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Ben Klutsey and Sheena Mason talk about race skepticism, eliminating racialized language and how to get to a post-racialized world
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Sheena Mason, an assistant professor of African American literature at SUNY Oneonta, about six different philosophies of race, the need to find better terms for racialized topics such as ethnicity and culture, Mason’s racelessness translator and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today we have Sheena Mason. Sheena is assistant professor in African American literature at SUNY Oneonta. She has taught at the College of William and Mary, California Lutheran University and Howard University, where she earned her Ph.D. Her latest book is “Theory of Racelessness: A Case for Antirace(ism),” which will be the subject of our conversation today. Sheena, thank you for joining us.
SHEENA MASON: Thank you so much for having me, Ben.
A New Approach to Theories of Race
KLUTSEY: Now, we’ll just delve right in. I’m very curious about this. How did you come to the point where you began to develop a new, I’d say, pedagogical approach and area of research related to issues surrounding race? Basically, what prompted you to pursue this line of thinking and the theory of racelessness?
MASON: Well, as an undergraduate, I found myself drawn to African American literature, particularly because it was defined as always having to do with race and racism, which I interpreted as always having to do with struggle. But more importantly, I felt that through the literature, there was a sense of resiliency and tenacity and optimism and overcoming adversity that resonated with me as a young woman who had overcome homelessness. I was a high school dropout. I overcame serious adversity throughout my childhood and teenage years. The literature spoke to me in that way.
My interest in the literature resulted in my recognizing that there were certain terms—now, mind you, this was a while ago; this is 2003 to 2007. At that time, it was even more common for ideas of authenticity and representation as it pertained to being a so-called black person in America that particularly caught my interest. I was fascinated with the idea that there was an authentic way to be black, or an authentic way to be truthfully anything. Also with the idea that a single person could represent an entire race of people.
I threw myself into an advanced honors thesis that resulted in a hundred-page paper. It was titled something like “The Imposition of an Authentic African American Identity onto African American Writers,” or something like that. I have been unstoppable ever since, because I think even intuitively, at that very early stage, I was recognizing that there was a discrepancy between what I knew and what I saw in the world, and what people wanted African Americans and people racialized as black to fit into.
KLUTSEY: I see. So you’ve always been interested in challenging the orthodoxy, basically?
MASON: Yes, but it wasn’t even an intentional challenging, per se. It was that I felt like what history and literature were showing me, and by observing the world and society, what I was seeing, I felt that that was the thing that was challenging what was considered to be the orthodoxy. I was just paying attention. I considered myself an observer and a student, and trying to really understand, what is it that people mean when they say black? Or what is it that they mean when they talk about race? Inevitably, that led me down the path that brought me here in front of you today.
Philosophies of Race
KLUTSEY: Wonderful. Now, you noted in the book that the theory of racelessness reflects two philosophical positions on race: You talk about skepticism, the belief that race does not exist in nature, and eliminativism: The concept of race, whatever it is, should be eradicated from human history. Can you unpack those two philosophical positions for us?
MASON: I hope you have a lot of time. [laughter] In the discipline of philosophy, there’s a specialization called philosophy of race. Philosophers philosophize, as they tend to do, that there are six philosophies of race. Each of us holds two philosophies even without having the language to say, “This is my philosophy of race.” Late in my studies, I came into contact with a philosopher of race at Howard University, Jacoby Carter, who taught me everything I now know about how my own philosophies of race have been over time, and where I am today philosophically. And where I am today is what underpins the theory.
Skepticism and eliminativism, of the six philosophies, are seldom taught, commonly misunderstood when they do pop up, historically speaking. It’s difficult for people to grapple with, especially the skepticism, because the other two philosophies hold that race is either something of nature, naturalism, or that it’s something socially constructed, constructionism.
As a skeptic, I contend that race is neither of those things. People have a hard time understanding what I mean, but then they also tend to have a hard time understanding the difference between skepticism and constructionism. The best way I can really say it is, I think that most people misunderstand what it is for something to be socially constructed. A lot of people think that for something to be socially constructed, it means the same thing as the thing doesn’t exist. But if something is socially constructed, then it’s constructed; it’s human-made; it exists fundamentally in some way, shape or form. It just doesn’t exist in nature.
As a skeptic, I contend that it doesn’t exist at all. The thing people call race, or the thing that people perceive to be racial, it’s actually other things masquerading itself or being confused for race, such as ethnicity, such as culture, social class, economic class or racism itself. In the entirety of my first book, I show how, more often than not, racism itself is the thing camouflaging itself as race. So that when people are talking about evidence of racism, when people are talking about causes of racism, they’re talking about it in the language of race, but they’re really meaning to talk about racism.
The shortcoming of that, to my mind, is the fact that as a result of talking about racism in the language of race, also from inside the confines of race, we end up staying in the quagmire of seeing ourselves and each other through a racialized worldview. That racialized worldview is thoroughly pernicious. That’s the design of race in the first place. If we can help more people into something like a skeptical position, then we can help people have a healthier amount of skepticism about what race is and what it isn’t. We can help people stop conflating things that add value to human society, such as culture, with race. And we can recognize that we should throw the concept of race into the dustbins of forgotten history, which means more people will become eliminativist about race.
To me, that’s a central part of the theory because to be an eliminativist about race is to recognize that race is the dehumanizing apparatus that we inherit. We attach it to ourselves, oftentimes willingly, but that’s a fundamental mistake and error, because the design of race and the practice of racialization, which is simply imposing race onto oneself and other people, is meant to divide us forever and always. To get outside of that, the only thing we can do is to throw it away.
Skepticism and Eliminativism
KLUTSEY: You noted that skepticism and eliminativism are rarely taught. Why is that?
MASON: Oh, man. Well, for a very long time, since the conceptualization of race in the terms that we now tend to think of it in the States—that is, primarily “black” and “white”—these conceptions of how we see ourselves and other people have been upheld by the government, the media and our education system. So that even when science disproves the biological reality of race, we’re still teaching our elementary school students that there are five biological races of human beings.
Then we don’t change that language until maybe junior high, definitely high school, certainly college if one goes to college, and then we start calling races a social construction. Inevitably, nobody ever comes along and disrupts the fundamentally biological belief in race that we gave to our young people in the first place. We just start shifting from “It’s biologically real” to “It’s a social construction.”
The reason why these institutions, the government, the media and our education system would want these belief systems to ultimately continue to persist, and put a lot of money and effort into keeping the belief in race alive and the practice of racialization happening, is going to be because, at the outset, the very conjuring of race was used to justify and maintain the economic class system that existed at the time. Chattel slavery already existed before anyone looked at people of recent African descent and said, “These people are inferior.”
That idea of inferiority doesn’t come until well after chattel slavery is in the works. They—being the early European settlers, the colonialists—they take the concept of race that already exists in other societies as a class system, as a hierarchy; they attach the language that already exists, black and white, that already has negative and positive connotations and denotations to it; and they attached it to human beings.
They do that because that’s how the elite, the upper echelons of societies, stays elite. Across time, when people have seen themselves outside of the confines of racism and aligned themselves with each other, particularly the working class, the government has come and swooped in and done extensive media campaigns about the mysterious black rapist who’s raping white women. They do that as a tool, as a strategy to get the working class divided across these perceived racial lines. Of course, it makes sense that they would be invested in maintaining that division, because so long as we’re talking about race and racism, we’re not talking about other things that we should be talking about that are more pervasive—other things especially to do with economic class.
To my mind, the discourse on racism has a lot of people thinking that when they’re talking about racism, they’re solving poverty. If you know the economics, even at a very basic level, which is where I’m at as a non-mathematician, you know that that’s not true. But in our minds, black and poor are the same thing. These other problems continue to persist. We don’t hold these higher institutions culpable, and none of us are the wiser for it. We’re really distracted.
Eliminating the Language of Race
KLUTSEY: Yes. Now, in your book, you say at the very outset, “The thing called race does not exist, but people imagine it does. This is how things”—meaning racism—“are sustained. The belief in race needs to be abolished.”
How do we abolish this? You’re saying, by using language that involves categorizing people based on racialized categories, we’re perpetuating racism. I guess you’re saying that the use of the language also reflects our belief in it. If we don’t believe in it, or if we’ve come to know it doesn’t exist, we shouldn’t use the language of race. I guess the question is how we get rid of language that has existed for centuries? I think that’s the work that you’re trying to do. How do we do this?
MASON: It’s a really central question, because some people hear me talk and say, “Oh, so it’s just a matter of semantics or rhetoric.” But just as you’re saying, let’s not fool ourselves into devaluing the impact that language has on our thoughts and our beliefs and our behaviors. Fundamentally, in order to get outside of the machinery of racism, which includes the belief in race and the practice of racializing ourselves and each other, we have to change our language.
Now, in the first book, I do that primarily by saying—instead of just using a word that’s associated with race, I put “racialized” in front of it. I’ll say, “a racialized black person,” “a racialized white person,” or I’ll put “so-called black person” and “so-called white person.” In text, you can put quotation marks around the race language. I even have come to put quotation marks around the word “race’ itself.
In my second book—which is a book with a traditional trade press, so it’ll be a less scholarly text, a book for everyone—in that book, I pushed my language even further. I start to center the human, which is truly my intention in the first book, but I think at that stage of the development of my theory, I wasn’t fully there yet. Now, instead of saying, “a racialized so-and-so person,” I say, “a person who is racialized as . . .”
Certainly, that’s a longer thing to say. It’s not as convenient and short as white person or black person or Asian person. But it does the thing I’m trying to do, which is to center the human and to show that what gets attached to each person, fundamentally, it’s number one an action. It’s a doing. It’s something external, even as it’s something that we internalize. It’s the thing that decentralizes the human. My hope is that in changing the language in that way, we can get to a place of not needing the language at all, except when we’re studying history.
But sometimes people will link me to a Morgan Freeman viral clip where he’s talking about—you know what I’m trying to talk about, I’m guessing?
MASON: Where he’s talking about, “You stop thinking of me as a black man and I’ll stop thinking of you as a white man,” in relationship with not needing Black History Month, according to Freeman. People will link that. That’s good, fine and well, except we can’t skip to the good part. Because our effort or attempts to skip to the good part that is something outside of and beyond racialization has gotten us, in some ways, in a regressive state.
Instead of skipping to the good part, this is the bridge to that part where we decentralize the racialization while still acknowledging the fact that racialization is a thing. It happens, we do it to ourselves, and we do it to each other. In changing the language we will become infinitely more clear-eyed about what that racialization is, what it means and what it’s not. Therefore, we’ll be more astute about what racism is and what it’s not at different historical periods, because it’s important to recognize the differences across time and place.
Then we can get to this part of, now that we understand what it is and what it’s not, and now that we’ve created, hopefully, a social contract where we’re deciding to stop doing this to ourselves, now we can stop using this language to describe people, except for in a historical context. My sincere belief is that when we teach young people moving forward about history, we can use the language that I’m describing, centering the human first and acknowledging the racialization that happens, but we just do it from outside of the confines.
The last thing I’ll say, just because it might not be completely apparent, one of the strategies of the theory and one of the benefits of being able to do it—do it, meaning talk and teach about racism in this way—is that, ultimately, the students come to see themselves also as outside of the strictures of racism, centering their humanity and that of other people first.
Part of the limitation of doing what is now being called anti-racism from within the language of race itself, that we’re seeing bring us to a watershed moment right now, is the fact that we keep encouraging every generation to inherit racialized worldviews that are thoroughly pernicious, that are meant to keep us divided from ourselves. The theory helps to break that mold and help people outside of the fishbowl into the ocean to analyze the fishbowl without being in the fishbowl anymore. That’s really critical if we’re sincere about moving forward.
Individualism and Collectivism
KLUTSEY: Yes, that’s really powerful. I was going to say that that’s what liberalism is all about. Liberalism is this emancipatory philosophy that we are free individuals. We also identify as dignified equals. So we’re free and we’re equal. We can pursue our interests as much as possible without any constraints in terms of perceptions of who we ought to be and that type of thing. I think that’s what you are trying to liberate people from. I love that, but I want to connect this to something you mentioned earlier about history and how we think about history.
There are those who would say, if you take the African American experience, for example, it has evolved to become an entire culture that seems to be a kind of cultural evolution with its struggles and triumphs and institutions that have been built. There might be some concern that this theory of racelessness erases all of that history and cultural capital, if you will. I know you have a response to this.
MASON: Part of the problem of seeing within a racialized worldview continues to be the fact that when better seen really as metaphors, the categories that we attach to race, namely white and black, are each attached to opposites. Whiteness is attached to individualism, historically speaking, in the States, and collectivism is attached to blackness.
Now, if we think historically about why that would make plenty of logical sense, we can understand that through abolitionism, through the Harlem Renaissance, which was another civil rights movement, through the actual civil rights movement, there has been a need for collectivism. Except the problem with the binary or the dichotomy that we keep embracing through the ideology of race is that it keeps these seemingly separate and distinct ways of being and seeing, such as individualism and collectivism, assigned and attached to racialization, which then means that people who aren’t racialized as fill-in-the-blank cannot access or are criticized for accessing what is on the other side of the dichotomy.
On a fundamental level, whiteness has also continued to be conflated with freedom from racism because of the individualism that’s attached to whiteness. Because if as an individual you are seen as an individual, and you are not seen as only part of the collective, that’s where the problem of representation that I was talking about at the outset comes into play for African Americans. Because, since enslavement, they were always written as and defined as part of a collective problematically, such that if a person who defied the stereotyping and racist vitriol came into being—the Frederick Douglasses or the Phillis Wheatleys of the world—they were seen as exceptions to the rule of degeneracy, of illiteracy, of immorality, because they’re “black.”
That is the problem with race ideology that the theory of racelessness actually acknowledges and honors and uplifts and problematizes. Because, fundamentally, if we want to get to the other side of what ails us as a society, and in particular if we want to get to the other side of racism, we have to be able—we being every single one of us—we have to be able to acknowledge and access that which is the individual, ourselves and our individual agency and power, and recognize how individuals comprise a collective. But that the collective needn’t be a racial or a racialized collective, and it probably shouldn’t be if we want to transcend racism and solve it and stop it in its tracks.
The primary way that we can access those things is if we see race and its corresponding language indeed as metaphors and not people any longer. You have too many people trying to do both. They’re trying to talk about the metaphor while talking about human beings, and you can’t. We see how that’s encouraging us to just continuously fall short. We have to be able to talk about it only in the metaphor, and then we can start to see the complexity and the reality of human beings.
KLUTSEY: Again, that’s powerful. You note in your book that the worldviews that profess to be progressive and liberal are becoming increasingly regressive and illiberal, largely due to the ironic continued elevation of racial or racialist, black and white ways of thinking, being and seeing. Would you like to elaborate on that a little bit?
MASON: It strikes me that one way that racism has a negative effect on people is the least spoken about or least acknowledged. I think that we live in a society that ironically speaks a lot about white supremacy and ironically upholds the white as supreme. That’s part of what I mean when I speak of this pretending to be progressive, or it’s packaged or disguised as progressive. I think the people who think along these lines are usually really well-intended people who are stuck in the fishbowl and resistant to anything that comes along and questions or defies their way of seeing through this racialized worldview.
Of course, the problem with that is, there shouldn’t be a singular way of seeing the world, first and foremost. But because people are convinced that there is, and that their way is the right way, this is how these philosophies of skepticism and eliminativism continue to be marginalized and excluded. Historically, any thinker who writes something or is in the press, and speaks from a skeptical or eliminativist philosophy, has been out of print. They’re not canonized; they’re not in the classroom at all.
Or they’re canonized in a way that upholds the mainstream acceptance of race and practice of racialization. But then their philosophies that completely defy that, such as Alain Locke’s, don’t get recovered and back in circulation until the 1990s or later. I’m sure we still haven’t recovered everything. The reason is because it’s really comfortable to see the world in these ways and in these frameworks that we’ve inherited. Indeed, it’s comfortable. It’s uncomfortable to question our fundamental belief system, especially when we think there’s something righteous about it.
The problem I see with how racism is impacting people today, it includes the fact that people can look me in my eyes and tell me, as a person they see as black, that I have to fear for my life when I leave my house because an officer might shoot me. I have people telling me this at my workshops. I have people telling me that to be a woman is to be completely screwed in American society, which has to be the most backward way of seeing gender that I have probably ever heard. Because I have seen videos that I can’t unsee of women getting stoned to death in other countries.
I personally hate to make it a comparison in that way. It could always be worse. That’s basically what I’m saying. It could always be worse. It could always be worse. Fundamentally, if your starting point is, “It’s worse here,” it’s hard to get yourself outside of that way of thinking. When I come along and I’m talking reason, logic, evidence—my evidence is sound, man, you can’t tell me anything. This is why I come into spaces with the confidence that I do, because I know the knowledge that I have.
I can’t unknow what I know. It’s hard to debate me because I have my receipts. Yet even with that, people are still thinking that I have to fear for my life when I leave my house, and I don’t. Then you have another type of person who would say, “Well, you don’t have to fear cops, but you have to fear other so-called black people, because black-on-black crime. Black people are just killing each other in the streets.”
Part of what I do in my second book—in one chapter, I analyze four data sets. Again, I’m not a mathematician, although I’m definitely toying with the idea of getting an advanced degree in math. I analyze four data sets applying my theory—my brain is the theory—applying the theory to the dataset. I show everyone how they’re wrong about a lot of fundamental topics that we talk about today, how they’re falling into the racialist trap of seeing society and seeing racialized black people in this really limiting and confined way that belies reality.
That’s the important part. If it was true, I could sit with it. I could be like, okay, I do need to fear other so-called black people, or I do need to fear cops who might also be so-called black people. But it just belies reality. The statistics don’t uphold that belief system. How do we get outside of that, and who benefits from me as a person who’s seen as black just having this fear? Who benefits from that? It’s not me.
