Is Race a Social Construct or Is It Not Real?

by Kevin Currie-Knight


The second in a planned series of dialogues between Sheena Mason (SUNY Oneonta) and Kevin Currie-Knight (East Carolina) on philosophies of race. In this dialogue, Sheena and Kevin flesh out the difference between saying that race is a social construction and (Sheena’s position) that race isn’t real in any sense.

3:23 – Kevin’s Confusion: what is the difference between saying that race isn’t real at all, and saying that race isn’t biologically real but IS a social construct? 9:53 – If we can use racialized language reliably in every day life, how can we then say that race doesn’t signify anything ‘real’ in some way? 19:31 – Is there a strategic difference between saying that race is real as a social construction and saying that race isn’t real at all? The benefits of race skepticism. 39:14 – How belief in the reality of race causes us to bungle so many conversations (such as the viral confrontation in Arizona State’s multicultural center). 55:47 – Does social constructionism about race lock you into racialized thinking in a way race skepticism doesn’t? 1:02:48 – Is it an indefensible stereotype to call someone a “sellout” or “traitor” to their “race”?

14 thoughts on “Is Race a Social Construct or Is It Not Real?

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  1. As I noted last time, with the help of GWAS studies and other tools, we are learning that while race may be a social construct, differences in genetic ancestry correlate with many racial constructs

    As David Reich notes in the editorial below from the NYT:

    “Recent genetic studies have demonstrated differences across populations not just in the genetic determinants of simple traits such as skin color, but also in more complex traits like bodily dimensions and susceptibility to diseases. For example, we now know that genetic factors help explain why northern Europeans are taller on average than southern Europeans, why multiple sclerosis is more common in European-Americans than in African-Americans, and why the reverse is true for end-stage kidney disease.”

    From further down in piece:

    “Self-identified African-Americans turn out to derive, on average, about 80 percent of their genetic ancestry from enslaved Africans brought to America between the 16th and 19th centuries. My colleagues and I searched, in 1,597 African-American men with prostate cancer, for locations in the genome where the fraction of genes contributed by West African ancestors was larger than it was elsewhere in the genome. In 2006, we found exactly what we were looking for: a location in the genome with about 2.8 percent more African ancestry than the average.
    When we looked in more detail, we found that this region contained at least seven independent risk factors for prostate cancer, all more common in West Africans. Our findings could fully account for the higher rate of prostate cancer in African-Americans than in European-Americans. We could conclude this because African-Americans who happen to have entirely European ancestry in this small section of their genomes had about the same risk for prostate cancer as random Europeans.

    Did this research rely on terms like “African-American” and “European-American” that are socially constructed, and did it label segments of the genome as being probably “West African” or “European” in origin? Yes. Did this research identify real risk factors for disease that differ in frequency across those populations, leading to discoveries with the potential to improve health and save lives? Yes.”

  2. Gottlob’s comment above is completely correct, and it was the medical geneticists who objected to blanket statements that race was not a scientifically useful concept. This genetic argument for racial skepticism is along the lines that overall within-ethnicity mean differences in genotype frequencies (within-group variance as in ANOVA) are larger than the mean differences between groups. Any large between-group differences in genotype are limited to a relatively few genes such as those involved in skin colour, which reflect selection by the historical environment of that population (ie ultraviolet light and skin melanin levels). Anther gene is APOL1, where an African allele (present in 40% Gambians, 20% of African-Americans, and 0% Europeans) increases risk of chronic kidney disease but protects against trypanosomiasis. The counter to this is to point to the fact that most traits are controlled by many many genes, so small ethnic differences at a large number of genes could lead to large phenotypic differences eg in height.

    But in some ways this is a subtle point. After all, the difference between the shortest 5% and tallest 5% of women is 10cm, and the average difference between men and women is 12cm (US NHANES), so we can hand-wave that within-sex differences in height are of a similar magnitude to those between the sexes. I don’t think this allows us to be skeptical about the “tallness of men” concept. Note that within the sexes, taller individuals receive higher salaries, school marks, job promotions etc, so this marker is associated with some social constructions of its own (we might even do a statistical analysis “explaining” how much of income differences between the sexes are due to height differences).

    But the real comparison of interest, I think, is to phenomena like chauvinism etc, where individuals from a given cultural background eg the lower classes, immigrants, the Irish. We have shibboleths allowing one to assign social class eg accent in the UK (recall GBS’s Pygmalion) just as skin colour does, but any explanation by people about why they are prejudiced against these groups usually involve the inferior culture of the outgroup.

  3. Like the famous podcast pairings of Dan and Massimo, Glenn and John, Bob and Mickey K; to name a few, I think KCK has found his soul mate in temperament and intellect in Sheena Mason. You guys really compliment each other and make for enjoyable and easy listening.

    I don’t think anyone sane doubts the differential genetic frequencies of geographically separated populations, as minor as they are. I understood Mason exactly. She is an idealist who is trying to enlighten the world on race under the banner of semantics, personal journey and epiphany. Not sure of the practicality of that or the stubbornness of not accepting that the ball of personal or group agency lies in the black community and not solely in the court of the majority perpetrator population.

    KCK you are not only an excellent interlocutor and and master of clarification and meaphor but you would have been one hell of a therapist.

  4. I’ve never given much thought to this topic, but although I don’t doubt that certain traits and illnesses are more prevalent in certain ethnic groups (I myself have worked as a translator with a doctor here in Chile who investigates
    certain types of cancer which are more common among Native-American women), listening to Sheena Mason, I realized the pressure on African-Americans to conform to certain stereotypes, both racist stereotypes from white people and politically correct stereotypes from African-American culture and I also realized how her skepticism on race allows her to liberate herself from those stereotypes and to be “be herself”, to live more authentically as a unique individual and I applaud her for that.

    Thanks Kevin for the patience and empathy which you show in this dialogue.

  5. I appreciate this pleasant conversation. It generated light in an area with a great deal of heat. I have a couple of reservations. One might be pedantic, I’m not sure.

    Insofar as I follow, Sheena Mason believes there are no non-trivially common extant neutral uses of racial terms, because of the historical and ideological background and context of race. I would not dispute the problematic history of the concept of race, but when someone says “You see the guy standing next to Jim? I like his shirt,” and someone else says “the guy in the 7-Up shirt?” “No, no, the black guy. I like his college t-shirt. I’m a fan of that college team.” This seems to be a pretty neutral use to me, and helpful as well. The background history does not by itself make each use in this category fictitious or racist, from my POV. A use like this seems to refer to skin tone only, and for all we know the person using the term might believe that aside from skin tone, race is not real in any deeper way. The use doesn’t require the realism.

    My second reservation is the possibly pedantic one. Both Mason and Currie-Knight said that we’re still going by the “one-drop” rule. Now, of course there is something of that influence in the fact that anyone who happens to have African ancestry and physically looks black even to lesser and lesser degrees on the “racial” spectrum, is then considered to be black, not white. From nowhere, we could ask why people like this aren’t considered white, or perhaps a 3rd category. Certainly whatever the answer is, it’s tied up in some way with the one-drop rule. If this was all that was meant, then I withdraw this comment, please carry on, etc.

    But, taken literally, the one-drop rule would mean that any white presenting person who found a black ancestor somewhere in their family history and told everyone about it would then be considered black, which isn’t at all what would happen nowadays.


    1. I agree. I would proffer that pointing out the color of the persons skin, hair or any other distinguishing characteristic between the two men you wanted to differentiate, for what ever reason, is in no way referring to or utilizing or recognizing “race” any more than any other neutral descriptor. At one time I had two dogs. One was black and the other white. Their colors had absolutely no subjective association in my mind other than if one went straying I would be a fool not to mention the color when eliciting help in finding him. They were both, just dogs as we would like people to be just people. It would likewise be negligent of the police not to mention a full description of a person of interest especially for a minority that would help narrow down the search. Of course if one was in Nigeria it might seem somewhat redundant to add black in a BOLO whereas it would be foolish not to mention if the perp was white.

      But, we present the ideal case, the goal that post racism idealists strive for. I can’t imagine that prof. Mason would disagree with us in the idealized version but she rightly opines that in extant 21Century America, when one makes a distinction of skin color, it is anyone’s guess what subjective thoughts go through the speaker and the listener. When one sees a black and white dog approaching, one only sees two dogs approaching and makes no conclusions.

      I don’t think Currie-Knight and Mason meant to be taken quite so literal about the one drop rule. I think they were only using it as an example that – race still matters. The Nazis were quite happy to adopt such micro-measurements in analytically distilling out Jewishness. Yet, Senator Warren was figuratively laughed off the stage about her claim of Native American ancestry which turned out to be exceedingly sparse as the leaves in winter. I wonder how the black powers that be, would have handled Rachel Dolezal if she had a drop of African ancestry somewhere back through the ages. The most amazing and troublesome consequence of this type of poisoned reasoning is when the white parent, usually the father disowns his own genetic legacy. Imagine having such hatred and disdain for Africans than working your own mixed race children as slaves and selling them off for profit. The rainbow of passports of parsed “racial” colored peoples in South Africa was another grotesque subjugation of rational thought that clearly crossed the bounds of sane reasoning.

      At what point in the diffusion of genes does it become impossible for a “white person” not to create a black child? To what point can one no longer claim perks for being a minority or a member of the tribe? Can we ever truly get beyond these concerns in light of our discriminatory and exploitative past where it has effected the influence and wealth of the present? As long as we choose or can’t help but acknowledge differences based on genetic, ethnic and historical factors between groups, I fear it will be some time before the “benign” interpretation of the concept of the one drop rule, goes its infamous way to the trash bin.


      1. Roger that on not being taken so literally on the one drop rule. That makes sense.

        On the black and white designators in everyday language, I would have to admit that the example use I raised relies on the fact that people have made distinctions between skin tones for all sorts of other (not so neutral) reasons as well. One could, for example, refer to a person as black (part African, part white) who is lighter than say, one who would be described as brown (Indian, Latino). So it’s not purely a color designator, but it’s nevertheless as reliable as one, for everyday purposes of reference.

