I have now completed my metaphysics of race series, so here is a list of all the posts with links for easier navigation.
1. Metaphysics of Race: Introduction
2. Classic Biological Racial Realism
3. Race Anti-Realism
4. Races as Social Kinds
5. Social Constructionist Views of Race
6. The New Biological Race View
7. The Ethics of the Metaphysics of Race
8. Minimalist Race and Whiteness
9. Short-Term Retentionism, Long-Term Revisionism
This is the ninth and final post in my metaphysics of race series. If you want to start at the beginning, you can go right to the introduction to the series, or you can go to the full list of posts with links. In the last post, I looked at some issues with the language of race itself and how that fits into my short-term retentionist, long-term revisionist proposal. In this post I will move to even more practical issues. How do we live in a way that keeps that project in mind?
How we use racial terms in the way I discussed int he last post provides one example of what I would say not to do and how it connects to what we should do in terms of race categeries. But is that going to get us where we need to go? I doubt it. What kind of practical advice would I offer, then, to help move us toward the right kind of revision without abandoning what we need our race terms to do? What would this short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism look like in practice? What specific things can we do to further the goal of retaining our terms as needed and in all honesty about what they actually mean, while seeking to transform the meaning of them to be what they ought to be? I have a few thoughts, but I haven't spent anywhere near as much time thinking about this as I would like.
1. Lots of careful study has been done in psychology of how we are affected by racial stereotypes, stigmatization, and so on. We now know that we all exhibit biases merely from being aware of a stereotype, even if we disagree with the stereotype, and members of the group in question also have many of those biases. We might think a stereotype is completely false, but we still exhibit biases against people along the lines of that stereotype. That's pretty disturbing in itself, but it gets worse. The ways that these stereotypes are reinforced is simply seeing people portrayed doing the stereotypical things. Even if those are done in a proportionate way, this can happen. So suppose I'm watching old episodes of Law & Order. Suppose the creators of the show had calculated out how many criminals to show on screen and how much screen time to give them that portrayed the current statistical frequency of crimes as committed by each racial group. I doubt anyone has actually done that, but suppose they had. Suppose they even did it with stigmatized groups like black men or Hispanic men being shown less frequently than their actual criminal rates per capita. Nevertheless, showing it at all, even at lower rates, will reinforced the stereotype. And of course showing none of it would rightly be criticized as giving an inaccurate picture. So what are we to do? I have no idea. We can't stop doing everything that might reinforce a stereotype.
But when do stereotypes form? Typically we get them at a pretty young age. Psychologists have done some very disturbing studies with children. They will make up a word out of nowhere. They will tell kids that so-and-so is a glub and thus-and-so is a greeb. Then they will say that so-and-so likes fishing, and thus-and-so likes basketball. Then they'll say a third person is a greeb and ask if they would like basketball, and they say yes. They have done it with character traits too, and all it takes is one example, and kids form a stereotype of a moral characteristic of all members of that group. When we get older, it takes more examples, but if you do this with negative traits it happens even faster and quicker and with fewer examples. That's from a general cognitive bias that we all have, which is called negativity bias. It's the reason you hate movies with bad endings that you enjoyed most of the way through. It's why you notice negative characteristics much more easily than positive ones when asked to give an evaluation of something with pros and cons.
Now with that in mind, how should we talk to children about issues involving race? I know there are approaches out there that advocate starting early with talking about race issues, using age-appropriate ways to discuss discrimination, privilege, and so on. Some people even write board books for babies about that stuff. Now think about the goal. We want the next generation to be less influenced by stereotypes, stigmatization, and so on. So do we want to be exposing them to these issues at a very young age, when it will just reinforce their stereotypes that they will eventually get from society by rooting them more firmly? As I pointed out, it doesn't matter if your views are contrary to the stereotypes. Just being aware of them does its damage, and the earlier it happens the worse it is. We should not be encouraging people to read such books to their children. We should be avoiding at all costs any kind of racial terminology being used around small children. I have five children of mixed race. We raised them in environments where they had regular contact with people from many backgrounds. They saw different external looks on people as part of the normal range of humanity. But we never used racial terms with them when they were young, not really until they came home from school talking about the categories everyone else was using. We did what we could to put off their exposure to language that leads children to essentialize racial identity until society forced it on us, and my hope is that the later exposure to that will reduce the effect on them.
