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Whether Constructionist or Skeptic
Liberation Demands Racial Eliminativism
Philosophy of Race
WHETHER CONSTRUCTIONIST OR SKEPTIC
Liberation Demands Racial Eliminativism
Jacoby Adeshei Carter
Sheena Michele Mason
“Kill necro-being by race; cast its memory into the dustbin of absolutely forgotten history.” —Leonard Harris
Many people say that race is real and matters. But what those same people often mean to say is that racism is real and matters. In the United States, we often conflate race, ethnicity, and culture. When we have an opportunity to help people disentangle the three phenomena, it’s like smoke clearing from before their eyes, the fog lifting from their minds.
Culture produces race, not the other way around (i.e., race does not dictate culture). Racism can be most fruitfully defined as the belief in race, and the consequent engagement in race-thinking and race-talk. As people in the United States have come to see it, race presupposes a “racial” hierarchy. Racism is a crazy-making regime that inspires jaundiced categorizations of various aspects of American life in a foolish attempt to order things by “race.” But reality cannot be permanently or objectively ordered, and our attempts to do so often introduce more disorder. Nowhere is this more evident than in our continued practice of asserting and upholding belief in “race.”
Some people think that “race,” though not a biological fact, is a real and permanent feature of the social world. Such folks are, like this essay’s co-author Prof. Carter, constructionists. Others maintain that “race,” whether thought to be scientifically accurate or merely a social reality, is, in fact, neither. Such folks are, like this essay’s co-author Prof. Mason, skeptics. Proponents of both views can be allied, as we two are allied, in advocating the destruction of all forms of racism and all accounts of “race” as real natural or social entities. Such folks are eliminativists. Constructionist eliminativists and skeptical eliminativists have substantial philosophical overlap in terms of intended outcomes and how they view “race” operating.
The socially constructed nature of a phenomenon does not completely satisfy us as to the reality of the phenomenon in question. One can believe that race is a social construction and argue about whether this makes it real or unreal. Notably, one can hold that it is socially real and still work to see its destruction.
By way of illustration, take each of us co-authors in turn:
I, Jacoby Adeshei Carter, believe that I am a black man. I think that is a claim about me that has meaning beyond my cultural identity and background. And I think it can be a decidedly racial claim about me, that it can be accurately read as a claim about my racial status, even if not quite a claim about my racial identity. Racism creates and maintains categories of human beings as objects of disregard, disrespect, ill-treatment, and degraded status. “Racism,” as the philosopher Leonard Harris argues, “is a polymorphous agent of death, premature births, shortened lives, starving children, debilitating theft, abusive larceny, degrading insults, and insulting stereotypes forcibly imposed.” Racism simultaneously creates a subject population and licenses their subjugation.
I think it is deeply misguided to believe and act as though racism does not designate groups of people, and individual members of those groups, as its target, or to deny that it does this by creating a social reality in which people have a different social status and occupy different social roles than they would absent racism. Alain Locke called these dimensions of racism “race creeds” and “race practices.” The crucial question then becomes how to understand this metaphysically (to use a philosophical term). That is, we must ask what race is and, if indeed racism is the cause of race, what kind of thing—if it is a kind of thing—this effect of racism is.
One answer to this question given by philosopher Leonard Harris is that racism is that which creates “necro-being.” Necro-being “is always that which makes living a kind of death–life that is simultaneously being robbed of its sheer potential physical being as well as nonbeing, the unborn.” For Harris, racism creates a particular kind of being. It makes necro-being, where that designates not just a social reality, but an actual condition of death or ill-health or being prevented from being born. Another philosopher, Tommy J. Curry, argues that “[t]he Black man, deprived not only of an identity but also a history and existence that differs from his brute negation, experiences the world as a Man-Not” (Curry 6). “The Man-Not” Curry writes, “grows from the incongruity…between what theory claims to explain and the actual existence of Black men and boys—an actual reality that remains excluded from its purview” (Curry 7). “Simply stated,” he continues, “analyzing Black males as the Man-Not is a theoretical formulation that attempts to capture the reality of Black maleness in an anti-Black world,” a reality that has evaded a great deal of theory and philosophy (Curry 7). Harris and Curry both agree with the present authors that racism causes race. Further, both seem committed to the view that racism causes some kind of racial entity, necro-being in the case of Harris and the Man-not in Curry’s case. But what are we to make of the reality of entities such as these, which are thought to be effects of racism?
