Blogbook - Chapter 1: What Is Race?

Entry 2 (Wed, 24 Feb 24)

What it means to be an antiracist literacy or language teacher starts with a deep, historical, and political understanding of the relationship between race and language. That is, you have to know how race has shaped languages, literatures, and all that those things mean in our society, and of course, in our classrooms, and in schools and colleges. So, an antiracist orientation as a teacher of language and literacy begins with a deep understanding of the history of race. Throughout this blogchapter, I’ll have to speak broadly, but of course, race and language are always intersectional, specific, location-based, and dynamic -- they are constantly changing, as Omi and Winant explain so well in their book, Racial Formation in the United States

To inhabit an antiracist orientation and be an antiracist teacher, we need to have a vocabulary. This vocabulary gives us a set of assumptions and understandings about race, racism, Whiteness, and White supremacy in our society, its literatures, and its histories. The precise definitions of terms matter, and they affect how we inhabit or take on antiracist orientations in our teaching, or toward the materials we must teach. In the end, our orientations are the stuff of our pedagogies, teaching strategies, lessons, assignments, and assessment practices. Our orientations toward what and who we teach is the stuff from which our students learn. And our orientations come out of our language and its nomenclature.  

For some, just learning about key concepts will be hard but important inner work. For others, these key terms and understandings may be a review of things that have not yet found their way into their teaching of literature and language. And perhaps still for others, the ideas and history of race and racism that I offer in this blogbook will be challenging. It may even make some readers feel guilty or upset. These are normal and valid reactions. Don’t shy away from them. Working through your reactions to the materials of an antiracist orientation is a part of what it means to be an antiracist teacher. 

Your reactions, both intellectual and emotional, tell you about your current orientations, and suggest how you might reorient yourself. Most of us are not accustom to paying careful attention to our orientations. 

To help you along the way, I’ll ask you to pause and write, to do brave inner work as you read this blogbook. That part of this blogbook is really important, if you are reading it to reorient yourself. Reading a book don’t make nobody an antiracist teacher. It’s your brave inner work that reorients you. You gotta make language of your own in order to reorient yourself. I hope you’ll take me up on this brave work. Antiracist work isn’t something one can do quickly, like all good, life-changing learning, it takes time. We soak in it, steep in it for years. I hope you’ll spend the time you need.

Race As A Complex Concept
Let’s begin with the idea of “race,” that is, race as a word or concept. Today, the word refers to groups of people, often with similar cultural and language histories and practices who have similar but not the same (and sometimes quite different) phenotypic features, such as hair color and texture, skin pigmentation, eye shape and color, and the like. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary offers this definition of “race” as a noun: 

race noun (2)
Definition of race (Entry 3 of 3)

1: a breeding stock of animals
2 a: a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
        b: a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
3 a: an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a species
        also : a taxonomic category (such as a subspecies) representing such a group
        b: BREED
        c: a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
4 obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition
5: distinctive flavor, taste, or strength (note 1

With entries for the word like “a breeding stock of animals” and “BREED,” it can be very confusing for a reader when those entries, which seem to be about inherent and fixed biology, sit next to ones like “a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock” or “a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics.” Race appears to be both a biological concept and a sociocultural one. This mimics the history of the term and how it has been ambiguously understood. But for a contemporary English speaker, this definition is not clear about how to read the biological, sociological, geographical, and political elements in the definition. And this ambiguity is dangerous if we don’t have a deep and nuanced understanding of the concept. 

Brave Work

Write for 5 minutes.

Read Merriam-Webster’s definition of “race” out loud slowly. Write down the words that have a biological and inherent association to them. 

Which words feel like they have the most meaning and weight to them as a way to describe “race” for you? Why are those terms so loaded and heavy for you? What are the nature of those words? How do they describe race (biologically, socially, politically, something else)?  

