Conceptualizing the idea of race as a discourse

Abstract: In this paper I look at the literal and extended meanings of discourse, and at how it can be at once a tool or model that describes, defines, and delineates narrative, and the narrative itself. I look at how that process has presented historically when the topic is race, where a predominantly pathologizing discourse has led us, and what influences are at play in choosing our direction forward. Underlying is the story of an academic coming of age, Cultural Anthropology’s. Having freed us from colonial bionarratives only to abandon us, celebrating our newfound ethnicities, submersed in a whitewash of suppressed but self-perpetuating race-isms, many within the discipline urge greater responsibility for the ways their science is used. I conclude it requires persistent activism in concert with a clear concept of race as a discourse to achieve a post-race society.

Of all the definitions of discourse available on the Internet (e.g., at; type definition:discourse) the one I find most helpful is on a list of rhetorical terms one can download in Word format here

Dis • course
spoken or written language, including literary works; the four traditionally classified modes of discourse are description, exposition, narration, and persuasion.

WikiPedia has a reasonably comprehensive discussion of conceptualize [redirects to] and what concept has meant to philosophers Plato, Locke, Kant and to contemporary cognitive theorists such as Fauconnier and Turner. According to this account concepts are mental representations or they are abstract objects… or both. According to Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy?, philosophy is the “discipline that involves creating concepts” (1994, p. 5). My task as I see it then is to describe the “Idea of Race,” expose its origins and effects, listen to and translate its narration, determine the direction and depth of its persuasion, and bring all that together, using imagery and metaphor, to create an idea of who, what, where, when, how, and why race has described, exposed, narrated to and persuaded us all. Such a discourse will inform where we are, how we got here — and where we can go from here.

Where we are

Faye Harrison (1998, p. 609) locates us in an age of globalisation characterised by a technologically enhanced compression of time and space, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a mighty few. We have for several generations spoken incessantly and obsessively of sex (Foucault, 1990) and yet within the most recent decades anthropologists have depreciated race, even undertaken a concerted effort to deprecate, disguise, and deny it (Harrison, 1998; Smedley, 1998; Wolf, 1994); racism, however, is not so easily subdued (Goldberg, 1993; Harrison, 1998; Smedley, 1998). It is surreptitious and persistent, with an “ability to reinvent itself in new postcolonial and postmodern forms” (Harrison, 1998, p. 609). As we shall see again in the next section, anthropology owes much of its existence and early growth to the endeavour to establish race as scientific fact (Banton, 2000; Goldberg 1993), and later attempted to undo some of the social and cultural damage enabled by the racializations this premise empowered. Even as society declared itself enlightened and professed to rid itself of racist dogma, race-based discrimination — power allocation with a multitude of restrictions on access and privilege, predicated on categories or hierarchies of physical and biological characteristics, for example skin colour, lips, hair, sexual organs (Gilman,1985) or origin and ethnocultural proximity — endured. The record of anthropology itself bears witness to this complex play between overt and covert racializations, as Fluehr-Lobban (2000) attests in but one example: the case of Anténor Firmin, a Haitian-born scholar educated in colonial Haiti, published in France, a presage of Boas — who remains widely unknown and under-celebrated to this day, due at least in part to his skin colour and ethnic origins; “[Firmin] awaits his reclamation as an early anthropologist” (451).

These colonialist juxtapositions of power and influence are not things of the past. Morbey and Granger (2002, p. 2; also Marchart, 1998) call to light “Two particular ideological viewpoints, among others, are dominant players in colonizing roles: the “American New Frontier” notion, deployed in narratives of cyberspace and standing in the tradition of one of the American founding myths of conquering new geographic spaces, and Japanese ”techno-colonialism”, a technical inter-discourse consisting mainly of “oriental” consumer technologies and objects.”

Many in the social sciences and liberal arts feel a social responsibility and an obligation to address all this (Harrison, 1998, p. 612). Thus we have come to “a moment when anthropologists’ interest in race and racism has been revitalized” (2005, p. 1). It is also a moment when we are poised either to repeat or reject in the cyberworld the mistakes and transgressions of global coloniaism.

How did we get here?

Human beings have not always paid much attention to physical and biological differences, nor based so many social privileges and restrictions on them (Smedley, 1998; Banton, 2000). Deployments of affiliations (Foucault, 1990, p. 106) and relationships to power have always been present, but the ancients tended to rely on kinship and lineage, language and geographical proximity (Wolf, 1994, p. 2) to establish and reinforce these. The practice of expanding territories and subjugating existing occupants necessitated justifying the atrocities of war and later the needs of industry, and explaining the right of one group to dominate another. The Greeks and Romans facilitated this by dividing the peoples of the world into civilized, barbarian and monstrous; Christianity transmuted this inherited trichotomy into faithful, redeemable, and unredeemable (1994, p. 3). Up to this point though, many avenues existed for persons to change stations, including intermarriage and advancement by demonstration of merit. Two discourses emerged to compete for the role of lodestone to the moral compass of the dominant groups (Sanjek, 1994): a) humans share common ancestry and are therefore of equal worth and potential, so may claim equal rights and access to privilege or b) the human species was split into subspecies (“races”) by irreversible physical and biological facts that led ultimately, both by evocations of divine authority and by (pseudo-) scientific reasoning, to the conclusion that one was superior and given the often “divine” role of dominance over the rest (Smedley, 1998; Banton, 2000).

Skin colour was not the first consideration. Harrison (1998, p. 617) highlights Orser and Smedley as just two scholars who have pointed out how “racial Othering” of the Irish by the English narrated those two people’s relationship during the centuries that corresponded roughly with the Age of Discovery (a.k.a. Exploration… or Conquest) and the rise of Imperialism (modern day Colonialism). Lengel (1996) points out that the dichotomous debate I alluded to above, which Banton (2000, p. 53) denotes as polygenist vs. monogenist, was in full swing in mid-19th century Ireland, and quite overt. The monogenist Liberals dominated policy and popular press up to the Great Famine; polygenist essentialists abetted by Robert Knox (1850) and medical science (which as Foucault (1990) has shown was wholly enthralled with pathologism) dominated post-famine. Yet in the closing sentences of his essay Lengel also states, quite emphatically, that it made no difference which narrative one preferred: the English persuaded themselves that the Irish were incorrigibly savage.

It is worth emphasizing in any case that Liberals and racialists agreed on the basic qualities of Saxon and Celt; but while Liberals explained this difference in a gendered discourse of moral inequality, racialists insisted that the ineradicable boundaries of biology would forever separate the two peoples. In both instances, Britain would forever be the master and Ireland the subject. Lengel (1996)

The English reduced humanity to a binary of civilized vs. savage (Harrison, 1998, p. 621), which they exported to the New World where a concurrent narrative of difference in physical features in general, and skin colour in particular, easily transformed into white vs. black (Smedley, 1998). The pathology of Knox and the racialists[1] asserted the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon (not simply “white”) race. Indeed, even the Irish could find partial redemption when they emigrated to a place where there were ample black Africans who appeared even less human than they. Even so, Irish-American “whiteness” was not obtained without a long fight. In 1851 the English satirical magazine Punch referred to the Irish as “A creature manifestly between the Gorilla and the Negro.” (Orser, 1998, p. 665). The election of an Irish Catholic president a full century later was considered nearly as remarkable as that of an African American in 2008[2].

Thus “…racism preceded ‘races’: the ‘master race’ was created to make logical and natural its domination over the rest” (Delacourt, 2005). Race was developed as “…a way to rationalize the conquest and brutal treatment of Native American populations and especially the retention and perpetuation of slavery for imported Africans” (Smedley, 1998, p. 694). It was designed and tailored, using a warehouse of interchangeable and complimentary fabrics and patterns, to dress the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethnocultural group for success — and privilege and dominance.

Where do we go from here?