I think that racial victimization, being subject to racism, does not make one a different, racialized person where one was not such a being before. Some socially constructed entities are very much real in a practical, experiential sense. Money, legal currency, even cryptocurrencies, for that matter, are all social constructions, but ones that are arguably real. I am not working with an inflated philosophical notion of reality. I aim to mean by “real” something commonplace that would jibe with most people’s everyday idea of what “real” means. Something is real if it has practical, experiential consequences that significantly impact people’s lives. If something present in my experience has observable consequences in the here and now or effects that will be of consequence to my actions and decisions in the future, it is real.
Now the reality of a thing is distinct from its nature. Something can be real, i.e., have definite consequences for one’s present or future experiences, and be quite different from how it is perceived. You will not likely dispute that the chair you are perhaps seated in as you read this article is real. Upon reflection, you may even grant that the chair—an object composed of billions of atoms and consisting mainly of space—is quite different in its nature or essence from how you perceive it, which is as a solid object made of one or a few uniform substances. The point is that what makes something real to us can be quite a different matter than what that thing is fundamentally like, or made of, or its other potential uses (a chair can easily be used as a side table, for example). This divergence should not necessarily lead one to discount the reality of an object or phenomenon nor privilege an object's natural elements over its phenomenal presentation. The nature and reality of things are both something we naturally encounter and something to which we contribute.
All sorts of social actions make a person a different social being than before the action(s) were performed. Weddings convert single people into spouses, elections transform private citizens into politicians, naturalization ceremonies convert immigrants into citizens, graduation changes one’s employability and employment options, and incarceration, in some states, permanently disenfranchises returning citizens. These events are not changes to the person's nature, but they may be changes to that person's social role and function and are, as such, I argue, very much real. I hold that race is real in precisely this sense.
I, Sheena Michele Mason, am human, something that “blackness” as a supposed racial essence was intentionally written out of to attempt to justify the enslavement of human beings and the reduction of those humans to beasts, to chattel. While some forms of humanism have traditionally been rightfully accused of upholding racist ideas, humanist traditions have and do exist outside of and despite racist practices and beliefs. My forthcoming book provides a brief genealogy of such humanism that stemmed from American thought by those racialized as black. I aim to continue this tradition of humanism, as it gets Americans closer to what most people want: unification, reconciliation, healing, and solutions.
I am racialized as “black” by most Americans who insist on seeing me within a racial/st framework. I’m fully aware that American society insists on racializing me. But how one’s “race” is perceived and how it is self-asserted have not always aligned. In that way, there’s nothing new to see here. I am raceless whether anyone else acknowledges, likes, or approves it or not. That is not the same thing as denying the history or contemporary existence of racism. If anything, my identification as raceless is the ultimate recognition and sharpened understanding of what racism is and what it isn’t.
I think it is deeply misguided to mistake “race,” embrace “race,” or teach “race” as anything other than a consequence of racism. The belief in “race” is a consequence of racism. Racism is the cause of race, because without racist thought and behavior there would be no races, but it is at the same time (only seemingly paradoxically) an effect of race, because there's no racism without a belief in race. One needn’t internalize or otherwise embrace “race” to recognize and honor the happening of racism and work to uproot it. To suppose otherwise is a standard error that works to keep people confined within racism (i.e., race ideology).
As I know how racism operates as “race,” I embrace my agency and reject the categorization, and encourage others to do the same. As Toni Morrison once said, “Racism is a social construct,” not race. But because we live in a society that privileges the belief in race, racism masquerades as the presupposed reality of race. The difference matters because to undo racism, we must undo the idea of “race,” an easier task if we progress from a racial skeptical position.
