I was interviewed a few weeks ago for a story in the Harvard undergraduate newspaper on “raceless” or “postracial” identities among Harvard undergrads. The story suggests that some (many?) individuals do not identify with any racial category–instead, they reject racial categories altogether. This includes racial minorities–it references a racial transcendence movement, which I hadn’t heard of before. There are three issues at play here. First, is the question of what kinds of identities folks assert. Second is the identities that others ascribe to us. Third, our social position in society is very much shaped by race, beyond others’ racial ascription. Historical policies such as red-lining and drug-sentencing laws have led to group differences by race and ethnicity that are obvious in American society today–they have influenced the disproportionate number of African Americans living in poverty, for example, and the preponderance of young black men in the criminal justice system. These processes of racial formation go beyond what individuals assert about themselves or ascribe to others.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that individuals should be able to choose the racial or ethnic identities with which they self-identify–or to choose not to identify altogether. But, what is really the point of promoting “racial transcendence” or “racelessness”? The underlying assumption seems to be that by showing the fragility and socially constructed nature of racial categories, we can start to dismantle racial inequality. This is where I fundamentally disagree.
Ignoring racial categories will not alone reverse the historical policies that have led us to where we are. Nor will it reduce the social meaning of race in a society in which race affects everything from how cool you are seen by peers in high school to which neighborhoods you will be shown housing in. Ultimately, I am less concerned with how individuals choose to identify racially or ethnically and more with how racial ascription and racialized systems in the United States continue to affect our lives. And, if i think about this in the context of K-12 education, I do think it’s important to develop strong, critical race consciousness among minority youth in order for them to make sense of a world in which the class and racial inequality around them is inescapable. How can they maintain hope and optimism about their futures in spite of structural barriers? A sense of agency to effect change in society along with what Jeff Duncan-Andrade calls “critical hope” are a first step. I can’t see how racial transcendence will help minority kids make sense of a highly racialized US society.
From what I keep hearing, however, kids in school in the United States are implicitly being taught that identifying race is bad. They flippantly say “that’s racist” to any mention of racial identities or differences. One important step for the US to confront its inequality in education is to develop a vocabulary with which to talk about race, race differences, race identities, and racial history across racial and ethnic lines.