Passing, Traveling and Reality: Social Constructionism and the Metaphysics of Race

Passing, Traveling and Reality: Social Constructionism and the Metaphysics of Race

Volume 38, Issue 4 (December 2004)
pages 644–673
DOI: 10.1111/j.0029-4624.2004.00487.x

Ron Mallon, Associate Professor of Philosphy
University of Utah

Among race theorists, the view that race is a social construction is widespread. While the term ‘social construction’ is sometimes intended tomeanmerely that race does not (as once believed) constitute a robust, biological natural kind, it often labels the stronger position that race is real, but not a biological kind. For example, Charles Mills (1998) writes that, ‘‘the task of those working on race is to put race in quotes, ‘race’, while still insisting that nevertheless, it exists (and moves people)’’(xiv, italics his). It is to “make a plausible social ontology neither essentialist, innate, nor transhistorical, but real enough for all that” (xiv). Racial constructionism, thus conceived, is a metaphysical position that contrasts both with the view that race is an important biological kind (racial naturalism) and with the more recent claim that race does not exist (racial skepticism). The desire for a constructionist metaphysics of race emerges against the background of a cluster of normative disputes, including:

  1. Labeling Practices: Is the use of any racial terms to pick out various human groups or subgroups by arbitrary bodily features useful or permissible?
  2. Terminology: Should term x be used in social life, social theory or social science?
  3. Significance of Racial Identity: What is the value of racial identification of oneself or others? Is racial identification morally significant? Is the social enforcement of racial identification morally permissible? Is it morally required?

To simplify, we can characterize these normative disputes as disputes over the value of ‘race’ talk. By ‘‘‘race’ talk’’ I mean talk that uses ‘race’ and other race terms including terms such as ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘Asian’, etc. to classify people (including oneself) or differentially treat them. A rough characterization of these normative disputes has it that at one pole of these debates short-term eliminativists want to eliminate ‘race’ talk quickly (e.g. Appiah 1995, D’Souza 1996, Muir 1993, Webster 1992, Zack 1993). At the opposite extreme, long-term conservationists hold that racial identities and communities are beneficial and that ‘race’ talk—suitably reformed from the excesses of racism—is essential to fostering them (e.g. Outlaw 1990, 1995, 1996). In between these two extremes, there are many who believe that race talk is necessary (and perhaps inevitable) in at least some domains in the short term because of the pervasive existence of racial division and the effects of such division in modern life but who differ with regard to its long term value.

Normative disputes give rise to a concern with the metaphysics of race because of the role metaphysical arguments play in supporting normative conclusions. For example, Naomi Zack argues that “the ordinary concept of race in the United States has no scientific basis” (1993, 18), and K. Anthony Appiah writes that, ‘‘the truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask ‘race’ to do for us’’ (1995, 75). According to Zack and Appiah, ‘race’ talk makes reference to a set of racial properties that literally do not exist, and, for each, this provides a reason to eliminate such talk as mistaken. According to this line of argument, the correct metaphysical position (racial skepticism) provides a reason to endorse a particular answer to the normative question (eliminativism). Like their eliminativist opponents, short and long-term conservationists about ‘race’ talk argue from a metaphysical (constructionist) account of race to conclusions about the need for ‘race’ talk. We can see this appeal in Lucius Outlaw’s claim that, ‘‘For most of us that there are different races of people is one of the most obvious features of our social worlds’’ (1990, 58), as well as in Mills’s insistence that race “exists” and “moves people.” Such theorists argue that theories or policies that do not make reference to race leave something out (e.g. Outlaw 1995, Mills 1998, Omi and Winant 1986, 1994, Root 2000, Sundstrom 2002).

But what is this thing? Constructionist theorists are loath to embrace racial skepticism, but they (like racial skeptics) wish to avoid a commitment to racial naturalism. Instead, constructionists hope to chart a third metaphysical option, one that holds that race exists, but as a product of particular social practices. But what, exactly, does it mean for race to be socially constructed? In recent years, a variety of philosophers including Robert Gooding-Williams (1998), Mills, Adrian Piper (1992), Michael Root (2000), and Iris Marion Young (1989) have turned their attention to this metaphysical question. In what follows, I argue that despite the progress these accounts represent, they nonetheless fail to arrive at an adequate constructionist account of race. The reason, I suggest, is that constructionists are committed to three mutually unsatisfiable constraints on an acceptable account of race, and no univocal account can satisfy all three. Faced with this failure, one might be tempted to abandon constructionism for racial skepticism. Another alternative is to abandon one or another of the proposed constraints in favor of an attenuated constructionism. I argue, however, that we need not choose between these alternatives. Once we set aside the worry about which account is appropriately considered an account of race, we see that skepticism and the various attenuated forms of constructionism are best understood not as metaphysical rivals at all. Rather, these positions share a broad base of metaphysical agreement.

Here’s how I proceed. In Section 1, I briefly discuss the widely endorsed view that race is not a biological natural kind. Then, in Section 2, I focus on whether constructionists can account for the phenomena of passing. Passing occurs whenever a member of some category is perceived (and allows herself to be perceived) as a member of another, mutually exclusive category, for example a white person passing as black, or a black person passing as white. Walter Benn Michaels (1994) charges that constructionist accounts of race cannot account for passing. I show how a constructionist account of race drawing on work by Gooding-Williams (1998), Mills (1998), and Piper (1992)—a version of what I call a thin account of race—can answer Michaels’s critique. In Section 3, I turn to discuss the claim by Root and others that race ‘does not travel’ beyond a particular cultural-historical site, and I will show that constructionists can make sense of such claims by endorsing an interactive kind account of race. Constructionists thus have ready answers for the challenges raised by passing and not traveling. Unfortunately, the two answers invoke two different accounts of what race is and thus do not provide us with a univocal account of race. For this reason, I consider a third, institutional account of race. Such an account, I suggest, can accommodate both passing and not traveling. But, in Section 4, I argue that institutional accounts fail to meet a third condition of adequacy on a constructionist account of race: accounting for the reality of race. I conclude that no single constructionist account of race can accommodate all the theoretical needs to which constructionists wish to put it. In Section 5, I argue that the failure to find a univocal constructionist account leads us to a variety of alternative accounts of race that abandon one or more of the adequacy constraints I have suggested. But rather than choose between these accounts, I argue the divisions among them are not metaphysically significant. In confronting racial phenomena, skepticism and the varieties of constructionism share a broad base of metaphysical agreement, and an adequate racial theory should exploit this agreement and work to distinguish all the features of racial phenomena that matter…

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