Racial Classification Conceptual Analysis I

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I did some conceptual analysis of racial classification with my students this semester, and I've finally compiled the results. In this post I'll list the questions and in the next post go through how my students answered them. If you'd like to do this yourself to see what you would have answered, don't read that post until you're done. The cases come from Charles Mills, "But Who Are You Really?: The Metaphysics of Race" in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race.

Case 1: Someone with some black ancestry and a white appearance decides to live in two worlds, so to speak. When in public, he never draws attention to race, and people assume he�s white. No one knows of his ancestry. When he�s with his family and their friends, he acts as part of the black culture and considers himself black. Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 2: Someone with some black ancestry and a white appearance decides to live in two worlds, so to speak. He considers himself white, and people believe him. No one knows of his ancestry. Is he white, as he claims? Is he black? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 3: Someone with some black ancestry and a white appearance was adopted by a white family at a very young age. He considers himself white. No one, even him and his family, have knowledge of his ancestry. Is he white, as he claims? Is he black? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 4: Mr. Oreo has black ancestry and appearance and knows of it but considers himself white, has adopted white culture, and has experiences more in line with the average white person, though he also has experienced some racism because of his appearance. He considers himself white. Is he white, as he claims? Is he black? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 5: Mr. Oreo has black ancestry and appearance and knows of it but considers himself white, has adopted white culture, and has experiences more in line with the average white person, though he also has experienced some racism because of his appearance. He considers himself white. He takes advantage of a new device that can change someone�s appearance so that he now even looks white and moves where no one knows him. Now no one knows his former appearance or ancestry. Is he white, as he claims? Is he black? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 6: Two children are switched in the hospital. A child of white parents is raised by a black family, adopted black culture and experiencing what black children experience growing up. He considers himself black, and so does his community. No one knows his ancestry is white, including him. Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 7: A white man decides to identify with the oppressed black community as much as possible. He goes to live among black people, marries a black woman, adopts black culture, and eventually begins to consider himself black. He still is treated as white by people who don�t know this about him, but many people begin to see him as an adopted black person. Everyone involved knows his ancestry. Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 8a: What if the person in Case 7 did have black ancestry, but no one knew it? Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead?
Case 8b: What if he then discovers it and makes it public? Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 8c: What if he discovers it but keeps it secret? Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 8d: What if he discovers this information and makes it public, but it turns out to be misinformation. He really doesn�t have any black ancestry. Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead?

Case 9: Someone is biracial, the genetic product of a black person and a white person, raised in both communities, taking full part in the life of both families. Is he black, as he claims? Is he white? Is he both? Is he something else instead? Does it get more complicated with multiple mixings? If your answer is �it depends� then what does it depend on?

Case 10: Someone gets fed up with racial classification after looking at all these examples and doesn�t want to endorse any such system, so he says he has no race as an oppressive cultural convention. On census forms, he writes in: �none� on the race question. Is he right about himself, or does he have a race whether he wants to admit it or not? Is your question different if it�s a clear case than it would be if the person is one of the problematic cases above (e.g. what if someone in category 9 did this, as Naomi Zack does)?

8 Comments

Well, I read this. I would have had to answer "I don't know" to every single one, I think. The whole exercise gave me one big headache.

I am anxiously waiting to find out what YOU think....

1. He's Black.
2. He's White.
3. He's White.
4. Makes me think of the Chappelle show with the blind Black guy who's a white supremacist. Funny! As far as classification goes, I guess he's black. That's why he's Mr. Oreo. To paraphrase from Get On The Bus, I could say that I'm 6'2", high yellow, and ugly, but the truth is, I'm 5'8", chocolate brown, and too cute for the English language."
5. Now he's Mr. Oreo Oops. Or maybe he's Mr. Double-Inverse Oreo -- white on the outside of black with white on the inside. For serious classification, if he calls himself white and he looks white, then he is white.
6. I actually thought about this before. Thinking that if my lady and I get married, we might adopt a child. I always wanted to adopt an Asian child so he would grow up being an Asian version of me. But if he considered himself to be Black, I'd say he was Black.
7. He's just white and identifies with the Black community. Sorta like MC Serch.
8. a. If he doesn't know it, it's the same as the above.
b. Then he's Black. Think Moses.
c. Then he's Black. He's just passing.
d. ?? Does he find out that it's misinformation?
9. That person is whatever he calls himself. Since he actively participates in both communities, he could be either or both. To the extent that I believe in racial classification, I don't think there can be a triple-decker.
10. Scientifically, we know that race is a social construct, so it's just as easy for me to say that I'm raceless as it is for me to check a box indicating race. Other people may not respect it or respond to it, but my postmodernist leaning says that self-definition trumps anybody else's determination.

With 8d, he doesn't know that it's misinformation. As far as he knows, he has black ancestry, but he doesn't in fact have any (at least any more than the average Norwegian does, which is negligible even if everyone is descended from Africans at some point).

Your set of questions makes the perfect point. It doesn't make a damn bit of difference. They are all people. They are human beings living their lives as they choose. Leave them alone.

jon

That wasn't my point at all. I wasn't interested in the ethical questions. I think at least a couple of the people in these examples have done something morally wrong. I think some of what people are doing here and some of how the people would be classified would make a whole lot of difference to their lives and how people treat them. If you don't think that doesn't matter, then I'm not sure you're aware of the realities many people in the history of the world, some of them today, have faced throughout their lives.

My point was to raise questions about what criteria people are using when they do in fact categorize people according to race. What I'll do in a later post is look at whether/how that becomes important for figuring out what race is (if anything) and what kind of thing it is (if it's anything at all).

In all of these cases, race has an ethnic origin and a cultural component. The cultural component has to do with how individuals cope with the fact and effects of race in American life. Black culture and white culture are in fact formed in part by their coping strategies.

Case 1:
black: code-switching is part of black culture.

Case 2:
black: passing for white is part of black culture.

Case 3:
white.

Case 4:
black: passing for white is part of black culture, even if it's done poorly.

Case 5:
black: passing for white is part of black culture.

Case 6:
black.


Case 7:
white: passing for black is part of white culture.

Case 8a:
white: passing for black

Case 8b:
white: trying extra hard to pass for black

Case 8c:
white: passing for black

Case 8d:
white: passing for black, poorly.

Case 9:
it depends upon what the individual is trying to prove and to whom.

Case 10:
same answer as 9.

Answer: Who gives a shaving cream [edited to remove uncreativity]? It's not your problem. Let people lead their own lives!

Actually, it turns out that it is my problem. If you can't accept that, then don't bother to try to interact on a site that specializes in rationally conducted investigations into truth and meaning about difficult questions. There are linguistic facts about what words mean. There are categories that people put people into. There are children like mine who don't easily fit into these categories. There are dissertations like the one I'm trying to write that try to answer these questions or at least try to shed some light on how best to approach them.

Just because you're so unconcerned about the deep problems of racial categorization and thus show your immoral contempt for those who care about them doesn't mean that the problems aren't real or that it isn't our moral obligation to try to figure out how to think rightly about such things. So take your anti-intellectualism and your false assumptions elsewhere, and allow those who would like to try to seek the truth about hard problems to do so.

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