2. But take the other side of that last point. We did refrain from using racial labels with our children when they were young. We did not raise them in a color-blind society. We talked about people's skin colors being different. We raised them amidst diversity of people. We recognized the different colors of skins, and they were among people of various shades and backgrounds in their daily life. Lots of careful study has shown that the more intimate your relationships are with people of other groups the less affected you will be by the biases that occur from being exposed to stereotypes and stigmatized elements of racial identities. My kids have been in relationships, in close friendships and in family relationships, across many cultural, ethnic, racial, and national lines. That is especially important if we want the next generation to be able to move further in revising our racial notions to be (a) more accurate and (b) less involved in the ways that our cultural practices further racial problems. Integration is important and not just to have people of different races side-by-side with each other, as happened when schools began to be integrated in the 1950s. When people work together and form common identities together, that makes much more of a difference than merely having to be around each other. When they can begin to recognize someone across any line as one of them, that's what leads to real change. We need to pursue connections across racial lines in ways that lead us to feel connected with each other, to see ourselves as together, as united, as having something in common that is part of our very identity.
3. One important element of any path forward is that we need to be willing to listen and understand those who have different experiences and understandings than we do. This is even more important because so many disagreements are simply over how to use language. When some people use "white supremacy" to refer to the doctrine that white people are in fact superior, and other people use it to refer to the factual situation that occurs when white people have advantages over non-white people, what happens when you say that someone's opposition to affirmative action is white supremacy? Most opponents of affirmative action do not think positions of power should be restricted to white people, but that is in fact what most people will hear when you say that opposing affirmative action is white supremacy. You are tying them to the worse of all racists by speaking that way. Yet it is extremely common in academic and activist circles to use the term exactly that way. It doesn't mean the view that white people should be seen as superior. It simply means that white people are disproportionately in power.
The same thing happens with terms like "systemic racism," which is a synonym for "institutional racism" and "structural racism," and all three refer to whatever forces lie behind disparities, whether they are caused by actual racism or not. The disparities might be inadvertent effects of unconscious biases, long-delayed effects of past racism, or even just the way a system of bureaucratic policies leads to a result that has more harm toward one race than another. It isn't racism in the usual sense of that term in every case, and that was the original point of the concept. It was meant to show that there may not be any actual racists doing any actually racist stuff, but it still involves problems we ought to concern ourselves with. The concept behind it is real, and it really exists. But when people question the existence of systemic racism, what are they really questioning? They are questioning whether it is racist in the classic sense of the term. They are suggesting that maybe it isn't caused by overt and explicit racism. And of course those who believe in systemic racism are not saying it is caused by overt and explicit racism, since that was the very point of systemic racism, that it might not be caused in that way. So the two groups are affirming the same proposition and then seeing the other side as racist or evil or factually challenged, all because they are talking past each other and not realizing that they are using their terms very differently. We need to listen to each other, charitably and with a goal to understanding where they are coming from, not with a goal to showing them wrong. We need to hear each other, and this needs to come from both sides.
There are people who don't listen. They can't hear what someone else is saying because of a preconceived idea of what they must be saying. I encounter that at least several times a week on social media. But some people even have an explicit view not to listen. It comes from a misunderstanding of a genuine point. The genuine point is that different people have different experiences, and sometimes those experiences allow some people to see something that others won't see. Sometimes this happens along race lines, and those who experience discrimination can notice it when it occurs to others, when those who are even engaging in the discrimination might not even notice it if it's unconscious. We certainly don't always notice if the things we do can negatively affect someone when the thing we do is just something we see as normal, and someone who does not see the thing we do as normal is much more able to notice it. When my college friends (mostly not native Spanish speakers) spoke Spanish around me, and I don't understand Spanish, they didn't understand how that left me feeling at the margins of such social interaction. It was the person who was pushed to the side who would notice it. They were just speaking Spanish, which they understood. The same thing can happen and regularly does happen along race lines. White people are less likely to be aware of ways they are engaging in seeing something as normal when it is not the normal experience of other people, precisely because it is normal to them.
