People are getting energized about the idea of a brown Jesus, it seems. This question is a lot more complicated people expect it to be, for several reasons. Don't expect that all of your assumptions about this discussion are true. They probably are not.
1. There is a long, fact-challenged tradition within European art that presented Jesus as blond-haired and blue-eyed and within film using English actors with a similar look. This tradition is almost certainly incorrect, for two reasons. Even today, people from the Middle-East do not tend to look like that. Furthermore, it was probably even less that way 2000 years ago than it is now, because there has been more genetic mixing between the people of the Middle-East and Europeans since then, not less.
2. There is a long, fact-challenged tradition within liberation theology that called Jesus black for political reasons. It was an attempt to distance Jesus from his historical origins in order to deny whiteness a place in its reframing of Christianity that traditional Christians have long resisted because of its denial of biblical theology. The particular claim of a black Jesus is hardly what's really wrong with liberation theology, in my view. Its theological claims are the real problem. But nevertheless the idea of calling Jesus black is a big part of how liberation theology distanced itself from the theological tradition, and many hear something like that in this.
But even aside from the historical political context, the actual words themselves are not unambiguously or obviously true or false. There are several reasons I say that:
Three episodes into the Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power, it's very clear that the writers of this show are trying to capture the central theological framework of Tolkien in their story. Tolkien's view of providence and the portrayal of the faithful remnant in Numenor is simply getting him right, at least so far. I was expecting this to be completely insensitive to Tolkien's major themes, perhaps even contradicting them, as Peter Jackson did numerous times in his original trilogy (less so in the Hobbit, ironically, given how much more hate there is from Tolkien fans about that). I could list numerous things:
1. Aragorn as reluctant king rather than biding his time for the right moment to assume his rightful throne while working behind the scenes to meet his kingly responsibilities, as in the books
2. Eowyn as seeking the second-wave feminist goal of trying to make women be like men rather than Tolkien's view of recognizing differences between men and women as something to affirm in women as equally good to any virtues more typical of men
3. Faramir's reduction to being a second-rate Boromir rather than the faithful remnant within Gondor who valued the right things
4. the Ents' motives for helping at Helm's Deep being presented as a hasty decision, completely contrary to their character
5. the presence of any elves besides Legolas at Helm's Deep running contrary to the entire theme in Tolkien of the elves in the Third Age largely hiding and avoiding the evil that was on the rise
I don't see anything as egregiously offensive as that in this show.
Some are upset that this show has been forced into inventing their own details to fill in, because the Tolkien estate refuses to let them use Tolkien's actual second-age materials outside the appendices, but that is the fault of Tolkien's heirs, not the creators of this show. What matters more is whether it is consistent with the world Tolkien gives us, and so far it mostly is. And what matters even more than that is whether the moral and theological framework is compatible with Tolkien's, and it seems from the third episode that they are actually trying hard to get it right.
Now there are a few things they could do to alienate Tolkien fans that I sure hope they do not do. If Meteor Man turns out to be any of the Istari other than Alatar or Pallando (or whichever other names Tolkien used -- I know there are several versions, and one version does have them appearing in the Second Age), then there is reason to be outraged. I think he is more likely to be Sauron than Gandalf, though, but we'll see.
If they don't follow through on the promise they have made that this is a transformation of a very imperfect Galadriel into what we see in the Lord of the Rings story, then that would be bad. But I am taking them at their word on this and thinking the claims of critics are simply premature. This is the Galadriel who becomes that Galadriel, and these experiences will serve to explain why she would know herself well enough to think Frodo's offer of the ring to her would play to all her bad tendencies. They have to had existed sometime in her long life for that whole scene in the Lord of the Rings to make sense.
Some I see are complaining that the show is woke, which of course is a stupid term at this point in its unclarity and lack of precision. I can think of a couple things that the now-orthodox social justice movement in our society wants to see that this show is doing, but they seem hardly concerning to any healthy conservative on social justice issues. There might be some issues on faithfulness to Tolkien's world, but I'm conflicted on that, even.
This week I got through another round of going through some of the main points of John Locke's political philosophy. One theme I emphasize is how strongly Locke's views condemn slavery and in particular the kind of slavery that was going on in his own day. That's why I was so surprised this semester to encounter the view that Locke was a slavery apologist. It just so obviously did not fit his quite explicit view on the matter. Slavery is, for Locke, an example of the kind of violation of the principle of equality and autonomy that absolute monarchy violates, and absolute monarchy is his main opponent. If I enslave someone, that is by its very definition a contradiction to the principle that government requires the consent of the government. Additionally, Locke explicitly says that no human being can take another human being as property, because we are not really even self-owned, and we are all God's property, and God has not given us the right to own each other. I don't know how someone could be any clearer than Locke is about such things.
But a colleague this semester mentioned in passing something about Locke's defense of slavery, and she didn't mean his allowance for the British legal penalty in a just war where those willing to initiate an unjust war, whose penalty might be death, could be spared the death penalty in exchange for servitude, something Locke does present in his Second Treatise on Government while going on to reject the actual practice of slavery of his own day in the entire rest of that work. No, she seemed to think Locke simply agreed with the practice of slavery of his own day. I couldn't imagine how anyone could read the Second Treatise and think such a thing. He explicitly rejects that practice throughout his work.
I encounter people of all sorts fairly regularly on social media. There is a real debate about how the word "racism" should be used. I have a lot to say about that, but I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. There are those who have tried to rework our categories in such a way that prejudice and discrimination are not racism. Racism is purely a structural or systemic thing. Prejudice and discrimination are bad, but they are not racism. We ought to resist them and avoid them to the extent that we can, but racism is just the institutional, structural, and systemic stuff. In their view, we should reserve the word "racism" to refer to the system itself, not the people who do it or their attitudes or actions. Thus racism can only be in one direction, the direction that society enforces with structural, systemic, and institutionally determined forces that act mostly to the advantage of white people and mostly to the disadvantage of others. I happen to think that approach to how we should use the word "racism" is wrong in a few ways, but as I said I'm not interested in that debate for the sake of this post. I'm interested in a reaction against that view that I think goes too far in the other direction.
A very common response to those who reserve the word "racism" for structural, systemic, and institutional stuff is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism. That sort of statement has been increasingly common on the right in response to what they (rightly in my view) regard as problems in how people (mostly on the left) are conceiving of racism. But what seems to me to be an overreaction is simply to deny that there is such a thing as systemic racism or to deny that it is our most serious sort of racial problem.
The idea of systemic, institutional, or structural racism goes back before the Civil Rights era. People had been calling attention to these sorts of problems well before the time of MLK. But it began to be more mainstream as people noticed that changes in laws and societal attitudes were not bringing along changes in some of the other forces that advantage or disadvantage people along race lines. MLK began to see this toward the end of his life, and he began to recognize that just getting people having the right attitudes and making changes in laws to prevent explicit and deliberate discrimination would not be sufficient to solve all of our race problems. There are systemic, structural, and institutional forces that lead to disadvantage and advantage in ways that no one intends. No one is deliberately discriminating or explicitly prejudiced. Yet disadvantage and advantage occur. The problem is in institutions, structures, and systems rather than in beliefs, desires, emotions, or actions of individual people. That is the concept of systemic racism.
On one conception of racism, the one I was raised with, the one that feels to me like how the English language actually operates, these systemic problems are simply not racism. I completely understand those who don't like to call it racism. I myself don't like to call it that. Racism is an attitude of the heart or a set of actions of individuals. But that's a linguistic issue. It's not an issue of what the world is actually like. The thing people are in fact calling systemic racism, and in fact the only thing that term has ever referred to, is real. Not only is it real, but it consists of what seem to me to be the more significant and substantial problems that we have in our society at this point. The stuff I'm inclined to call racism is becoming less present, less effective in causing real problems. Why? Because there is such a stigma attached to racism, to even being perceived as racist, that it's diminished to a much greater degree than the systemic problems have. But the systemic problems remain. And the systemic problems do trace back to racism in the classic sense, when you look hard enough and far enough. They wouldn't be present without racism having occurred.
Here's an non-racial example for anyone having trouble understanding the concept of a systemic problem. Adderall is a controlled substance. People take it when they have no condition requiring it, and people take doses that are much too high. That means it's illegal for a pharmacy to put it on auto-refill, and it's illegal even to prescribe it with refills. You have to call your doctor every month to get them to submit a new prescription. Typically, the people who are taking Adderall are the same people who have executive control issues and are going to have a harder time being organized and remembering to call about that new prescription, which places an additional burden on people who are already worse off when it comes to things like this. That results in days without the medication that helps them be more organized and attentive. No one is trying to make life harder for people with ADHD and autism who rely on this medication. That's not the point. The goal is to prevent abuse by those who don't need the medication to begin with. But because of laws designed to prevent that abuse, the people who need the medication suffer. This is what a systemic or structural problem looks like.
Are there such problems that occur along race lines? There certainly are. There are institutional, systemic, and structural forces in our society that work against people of color, some of them stronger for certain groups than for others, some of them not because of any present discrimination but just because of the effects of past discrimination (e.g. housing segregation today is not a result of present-day bank practices but because of past discrimination in mortgages and racial contracts of who could live in which neighborhoods), and there remain disparities in infrastructure, housing quality, locations of shopping or other necessities nearby, and so on. School segregation no longer has any laws forcing it, but kids tend to go to school where they live, and the quality of schools reflects the resources of the neighborhood. Together with policies like school choice, which allows enterprising parents and students to get out of the bad schools but also thereby makes the bad schools worse for those without that initiative and drive, our schools get more segregated and more disparate in quality and outcome, and that occurs along race lines. There is many careful studies that identify biases that affect law enforcement and criminal justice, disparities in health care, stigmatizations and stereotypes that affect our behavior even if we think the stereotypes are false, and so on. It should be obvious that many of these things are not racism in the classic sense, but they are the only thing that people have ever meant by terms like "systemic racism." They are disparate results that occur along race lines in ways that are predictable and systemic. The forces in our society tend to produce those results along certain lines in ways that are consistent and recurring. And these problems are much more serious than a privileged white kid using the N-word or not inviting the one black kid in the mostly white neighborhood over for a birthday party.
Now if you prefer to call these things "systemic advantage" and "systemic disadvantage" or something like that, I have great sympathies for why you might want to do that. But the fact remains that these are the only thing that terms like "structural racism" and "systemic racism" have ever meant. Words mean what they are used to mean. So those terms do in fact refer to these sorts of problems. That is so, whether you want to think of these sorts of issues as racism or not. I tend to be in the "not" category on that myself. But systemic racism is real, and those who consistently deny it are in effect denying that any of these problems are real. It does not help the cause of the political right in trying to push back against some of the excesses and unhelpful behaviors of the left on race issues if it just looks like you are denying observable facts, and that's what denials of systemic racism look like to the left. If you want to have real conversations where you engage with real people and actually try to convince them of things, to help them see that you have a legitimate point against anything they are saying, it helps to understand their view and get it right first. You are not doing that if you simply deny the reality of systemic racism and say no more. That strategy is doomed to failure. It is no wonder that they will call that strategy "white fragility" or "white supremacy," because it just looks like a desperate attempt to pretend that our most serious problems along race lines simply don't exist. Let's stop doing that, please. If you don't want to be accused of white fragility and white supremacy, then do not set yourself up to be accused of it by behaving in exactly the way the left predicts you will act. And then maybe there will be room for an actual conversation where people seek to understand each other and move forward.
Matthew Franck notes [note: link is now dead, and I haven't been able to find the specific post if it's still up) that on one of Barack Obama's exam questions from when he was teaching law, he asks whether an equal protection challenge can be brought against a law requiring states to be color-blind. Franck says he knows of lots of people who think the equal protection clause requires states to be color-blind, but he hasn't encountered a serious argument anywhere that such laws violate the equal protection clause. I haven't either, but I don't read law reviews. Still, such an argument isn't hard to imagine, and I think it's actually a sound argument.
The equal protection clause entitles people of all races to equal protection of the laws. The laws therefore need to be able to rely on the distinction between members of one race and members of another if they are to ensure that each race is equally protected by them. Therefore, color-blind laws, which disallow the state from paying attention to race, violate the equal protection clause.
It sounds like a pretty good argument to me. As a policy issue, I don't mind restricting affirmative action in universities to class rather than race, or at least ensuring that the standards aren't lowered as much as they are. There's a significant argument that the way affirmative action is typically practiced in that setting (as opposed to in the workplace, which is a very different matter) seems to me to harm the people it's intended to help, given that admissions officers already go out of their way to promote diversity (so there's no discrimination to combat at that level), and it means accepting people who won't be able to do as well and then will appear less good when they graduate than they would at a lower institution with much higher grades and more time for extracurriculars. There are other negatives too, but that's the one that seems decisive to me. I think it's much better to work at the high school level and below to help kids do better in school, to care more about school, and to think of college as something worth doing.
But I can't see how it could be good to ban affirmative action by not allowing a state to recognize racial distinctions in any way. That sort of law is not just bad policy. It really is unconstitutional because it prevents enforcement of the equal protection clause.
Here is what I don't see a lot of people saying in response to the Dr. Seuss books that the publisher will no longer be making. Theodore Geisel was a very progressive, liberal-minded person, anti-racist in the most literal sense of that term. Yet he portrayed people in ways that we today recognize to be stereotypical and somewhat offensive. People have been calling him a racist for years, when his views were anything but. How could the author of the Sneetches, an explicitly anti-racist story in the literal sense of that term, be counted as a racist just because he had absorbed some of the stereotypical imagery of his day and brought it out in his depictions of people from around the world when wanting to expose children to multi-cultural stuff and to think more globally?
"To be White is to see oneself outside of Race." -- taken from an advertisement for a race discussion coming up at Le Moyne College.
I believe the quote comes from Robin DiAngelo. Yes, there is something she means by that that is true. She's talking about the structures and unconscious ways of behaving that are unfortunately and systematically associated with some of the ways that white people conceive of themselves in relation to race. In short, they don't conceive of themselves in relation to race. Race is something other people have, in effect. They are the norm, and others are the deviation, and racial identity is not something they have to think of themselves as having. It is a problem when white people conceive of themselves that way.
Even so, I would maintain that it's a misuse of language that is both misleading and alienating, and I think it's a terrible idea to use the word "white" or the word "whiteness" in that way. The actual meaning of "white" when used in a racial way, to most people, does not refer to those social patterns. It refers to which ancestry someone has, and talking this way is the best way to reinforce the unhealthy and problematic racial patterns in our social relations.
Talking as if this is essential to races and race relations gives the impression that (and therefore reinforces subconsciously) the idea that the unhealthy patterns are just the way things are. It does not allow us to separate whiteness as someone's ancestry and whatever social stuff we have added to that. It doesn't allow us to move away from thinking problematic racial relations are part of white identity, because it deliberately defines them as part of whiteness.
Not only that, but by saying something that seems patently false to most people, it comes across to most people as ignorant and racist. There is something the person actually means that is not ignorant and racist and is in fact intended to serve racial justice. But it comes across that way, and in my view people who talk that way are in fact to blame for that misimpression. They are the ones who are talking unclearly and using terms in nonstandard ways that ordinary people will not understand. So they are damaging their own message by coming across as racist extremists.
Furthermore, it is alienating to white people who care about racial justice and who recognize that there are many ways that white people can do the thing described in the quote, because it is speaking as if it is essential to white people. As I said, I know that is not what DiAngelo means. She means that it is essential to whiteness, and she isn't seeing whiteness as what it is to be descended from Europeans or whatever. She is seeing whiteness as participation in societal behaviors and patterns. And there is something right about what she is recognizing. That is important to see. Many of her critics refuse to see that, and there is something intellectually dishonest about that if they have actually read her carefully and charitably with an intent to evaluate her rather than to start with the assumption that she is wrong.
But what it comes across as is the kind of racial essentialism that science disproved in the mid-20th century. It comes across as treating all white people as being the problem. It presents itself as othering white people in order to get out a message about how white people other non-white people. And that is the "but you did it first" Trumpian whataboutism that the left frequently recognizes and points out when they see the right doing it but yet engages in just as frequently and loudly when they feel like being just as toxic as those they regularly condemn. Those who care about racial justice need to move beyond this kind of talk if we are to have real conversations about race that move people in a direction where they can hear us and accept what we are saying.
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.
This is the eighth 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 list of all the posts with links.
In the last post, I introduced the notions of retentionism, revisionism, and eliminativism. Should we give up on race notions (eliminativism), keep them as they are (retentionism), or seek to modify them (revisionism)? I argued that in the long-term we ought to seek to change them but in the short term need to keep them as they are. What does this look like in practice? I will start by looking at a couple issues regarding the use of race language itself, and in the next and final post in this series I will look at practical behavior that seems supported by evidence-based studies to serve the short-term and long-term goals of my approach.
The Ordinary, Minimalist Concept of Race
I want to start by thinking about what Michael Hardimon calls the minimalist concept of race. He also calls it the ordinary concept of race. He is distinguishing this notion from a more robust notion of race like the scientific essentialist notion that races have genetic components built in that determine all kinds of things about us, such as our intelligence, moral value, and capabilities of various sorts. He thinks that notion of race is no longer part of the ordinary concept of race. There might be experts who look at the history of race who see that it was true about early ideas in the modern development of the concept of race, but ordinary people do not think that that's what race is. One way we know this is that philosophers working on these questions have collaborated with sociologists to do careful empirical study of people's notions of race and of particular races. We can also look at how language is used by ordinary people, a opposed to scientists, sociologists, or philosophers working on these questions. Words mean what people use them to mean, and all it takes for a word to change its meaning is for people to use it in a different way for a long enough time that it gradually becomes a new meaning for the word. If we stop using it in the first way, then that no longer becomes its meaning.
Hardimon argues that the minimalist notion of race is the ordinary concept of race of most people. It's the view on the street. We don't let academics or activists decide what words mean unless we start using the words the way the activists and academics are using them. Once we do, then those are part of the meaning. But we don't defer to expert son the meaning of a term. The experts have to do empirical research to see how people are using terms, and we should listen to their expertise on that. But it's not like physics where we just have to hear what those who have studied subatomic particles think about the nature of electrons. There are no such experts on what race-language refers to, other than those who have done empirical research on how language is used.
So here is Hardimon's account of what it is to be a race:
"A race is a group of human beings
(C1) that, as a group, is distinguished from other groups of human beings by patterns of visible physical features,
(C2) whose members are linked by a common ancestry peculiar to members of the group, and
(C3) that originates from a distinctive geographic location"
I tend to think that's a pretty good definition. It might require a tweak or two to allow for weird cases like a duplicate of Chris Rock, say, appearing out of nowhere and with no ancestry or history, who I think obviously would still count as black. (But I realize there are philosophers who think the Chris Rock duplicate wouldn't even be human, never mind black.) I also think Tuvok, a black Vulcan in Star Trek, is obviously black, and he certainly isn't human. But those tweaks are oddities on the extremes of our language use, and problems with that sort of thing are similar to problems in deciding whether someone is the same person after being dismantled entirely by a Star Trek transporter, while a duplicate is constructed somewhere else out of new matter that looks and talks and has memories just like mine. I happen to think the transporter killed the original person and created a duplicate, but a lot of philosophers agree with how Star Trek presents such cases and thinks it merely transports the original person to a new location. We don't need to think our disagreement on such side cases tells us our definitions of "person" or "human being" are wrong. We can push those issues aside for most discussions, and the same is true of weird side cases of race (although in both cases I would want to get to those discussions eventually to get a full theory together).
But I agree that Hardimon's account is the basic idea that most people have of what it is to be a race and what is true of the racial groups we ordinarily refer to. Hardimon's definition notices that races are groups of people with differences. Those differences have to do with patterns of visible physical features and common ancestry distinctive of each group. That common ancestry originates from a certain location.
That's it. There is no commitment to whether races are social kinds or biological kinds. For all this says, they could be both or neither or one or the other. This definition captures what it is to be a race in a way that we can then still have the debate about which kind of thing the races we have are. And it seems to get the basic aspects of racehood correct, in my view, and Hardimon and others have given empirical research that I think back that up.
Given such a definition, I want to get to an issue that looms large right now in certain circles. There is, in my view, a very harmful way of talking about certain kinds of race-based phenomena. It's also a very popular way of talking, and I don't think those who talk that way realize how harmful it is to speak the way they do. It is confusing to many who hear them and don't understand them, and it reinforces the very things about race that we should want to revise long-term and remove from our notions of races. It in fact is not in the minimalist, ordinary concept of race, so speaking this way reinforces aspects of race that are not even in the ordinary concept. In my view, what we ought to do is steer more toward thinking of race in that way and away from other ways, including ways tied to the social constructions we add to race. We need to realize those constructions are there, but we don't want to reinforce them.
This way of talking that I think is so destructive is common in a field that is sometimes called whiteness studies. It is common on an academic level from people who do whiteness studies or who work on questions of systemic and structural problems related to race. It has filtered down into a certain segment of the general public, especially among activists, but I am seeing it more and more among people who are just becoming aware of and interested in race issues (those who might describe themselves, or those whom their critics would describe them as, becoming more woke). Thr National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a subsidary of the Smithsonian, recnently caused a bit of a flap over posting a document to their website that engaged in this use. The document was removed, and they replaced it with this justification of that use of language.
I think this way of talking is both false and dangerous. It involves thinking of and speaking of whiteness as something other than being a member of a race in the sense of the ordinary concept of race above. It is becoming common to speak of whiteness as an ideology or a set of social constructions or a set of advantages rather than as simply the property of belonging to a certain group. In this way of seeing whiteness, it is the way that systems of power and influence, advantage and privilege position white people. It is an agenda of seeking to preserve those and continue to institute them. It is the way that society maintains white advantage. This is a real phenomenon. Most of it is unconscious. Some of it is the very indirect consequence of practices long ago that set up systems that still have those results today. Some of it just the inevitable result of not very carefully evaluated ways of living life as a member of a majority group. Some of is is from having been affected by stereotypes to have biases that are often unconscious. Some of it is having absorbed stigmatized notions and a sense of what is normative from what is around us. All this is to say that I am not denying the phenomenon that people are calling whiteness. What I want to say is that we should not be calling it whiteness, and I think it is morally wrong to do so.
There are several strong reasons for thinking this way of talking is deeply immoral. And no, it's not that it's racist. I believe I've said enough to show that it's not racist. It's targeting a genuine phenomenon and simply mislabeling it, and that sends a message that people wrongly perceive as racist. They can be blamed for that only to the extent that they understand this gross misuse of language is occurring, and many of them don't. The most obvious reason not to talk this way is that it is inaccurate. You end up saying false things. If you say that whiteness causes some kind of disparity, you are telling a falsehood. Whiteness is simply membership in a group that has ancestry and surface-level physical features in common, going by the Hardimon definition above that I have endorsed. Unless you are die-hard essentialist about races, thinking races have essential natures that make people racists, you are simply saying something false when you talk about whiteness in this way. We should care about truth. Truth is important. Whiteness does not actually cause anything of the sort. Merely being a member of a group that has certain visually identifiable features and ancestry does not cause anyone to resist calls for a living wage. So why are we calling it whiteness?
Marilyn Frye saw this problem 18 years ago when she distinguished between what she called whiteliness (which corresponds to how the use of "whiteness" I am critiquing) and mere whiteness, which corresponds more to what the ordinary, minimal concept of race would say that whiteness is. She called the stuff we should avoid and seek to change by some new term rather than trying to co-opt an existing one that already has a meaning and thus could sow nothing but confusion among those not in the insular circle of those talking about whiteness in this way. Alas, her voice did not win out.
A further reason we should avoid this way of talking is that it confuses people. The point of communication is to get what you are saying across to the person you are talking to. This use of the term is very insular. People who read a lot of scholarship about race understand it. People who spend a lot of time in activist circles understand it. But go back to the ordinary concept of race. How do you expect most people are going to hear if I say that we need to dismantle whiteness? What do they hear if you tell them that oppression of black people is whiteness? What do they hear when I say that I am engaging in whiteness when I exhibit unconscious biases against certain racial groups? What do they hear when I say that it is whiteness (and it is bad) to expect people to be on time for something or to want to do well in school? What do they hear when I say that it is whiteness to have little concern for those of other races or to use white privilege to discount the experiences of others? I would add that the newest trend (and it's all over social media) is not to stick with using "whiteness" in this way but even to extend it to "white people," i.e. saying that white people do such-and-such and then when challenged on it to say that they don't mean it's something white people do but something that whiteness does, in this already-problematic sense of the term. And we get even further along on the path to make the statement sound as racist as possible while insisting it does not mean that.
I will tell you how most white people hear this sort of statement. They feel as if they are being accused of being the most despicable racist possible. They hear it as saying that all white people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis of the worst sorts, because the statement is connecting something terrible and evil with whiteness, as if there is something like a racial essence (something biologists rejected more than a half century ago) behind why white people are so evil. In other words, it comes across as the most vile racism there can be. Saying something that sounds like that in order to try to communicate something very different is simply a big communication fail. I feel like posting one of those "You had one job" memes with someone using the word "whiteness" (or worse, "white people") in this sort of way. It's almost as if people who talk this way are trying their hardest not to get their message across and instead to try to make lots and lots of white people mishear them in order to be able to accuse them of having white fragility when they object. As a friend of mine has been saying a lot recently, I'm generally not one to go for conspiracy theories, but this seems like a case where it's sorely tempting. I hope that's not the motive, but it's accomplishing that goal very well. People are drawing their battle lines. I spend lots of time literally every day having to explain what people mean when they say stuff like this and how it's not the racist thing that it sounds like, and people simply don't believe me. They think I'm trying to explain away and justify actual racism for simply explaining what people who talk about whiteness this way mean. That alone is an incredibly powerful reason never to talk this way. Ever. It's easily one of the best ways you can divide people over race without ever lifting a finger.
As if falsity and miscommunication, leading to divisiveness, were not already enough reasons, there is a more subtle reason why we should not talk this way, one that connects directly with the overall project of short-term retentionism and long-term revisionism. It actually gets things backwards. What we want to do is recognize racial realities and use racial terms in a way that captures what really happens, but we want to move toward removing the problematic associations and assumptions connected with those terms in practice. We want to move toward the ordinary, minimalist concept of race, and speaking this way goes the wrong direction. It actually reinforces the aspects of race thinking and racial interaction that we want to move away from.
I have two sons with autism, and one of them has low impulse control. Behavior is a frequent topic of conversation in our household, and we have spent much time looking at evidence-based research about autism and behavior. One of the things an evidence-based approach will do is expose him to various conditions and then see how he responds. He is very quick to figure out what people will respond to. The behavioral therapists who worked with him would stop responding to his attempts to fake-hit them to get away from a certain task, and he would quickly learn that fake-hitting wouldn't get him the iPad he wants. He would have to ask or write it out or sign, depending on which method of asking they were reinforcing during that trial. When they gave him the iPad if he fake-hit them, they reinforced the fake-hitting. When they ignored the fake-hitting by only gave it to him when he asked, they were reinforcing the asking. It is well-documented that in cases like his nearly any audible or physical response to the behavior you want to reduce will reinforce it, because he's likely either seeking sensory feedback (and you are giving it to him) or trying to get attention (and you're giving it to him. So when he pushes me during one of his online sessions with his teacher during this pandemic, and I respond by telling him, "No" or pushing back or any other response, careful study of him and other people like him actually shows, I am reinforcing the behavior. The way to reduce to behavior is to ignore it when he does it but to model for him what he should be doing and to reinforce that when he does it. That's a bit counterintuitive, but it's what careful psychological studies have shown over and over again in this kind of case.
