Whether in books, news headlines, research papers, podcast content, TED talks or pub conversations, the pervasive misleading use of the word ‘race’ strikes me every time and puzzles me. Last year, a well-established and well-meaning podcast host was welcoming his guests, social scientists, writers, teachers and activists before launching their conversation about the renewed social unrest that was sparked by the murder of Georges Floyd. He started his program with a question: ‘what is your race?’. For decades now, the topic of ‘race relations’ is studied by scholars and the term regularly appears in the public sphere. Not only is it still used in a colloquial way, it is also referred to in the foundational texts of such leading institutions as the United Nations (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). If by now, you’re wondering…let me specify. The podcast host was interviewing mostly non-white people.
As this year’s Black History Month closes in the US and after months and years of reading, conversations, introspection and research, against a backdrop of increasingly divisive politics in the US and in some European countries, I felt the urge to share a conviction, some questions and thoughts, and to open a conversation about our relationship to the concept of ‘race’.
I argue that the way the word ‘race’ is used most of the time when referring to human beings is semantically wrong, socially detrimental and morally untenable. Words matter to the point that they construct our shared reality, therefore using the correct semantics is the path to changing our reality. Justice and inclusion will be best served if and when we use inclusive language instead of a wrong and divisive one.
What’s the issue with the word ‘race’?
I started by going back to the sources, ie. definitions from our most established and respectable dictionaries.
‘Race’ has multiple definitions and somewhat paradoxical meanings. And it becomes even more puzzling when comparing the dictionaries of the three languages that I have a decent knowledge of.
In the Cambridge dictionary, ‘race’ is defined as and illustrated with examples like the following (I have excluded the meaning of ‘competition’):
- ‘one of the main groups to which people are often considered to belong, based on physical characteristics that they are perceived to share such as skin colour, eye shape, etc’. ‘People of many different races were living side by side’
- ‘a group of people who share the same language, history, characteristics, etc…’ as illustrated in ‘the British are an island race’, ‘she teaches the students to have respect for different races and appreciate the diversity of other cultures’ or ‘today, many Americans are still grappling with the issue of race.’
When I turned to a definition in French, in the Larousse dictionary, what I found is:
- A reference to an animal population that is the result of a same species being sub-divided by the process of selection, that shares a set of characteristics that are transmittable from one generation to the next (1).
It is followed by a longer paragraph (2) that adds an important caveat. It states that this is a category system that classifies the human species according to morphological or cultural characteristics, without any scientific evidence and on which racism and racist practices are founded on. It follows by saying that the segmentation of humans based on the most visible criteria such as skin colour has been promoted and followed throughout the XIXth century. Yet genetics discoveries led to the rejection of any attempt to establish the racial classification of human beings.
And yet, it later continues stating two other definitions, a literary one applied to the family lineage as in ‘the race of David’ and another referring to people that share common characteristics such as profession or behaviours and that are grouped in the same category as in the example of ‘the breed of honest people’ (‘la race des gens honnêtes’) (3).
There are two startling differences between the English and French dictionary definitions. The first difference is that the French one makes a clear point about the absence of any scientific evidence that supports using morphologic criteria to classify humans and to justify racist views. The English one does not.
The second difference lies in the type of examples that illustrate the definitions. The English dictionary example clearly refers to different human races. The French dictionary either takes a historic reference or uses it in a context of grouping people based on a human characteristic that is not attached to a physical attribute.
According to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, ‘race’ (‘raza’) is either i) a cast or the quality of origin or lineage, ii) each of the groups in which some biological species are divided and whose differentiating traits are transmitted between generations, or iii) the quality of some things in relation to certain specific characteristics that define them. It then pursues with ‘human race’ simply defined as ‘humanity’ (4).
I do wonder how wide the spectrum of definitions would be if I’d extend my search to very different languages and cultures. Three languages already suffice to appreciate the different, if not divergent, distinctions and points of view.
So, which one is it then? A group that one belongs to by simply sharing physical or cultural characteristics with? A made-up classification system that has no scientific foundation? The entire human species? Even the dictionaries’ definitions are ambiguous.
We know better
A long time ago, geneticists have revealed that there is actually only one human race.
