Dismantling Raci(al/st) Ideology

Sheena Mason

Assistant Professor at SUNY Oneonta

Learning Objectives

This presentation shows how the concept of race, while not rooted in biology or science, continues to be naturalized and viewed as something "of nature." The camouflaging of racism as race (i.e., race[ism]) remains, in large part, why many people and institutions have failed to entirely and meaningful address racism even when actively participating in anti-racist efforts. --With this in mind, the presentation employs Barbara and Karen Fields' concept of "racecraft" to help attendees stop conflating culture with race and race with ethnicity or culture and offers solutions for race(ism) with clear go-dos, further readings, and ideas to consider. Ultimately, this presentation shows how many of us unintentionally uphold racism. Importantly, this presentation shares how we can stop.

Key Takeaways:

  • How to define and identify race(ism) & racecraft

  • How & why society should stop conflating race with culture and ethnicity

  • How current anti-racist efforts inadvertently uphold racism, the very thing it critiques

"Racism is race. Racism masquerades as race in American society. "

Sheena Mason

Assistant Professor at SUNY Oneonta


Hello, welcome, and thank you so much for joining me today. I’m Dr. Sheena Mason. Currently, I am the Program Manager for Freedom Summer Collegiate and an incoming Assistant Professor in African American literature at SUNY Oneonta. I recently graduated from Howard University with a doctorate in English, and I specialize in African-American, American, and Caribbean literature. At the core of my expertise in the work I do is activism and advocacy. I research, write, and teach about what many people now call anti-racism. 

To this end, today, I’m sharing my presentation titled Dismantling Racialist Ideology. You might be wondering what is racialist ideology? Let’s find out together. Today, I’m talking about how the concept of race while not rooted in biology or science continues to be naturalized and viewed as something of nature, and why and how we should stop this reification. The camouflaging of racism, as race remains in large part, why many people and institutions have failed to entirely and meaningfully address racism even when actively participating in anti-racist efforts. With this in mind, I employ the philosophies of race and Barbara and Karen Fields’ concept of race craft, to help people stop conflating culture with race, and race with a necessity, as a significant part to our solutions for racism. I also suggest readings and pose ideas to consider more deeply. Ultimately, in this presentation, I show how people unintentionally uphold racism, and importantly, I share how we can stop. 

How it all began. I have always been deeply interested in why and how racism is centralized within American society. I saw how race over determines almost every aspect of life in the United States, but it wasn’t until the end of my doctoral work, that I realized that I found these happenings problematic because race equals racism. That is what history, literature, and discourse about racism shows us, except it isn’t something that gets addressed often, if at all. If it is addressed, those voices are blotted out and often labeled as racist or anti-black. The question remains: How can more of us solve and work ourselves out of this quagmire? 

Before I get further into the nuts and bolts of my presentation, I want to make clear what differentiates my argument here from other problematic assertions of colorblindness or America being in a supposedly post-racial era. Importantly, my bracketing of racialist designators and quotation marks and use of the terms raceless and racelessness are not synonymous with uncritical conceptions of colorblindness, a term used by some usually well-intentioned people to argue that color—that is race—does not matter. Seeing a colorblind future, the paradox of race, Patricia Williams argues that society cannot and should not simply wish its problems away by pretending or professing to be colorblind, quote, “I don’t think about color, therefore your problems don’t exist,” and quote she says. While she says that she is supportive of an actual colorblind, not utopian future, she talks about how the construction of race precludes colorblindness from being society’s current reality and illustrates the dangers of denying that race matters. It is clear though, that race matters and Williams’ assessment because racism is real and matters. She gives evocative examples of the construction of race, and all of her examples are that of racism. 

Ultimately, Williams reifies race and inadvertently uphold racism, but her overarching argument resonates with Barbara and Karen Fields’ identification of the myth of America’s post racial era as being more accurately called the Myth of America’s Post Racist Era. People who claim to be colorblind or who say that they live in a post-racialist era are saying that racism does not exist. As Williams and this presentation assert, racism not only exists, but persists. Here, I underscore racism as it functions through race and promote anti racism. I show how sometimes its solutions pose require the very undoing of race to undo racism, and that the undoing of racism requires first a complete and total reckoning with the violence of the history of the United States and the ongoing violence caused by racist and subsequently institutionalized racism.

The United States has been reconstructing the meaning of race since before the American Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783. In other words, since before the United States came into being independent of England, largely influenced by long-standing and ever-fluid European caste and class systems, race in America once reflected a caste system that edits most complex included white, black, and brown indentured servants, who for all intents and purposes, were enslaved and enslaved indigenous and African people. Further, there were free African of color, indigenous, and white people. Enslavement was not racialized in the ways many of us currently understand both race and slavery until approximately 1660, when various states began outlawing miscegenation, calculating blackness and passing fugitive and slave loss. 

