a blog about philosophy in public affairs

The (in)justice of critical philosophy of race?

In a recent presentation about a relatively new academic field called the critical philosophy of race, I was (repeatedly) questioned about the reasons for retaining the concept of race after it has been so clearly delegitimised. I was surprised how much I struggled to find a satisfactory answer, both for others and myself, to this question. Part of my struggle arose from the context of this discussion. While I appreciate the challenge posed with regard to the concept of race, the composition of the group made me uncomfortable as to its motivation. The group was composed of all white heterosexual male post-Christian European citizens; the epitome of what in the field of critical philosophy of race is referred to as white privilege. By contrast the field itself is one of the most diverse in terms of academic philosophy with strong representations of scholars from underrepresented groups in terms of gender, religious affiliations, non-European origins, etc.
The latter is significant in that these scholars – many of whom come from marginalised groups – recognise that because of the history of racism, the category of race, has been (at least rhetorically) delegitimised and yet there are several – justice based – reasons for retaining the concept of race. One such reason is to discredit the claim that we are living in a post-racial society. Clearly recent events such as the tragic political and legal injustice that arose in Fergusondemonstrate this. On a very different scale, which makes it easier to deny that racism is the root of the problem, are the recent debates in the Low Lands about ‘Zwarte Piet’.
Another reason is that by denying the category of race, it is much more difficult – both legally and socially – to fight current manifestations of racism, such as the cultural-racism central to islamophobia.  Partially because of the intentional efforts on the part of the (surviving) Jewish community after the Shoah to be ‘deracialised’, there has been a political campaign to detangle the categories of race and religion – as manifest in terms of anti-Semitism. This however makes it much more difficult for groups that currently fall within this (cultural) race-religion constellation, as do Muslims, to appeal to laws created to combat racism.
This problem brings me back to my original concern. While there may be good reasons to politically or legally retain this concept, the question being asked was also why a philosophical field might retain the concept of race. From the perspective of those posing this question, the concept has been intentionally delegitimised in European and needs to be forgotten. This claim is based on how European society responded to the shame of the Shoah by promoting campaigns, legal, political and social, to delegitimise the concept of race (see for example UNESCO’s substitution of the term race for culture in the 1950s). Accordingly it seems unjust bot to the group that was most destroyed by these events (this is not to deny that the Nazis did not persecute other groups) to retain the category of race and to Europeans as it reminds them of a past they have moved beyond.  
Yet isn’t the latter perhaps a reason to retain the concept, to remind us all that while we can move beyond the signifier, we have not moved beyond the signified? Do we not need a concept of race to help us make sense of this particular set of social relations of power that shaped and continue to shape our world? While I grant those in the room that the concept of race has morphed and changed since the Shoah and as such we need to constantly study and reflect upon these changes (a reflection that includes considering letting go of terms that are no longer philosophically significant), race neither in terms of philosophy nor politics is at this stage.  As such, I have to wonder if the desire to silence race talk in Europe arises from wanting to sweep responsibility, both past and present, under the carpet?
Clearly no one would contend that the central problem of exclusion, which has historically been achieved by the creation of hierarchical categories (whether race, religion, nation etc.) has not disappeared – so are there good reasons for retaining such delegitimised and offensive concepts?


Defending Quotas


‘Truman Care’ for Dementia


  1. Anca Gheaus commented on the injustice of critical philosophy of: Hi, I wonder if you may find a solution to your dilemma by adopting Haslanger's suggested – and heavily reformed – concept of race. According to her stipulative definition:

    'A group G is racialized relative to context C iffdf members of G are (all and only) those:
    i) who are observed or imagined to have certain bodily features presumed in C to be evidence of ancestral links to a certain geographical region (or regions);
    ii) whose having (or being imagined to have) these features marks them within the context of the background ideology in C as appropriately occupying certain kinds of social position that are in fact either subordinate or privileged (and so motivates and justifies their occupying such a position); and
    iii) whose satisfying (i) and (ii) plays (or would play) a role in their systematic subordination or privilege in C, i.e., who are along some dimension systematically subordinated or privileged when in C, and satisfying (i)
    and (ii) plays (or would play) a role in that dimension of privilege or subordination.'

