Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds

In thinking about race as an idea, I’m reminded of an anecdote Harlan Ellison shared in his introduction to Strange Wine. The incident was told to him by Dan Blocker, one of the stars of Bonanza who played the character of Hoss Cartwright.

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

For more than a half century now, scientists have known that race is not biologically real and that, therefore, it is not a valid scientific concept. It is, as many refer to it, a social construction. This was well known enough for Martin Luther King, Jr. to talk about it in his 1963 book, The Strength to Love (as quoted here):

“So men conveniently twisted the insights of religion, science, and philosophy to give sanction to the doctrine of white supremacy…they will even argue that God was the first segregationist. ‘Red birds and blue birds don’t fly together,’ they contend…they turn to some pseudo-scientific writing and argue that the Negro’s brain is smaller than the white man’s brain. They do not know, or they refuse to know, that the idea of an inferior or superior race has been refuted by the best evidence of the science of anthropology. Great anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Melville J. Herskovits agree that although there may be inferior and superior individuals within all races, there is no superior or inferior race. And segregationists refuse to acknowledge that there are four types of blood, and these four types are found within every racial group.”

It is unsurprising that the allegation of racism is denied even by racists and those who express racial prejudice and bias. Few bigots remain who openly advocate racism in stark terms. Racism is rightly considered politically incorrect, as it is morally wrong and socially unjust.

Still, that doesn’t mean we are colorblind citizens of a post-racial society. Racism is obviously far from dead. It is alive and well, in various forms, psychological and structural. Some wold argue that, in certain ways, it is stronger than ever at the systemic level. It has been driven deeper where it is harder to see, to point to, and to root out. It has become so pervasive that it is like the air we breathe.

As studies have shown, pretty much everyone possesses racial prejudice and bias. It is mostly deep in our minds at an unconscious level. We aren’t intentionally bigoted. When a cop shoots an unarmed black guy, it is most likely that the cop genuinely thought he saw a gun because the stereotype of the black guy in his mind unconsciously tells him that black guys carry guns, even though the data shows that whites are more likely to carry guns, including illegal guns.

This implicit racism isn’t rational. We can understand many things at an intellectual level of our conscious minds, but this is a superficial level of how our brains operate. Even black people end up internalizing this racism. The entire system is racist. We live in a racialized social order that makes it impossible for us to see outside of race. Everything gets filtered through and conflated with race. The racial narrative dominates our minds, our relationships, and every aspect of our lives.

If you talk to the average anti-racist activist, they will tell you that race is not real, that it is just an idea. Yet they put everything into the frame of race, as if it were the most real thing in the world. Their way of speaking demonstrates that they really do believe race is real, at some level of their mind.

The problem is, in our society, we don’t fully appreciate the power of ideas and the language that represents them. The reality of race is built into the language of race itself. Similarly, racism is also inseparable from the concept and language of race. Using the language reifies the social construction which, even if unintentionally, promotes the racial order.

As such, even mainstream anti-racist activism is tied up with the very problem it seeks to resolve. Identity politics, in particular, is dependent on the racial order for that is the basis of racial identities. Many activists don’t fundamentally believe racism and the racial order can end. They just hope to rearrange the social order in favor of their preferred group and so shift the balance of power. These people, for all their fighting against the oppressive racial order in the world, are unable to fight the oppressive racial order entrenched in their own minds.

I want to emphasize the point that most of this is not conscious. This isn’t how most people explicitly think and talk about race. The idea of race not being real is so radically challenging that it is difficult to make sense of, to process and assimilate into one’s being. Everything about our society tells us that race is real. The racial order dominates and determines all aspects of our experience, of our lives. How can race not be real when we see it everywhere? Politicians, the media, and activists obsess about race. The framing of race is repeated endlessly. We never get a moment free from the prison of racial ideology that traps our minds, constrains our thought and awareness. Race is a mind virus and we are all infected.

This is how people can simultaneously know and not know race is not real. This is why racism persists. This is why activism fails, again and again. To change the ideas at the heart of our society will take generations or even centuries. As Martin Luther King Jr. understood, this will be a long struggle to be fought with persistence and determination, with faith and hope.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The change being sought isn’t just about a system of power. It is more fundamentally change to a system of thought, an ideological reality tunnel. To push for change at the level of our minds and of our being is the most radical act of all. It is revolution of the human soul.

6 thoughts on “Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds

  1. > If you talk to the average anti-racist activist, they will tell you that race is not real, that it is just an idea. Yet they put everything into the frame of race, as if it were the most real thing in the world. Their way of speaking demonstrates that they really do believe race is real, at some level of their mind.

    I’m not sure the average activist says race is not real yet. Anyway, they have a nearly impossible cranial task, because there’s a nonlinearity that enters in when racism exists, yet race doesn’t: when everyone is creating and reacting to race, race effectively exists, whether it does in real life or not. I’m not sure our language betrays much about how we think, because we can’t be understood well or even address issues clearly without saying “black” a lot, which in itself carries a very strong race assumption underneath it for almost everyone who might be listening.

    There’s also the appeal of black pride and black power as handholds for the oppressed, and the isolationist streak that is quite prominent among activist blacks, where the notion of race is alive and well and kicking. I have no idea how to deal with that. I’m protesting a fair amount nowadays, and it’s quite maddening to try coordinating (unsuccessfully) with activists who won’t participate with me in protesting because I’m on the wrong racial team, and because my involvement sends a poisonous, dilutive message that the problem isn’t all about the repression of black race. I don’t really have the option of calling them out as medieval dickweeds, nor do I get to lecture them on the fact that what gets them up in the morning is a false construct. Liberals are not quite ready to go there yet. Well, I’m not, anyway.


    This author is a great example of how we can deal with this nonlinearity in our discussions, as he mentions our misleading approach toward race to provide big picture, and then deals with the issue of how blacks (which people read as “the black race”) feel about crime. One sees a clear thread through his essay of (sigh) first, there are no races, so let’s deal with brutality in the context of an oppressed community, without dragging race in so avidly. The notion of race as myth doesn’t get to be center stage every time he opens his mouth, but it’s mentioned and provides context and phrasing help here and there so that readers can reframe while we read, within our own context of constantly wading through a racist environment. I’ve seen you do something similar, where your essay is put in a context once or twice, to subtly alter a message that you might promulgate similarly even if you believed in races.

    • We are in basic agreement. You might be right about the average activist. I’m not sure. I’d like to see a high quality survey done on American views of race, where it would be broken down in various demographics and where activists were made a specific category.

      One thing that depresses me immensely is black essentialism as expressed in “black pride,” “black power,” and “black nationalism.” It is simply a mirror of the white version of the same with its history of racism and supremacism. Do people actually believe that racism and supremacism can be fought with yet more of the same? The naivete is sad beyond comprehension.

      I suspect most people and most activists have no clear beliefs and opinions about race. It is an idea we take for granted without much thought.

  2. Humans are visual. They respond to appearances over reality.

    Race does have a few small differences, but it’s mostly minor and superficial. But it does have a huge social impact. That is entrenched and could take generations to fix.

    • Yeah. Appearances are determined by perception. However, perception isn’t just determined by the senses but also by the mind. A darker-skinned Italian (who shares genetics with North Africans) is seen as white and a lighter-skinned ‘African-Americans’ (who has little or no African genetics) is seen as black.

      It is the social that underlies the perceptual. We can’t see genetics and so we can’t see the actual genetic complexity and diversity that exists within individuals and populations. As the social changes, so the perceptions will follow. Give it a few more generations of interracial marrying, which is already increasing, and the power of race will erode quite a bit, at least race as we know it.

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