Abandoning racial language

If we stop using terms to describe race at all, we risk undermining our struggle to eliminate racism.

Photo by Hennie Stander on Unsplash.

As racism remains a topical issue in public and scholarly discourse, so too do strategies for bringing about its end. In trying to create a future free of racism, there are those who believe that our linguistic patterns play a central role. One strategy arising from this perceived importance in South Africa relates to the role of “racial language” in our societies. While there are many South African articles which address the use of racial language in specific instances, such as in policy, hiring practices, university funding and/or placements, I will be considering the more general assertion that races should not be referred to at all. Such a view, as I will explain, supports the valid rejection of biological racial realism. However, by deeming all race terms to be meaningless it seems to lead us to a position in which we are unable to address racism.

Race talk, or racial language as its referred to in the South African media, is the use of racial terms (Black, white etc.) in a way that presupposes the usefulness of using such a term in some or other way. There are those who hold that the continued use of these terms upholds false categorizations which, in turn, lend themselves to racism. In other words, racial language is what reifies race and therefore, if we want a society free of racism, we ought to stop using racial language in all instances. Proponents of such a view sometimes refer to themselves as holding a position of “non-racialism.” This term is clouded by its prior uses in anti-apartheid activism as well as the South African Constitution of 1994. To be clear and specific, I will therefore not refer to this position as one of non-racialism, but as positing the abandonment of race talk.

The specific anti-race talk argument that I will address holds, firstly, that racism—the discrimination against people based on their race—is, and has historically been, a moral bad. Moreover, it manifests in relational ways of thinking, acting, and speaking that we should seek to end. To eliminate this racism, we can begin by abandoning racial language to reflect that such language fails to track anything meaningful in the world. In other words, the best strategy to end racism is to begin by altering our linguistic patterns of speaking, presumably altering our ways of thinking and acting. The anti-race talk position can be referred to as a sort of racial eliminativism, although perhaps devoid of some of the philosophical nuance it is afforded by well-established theorists on race, such as Phila Msimang.

The position to end race-talk finds its support in a curiously ideologically diverse set of groups including, perhaps ironically, both those on the Marxist left who argue that class is the primary (if not the only) useful social category, as well as neoliberal capitalists who assert that racial categorization gets in the way of meritocracy and undermines individuality. What is common among those who suggest discontinuing reference to race is the view that not only is the biological basis of race (eugenics) flawed, but the categorization is groundless in every possible sense. Proponents thus posit the invalidity of deploying racial language, which can be understood more simply as claiming that racial language is meaningless.

To understand what is implied when we say some word or term is meaningless, it is worth pausing on what meaning itself entails. There are many theories of meaning at our disposal, but one that seems to function particularly well, including with regard to race, is the causal-historical understanding of meaning. Saul Kripke developed the causal-historical theory as one in which the meaning of a term is explained by its historical patterns of use. Among other reasons, it is an appropriate theory for the consideration of race because it offers a plausible alternative to those which suggest that meaning primarily (or exclusively) arises from the speaker’s intentions.

Although it does not preclude the possibility that intention has a role in influencing meaning, it suggests that this alone is an insufficient reflection of how terms help to point out things in the world (what they refer to), as well as what they mean. Speaker intention sometimes fails to explain what goes on when a given term is used. If, for example, someone uses a racial slur and subsequently purports to have done so in a jovial and innocuous manner, this intention is insufficient as a moral justification for such an act. That is, even if the intended meaning was not discriminatory, the actual meaning might be. Although related to the intended and unintended effects, my argument is specifically that there is the possibility that the intended meaning of a term does not reflect the actual meaning in view of a certain history.

The causal-historical theory of meaning allows us to take account of the speaker’s intention while still holding that the slur carries some meaning arising from the ways it has historically been used. Such a theory lends itself to the nuanced consideration of who may say what, and why a theory based on intention cannot make sense of such concerns. To deny then that racial terms have meaning is to also suggest that there is no historical basis for such terms. While we might agree that there is no true scientific/biological basis for racial terms, it seems that their historical use has meant that now, racial terms seem to do some explanatory work in the world. Although the exact way racial terms have meaning is up for discussion, it seems difficult to deny that, throughout history, race talk has successfully lent itself to the classification of people on this basis. Although these terms are inherited from oppressive regimes, they have meaning.

Rekang Jankie, who in his eloquent discussion, made reference to my use of racial language in a previous piece, suggests that continued use of racial language unduly reifies race precisely because of its roots in eugenics; in other words, its causal history. Jankie suggests that the fallacious biological and original meaning of racial terms makes impossible the use of terms in a different sense. That is, it is not enough that we should actively criticize racial terms as falsely based on biology—any use of racial language affords purchase to this biological view even if it does not do so actively.

For Jankie, it is the continued use of racial language that upholds racialism and enables racism. Such a view posits that it is language that reifies race where it would otherwise have no reality. This presumes an answer to a chicken-and-egg question. It is more probable that the reality of race occurs in tandem with the use of racial language, rather than simply as a result of it. It is also not obvious that the abolition of racial language will spell the end of race as a social reality, and as the basis of discrimination. Moreover, just because biological understandings of race were scientifically incorrect does not mean that the terms were never meaningful. This becomes clearer when we see the scientific outcome of eugenics too as a social construction.

There is often a sharp distinction drawn between race as biologically grounded and race as a social construct. Those who posit that racial categorization is useful generally uphold one of these two views and they are typically seen as mutually exclusive. It is possible to consider that that these views are different not because of their position on racial meaning but because of their capacity to function in the world. Given its profound falsity and its justification as a product of bad science, eugenics itself can be thought of as a social construction. That is, those who felt the need to justify their racism and exploitative practices with supposed scientific fact would search for basis, theorize about eugenics, and then go about their racist practices with little concern that they might be (scientifically or morally) wrong.

This fallacious eugenicist basis of racial terms does not imply that the terms had/have no explanatory value, it suggests precisely the opposite. Eugenics sought to provide a more generally acceptable basis for an already prevailing set of socially reified, racial categorizations (there are/were many others too—German/Jew, the caste system, etc), for those who wanted to take advantage of such categorizations. It served as a “scientific” and thus supposedly indisputable justificatory basis for subjecting Black people to the horrendous reality of slavery, among other things.

Understood like this, the view of biological racism is not in opposition to the view that race is socially meaningful but subsumed by it. It explains the way in which contemporary forms of race and racism came to arise—including its (re)invigoration through the bad science of eugenics. If this holds, then racial language appears to denote something socially meaningful. This is upheld by acknowledging the fact of racism wherein we admit that race explains something if nothing other than a basis of discrimination. Those against the use of race talk, then, face a difficulty in addressing racism if they deny themselves the conceptual and linguistic tools to do so.

Those who reject the justifications for race talk, as I have been describing them, see themselves as responding to the problem of racism. A difficulty arises with this view when we consider our capacity to name, or point to, racism as such. If racial terms are thought of as meaningless in every sense, then it follows that an apparently racist instance must also be called meaningless. This is because the use of racial words, for the non-racialist, are seen as meaningless and devoid of reference. If such a line is taken, it is unclear how we would ever be able to accuse anyone of racial discrimination despite the fact that this is precisely the sort of thing we wish to address.

For example, if someone in a company were to say, “I do not hire black people here because of their incompetence,” those who suggest the abandonment of racial terms would hold that the term “Black people” is an empty signifier, so the statement is meaningless. They would also argue that this person ought to stop using the term. Nowhere in such a case, would an anti-race talk assertion address the problem that Black people are explicitly being discriminated against. The potential consequences to this way of thinking are wide-reaching.

There is a great risk attached to this commitment if upheld by racist people and institutions. It will be quite simple for them to escape the charge of racism by merely appealing to the absence of race talk in their language and policy, despite the fact that racism need not be explicit for it to remain present. Moreover, the anti-racist proponent of this view I have been discussing would be restricted by their linguistic arsenal, and not able to suggest otherwise. To put it simply, non-racialism disallows us to name racism and to therefore hold racist people and institutions to account. In this vein, Phila Msimang argues that, “so long as it is the case that racial concepts have social currency and correlate with lived experiences within the social world, racial terminology is a useful tool to track social facts associated with race.”

Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah also posits that racism must be ended before racial terms can be abandoned. Appiah suggests that racial identitarianism is not something that should be promoted, but nevertheless, there is a “place for racial identities in a world shaped by racism.” We ought to apply ourselves to the question of how we might apprehend the way(s) in which race bears on subjectivities, rather than to cease referring to it at all.

Further Reading