In this episode of The Forum Podcast, Dr. Sheena Mason (Theory of Racelessness) deep dives into the concept of race and how by knowing more about race philosophy, we can begin to intentionally uproot racism in our everyday lives.
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Dr. Sheena Mason shares how the concept of race, while not rooted in biology or science, continues to be naturalized and viewed as something “of nature.” The camouflaging of racism as race (i.e., race[ism]) remains, in large part, why many people and institutions have failed to entirely and meaningfully address racism even when actively participating in anti-racist efforts.
With this in mind, Dr. Mason talks about and defines the philosophies of race as indicated through popular discourse, literature, and civil rights efforts. She will discuss further readings and ideas to consider. Ultimately, the podcast shows how many people unintentionally uphold racism. Importantly, she shares how we can stop.
- Listeners will know what the philosophies of race are
- Listeners will be able to identify where they stand philosophically
- Listeners will be able to think further about how their present philosophy might contradict their expressed aims
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
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[00:01:34] Ben: Hello and thank you for tuning into The Forum on Workplace Inclusion podcast series brought to you by Best Buy. I’m Ben Rue program manager here at the forum. We’re really looking forward to today’s podcast; How different philosophies of race can help us heal with Dr. Sheena Mason’s of Theory of Restlessness. In this episode, Dr. Mason shares how the concept of race, while not rooted in Biology or Science continues to be naturalized and views as something of nature. The camouflaging of racism as race i.e race[ism] remains in large part, why many people and institutions have failed to entirely and meaningfully address racism, even when actively participating in anti-racist efforts. With this in mind, Dr. Mason talks about that and defines the philosophies of race as indicated through popular discourse, literature, and civil rights efforts. We also discuss further readings and ideas to consider.
Ultimately, this podcast shows how many people unintentionally uphold racism, and more importantly, Dr. Mason shares how we can stop. This podcast will teach listeners what the philosophies of race are, listeners will be able to identify where they stand philosophically and will be able to think further about how their present philosophy might contradict their expressed aims. Sheena Mason earned her PhD in English Literature from Howard University, her MA from the University of Houston, and her BA from SUNY Plattsburgh.
Before coming to SUNY Oneonta, she taught at the College of William and Mary, California Lutheran University, and Howard University. Her forthcoming book, Decolonizing America’s racial/racist Imagination and Examination of N-critique of Anti-racist discourse is expected to print in early 2022. Additionally, she co-authored the Harlem Renaissance, a chapter of the forthcoming Oxford handbook of ethics and art, examining, what, if anything is the proper role of race in the aesthetic productions of or about members of racialized populations.
In her teaching philosophy and service, Dr. Mason consistently and unwaveringly promotes anti-racism, though her anti-racism necessarily differs from traditional thought and practices. Her sustained interest in understanding systemic racism and being a change agent for social justice resulted in her primary specialization in African-American literature. Her secondary specializations are American and Caribbean literature. Through her teaching research and service, Dr. Mason inspires and informs individuals and organizations on anti-racism and provides revolutionary anti-racist initiatives and policy-changing efforts. One of her mantras is freeing ourselves together, which she aims to cultivate healing, unification, and recognition of shared humanity. Thank you so much for being here, Dr. Mason, we’re so excited to have you
[00:04:39] Dr. Sheena Mason: Thank you so much for having me, Ben, and feel free to call me Sheena.
[00:04:43] Ben: Oh, thank you. Will do. Sheena. To get started, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and the work that you do?
[00:04:52] Sheena: I recently graduated from Howard University. I earned my doctorate in English literature and I specialize in African-American, Caribbean, and American literature. The primary focus of my teaching, both at the college level and my research is this thing called anti-racism. Because of my experience in the for-profit and nonprofit sector, I’m working to bring what I call The Theory of Restlessness into practical application, as it pertains to businesses, nonprofits, the average person, et cetera. That’s largely what’s influencing my talking with you today.
[00:05:35] Ben: Thank you so much. Could you tell us more about The Theory of Racelessness?
[00:05:40] Sheena: The Theory of Racelessness is my educational consulting business and it’s based of and inspired by again, my research. What I found through reading extensively, both history and then literary texts, artistic texts from around the world is that there are six philosophies of race. There’s an entire discipline within the field of philosophy in which certain philosophers focus on these philosophies of race.
For the average person, especially in America, we tend not to hear about the philosophies of race, except every single one of us actually holds at least two of these positions even if we don’t have a name for it. There are six philosophies of race. Ben, if you could bear with me, I’m happy to explain all six of them as concisely as possible.
There’s naturalism. Naturalists believe that race is biological. That race is something fixed. There’s an essence to it. This is based off of ancestry, your DNA.
The thing about naturalism is that it has been a long time since this has been disproven. The average person recognizes that race is not biological, that it is something called a social construction. However, there are still plenty of people who insist that race is biological and at any point, scientists will crack the code and be able to point to how people are categorized as subspecies of humans. Then there are social constructionists, which is the most common position that I would say the majority of Americans say that they hold even while still promoting naturalist ideas of race that is based of who your parents are, who your grandparents are, et cetera or how a person looks physically biologically.
Constructionists argue that, okay, race might not be of nature, so it’s not biological, but because of how racism works in society or at least in the United States, race is manifested as something real. Sort of like how one might describe gender as indeed being a social construction. Then the third category is something called skepticism. Skeptics argue that race is not real biologically and it’s not real as a social construction. It’s something that people imagine to be real but if we were really to do a deep dive and investigation into the concept of race and how race manifests in society, we would identify that the thing that we’re calling race is something else.
Every person holds one of those three categories. Then based on where you stand, you hold a second category that determines or reflects what you think should be done with race. There are three categories that describe what a person thinks should be done with race. You can be a conservationist, which is as it sounds, you can argue that race in whatever form, the concept of race should be conserved. It should be kept. Naturalists would almost automatically be conservationists because after all, if something is biological, it’s fixed. It’s something that has to be conserved because it exists regardless of whether we want it to or not.
[00:09:41] Ben: That’s right.
[00:09:41] Sheena: Then you could be a reconstructionist, which most people in America are reconstructionists. Reconstructionists tend to be social constructionists. They argue that race manifests itself in very real ways, but we recognize that there are some downfalls, some pitfalls, some shortcomings of how race manifests because of racism. We can reconstruct race in a way that’s more positive. A popular example of this effort to reconstruct and this will help people see just how common this position is really is like hashtags, black is beautiful, black girl magic, black excellence, black boy joy. All of these are efforts to reconstruct the meaning of race by reconstructing in the American imagination, what does it mean to be Black, what does it mean to be White, Asian et cetera.
The last category of the six is eliminativism. Eliminativism is a position in which people say for various reasons, that the concept of race should be eliminated. Eliminativists are almost more often than not are skeptics, sometimes social constructionists and they say, for filling the blank reason race should be eliminated. Now, I identify as an eliminativist skeptic. Once upon a time, preferably six months ago, I would have said, I was an eliminativist social constructionist but my thinking and my knowledge has since expanded and I now identify as a skeptic.
The reason behind how I came to these positions again was largely influenced by my learning and recognizing in African-American literature, for example, there are countless eliminativists, countless skeptics, the most infamous one is probably Martin Luther King Jr, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, you name it. A lot of these really significant and profound African American figures held eliminativist positions, but their eliminativism was often swept under the rug or misidentified as something that it’s not. I uncovered this position as I was doing my research.
A theory of racist is like my educational business, I educate people more fully on all of the philosophies of race. I use eliminativism and particularly skepticism to help people separate themselves from the racial categories that they apply to themselves or that society applies on to them and have more meaningful discussions about racism in a way that then proves to be more productive. When people are able to separate themselves from the racialized category, then it’s that much more difficult to take offense to something, to be caught up in your emotions about any particular thing.
We’re encouraged to talk about the actual problem, which isn’t race and we talk about racism. The last thing I’ll say about that particular point is, also in my research and examination of American society, in particular, it has become apparent to me that more often than not when people are talking about racism, they’re talking about it in terms of race.
That proves to be a misstep because a lot of the problem comes in how people are using whiteness and blackness in particular, as metaphors for either you are racist, or you’re a victim of racism. As you can imagine, that doesn’t sit well with people on all sides of the spectrum. Helping people separate themselves from the categories and really become more clear-eyed and astute as to how racism operates, what matters about racism, how can we, “be against racism?” This is the work that I’m most passionate about and this is the work that I’m dedicating my life to.
[00:14:50] Ben: Wow, thank you so much for that. That was a lot to take in. For our listeners, would you mind just doing a quick recap or not recap but just listing the six again?
[00:15:06] Sheena: Yes, sure. There’s naturalism, constructionism, eliminativism, skepticism, conservationism, and reconstructionism.
[00:15:20] Ben: Reconstructionism?
[00:15:21] Sheena: Yes, sir.
[00:15:23] Ben: From what you said, they can be mixed and matched?
[00:15:28] Sheena: Yes, some of them would be mutually exclusive. One cannot be an eliminativist and a conservationist or an eliminativist and naturalist. For the most part, you hold two positions, one which says what you think race is and then the second which says what you think should be done with race. The default position in American society that I think many people are taught to hold these positions would be a social constructionist reconstructionist position. If we look at the trajectory of race and racism in this country, we would come to see that race has been under reconstruction since before America was even a country. Right now, some people respond to me and say, “Okay, well, eliminativism, that’s fine and all, but how? How is that even practical? How is it possible?”
I point people to the fact that we’ve been reconstructing for centuries, so if that’s the case, which it is, then how is the idea of reconstructing race to not be racism hiding its face? How is that more practical if we’ve been literally doing that for centuries?
[00:17:02] Ben: Yes, it’s clearly not been working out. Well, how could someone identify where they stand philosophically?
[00:17:13] Sheena: Well, one question I encourage people to ask themselves is something to the effect of, when I think about or talk about race, what do I mean by race? What is blackness? What is whiteness? How do I know if I am Black? How do I know if my neighbor is Black? How do I know if my co-worker is White? How do I know somebody’s race? If we start to ask ourselves those types of questions, then we can start to parse out for ourselves, are we calling racist social construction, and at the same time, how I know I’m Black is because my mom is Black? Or how do I– am I White because my parents are White?
We can start to figure out what we actually mean by race and racialized categories and then we can start to figure out the unintentional upholding of racism that happens when we find ourselves using nationalist terms to describe race. Those naturalist terms are something that we certainly inherited in something that we teach our children but those terms are rooted and stem from slavery in the enslavement of Africans. They were trying to calculate who was Black and who was White.
At that time, it wasn’t actually about ancestry or DNA or biology, it was a lot about one’s access to power or one’s perceived access to power. Whiteness started to get codified in American society as people with access to power, they were not enslaved. They could be indentured servants at some point in the 1600s, but they weren’t enslaved, they had more access to power. Then there were free people of color, who were Africans, Indigenous people, people from the Caribbean who were not enslaved, they had more access to power, they could go to court, they could testify all of a lot of the rights that racialized White people gave themselves were also afforded to these free people of color.
Then there were Black people, Negroes who were racialized as Black and who did not have access to that same power, who were property, who were not seen as human beings. If that’s the history of race in this country and the trajectory of how one identifies themselves as part of a race, if it comes from that history, I think that we should definitely be exploring, interrogating, and imagining different possibilities for the future and future ways for how we describe ourselves.
The last thing I’ll say too, which is important that I want to encourage people to think about is how we conflate race with culture and how we conflate race with ethnicity. For a lot of people, they might hear me talk and say, “That’s great, but I actually love being Black.” There’s no problem with being Black. Fair enough, but when we’re talking about blackness, it has become this expansive metaphysical thing that encompasses culture and history, and ethnicity. All of that other stuff that because we’re taking the term black and blackness, those terms from race language which is racism remain problematic.
That’s why we find ourselves constantly still having to reconstruct what does it mean to be Black in the American imagination? If to be Black in America was a good thing, then racism wouldn’t be as pervasive and violent as it is. We wouldn’t be having all of these discussions. Thinking about how can I stop conflating race with culture and ethnicity and the doors, the worlds that would open up to us if we stopped racializing ourselves and each other and started looking toward the differences and similarities that exist both intergroup and intragroup that are currently racialized.
[00:22:38] Ben: Those are all such amazing points and so much to think about, but it got me right away thinking, I am Black. My family’s from Africa and I don’t say African-American because we didn’t move to the states until 1992, but I’ve from the get-go because we spoke differently, because of our education level especially me, I am always, always, always getting, “You’re not Black or you’re acting White.” I have always been like, “What does that mean?” What does it mean to be Black and what does it mean to be White?
Clearly, the color of my skin is the same color as you, but you are calling me White. It’s like, why? What is the secret to being Black in America or being White? To your point, it is traditionally a matter of power which I never felt comfortable with, or you have a certain level of education, so you’re not Black. It’s just like does being Black mean being uneducated in America, or what does that mean? You don’t speak Ebonics, so you’re not Black and I was like, “Is there a rule written somewhere? Is there a book that I didn’t get when we came to the country? This is how you’re Black in America? Did we not get the orientation?” If we’re White, why aren’t re reaping? We have a certain level of privilege, but it’s also less like, but for me, I was like, “I’m clearly not White like that person, that blonde-haired blue-eyed person is White.” I’m Black, but apparently not Black enough, I guess. I was always like one of those things where it’s– That’s one of those things I just gave up and just, it was driving me mad. I even have cousins in the states who call me their White cousin. I’m like, “I’m clearly not White,” but because of these conceptual constructs that I don’t meet for a Black person. I’m apparently not Black. I’m just like, “You know what, I’m just going to give it to God. I don’t care.”
[00:25:02] Sheena: Yes, Ben, this is really resonating with me. I’m chuckling, because when you follow, just like you were doing aloud just now. When you try to follow the logic, what is on the other end of a lot of those assertions, which is very common? It happens, I would say across this country, in all types of spaces, with all different types of looking people, there is this idea that to be White is to be educated which then means to sound educated, to speak standard English.
What I encourage my college students to do in particular, it’s what is on the other side of that assertion? What is being said about blackness, for example? To your point, what we can I think infer very confidently is that to be Black is to then be uneducated into them, therefore, sound uneducated. There’s this diminishing of number one, anything that’s outside of the standard, but then also there’s this internalized and sometimes externalized, problematic idea that to be Black is to be inferior.
[00:26:30] Ben: Exactly.
[00:26:32] Sheena: That is the thing I love that you mentioned that your family immigrated here from Africa.
[00:26:39] Ben: [unintelligible 00:26:39] I shouldn’t say Africa as though it’s a country, because that’s another one of my [unintelligible 00:26:44] We are from Liberia because Africa there are a lot of countries.
[00:26:47] Sheena: I was going to ask which country, because for a lot of people from the continent of Africa, depending on where you are, you don’t racialize yourself as Black, not all Africans in Africa on the continent, identify themselves as Black. They often identify at that by ethnicity tribe, et cetera. In certain spaces that have been colonized or remain colonized, then there often is this essence of racialization that still exists or colorism that still exists.
Many Africans don’t perceive themselves as Black until they come to a space like the United States and then it’s decided for them. Then to your point, all people who look black as in have brown skin are then racialized as Black, but then there are levels of blackness. What is this levels of blackness? I really try to help people really dissect their ideas about race to point out the fact that more often than not, racism is masquerading itself as race.
The evidence is in part in what you just described, that there is this perceived and accepted idea of what it is to be Black and what it is to be White in this country. That those perceptions are almost always based off of stereotypical racist essentialized notions.
[00:28:34] Ben: Exactly.
[00:28:35] Sheena: Then the problem comes in the fact that those essentialized notions of race are at least partly reflected in the affects of racism because we could talk about how there’s a disproportionate number of African-Americans in this country who are impoverished. We could talk about how there’s a disproportionate number of African-Americans in this country who live in food deserts or who are incarcerated, et cetera. Once you start to break it down, you come to realize that, that’s why blackness has become the metaphor for, “Inferior” in the ways that it has.
Racism has played out in a way that supports the idea that to be Black is to not have access to power, which translates into education, which translates into class, which translates into health, all of those things, but neither of us wants to talk about it.
[00:29:46] Ben: Exactly. You’ve mentioned the internalized inferiority because it is more often than not, that would be Black people, Black Americans who would be like, “You’re not Black.” They’ve accepted these stereotypes of inferiority that have been put on them and has now become ingrained in their mind that this is what it is to be Black. One of the saddest things for me as one to seeing people just accept that like, “This is how I’m supposed to be because of my race.” That’s it, that whole naturalist view. Even among the races that have been viewed as inferior and treated as such so long that they start to accept it, and just be like, “That’s just how it is.” Also reminded me of– I don’t know if you’ve ever familiar with the story of Sarah Rector?
[00:30:53] Sheena: Enlighten me.
[00:30:54] Ben: Yes?
[00:30:55] Sheena: I said, enlighten me.
[00:30:57] Ben: Sarah Rector was a African-American girl. Her family lived on a Native American reserve in Oklahoma in the turn of the century. Somehow because the land that they were given was so inferior that it was so bad that they couldn’t farm it, her dad leased it out to an oil company. They turned out discovering a huge amount of oil on her farm when she was just a little girl which made her obscenely wealthy. What they did, instead of having this very wealthy Black family or Black little girl, actually the Oklahoma Legislature made an effort to have her declared White so that she could reap the benefits of her elevated status because of all this money that was coming in, which is just so crazy.
In order for her to ride in first class on trains which she now had the money to do and have access to all these things that some people with their wealth would just normally do, they had to actually be changed. The legislator had to actually elevate them to White legally which is so crazy, which just shows how much of just like a construct.
[00:32:23] Sheena: Yes. All I have to say is yes. There are writers like Barbara Chase-Riboud who wrote Sally Hemings, which was her imagining of their relationship, if we can call it that, between Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemings. In that same text, when Sally Hemings is no longer enslaved, Barbara Chase-Riboud imagines that this racialized White census-taker comes and records her and her family as White for reasons that were really of his own agenda that he included as a way to essentially protect her from being kicked off the land and stuff. Racialized White people were permitted to be where she was, but apparently, racialized Black people were not.
There is this really interesting irony in how we tend to talk about race as if it’s so fixed. If you look at the history, you can find all kinds of examples of when it’s not fixed. Even in fairly recent history, I want to say this started happening in the 1970s. Mexican-Americans were once classified as– I think the default was White, and the census and formal census, forms and stuff. Then within a decade or so, it was reclassified as Hispanic or Hispanic as an ethnicity. You see all of this constant reworking of what is ethnicity, what is race?
I think the very intentional conflation of the two so that we can never disentangle them or we feel like we can’t.
If we track the ramifications of how race is perceived and how we tend to talk about it in popular discourse, then that’s when we start to uncover ways in which we unintentionally uphold these racist ideas. Because I will say, it’s not just racialized Black people who view being White as being in there for sounding educated, this idea is persistent across the board. There are racialized White people who would think that you and I, for example, as racialized Black people are the exception because of how we sound and how we talk, which then means that they share this idea that to be White is to sound a certain way and to be a certain way.
[00:35:22] Ben: I grew up in an almost all-White community in Fridley, Minnesota, and definitely had my fair share of White friends would be like, “Oh, you’re our whitest Black friend.” I would be like, “Well, I think I’m your only Black friend.”
[00:35:41] Ben: Also them just being saying like, “You’re one of us. You’re not one of those Black people. You’re,” I feel bad using the term, “The good ones.” It’s like, “Yes, I know you’re one of us.” This is a compliment and insulting all at the same time. I don’t know how to feel about this. “Thank you. I guess. I don’t know.” The whole Sarah Rector is about– that was in 1913 when the legislator was like, “Hey, we’ve got this really rich Black girl. Let’s make her White.” Because that’s the only way that she can live the life that she’s due with all her money, which is so crazy to think. Then it is you mentioned the census and just the fact that how the new racial categories that seem to be added every time or how it’s edited, evolving, just shows how much of a construct race is.
[00:36:47] Sheena: Yet, I feel like the vast majority of people in the US still continue to take it for granted. Part of the danger comes in what I hear articulated by people I work with more often than not, which is this feeling of racism rules the world, particularly what’s called anti-Black racism rules the world, white supremacy rules the world. We can never be outside of this thing called racism. I think that that it’s often champion as part of, I guess you could say, a liberal or progressive umbrella or categorization, but how defeatist is that? You actually cannot change anything if you don’t believe that it can be changed.
The hopelessness and the pessimism that some people articulate, I can understand and appreciate because after all, like you and I’ve been talking about, this thing called race and being called racism has been in existence since shortly before America earned its independence from Britain. That’s a long time, like to had these centuries-long. When we look at other spaces outside of the United States, including the continent of Africa itself, then we come to see that race might exist everywhere, but it doesn’t exist in exactly the same ways.
It just doesn’t, which means that racism looks different everywhere if it exists everywhere. There are places like Ethiopia where the vast majority of Ethiopians don’t view themselves as racialized until they leave. I hear stories from people from around the world. They have a steep learning curve when they come to this country because they have to learn what it is to be racialized? What racism is? Some people, African immigrants especially I’ve heard, articulate their confusion about racism because, from their view, they’re able to accomplish and do anything here.
If we look at statistics, we see that a fair amount of them do have economic success in the United States compared to African-Americans. If that’s the case and that complicates the discussion about race, I think tenfold, because what is it about somebody immigrating from Nigeria that enables them to have success in the United States in ways that many African-Americans might not have? Because after all, aren’t both Black? We just have to consider how the topic is so complex.
The history is so complex, but the one thing that we can know for sure is that race hasn’t always existed in the ways that we talk about it now, although recent– even the shape of racism has changed over time. In different spaces, racist, relative race, and racism are relative. If that’s the case, then I find it fairly easy to imagine a future in which you and I aren’t having a conversation about this anymore, because it’s been sold, not in a utopic, oh, there’s absolutely no discrimination or racism ever existing.
I think it could be the case that the statistical majority of Americans or people in this country get to the place where they recognize that race doesn’t do us any good. It actually does more harm than it does good. That the better thing to do would be to remove the violence of race because it’s racism hiding its face. If we’re able to do that, then we can actually have the progress that I think most of us want to have, which is not to be judged by the color of our skin.
[00:41:31] Ben: One of those things that you mentioned earlier, and I’ve heard a lot, or talk about more and more is anti-racism. Could you elaborate more on what that is, what that movement is?
[00:41:45] Sheena: Sure. The first thing I’ll say, as we turn our attention to anti-racism is that it seems like it’s a harder road, or perhaps maybe even an impossible road because we’ve been in this struggle for so long, largely because we keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, which some people would define as insanity.
[00:42:12] Ben: I think that is the actual definition of insanity, I think that’s what it says in the dictionary
[00:42:18] Sheena: What we keep doing the same is reconstructing race. That’s what I hope to inspire more people to observe, to recognize, acknowledge, and then consider alternatives like eliminated visible, like skepticism. If we keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then we are all, in many ways, asking for what we get, which is this continued a centralized location of people based off of what is perceived to be race, which in a lot of ways translates in simple terms into how a person looks and ideas about people based on how they look. I think no matter how you cut the cake, that is “a bad thing”.
I’m putting that in air quotes that is not a positive or generative or productive thing because my culture is not dictated based off of what you think my race is. How I speak is not dictated based off of that. If something is racial, if race exists, then it would have to apply to every person who fits into that category. As you and I have already revealed, you can be racialized as Black and be part of any nation.
You can speak any language. You can have any level of education, be interested in any number of music found rose. The list goes on. Even in the United States, an African-American person from California is very different from an African-American person in New York. I would hope that the same holds true for people categorized as White in this country.
We are in a lot of beautiful ways. We are different. We are complex and race and the categories completely washes over our actual differences, privileges, perceived, and assumed differences. Then our actual similarities are swept under the rug and we are less able to see how you and I are more alike than we’re different in profound ways.
Me, a racialized Black woman compared to a racialized White woman are more alike and profound than we are different in profound ways. That level of recognition and seeing oneself when another person is prevented largely because of the idea of race. That’s why when some people hear Black Lives Matter, which I feel like has become a dirty word in some states.
[00:45:17] Ben: Up here in Liberal Minneapolis.
[00:45:20] Sheena: [laughs] When some people hear that they respond with all lives matter because when you put race into the category, it prevents more people than not from seeing the thing that is actually being spoken about, which is racism. That’s the problem. That’s what BLM is bringing attention too, is racism, not blackness or being Black or anything like that. It’s like racism is a problem in this country, but people aren’t always open to hearing that or seeing that because as soon as you put a racist word in there, then they don’t see themselves in that thing.
I think that’s a disservice to all of us doing anti-racist work or what we can call anti-racist work, because ultimately, what we’re really striving for is unification. How do you unify people by showing them how they are more alike than not, and really encouraging and enabling a deep level of empathy and compassion and love in the best ways to bring out the best in every person and to the hop, a centralizing stereotyping, applying racist ideas to any person. That is the goal. That to me, is what anti-racism is to me. I’ll give you my definition as somebody else’s.
Anti-racism to me is also being anti-racist. I recognize racism as masquerading as race in this country. I recognize that we conflate ideas of race with ethnicity and culture, and we should stop because the thing that is race is racism named as race. To be anti-racist, to be against hierarchies in society based off of a person’s body.
How a person looks the person’s skin color, et cetera, to be against hierarchies based on those things is to be anti-race. Then in parentheses, I would put ism, I make up words all the time. That to me is the thing that we should be striving for. Not in a problematic, I’m colorblind, I don’t see color way.
Listen, a lot of well-intentioned people use that language or use the word colorblindness, or they’ll say things like we’re one race, the human race, which actually is factually true. A lot of people misunderstand those assertions because what is often connected to it is this unwillingness to acknowledge that racism is a problem. That is not what I am saying here today.
I acknowledge that racism is a problem in this country. Not only do I acknowledge it, but I’m also hoping to show more people how they are unintentionally upholding racism by upholding and privileging race. Until we can recognize that and understand that and see the ways that our phase then we will continue to persist in the problem in the fight against racism because we are unintentionally upholding it. Imagine a world in which we’re able to stop conflating, race, culture, and ethnicity, and imagine ourselves outside of the confines of racism. What does that world look like? It can’t exist.
It has before it does in other spaces, what does that world look like? What things can people actually unify themselves around? What new language are we going to come up with? For African-Americans whose cultures ethnicities have been largely not erased from them, but have been complicated, let’s say, but if there are descendants of enslaved peoples, there are now DNA tests where one can get their ethnic breakdown.
If that’s how you want to reconnect with your Africanness, otherwise translated as blackness then that is something that I think would happen with the removal of race language because we have the technology. Now we have the ability now to really reconnect with our ethnicities, with our cultures to recognize how American culture is truly an anomaly. Also like comprised of all kinds of peoples and cultures. Culture is not static. It’s not singular like it’s a thing. I think it would be a really beautiful, productive, and generative thing and it won’t be paradise there will still be other hierarchies.
Right now we’re just talking about this one hierarchy that currently inflicts violence onto communities of people who haven’t earned that violence. Listen that’s why, if you can’t hear the passion in my voice, like [inaudible 00:51:18]
[00:51:20] Ben: [laughs] Oh, we can hear it.
[00:51:22] Sheena: [inaudible 00:51:22] to this, I will talk about this. I will even at risk of being misconstrued as a colorblind Conservative or something like that. We have to do better. We have to step outside of our pun intended Black and White ways of viewing ourselves in each other and we can do better. If we’re really serious about making a change that we argue for or want to see, then we have to do that internally first, and then we can have a real conversation.
[00:51:57] Ben: I do like that you mentioned that just getting rid of race won’t solve all our problems because I kept thinking about, well, once people stop talking about race, there’s still a lot of other hierarchies, like class and other levels that people are judged by that are still very problematic. I think race is one of the leading ones. I guess don’t and I think about how easy it is to say, become like I don’t see colors kind of person which doesn’t really help at all. Actually, I think that makes it worse.
[00:52:49] Sheena: No. Yes, because oftentimes, that translates as I don’t see color and therefore, your problems don’t exist. That, to me, is more evidence of this race racism evasion that I’m talking about. If the response to, I don’t see color is “What do you mean? You don’t see my problems. You don’t see racism?” Racism exists and color exists. Like to me, it’s like that is a real-life example and evidence for how racism masquerades as race in society because after all, if the existence of racism proves the existence of race, that’s the thing, like what do we do with that?
If that’s the case then to me, the case for eliminating racism is that much more clear. Let’s stop trying to reconstruct this thing. That actually is what people articulate in different ways proven to be the cause of racism. I think it’s actually racism is the cause of race, but so long as we keep insisting the opposite and then patting ourselves on the back, we’re going to keep banging our heads against the wall. To your point, many of the efforts to be against racism, if you will or to be anti-racist again, very well-intentioned, but historically have led to different policies and practices and procedures that actually don’t do much of anything to solving the problem.
It comes back to this idea that I mentioned earlier, this need to identify the correct problem that we’re trying to solve. I’ll give you one example. I know we’re concluding here. I can talk all day about this stuff. One example of that is affirmative action. If we look at certain institutions like, I don’t know, Harvard University, one of the big-name universities and we see that affirmative action is in place to help get more underserved people into the realm of the Ivy League. That’s a really lofty goal except when we see it in practice, we see that the people who are middle income or high income, people of color who are income or middle income or come from middle-income families, often immigrants are admitted.
Then African-American people from urban communities, for example, who are not a middle class, but are lower class, aren’t being admitted. If we’re trying to solve racism and we’re saying that racism is largely problematic because of the ways that it disproportionately particular types of communities, then our solutions can’t be a blanket privileging of race because actually, the thing that we’re trying to work towards solving is socioeconomic status like you said earlier, this notion of class. I think all around, we tend to talk about it and try to solve the problem and two Black and White ways that might make us feel better or feel like we’re solving the problem. Actually, if we do an examination into the statistics, we would see that we’re not actually solving the problem.
[00:56:38] Ben: I know that’s a great point about who tends to get those, like who in the Black community tends to get those scholarships and, or those opportunities. There is a blanket being like, “Oh, look we have this many Black people here,” but that’s assuming that all Black people are the same and all have all the same experiences. By giving this person a leg up, we’re giving the whole community a leg up and we’re doing this whole great thing for the whole Black community.
Or it’s like, “Nope, you’re doing a great thing for that specific person, or for your school.” We’re not a monolith. Wow, this is such a great conversation and I’m really, really bummed that we have to end it. I just want to thank you so, so much for coming in and having this conversation with us. It’s been such a pleasure to have you and I hope we’ll be doing a lot more with you in the forum in the future.
[00:57:49] Sheena: Thank you so much, Ben. In the meantime, folks can find me theoryofracelessness.org.
[00:57:57] Ben: Great. Thank you again so much for coming in. Thank you.
[00:58:02] Sheena: Thank you.
[00:58:05] Ben: Thank you so much, Sheena, for being part of our 2021 podcast series. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have this conversation with you. Thank you to our listeners and to our sponsor Best Buy. To learn more about race or racelessness, visit www.theoryofracelessness.org or reach out to Dr. Mason directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. New episodes of the forum podcasts are available forumworkplaceinclusion.org/podcast. You can also find our podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify anchor, and Stitcher. Thank you again for listening and have a great day.
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