Race, Racialization, and the self-assertion of group-identity

“Race is just a social construct”

“That’s easy for you to say, but your knowledge is flawed because of your racial privledge”

“White is a race”

“White is not a race”

In discussions about oppression it is easy to get caught up in the tumultuous web of concepts surrounding “race”. Sometimes it is pointed out that certain groups are “racialized” within society, i.e. categorized by others as being of a specific group identity because of their common ethnic origin (either imagined or real). But then some will say that “racialization” is just a concept used by people with white privilege, who do not acknowledge their own racial identity. And others will say that “race” is just a social construct so we shouldn’t use it in our discourse. And worse, often in these discussions people will insist that if they are not understood it is because of an ignorance in the other party, especially if they are determined as having privilege or access to privilege, which means no interchange takes place and certainly very little can be learned by anybody. But, the idea that we are here to teach each other things, that’s just a white-settler conspiracy anyway, right?

But seriously, as a philosopher although I’m admittedly not very useful in most realms of life, I think I can help make a few distinctions which might clarify the obscene emotional stickyness, the pit of ressentiment that plagues those who dare to discuss the topic of race in public.

First, stop saying ideas are “social constructions”. Just stop doing it, like you learned to stop saying “like” repeatedly when you graduated from high-school. “That’s just a social construct” has got to be the worst and most obstructive phrase to have spread through the social sciences and the post-everything deconstructionist activist world. Get this straight: first, that every idea is a construct, this just means that it has a structure and that it enables you to see the world in a particular way. If you didn’t have a construct of a thing in your head, you wouldn’t be able to see it. If you don’t believe me, look at something which you don’t know what it is – in an important sense you can’t see it. Sure, you see something, but it isn’t the thing you are looking at. As soon as you grasp what it is you are looking at, then it appears to you, and it is difficult to imagine retrospectively what it is you were seeing before you knew what it was. And secondly, that every idea that is properly an idea is social – this just means that it is shared or can be shared between people. So if some phenomena were not a “social construct”, you wouldn’t be able to talk about it with anyone. This means that in an important sense all scientific concepts are “social constructs” – they are ideas in our heads that we use to understand the world, without which we can’t see the same things which we can see by way of them, and which are shared between people. Thomas Kuhn wrote that after a scientific revolution, in a sense scientists do not live in the same world as the one which existed in the minds of and as an object of collective observation before the scientific revolution.

So, the fact that race is a “social construct” doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Race doesn’t exist because it is a scientific concept which has been rejected – it exists in a way analogous to Phlogiston – it is an anachronistic explanation for phenomena which has been surpassed by other scientific representations that do a better job of taking account of the phenomena.

As a mark of group identity, however, race can “exist” in a way analogous to how all other forms of group identity exist – either in the consciousnesses and/or collective practices of a group, or in the way a group is represented and perhaps constituted by the minds or social and legal practices of people or communities outside the group. Or, both of these forms of group identification could be happening simultaneously, as in the case of a racialized and oppressed group which also self-identifies by a common grouping which bears the same name as their “race”, but which acts as a common value of strength and unity. It seems to me that although we might call both these group-namings a “race”, but that they are in an important sense a different concept in the case where it is internally-identified, and the case where it is externally-identified.

This distinction, I think, helps us understand the meaning of “racialized” both in an individual and collective sense – what it means for a group or person to be racialized is that their identification as of some or other race is decided externally. So it’s not oppressive to call someone, or a group, “racialized” – it merely means that their race identification is not a matter of self-assertion.

Self-assertion, i.e. concretized freedom, is a moral matter. Being able to decide your own identity is a basic matter of liberty. On the other hand, having an important aspect of one’s identity imposed upon one by an authority which one does not accept, is damaging and wrong. I could go on into the details of this, but actually putting this concept into concrete examples creates the danger of saying something offensive to someone. I’m not happy about being worried about that, but such is the reality of this topic.

Group self-assertion is related to Nationalism – which is something I’ve changed my mind on since visiting Palestine and Northern Ireland. Nationalism can be a source of racialization and marginalization, when it is based on exclusion and oppression and exclusion of individuals or groups outside a dominant group. But it can also be a source of group strength for people who are oppressed and excluded by dominant society. Sometimes the categories of a group’s exclusion are not the same as the category of the group’s self assertion – very prominantly in the Palestinian-Zionist conflict. Until relatively recently, the Palestinians were not acknowledged as a nation by Israel, but they were nonetheless oppressed under the category of Arab, at most called Palestinian-Arab, which is not a name of a nation but merely identification of an Arab who happens to come from the land of Palestine. There is a difference between Palestinian-identity and Palestinian-Arab identity – Israel tried (and important senses continue to try, by such practices as preventing the flying of the Palestinian flag in East Jerusalem) to force Palestinian-Arabs to identify only as Arabs who happened to be from Palestine, and therefore could migrate and still be “at home” anywhere in the Arab word. Palestinians, on the other hand, have asserted their common identity as Palestinian through a common struggle against their exclusion from their homes and the prevention of their national sovereignty in their homeland. Notice in this situation the external identification of Palestinians is not specifically racial (is Arab a race?), but which regardless is something like racializing because it is an external identification of a group identity, and exclusion instituted on this basis. Perhaps we should replace the expression “racialize” with “group-ize”, or “identifize”, but unless you can think of a word that doesn’t sound as dumb, we might be stuck with ‘racialize’.