So it seems correct to say that people who are marginalized, discriminated against, stereotyped, stigmatized, or disempowered in various ways are going to notice things that others don't see. But one thing we cannot do if we hope to make any progress racially is to adopt some policy that when we disagree, we automatically have to favor the person who is less empowered. We can't institute a command that white people need to shut up and listen, at least if that means they are expected not to contribute to a conversation so that both people can understand each other. I see that kind of language regularly on social media. Certain voices get to part of the conversation, and others do not. Even if the ones that do not are wrong, it will not allow us to have any progress if those voices cannot have a conversation. I can't even explain what's wrong with someone's views if I won't let them talk. I also need to know what they think in order to see that I am misunderstanding them when I do so. I will be misrepresenting them otherwise, and then they will just dismiss me as someone who doesn't care about the truth, and they will be right to do so, because I will have demonstrated that I have no interest in the truth or in engagement with my fellow human being to try to make progress and break down the divisiveness.
4. I think the most important thing of all, however, is that we need to be willing to support actual change, which starts with recognizing the problems. When someone points to problems, we can be skeptical of them and dismiss the assertion instantly, or we could seek to have a conversation about it. There is a truth to the white fragility notion of Robin DiAngelo. White people can sometimes be defensive and can dismiss what people are saying about race. But of course it's not specific to white people. People of any other group can do that too, and the suggestion that this is something particular to white people (and her notions of whiteness that I discussed in the previous post) is one reason (along with the "shut up and listen" mindset) that I would never recommend her book to anyone. But what she is right about is that in race conversations we can form our views and then dismiss anyone saying anything that disagrees with those assumptions. It is not white fragility to want empirical support for a claim that a black person might make about some racial problem, despite DiAngelo's claim that it is. But it is immoral defensiveness and belligerence to refuse to listen to someone who is saying something very different from what you are taking them to be saying (see the examples above). We will not have progress by saying only one side can speak, and we will not have progress not listening to the one side that says that only they have a right to speak. We need to hear the presentation of problems as reported by both sides, and then we can do empirical study to see if the claims are accurate. You will likely find that a lot of assumptions both sides have about systemic issues are not true. But you will also find that there really are systemic issues that sometimes do and sometimes don't line up with how they are often talked about on either side. We need to be willing to do careful studies to show what is true and then to be thinking hard about what we might do about the things we identify as problems. Much of what I have said in this blog post is heavily informed by empirical research, and a lot of it was stuff I didn't know when I first started working on race issues. It is my conviction that any way forward has to be sensitive to careful study in multiple fields. We need to hear from psychologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, biologists, and even philosophers. Then we need to take those results into account as we think through how we respond.
I've several times now run across a new linguistic trend, mostly among a certain brand of academic. When writing about people we would normally call slaves, the new trend is to call them "enslaved people". I assume the reasoning here is because we don't want to define someone by their enslavement, as if it's an identity-forming feature of their existence, and we shouldn't let someone in one of the most oppressive situations be defined by something entirely outside their control that has demeaning connotations. In that way, it reflects some of the concerns of person-first language, which I've usually encountered in the context of disabilities.
[See my critique of person-first language. It's a bit over-the-top, as most satire is. The sense you get from it about what my views must be is not quite what they are. I'm not completely opposed to person-first language, and I even think sometimes it's the best way to go in certain settings. I would say that with small children it's far better to speak that way, whereas with older children and adults it's best to help them understand the categories we in fact use while drawing attention to the ways we illegitimately think about those categories and ways we process them unconsciously and thus denigrate the people we're talking about without always being aware of it.]
