by Kevin Currie-Knight
Race talk – using racial categories as descriptors in conversation – is inevitably clunky. For the past several years I’ve noticed this, especially as the teacher of an Introduction to Diversity class where we discuss racial diversity, among other things. Race is a hard thing to talk about sensibly, not just because it is a charged “issue,” but because it inevitably produces awkward phrasing, things like “blacks, whites, and all the races,” which I often hear (and which makes me cringe every time). I suspect this awkwardness has much to do with the awkwardness of the idea of race itself. I want to articulate as best I can what I think makes race talk so awkward, and have come up with a number of reasons: race talk is shifting; sloppy; self-contradictory; and a subterfuge.
Here is my favorite example illustrating how awkward race talk can be. It’s taken from Rebecca Carroll’s memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. Carroll describes what it was like to be a black girl adopted and raised by a white family in a white area. In this passage, Carroll describes going back to school after a summer camp where, for the first time, she developed a crush on a black boy and befriended a group of black peers, even adopting their speech patterns.
In between classes at school our first day back, I stopped him. “Hey, what’s up?” “Nothing,” Connor said curtly. “I have to get to class.” “Wait, seriously, what’s going on?” I pressed. “I didn’t realize you liked that guy so much. Do you even know him?” I responded, channeling Jazmine, “Man, you buggin’.” Connor looked at me incredulously. “Oh, what? You’re black now? Just because you dance with some black dude? Whatever.”
What does ‘black’ refer to here? It’s likely that Connor knows that his sister’s physical appearance and family history “make” her black, her speech patterns or what boy she likes regardless. He probably also knows that adopting a certain speech pattern or crushing on a black person isn’t sufficient to make a person black (and likely wouldn’t suggest as much if one of his white sisters did either of those). But, here, ‘black’ does seem to refer to a vague and clunky cultural essence evidenced by how one talks and who one likes. And here’s the point: Connor can say all of this with full assurance that his sister will know what he means, as clunky as that is.
What makes race an idea rife for such awkward encounters? Cultural theorist Stuart Hall explained part of it when he famously called race a “floating [or sometimes, ‘sliding’] signifier.” The problem with race is that at the idea’s creation, racial categories were meant to refer to a biological and material essence that all members of a race shared in common. When it became clearer that science would find no such essence, the problem was that the race language that was now culturally commonplace became a signifier without anything to signify.
To put more nuance to this, race was once thought of as the underlying essences that explained physical, behavioral, and cultural differences between racial groups. Once we realized the fictive nature of this alleged cause, race language referred only to to the effects, but the way we talked proceeded as if we were talking about the cause.
I want to go further than Hall, though, because I think what makes race awkward cannot be fully explained by it’s being a floating signifier. We use floating signifiers – words for which there is no knowable referent – fairly often without such awkward results. We talk about minds, moral obligations, and authority – all floating signifiers – and the only folks who find talk about these things awkward is philosophers who have come to believe there is no there, there. We talk about general intelligence, despite the fact that even the most resolute psychometrician will admit that we’re having a bear of a time figuring out exactly what g is. We talk about all of these floating signifiers without it almost ever becoming as clunky and confused as some of our most common race talk can be. 
Here are four reasons why (in addition to race talk being a floating signifier) I think race talk is inevitably clunky.
Race talk is shifting
There are quite a few things race talk – calling a person “black” or mentioning that you were the only white person at the party – can mean, and the first problem is that what we mean often shifts from statement to statement. Philosopher Charles Mills generated a list of seven things that can be used to determine a person’s race: bodily appearance; ancestry; self-awareness of ancestry; public awareness of ancestry; culture, experience; and self-identification. Because race is a floating signifier, race talk is often used even by the same person in different conversations to reference different items on the list.
If on the day before the aforementioned conversation we had asked Connor whether one of his sisters is black, he’d likely have said yes, and if we’d asked why, he’d likely have referred either to her appearance (dark skin or a certain texture of hair), ancestry, or public awareness of her ancestry. But on the very next day, Connor could jibe his sister about “finally being black,” because she acquired a particular speech pattern and romantic interest. And he could make this shift in meaning, as the same person, on two different days, talking about the same thing: his sister’s race. 
Race is sloppy
If races had essences, categorizing someone by race would be a matter of checking what essence inheres in them. Since race didn’t pan out this way, all we are left with are sloppy – porous and insufficient – referents. Put simply, any criterion we want to use to racialize people can be easily shown to admit of problematic counterexamples.
Looking at Mills’ list, most folks today think race either has something to do with physical appearance, ancestry, or culture. But each of these is problematically porous. Not all black people and not all white people share the same physical characteristics. Skin colors fall on a spectrum, where some people we call “black” will be as white as some of the folks we call “white,” and vice versa. (Even hair texture runs along a spectrum that doesn’t break down easily by race.)
Ancestry won’t work either: first, because in the free world “mixed” ancestries have a long and accelerating history (one that actually proved problematic for governments attempting to enforce racist policy); second, migration patterns have been such that knowing someone’s current racial classification doesn’t tell me anything about how recently their “bloodline” has settled in any particular geographic area.
