Discover more from Discourse
The Racelessness Translator
To overcome racism, we need to change how we talk about it
By Sheena Michele Mason
Eliminating racism from society seems like an impossible task, but to take a significant step in the right direction I propose the theory of racelessness. Some of the core tenets of this theory are as follows: Our belief in “race” and practice of racialization are not meaningless because valuable aspects of humanity hide behind what we call race. “Race” does not exist in nature for humans or as a social construction. Although we are all racialized by ourselves and others, we are raceless. Racism is a social and/or economic class hierarchy based on the belief in race, the practice of racialization—which is the process of applying that inescapable social hierarchy to humans—and power imbalances.
To avoid the unintentional upholding of racism, I use the terms “race(ism),” “race(ist),” “raci(al/st)” and “anti-race(ism).” The point of these coinings is to highlight the deep reciprocal causal connections between racism and “race.” Most Americans tacitly believe that race exists independently of racism or racist systems, attitudes and actions. They presuppose that there are inherent “racial” features of humans and that “racism” and “racist” beliefs and actions are biased against these so-called racial features. Using the nonstandard parenthetical spellings of race(ism), race(ist), etc. provides visual signs that emphasize the connection between what we perceive to be “race” and what is actually racism—causes and effects.
The theory of racelessness is an imaginative lens that gives people the knowledge, language, philosophies and tools they need to free themselves from the causes and effects of racism, stopping it in its tracks. As a framework, the theory has tenets, language, philosophies and tools that all people can learn and apply within their own discipline, industry and interpersonal relationships. The primary tool of the theory is the racelessness translator.
The racelessness translator is an analytical tool that enables us to translate what we presume is “race” or “racial” into culture, ethnicity, social class, economic class, racism itself, and often some combination of the five. To end racism as we know it in the U.S., we must do the difficult work of properly translating racelessness (i.e., race). That will then expose us to the reality of what “race” really is:
racism hiding its face,
a seemingly permanent social and/or economic class hierarchy based on our belief in “race,”
the practice of racialization, and
hoarding or deferral of power.
This is not a matter of mere semantics or rhetoric. It is a matter of recognizing these hierarchies and choosing to forge a better path forward for all of us without race(ism).
What ‘Race’ Really Signifies
When people use race to describe any person, they generally are actually saying something about that person’s culture, ethnicity, social class, economic class or some combination thereof. Culture is a term that encompasses the social behavior, institutions, norms, language, knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, values and politics in human societies. Ethnicity is a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups. Those attributes can include common traditions, ancestry, language, history, culture, nation, biological features, phenotype, DNA and religion. While ethnicity is separate from the concept of race, people often use the terms interchangeably. A social class is a grouping of people into a set of hierarchical social categories. Membership in a social class can be dependent on education, occupation, income and belonging to a particular subculture or social network. Economic class is a grouping of people into a set of hierarchical social categories based on income: lower, middle and upper class. Let us analyze a few examples of “race” to practice the racelessness translator in action.
Look at the depiction of yours truly. Whom do you see? What do you notice about my complexion, hair, nose shape, eye color, etc.? Many people translate my features into an idea about my “race”; most people in the U.S. would guess that I am “Black.” But if “race” actually were about my body, it would be biological. It is not. Certain physical features such as my skin color, hair texture and other features are biological, but these facts about myself are ostensibly part of my ethnicity—a category that often includes biology—not my “race.”
People racialize me as Black because they believe that “race” is either biologically real or a construction based on biology or biological features. But “race” was never really about biology. It was about applying a permanent hierarchy to human beings, a hierarchy that reflected the economic and social class distinctions already on the ground. To maintain and justify that hierarchy, some early modern Europeans and then some Americans conjured the fiction of “race” and changed how we racialize humans.
Though race is a fiction, race(ism) still persists, since how we racialize ourselves and others results in fundamentally adverse results, such as a hoarding or deferral of power. Without embracing or unintentionally upholding the hierarchy of race and thereby the divisions, I do retain my complexion and features. But by distinguishing between biological reality and “race,” I am able to recognize more clearly what race(ism) is and how it functions, without unintentionally upholding its dehumanizing machinery. In that way, I am able to see myself outside of race(ist) parameters and imagine a future without race(ism). Further, I am better equipped to help create a future without race(ism), too.
Translating the Language of Race(ism)
A December 2022 story from U.S. News & World Report began with the headline: “Race Plays Big Role in Whether Kids Learn to Swim.” What does that headline mean? What would you expect the corresponding article to be about? Why and how would “race” play a role in whether kids learn to swim? After World War I and up until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, people who got racialized as white and those who got racialized as Black had separate and unequal places to swim thanks to race(ist) segregation. So-called white families could access the local public pools and beaches, while so-called Black families would be assigned to “colored leisure beaches” that were often far away from home and had unsafe conditions, such as open sewage. Before the Civil Rights Act was passed, Martin Luther King Jr. coordinated wade-ins—a version of nonviolent sit-ins, but at beaches and pools—to rally media attention and put an end to the filibuster blocking passage of the legislation in the Senate.
After President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, segregation and race(ism) were much more criminalized. But for many people who got racialized as Black, access to public and private pools was still limited. In 2023, the percentage of adults and children who got racialized as Black and who drowned indicates one way that historically race(ist) contexts continues to have a downstream effect. There also remains a popular stereotype among Americans that “Black people can’t swim.” That stereotype stems from our history of race(ism) and its continued impact.
The presence of the word “race” in the news headline thus draws our attention to the causes and effects of race(ism). However, the news story writer misses that entire history and instead focuses on “race” and “racial” disparities. That means the writer’s race(ism)—her belief in “race,” the practice of racialization and the subsequent continuation of the hoarding or deferral of power—is evident. As a result, the ultimate effect of the article is the unintentional upholding of race(ism). So, “race” translates into race(ism) in more ways than one, including what is perceived by the speaker.
Today, I invite you to consider translating “race” into apparent racelessness to fully and more effectively confront racism—what it is and how to stop it. Your willingness and ability to do so will help you be infinitely more clear-eyed about race(ism). Importantly, you can free yourself from some of the hindrances and detrimental effects of race(ism) and start to imagine how to create a future without race(ism) for all.