Just as race does not dictate one’s cultural, social, ideological, or political identity, my racelessness only emphasizes and elevates the complexity of who I am, who we all are. I reject the idea that any of us is or should be defined by the reality of racism (i.e., “race”) and hope that more people would recognize their fullness and shared humanity by acknowledging their existence outside and separate from race and racism.
By extension, I reject the notion that “race(ism),” as I have dubbed it, is part of my or your identity. I experienced child abuse. That abuse inspires certain characteristics and beliefs, but it is not part of who I am, my core, no more than my abuser is “part of who I am.” Similarly, I was thirteen years old when an older classmate repeatedly called me “pubic hair” on the school bus, eventually assaulting and spitting on me. Is that experience, that assailant, an integral part of my identity?
I wouldn’t dare give anyone that power, as that power gets chipped away from my being, but that’s not to say that those experiences did not hurt me. Of course they did. I required much therapy and time. Similarly, alternative philosophies of race prove to be a necessary sort of therapy to anyone open to different ways of seeing and being and moving forward. We needn’t wait.
Race is not real, not in nature, and not as a construction. Racism is real. The difference matters if we remain serious about transcending racism. Racism, culture, ethnicity, and social and economic class all get translated and interpreted as evidence of “race.” That misidentification allows racism to hide its face alongside meaningful social constructions. Racism is itself a social construction that needs to be eradicated. However, so long as it is enabled to camouflage itself as “race” in order to maintain our belief in “race,” we will not be able successfully to transcend it.
I think that many people know subconsciously that race and racism—race(ism)—are the same, since that sameness manifests in the language we use: “Race matters. I want you to see my race. Racism is real,” and so it goes. To provide a fuller version of the Toni Morrison quotation given above, from an interview with Stephen Colbert: “There is no such thing as race. There’s just the human race, scientifically [and] anthropologically. Racism is a construct, a social construct. And it has its benefits” (emphasis added). Notice that the “it” with benefits is “racism.” And racism is the social construct.
There’s nothing inherently (or inheritably, so to speak) positive about being racialized. That’s what makes Harris’ necro-being incredibly profound for me, as it speaks to a living death of all of those who believe in the apparition of “race.” However, that is not how he initially imagined the term being understood.
Yet the sameness of “race” and racism—race(ism)—allows many people to wash over such assertions as saying what too many of us hear or suppose is correct: Race is real, has benefits, and is a social construction.
Has the smoke started to clear? Has the fog begun to lift?
One can and probably should see themselves as being deracialized to assess better and understand the reality of racism. Namely, that racism includes the belief in race and the practice of racialization. Other commonly held definitions of racism prove redundant or reductive and ultimately help not only racism but also race to persist.
Our shared eliminativism:
As our solo contributions show, we differ in our respective constructivism and skepticism. However we share the view that when race is viewed as a natural or social fact about persons, this can lead to the internalization of racism as racial identity. Suppose racism and white supremacist practices create status differences that masquerade as constitutive of who a person or a group is. In that case, identification with those status differences internalizes racial oppression by making those status differences a part of how racialized people see themselves. The understanding of oneself is informed by the kind of mistreatment one is susceptible to or has endured.
Internalized racism operates in more than the traditionally understood ways. Typically, a person, such as for example Winsome Sears, might be pegged as having internalized racism, meaning they have a subconscious or even conscious hate for racialized black people. They speak “white ideas on the runway of the tongue.” In these words, spoken by Michael Eric Dyson, we see "whiteness" become a metaphor or synonym for "being racist" or for "racism" itself. Thus, the charge of “whiteness” against a racialized black person is often intended to discredit what that person says that is considered outside the bounds of “blackness” (i.e., outside the bounds of the racism that determines what “blackness” supposedly is, in its true essence).
