Blogbook -- Chapter 1: Race As An Evolving Concept

Entry 3 (Fri, 26 Feb 2021)

Obviously, race is still used today to reference groups of people, and it offers us analytical value in understanding differences and problems that arise through various social dimensions of people. This is to say, once we start looking at things like language practices, wealth and job statistics, where groups of people live, access to opportunities, and cultural practices, we find that race is a powerful way to understand how societies and the world are organized, even as it is incomplete in its ability to explain differences. The concept, however, can reveal how our world is structured. It helps us see how society is organized in unfair ways, uneven ways that lead to keeping opportunities, wealth, jobs, education, and other things from some groups of people while allowing much greater access to such things to other groups. 

It also can provide ways to understand patterns of experiences in society, what Du Bois described as, “common history, traditions and impulses,” and “ideals of life.” But we should be very careful how we use the concept of race in our language practices. Race is a construct -- a reification. It’s a made up idea, made by White European people in history who had the power to make such a term, then use it for their purposes that usually amounted to ranking the alleged inherent value of various people for colonial projects -- that is, the taking of land, lives, labor, and resources of non-European peoples. The idea of race has been powerful, and it has lots of negative baggage. 

Obviously, race is not easy to define or use, and has been quite contested up to this point. In 1986, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, two renowned Sociologists, offered a compelling and groundbreaking way of understanding race. It’s called “racial formation theory.” In their now classic book, Racial Formation in the United States, they explain that “race is a master category,” meaning that it is “a fundamental concept that has profoundly shaped, and continues to shape, the history, polity, economic structure, and culture of the United States.” What they mean is that race has been a “template of both difference and inequality” in society and history (note 6). It is a primary way people have been political, and organized relations of power in history. 

In history and society, processes of “race making” occur over and over, changing what race means in particular times and places. These race-making processes create difference, power relations, and inequality. For instance, what it means to be White today is not exactly what it meant at the turn of the twentieth century, when Jews, the Irish, and some groups of Greeks and Italians, were not considered White in the U.S, at least not like British or Scandanavians were (note 7).

Racial formation theory says that race evolves, forms over and over through racial projects, often not described as racial projects, but still are, and do race making. They explain, “The process of race making, and its reverberations throughout the social order, is what we call racial formation . . . the sociohistorical process by which racial identities are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed” (note 8). The process of racial formation uses arbitrary human features to create races, which get used to do things in the world, like conduct an African slave trade, or commit genocidal campaigns against indigenous North Americans, or steal land and property from Mexican land owners in California, or imprison Japanese Americans and take their land, homes, farms, and businesses. 

And of course, one influential racial project in history that language teachers should consider carefully is school, the language and literacy classroom, and the promotion and overvaluing of one kind of “English” in the U.S.  Yes, our language classrooms are a racial project because language is racialized. In short, teaching only “standard English” is a White racial project, and participates in what I’ll discuss later as White language supremacy. Racial divisions -- racial formation -- in all these societal projects is strategic and political. Thus Omi and Winant explain: “Race is a concept that signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” (note 9). This means that our use of language, our teaching of a particular brand of English in college or high school classrooms, references or refers to types of human bodies. I’ll say more later about the ways language references bodies, the way it is an embodied set of practices. 

Now, is there a simple way to define race as a concept for our purposes in this blogbook -- that is, a simple definition that allows teachers to use the term meaningfully in classrooms with students in order to be thoughtful and critical? Well, it ain’t a simple concept. Offering too simple of a definition is like trying to stuff an elephant into a VW bug. It just won’t fit, just like that Merriam-Webster definition (blogbook post 2). Below is as simple of a definition as I can make of it that may help teachers begin to form antiracist orientations, but it’s just a start.

Race is a socially constructed concept that refers to groups of people in society and history. The term often uses bodily and other markers (e.g. language, clothing, cultural practices, phenotype, etc.) that become associated with those bodies. It has historically been used to designate hierarchies of value, worth, and inherent characteristics in people in order to justify other decisions, such as colonial projects, slavery, genocide, and the restriction of wealth and other opportunities from people. This means that the term refers to political or power arrangements among groups or individuals, and its meaning constantly evolves or shifts over time and across various places and contexts as the processes of race making continue in history.

One important aspect of the concept that we’ve not spent much time on is how it shifts and evolves. An easy way to see how race shifts tacitly over time is to consider Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist and advisor to Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush. Atwater’s language policy, one later called “the southern strategy,” was a way of invoking race yet never mentioning it explicitly because it had become taboo by the 1970s. In a 1981 interview, he explains this language strategy (warning: the full N-word is used in the original interview, but I have replaced it with “n--er”): 

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N--er, n--er, n--er.” By 1968 you can’t say “n-er” -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, state’s rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things . . . You’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] Blacks get hurt worse than Whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it . . . But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut taxes,” “we want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N--r, n--r.” (note 10)

Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater
The Southern strategy for politics is really a racialized language strategy that maintained White supremacy by not explicitly mentioning race, yet letting it continue to operate tacitly. Its method was to hide explicit racist motive and intention, avoid explicitly racializing the policies being promoted, and ignore or deny their racist consequences. 

But the outcomes of the southern strategy was that race hides in plain sight and shifts to other, more abstract ideas, like busing and cutting taxes. Today, this same rhetorical strategy is used by invoking things like extreme patriotism, “America first,” MAGA ("Make America Great Again"), and “law and order.” And over time, race and its ugly offspring, racism, appear to be things of the past, at least to those who don’t mention them. In this post-racial world, racism is gone because no one is talking about it. This strategy benefits the people whom the system already benefits -- that is, White people -- even though those benefits are not evenly distributed in white racial formations. Race has shifted, gone underground, but still affects what grows at the surface and where. 

If race is a part of our histories, and it’s a political concept, then the wrong move in the literacy classroom would be to ignore the term, or to pretend that race doesn’t circulate in the world and have currency, or to overly simplify it. That is, it is equally harmful to pretend as if we all do not use it tacitly and explicitly to understand people and the world, even make decisions from our assumptions that come out of it. It’s also harmful to say it doesn’t affect differently the lives and histories of various groups of people, that it has influenced where we live, who we know and hang out with, what schools and opportunities we have received from family and friends, and even what kind of English we use. And of course, it is harmful in our literacy classrooms to pretend as if our Englishes do not reference race and the human bodies that race organizes. 

Brave Work

Write for 10 minutes. 

Consider how you have discussed explicitly race in your classrooms up to this point. This could be when discussing the background and language practices of authors, or about current issues in the world. What words have you used to describe the racial aspects of people, places, and language practices, or of institutional and structural problems in the world? Did you define with your students “race” or any racial terms? How did you do that? What did you mean by those words? I’m not speaking of ethnic, cultural, or nation-related terms, such as “Korean,” “Italian,” or “Mexican.” I’m speaking of the terms you have used to reference the political subject positions of people and groups that are relative to White power. 

If you have avoided discussing or referencing race in the classroom, why? What do you think has been the cost of avoiding such a foundational concept, a “master category”? What do you and your students not get to discuss when you avoid race terms, which are political terms? 


This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.