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Social Philosophy

Being and Race

Craig Vasey
Mary Washington College

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ABSTRACT: In this paper I offer an application of the philosophical analysis of meanings of "being" derived from existential phenomenology to the issue of race, distinguishing a static meaning (which I name "color") from a dynamic meaning ("race") by analogy to the sex/gender distinction. I then distinguish a substantialist meaning of race (as facticity, a socio-historically constituted meaning of color) from an existential meaning (race as lived, as intentionality). Finally I briefly explore the risk of this position on "race," how it is an invitation to bad faith, while being nonetheless essential to the struggle against racism.

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In common sense thought, race is simply a fact: humans are not all alike, there are whites, blacks and yellows, maybe reds and browns too, and these different kinds are races, and that's just a feature of the way the world is. However, recent work on the concept of "race" shows that "race" and "race"-talk can be understood by analogy to what Foucault suggests about psychiatry and mental illness coming into being together: (1) it is now beginning to appear than "race" and racism came into existence together as well. It is racism that has made talk of race something that we can take seriously. A statement attributing intelligence or laziness to a person on the basis of her/ his skin color, can only be judged true if there are resources in the vocabulary for associating personality traits with skin colors. The major resource providing this association is the concept of race.

So, for instance, we find David Hume in the 18th century commenting on racial inferiority, in a way that we are perfectly used to, appalled by but not astonished by. He writes, "I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent in either action or speculation... Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men". (2) But we don't see philosophers or writers of antiquity saying this sort of thing about other peoples. It is appropriate to ask what made it possible for such a statement to be taken seriously, so that it could be thought true. Ivan Hannaford's Race: The History of the Idea in the West, (3) provides a great deal of information in reply. Reviewing the history is not part of my purpose here.

Meanings of "Being"

Heidegger suggests that the meaning of "being" is both historical and constitutive of the world that we live in, and that our talk describes. The distinction Heidegger proposed in Being and Time (4) between several senses of "being" became the starting point of existential phenomenology, and the subsequent work of Sartre and deBeauvoir, on which I will draw in a moment, derives important ideas from it.

Specifically, I want to distinguish between three meanings of "being" with respect to the meaning of "race", deriving from the discourse of existential phenomenology. With this distinction, I believe it is possible to gain some insight into the problem of race and the question of truth.

Vorhandenheit and Existenz are Heidegger's words for a distinction between two senses of "being"; Vorhandenheit has come to be known in English as "presence-at-hand", but "substantiality" is another way to sum up its meaning. This refers to the kind of being that we attribute to, for instance, natural phenomena. When we ask "what is it?" with regard to some natural phenomenon, we are expecting, and will be satisfied with, an account of what the thing is composed of; this answer speaks of the object not primarily in terms of its usefulness, its value, its relation to other things, but primarily in terms of itself independently. In contrast, to name the kind of being that humans have, Heidegger uses the word "existence", and by it he means especially to call attention to the fact of care: humans are things which care about the fact that they exist, and which cannot be what they are except in various modes of caring about... Humans, you might say, exist in an emphatic way. Heidegger's opposition (and that of phenomenology in general) to the promotion of science to the rank of the definitive discourse, stems from his contention that humans cannot be understood substantially (as the scientific stance would have it) without a devastating distortion of their being as care.

This distinction can be seen to be at play in Sartre's early work in the distinction between facticity and freedom: "facticity" refers to fact (substantial) features of a person (such as their language, nationality, class), and "freedom" refers to the inescapable problem of having to live these features some way or other. (Sartre uses the verb "exist" transitively to denote this: "consciousness exists its body" he says, to indicate that the relationship is not that of a subject to an object; likewise, a person exists his or her nationality, by how s/he chooses to incorporate it into his/her life). (5)

deBeauvoir applied this approach to a question that Sartre did not touch upon, and out of this application she wrote The Second Sex. Although she did not herself use the pair of words, "sex" and "gender", her work provides a clear early account of the position that feminism has made fairly commonplace: gender is not sex, but is how one lives (or "exists", to repeat Sartre's verb) sexual difference. In patriarchal culture, women are compelled to live their biological difference from men as inferiority, as Otherness. Gender is not a substantial reality, but an existential one; from the point of view of positivistic description, the distinction between sex and gender might not be tenable, one might say that gender does not exist, only sex difference exists. Saying so would flow from "substantiality" having priority as the meaning of "being".