If you haven’t done much research on the term, you might think this dictionary definition explains race pretty adequately and elegantly. Race is a category of animals or people who “shar[e] certain distinctive physical traits.” Of course, it isn’t this simple. What interests, habits, characteristics, and traits are important enough to group people by? Who decides these things and when something is a “trait” or “characteristic”? Can these characteristics change over time and in different circumstances? Where did the idea of categorizing animals and people in such a way come from in the first place? Why was that method a good idea for something like groups of people? Most people seem to reject it today, at least as a way to make decisions about people. Or do we?

Often, many associate race with inherent biological or genetic groupings. Race is often used to group people and understand differences in life conditions and experiences. We are asked all the time to identify our racial standing on official forms, employment applications, our driver’s license, and medical and hospital forms. Race seems important for people to know, particularly when important decisions need to be made, such as ones related to health, jobs, and school. Furthermore, many people use the term as if it was essential and static, always the same, as if knowing the race of someone will tell you something essential and unchanging about that person and people like them. We use it as if an individual’s racial designation isn’t slippery, or shifty at times, depending on context. We also use it as if the term itself doesn’t shift over time and in different contexts. We often use the term as if it has always been used the way we use it and understand it. 

We should keep in mind also that finding patterns in groups of people is not the same as finding essential traits in groups of people organized by concepts like race. Those patterns, like “achievement gaps” in schools, average wealth by race, and lower SAT scores of Black students, can be accounted for by a multitude of other factors that congeal around race in the U.S. The lesson here is related to an old statistical one: association is not causation. In other words, being Black is not the cause of poorer performance in school, but being Black certainly is associated in the U.S. with lots of other life factors that create poor performance by students in schools. And none of us have any control over the majority of these factors.

The point I’m making is that race is deceptively complicated to understand and use. It’s also slippery, not static. Race suggests a lot about someone, but marks very little. A simple dictionary definition may seem straightforward, but it cannot provide us with the appropriate nuance needed to understand and use the term thoughtfully, meaningfully, and without doing harm, particularly in an educational setting. And yet, race circulates as a word in our world as a way to identify people, even as we proclaim either “not to see race,” or to be “colorblind,” or to see race but not use it to make judgements. All of these statements are lies. What we see, hear, feel, and experience we all use to make judgements. We don’t get a choice in that. 

The materials we experience, like what someone looks like, the markers that seem salient or relevant in their speech or physical appearance affect us and shape our judgments and decisions. We may try to ignore racial markers in someone or in their language, but in the act of trying to ignore those markers, we are paying attention to them. How else will you know what to ignore but the racialized details you tell yourself to ignore? This means, you are paying attention to race. 

Brave Work
Write for 5 minutes.

Think of a time when your perceived racial identity by others shifted or was different in some way than how you are typically understood by others. When did it happen? Who were you with and what was the context? What racial markers were read differently? Why were they read that way by others around you at that moment or time? 

If your racial identity has never been perceived differently (that is, it has stayed the same for others) throughout your life in all situations, then consider why this is the case. What racial markers about you make such a stable racial perception of you by others? How are your racial markers read so uniformly? What would have to change around you or in your context for you to be perceived differently? 

From at least 1950, scientists from all over the world have agreed that race is not a biological division of people. Race isn’t a scientific classification, if by scientific we mean that racial distinctions are rooted in inherent, biological, and genetic differences that can be measured consistently and scientifically in things like our genes or biological makeup, in blood and bones. In other words, “race” as a scientific classification system does not explain inherent diversity in people, nor any essential, in-born differences among people. It’s just not a scientific classification. And so, as a way to understand biological and inherent variation (or similarities) in people, scientists have long since rejected the concept of race. 
One possible origin of a non-biological understanding of race can be seen at the turn of the twentieth century. In an essay called, “The Conservation of Races” (1897), W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a PhD at Harvard, offered a definition of race that was not biological but focused on history and sociology. He explained that there were too many similarities and not enough differences in biology to warrant race as a biological category. Instead, Du Bois argued that race is actually a social and historical concept, but still important. He explained that while human differences are “subtle, delicate and elusive” and “silently but definitely separate men into groups,” race is “clearly defined to the eye of the Historian and Sociologist.” He continued: 

