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Racism is real, race is not: a philosopher’s perspective

There are no races – biological or social – only racialised groups. from www.shutterstock.com

Racism is real, race is not: a philosopher’s perspective

We live in a richly diverse country, populated by Indigenous Australians, recent immigrants, and descendants of relatively recent immigrants. Some feel threatened by this diversity; some relish it.

Most of us, I think, are unsure quite how to talk about it.

We have many words to describe diversity. We ask people about their ancestry, their ethnicity, and – most awkwardly – their “background”. We seem least comfortable asking people about their “race”, and with good reason.


Read more: The markers of everyday racism in Australia


Racial classification has been used to justify some of the most heinous crimes of modernity, including those committed on our own shores. Asking people about their “race” can make you sound a bit, well, racist.

Yet “racial” classification is still commonplace. Many articles in The Conversation use the term “race” to describe human diversity. For example, one asks what’s behind racial differences in restaurant tipping?, while another tells us that infants learn to distinguish between races.

Racialised groups

What justifies the continued use of racial classification? Nothing, or so I argue in Replacing Race, an open-access article published recently in the philosophy journal Ergo.

I argue that there are no races, only racialised groups – groups that have been misunderstood as biological races.

The reader may object – “surely, I can see race with my bare eyes!” However, it is not race we see, but the superficial visible biological diversity within our species: variation in traits such as skin colour, hair form and eye shape. This variation is not enough to justify racial classification. Our biological diversity is too small, and too smoothly distributed across geographic space, for race to be real.

This is not merely an opinion. From a scientific perspective, the best candidate for a synonym for “race” is “subspecies” (the classification level below “species” in biology). When scientists apply the standard criteria to determine whether there are subspecies/races in humans, none are found. In chimpanzees yes, but in humans no.


Read more: Human races: biological reality or cultural delusion


Racial classification is unscientific. However, humanities scholars have their own justifications for race-talk. Many argue that while there are no biological races, there are social races. Race, as philosophers put it, is a social kind.

In my view, the redefinition of race as a social kind has been a major mistake. Most people still think of race as a biological category. By redefining it socially, we risk miscommunicating with each other on this fraught topic.

Race does not exist

Not only is the redefinition of race as a social kind confusing, I argue that race does not exist even as a social kind. Racism is real, in both an interpersonal and a structural sense, but race is not.

Once the idea of race is divorced from biology, strange things start happening, conceptually. What makes a group a “race”, if race is social, rather than biological?

We could say that races are just the groups that are labelled as races, but this doesn’t work. Just as witches are not women accused of being witches, races are not merely groups labelled as races. There has to be something more to the group for it to qualify as a social kind.

Nobody has put their finger on this “something more”. Some tie “race” to “essentialism”. Essentialism is the view that groups have essenses: fixed traits that all members of a group have, and which are unique to that group. “Social races”, on this view, are groups treated as if they have some unchangeable essence.

This move fails. While racialisation is often essentialising, it is not always. If you look at current “scientific” racism, you’ll see that it’s all about alleged inborn average differences between the so-called “races”, not racial essences (which does not make it any less horrid, or more plausible).

Moreover, essentialist thinking is not only applied to racialised groups. Gender is also essentialised, and so is ethnicity.

Remember when I said strange things start happening when race is defined socially? Well, if races are social groups subject to essentialism, we would have to accept that men and women constitute de facto races!

Let’s abandon “race”

We should abandon attempts to save the category of race. There is no good way to make sense of the category from a biological or a social perspective. There are no races, only groups misunderstood as races: racialised groups.

Racialised groups are not biological groups, in the sense that they are not biological races. Yet how you are racialised does depend on superficial biological characteristics, such as skin colour. That is to say, racialised groups have biological inclusion criteria, vague and arbitrary as they may be.

These biological inclusion criteria are determined by social factors. Philosophical debates about “race” have relied on a dichotomy between the biological and the social. However, this is a false dichotomy: the biological and the social interact.

In racialisation, the biological and the social interact with a number of other factors: administrative, cultural, economic, geographic, gendered, historical, lingual, phenomenological, political, psychological, religious, and so on. I call this view “interactive constructionism about racialised groups”.

The category of the “racialised group” can be of great value, politically. It offers a way for those who have historically been treated as members of “inferior races” to assert and defend themselves collectively, while distancing themselves from the negative and misleading associations of the term “race”. “Race” is not needed for purposes of social justice.

According to researcher Victoria Grieves in her article Culture, not colour, is the heart of Aboriginal identity,

Being of Aboriginal descent is crucial because this is our link to country and the natural world. But at the same time, Aboriginal people do not rely on a race-based identity … continuing cultural values and practice are the true basis of Aboriginal identity in the whole of Australia today

The category of race is not needed for cultural identity or political action.

We need to be talking about racism, racialisation, and racialised groups, not “race”. Given that “race” fails as both a biological and a social category, let’s consign it to the dustbin of history’s bad ideas.

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