Philosophy of Race and a side note

I just recently returned from a week long trip to Boston and was planning on posting some amazing pictures I took of the city.  During this process I also came across some papers I had written for a philosophy class.  One about gender and one about race.  I thought about posting them next week, but since the issue of race is being discussed I thought it would be more appropriate to post that one now while the topic had already been breached.

A side note: I hope no one who currently posts or lurks here actually leaves the site.  That was all :p

So this was an essay for my Philosophy of Film final exam (yes, it was a really awesome class).  We had read an article by Charles Mills about various schools of thought about race (If I can dig up the specific article I will link it) then watched an amazing documentary about language, racism and society called The N-Word.  They talk with so many different types of people about their views on race and racism in this country.  Everyone from college students, to civil rights activists, to comedians to that guy with no teeth you see downtown sometimes.  It was really fascinating.  It won a Peabody but it doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention.  I really recommend it to anyone of any race.    

I took this class right before I started blogging and I think in some ways it contributed to that (well and a really great online course I took).  I realized I had put a lot of time and thought into the things I was writing but the only ones to see them were me and my professor.  I had earned the grade but it didn’t seem to mean as much.  I personally cared about a lot of the topics and wanted to hear other people’s views.  I already know I like my own opinions, but what if someone else has a better idea?

Anyways, the question I was responding to asked for an explanation of two positions Mills had discussed and to pick which one we personally agreed with and why.  I chose constructivist and realist.


A constructivist falls into the objectivist category of belief that race is objectively real, and that the reality of race is independent of what an individual may personally think about it.  Metaphysically a constructivist believes more specifically that race is a socially constructed idea, but still objectively true.

 It is true in the same sense that any other socially accepted and practiced idea is real.  In the same way that gender is real and that democracy is real.  Society has decided to accept these ideas as true and real and participate in the rules and consequences.  Although all the social implications of race were not decided upon per say as our democracy was, it has been enforced and passed down more similar to how gender is constructed.  We all acknowledge that race exists and act accordingly, which makes it objectively true overall.  

The idea of race is not fundamental or essential to a person, but it is still an important part of who you are because there are social and cultural implications based on one’s race.  Since this is the case, even if you as an individual do not believe in race there will still be racial constructs that exist and it will still have an affect on others, which means it is still real despite your individual thoughts otherwise.

A realist is still considered to be in the objectivist position, but they metaphysically believe race to be real as in that it comes from nature.  It is a real difference in the essence of a person and even if not one person believed in race, it would still exist.  Races are therefore “natural kinds” that have a foundation in nature and exist regardless of any social or cultural belief.  

Unlike a constructivist, realists believe that race exists innately and that the societal influences did not create race, it just reflects the differences in the essence of each race.  There is also the belief that racialism and racism are different.  You can accept the reality of race as a natural occurrence but not be racist in doing so.  Rather you are observing the differences that define a race, and not just the superficial differences, but the essential differences between races of people.

I personally agree with the constructivist position on race.  There is no scientific way to definitively determine someone’s particular race.  If you were to judge by looks alone then a light skinned black person would be considered white.  Since someone’s race cannot be determined scientifically even at the most basic level (DNA), then categorizing by bloodlines is also only a subjective method and up to an individual’s discretion.  Although there may be essences to each race that could be argued to be natural, these are more likely traits constructed by cultural influences and not innately held by every individual.  The cultural influences of each race of people would determine their qualities and behavior more so than any biological influence.

Because there are some obvious morphological differences between various people, there have historically been those who used this as a basis for judgment.  This was not the case in every country, nor is it the case is all societies today, but the Western world in particular has held onto the idea of race to oppress and distinguish those who are “privileged” from those who are not.  Slavery partly founded our country and in order for slavery to work the slaves had to be subordinate to their owners.  To accomplish this, race was used as the litmus test for superiority.

Although the practice of slavery has been illegal for some time now, the cultural impact of those actions define our current ideas about race.  Not only were dark skinned people considered inferior to a white person so were Asians, Native Americans, Indians, and those of Middle-Eastern descent.  Since they were considered to be inferior they were treated as such and the cultural stigma is still carried today.  

The concept of the “one drop” rule was created by people and not based in scientific fact or is it by any means a practical way to distinguish races or to determine which race you belong to.  Rather this rule was used as a way to determine how “contaminated” your whiteness had become through the mixing of races.  This idea of racial purity was protected by laws preventing interracial marriages and upheld by the societal consequences of the taboo act off mixing your race.

These long practiced ideas have lead us to believe in races and the practice of categorizing people based on subjective, ill defined characteristics.  The only reason there is race as we know it is because enough people still adhere to, and carry on the idea of race from decades of cultural acceptance.  In every form we fill out there is a question asking to define our individual race.  These races are not actual biological differences between groups of people, they are arbitrary categories you inherit from your parents and are socially accepted to be true distinguishing factors between people.  

There is no biological superiority of one race over another and there is no physical disadvantage of one race over another, so there is no way to distinguish an individual’s race.  Yet, race is used as a defining characteristic of all people.  What exactly is this category defining?  It is defining our perceptions of race and the cultural rules that we follow based on these perceptions.  We are constantly reminded of our race and the race of others.  This consistency has grown into a reality because it has become accepted and integrated into our everyday lives.  

If I personally never chose to define my race again it would not keep my race from being defined by others.  Unless every person agreed to no longer recognize race as an acceptable defining factor and chose to never participate in any action that would acknowledge race then it will continue to be a reality.  If the implications of race were not enforced and the cultural bias gone, then race would cease to be a reality and would become an abstract concept.  Since this is not likely to happen, race continues to be real and this reality is often used to suppress success in order to maintain racial superiority and more importantly financial superiority.  

All the money and power in this country is held by the “privileged” white community while those of “inferior” races are systematically denied access to the same education, success and societal acceptance based on their so called race.  So much so that the continued construction of race as a defining feature of a person is perpetuated by social factors and to a larger extent economic factors.  Race has been used as an economic determining factor mainly at the benefit of white people.  Legally there is no difference in the rights of any person based on race, but in practice race is still used as a form of oppression.  

Because there is still direct and indirect consequences based on race it has to be accepted by society as being a real thing.  If the majority of those in poverty are not white, then there is a correlation between the social construct of race and poverty.  So therefore race must be real or else there would be an equal amount of people from all races in poverty.  The reality we impose on others in regards to their race has real consequences.  Since there are real consequences to race then race itself must also be real.  Reality is as we define it, and since we have used race to define a person it has become a reality.

1 comment

  1. Do they still pay people to be professional philosophers?

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