Part I: Race and the Social Construction of Subjectivities

Describing how “black” subjectivity in a colonized context is socially constructed and comes to function as an imposed hermeneutical lens for black experience, Frantz Fanon writes,

For no longer does the black man have to be just black, but he has to be black over against the white man. Some would want to remind us that this situation works both ways.  We answer back that it’s false.  The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man.  From one day to the next, Negroes have two systems of reference from which they must take their bearings.  Their metaphysical, or less pretentiously, their customs and the authorities to which they referred, were abolished because they were in contradiction with a civilization that has ignored them and imposed itself on them.[1]Sculpting a Subject

As my own description of Fanon’s passage indicates, the terms “social construction,” “constructionism,” and similar phrases are commonplace in much of the current philosophical literature on race, gender and sexuality.  For example, most contemporary philosophers of race argue that race is not a natural, biological kind—a widely-held belief that came to full fruition in the nineteenth century. [2] In contemporary race theory literature, this former view of race goes by a variety of names:  racialism (K. Anthony Appiah), biobehavioral essentialism (Ron Mallon), racial essentialism and so forth.   Given the widespread rejection of this position among race theorists, it is important to have a clear idea of precisely what the position entails.  Ron Mallon presents a concise explanation of the three aspects of racialism or what he calls biobehavioral essentialism.

Races were believed to share biobehavioral essences:  underlying natural (and perhaps genetic) properties that (1) are heritable, biological features, (2) are shared by all and only the members of a race, and (3) explain behavioral, characterological, and cultural predispositions of individual persons and racial groups.[3]

Although there are significant points of disagreement among scholars engaged in race related studies, there is, as Mallon highlights, a general consensus among philosophers of race, sociologists and biologists that “races do not share such biobehavioral essences.”[4] Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence against racialism is the conclusion reached in recent scientific studies of intra- and intergroup genetic variation.  As the study of genetics gained prestige in scientific circles, those adhering to racial essentialism turned to this new field, believing that the differences among races must be the result of an underlying genetic discrepancy.  However, “studies of human genetic diversity suggest that genetic variation within racially identified populations is as great as or greater than diversity between populations.”[5] In light of these findings, the possibility of confirming a distinct racial essence “shared by all and only members of a race” is highly improbable.[6]

Even with a general consensus concerning the untenability of racialism among philosophers of race, debates abound as to whether racial discourse should be retained given the negative purposes for which it has been utilized. In light of the abundant evidence against a biobehavioral essentialized notion of race, many race theorists argue for what Mallon has labeled, “racial skepticism, the view that races do not exist at all.”[7] Others, however, believe that although an essentialized, hierarchical view of race must be rejected, racial language, nonetheless, should be salvaged, albeit purged of its negative history.  This second group defends what Mallon calls racial constructionism.  On this view, race is a social construction and thus exists as a social, rather than a natural kind.[8] Racial constructionists hold that the notion of race as a social kind plays a crucial role in establishing, maintaining and developing a group’s identity; consequently, it as well as racial discourse must be preserved.  Mallon lists a third group, racial population naturalism, which claims that “races may exist as biologically salient populations, albeit ones that do not have the biologically determined social significance once imputed to them.”[9]


[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, rev. ed., trans. Richard Philcox (New York:   Grove Press, 2008) 90.  I have modified the translation in several places. Originally published as Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris:  Seuil, 1971).  “Car le Noir n’a pas plus à être noir, mais à l’être en face du Blanc.  Certains se mettront en tête de nous rappeler que la situation est à double sens.  Nous répondons que c’est faux.  Le Noir n’a pas de résistance ontologique aux yeux du Blanc.  Les nègres, du jour au lendemain, ont eu deux systèmes de référence par rapport auxquels il leur a fallu se situer.  Leur métaphysique, ou moins prétentieusement leurs coutumes et les instances auxquelles elles renvoyaient, étaient abolies parce qu’elles se trouvaient en contradiction avec une civilization qu’ils ignoraient et qui leur en imposait” (Peau noire, masques blancs, 88-89).

[2] For a helpful historical and philosophical discussion of the significant figures and events that paved the way for nineteenth century (pseudoscientific) racial essentialism, see Robert Bernasconi, “Who Invented the Concept of Race?  Kant’s Role in the Enlightenment Construction of Race,” in Race, ed. Robert Bernasconi (Oxford:  Blackwell, 2001), 11–36. Bernasconi argues that although Kant was not the first to use the term “race,” he was the first to give the term definitional precision  As Bernasconi explains, for Kant, what distinguishes race from variety is the fact that “races are marked by hereditary characteristics that are unavoidable in the offspring” (Ibid., 17).  Regarding the problems of a biological concept of race, see Daniel Blackburn, “Why Race is not a Biological Concept,” in Race and Racism in Theory and Practice, ed. Berel Lang, 3–26. Oxford:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.  See also, Ron Mallon, “‘Race’:  Normative, Not Metaphysical or Semantic,” Ethics 116 (2006):  525-551, especially 528–29.

[3] Mallon, “‘Race’:  Normative, Not Metaphysical or Semantic,” 528-529.

[4] Ibid., 529.

[5] Ibid., 529.

[6] Ibid., 529.

[7] Ibid., 525, italics retained.  See, for example, K. Anthony Appiah, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” in Overcoming Racism and Sexism, eds. Linda A. Bell and David Blumenfeld, 59–78.  Oxford:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1995; Naomi Zack, Philosophy of Science and Race (New York:  Routledge, 2002).

[8] Mallon, “‘Race’:  Normative, Not Metaphysical or Semantic,” 525-526, fn. 4.  See, for example, Charles Mills, Blackness Visible:  Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1998); Lucius Outlaw, On Race and Philosophy (New York:  Routledge, 1996); Michael Root, “How We Divide the World,” Philosophy of Science 67 (2000):  S628–S639; Ronald Sundstrom, “Racial Nominalism,” Journal of Social Philosophy 33 (2002):  193–210.

[9] Mallon, “‘Race’:  Normative, Not Metaphysical or Semantic,” 526.  See, for example, Robin Andreasen, “Race:  Biological Reality or Social Construct?”  Philosophy of Science 67 (2000):  S653–S666; Philip Kitcher, “Race, Ethnicity, Biology, Culture,” in Racism, ed. Leonard Harris (New York:  Humanity Books, 1999):  87–120.