How does using "whiteness" the way I have been describing reinforce what we want to remove? Well, it builds it into the very definition of whiteness. You can't very well tell people that whiteness is evil and that they need to divest themselves of it, all the while building into their very identity that they are the kind of people who have essences that manifest themselves this way. Those who use this term this way don't believe that, but they are speaking publicly to people who see whiteness just as their belonging to a group that is grounded in skin color, hair type, ancestry, etc. When you say of such a group that something that sounds like it is part of their essence to behave in this kind of way, it reinforces all the associations with whiteness that we should be working hard to remove from our racial identities. You can't very well divest yourself of whiteness when people are working very hard to send a signal that being white includes all these terrible things. And I can't imagine what this is reinforcing about white people in the minds of those who talk this way regularly. We don't want to build racism into our race definitions. We want to move toward the minimalist concept so that we can affirm that racial essentialism is false and not send any messages that come across as assuming it, We want to remove racist elements from our racial concepts, so let's not reinforce those notions by using language in a way that divides rather than brings us together, that sounds like it has assumptions about racial essences that science disproved 70 years ago, that confirms all the notions that any racially forward person should not want to reinforce.
If that doesn't convince you, compare the parallel way of talking that we would get if we did the same thing to blackness. If we want to see whiteness as an ideology of white supremacy or a set of systemic structures that perpetuate white normativity, then we should also see blackness as an ideology of black inferiority or a set of systemic structures that disadvantage black people. We should not see blackness as merely belonging to a category of the minimalist race. We should not see blackness as cultural, either, not if the cultural elements we are referring to could ever be seen as positive. Blackness would have to be (to be parallel) the forces in place that operate to exclude, stigmatize, and enforce disadvantage. Blackness would be just as evil as whiteness. It would be because of someone's blackness that they do less well on standardized tests. It would be because of someone's blackness that they don't know what clothing is appropriate for a job interview or would need to be prepped for how to dress for such an interview. Can you see how racist that sounds? Yet it's precisely parallel, and if it's conceptually legitimate to use "whiteness" in the way that people are, then it is equally conceptually legitimate to use "blackness" in such a way. Indeed, both concepts are getting at a real phenomenon. But should we call that phenomenon whiteness and blackness? I don't see how it is remotely legitimate to do so, either in terms of accuracy or when we evaluate this way of speaking morally.
I have no problem talking about these phenomena, but please don't do so by calling it whiteness or blackness unless you want to perpetuate the racial disparities and stigmatized associations that we already have, indeed unless you want to reinforce those and make them stronger and to foster pointless division over a mere disagreement in language. There are philosophers who define races as groups that are put into a hierarchy, so that they wouldn't be races at all without the hierarchy. They do this to address the fact that hierarchies do exist in how we see and treat each other. But it's counterproductive to define races in such a way. We need to go the other way, which is why the minimalist view of race is so important. It moves us in the direction of allowing us to refer to races and say that racial groups are in fact treated in a hierarchical way while also not building it into the notion of races that the are hierarchical. So we can move toward the revision, which you can't do if whiteness (or blackness) is evil. But we can name the evils that are present by having racial terms that we preserve and can use to state such problems.
I was going to finish up the series with this post, but it got too long, so I will be continuing in one more post. So the ninth post will look at some much more practical matters of how to live in a way that keeps in mind both short-term retentionist and long-term revisionist goals.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.