top of page

"Racialization and Human Reality": An Essay by Lewis R. Gordon (Keywords: Race; Gender; Identity)


A few years ago I came upon a controversy regarding an article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” by the philosopher Rebecca Tuvel. Many responses to Tuvel’s arguments were visceral. Upon reading the paper, I found the outrage against it and the condemnations of her perplexing. She was accused of a wide range of indiscretions, from being transphobic and racist to lacking academic integrity and competence. It’s the latter accusations that would be most damaging to an academic, especially an untenured assistant professor. An academic’s capital, so to speak, is her intelligence and intellectual integrity.

My read of the article was that Tuvel was posing a set of questions for adherents of social constructivism to consider when they dismiss people avowing transracial identities. Although concerned about her privileging analytic philosophers in her citation – a warranted concern because the vast history of philosophical work on gender, racial, and trans identities points to philosophers outside of the analytic tradition – it struck me that the questions she posed were legitimate, and the underlying argument sound.

Basically, Tuvel argues that there is a similarity between the arguments used to justify transracial identities and those used for other forms of trans identities, and, further, that a commitment to gendered, racial, and sexual identities as socially constructed should entail that people can adopt identities so long as – given proponents’ philosophical commitments to social constructivism – there is no underlying claim of ontological fixedness or essentialism to those identities (that is, as long as these identities are seen to be social constructs rather than, for example, “natural kinds”). Additionally, the identities people live or exemplify are not always identical with those socially imposed upon them. If gender and sex are made, then they could be made in different ways and, thus, lived in those and others to come.

Following on from this, Tuvel argues that if there is going to be support for all but transracial identities, stronger arguments for the rejection of the latter are needed (especially since the arguments used to reject the former mirror those to reject the latter).

Had I been one of the referees for the article, I would have recommended publication, despite my concern for its lack of acknowledgment of the rich history of phenomenological discussions of social constructivity and critical work on reality beyond the confines of analytic philosophy. Many, if not most, practitioners in that sphere tend to treat ideas as absent except when uttered or written by an analytic philosopher. This is so even if the analytic philosopher has arrived at a subject after the arguments avowed have been around for a century or more. In short, there was nothing unusual in Tuvel’s article, within the confines of analytic philosophy, even though her training was in both analytic and Eurocontinental philosophy. Junior scholars, most academics know, are often evaluated by scholars who prefer them to cite a narrow set of authors.

I hate bullying. It struck me that Tuvel was suffering from an epistemic and professional instance of that. I also don’t believe in offering private support for those who are bullied. So, I posted my thoughts in social media sites and encouraged anyone with whom I corresponded on the matter to share our correspondence with whomever they choose. These exchanges led to a forum in Philosophy Today, in which I formally stated my position. Tuvel was able to respond to other critics and me there.

Tuvel also recently wrote a piece, “Changing Identities: Are Race and Gender Analogous?” for Black Issues in Philosophy, in which she offered more clarification of her position. For instance, she stressed that “analogous” and “same” are not identical. She never argued that transgender and transracial identities are identical. Further, even where people transition into a new identity, it doesn’t follow that their history and moral entitlements on all relevant matters are the same as others who preceded them in that identity. She acknowledges those differences and concludes with an ethical instead of epistemological and ontological claim. She identifies the importance of answering “ethical questions about how to balance respect for specific individuals … with our obligations to members of the racialized groups people seek to leave or join.”


I won’t repeat the varieties of examples and arguments I posed in my discussion of her original article. The forum that occasions writing this essay is devoted to the relationship of concepts to reality. Given this, I will offer some considerations on how theorizing that relationship – itself a form of conceptualization – offers insights, especially in light of tendencies in philosophy to treat debates (like those examined by Tuvel) as of less philosophical quality because of supposedly not being formally “pure.”

There is often circularity at work when philosophers speak of purity, especially in light of the adverb “formally.” For some, “pure philosophy” boils down to being formal, and one could be even purer if one could be formally formal. For those wishing to avoid that rabbit hole, an option is to read philosophical classics and learn about the history of philosophical ideas. The challenge in doing that is to be aware of the pitfalls of treating one tradition as the sole legitimate bearer of philosophical knowledge. Another challenge is to be aware that no one approach to philosophy is conclusive and the only legitimate one among the rest.