But this is different. For one thing, this isn't person-first language. Person-first language would not speak of enslaved people. It would speak of people with enslavement or people encumbered by, trapped by, oppressed by, or otherwise affected by enslavement. Person-first language is so roundabout, awkward, and unworkable that even those tempted to apply it in this case have actually refused to go that far. They will avail themselves of adjectives rather than nouns and use the adjectives to modify the noun 'people' or 'person'. It's grammatically parallel to "deaf people" or "autistic people" rather than "people without hearing" or "people with autism". But it's certainly a step in the direction of person-first language when compared with calling people slaves. The only grammatical equivalent is to speak of the deaf with no noun or to talk about people with autism as autists. [I should note that that's a bad idea even if there weren't any other problems with the term, because people will just think you're from Brooklyn or the Bronx and talking about people with very creative abilities and outlets.]
But there are differences, and I think some of them matter morally. One is that ordinary language does allow for slaves, and "enslaved people" is awkward, whereas "autistic people" or "people with autism" are both common, while "autists" is not. Another is that it's generally accepted that calling someone an autist is unacceptable, and it's at least not generally unacceptable to call someone who is enslaved a slave. That's not the only issue, but that's a difference. For example, it was much worse to call people retarded once that became a standard insult for people without any cognitive disabilities than it was when it was the accepted term and had not yet been used as an insult. Whether it was a good term ever is something people can debate, but surely it's made worse once it becomes used as an insult. So the fact that a lot of people do oppose a way of speaking does count more against it, and the fact that many people approve of a way of speaking does mean there's less to count against it, whatever else is true.
Another difference is that one is a disability and the other is an imposed condition. Both are involuntary, at least in most cases of slavery. Slavery can be accepted voluntary, especially in cases of indentured servanthood, selling oneself into slavery to pay off a debt, or accepting slavery to avoid a death penalty (well, that's at least not completely involuntary, although it's not actually a range of choices that anyone would consider sufficient for the choice to be fully voluntary). But one is known, at least by most people today, to be something that is not central to who one is but rather imposed. No one today, at least no one I personally know, thinks that anyone who is a slave is the sort of person whose slavery is necessary because they couldn't otherwise function in life. No one thinks slaved naturally deserve slavery. No one thinks it's part of a slave's nature to be a slave.
This is not true with racial categorizations. As much as we might discover scientifically about how there isn't all that much difference between different racial groups, we do process racial categories with stigmatized stereotypes, and scientific studies for decades now have consistently shown that these stereotypes and stigmatized categories will affect how we treat people, at least in small ways that most of us don't pick up on (and especially in situations where we're tired or busy and have to make decisions quickly without thinking carefully about them). This isn't true of the category "slave" even if it is true of other contingent categories. If I find out someone is a slave, I'm not going to process that the way I do if I find out they receive welfare, are homeless, or grew up in a ghetto. Whether I want to or not, I will make assumptions about the person if I discover they're in one of those other categories, and I won't if I find out someone had kidnapped and enslaved them. We're distant enough from the 19th-century practice of slavery (and what does go on today is both under the radar and officially disapproved of) that we just don't respond that way anymore.
So one of the important reasons for avoiding linguistic constructions that serve to foster innatist, essentialist thinking (which really only matters with small children anyway, according to the most careful psychological studies) does not matter with slavery. That means any argument for preferring "enslaved people" to "slaves" must have to do with how people in those categories would perceive it, not how others will be influenced by speaking or hearing the construction. And I suspect the same debate that occurs with disability would crop up here. People who prefer "person with autism" are usually parents, teachers, and psychologists who want to encourage not defining someone by the disability and who want others to respect them as people, taking their interests and desires as important, assuming competence first before assuming incompetence, and other essential features of treating someone as a person. Yet one can do that while using the word "autistic" as an adjective.
The other side is usually from people who have the condition who have the communication skills to express their view on the matter. They in fact prefer to be called "autistic" as an adjective, just as the deaf community generally prefers to be called "deaf" and thinks person-first language is insulting. Why is that? Because they see their condition (which they don't always see merely as a disability, because it involves both impairments and increased abilities) as something very important to who they are. It shouldn't define them as if it's the only thing that matters, but it is part of how they've formed their identity, just as race is for anyone who isn't in the dominant majority racial group in their social location. White people in the U.S. don't see whiteness as part of their identity, because it's part of white privilege not to be affected by race is ways that make you constantly think about those categories. Most members of other racial groups in the U.S. do consider their race to inform their sense of their own identity in significant enough ways that they wouldn't want people not to think of them according to those categories, as the dishonest color-blind ideal (does anyone really think they can pretend not to see race?) would have it.
How should this affect calling people "slaves" vs. "enslaved people"? Well, not having the chance to interview a bunch of people in that category, I just have to guess, but my suspicion is that it's going to be like race and disability, at least in terms of how they think of their identity while enslaved. It's pretty all-defining of what their life is. I can't see how that wouldn't be identity-forming. It's certainly more easily removed than the other cases I've been discussing, and that's why we can speak of people as former slaves. But that linguistic option show that we can handle the contingency of the category while still availing ourselves of the ordinary way of speaking, and there is at least some moral argument for retaining the category rather than abandoning it, which gives me little reason to want to engage in a major effort to revise our language in a pretty large way.
I've discovered the need to adopt a new way of speaking about people who are recently-descended from Africans. We've learned in the last couple decades that we ought to emphasize someone's personhood above any other characteristic, and thus it's thoroughly immoral to use any adjective in front of 'person'. We need to use predicate nouns instead. We no longer have sad people, for example. We simply have people with sadness. We no longer have short people. We have people with shortness. We don't want to define people with sadness as if their sadness is more important than their personhood, so we have a moral obligation to put the noun form after the word 'person'. Grammar does always indicate metaphysics, after all.
One sphere of language in which this lesson has never been properly applied is in the area of race. Why are we still talking about black people, for instance? Do we really want to define people solely in terms of their race? Do we really want to signal that their blackness is so central to who they are that we're going to pretend that people with blackness aren't people? If we call them black people, then we are treating their blackness as if it's a greater part of our conception of people with blackness than their personhood is. People with person-firstness have instructed us that we should never put disability-related adjectives in front of a noun or pronoun referring to a person, because we don't want them identified with that condition. But we've also learned from the same people that having a disability is not negative, which means this policy is not because disabilities are bad. Therefore, we ought to apply it to other cases when something is not bad but might wrongly be taken by someone to be bad, just as we would apply it to things that are genuinely bad. If race is not to be a negative, then I am not a white person. I'm a person with whiteness. It does make it a little awkward to speak of people with Asianness or people with Australian-first-people-ness (i.e. what used to be called aboriginalness). But it's worth the awkwardness of expression to avoid any chance of identifying them with the racial or ethnic group whose membership they possess.
Even worse, it's especially pernicious to say that someone is black (or African-American or whatever racial term we might choose). After all, using predicate adjectives amounts to making identity statements rather than merely ascribing a property to someone the way we would have thought that adjectives in English, even predicate adjectives, do. It's much more preferable to say that someone has blackness than to say that she is black. People aren't anything except persons. I'm not philosophical. I have philosophicalness. Glenn Beck is not unfair to his political adversaries. He has unfairness to the people who have political adversariness with him. President Obama is not bad at speaking without a teleprompter. He has badness at speaking without a teleprompter. I shouldn't say that I am Christian. I'm a person who has Christianity. I shouldn't be identified with my faith. I should claim, rather, to possess the entirety of Christianity, as if it belongs to me. We need to avoid identifying people with any property ascribed to them other than personhood. It's much better to say that they possess the entirety of the thing that formerly we would have used to describe them.
For more explanation, please see here (except you can ignore the sections explaining how people with blindness and people with deafness have offendedness at the obviously-correct way to refer to them, and you certainly shouldn't read person-with-autism Jim Sinclair's reasons for disliking person-first language).