I’ve described a concept of race that is malleable. Race can mean different things to different cultures, or in different regions, or in the same cultures and regions at different points in time. The idea of race is contextual. It exposes power relationships, and is utilized to establish and control them. It often explains how people of different groups interact and “get along.” Yet there is a second aspect of the narrative I have thus far neglected to point out in detail, the aspect Audrey Smedley refers to as “the problem of how individuals and groups perceive who they are—the problem of ‘identity’” (1998, p. 691). The 20th century has witnessed increased emphasis on the concept of ethnicity, which, although it draws from the long tradition of regional, linguistic and kinship based systems that are described and exposed by the concepts of culture and acculturation, expands the narrative to reveal the ways in which groups identify and construct identity for themselves. This seems to present new ways for scholars to discuss the important aspects of societies and their internal and external relationships, ways that may avoid the racialized terminology that now seems so ugly and power/privilege-driven in an age of globalisation. Jumping to such a conclusion ignores the fact that the power relationships still exist, and are no doubt amplified by the same factors that compress time and space and increase the capacity for cross-cultural multiethnic interaction. The higher emphasis on kinship, for example, when coupled with the celebration of common origin inherent in identity construction often leads to nationalistic sentiments presenting consequences far beyond the original self-venerating motives (Wolf, 1994, pp. 5-7).

There is general agreement in the literature that the politics of power has regularly appropriated, and often usurped the science of anthropology in order to construct artificial categories it then turns to explaining and justifying its own actions and intentions. The basic human curiosity and inherent interdisciplinary connectedness that so often fosters a scholarly interest in anthropology[3] comes with a conscience, as evidenced by anthropologists’ well-documented efforts to fight back against the most nefarious ways in which their work is misused. But power is omnipresent and oblivious to truth, thus many writers are recognizing the need for their discipline to take and active stance and a purposeful role in shaping the globalized multiethnic, multicultural society of the near future.


A conceptualization of “race” as a discourse must somehow convey the absence of any real scientific basis or meaning of the word itself, while exposing and undressing the elaborate stitching, the warp, woof and weft of the effects of racializations—the insidious racism—that persist in the minds, institutions, and actions of folk everywhere. From Firmin and Boas to Smedley, Wolf, Sanjek, Goldberg, and Banton we hear an underlying plea to the obligation of the discipline to go beyond conceptualization of a discourse towards an efficacious and effectual effort to influence the unfolding of future interactions. A post-race discourse must narrate the construction of self-affirming identities and yet persuade the affirmed of the benignancy of others’ self-affirmations, the benevolence of affirmation of the Other.

Conceptualizing & illustrating race as discourse



Banton, M. (2000) The Idiom of Race: A critique of presentism. In Back and Solomos (Eds.) Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge.

Delacourt, J. (2005) Weaving Identities: Refugees, Immigrants, and Local People in a European World of Differences. In Harrison (2005) 191-208.

Fluehr-Lobban, C. (2000) Anténor Firmin: Haitian Pioneer of Anthropology. American Anthropologist 102(3), pp. 449-466.

Foucault, M. (1990) The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: An Introduction New York: Vintage.

Gilman, Sander L. (1985) Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature. Critical Inquiry, 12(1) “Race,” Writing, and Difference, 204-242.

Goldberg, David T. (1993) Racial Knowledge. In Racist Culture, Philosophy and the Power of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Grant, James (1844) Impressions of Ireland and the Irish. 2 volumes (London: Hugh Cunningham), 2, pp. 186-191.

Harrison, Faye V. (1998) Introduction: Expanding the Discourse on “Race” American Anthropologist 100(3), pp. 609-631.

Harrison, Faye V. (2005) Introduction: Global Perspectives… In Resisting Racism and Xenophobia: Global Perspectives on Race, Gender, and Human Rights. 1-34. Toronto: Altamira Press.

Knox, Robert (1850) The Races of Man. London: Renshaw

Lengel, E. (1996) A “Perverse and Ill-Fated People”: English Perceptions of the Irish, 1845-52 Essays in History [On-line serial], 38. Available: Retrieved: 2013-07-15.

Marchart, O. (1998). The east, the west and the rest: Central and eastern Europe between techno-orientalism and the new electronic frontier. Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 4(2), 56-75.

Morbey, Mary Leigh and Granger, Colette A. (2002) Cybercolonialism in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia: Does it Matter? Available: Retrieved: 2008-11-11

Orser, Charles E. (1998) The Challenge of Race to American Historical Archaeology. American Anthropologist 100(3), pp. 661-668.

Sanjek, R. (1994) The Enduring Inequalities of Race.

Smedley, Audrey (1998) “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity American Anthropologist 100(3), pp. 690-702.

Wolf, Eric R. (1994) Perilous Ideas: Race, Culture, People. Current Anthropology 35(1) 1-12.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>