your Own Identity," New York Times, December 14, 2015.

Connection Questions

  1. Like the Bear in the reading The Bear That Wasn’t, Susie Phipps was told that she wasn’t who she thought she was. What did she think? What was she told? By whom?
  2. Why did Phipps go to such trouble and expense to change a word on her birth certificate? Why do you think she wanted the government to agree with her personal understanding?
  3. What does Susie Phipps’s story reveal about the concept of race?
  4. Who defines race? How does Bonnie Tsui help you understand why it matters?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Defining Race," last updated August 2, 2016.


You might also be interested in…

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif