How to see race

How to see race


Gregory Smithsimon, Professor of Sociology
Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Edited by Sally Davies

Mulberry Street, Little Italy, New York, c1900. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Race is a shapeshifting adversary: what seems self-evident takes training to see, and twists under political pressure

We think we know what race is. When the United States Census Bureau says that the country will be majority non-white by 2044, that seems like a simple enough statement. But race has always been a weaselly thing.

Today my students, including Black and Latino students, regularly ask me why Asians (supposedly) ‘assimilate’ with whites more quickly than Blacks and Latinos. Strangely, in the 1920s, the US Supreme Court denied Asians citizenship on the basis that they could never assimilate; fast-forward to today, and Asian immigrants are held up as exemplars of assimilation. The fact that race is unyielding enough to shut out someone from the national community, yet malleable enough for my students to believe that it explains a group’s apparent assimilation, hints at what a shapeshifting adversary race is. Race is incredibly tenacious and unforgiving, a source of grave inequality and injustice. Yet over time, racial categories evolve and shift.

To really grasp race, we must accept a double paradox. The first one is a truism of antiracist educators: we can see race, but it’s not real. The second is stranger: race has real consequences, but we can’t see it with the naked eye. Race is a power relationship; racial categories are not about interesting cultural or physical differences, but about putting other people into groups in order to dominate, exploit and attack them. Fundamentally, race makes power visible by assigning it to physical bodies. The evidence of race right before our eyes is not a visual trace of a physical reality, but a by-product of social perceptions, in which we are trained to see certain features as salient or significant. Race does not exist as a matter of biological fact, but only as a consequence of a process of racialisation

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