Race & Racialisation

Thinking about race is complex and evolving; it brings together work in the natural

sciences with cultural theory and history. A 2004 edition of Nature magazine,

dedicated to the latest research on race observes;

 Race remains an inflammatory issue, both socially and scientifically. Fortunately,

modern human genetics can deliver the salutary message that human populations

share most of their genetic variation and that there is no scientific support for

the concept that human populations are discrete, nonoverlapping entities.

Furthermore, by offering the means to assess disease-related variation at the

individual level, new genetic technologies may eventually render race largely

irrelevant in the clinical setting. Thus, genetics can and should be an important

tool in helping to both illuminate and defuse the race issue.72


Based on information presented here, there seems to be consensus that ‘race’,

whether imposed or self-identified, is a weak surrogate for various genetic and

nongenetic factors in correlations with health status. We are at the beginning of a

new era in molecular medicine.73


 Because traditional concepts of race are in turn correlated with geography, it is

inaccurate to state that race is “biologically meaningless.” On the other hand,

because they have been only partially isolated, human populations are seldom

demarcated by precise genetic boundaries.

So genetic variation has more to do with geography than with socially constructed

ideas we have of distinct races. As a way of conceptualising human variation this

edition of Nature is clear that:

‘Race’ is ‘socially constructed’ when the word is incorrectly used as the covering

term for social or demographic groups. Broadly designated groups, such as

‘Hispanic’ or ‘European American’ do not meet the classical or phylogenetic

criteria for subspecies or the criterion for a breeding population. Furthermore,

some of the ‘racial’ taxa of earlier European science used by law and politics

were converted into social identities. For example, the self-defined identities of

enslaved Africans were replaced with the singular ‘Negro’ or ‘black’, and Europeans

became ‘Caucasian’, thus creating identities based on physical traits rather than

on history and cultural tradition. Another example of social construction is

seen in the laws of various countries that assigned ‘race’ (actually social group or

position) based on the proportion of particular ancestries held by an individual.

The entities resulting from these political machinations have nothing to do with

the substructuring of the species by evolutionary mechanisms.74

Robert Young makes a similar point, and underscores the vagueness typical of

discussions about race when writing about race and ethnicity within Nineteenth

Century discourses around race:

When people used the term ‘race’, occasionally they meant something close to

what we now think of as ethnicity, occasionally they meant something more like

biological race, but most usually they used the term without it being anchored

in any precise meaning at all. It is frequently impossible to tell what exactly a

particular writer may have meant by race, not only because the word is never

defined (the writer of course assumes that it needs no definition), but also because

it can be used in very contradictory ways. The discourse of race, like many

successful ideologies is itself paradoxical, which is why it is possible to find people

making contradictory assertions about it…75

Young identifies race not just as a discourse, but specifically refers to it as an

ideology, a system of beliefs that orders the world in a particular way. Equally, the

historian Daniel Pick puts it pithily when he writes that “Evolutionary theory and

racial anthropology were imbricated with an imperialistic insistence on the racial

superiority of the world’s colonisers over the colonised, but they also reflected back

on European society in deeply unsettling ways.”76


So while race doesn’t exist as an absolute, it has been used ideologically to maintain

particular power structures. Because the biological or genetic basis for the idea is

contested, it emerges as a cultural and historically conditioned artefact. And yet of

course the reality of racialised life and groupings is indisputable. Try telling a young

black man who has been stopped and searched six times or who is pulled aside for

driving his own BMW – or an Asian actor who’s been cast as a terrorist again – that

race does not exist.


This is where the idea of racialisation is particularly useful. Racialisation is the

process by which we become part of and identify with or against particular racial

groups. Both Farhad Dalal and Steven Frosh have written extensively about the

complex “psycho-social” dynamics, and the historical contingencies, which feed this

phenomenon. Frosh, in his searing work, is informed by sociology, clinical practice

and a wealth of psychoanalytic thinking. He has written of how “certain groups

become repositories for the paranoid, destructive and sexually exciting fantasies

of others.”77 Drawing on Frosh and earlier psychoanalytic thinkers, Dalal brings

insights from his own clinical practice with individuals and groups, together with

a rigorous attack on the discourses of race. Racialisation, in both their accounts,

relies on the construction and maintenance of ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, coupled with

the repression and projection of fears and fantasies on individual and group levels.78

The idea of racialisation accepts that we become members of particular racial

groups – or are given/give ourselves racial identities – as part of a larger process that

involves both our own psychic processes and the (psycho)social processes in which

we are embedded. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir — you aren’t born white, you

become white.


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