So, it’s not offensive to use the expression “racialized”; it has a specific meaning and it can either be true or false that a group or individual is racialized within society, but it cannot be offensive to posit that a group or individual is racialized, because it is merely a claim about the structures of external identification which exist. Likewise, it is not inappropriate to say either that white is a race, or that white is not a race – both of those claims are claims about the structures of in and out group identification of people classified as “white”. If it is neither the case that in a society whites are externally identified by non-whites as “white”, nor that whites themselves appeal to their whiteness as a source of common group identity, then whiteness is not a mark of race but simply the label put on those who are not racialized within a society, i.e. who are not externally identified in terms of a “race”. If someone argues that whiteness is not a race in one particular context, this doesn’t mean that it might not be a race, in either sense, in another context.

I think the preceding has all been pretty obvious, not really requiring further argument except perhaps the expansion of the grounds of the moral valuation in the French/German liberal tradition of liberalism/liberation theory. But I wouldn’t encourage you to read that.  If you asked, I’d say stick with Fanon.


6 thoughts on “Race, Racialization, and the self-assertion of group-identity

  1. Is the outward flesh really important? Not to God. 1 Samuel 16:7 of the bible says…
    “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” It’s the soul that God looks at when He looks at you and I. It’s the deep thoughts, the inner being of every person that God sees. The flesh is dust. He judges us justly by who we are inside.

    Though we look at the outward appearance of the other person, God wants us to treat each other with love…as souls someday accountable to Him. Connie

  2. I have had multiple, terrible experiences talking to total idiots. It’s terrifying being surrounded by three shrill women telling you that you must accept what they say as a pre-requisite for any discussion; particularly when their assertions are logically incoherent.

    “the category of mammal is a totally arbitrary construction anyway”

    It has astounded me that the social justice movement could be filled with such lunacy.

  3. Interesting post.

    I don’t know if I’m on board with your rejection of the phrase “social construction”. I think Ian Hacking, in “The social construction of what?”, does yeoman’s work showing how that phrase can be done in a useful way. Yes, you’re obviously right to suggest that any meaningful expression is socially constructed in some limited sense, but that’s often not what people are talking about.

    It’s interesting to develop the idea of ‘racialization’ as being limited to cases where a group is externally defined. That makes some intuitive sense of a lot of examples, but it’s not clear to me that you can’t in principle have self-identification as the essential part of the process of racialization. i.e., members of an oppressed in-group often oppress themselves by habitually accepting a particularly oppressive way of describing themselves, and it’s not clear that this counts as ‘external definition’. So while racialization and oppression share some kind of non-trivial connection, it’s a bit difficult to say what exactly that connection consists in.

    “On the other hand, having an important aspect of one’s identity imposed upon one by an authority which one does not accept, is damaging and wrong.” That might be an effective way of thinking about racism, which is a clear form of oppression. But it cannot be true as a general maxim. I mean, if you were right about this, then it would always be morally wrong to hold a person socially responsible if they were unable to acknowledge their own personal or social responsibility. But sometimes you morally must hold people socially responsible, regardless of their own aloofness to authority. e.g., the pedophile might not recognize the validity of the laws of Canada, but does that mean that it is immoral to label him ‘pedophile’ and act accordingly? Or course not.

    1. I’ll have to check out that Hacking article. My point has to do with the idea that calling something a social construct means that it isn’t “real” – which is wrong, because everything real is socially constructed.

      I suppose a group can be self-racialized, but this would have to be the adoption of an external race identification internally in a group. We’d call this, maybe, internal-racism. This is what the phrase “self hating jew” would mean.

      I think the connection between radicalization and oppression is simply that the dominant group in a society can racialize other groups in an effort to maintain its dominance. Power structures, like any institution, strive to maintain themselves. Racialization, and other group-izations, are just part of that.

      The point of defining “racialize” in this way, is it enables a clean distinction between, for instance, anti-black discrimination, and black-power organizing. The first is racist radicalization of a non dominant group, and the second is the positive self assertion of a group against its oppression.

      The idea of aloofness to authority, I think, does not break the model. The fact that people are unaware of their obligations is not an excuse, because we have positive duties to know about our obligations. Those duties might depend on what authorities we choose to recognize, so the moral reality of the situation is true only given a frame – but that wouldn’t be strange for me, especially given what I’ve said about “social constructs” above. You can choose which moral frame you should take up, and by this choice you take responsibility for the effects of taking up that moral frame. i.e. you could choose Fanon’s decolonizing morality and take up armed struggle against the colonizer, but you become responsible, both individually and collectively, for the traumas this produces. That doesn’t mean it can’t be the right choice, but the deontologies of different moral frames have to be compared with each other both in terms of effects on peoples character, and in consequentialist terms as well.

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