But for centuries, scientists and politicians alike successfully used differences in physical appearance between people, mainly different skin colours, to justify, benefit from and promote very dubious and harmful political systems. This has ranged from discriminatory policies to colonisation, chattel slavery and genocide. Eventually, genetics demonstrated that all humans share 99,9% of their DNA and that the remaining carrying 0,01% does not support differences in cognitive capabilities, psychological tendencies or physical performances between the separated ethnic or skin-colour groups. In ‘The race issue’, published in March 2018, The National Geographic published a full dossier that demonstrates it with two clear yet paradoxical facts: skin colour is only skin deep and if you’re looking for diversity, Africa is the place where there is more of it than anywhere else on earth. This is because all modern humans originated in Africa some 200 000 years ago before migrating to other continents which means that they have lived there the longest. They’ve had time to evolve enormous genetic diversity — which extends to skin colour and is also evidenced by the 2000+ languages still spoken across the African continent.
And yet, our huge spectrum of diversity, across the world, whether visible or not, shares the same 99.9% of genes from the same gene pool.
However, ‘race’ is still commonly used to refer to differences between people, to identify them, to create identity systems and to establish a hierarchy between groups of people, explicitly or implicitly. It is still used as if there were several races amongst human beings.
While, on one hand, science has debunked the concept of ‘separate human races’, on the other, the social construct of ‘human races’ is still firmly established. It is pervasive into all aspects of social life. It is a hard one to debunk.
The fact that a lot of people can’t help but use a vernacular that is unfit for purpose reveals how conditioned we are by it.
So why are we still talking as if there were different human races?
Is the simplicity of depicting complex social relations through a deflecting race mirror too convenient to abandon? Are we so addicted to language that our rational mind cannot override the most visible physical attribute of people to see them for what they are, above and beyond anything else: human.
Sure, humans have a natural tendency to create categories based on visible differences. With the social categorisation theory, research confirmed that surface-level differences (ie. overt, biological characteristics typically reflected in physical features) are the attributes that people use to make categories and separate between in-group members and out-group members. It is useful to describe other humans. It corresponds to a need for individual and group identity. It reminds me how I noticed during my years in Chile that people would often be described and identified by their hair colour more often than by their skin colour when the latter was more a common feature than not. There, a friend of ours was commonly called ‘El Negro’, a moniker that originates from his black hair and eyes, typical of natives from Chile.
As a matter of fact, dividing people by their skin colour is a relatively recent practice, historically. As far as historians know, the first person to come up with the idea of ‘blackness’ and, by opposition, ‘whiteness’, and to assign meaning to the skin colour is Gomes Eanes de Zurara, the Chief Chronicler of the Kingdom of Portugal (1410–1474) in his Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea in 1453. It includes a record of the Portuguese slavery trade in the 1440’s under Prince Henry at a time when traders turned to Africa as their main source of slaves. The word ‘slaves’ actually originates from the region where the people were taken from for forced labor, ie. Slavic regions.
I guess that for Gomes Eanes de Zurara back in the XVth century as it is for some of our contemporaries, the fact that there is one human race is in contradiction with what can be observed in our lived experience. We see a great variety of people whether in our daily life or in movies, shows, posters or on the news.
One of the most obvious, unmistakable physical attributes is skin colour, a surface-level difference that unlike others such as eye colour or hair texture is harder to change. It is easy to fall for it. We ‘see’ whites, browns, blacks and other skin tones.
As we analyse societal issues, make sense of them and try to solve them, we keep creating categories, more and more defined ones. If a word is not precise enough, we create acronyms to combine multiple sub-categories, such as ‘people of colour’, BAME or LGBTQ+ in order to differentiate from what I call the ‘default setting’ represented by the most prevalent group.
The power of social constructs in shaping our world
650 years after Gomes de Zurara’s accounts, the idea that there are different human races has not disappeared from our collective consciousness. Worse, the institutions that used to benefit from that idea still perpetuate it to some extent and the social hierarchy based on so called ‘race’ has left traumatic scares on the collective and individual psyche of many. The work of Dr. Joy Degruy focuses on the intersection of racism, trauma, violence and American chattel slavery. Dr. Degruy coined the condition of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrom, a new form of trauma that is transmitted through generations. I suspect that a similar condition could also derive from the atrocities of colonisation. Just as in personal life, anything that is not named, addressed, confronted and eventually healed will linger and have an impact on one’s life. The remains of slavery still do to this day.
Such is the power of social constructs. As if the categories had become so real that they’d shape our view of the world against our own will and awareness.
It is harmful to maintain the stronghold of pseudo separate human races on our understanding of who we are or are not. It inflates the importance of what separates people to justify hateful and harmful theories, policies and actions.