The people who feel righteous about looking me in my eyes and telling me that, and wanting to tell my children, who are three, who are definitely going to be seen as black in this country, that they have to fear, especially my sons—they have to fear for their lives every time. Even in their house, they’re not safe. Who benefits from that? I so wish more people were asking that simple question: Who benefits from the ideas and the belief systems that we hold? It’s not me, and it’s not any racialized black person I know.
The Racelessness Translator
KLUTSEY: That’s another powerful exposition. I want you to talk about the race translator. What is the tool, and how can people use it to better disentangle race from culture, class, ethnicity and so on?
MASON: This is something that I’m increasingly having a lot of fun with. In the first book, indeed, I call it the race translator. I’ve since renamed it the racelessness translator, because one of my friends in this space told me I should name it the thing that it’s actually revealing. The racelessness translator is simply an analytical tool that any person can learn through a lot of practice to apply, such that when they see race appear in headlines, in news articles, on Twitter, in a conversation, in the workplace, anywhere, when they see what they think is race, they can instead translate it into more apt language that matches reality a bit closer.
They can translate what seems to be race, such as skin color, into ethnicity. I count ethnicity as including DNA and heritage and ancestry and culture, traditions, values, beliefs, all of those things. Skin color, then, as something biological, I count it with ethnicity. The difference to me in the context of the United States, and the reason why I would want people to stop mistranslating something like skin color into race, is because if skin color is race or if race is skin color, then indeed it is inescapable. Indeed I am the problem for somebody else’s racism, because there’s something physically about me that makes other people uncomfortable.
Then race would also not be a problem. Race wouldn’t be the thing that I would be talking about eliminating or not existing. This isn’t color blindness. If race was skin color, we wouldn’t be having conversations about it all day, every day. I think intuitively, even without naming it, we all recognize that race is not skin color because if it were, then it wouldn’t be a problem. It would just be how people look.
Race is what gets attached to a person, and skin color can be one of the ways that people attach the dehumanizing apparatus of race. That mistranslation and the proper translation are important. Skin color does not get translated into race, though people can be racialized because of how their skin color appears.
Then, also, things like culture. We racialize culture in this country to the detriment of understanding the richness and the complexity of cultural formation, and understanding American culture, again, outside of racism. A lot of times when you see the word “black” and it’s capitalized, there’s something being signified about culture there. People miss that, and so they automatically read that and translate it into race; and depending on how they see the world, that’s either a positive thing or a negative thing.
Barbara Fields, in an interview that I saw recently of her—she’s the author of “Racecraft” with her sister, Karen Fields—she cracked me up because she said—somebody asked her about the differences between culture, race and ethnicity. She said, “Black people have been trying to redefine and define themselves outside of racism since the beginning of time, and yet everyone always still mistranslates it into race.” It was interesting to see even her take the language of race—she’s a skeptical eliminativist and sees it as distinctly not racial, that there’s something cultural that’s being communicated there.
Now, I contend that we can’t use the language of race to describe whatever people are trying to describe, if it pertains to culture or ethnicity, for reasons that I think are apparent, because people still translate it into race. But if we can do the work in the practice of translating what appears to be race into these other things, we can become more clear-eyed.
Then the most important aspect of the translation is racism itself. In a lot of the media that we see, race presents itself, but inevitably, it’s often evidence of racism that’s being illustrated, or people are trying to illustrate it, or it’s the cause for racism that people are trying to illustrate. If they actually racialize a person as white in the press, it’s almost inevitably going to be a reason that they’re doing that. They’re trying to say, “Oh, this person’s victim is a person of color or a black person,” and so then they signify the whiteness. Otherwise, it’s usually absent. If we are more clear-eyed about the game that we’re playing in the media and the press, then we can be more clear-eyed about what’s happening.
The last thing I will say too, that I don’t talk so much about it in the first book, but in the second book, I think, inevitably, it’s going to be threaded throughout, is politics. We racialize politics a lot, and sometimes the presence of race is a sort of dog whistle to a person’s constituents. If I’m a Democrat, then I know as soon as I start talking about race, my roll dogs are going to come along and support me, and they’re going to talk against racism.
Again, it’s a masquerading, and it’s also a tool that people use to particular ends, and sometimes it is as simple as this is about politics. We have to do a better job of translating when it does appear so that we can do a better job of discerning what is actually being communicated. If we are the Scooby-Doo team, and if every single time we catch the villain and we demask it—and before we demask the villain, it’s race—we demask it, and it pops up into like five or six different entities, all separate and distinct, and racism is hiding its face there—that, to me, is the primary reason why we need to get rid of it. Never mind the fact that it’s just a poor tool.
We have no better understanding of American culture or any other culture because of racializing culture. We don’t understand ethnicity because we racialize ethnicity, and we like to pretend that my ethnic origins or my cultural inclinations are going to be dictated by my ancestors from a fixed point in time, and ignore the fact that between all that time, my ancestors were in this particular country. At what point are we going to recognize that this is part of the effect of racism as well, that keeps people who are racialized in this country as black or of color constantly outside of Americanness, constantly outside of individuality, constantly outside of freedom from racism? I’m not here for it.
Racelessness vs. Color Blindness
KLUTSEY: Now, some might hear you talk about racelessness and think color blindness. I think sometimes they get confused with that. Just to try to unpack that and see if I understand it, when you say someone is color-blind, or when one says that they’re color-blind, they’re trying to say that they might see race, but it doesn’t matter. Then racelessness would say race doesn’t, in fact, exist, and I will not acknowledge its existence. Is that correct?
MASON: More or less. Interestingly, in a very timely manner, just last night, I saw an organization that professes themselves to be color-blind, and they’re trying to get everyone on the color-blind wagon. I won’t name the organization because I respect the founder. In a tweet, this organization tweeted the word “race-blind.” Now, that was the first time I distinctly remember seeing that word as something synonymous with color blindness. That’s the essence of color blindness. It’s not about skin color, even though skin color plays a part in it. It’s this idea that I can see your skin color, I can know or I can translate that into race, and then I cannot let that impact how I treat you.
On a fundamental level, as you said, the theory of racelessness intervenes into this idea that skin color is race. It’s not. I believe the modern scientists who have, for a very long time now, disproven the biological reality of race. You can’t tell me that race is skin color because skin color is a biological reality. It’s a biological feature of human society. I think it’s a grave error to continue to conflate race with color, even though they’re seen as proxies in our society.
If you step into the theory of racelessness, I can teach you how trying to ignore your belief in race is not going to get us beyond the finish line. It’s just not. That type of practice has taken us as far as it can because the belief in race itself, as I say in the book, is the fundamental problem. That’s the fundamental problem. The continued belief in race and the practice of racializing people, that’s the problem. Color blindness can’t be a solution because it maintains the belief in race and the practice of racialization.
How Do We Change?
KLUTSEY: Now, is this the beginning of a movement? Your message seems to be, you’re resonating across social media. What’s your change mechanism? The way we think about race isn’t just embedded in culture but also in our policies. The Census Bureau collects data based on race. How do we go about changing all of that? You’ve talked about language being an important feature of this, but it sounds like you are starting a movement here. Is this how to make change happen?
MASON: It feels a bit narcissistic for me to claim that I’m starting a movement, but I will say that I’m doing everything in my human power to start a movement, to inspire a movement because, ultimately, if enough of us agree that racialization is the problem and is what continues to maintain a lot of problems for us and that we want to unify, heal and reconcile, then we have to do something radically different from what we’ve been doing for centuries.
We’ve been trying to reconstruct the concept of race for a very, very long time. That, to me, is aligned with the definition of madness or craziness, doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. I know, based on my historical analysis, that it would actually be easier to start a movement such as we’re describing and radically change things in the ways that I’m describing than it would be to actually reconstruct racism in a way that does less harm. If we’re talking about reconstructing the concept of race, then we’re talking about simply reconstructing racism. It would be easier to just not reconstruct racism and to just get rid of it.
I’m hoping that people will hear me, that they’ll engage with my work. My second book, I think, is going to be fundamental in this regard because, as I mentioned, the first book is a scholarly text, but the second book is a book for everyone. I think that’s going to be the game changer for a lot of people. I hope everyone reads it. I’m working on, of course, other projects, such as a graphic novel adaptation of the second book to give high school teachers a tool kit, to start working with students in a way that doesn’t teach them to do what I’ve inherited being born in America. Because part of what makes it seem harder right now, a harder path forward, is the fact that many of us have been indoctrinated into the racialized worldview.
It seems like, how are we going to possibly get outside of this? If we just stop teaching young people that there are five biological races of human beings in the first place, and if we stop forcing them—now the new move is to force them into social constructionist positions. Instead, if we teach them all of the philosophies of race and the practice of racialization in human history, in different contexts—when they learn about World War II, for example, or if they learn about the Rwanda genocide or the Dominican genocide of the Haitians or the enslavement of African-descended people in the States—all of these attempted annihilations of people, of human beings were a result of racialization.
If we’re teaching those pieces of history to young people, there’s no reason we can’t teach them that history from outside of the framework. We probably should for their own benefit, and we probably should for the benefit of all future generations because then they don’t have to do the hard stuff of unlearning, which is what you and I and other people are forced to contend with.
It’s my sincere hope that everyone who hears the sound of my voice and who comes in contact with my work will engage deeply and feel inspired to infuse into the workplace, infuse into curriculum, infuse into anti-racist workshops and initiatives and all of that stuff a truly anti-race, dramatic pause, -ist framework. Or at least offer it as in addition to the other stuff, in a Socratic move. It’s the only way. I think if we’re going to make this change in the States, it’s got to come now.
To your point about the census, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this, in case this comes out before then. Every now and again, the Census Bureau initiates a call for feedback. They’ve initiated that call; the deadline is November 15. Carlos Hoyt, Greg Thomas and I, we did our “Resolving the Race(ism) Dilemma” conference recently in Lexington, Massachusetts. One of the topics of the day was, what type of feedback would we like to give to the census to change for the 2030 census?
We have a petition circulating right now on change.org, where people can go and see our explanation for the changes that we’re inviting from the Census Bureau, which is simply, instead of mandating that people racialize themselves on the census, what would it look like if it included, number one, an option to opt out? “I do not see myself by race,” or “I don’t see myself within a race.” Then also, to give people the option to indicate, how do they get racialized by other people? Or if they do identify by race, how do they racialize themselves, which is the sort of small language shift that we were talking about earlier. We’re hoping that we can get enough signatures to inspire the census to pay attention and then to actually do the thing. That petition is going to be out on change.org until November 15.
Advice for Academia
KLUTSEY: Great. Now, a good amount of our audience is involved in universities as professors, researchers and staff. Do you have any advice for them on how to better approach the topic of race in the classroom and beyond, on campuses? I know you’re an effective teacher yourself. Any advice you could offer to some of our audience?
MASON: Well, thank you for that compliment. Sometimes I wonder if I am an effective teacher, although I certainly strive to be, and my student feedback would indicate that I am. I take it as a really good sign that I’m hearing more and more from people at other universities, actually. I’m hearing from their DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] folks. I’m hearing from athletic departments who have particular DEI folks. It’s actually really exciting because if anyone is paying attention to what I’m saying, I’m grateful.
The biggest question I get is this question of how do I take what I’m learning through the theory and how do I apply this in real life? I think the primary door that we can open to our students and our communities is the door to the alternative philosophies of race.
I find that before I even got to the place of articulating my theory as I am now, that’s what I was leading with, with my students in the classroom, was just teaching them the six philosophies of race and talking with them more extensively about skepticism and eliminativism. That simple inclusion in a literature classroom, when we’re talking about African American literature particularly, was like a lightbulb going off in a lot of my students’ minds and imaginations. Because a lot of people come into the classroom believing that there’s only one or two ways to see race, that it’s biological or that it’s a construction. They see that as a fact. It’s not even something you can question.
When you let them know, “Hey, there’s actually a third way to see race,” their minds are blown. Then they get to go along what they describe as intellectual, spiritual and emotional work of unpacking how they’ve come to see race in the ways that they have, and whether that’s the way that they want to continue to see race, is that the “right way to see race” to their minds. They get to go along that journey alone. All I did was just teach them that there was a third way to see it. Then, of course, that there’s a sixth way to see what we can do or should do with race, which is eliminativism. That alone, I think, can make a world of difference.
In doing that, you can also invite your students to see themselves as raceless in the space of the classroom or the workshop, whatever the context is, because when properly understood, seeing oneself as raceless, and raceless in the context of the theory, simply means seeing oneself without racism, like racismlessness. Racismlessness and racelessness are synonymous. I am no longer the cause for racism, and I’m no longer on the receiving end of racism, so that I’m not internalizing what it is that I’m studying. Because I think it’s the internalization that could be a roadblock for people in public spaces together.
People fear saying the wrong thing or offending anyone or sounding racist or being racist. If we can’t get to a place of just speaking freely, then we cannot move forward as a nation or as individuals. Sometimes just inviting students to see themselves in that different way, in a new way, can be the thing that students need to now all of a sudden have a lot to say. Now all of a sudden, instead of seeing racism nowhere, they’re seeing it where it is. Or instead of seeing racism everywhere, they’re seeing it just where it is. Both, I think, are wins.
Then the last thing I’ll say is, even if not including the philosophies of race in any space, including something like the racelessness translator, helping students practice interpreting what they’re studying into more precise language and deracializing the way that they see culture, ethnicity, class, et cetera because as it stands, students tend to interpret race into all of the things. To them, it means and reflects class, both economic and social, and culture and ethnicity and race. It’s all of the things, which, again, results in an unintentional essentialization of people who are racialized as black in ways that resemble racist ideas of so-called black people.