        In any case, at this stage of my exposure, after watching the first two conversations, I would venture that Prof. Mason actually would say that the example reference I bring up is under suspicion because of the history, background, genealogy of the concept. She is a skeptical eliminativist, after all. This isn’t the same thing as saying that it’s some sort of horrible sin, or people who employ this language need to be shamed, etc. Prof. Mason seems like a very nice and understanding person. But even on the purely analytically side of things, skepticism doesn’t seem to follow from the genealogy for me.

        1. “But even on the purely analytically side of things, skepticism doesn’t seem to follow from the genealogy for me”

          I think it’s only too human to be gun shy, to have a conditioned response tor, or at least a triggering of suspicious motive when history and the present time can only be understood that America and a good portion of the world, is still racist or racialized to a noticeable extent. This is not arguable to my way of thinking. Color or other racial or ethnic markers carry associative baggage with them, I dare say, in everyone’s mind.

          Many American blacks who visit Africa testify to having the most remarkable liberating experience of no longer being black. They are just themselves. And in some African countries American Blacks are referred to as being “white”, perhaps in a cultural sense.

          I can only imagine that you are coming from the perspective that you personally see color and assign no assumptions or presuppositions as to the individuals character. I like to think of myself in the same way but I have to admit to not being totally free of some rather broad expectations associated with color. I do gauge my expressed thoughts with a certain sensitivity that I perhaps would not with a fellow white until I had a better grasp of their measure. It’s called growing up in America. Though I think Prof Mason is technically correct in her assessment, I think she gets too caught up in the semantics that not everyone would appreciate and even prove to be counterproductive.

          1. I appreciate your response. I wouldn’t be shocked if I had hang-ups related to race at some level of consciousness like a huge portion of people. I ultimately think that’s a separate question from whether there are non-problematic uses of race that would survive skeptical ontological challenges.

            One thing I haven’t been able to wrap my head around through the first two conversations is what constitutes Prof. Mason’s skeptical eliminativism. Kevin Currie-Knight had prodded her position a few times and Prof Mason has been a good sport and pleasant conversation partner, but the prodding questions don’t seem to be getting answered, from my POV.

            For example, some might say there are some more-than-skin-deep differences between groups of people with distinct ancestries that cluster racially, but that the choice to categorize in this way is no more legitimate than lumping all people who can roll their tongues in one bucket, and people who can’t in another. But the two groups are definitely real. If people did start behaving like this was an important category, marrying only those who matched their ability or lack thereof, building whole social structures around it, etc., it would make perfect sense to question whether this was a wise course of action for society to take, socially, politically, etc. And it would make perfect sense to ask people to stop focusing so much on such a trivial thing.

            But ontologically speaking, after a common referent was established, connecting to a real thing, skeptical eliminativism would not be warranted based only on the harm of the category, as a philosophical position. My understanding is that Prof Mason’s skeptical eliminativism is not a side project or easily separable part of her overall view. But I’ll be happy to hang around for the future discussions to see if I’m wrong about that or about where she locates her skepticism.

          2. Yes, Currie-Knight did prod gently and perspicaciously (why I mentioned therapist as a second calling for him) asking what needed to be asked to satisfy logic and reason in the face of what might to the average person seem to descend into a reductio ad absurdum. That is, that similar to a Di Angelo or Kendi, Mason winds you down an inexorable path that if you are not totally color blind and a total proactive ally (and who is?) you must be, and here is where she beguiles with semantics, of a more benign version of a racist a, rac-e-ist, to coin a term. . I assume you are not a black American,nor am I, and we have to be cognizant of the fact, to be honest with ourselves, that our bewilderment or failing to grasp the full logic and minutia of Masons construct may be nothing more than our exercising our “white privilege” in that we have no need to dwell upon such “trivial” matters of everyday mundane life. Women don’t clutch their handbags when we enter an elevator, car locks don’t click shut at red lights if we are standing on the corner and who would assume to doubt our acumen, not being a black woman in academia.
            It mighty be telling why this podcast has elicited few comments from the peanut gallery.

            I find it hard to contemplate that there will ever be a time when all people will be considered interchangeable generic global Earthlings. There will always be regional differences no matter how universal communications and travel become. Contemporary America being a prime example of many cultures and ethnicities ( a word I generally favor over race) that are part of the greater whole. The alternative would be as boring as one flavor or color for everything. Variation in all forms is a fact of biological life. There is no escaping it. Trying to come to terms with it has been one of civilizations greatest challenges as we attempt to ever expand our circles of in-group acceptance and moral empathy.

            “But ontologically speaking, after a common referent was established, connecting to a real thing, skeptical eliminativism would not be warranted based only on the harm of the category, as a philosophical position.”

            Not sure what you are saying here, unless you mean closing your eyes to an unconformable reality, an inconvenient truth, doesn’t make it go away. My impression is that Mason is quite rational and is able to conduct other business and relations outside of the walls of her cottage industry. One can be an idealist and a realist, with a little compartmentalization. I like her, I get her and I hope her desires are realized even if the gold medal remains out of reach in the foreseeable future.


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