Part II: Race and the Social Construction of Subjectivities

In my previous post, I gave a broad overview of three central views of race in contemporary race theory literature:  racial skepticism (K. Anthony Appiah), racial constructionism (Ron Mallon), and racial population naturalism (Robin Andreasen).  Racial skeptics hold that since biobehavioral racial essences do not exist, and there is nothing for the term “race” to signify, “races” do not exist.  The racial constructionist agrees that there are no racialized essences; however, she understands race as a social kind and sees value in racial discourse.  The racial population naturalist likewise rejects racial essentialism; yet, she claims that “races may exist as biologically salient populations, albeit ones that do not have the biologically determined social significance once imputed to them.”[1] Personally I situate myself within the racial constructionism camp and thus consider race an important social reality worthy of our discourse, study and continued reflection.Sculpting a Subject

In this post, I want to focus on the term “social constructionism” in order to then discuss how various thinkers have come to understand subjectivities, identities and concepts as socially constructed and whether or not or to what degree human agency is compatible with some variant of social constructionism.  More specifically, I am interested in understanding how identities or subjectivities and concepts such as “race,” “slave,” and “black” arise, how they are sustained and eventually become ossified historically, and what role various socio-political institutions, discourses and cultural practices play in their formation and maintenance.

As a provisionary starting point, it is helpful to think of social constructionism as analogous to the production of artifacts.[2] Broadly put, an artifact is an object designed and created by a human agent for a specific purpose or set of purposes.   Such objects include handcrafted bookshelves, Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, Cézanne’s painting, Le Cabanon de Jourdan, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor.  Here we have reasonably unobjectionable instances of objects designed and produced by identifiable agents.  However, when we consider Western tonal music, the modern state or human language, we encounter artifacts whose specific intentional and originary agents are difficult if not impossible to identify.  Nonetheless, in the second group of examples human agency is no doubt involved and the emergence and maintenance of each involves reference to historical and socio-political practices, customs, and traditions.  Similarly, as Sally Haslanger explains, certain categories of individuals “count as social constructions because the conditions for being a member of the kind or category include social (properties and) relations.”[3] For example, to be considered (legally and officially) adopted obtains only in a society that recognizes the status of legal adoption and has the social and political structures in place to facilitate such practices.  Just as agents produce artifacts for various purposes, so, too, identities, subjectivities and concepts are constructed intentionally as well as unintentionally through discourses, institutions, traditions and socio-political practices.[4]

With the above sketch in place, let us turn to a few examples from Frantz Fanon in order to illustrate more concretely how human subjectivities—like artifacts—are constructed.   As Fanon explains, in a mostly black community in the Antilles, he neither identified nor saw himself as a “black” subject; however, once he entered a predominantly white socio-political context where the category “black” is assigned in advance multiple negative meanings, a confrontation with racially scripted phenotypic differences was unavoidable. [5] Fanon likewise narrates how a particularly painful racial encounter on a train was a breaking point for him.  That is, although he resisted repeatedly the ascriptions imposed upon him by the dominant discourse, he eventually gave in and began to internalize the white-defined view of the black other—intellectually inferior, culturally incompetent, an object to be fixed.  With this example, we see how discourse can function—one may even argue—causally to construct a particular subjectivity or identity.  Here we have a subjectivity, “black,” which was constructed in a specific socio-historical context through discourse, institutional practices, legal structures and so forth.  There is nothing intrinsic to the subject that corresponds to the fictive identity created by the dominant discourse; yet, because the society itself is, in this case, structured racially, those who have been labeled “black” can and often do come to see themselves as possessing at least some of the characteristics that have been ascribed to them.   As Haslanger observes,

Our classificatory schemes, at least in social contexts, may do more than just map preexisting groups of individuals; rather our attributions have the power to both establish and reinforce groupings which may eventually come to “fit” the classifications.  In such cases, classificatory schemes function more like a script than a map.[6]

None of the above should be taken to mean that an individual is completely socially determined or unable to resist or re-construct his or her subjectivity.  In future posts, I plan to discuss specific examples of such resistance possibilities via textual analyses of Foucault, Fanon and Frederick Douglass.


[1] 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.

[2] This section on social constructionism is indebted to Sally Haslanger’s work.  See especially, Sally Haslanger, “Ontology and Social Construction,” Philosophical Topics 23 (1995):  95–125.

[3] Ibid., 98.

[4] Regarding unintended socially constructed identities, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault traces the history “delinquency,” showing how it emerges as an unintended subjectivity produced by the modern prison system.  This new subjectivity arises in spite of the fact that the stated intention of the institution is to rehabilitate offenders.

[5] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[6] Haslanger, “Ontology and Social Construction,” 100.  Haslanger labels this type of construction, “discursive.”  Here “[s]omething is discursively constructed just in case it is the way it is, to some substantial extent, because of what is attributed (and/or self-attributed) to it” (Ibid., 100).