Over time and within the bounds of the peculiar institution of slavery, racialization came to describe the systematic practice of marking out groups of people as the subjects of violence and oppression, based on ancestry and phenotype. For an extensive compilation of text and images that illustrate the development of racialist vocabularies, view Race in Early Modern England, compiled and edited by Anya Loomba and Jonathan Burton and Isabel Wilkerson’s cast the origins of our discontent. 

Racialization reflected one’s access to power even if not one’s possession of power. indentured servitude was phased out in its formal capacities. Black and Negro came to describe people of African descent who were considered by law and practice to be enslaved and chattel. Persons of color primarily describe free black and brown people. White primarily describe all free people of seemingly visible European descent. Race shifted from referring to ethnic or national groups to subspecies of humans more definitively during the 18th century. Race as a biological concept has been disproven since the 19th century, but has remained at the forefront of our imaginations ever since. There are no subspecies of humans, but there are groups of humans who are treated like subspecies. 

People in the US continue striving to reconstruct the meaning of race to both recognize America’s violent history of racism and remove the violence of racism from race ideology. The default position, as it pertains to philosophies of race, has traditionally remained naturalism, social constructionism, reconstructionism, and conservationism. In fact, the educational system in America including informal education via media, family, environment, other cultural and social outputs, and so on enforce and reinforce racialist ideology. These persistent philosophies of race fail to liberate the US from racism and in fact, have the unfortunate opposite effect of inadvertently or even intentionally upholding racism. In other words, most anti-racist discourse and initiatives help reify racism because they inhabit and promote naturalist constructionist, reconstructionist, and conservationist positionality, which have also always been the position of the small percentage of people holding the most economic and political power in the US. 

Toward the goal of liberation and avoiding the unintentional reification of racism, I recently coined the terms racism, racist, and racialist. Racism refers to what most people think of separate but connected concepts: race and racism, and race and racist, respectively. I combine these words to emphasize one of my central arguments, which is that race is racism. Racism is race. Racism masquerades as race in American society. Thus, there is a need to redirect anti-racist discourse away from race to that of racism. This is not merely a matter of rhetoric, but one of how language and forms thought, which informs and perpetuates institutionalized racism. If one is serious about forcing a complete reckoning with racism in the US, one should be serious about liberating society in every respect, and talking about the problem which is racism, not the victims’ alleged difference.

Racialist combines the words racial and racist. The combination connotes and denotes, again, the sameness of race and racism, racial and racist, and the disjuncture between the two that most Americans believe exists. The backward slash and in each of the terms the parentheses signify the cognitive and emotional separation of the two words, each word simultaneously reflects, as well as the social, cultural, and political violence, inadvertent and explicit racism and racialist reify. Additionally, the backward slash in parentheses reflects the historical distance, the consistent separation, and naturalization of the concepts as distinct causes, and the simultaneous approximation of culpability and responsibility. 

My employment of these terms encourages and enables a clear redirection of one’s attention from race to racism, from racial to racist, that requires and allows race to function how it currently does, both in society and through well-intended DEI initiatives. They end up washing over actual differences in favor of perceived or imagined differences rooted in pseudoscience. This redirection of focus to racism then allows for the proper placement of culpability onto the institutionalization of racism, which is the primary way society can foster more anti-racist and anti-racist policies and systems, and begin to heal from the nefarious effects of racism. Not every racialized white person is racist. Not every racialized person of color is free from racialist ideology. In fact, the majority of people in their unwavering and largely unquestioned belief in race and conflation of race with culture and ethnicity, inadvertently uphold racism. 

Today, I work to redirect the discourse toward that of racism by sharing and naming philosophies of race, that everyone already has to shed light on philosophies that continue to be suppressed and marginalized as they threaten the status quo of racialist division in the US and elsewhere, and when ignored or disregarded, allow racism to fester and persist. 

Recently, there has been a consistent and expected or pre-supposed focus on race within the field of HR and DEI, which unintentionally misdirects the discourse from racism to race, with infrequent crossings, and naturalizes the existence of race, which has been shown to fortress and is even used as justification for the persistence of racism. Anti-race discourse often centers on race, not racism. Importantly, without recognition or consideration, that they are the same, which I interpret as further evidence that they are indeed the same. This misdirection simultaneously creates and maintains racecraft. In racecraft, the soul of inequality in American life, Karen and Barbara Fields define racecraft as the shorthand that transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss. Time and again, racecraft permits the consequent quints under investigation to masquerade among the causes. In other words, by American logic, race creates racism.

Racecraft encourages and enables the persistence of racism and uses racism as the evidence of race or the fact of blackness, as Franz Fernand calls it. When, in fact, race is evidence of racism and is ultimately racism itself. Society’s use of the word race and all race language, regardless of the format, depends on the objective and subjective reality of race and obfuscates the actions of racist and racism, which then enables things like white fragility, as Robyn D’Angelo calls it. In other words, even when most people say that they view race as a social construction, the criticism and practices within most organizations support ideas of inherent that is inborn, racialist difference, ancestry, inherited, and subsequently and inadvertently, naturalist view of race. Infrequently, people engage with anti-racist discourse and talk about race as racism, and recognize as some of the most impactful historical figures like James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Malcolm X support and present an eliminativist and skeptical position of race in their work, not just constructionist, naturalist, and reconstructionist, or conservationist positions of race. 

The only way we can free ourselves from the metaphorical straitjacket of misdefinition is if we recognize the various philosophies of race, as presented in the literature, liberate the language we use to discuss racism, and talk about our teach about racism in ways that forces sustained reckoning with racism in the US that will ostensibly encourage a reckoning within American society to deepen many of our anti-racist efforts. There are several significant and mostly competing philosophical positions regarding the ontology of different conceptions of race, and what should or should not be done with them all. 

Everyone falls into at least two of the six categories already without being able to even name them. The first category is naturalism. Naturalists argue that race is biological, that it is fixed, that it is of the essence, even though it hasn’t been proven yet scientifically. They hold on to the hope and the belief that indeed, there is something biological in our DNA that differentiates groups of humans. Skeptics believe that because race is not of nature, it also does not exist in any other form, not even as a social construction. We just have the illusion of race. Constructionists argue that race doesn’t exist in nature, at least it hasn’t been proven yet, in fact, it’s been disproven, but because of how racism operates in society, race is rendered real, kind of like how gender is rendered real as a social construction. Everyone falls into one of these three categories, and then everyone has a belief as to what should be done with the race, depending on if they’re a naturalist, a skeptic, or a constructionist. 

There’s reconstructionist, who argue that, yes, there are definitely opportunities and reasons why we should reconstruct the idea of race so that it inflicts less violence or no violence on to society. Then, there are conservationists, who can sometimes also be reconstructionists. At the core of what conservationists believe, is that race has beneficial outcomes, it has beneficial value to society, and so whether we reconstruct it or we don’t, we need to conserve the idea of race. Probably all naturalists will be conservationists because they believe it’s not something that you can choose anyway, right? It’s something you’re born as. Then, there’s eliminativism. Eliminativists tend to be skeptics, sometimes constructionists, they argue that race ideology, the concept of race, needs to be eliminated completely. You can be an eliminativist and have different reasons for why you’re an eliminativist. 

As an eliminativist myself, I argue that because racism masquerades as race in society, the way that we solve in quotation marks “racism”, is by eliminating race. As an eliminativist, a skeptic, and formerly a reconstructionist-constructionist, it took me time to properly disconnect my assigned and self-ascribed race from my ethnic and cultural affiliations. 

In an interview with Charlie Rose, Toni Morrison said, “If I take your race away, and there you are all strung out, and all you got is your little self, and what is that? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself?” Here, Morrison uses both images of removing one’s race and racism, signifying their sameness. Indeed, if I take your race away, I remove racism to both your perpetration or acceptance of it, and your victimization caused by it. Without racism, with my spelling in mind, who are you? 

Racist does not mean colorblind, not in the questionable ways many people interpret colorblindness as indicative of one not seeing or recognizing racism. After all, in today’s society, colorblind most often means oblivious to racism, and by extension, is racist. In the context of this presentation, racist means simply existing without race as all humans are born, in operating typically within a racist society that births race based on phenotype and ancestry or metaphorical blood, as Barbara and Karen Fields calls it. The construction part becomes biological in our imaginations when we talk about race in terms of phenotype, ancestry, and heritage, as racecraft and this presentation illustrate. 

In conclusion, I illuminated how people promoting anti racism can and why they should destroy race from culture and ethnicity, and stop allowing race to determine the discourse policies and initiatives. I acknowledged and testified to the partial solutions to racism, present in literature, but rarely discussed. 

Leaders across industries can liberate themselves and others by extension by noticing how anti racist discourse participates in the continuation of America’s racialist identity, changing the language used to undo racism, delineating race from culture and ethnicity, and teaching DEI practices alongside varying philosophies of race. More of us can then have a sustained, productive and healing dialogue within the in-between space created primarily outside of ideologies of racism and racialist language and thought. So long as there is a sustained reckoning with racism, historical and contemporary. What do we have to lose besides racism? 

To be truly against racism and for equity, more of us must acknowledge that one’s perceived or self ascribed race doesn’t automatically equate to having knowledge about any person. Racialist ideology washes over actual differences and similarities too. Together we have much work to do. 

Thank you all so much for joining me today. Sending you each love, light, and liberation. Be well.

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