“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.