What, then, is a race? It is a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life. (note 2)

Don’t let the reference to “common blood” fool you. Du Bois was an historian and sociologist, so he was likely considering these things along such disciplinary lines. Yoking “common blood” with “language” suggests that he is referencing something like a common lineage or group from a particular area. This interpretation agrees with his other ideas in the essay and later in life. While his views on the subject continued to evolve throughout his life, race, for Du Bois at the turn of the century, was sociohistorical and well ahead of his White peers. (note 3

Fifty years later, a critical mass of scientists essentially agree with Du Bois. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convened a group of international scientists over several years starting in 1948, then published a series of statements on race and racism in 1950, 1951, 1964, and 1967. The statement from 1967 offers, among other agreements about race and racism, the following: 

(a) All men living today belong to the same species and descend from the same stock. 
(b) The division of the human species into ‘races’ is partly conventional and partly arbitrary and does not imply any hierarchy whatsoever. Many anthropologists stress the importance of human variation, but believe that ‘racial’ divisions have limited scientific interest and may even carry the risk of inviting abusive generalization. 
(c) Current biological knowledge does not permit us to impute cultural achievements to differences in genetic potential. Differences in the achievements of different peoples should be attributed solely to their cultural history. The peoples of the world today appear to possess equal biological potentialities for attaining any level of civilization. Racism grossly falsifies the knowledge of human biology. 

The statement continues, explaining that “human problems arising from so-called ‘race’ relations are social in origin rather than biological.”(note 4) The UNESCO scientists were responding to increasingly present (to White authorities) racial and civil unrest in the world at the time. And of course, they saw the racism that was central to Nazism during WWII, a war that had ended the same year (1945) that UNESCO was founded. Furthermore, in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in civil rights and racial justice movements in the U.S. The idea of race as a category of humans that was inherent and biological, that suggested hierarchies and competencies, was clearly important to question publicly at that moment.

There are two important ideas in the above passage from the 1967 statement that I wish to highlight. They reveal how prescient Du Bois’ ideas were seventy years earlier. The first is that these international scientists understood that race is not a term that can be used to reference biology or biological groups or genetic differences among people because biologically and scientifically all people are too similar. Our biological differences are not significant enough to warrant any distinctions or groupings. The second is that race is a social concept. That is, it references divisions and groups that are socially constructed among people, meaning people in history have come up with racial categories and divisions for all kinds of reasons, none of which have valid scientific backing, but have social, political, and historical origins and significance. This doesn’t make race unimportant. It makes it unscientific in the biological sense. 

By the end of the twentieth century, scientists would be even more definitive about the lack of scientific biological evidence for racial groups. Francis Collins, the head of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, and Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics, after mapping the corpus of human genes, would declare in 2000 that the concept of “race” had no basis in genetic or scientific evidence. (note 5) Race as a biological scientific grouping of people with any validity or authoritative backing had been debunked and rejected.

While not explained in the 1967 statement, the main significance that race identifies is one’s relation to power. As I’ll discuss in later posts, race has been used historically to identify groups of people in a hierarchy of being. That is, race is a socially constructed concept that is political. It explains a person’s or group's relation to dominant power structures in society, structures that make language, economic and material opportunities, histories of dominance and oppression, literatures, schools, colleges, learning outcomes, etc. 

Brave Work
Write for 5-10 minutes.

If race is sociohistorical, meaning it is constructed by people in historical moments and not real in a purely biological way, if the concept also refers to common language and cultural practices of an area and the people who live there, then can a phenotypically Caucasian person be Black, if they grew up and live in an area designated as a Black area, say East St. Louis or Compton? 

Consider the well-known case of Rachel Dolezal (also know as Nkechi Amare Diallo). She was born to White parents and had no verifiable Black ancestry. She represented herself as Black for years and was the President of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. She claimed to be Black and that her identification was genuine. How might this be true? What problems might develop from such a racial self-identification? If you so choose, could you identify as another  racial group tomorrow? What would it take to be “authentic”? And what would racial authenticity mean for you then?


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.