Minimalist Race and Whiteness
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.
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Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.