Many people consider it an article of faith that you should capitalize every word that could possibly be related to God. Those who don't think about it much will just capitalize the personal pronouns. Occasionally it extends to adjectives (e.g. "God is a Holy God.") Sometimes adverbs, nouns referring to divine attributes, or even verbs join in the fun. For a spoof on this, see this piece at The Holy Observer.
I don't even capitalize divine pronouns, and I have very specific reasons. It's not out of lack of reverence for God. My reasons are largely biblical ones. The Bible doesn't say not to capitalize these words (though it doesn't say we should do so either). It does fail to capitalize them itself, at least in the original manuscripts (except when it capitalizes every letter). Hebrew doesn't have a distinction between capitals and lowercase, and Aramaic uses the same alphabet (I think). Greek does have the distinction, but the New Testament manuscripts are either all caps or all lowercase.
So the Bible itself doesn't capitalize divine pronouns, though some translations do. This itself creates a problem, though. What if a passage is ambiguous about whether it's referring to God or a mere human being? This isn't common, but the lack of capitalization in the original creates this possibility, and it does occur. More common in when a passage about kingship in the Old Testament refers first of all to a human king (or other type of Christ) or ideal kingship and then in an extended sense to the Messiah. Should you then capitalize the pronoun?
Some people try resolve this by not capitalizing pronouns when it's unclear but doing so when it's clear, but this makes an interpretation already, since the reader will take it as a mere human reference. Another try is to capitalize pronouns for God the Father but not for Christ, since most of the references are those fuzzy Messianic references. This creates two problems. One is the fact that some passages are hard to tell whether the reference is to God or to a mere human (and some are hard to tell whether God the Father or Jesus Christ). The second problem is that this starts to make Jesus look less deserving of reverence, since the point of capitalizing was to convey reverence.
So I say we should do what the biblical authors did. We should follow ordinary capitalization conventions for our language. We should capitalize at the beginning of sentences, since that's what we do in English, and we should capitalize proper names. Other letters are lower case for the most part.
It's important to capitalize the word 'God', though. Many of my students don't do it, and it's one of my biggest pet peeves. Proper names should be capitalized no matter what sort of thing they name. I have an Ibanez guitar named Omar, an Ovation acoustic-electric named Selah, a keyboard named Vinnie, a fretless bass named Frank, and short-scale bass named Nimrod. (I guess I haven't named my djembe, my organ, or my Les Paul yet, though the latter was my brother's, and he might have had a name for it.) I once had a car named George and then one named Oscar (but no name for the current minivan). I capitalize those names.
I think students will talk about God and then think that they might not believe in him (or don't want to offend people with alternate conceptions of God), so they think somehow that means they shouldn't capitalize the name, since you don't capitalize the word 'god' when using it as a common noun. But it doesn't matter if God exists if you're using the term as a name. We capitalize the names of Spider-Man, Gandalf, and James T. Kirk, even though they don't exist. So even those who don't believe in God should capitalize his name.
[For the comment thread on the original location of this post, see the Wayback Machine Archive of the post,]
A couple weeks ago Volokh blogged about 'thee' and 'thou'. One thing he mentioned that I've known for a little while but seems so contrary to popular opinion is that 'thee' and 'thou' were the informal and more personal versions of the second person pronoun, and 'ye' and 'you' were reserved for more formal situations. The informal 'thee' and 'thou' eventually became archaic, and their association with old-fashionedness, which also somehow got associated with formality, led to the dominant myth that 'thee' and 'thou' are more formal.
Should people use these terms when praying? Should people prefer a Bible translation that uses them with respect to God? I've encountered a number of people who prefer them and some who insist on it. I've also encountered probably a much greater number who have preferred 'you', many of them insisting on it. The issues become quite complicated, simply because most people don't understand the history of their own language enough to know why these words were chosen in older translations (and the archaic on this matter NASB) when referring to God.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.