Have we built such a powerful and meaningful social construct that it now prevents us from changing our belief system about race?
Why bother, it’s just words?
Why bother pondering about semantics instead of taking action?
This is more than just pondering about semantics.
Changing our language changes our experience. A different experience changes our perception. A different perception changes our belief about the world. And that, in turn, changes our behaviour. New behaviours change the lived experience, ours and others’. Or maybe it is the other way around. Wherever one enters this circle of cause and effect, is one’s own decision. I vow to use the word ‘race’ in the most accurate way possible.
Isn’t ‘At the beginning was the word’ one of the most intriguing opening for a best-seller (no disrespect for the Book of Genesis)?
Philosophers, social scientists, therapists have debated on the foundational role of language for centuries. There is no need to get into a discussion between ‘hard constructionists’ (who argue that words create everything, even the physical world) and ‘soft constructionists’ (who posit that words create the meaning that we attach to our experiences). If even half of the last statement is true, then the way we name things has the power to reinforce or dismantle the worst injustice. How do we use that power?
Race and racism. A wrong and a right way to use the word ‘race’?
What about keeping the word ‘race’ to refer to sports.
The relationship between ‘race’ and ‘racism’ is tricky and somewhat confusing. That confusion has been and still is causing damage.
I posit that most of the time the word ‘race’ is wrongly used and that it makes things worse rather than better, that every time we do pronounce or write it with the false meaning, we defeat the purpose of getting rid of ‘racism’.
‘Racism’ is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as ‘a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race’.
Fighting racism is one of the big causes to rally behind. I argue that using the term ‘race’ as if there was more than one human race actually contributes to consolidating racist beliefs, hence that it does a dis-service to the paramount causes of equity and equality that badly need solutions.
In doing so, we perpetuate a false belief that is detrimental to the complex human issues that we are trying to untangle, systems that we are trying to dismantle.
It is an obstacle to Inclusion.
Some good resources like this PBS segment, have been created to educate about ‘what we shouldn’t call race’ that give a historical, scientific and social perspective on the issue. Like this article, they illustrate the difficulty of establishing that a word exists to mean something that does not exist.
Some say ‘yeah, we know that there is one human race, we don’t really mean that there are different races’. My question is: ‘if you don’t mean it, why do you say it?’.
We need to mean what we say and say what we mean.
It is important to rely on the correct language, intellectually and psychologically. Semantics signal a collective acknowledgement and an unequivocally unifying signal. If we want to eradicate a false belief, then our language should change the narrative, and contribute to dismantle what we are fighting against, not reinforce it.
My conviction is that social justice and inclusion will be easier to achieve if we use just and inclusive language instead of wrong and divisive one.
It is also about sense making, sending a strong signal that we know that this situation is about relations between different groups but not between different races. Our society perpetuates inequalities through a complex web of systemic underlying issues that include legacy, culture, identity and power. Relying on a misnomer is simplifying but not helping the situation.
I believe that the way we name an issue is about agency and therefore it is the beginning of action. In this precise case, it is about re-claiming a piece of identity: being human.
I could be labelled as ‘naïve’. I know that changing how we talk about this issue won’t solve it. It is not about banning a word from our everyday vocabulary, emulating the emerging ‘cancel culture’.
It troubles me to hear intellectuals, people I turn to for my own development and growth, refer so often to ‘race’ in inaccurate and misleading ways.
What else can we use instead though? I don’t have a solution. While I find ‘ethnicity’ useful, it does not correspond to the same concept. My understanding is that ‘ethnicity’ refers to cultural identification (national, regional, tribal, religious, linguistic, etc …) and ‘race’ was coined to refer to physical traits, biological characteristics. Once again, I went back to our language repository.
The Oxford dictionary defines ‘ethnicity’ as both ‘the fact of belonging to a particular race or culture’ and ‘a group of people with a common cultural or national tradition’, the latter option being illustrated by the phrase ‘We’re trying to recruit people of different races and ethnicities’. Here again, there is no escape from ‘race’.
Nevertheless, Wikipedia provides a wider definition akin to its open-source system: ‘an ethnic group or ethnicity is a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups such as a common set of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area’. However imperfect the word ‘ethnicity’ is, I largely prefer it to ‘race’.
It is about skin colour or skin tone. Let’s face it, this is what it comes down to.
It is about white and non-white, whether brown, black or Asian.
The white vs. non-white feels a bit like a switch, a binary option that dominates the collective psyche and an embarrassing legacy of the old one-drop rule.
