Towards a Lived Understanding of Race and Sex

By Lee, Emily S. | Philosophy Today, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Towards a Lived Understanding of Race and Sex


Lee, Emily S., Philosophy Today


David Theo Goldberg postulates a paradox in present day western societies, "race is irrelevant, but all is race."1 Linda Martín Alcoff, elaborating on this paradox, writes, "the legitimacy and moral relevance of racial concepts is officially denied even while race continues to determine job prospects, career possibilities, available places to live, potential friends and lovers, reactions from police, credence from jurors, and the amount of credibility one is given by one's students."2 We live in a society that recognizes the dangers of associating the color of one's skin with inherent biological or psychological differences of the person. Yet this paradox illustrates that although the common parlance declares intolerance towards racism, the body and race still function as axes of meaning. In the hopes of addressing this paradox, I turn to grasp the lived experience of race.

This project of addressing the lived sense of race focuses on the particular experiences of women of color. On the one hand, I put forward an understanding of the lived quality of race, in the hopes of providing a more thorough account of racism. On the other hand, a lived understanding of race elucidates the experiences of women of color, whose experiences are perhaps the most difficult set of experiences to portray.

The difficulty lies in depicting the experience of both the racism and the sexism simultaneously. Trina Grillow and Stephanie Wildman argue that the two "isms" of sexism and racism are not entirely accessible to each other through analogies or by adding one onto the other.3 Illustrative of this positionis the fact thtat although quite a body of work on sexism and on racism exists, much of this work does not grapple with the experiences of both race and sex. These works leave unanalyzed how the two features overlap, interface, and contradict each other. My focus on the lived experience attempts to address these difficulties.

Consciousness vs. Lived Racism

What exactly defines the lived experience of race? I approach this question sideways by first addressing the question, why has the lived experience of race been so elusive? And to answer this latter question let me first present the prevailing understanding of racism. Gary Peller explains that racism results from a mistake on the level of conscious decisions. He writes, racism is "rooted in consciousness, in the cognitive process that attributes social significance to the arbitrary fact of skin color. The mental side of racism is accordingly represented either as 'prejudice,' the prejudging of a person according to mythological stereotypes, or as 'bias,' the process of being influenced by subjective factors."4 Racism is the result of a mistake made in reason of associating a meaning with arbitrary body features. This belief that racism is an illogical mistake presumes that attributing significance, any significance, to body features is mistaken. The arbitrariness of nature is the only meaning of distinct body features. Peller continues to explain that, nevertheless, such mistakes have been so frequently made that they have become embedded into the governmental/institutional structures of society. Theorists including Alcoff, Patricia Williams, and Elizabeth Spelman explain that in addition to these institutions, these mistakes made in thought have become embedded in the social/cultural norms, including our understanding of common sense and categories in our society.5

Goldberg, Alcoff, Peller, Michael Omi, and Howard Winant oppose precisely this conception of racism as a mistake made in reason, as sufficiently encompassing for an understanding of the more thorough ramifications of racism. Peller explains that this understanding of racism and of justice as neutrality have encouraged some to conclude that the inevitable solution ought to be the encouragement of neutrality and colorblindness in state policies and its citizens. Based on the presumption that body features are not informative about the person,6 encouraging a disconnection between the body and the person becomes the inevitable solution. …

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