Friday 19th September 2014

by sophie

Preface: I am taking a class in Race and Racism this semester with Sally Haslanger at MIT, fulfilling my deepest desires of having classes in philosophy count towards my degree. I figured I would cross-post my weekly responses and thoughts here, so that you may read them and form a few thoughts of your own.

In this past week of class, we continued to mull on foundational questions of race itself core to the discussion of racism. Once again, we asked– what is race, and does it exist, at all?

These are not questions that I had really considered before our class readings, and goes to show how ingrained racial thinking is on our minds. Even though I am quite aware of the notion of gender as a social construct, not once did the idea of race as a social construct occur to me, even after four years of schooling in a progressive college, whilst living in one of the most liberal and metropolitan cities in the world.

Sally drew this chart on the board classifying the views of some of the authors we read that I found very helpful.







Race Realist

Race Eliminativist


Social Constructionist


Thus, someone who believes that race is not biological is a race eliminativist; someone who believes that race is real, but only socially is a social constructionist, someone who believes that race is a real biological phenomenon is a race realist, and as far as we are aware there isn’t much of a name for people who believe that race is not socially real, since there are probably very few who think of it as such. Then there are also various combinations of the boxes above, and partial beliefs, such as race naturalists who believe that there are races biologically, but they could be very, very different from what we assume of races (and that is socially constructed).

Appiah, one of the thinkers we discussed, argues against the existence of race from two fronts– both ideationally (there exist no human beings that satisfy our assumptions of race) and refrentially (our usage of the term “race” have no human groupings to back them up). He might be someone we call a “race eliminativist”, although he approaches the concept from the usage of the term itself.

Yet, again, I argue, does this make the term any less valid? The ideational theorest would say that the concept/ideas associated with a term can be wrong and not apply to the referent– for example, when I say “I have arthiritis in my thigh”, when in fact, no one does. But clearly, there is some sort of pain in my thigh, and whether or not I refer to it as arthritis, it still exists.

What strikes me the most of all the authors we have read and discussed so far, along with our own discussions of race, is what appears the desire to seek biological or logical proof, of the existence or non-existence of race. There is such a great emphasis to dispute, with sequential logical proofs, whether or not race exists, when the ramifications of race existing and all the issues that come with it are overwhelmingly related to the fields of politics, economics, and social class that have very little to do with biology (aside from testing and treatment of certain diseases and genetics, which is not to be dismissed). We seek a logical, scientific proof of the existence of race, yet issues of racial thinking and racism clearly cannot be approached in such matters.

In the 21st century we laugh easily at the Social Darwanist who so ignorantly argues about the skull size and brain size of different races, as this is clearly “scientifically incorrect” and racist thinking. Yet, we neglect that the science was in fact “correct” in that era, for science is never an absolute truth, but a function of time and place. That is something we often forget– that science, is not objective but subjective, and grounded in its own system of human beliefs and ideologies. Behind every hypothesis is an inquiry about what we consider even worthwhile researching at all, and in every algorithm, human-chosen features to evaluate.

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