So, How Do You Talk about Race? Part One of a Two-Part Series

At RHB, we’ve been having conversations with clients and prospective clients about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB). Specifically, we’ve been talking about marketing and communications products and how those relate to DEIB initiatives laid out in strategic plans and communications flows. These conversations occur in the service of engaging in the complicated and deeply emotional work of identifying opportunities to live up to the missions, visions and values these institutions claim or want to refine. We’ve been impressed and touched by the efforts institutions are willing to undertake, because this requires such bravery, clarity and fortitude.

One of the things we’ve been doing as we mark our 30th anniversary in higher education consulting is making sure we are properly positioned, boots on the ground, to help clients live up to the moral and ethical commitments they have established to truly embrace the world-changing power of DEIB work.

This post is the first in a two-part series talking about how we talk about race even when we are talking about anti-racism. I will be referring specifically to institutions and racial categorizations in the USA. Imagine that I am using quotation marks around “race” to indicate the use of a term that carries the baggage of a history of usage that is often poorly understood.

I find this an important topic because racial categorizations underlie both systemic oppression and the steps we take to combat oppression. As well, this is compounded by the ways ethnicity, culture and language play into what we recognize as race. These characteristics are also often used as euphemisms for race when people think they are trying to be sensitive. References to same also can be used as dog whistles that, frankly, both dogs and humans can hear.

So, let’s set the real terms. First, humans are a single species. There are no biologically separate races, no spots in the gradient of human physical variation where being a White person stops and being something else begins. As well, skin color, hair color and texture, eye color, nose shape, etc., can be inherited as separate genetic packets. This means that the various features people point to as racial features can show up in all kinds of combinations. Behaviors, beliefs and cognitive or emotional attributes are not inherited. Regardless of what pseudoscientists and grifters on Twitter argue, intelligence is not a racial characteristic.

Cultural systems create distinctions between “good” and “bad” bodies, giving us instructions about how to see and interpret each other’s bodies. Culture instructs us about how to perceive differences in how people appear and how to treat people based on those differences. We can challenge those cultural lessons that others are not our equals; we do not dwell in ideological prisons. No humans are innately superior to any others by virtue of their biology (or their social, cultural or linguistic backgrounds). Race and racism are products of social, cultural and political processes over centuries. Racial categorizations have incredibly profound effects on people’s lives precisely because of how intertwined they are in the most mundane institutions that give our lives structure, things like schools, churches and even access to grocery stores.

We also need to contend with the idea, based in white supremacy, that humans are innately cognitively oriented toward racial categorization. Some people claim this as rationale for doing anti-racist work, but the underlying premise is unproven. In the U.S., this idea contains the assumption that humans have always applied contemporary American-like conceptions of “race” to their relationships with each other. That is, again, unproven. Imagine asserting as common sense that thousands of years ago, humans all over the world understood each other through the same ideas and labels that are available now, with American English meanings, no less. More importantly, consider why people would make that assertion to begin with: in order to convince others that racial categories and racism are natural features of human cognition. Anti-racist efforts must refuse to cede ground to this premise.

The truth is that as linguistic creatures, we do innately categorize things, concepts and people so we can talk about or understand them. Restated: humans categorize innately, but not according to racializing schema. The latter is learned and shaped by history.

Even the most progressive discussions of “race” seem to contain some old-school ideas about “races” and “cultures” as bounded, distinctive entities that exist as identifiable and unchanging. You can get the impression that you could pick them out like any other specimens found in the natural world and that while they move alongside each other, they don’t tend to mix. As anti-racism becomes a topic of more explicit conversation and activity, it’s important that we understand how “race” comes to be recognized and responded to in the first place so that we do not inadvertently reinforce racial thinking. This is crucial for all of us in higher education, especially because the content of curricula transmit some of the same information we need to fight.

Now, there are guides dating back hundreds of years that categorize humans according to features like hair color and texture, skin and eye color and nose shape, along with dispositional characteristics. These taxonomies include a system about which students at your institution probably learn: the Linnaean system of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, etc. This system relied initially on using visible differences to assign like beings to a taxon (pl. taxa). This system predates the meeting of classificatory schemes and genetic science in the way of Gregor Mendel’s pea experiments (remember doing Punnett squares?). The joining of these is called the Modern Synthesis and occurred around 1950, vastly changing how science considers organismal classification, trait heritability and evolution.

Linneaus described a classification system for humans, proposing four “varieties:” Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus and Europeanus. He tied physical characteristics to attributes like personality, modes of governance and clothing types typical to each variety. As the Linnaean Society recognizes, this four-type classification system became one of the bases for scientific racism that lurks in our discourse today. Even as the number of races (and ethnicities) officially recognized in the U.S. changes, the underlying premise remains that there are a relatively low number of discrete types of humans who innately and biologically vary in meaningful ways.

One of my favorite analogies for thinking about how even well-intended people talk about race is the annual Westminster Kennel Club competition.

When you watch a dog show, you hear the announcer describe two important factors when a handler and dog enter the judging area: conformation to a breed standard in physical appearance, and in attitude and disposition. Dogs, such as beagles, are judged not just on how closely their coloring, size or bone structure matches acceptable ranges of excellence—how perfectly beagley is the 13-15-inch beagle? Beagles are also judged on whether they are appropriately “friendly, curious and merry” (American Kennel Club, 2021 ). That seems to be the case for my neighbor’s young beagle, Charlie, a very good boy who snuffles along curiously and is very loud. I guess that means he is merry.

Imagine taking the kinds of discourse you would hear at a dog show and applying that to humans, describing their physical and attitudinal features in minute detail and also ranking their value according to how well they conform to what is basically a breed standard. Then, give people awards and covetable life circumstances according to that conformance, or deprive them of their needs if they don’t measure up. Under no circumstances allow your top performers to breed with anyone who is not also tops, because the bloodline must remain pure. But do remember you need a gene pool, not a gene puddle.

Does that strike anyone else as a terrible idea when you switch beagle for human? And yet…

And yet. That happens every day, at volumes both loud and those purportedly only audible to dogs.

In part two of this series, I will talk more about how this plays out in higher ed DEIB discourse—especially in how we portray the value of exposure to different races and cultures in our conversations. I will also suggest some ways that we can honor the beautiful diversity of humans while acknowledging the real and relentless impact of systematic racism as we document efforts to change in a truthful and transparent way. In the meantime, there’s no need to wait for that piece to drop if you’d like us to walk alongside you while you host these conversations on your own campus. We’re always ready with sturdy boots and open ears.

  • Spread the word
Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.