Substantiality and existence, or facticity and freedom, offer a way to differentiate sex from gender, and color from race. deBeauvoir addresses herself to the issue of gender by repeated analogy to the issue of race, as in this passage from the 1947 Introduction:

There are deep similarities between the situation of woman and that of the Negro. Both are being emancipated today from a like paternalism, and the former master class wishes to "keep them in their place" -that is, the place chosen for them. In both cases the former masters lavish more or less sincere eulogies, either on the virtues of "the good Negro" with his dormant, childish, merry soul -the submissive Negro- or on the merits of the woman who is "truly feminine" -that is, frivolous, infantile, irresponsible -the submissive woman. In both cases the dominant class bases its argument on a state of affairs that it has itself created. As George Bernard Shaw puts it, in substance, "The American white relegates the black to the rank of shoeshine boy; and he concludes from this that the black is good for nothing but shining shoes." This vicious circle is met with in all analogous circumstances: when an individual (or a group of individuals) is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he is inferior. But the significance of the verb to be must be rightly understood here; it is in bad faith to give it a static value when it really has the dynamic Hegelian sense of "to have become." Yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men. (6)

This passage refers not to the distinction I mentioned between substantiality and existence, but to one between "being" understood in a static sense and in a dynamic sense, an ahistorical sense and an historical sense. In these terms, it makes sense to talk about the sex/ gender difference by saying that sex may have a static or ahistorical reality (i.e., it may be a biological reality), but gender does not; gender as the meaning made out of the sexual difference is historically unstable and not reducible to biology. Inferiority may be part of the meaning of "feminine," as a result of the fact that women have not yet changed their status, but not as a essential matter.

If deBeauvoir does not factor in the other distinction, between substantiality and existence, between that which is lived (e.g., one's sex or one's color) and the living of it (e.g., what one makes of the fact that one "has" that sex or color), it is because her purpose at this point is more preliminary. Her purpose is to give an account of the condition that females are all confronted with, the condition that they will have to choose how to live in their own ways, to alert them to the contingent and historical character of this condition, and to their responsibility for how it gets lived out in their lives.

Can we extend deBeauvoir's thought on the dynamic meaning of "being"? She applies it to the issue of 'being inferior', indicating that inferiority is a historical product. In this sense, then, race, being white (or black) is no more a matter of essence exemplified than is being masculine or feminine. But whereas we have the distinct pairs of words, "male/female" and "masculine/ feminine" in our language, to help make the distinction between the ahistorical ("sex" as mere anatomical difference, unaffected by values placed upon it) and the historical ("gender" as meaning made out of sex difference), we do not have such linguistic assistance ready-made in the case of race.

I propose the formula that race is to color as gender is to sex. If we allow this convention, we can agree that whereas color is ahistorical, race is thoroughly historical (as the meanings made out of color differences).

However, color and race are not different as facticity and freedom; both color and race are aspects of facticity: both the color and the meaning of the color are facts about the world that one has to take on and live out. (In fact, this is true of gender and sex also: both are aspects of facticity.) But there's another issue: besides contrasting a historical with an ahistorical sense (race contrasted to color), it is possible to contrast an objective with a lived sense of race: what it is to be white is not just an objective (albeit dynamic) matter as a consequence of our history, it is also a subjective, lived matter, a mode of intentionality. I contend that if we are white, we have a white intentionality, whose ontological status is not essentialist, but is due rather to our situatedness in our history. White intentionality: what it is like to experience things, oneself, others, events, nature, children, etc., -the world- out of the historical location of whiteness produced by what might be called the relations of race-formation. In spite of the scientific truth that there is no such thing as the white race, and no racial essences at all, it would be absurd to deny that in the world we inhabit, it is possible to be white, and that if one is white, one experiences the world in a white way. (Whiteness, blackness, Latino-ness, etc. can be thought as ways of inhabiting the world, ways of living experience, rather than as kinds of skin or even as biological bonds to cultural heritages). What this "white way" is ought to be generally identifiable and articulable, though I don't think it will be easy to articulate it.

Bad faith and the truth about race

How we live the conditions we find ourselves thrown into is the set of issues addressed by Sartrean existentialism in the concept of bad faith. But language plays a role in this, for our vocabulary will structure our possibilities of living our conditions, since it is constitutive of the conditions themselves. For instance, the very existence of the word "race," and our having to have a racial identity, structure the ways in which we will be able to live our color. We cannot live our color differences as meaningless, it is simply not possible in our world, whereas for the most part we can and do live our nose-shapes or our ear-shapes meaninglessly. If there were also six or seven words in our language describing ear-types, each connoting moral attributes (lazy, industrious, honest, inept, unclean, clever, etc.), then we would be unable to live our ears -the fact that we have ears- as meaninglessly as we take for granted doing so. "Race" is a word that obliges us to live our differences of color, hair and bone in a racist way, in a competitive, hostile, oppositional, defensive posture.

Furthermore, in our language we primarily understand "being" in the objective or substantialist way primarily, and not in the existential way: we may often use words with an existential meaning, but when we reflect on them, we will usually try to give an account of their meaning in terms of the substantialist understanding of "being," plus a theory of metaphor (or non-literal meaning). For instance, we have an existential occurrence of "in" when we say "Adam's in trouble;" but if called on to explain this "in", we will probably resort to the spatial sense, the objective substantialist sense, calling it the literal or real sense, and thinking the other as a metaphorical extension of it. Trouble is not a thing like a room, in which one can literally be, but by a metaphorical extension, a condition is like a container, and so we can say that one is "in" the condition, by analogy to the real and literal sense of "in" as spatial location. In our language, and in our common sense understanding of language, the substantialist meaning of "being" is the literal and genuine meaning, and any other is metaphorical and lesser.

This is a significant element in our tendencies toward bad faith, for it carries with it the message that how we live our conditions is a simple fact; this makes it difficult for us to take seriously the possibility that we have a role in determining how we live them. For instance, if we understand race (the historically contingent meaning made out of color) to be an objective condition (as color is), we don't even imagine that we have a role in how we live our race, and we will probably even be open to the view that there is a truth about our race which for the most part dictates how we live it.

"The truth, writes Anthony Appiah, (In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture) (7) is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask race to do for us" (p. 45). In coming to this conclusion, Appiah has surveyed the latest evidence in genetics, critiqued duBois's attempt to develop a socio-historical account of race (in contrast to a biological one), and engaged in some impressive conceptual analysis.

However, there is something simply counter-intuitive about this: it seems quite obvious and quite irrefutable that there are races, even if we do not make the equation of race with color, or believe in racial essences and purity; for we experience ourselves and others racially.

One way to explain the monumental irrelevance of the scientific truth that there are no races, is to see it against the background of the question of the meaning of "being." In the substantialist sense, which Heidegger calls Presence-at-hand, there are no races. However, in the existentialist sense, there are, for race is a way of experiencing oneself, and others and the world, it is a way of having care. In the sense I just discussed, the priority of the substantialist meaning of "being" in our culture is evident.

Appiah's claim that "the truth is this" would seem to indicate his allegiance to this traditional and popular conception of "being" as presence-at-hand; to be fair, however, he admits that "race" is a specifically scientific-biological concept for discussing human differences, and that it is this concept of race that he is addressing, not any other. His critique of duBois only shows that the latter sought unsuccessfully to de-biologize the notion of "race," for his attempts always led him back to one affirmation or another of a given bond (whose "given" character, however, lacks any plausibility if thought completely apart from biology). On the other hand, Appiah explicitly endorses the analogy of race to gender -"the logic is the same logic that has led us to speak of gender -the social construction out of the biological facts- where we once spoke of sex, and a rational assessment of the evidence requires that we should endorse not only the logic, but the premises of each argument" (45). We are more tempted in the case of race than in the case of gender: tempted to say just what Appiah says -there are no races. But feminist theory has not shown us that there are no genders, only that gender is a social construction out of biological facts.

There is something alarmingly attractive about this truth that there are no races. Sartre's notion of "bad faith" can help us understand both points, the attraction, and what is alarming about it.

We are in bad faith, in the Sartrean sense, when we construe as a passive objective state of affairs, something which is actually a "lived" (or "existed") condition. For instance, he says it is bad faith to construe values as things in themselves, because they have their status as values only through being endorsed and chosen. Or again, it is bad faith to say I am cowardly in the way that an inkwell is an inkwell (BN 110), for being-cowardly is a way of relating myself to a situation, whereas an inkwell has no say in being an inkwell. "If I were not courageous in the way in which the inkwell is not a table" says Sartre, then bad faith would be impossible.