Culture is a horrible criterion for racial categorization for similar reasons. In liberal societies, pure cultures don’t exist, and people never adhere to pure cultural traditions. If we want to find out if Rebecca is/was black based on her cultural behavior, then that would mean that she was not black before summer camp and became black afterwards, a result few would accept.
Race is self-contradictory
Not only can race shift by referring to any number of criteria, none of which are sufficient on their own, but these criteria also can be internally contradictory, pointing in different directions. A light-skinned person with moderately curly black hair can be born to darker-skinned parents who descend from African slaves. This person can “pass” as white by enmeshing themselves into cultural patterns society calls “white” and keeping their family history a secret. If we were in the Jim Crow south, we might want to know whether the person is white or black, insisting that the question has an answer: either “yes” or “no.” But if you are keeping score, they would be white if we looked at culture, public awareness of ancestry, experience (since the world treats them as white) and self-identification. They’d be black if we looked at ancestry and self-awareness of ancestry. Is the person white or black? Since different criteria point in different directions, there is no clear answer unless we engage in the thankless task of choosing one criterion and ignoring all of its limitations.
Race is a subterfuge
Because of the three arguments above, I am inclined to think of race as most often a subterfuge: a vague idea we use to stand-in for other ideas we really have in mind. When we talk about the differences between black and non-black hair-care, we have in mind certain physical differences that affect how hair and skin should be treated. Do we need race language to do that job? Probably not. When we talk about diseases that different racial or even ethnic groups are more susceptible to, we are talking about genetic and physiological differences between people that show up in averages when we group people with similar genomes. Do we need racial language to do that job? Probably not. When we talk about the difference between Rebecca talking white and black, we are talking about culturally acquired speech patterns that have to do with a bunch of factors like where one was born or raised, what media one consumed, who one learned to talk from, etc. Do we need race talk to explain that? In this case, I’d argue that maybe we do, but only to the extent that these cultural differences have a lot to do with the effects of historical racism that segregated communities. That only means that we must racialize the past, not that we need to racialize the present or future.
If my arguments work, this means that today’s race talk is inevitably clunky. When we refer to someone in racial terms, there are a load of things we could be referring to, each of those things on its own is probably not up to its promised task, the things together are probably mutually contradictory, and there are probably better terms we could use than racial ones. What to do with this? Do we use this as a justification to stop using racial language or stop talking about race?
I’m not going to go that far. I sympathize with Ibram X. Kendi and others when they say that while race has always been a bad idea, it has had too much material effect on our current social reality to allow us to retire it. If people we call “black” have a history of unfair treatment that led to existing inequality – all stems from racial categorizations – we can’t likely remedy that by refusing to use race terms in our talk about solutions.
What we can do might be something more akin to what we do when we talk about genes as “selfish replicators” or George Harrison’s guitar as “weeping.” We can talk in these ways and we can often assume that for reasons of shared language and culture, others will have some sense of what we mean. But we recognize that as with all metaphors, these have limited signifying value, especially if you try to take them literally. If someone doesn’t understand what I mean when I call genes “selfish,” I have no problem saying that it is just a metaphor. If someone wants to debate me about whether George Harrison made his guitar cry, I see if that person grasps the metaphorical nature of the statement before we debate the question. I can freely acknowledge that these are metaphors I use only because the language we have makes this a handier way – at least, sometimes – to express what I have in mind. Maybe we can start doing this more consciously with race talk.
Metaphors also obscure more literal ways of putting things. My printer didn’t “decide” to stop working. It is malfunctioning for reasons that I’d be wise to uncover if I want to solve the problem. How might we do this with race talk? Following the lead of my discussion partner Sheena Mason, I have taken to replacing some descriptive invocations of “race” (“She was stopped because of her race,”) with the more accurate “racism” (“…because of the cop’s racism.”). I’ve also taken to thinking about what other ideas I might be using ‘race’ as a stand-in for and using those terms rather than racial ones. (“Do I mean ‘black people,” “descendants of African slaves,” or something else?)
Sometimes metaphors are preferable to literal expressions, and sometimes, race talk might be best given how our language (and the cultural history it intersects with) works. But the clunkier the signifier, the worse it is at signifying in any given case.
 Partly, the reason why its existence as a floating signifier is more troubling for race than, say, talk of moral obligation is because most folks today have (rightly) come to think that race is an idea we should work to get beyond, where we are sort of “trapped” using it only because of our lamentable history. Not so with ideas of moral obligation, authority, or general intelligence.
 This concern – that race is shifting – is different from noting that the same word can have multiple meanings. When someone points out a break, they could mean a pause (in a meeting), a fragmentation (of a ceramic pot), a hurt (of a broken heart), a change of direction (in a river) or a few other things. The difference between break talk and race talk is that with the former, there are several established and settled meanings that are easy to disentangle with context clues, and everyone understands that there are multiple meanings of the word. When someone refers to a broken heart, we all understand that “break” can mean multiple things and to listen for the context clues to decipher the speaker’s meaning. Not so with many invocations of a person being black or white, where we often have no real sense that the labels can mean different things or which thing(s) the speaker has in mind.