Gender, Sex, and Race

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Sam's latest post (and the comments) got me thinking about the structural relations of race in relation to those of gender and sex. Sex is a biological category, and gender is social. Those with more liberal attitudes about these things tend to include most sex or gender differences in the category of gender, seeing as much as they can as illegitimately forced perceptions of male and female not required by biology. Sam was arguing for a conclusion on the other end of the spectrum, that there isn't anywhere near as much to gender as opposed to biological sex as many people seem to want. I gave some reasons in the comments not to take it so far. People of all political persuasions will want to see some inappropriate gender standards that aren't dictated by biology, and most people don't seem to have a problem even with some socially-determined gender differences. It's not as if most people who affirm the distinction think everything about gender is wrong.

Anyway, that's all in the comments. You can read it there if you want more. What's interesting to me about this right now is its bearing on questions about race. We can separate gender and sex without having to do conceptual analysis to see what our concept of gender refers to in the world or what our concept of sex refers to in the world. These terms have been defined by those who study this issue. The debate is over which elements of our more general sex/gender concepts fit into each category. In race, the debate is at an earlier location. We can't even agree on what criteria are used to determine racial categories. This is because we're trying to do conceptual analysis. We postulate a single concept of race and then try to figure out what that concept refers to in reality (if anything). That in itself will explain some of the differences here.

With sex and gender, the reality doesn't exactly allow the easy definition scholars have given, as the comments on Sam's post make clear. Intersexuals are genotypically male but phenotypically either female or mixed, depending on the cause. So even sex, so carefully defined as biological, separates into genotypic sex and phenotypic sex. Even worse for those wanting neat categories, phenotypic sex admits of borderline cases (or perhaps a third category). As far as I know, genotypic sex is binary.

With gender it gets more complicated. Those more on the liberal end want to remove the idea of legitimate gender differences in expected roles, preferences, or ability or skill level. Those more on the conservative end tend to emphasize the affirmation of such differences as good and affirming of women for who they are. Some who call themselves feminists have now decided to do what conservatives on this issue have always done. The debate here is not over what gender is. That's defined as the socially determined differences between males and females and societal expectations and views of males and females. The debates are over which ones are socially determined and over which ones are worth affirming or condemning.

Whatever you say about these issues, there are cases of people who have resisted their own biological status and adopted the charicteristics of the gender of the opposite sex. Does this mean this is their gender? Social factors determine gender. One such social factor is how people accept a genetic male's claim to be female gender. Enough people would reject that claim that it doesn't seem as if the person is biologically male but societally female. The fact that people would reject that identification, if they were to discover the biological reality, suggests that gender the transgendered biological male isn't gendered female. I don't know what the person's gender is. Some will then say that the person's gender identity (how the person self-identifies, anyway) is female, with a biological sex of male, and the gender itself is therefore confused, hence the term 'transgendered'.

This is all a conceptual structure that's been highly explored. Those trying to do a similar thing with race are really exploring new ground. Sally Haslanger has distinguished between race and racial identity. Someone's race would be a fact of the matter determined by things outside one's own control. Most philosophers who write about this believe that social factors determine which criteria determine someone's race. Some of the factors that determine people's race are biological. Some might be social also. It has to be social factors that determine which criteria these are, though, since the biological factors are completely arbitrary, genetically speaking. I've argued for all this in an earlier post on racial classification.

Someone's racial identity, on the other hand, is a subjective matter partly determined by how one thinks of oneself and partly determined by how one thinks about how others think about one. This could change drastically, even quickly, depending on the circumstances. Suppose I discovered that my parents weren't my biological parents and that one of my biological parents was black. That might affect my racial identity. It presumably wouldn't change my race. There's probably much more fluidity in racial identity than there is in gender identity, simply because there really are two genotypic categories, and almost everyone fits into the two main phenotypic categories, even many of those whose genotype and phenotype don't match up. With racial categories, at best there are many borderline cases and mixings that aren't easily classified, and many people who legally fit into one category (black) are far more mixed than most people realize. Racial ancestry is at least one factor in determining race, and racial ancestry isn't immediately apparent, while phenotypic sex pretty much is.

So those are obvious differences between racial identity and gender identity. What about race and gender/sex? This is what really seemed interesting to me. 'Sex' is ambiguous between genotypic sex and phenotypic sex, with 'gender' referring to the social factors affecting sex/gender talk and thought. There's no analog to genotypic sex. There aren't any particular genotypic characteristics that you could use to divide people along racial lines. There are genes that have a greater tendency to appear in certain racial groups. Yet even the basic ones most people take to be determinative aren't enough to constitute a genotypic category unless you use social factors to decide which ones you will use. You're not getting it right out of genotype, as you do with genotypic sex. That's a basic biological, genetic difference. There's nothing like that with race.

Could you have something like phenotypic race? That's easier, but it's not like phenotypic sex, which often goes along with a basic genotypic division. Again, it would be determined by social factors and not biological ones, though it would indeed be a phenotypic division. It wouldn't be binary, as phenotypic sex almost is. It would also have to have much more vague boundaries than phenotypic sex. This may be what remains of biological views of race at the popular level. Since the older ideas of racial essences have been refuted by science, one might argue that those who still have such ideas are not referring to nothing with their racial terms but are in fact referring to a socially-caused phenotypic division with vague boundaries. After all, this is much closer to the kind of category they think they're referring to, and a best-candidate view of reference favors this as the best candidate for the reference of race terms that are intended to refer to races based on non-existent racial essences.

But then there also seems to be a notion more like gender. That's what social views of race take race to be. It's a category determined by social factors, as with phenotypic race, but the difference is that some of the factors that turn out to be criteria for determining racial groupings aren't biological at all but are social. What seems obvious to me after distinguishing between these two category groupings is that we might sometimes be referring to phenotypic race and other times be referring to social race.

If 'race' is context-sensitive, as the comment thread on my previous post started to move toward, then this is what that would look like. I'm not sure exactly what sorts of contexts would cause this shift in reference, but it seems to me that racial terms could very easily be like this, and it's a lot like our terms 'male' and 'female'. In many contexts, the truth conditions of our sentences are the same regardless of whether we disambiguate to gender or phenotypic or genotypic sex. In many contexts, the truth conditions of our sentennces are the same regardless of whether we disambiguate to phenotypic race or social race. Yet a number of contexts will bring out differences between these categories, requiring separating the concepts in our minds and in our language if we're to make careful distinctions. This work has been done to some degree in the realm of sex and gender, and I don't think it's been done very well in the realm of race.

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