    In Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To Be?, NOÛS 34:1 ~2000! 31–55

  2. Hey Anya, thanks for this interesting and thougt-provoking post. I was wondering whether you'd say that the position of those described by a term like "race" makes a difference? I was thinking about the endorsement of race in slogans like "Black is beautiful" (I guess it's in turn debatable what kind of endorsement is going on here, but let's assume, for the sake of the discussion, that it contains a form of endorsement of the concept). I do not mean academics, but "normal" members of such groups.

    I am less sure about the problem of anti-islamism in connection to the problem of race. You suggest that by not using the concept of race, and hence overlooking existing forms of racism, we are also in danger of overlooking forms of anti-islamism. But couldn't we (try to) retain a sensitivity to anti-islamic tendencies or forms of behavior even if we decided, on independent grounds, that it would be better not to use the term race (or to use it in a massively modified sense)?

  3. Thanks for your suggestion Anca, can I ask you to clarify how you think this might help as it still involves a conceptualisation of race albeit a more nuanced one and so I am not sure how provides and answer to the question of the legitimacy of retaining any conception of race.

  4. Thanks for your comment Lisa. Your example of black is beautiful is indeed a very poignant one to argue how certain racialised groups may choose to embrace and bring a positive spin to a a previous exclusion which provides another reason not to allow those speaking from a position of white priviledge to decide when it is no longer appropriate to use certain terms.
    With regard to anti-Islamism, this seems to me yet another reason not to allow for the erasure of the concept of race as such an erasure also denies the reality of a European race-religion configuration which was manifest in terms of antisemitism in the 19th-20th century.
    Here is a very good article on this issue: Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood. 2012. “For ‘Jewish’ Read ‘Muslim’? Islamophobia as a Form of Racialisation of Ethno-Religious Groups in Britain Today.” Islamophobia Studies Journal Volume 1 (Issue 1): 34–53.
    In addition, Muslims, many of whom are non-practicing, are being persecuted in terms of what I would call a form of cultural racism and yet they cannot appeal to anti-racist legislation because Europe wants to disconnect race from religion in the aftermath of the Shoah and as such they are forced to resort to religious persecution legislation which does not fit their actual persecution.

  5. Hi Anya, thanks for your reply and the hint to this paper. Just to clarify: do you think that the concept of race is useful in practical terms (e.g. because of anti-racist legislation that already exists) or because there are Europeans who see all Muslims as belonging to one "race"? It does not seem true that all Muslims belong to one "race" in the sense in which the word "race" has historically been used. But it seems that in some of the anti-islamism in Europe at the moment there is a strong geographical component in people's perception – for example when it is directed against refugees from the Near East, many of whom are not muslim, or not practicing. So I agree that this is a complicated constellation. But I'd be hesitating to use the term "race" in this context, exactly because there does not seem to be a positive embrace of the concept by those who would be denoted by it (or maybe there is and I don't know about it?)

  6. Anya thanks for this great post. I share your frustration with a group of white, western, men flippantly dismissing race as an unhelpful concept. It seems their reaction is itself part justification for the importance of race, and the philosophy of race. (Similar to Lewis's Law that the comments on an article on feminism justify feminism).

    I'm not sure however whether I see such a serious problem with keeping the concept. It seems that as long as there are racists and people who are racialised as a certain race, then the concept will (even has to) play an important part in out analysis.

    Race is therefore a legitimate concept for social analysis, not because the concept is in itself legitimate (since it is a social construct and not a natural category), but because people think and act as if it were legitimate which then gives it a similiar status as an in- itself legitimate concept. I think, we therefore have to keep the concept of race so long as others use (and act upon) the concept as if it really were a legitimate concept.

    Do you think that your worry could be addressed by constantly reminding ourselves, and saying explicitly in our writing and actions, that we are only using the concept of race in this way?