Notably, some critiques of so-called black people and nearly all conservative Republican “black” people are dubbed examples of internalized “white supremacy.” The unspoken and even spoken expectation is that people not racialized as white think and behave in the same way, a way that aligns (ironically enough) with “liberatory” practices and beliefs. Paradoxically, heterodox views are considered “heterodox” precisely because they escape the racist strictures that dictate what a "black" person is supposed to think...and yet, to call such views "heterodox" is to accept implicitly that there really is an "orthodox" norm governing what supposedly "black" people should think, a norm from which such views depart. What is routinely overlooked is the commitment on both “sides” to a system of racial categorization. Any critique that faults a person for departing from the strictures of putative racialized blackness is a reification of racist stereotypes and phobias.
Internalized racism is presumed to operate only as an internalized hatred of racialized black or brown people by racialized black or brown people. Yet, internalized racism also manifests due to the internalization of “race,” the belief that one is defined in part by some racial essence. That gives birth to the idea that people racialized the same way must think and be the same, even if the sameness is presupposed to be for their own or their group’s protection or betterment. Racism, belief in race, limits and circumscribes alternative modes of being. This limiting and circumscription are no less the case when imposed by a politically or socially dominant racialized group than when it is the internalized presumption of a racially subjugated population. The practice of upholding race ideology is perpetrated by most people in the US with similar detrimental effect.
We are taught to see “race” everywhere just as we see color, a proxy for race, everywhere. That is why racism, as defined above, is a ubiquitous phenomenon. Because we are taught to believe in “race,” we also learn to see racism everywhere. That is true even when racism isn’t everywhere. People often see themselves consistently through the framework created and perpetuated by racism.
Internalization inspires a persistent viewing of oneself as perpetually vulnerable to racism—systemic and individual—or on the delivering end of racism. However, such perceptions do not always jibe with reality. This disjuncture prevents many people from living more thoroughly and more freely. Under the guise of liberation, people are taught to see “race” everywhere, which means they see racism nearly everywhere. But what is liberatory about consistently viewing oneself in relation to a racialized other and at a persistent disadvantage in terms of power, autonomy, and agency? Nothing.
Thus, there is nothing positive about being racialized. Racialization is not what philosophers call a “good-making” feature of the world. Nothing of inherent value is added to the world through racialization. Only at our peril, and in contradiction to our liberatory aims, do we treat race as an entity, a property, or feature of persons or groups and argue that supposedly racial differences are the reasons individuals or groups are victims or perpetrators of racism in the first place. Because racism is really the belief in the idea of “race” and the practice of racializing people, racism pervades the American mind. So, let us lose our belief in “race” and win freedom from racism.
Curry, Tommy J. (2017). The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood. Temple University Press.
Harris, Leonard. (2020). A Philosophy of Struggle. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Jacoby Adeshei Carter is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Howard University. His research interests include Africana philosophy, social and political philosophy, value theory (applied ethics), philosophy of race, and pragmatism, especially as these topics manifest in the philosophy of Alain Locke. He is the Director of the Alain LeRoy Locke Society, author of African American Contributions to the Americas’ Cultures: A Critical Edition of Lectures by Alain Locke and co-editor of Philosophic Values and World Citizenship: Locke to Obama and Beyond. Dr. Carter is also the editor of the African American Philosophy and the Diaspora Book Series published by Palgrave/Macmillan. Presently, Prof. Carter is at work on two volumes. The first, Philosophizing the Americas: An Inter-American Discourse, is an anthology that aims to forge a dialogue between the African American, Latin American, and Caribbean philosophical traditions. The second, tentatively titled Insurrectionist Ethics: Radical Perspectives on Social Justice, is a collection of essays that address advocacy on behalf of oppressed groups to promote radical social transformation in the interest of justice.
Sheena Michele Mason is Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Oneonta. Her forthcoming book, Theory of Racelessness: A Case For Antirace(ism) (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), presents a skeptical eliminativist philosophy of race and racism that results in her signature “theory of racelessness.” In the book, she 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 Dr. 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 the belief in race. Theory of Racelessness specializes in educating organizations on how racism masquerades as “race” in society. It offers educational services, like coaching, workshops, training, radio shows, podcasts, publications, speaking events and conferences, and workplace cultural policy assessments. Follow Theory of Racelessness on Twitter. Follow Dr. Mason on Twitter.