Voices from the margins: The construction of racial and ethnic identity for Cape Verdean-Americans

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Marjorie DeVault


racial identity, Minority & ethnic groups, Sociology, American studies

Subject Categories

Race and Ethnicity


This study examines the social processes through which racial and ethnic identity is constructed. It is concerned with the creation of racial and ethnic presentations among Cape Verdean Americans, an African Diaspora community located in southern New England. The research is based on qualitative analysis of forty-eight semi-structured interviews conducted in and around the Cape Verdean ethnic enclaves in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. It examines the narrative structures utilized by respondents in their presentation of racial and ethnic group membership both within the Cape Verdean cultural community and in larger more diverse social settings.

Cape Verdean Americans engage in a complex process of negotiation between in-group defined and externally imposed notions of ethnicity and racial categorization. Within the group, Cape Verdeans maintain norms of identification predicated on simultaneous membership in multiple racial groups. This system of racial classification may be understood as in part supported by the considerable variations in Cape Verdean ethnic history and physical appearance. These norms of identification contrast with common American notions of discreet and essentially dichotomous racial categories. In addition, the Cape Verdean group itself, is often unknown or unrecognizable to outgroup members. In response to this situation, Cape Verdean American social actors attempt to define the group in explicit terms and manage racial and ethnic signifiers that may be recognizable and acceptable to both the Cape Verdean social actor and outgroup members. Through this process of assembling meaningful signifiers and negotiating group membership race and ethnicity, in general are defined.

This research contributes to the relatively new and growing body of social science literature that gives consideration to the disparate experiences of white and non-white ethnic groups, by addressing the experiences of ethnicity among racial minorities. It moves beyond traditional social science perspectives of race and ethnicity as external social forces that are imposed on social actors. Instead, this research assumes a perspective that locates race and ethnicity within social interaction, viewing them as dynamic products of social exchange to which salient meanings are attributed by the social actor.


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