What do I mean “Race is a process”?

Last week I got drunk with (among others) my friend Rob and we talked about what I mean by “Race is a process”.  I’ve been thinking it through for a week now and so I’d like to try and put down what I think I mean by it.

What is a process?

When we call something a process we mean that it requires a series of actions, that can be repeated for the same outcome and all of which are necessary for the given outcome to take place.

What if race wasn’t a process?

In order to get some clarity, it might be useful to think about what it would mean if race wasn’t a process. What could it be instead?

One way we often talk and think about race as a scientific phenomena. So we think about biological traits or markers, perhaps a result of genetics that demarcate identifiable and fixed groups within the species homo sapiens. I think this model underlies the crudest scientific racism: discussion of bell curves and genetic superiority of Aryan races.

The problem with this model is that the races identified don’t map very well on to the genetic markers we are told mark the boundaries of one race or another. Firstly, because evidence indicates that genetic variation can be greater between individuals within the same race, than between two individuals of different races.  Secondly, because the markers that identify people as one race or another are socially determined. This means that race is socially rather than biologically constructed. 

There is another, softer model that often operates in practice. This model views races as the equivalent of a breeds among animals. This model at least has space for an acknowledgement that the lines of demarcation are  the result of human action. Nonetheless it produces a model that is highly deterministic. In practice racial categorisation is a result of social and historical contingencies that render the kind of calculations of that produce dog breeds (for example) generally nonsensical.

So how is race a process?

What I mean by that is that race requires specific actions and theories to be in operation for it to manifest within society.  These processes involve (but aren’t necessarily limited to) ideas about skin colour, the heritability of traits through genetics, the role of parentage and the importance of phenotype in identifying a members of particular population. Also there are historical and political process that create and attach meanings and power relations to these various processes in order to fashion a race out of them, and define what it means to be a part of that race at any given time or place.

But race isn’t just a discourse

So far I’ve been implicitly contrasting race as a process with race as an ontology.  I think that works as a corrective to overly determinative views of race. But it’s possible to go too far and miss something important when we just think about race as a discourse, and I think I often do so.

Race is a process because processes can be physical in a way that isn’t necessarily captured by a “discourse”.

Other people’s perception of our race can impact on our bodies. Racism does not simply operate as an abstract discourse, the impact of which we must trace through studies and statistics. It also often operates as an extremely physical experience one that can beat and break bodies because of the physical traits they display.

It is easy to write as if we can wave the theory wand and dismiss race as a discourse. But that would ignore one of the most important things about how the process of race operates. In order to function the process of race also requires physical bodies to demonstrate whichever trait history and society have selected as a marker. More importantly, people’s experience their race is embodied. My conception of my race involves the physical sensation of the body which possesses the relevant traits, the skin of a certain tone, the nose of a given shape etc. The fact that those traits mark out a racial identity might be because of historical and social forces, the fact have them is because of an extremely physical process and I can’t escape the fact that they are felt, not just conceptualised.

The statement “race is a process”  doesn’t mean it is just a process.

Nb. I’ve edited this blog after some really helpful comments from Thomas Neumark. Huge thanks to Rob Waters for prompting me to think more clearly about this, and especially his thoughts on how race is actually experienced.



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