  7. I think it's helpful because it involves a conceptualisation of race which is compatible with the criticism that 'race' is not actually a biological reality. Haslanger's concept of race will cease to be meaningful if and when racism will disappear. So it seems to able to be doing exactly the kind of conceptual work one wants it to do, and nothing more.

  8. The problem is that the understanding that race is only a biological concept is itself problematic as the origins of the concept of race are not biology – especially in Europe – as race is a concept that is first associated with religion and only later is there a biology-religion link via blood. But If you mean that Haslanger's conception allows for the more complex meanings of race to be contested and rejects the biological reduction then I thin indeed it is good but could you help me understand how, I seem to be misunderstanding her meaning/goal.

  9. Thanks for making me clarify – I find this topic rather tricky and full of minefields. I definitely want to say that we cannot simply abandon the concept of race because of past shame or a desire to be deracialised as the concept is the basis for a great deal of legislation that is absolutely still relevant albeit with a different conceptualisation of race – more connected to culture. As for the other option – to keep race because Europeans see Muslims as one race – I think its important for Muslims and also Romas/Synties to be able to appeal to the category of race and to accuse Europeans, when appropriate, of racism as this accusation has weight because of historical racism in Europe. When the category race is denied, it allows people to say its just cultural criticism or integration criticism etc which is not sufficient to address the severity of the discrimination or to allow us to consider what connections there are, if any, between antisemitism and islamophobia.

  10. Thanks Bruno for putting that so clearly and indeed I do think it is important to remind ourselves of the limits of its usage and also to be aware of how it has historically taken on different forms. I find the field of critical philosophy of race interesting because it helps to develop a conceptual history of the concept of race which shows its different constellations – since basically the 15th century to blood, religion, pseudo-biology, then philology and then to biology and now it might help us understand contemporary forms of what i think might be cultural racism.

  11. I guess the crux of what I'm trying to get at is something like the distinction between statement A: "x is similar to, and as bad as y" and statement B: "x is an instance of y“ (y being racism). Often, we can decide between A and B on pragmatic grounds – for example because by treating x as an instance of y, it falls under certain legal categories. But there might also be reasons to stop the movement from A to B. For example, one could imagine that a Muslim or a Roma/Sinti might say: "Yes, I suffer from discrimination, and yes, people tend to think about me as a member of a specific race, and yes, it is very similar to racism, and equally grave. But I do not at all identify with any Muslim or Roma/Sinti "race". Therefore, I'd prefer not to use the term "racism" here." If this were the case, I'd be inclined to agree with them, and try to use other terms (or maybe come up with new terms). If, on the other hand, they offered a positive endorsement of the concept (along the lines of "black is beautiful"), then I'd be more comfortable using the term. I simply don't know which one more accurately reflects the sentiments of members of these groups. I guess the social context within which one is speaking might also make a difference here…

  12. That is a very useful example to introduce clarity. So I would agree with example 1 when I member of a group requests to be identified differently and does not feel this (dis)identiification is in any way a disadvantage – legal or otherwise. I would also agree with example 2 when a term is re-defined to be empowering by a group that is discriminated against. My concern is int he following examples. Example 3 – A muslim who is secular feels discriminated against and accuses their employer of racism. Their accusation is ignored and denied on the grounds that Islam is not a race but the individual canot make an appeal to religion as they are not practicing or religious and the discrimination was not an impigement of a religious right. Or example 4 – a large group of people, such as Romas/Scintis want to claim that Europeans have not learned the lesson of the Shoah with regard to their 'race' as they continue to be persecuted and European society says you cannot call us racist, we have learned the lesson of the Shoah, we just don't accept your culture – and culture unlike race in the past is adaptable – so you must learn to integrate/assimilate and stop calling us racists.

  13. On a very different scale, which makes it easier to deny that racism is the root of the problem, are the recent debates in the Low Lands about ‘Zwarte Piet’.

  14. racial existence signifies that we live in a world not alone but with a variety of people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén