Theory of Racelessness: A Case for Antirace(ism)
To Eliminate Racism We Must Eliminate Race
Philosophy of Race
THEORY OF RACELESSNESS: A CASE FOR ANTIRACE(ISM)
To Eliminate Racism We Must Eliminate Race
The Theory of Racelessness reflects two philosophical positions on race that are uncommonly taught and commonly misunderstood: skepticism and eliminativism. The theory is a call for antirace(ism). It demands simultaneously the recognition that human beings are already raceless (i.e., skepticism about race) and, consequently, the abolition of the category of race in order to undo racism (i.e., eliminativism about race). It is a call for the truth about the persistence of race and its corresponding -ism in the United States. The thing called “race” does not exist, but people imagine it does, and this sustains it. “Race” needs to be abolished. To abolish race from a position of skepticism is a radical act of acknowledging one’s racelessness: one’s existence outside the bounds of race(ism), one’s rejection of a nonsensical means of subjugation and elevation that has no positive or forward-moving value even if it has had practical utility for various groups across time and place.
Toward the goals of liberation and avoiding unintentional reification of race, I have coined the terms “race(ism),” “race(ist),” “raci(al/st), and “antirace(ism).” The point of these coinings is to highlight the deep reciprocal causal connections between things typically thought to be distinct. Most Americans tacitly believe that race exists independently of any racism or racist attitudes. They presuppose that there are inherent “racial” features of humans and that “racism” and “racist” beliefs and actions are biased against these so-called racial features. The point of my coinings is that, instead, seeing our fellow humans in racial terms—seeing them as “raced”—actually creates “race.” That is, understanding human differences (which are in reality attributable to culture, ethnicity, class, and other factors) in either benignly “racial” or malignantly “racist” ways creates and maintains “race.” Hence “race(ism)” and my other novel terms keep before our eyes the fact that racism creates race. Eliminating racism means eliminating race, and vice versa.
Race(ism) involves the belief that human beings are naturally born, for better or worse, into separate and distinct categories or “races.” This belief often includes an assumption of a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority among the so-called races. This assumption of hierarchy is bound to perpetuate race(ism). For it precludes all people racialized as not “white” from being “racist” in the context of the United States. In this way, too, race(ism) festers and persists. Because I look as I do, I can say anything I want to you, mistreat you, cancel you, and yet not be “racist.” In turn, if you look like me, you can cancel me and mistreat me because I do not conform to the box you create for yourself based on race(ism), and you cannot be racist. Our prevailing ideas about the naturalness of race and about the one-sidedness of racism are incoherent. Make it make sense!
Recently, I saw an Instagram post that defined racism as “a wide-scale systematized discrimination based on race by those who have social power—which is white people & only white people.” The account belongs to a self-proclaimed “white guy focused on becoming anti-racist.” Another post asserts, “Not all white people...I’m kidding, it definitely is all white people.” Now, I don’t tend to use social media as an opinion poll. Still, this assigning of “race” to people as indicative of their permanent, yes, their fixed status in society exemplifies a conviction embraced by too many people. The Instagram definition of racism recalls other (re)definitions of “racism” that are currently generating a lot of buzz while upholding and insisting on the continued use of “race” ideology to combat, yes, racism. For example:
Racism is both a system of advantage (for whites) and a system of oppression (for BIPOC). The system was created to concentrate social and institutional power among those designated as “white,” and to exclude all others from receiving these benefits.
The hierarchies implied here and in the Instagram post—of “white” people over “BIPOC” people in terms of power, and of “BIPOC” people over “white” people in terms of inherent victimization—is built into the very idea of “race.” It is racism that created the idea of race in the first place and that continues to perpetuate it. There has never been a neutral way to racialize people. There will never be an unbiased way to do so. We need to redirect supposedly antiracist discourse away from race, which doesn’t really exist, and racism, which cannot in fact be eliminated without eliminating race. We need to talk instead about race(ism) and formulate a truly emancipatory antirace(ism).
This is not merely a matter of rhetoric. It gets to the heart of how language informs thought and behavior, which in turn, via raci(al/ist) ideology, inform and perpetuate race(ism), which in turn upholds division. If we are to take seriously the calls we constantly hear about having a complete “reckoning” with racism in the US, we must get serious about liberating society, in every respect, from and talking honestly about the problem, which is race(ism), i.e., the idea of “race” reified by racism and the racism made possible, no, inevitable by our reification of “race.” The problem is not the victim’s alleged difference (i.e., their so-called race), and the solution is not the indiscriminate and absolute labeling of most happenings or people as evidence of “racism” or as “racist,” nor is the solution that practice now called “cancel culture,” which so often relies on invocations of “racism.” The solution is the type of antirace(ism) embodied in the Theory of Racelessness.
The United States has been reconstructing the meaning of “race” since before the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783, in other words, since before the United States came into being independent of England. Primarily influenced by longstanding and ever-fluid European caste systems, race in America once reflected a caste system that, at its most complex, included “white,” “black,” and “brown” indentured servants, who, for all intents and purposes, were enslaved, and enslaved indigenous and African people. Further, there were free African, indigenous, and European-descended people. Enslavement was not racialized, in the ways many of us currently understand “race,” racism, and slavery, until approximately 1660 when various states began outlawing “miscegenation,” calculating blackness, and passing fugitive (en)slave(d) laws. Over time and within the bounds of the “peculiar institution of slavery,” racialization—the systematic practice of marking out people as subjects to violence and oppression mainly based on ancestry and phenotype—emerged.
Racialization reflected one’s access to power, even if not one’s possession of power. Indentured servitude was phased out in its formal capacities. Black and Negro came to describe people of African descent who were considered, by law and practice, to be enslaved and chattel. Persons of color primarily described free “black/brown” people. White described all free people of seemingly visible European descent. In the course of the 18th century, race shifted more definitively from referring to ethnic or national groups to subspecies of humans. As a biological concept, race has been in disfavor since the 19th century but has remained at the forefront of the American imagination nonetheless.
The explanation for the persistence of race one often hears is that American society “does it to me.” Since it is ascribed to me, I have no choice but to avow it. In this way, we miss opportunities to recognize and embrace ourselves and each other outside of race(ism). This dynamic reflects something Frantz Fanon portrayed in his chapter “The Fact of Blackness,” in Black Skin, White Masks (1952). Fanon rendered the “fact” of race ironic because, as he saw, people in racialized contexts often avow “race” and wield it as “fact” even as they shout that it is, at best, a “social construction” if it exists at all. What we miss is how individuals are racialized by themselves and society. Thus, we would do well to recognize the power that we wield as individuals, separate from and outside of the imagined collective power. Moreover, to acknowledge and embrace one’s ability in this way is not synonymous with desiring to be “white” or ignoring the impact and influence of the collective.
Situating Theory of Racelessness among philosophies of race
Let’s look more closely now at more formal philosophies of race, in order to see where Theory of Racelessness sits in the theoretical landscape. Indeed, each of us holds two philosophies of race, even without having the language to name them: One that speaks to what we think race is and one that speaks to what we believe should be done with or about race. Philosophers divide these two types of theories of race into metaphysical theories (about what race is) and normative theories (that prescribe what we should do about it). The metaphysical category includes (1) racial skepticism, (2) racial constructionism (sometimes referred to as constructivism), and (3) racial population naturalism. The normative category includes (a) eliminativism, (b) reconstructionism, and (c) conservationism.
Let’s go through these theories, taking the metaphysical first, then the normative.
Racial skeptics (1, above) state that society initially defined race as a biological category, but since race is not a biological category, it is an illusion and only exists in as much as it is believed to be real. Thus, racial skeptics often argue that race and language associated with race should be eliminated (i.e., an eliminativist position on race, discussed below).
Racial constructionists (2, above) argue that although race may not be biological, race has come to exist because humans treat it as existing. Constructionism implies that certain social facts that might be taken for granted are actually open to transformation by individual and collective action. Some constructionists adopt eliminativism. Others, however, seek to reconstruct or conserve the concept of race (see below). A primary shortcoming of constructionism is that while many people view race as a social construction, they continue to talk about, teach about, and treat race as if it is a matter of nature, of racial essences, or is fixed based on phenotype, ancestry, or America’s racist one-drop rule. Further, arguments asserting that “blackness” is not racial but rather cultural, political, and so on are often nonstarters since it is still ascribed based on biological presumptions about race.
