In a recent presentation about a relatively new academic field called the critical philosophy of race, I was (repeatedly) questioned about the reasons for retaining the concept of race after it has been so clearly delegitimised. I was surprised how much I struggled to find a satisfactory answer, both for others and myself, to this question. Part of my struggle arose from the context of this discussion. While I appreciate the challenge posed with regard to the concept of race, the composition of the group made me uncomfortable as to its motivation. The group was composed of all white heterosexual male post-Christian European citizens; the epitome of what in the field of critical philosophy of race is referred to as white privilege. By contrast the field itself is one of the most diverse in terms of academic philosophy with strong representations of scholars from underrepresented groups in terms of gender, religious affiliations, non-European origins, etc.
The latter is significant in that these scholars – many of whom come from marginalised groups – recognise that because of the history of racism, the category of race, has been (at least rhetorically) delegitimised and yet there are several – justice based – reasons for retaining the concept of race. One such reason is to discredit the claim that we are living in a post-racial society. Clearly recent events such as the tragic political and legal injustice that arose in Ferguson demonstrate this. On a very different scale, which makes it easier to deny that racism is the root of the problem, are the recent debates in the Low Lands about ‘Zwarte Piet’.
Another reason is that by denying the category of race, it is much more difficult – both legally and socially – to fight current manifestations of racism, such as the cultural-racism central to islamophobia. Partially because of the intentional efforts on the part of the (surviving) Jewish community after the Shoah to be ‘deracialised’, there has been a political campaign to detangle the categories of race and religion – as manifest in terms of anti-Semitism. This however makes it much more difficult for groups that currently fall within this (cultural) race-religion constellation, as do Muslims, to appeal to laws created to combat racism.
This problem brings me back to my original concern. While there may be good reasons to politically or legally retain this concept, the question being asked was also why a philosophical field might retain the concept of race. From the perspective of those posing this question, the concept has been intentionally delegitimised in European and needs to be forgotten. This claim is based on how European society responded to the shame of the Shoah by promoting campaigns, legal, political and social, to delegitimise the concept of race (see for example UNESCO’s substitution of the term race for culture in the 1950s). Accordingly it seems unjust bot to the group that was most destroyed by these events (this is not to deny that the Nazis did not persecute other groups) to retain the category of race and to Europeans as it reminds them of a past they have moved beyond.
Yet isn’t the latter perhaps a reason to retain the concept, to remind us all that while we can move beyond the signifier, we have not moved beyond the signified? Do we not need a concept of race to help us make sense of this particular set of social relations of power that shaped and continue to shape our world? While I grant those in the room that the concept of race has morphed and changed since the Shoah and as such we need to constantly study and reflect upon these changes (a reflection that includes considering letting go of terms that are no longer philosophically significant), race neither in terms of philosophy nor politics is at this stage. As such, I have to wonder if the desire to silence race talk in Europe arises from wanting to sweep responsibility, both past and present, under the carpet?
Clearly no one would contend that the central problem of exclusion, which has historically been achieved by the creation of hierarchical categories (whether race, religion, nation etc.) has not disappeared – so are there good reasons for retaining such delegitimised and offensive concepts?