The statement that races do not exist is an invitation to bad faith: it is an invitation to see our whiteness or our blackness as not our responsibility, but to see it instead as meaningless. Let us say that races don't exist; then it follows that I am not white. If my not being white were like the inkwell's not being a table, that would be one thing, but my not being white is nothing like that at all; it is only in the sense that no racial essence inhabits me and governs my character, that I am not white. But insofar as there is a specific white intentionality which has resulted from the relations of race-formation, and my location develops this white intentionality in me, I most certainly am white -though not in the way that an inkwell is an inkwell.

Bad faith is the constant temptation to find excuses for ourselves, to explain away our responsibility for what we are and what we do. For whites to be able to say there are no races, is for them to be able to deny (or simply become unable to see) their position as the dominant and normative (racial) group in our society. This may be attractive because of a genuine desire on their part to not be racist, and to not be part of a racist world, or it may be cynical and self-serving; at any rate, it is self-deceiving for whites to think that their intention to not be part of this racism suffices to undo it. And this explains why the temptation of the scientific truth is alarming: it may encourage anti-racist people to turn a deaf ear to race-talk, to disengage from resistance to racism, to believe that it will wither away as society becomes enlightened to the truth that there is no such thing as race.

Marx jokes at the beginning of German Ideology about "gravity" in a passage that provides an interesting analogy:

Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This honest fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany. (8)

The situation of Marx's 'honest fellow' who denies gravity would be very much that of the person who asserts with Appiah that there are no races. The only difference is that she would be right!

Final Word

In this paper I have offered an application of the philosophical analysis of meanings of "being" to the issue of race, as a beginning of a philosophical theory of race. I have distinguished a static meaning (which I name "color") from a dynamic meaning ("race") by analogy to the sex/gender distinction; within the dynamic meaning, I have distinguished a substantialist meaning of race (as facticity, a socio-historically constituted meaning of color) from an existential meaning (race as lived, as intentionality). Finally I have briefly explored the risk of this position on "race," why it is an invitation to bad faith.

The analogy I just offered to Marx's honest fellow seems to me especially apt in light of both his famous 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, and bell hooks' recent essay "Postmodern Blackness". (9) hooks laments how little postmodern theory seems to appreciate the need to be helpful in ending, undoing, or undermining the mastering project that race relations historically carry out. She endorses the rejection of essentialist understandings of blackness, without agreeing with those who worry that this anti-essentialism robs blacks of the means to maintain politically relevant identity and bonds for action, resistance, and progressive struggle. The temptation to think that the falseness of "race" means the loss of racial identity, the impossibility of resisting racism, or the end of racism is part of the risk I have been referring to. Another is the risk we run, in philosophical analysis, of thinking that insight itself is enough.

hooks' discussion intrigues me toward a corresponding notion of postmodern whiteness: though there is no essence, and no truth of whiteness, because whiteness as a racial characteristic is not a color, but a way of being/ experiencing - there are nonetheless whites, and we feel and breathe our whiteness. The vast majority of whites undoubtedly believe their whiteness to reside in their color, to either be identical to their color or to be a consequence of their color; this is a myth that the very concept of "race" effects. Postmodernist insight should make it possible for whites to distance themselves, through an intellectual gesture of deconstructive thinking, from the illusion of this racial identity. However, as Marx points out, insights and discoveries do not dissipate the mists through which such social realities appear as objective qualities. Marx was, for just this reason, not satisfied to offer "interpretations of the world," but advocated finding ways to change it. bell hooks' complaint about Postmodernist theorists is similar to this; she is disappointed with the apolitical interest in that which makes "otherness" an important issue today. Writing that does not aim beyond itself, to change the world in which "otherness" is an issue -to change the racist, sexist, militaristic structures of our objective and subjective lives- does little to affect the degree of our deception, in spite of pointing it out.

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(1)Michel Foucault, Histoire de la folie a l'age classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).

(2) David Hume, "Of National Characters" in S. Copley & A. Edgar, eds., David Hume Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 360.

(3) Ivan Hannaford, Race.The History of an idea in the West (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press: 1996).

(4) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson(New York: Harper and Row, 1962).

(5) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness translated by Hazel Barnes(New York: Washington Square Press, 1956), pp 432-434.

(6) Simone deBeauvoir, The Second Sex, translated by H.M. Parshley (New York: Random House, 1972) p. xxx

(7) Anthony Kwame Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosphy of Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)

(8) Karl Marx, 1973. The German Ideology, New York: International Publishers, 1973), p. 39.

(9) bell hooks, Yearning: race, gender and cultural politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990)

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