Racial population naturalists (3, above) believe that while there may not be essential behavioral, cognitive, or phenotypic features that define different races, there must be broad genetic commonalities within certain populations that effectively make those populations races. Racial population naturalists believe that just as nonhuman species are subtyped by breed, as in the case of dogs and cats, while still being classified as dogs and cats, human types can and should be differentiated by race. Racial population naturalists tend to be conservationists (see below).
Turning to normative theories, eliminativists (a, above) argue for the elimination of race concepts and, therefore, racial language, often with the express purpose of intentionally eliminating race(ism). In contrast, reconstructionists (b, above) argue that we should not eliminate racial discourse. Instead, it remains possible to rehabilitate race in a way that renders it accurate; thus, concepts of race can be positively reconstructed. Ibram Kendi is a prominent mainstream example of a metaphysical racial constructionist who is a normative reconstructionist. He thinks race was, in essence, created by humans, but that we can in some sense purify our discourse about it and eliminate our racist ideas and practices. Other popular examples of reconstructionism include attempts to increase the positive representation of black people in the media and inscribe positivity into and onto the meaning of blackness: #blackisbeautiful, #blackexcellence, #blackgirlmagic, etc. Finally, conservationists (c, above) believe that whatever the metaphysical status of race, we must “conserve” racial categories in our policies and practices, because that is the only way to correct for the fact that society has distributed advantages and disadvantages according to the category of race.
Many antiracist activists in the US strive to understand the meaning of “race” in order both to recognize America’s violent history of racism and to remove the violence of racism from race ideology. The philosophies of race they traditionally invoke in these efforts are, from the metaphysical category, racial constructionism and racial population naturalism and, from the normative category, reconstructionism and conservationism. Paradoxically, most “antiracist” discourses and initiatives inspired by one or a combination of these four philosophies actually help to reify racism. This is because these four philosophies encourage and privilege the apparition of race and the subsequent practice of race(ism).
Theory of Racelessness, in contrast to traditional antiracism, operates from a metaphysically skeptical and normatively eliminativist position. Thus, it constitutes a true antirace(ism) by seeking to undo not only racism but also “race.” It holds that “race” does not exist except insofar as it is imagined to exist, and that, therefore, the sooner we stop imagining it in our language and discourse, the sooner it will vanish. In eliminating “race,” the Theory of Racelessness helps people recognize and imagine themselves outside of race(ism). It enables people to see themselves and others more clearly, without the distorting filter of “race.” In this way, the theory also helps people become more astute at recognizing and solving race(ism). Importantly, the theory’s core is bringing our shared humanity to the forefront in ways that the divisive presence or insertion of “race” ideology precludes. Together, we can do anything, including uphold race(ism). But we can also reconcile, heal, resolve, and eliminate the problem, too.
One question remains: Am I “black?”
Whether you insist on placing me on the raci(al/st) hierarchy or not, I choose to embrace my racelessness. And who are you to tell me who I am?
Sheena Mason is assistant professor of English at SUNY Oneonta. Her forthcoming book, Decolonizing the Raci(al/st) Imagination in Literary Studies: An Interrogation and Critique of Antiracist Discourse (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), presents a skeptical eliminativist philosophy of race and racism that results in her signature “theory of racelessness.” The book argues that African-American writers across time have created art that resists racism through their resistance to and rejection of race. Theory of Racelessness is Prof. Mason’s educational consulting business. With the rise of antiracist discourse and initiatives, many organizations unintentionally promote racist ideas and miss opportunities to identify and celebrate genuine diversity of thought over perceived variety, based mainly on phenotype and social constructions (i.e., concepts of race). Theory of Racelessness specializes in educating organizations on how racism masquerades as “race” in society. It offers educational services, like coaching, workshops, and training, radio shows, podcasts, publications, speaking events and conferences, and workplace cultural policy assessments. Follow Theory of Racelessness on Twitter. Follow Prof. Mason on Twitter.
I'm really glad to see this idea grow roots. It's about time. The good news is that at the existential level, I'm sure there is are abundant resources available that have been misappropriated by those who haven't had the benefit of thinking through what you're explaining. Just on the face of it, James Weldon Johnson immediately comes to mind. It's all in the title: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. What's funny is the depth at which such subterfuges can go. People who claim to be passing for white are actually just passing for passing. Just as people passing for black are passing for passing. An Oreo inside of a cue ball and its checkerboards and Dalmatians all the way down.
Thank you for this great essay! Intelligent and very necessary.