It’s this idea that there is a singular black experience or that there is a singular black culture. Even in the context of the United States, I would contend that that’s not true if we think that black culture is a thing. How can we help students translate and parse apart, more critically, all of these various aspects of society and ways that are fruitful for their understanding of themselves and each other? Also, they should reach out to me.
Possibilities for a Post-Racialized World
KLUTSEY: Yes. Now given what you’re seeing, are you optimistic? Are you optimistic that we will transcend our current conversations about race, the current ways in which we are categorized, into a post-racialized environment? Are you optimistic?
MASON: I have my days where there’s a strong question mark in my mind, but I would say 99% of the time, I am 100% optimistic. I’m optimistic all of the time in the sense that I believe that even if the time doesn’t come during my lifetime, even if it just comes the next generation, that it’s going to come. I will say that I’m very, very confident in that. I feel like it is the inevitable path forward. Whether I’m participating or not, I do believe that that’s going to be our future in this country. I’m doing everything in my human power to contribute to that movement. I’m not alone in this.
I created the theory of racelessness, and I’m continuing to develop it. I have wonderful collaborators around the country and really around the world, in places like South Africa and the U.K. and Canada, of people who are committed and invested to developing the theory to the fullest potential across all disciplines and industries. Because they see the power and the potential for human society to really flourish in ways that racialization precludes or prevents. In that, I find a lot of heart and inspiration because if I was a lone wolf truly, I think I would be less optimistic.
But then I also have the wonderful benefit of working with people who are initially antagonistic to what they think I’m saying. They come in the door and they find, “Oh, she’s not actually saying the thing I thought she was saying, so now I’m interested. Now I’m at least paying attention.” Even if they end up contending with my conclusions for extended periods of time, I’ve seen wonderful transformations of people who are like, all of a sudden, something unlocks in their minds and their imagination is just free and they finally get it. Then they come back to me, and they articulate, “I thought you were crazy at first, but then the more I listened, the more I heard, and the more I heard, the more I realize you’re just spitting facts.”
I have students come to me who were completely of a different mindset at the outset of my time with them. They take more than one class. They take two classes, three classes, four classes, and then they finally get to a point where they can’t take any more classes with me because it doesn’t fit their schedule, but they’re finding me and they’re telling me, “Oh, I’m taking this class. I’m taking hip-hop. I’m constantly saying, ‘Dr. May says,’ ‘Dr. May says.’” Now it’s a matter of, “Okay, I understand why you’re defaulting to me, to my voice, the expert, but how can you own your own ideas at this point? Because, at this point, they’re your ideas.”
The one student I’m talking about now, it just makes me smile thinking about them because when she started a class with me, she saw herself in this particular way because of how racism and racialization work. When I say the student has completely freed herself from the strictures, and it’s opened up possibilities for her future that she didn’t see herself being able to access prior, because she thought that she had to basically be on the streets fighting this fight and doing this thing.
Once her eyes were open to some of the realities, the data, the statistics in an unbiased way, she was pleasantly surprised. She was like, “Oh, snap. It’s not the thing that I thought it was.” It’s still a worthy fight. Racism still exists. Hear me. It still exists. It should be contended with, but actually, I don’t think I have to dedicate my entire life’s work or journey or effort to that fight. Now, maybe I’m going to go into public relations, or maybe I’m going to go into marketing or whatever.
That should be what we want for our students. If we talk about access and equity and all of the other buzzwords that we use right now, that’s what we should want them to have, limitlessness. To access their limitlessness, which is the other term that I see as synonymous with racelessness. It’s limitlessness. That’s what it’s all about.
KLUTSEY: Now, speaking of all the wonderful things you’re doing, when is your new book coming out and what’s it called?
MASON: Oh, man. I’m still toying with the title, and I’m waiting for feedback from the publisher, but I’m hoping to name it “Race(ism)lessness,” with my spelling of race(ism), which is a mouthful, but I think it gets the point across. Then the subtitle would be something like “Making a Limitless Future Together Today.” That’s what I’m hoping for the title.
Listen, I’m hoping for a release by summer 2023, but it’s going to be largely dependent on the publisher and the speed of their process. I get the sense that the publisher is keen to get it out sooner than later because the time is now. I don’t see them sleeping on the project, but it’s just a matter of how fast these things take. I’m really hoping by the anniversary of my first book, which was May 2022, that the second book will come out.
KLUTSEY: Well, I have no doubt that you are limitless.
KLUTSEY: Thank you very much, Professor Mason, for joining us. This has been a wonderful conversation.
MASON: Thank you so much, Ben. Be well.
KLUTSEY: You too.