I take as evidence of this that many people born from a white and a black parent are often characterised as ‘black’. The most visible example is the ‘first Black president of the United States of America’, Barack Obama whose mother was a white US citizen of Irish ancestry and whose father was Black from Kenya.
I am a mix of black and white. Up to my early adulthood, I was either accepting the label ‘black’ (more ‘palatable’ than the more loaded ‘noir’ in my own native language, a term that is now proudly re-claimed by black people in France) or I was expressing a moderate disagreement with it and insisting on using the word ‘métisse’, depending on my readiness and willingness to engage in that conversation.
Logically, I feel equally strongly against the expression ‘mixed race’ — hence why I did not use it when describing myself above. The word ‘métisse’ works well for me but I often struggle with the lack of a good English translation for it. In Spanish, its equivalent ‘mestiza’ has the virtue of existing even if still has a negative connotation. It refers to a mix, to a combination but not a combination of races since there is only one. I don’t debate that describing me as a brown skin person is a faithful depiction and convenient — it is what I look like. I disagree though that it would be connected to the word ‘race’.
What is the sense of asking ‘what is your race?’ to a person whose parents are a black Congolese man and a white Belgian woman? How do you apply the ‘race identity’? At what relative level of whiteness and brownness can you be referred to white or brown?
Inclusion: ‘human race’ but no ‘human races’.
Far from me the intention to banish the word race. I suggest using it for what it is: the one and only human race we know of, or, alternatively, the practice of a sport where people compete against each other to reach to finish line first.
‘And the norms and notions of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice…’
said Amanda Gorman in her US Presidency Inaugural poem on January 20th.
Let’s use the power of language to start changing the narrative.
The more we affirm the fact that there is only one race, the more we create and spread that reality. Changing the narrative start with using the right and just language in an inclusive way and stop using it in a divisive way, reminiscent of atrocities and injustices.
Let’s use the word ‘race’ properly for what it means, the human race that we all belong to. In our daily lives, in our institutions and in their foundational charters.
Let’s devise a more appropriate word to address the issue of social and economic disparities between groups composed of different skin colours or other characteristics.
And let’s act the way we are meant to be as people sharing a strong sense of humanity. Did you notice, by the way, that HUMANITY is made of HUMAN and UNITY?
Writing this essay is not without its own irony and contradictions. I’ve always reluctantly used the word ‘race’. Ironically, in this essay, I’ve used it more than my ‘fair share’ of times and not without some frustration.
This time though, I‘m calling ‘race’ out, putting to paper the many thoughts that have been brewing in my mind in the last weeks and months. And it feels right.
It is not because it feels right to me that I am right though.
I’d like to hear anyone who can enlighten me on the reasons why using ‘race’ the way it is used now is relevant and useful. Tell me what I missed. I’ll gladly stand corrected. In the meantime, I will keep asking.
American author and civil right activist James Baldwin once wrote: ‘not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced’.
And when it comes to finding an alternative word, I am open to brainstorming.
Valérie Van den Bossche Swan.
(1) ‘Population animale résultant, par sélection, de la subdivision d’une même espèce et possédant un certain nombre de caractères communs transmissibles d’une génération à la suivante’, dictionnaire Larousse.
(2) ‘Catégorie de classement de l’espèce humaine selon des critères morphologiques ou culturels, sans aucune base scientifique et dont l’emploi est au fondement des divers racismes et de leurs pratiques. (Face à la diversité humaine, une classification sur les critères les plus immédiatement apparents [couleur de la peau surtout] a été mise en place et a prévalu tout au long du XIXe siècle. Les progrès de la génétique conduisent aujourd’hui à rejeter toute tentative de classification raciale chez les êtres humains’, dictionnaire Larousse.
(3) ‘- Littéraire. Lignée familiale considérée dans sa continuité ; ensemble des ascendants ou des descendants d’un personnage ou d’un groupe humain : La race de David. - Ensemble de personnes présentant des caractères communs (profession, comportement, etc.), et que l’on réunit dans une même catégorie : La race des gens honnêtes)’, dictionnaire Larousse.
(4) ‘1. f. Casta o calidad del origen o linaje. 2. f. Cada uno de los grupos en que se subdividen algunas especies biológicas y cuyos caracteres diferenciales se perpetúan por herencia. 3. f. Calidad de algunas cosas, en relación con ciertas características que las definen. ‘Raza humana’, humanidad (género humano)’, Diccionario de la Real Academia Española.