The Social Construction of Race in The Octoroon

I was really interested in the concept of race in The Octoroon because it is directly related to a topic that I am studying in another class taught by Professor Julia Kowalski, titled “Foundations of Cultural Analysis and Engagement.” We have recently spent time discussing how race itself is not a biological construct, but rather a cultural and societal one. We read an article by Jefferson Fish about how Americans construct race based on what he calls “blood.” He writes, “Quadroons and octoroons are said to be people who have one-quarter and one-eighth black ‘blood,’ respectively. Oddly, because of hypo-descent, Americans consider people with one-eighth black ‘blood’ to be black rather than white, despite their having seven eighths white ‘blood’” (Fish). 

Meanwhile, in places like Brazil, the construction of race is not based on ancestry, but by what a person looks like (Fish). For example, a Black woman and a white man might have two children, one might have lighter skin and the other might have darker skin. According to the American perspective on race, those children are both Black, and therefore are the same race. In Brazil, however, those children would be considered different races, because race is constructed by their appearance. It is important to note that in both the U.S. and Brazil, the concept of race is “real,” it is just not based on biology as much as it is based on our cultural perception of race. 

I thought this was very interesting because of the treatment of Zoe in The Octoroon. She is described as an Octoroon, and she was born out of wedlock (Boucicault). Based on what Fish wrote, in some cultures with different constructions of race, she would likely be considered white. Zoe, however, goes so far as to say, “Of the blood that feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black… that one drop poisons all the flood… the one black drop gives me despair, for I’m an unclean thing” (Boucicault 154). This perspective on her ancestry clearly comes from internalized racism based on descent, not appearance. This reading sheds light on exactly how this construction of race came about, as it is this “one black drop” that makes Zoe a slave at all. Thus, this construction of race likely exists as an attempt to keep African Americans in slavery, even if they appear white. 

All of this made me think about our in-class discussion on what it means to be “white,” especially in the historical context in which the Irish were not necessarily considered to be a part of this racial category when they first came to America. If Americans classify by descent, and not appearance, then it follows that the Irish could be excluded even though they technically have white skin, whereas if our view of race was constructed based on appearance alone, then this would not be possible because Irish skin color is nearly the same as descendants from other European countries.

Works Cited

Fish, Jefferson M. “Mixed Blood: An Analytical Look at Methods of Classifying Race.” Psychology Today, 1 November 1995, Accessed 26 February 2023.