The incompleteness of foundational efforts in philosophy does not mean there are no points of convergence across various areas, styles, traditions, and cultures.

The incompleteness of foundational efforts in philosophy does not mean there are no points of convergence across various areas, styles, traditions, and cultures. Whether endorsing or being critical of it, philosophers struggle with the scope and sufficiency of reason, critical reflection, and the ways in which reality is disclosed – as “truth,” (German) “Warheit,” (Latin) “veritas,” (Greek) “aletheia,” (Mdw Ntr) “MAa,” or, heading eastward, (Hindi) “saty,” (Mandarin) “zhēnxiàng,” (Japanese) “shintjitsu,” or southward, (Swahili) “ukweli,” (Zulu) “ikiniso”/ “iqiniso,” or, in the South Pacific, (Māori) “pono.”

Each of the non-English terms from the previous list could be translated as “truth,” but that would be misleading, since they are so contextually and conceptually packed with philosophical additions – in the case of MAa, linked to balance, breath, and justice; in aletheia, to openness, disclosure – that translation itself achieves its mythical problem, as portrayed in so many allegories, as a deceptive messenger. Amusingly the etymology of the English word “truth” points to the old West Saxon “triewð,” which connotes faith, faithfulness, fidelity, and loyalty – in short, that in which one should have faith or trust. To be truthful is to be trustworthy.

What is clear is that humanity has been struggling with our relationship with “reality” for many millennia. In the first chapter of my recent book Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization I discuss written reflections on this struggle, going back at least 4,000 in East Africa. Yet, as an inheritance from colonialism, the prevailing portrait of the history of philosophy is that it began about 2,500 years ago on the European side of the Mediterranean. The alliance between hegemonic philosophy and colonialism – manifested in what has become known as “western philosophy” – is a crisis, and perhaps even a scandal, in the light of many practitioners’ ongoing failure to address it. That there has been an underside tradition, which has addressed this problem (since at least the seventeenth century) raises the question of whether philosophy, as practiced in its hegemonic form, is sufficiently self-critical. This is not a light challenge; at its heart is the integrity of philosophy – whether philosophy is, ironically, true to itself and, as a consequence, again, trustworthy.

There are many reflections on philosophy from philosophers, and in many of them the question of reality looms large. Perhaps none is more enduring, for reasons I suspect that defy colonial fantasies, than Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in his Republic. There were similar reflections in antiquity, but Plato’s survive in full written form, which clearly offers much on which to reflect. Among the many takeaways from the allegory is that any theorizing within the cave – and thereby separate from the realm of the radically public – falls short of tracking reality. It is not that there are no elements of reality in the cave; it’s just that shadows are confused with the broader domain of possibilities. Inside the cave, reality is closed and complete. Outside, reality is open.

A longtime aspiration and source of anxiety for humanity, as demonstrated not only in philosophy but also mythic and aesthetic accounts, is the realization that words and sentences, through which concepts and speech are formed, both demarcate and produce aspects of reality. The productive side is both alchemical and magical; as we know, language and the social worlds human beings build through it are also those in which, through which, and by which we live much of “reality.” In other words, the reality in which we think is always accompanied by the parenthetical “human.” For those antipathetic to (human) reality, “social reality” could suffice.

There are, of course, reasons to object to adding “human” to our efforts to articulate and understand reality. Anthropomorphism is one. Another is archaeolinguistic and genealogical, similar to my point about translation. Given the many forms of self-reference to the art or practice of thinking, theorizing, attempting to discover, know, and learn, the parenthetical adjective could be more varying than one may think. Even further, objections could be posed to claims of a thinking subject as a necessary condition of or for thought.

Responses include conceding such objections through a process of interrogating each objection and exploring where they lead. Such a process could lead us to an open horizon in the wake of broken idols, as many from Edmund Husserl to Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone Weil, or from John Dewey and William James to W.E.B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper, or from Rabindranath Tagore to Sri Aurobindo or from Cheikh Anta Diop to Kwame Gyekye and Kwasi Wiredu or from Ottobah Cugoano to Anténor Firmin to Frantz Fanon or from Kitarō Nishida to Keiji Nishitani or from Abdel-Rahman Badawi to Ali Shariati and Mourad Wahba, and more have shown. As what always exceeds us, reality is humbling. Efforts to articulate and understand reality ricochet back to our relationship to all relationships and the communicability or intelligibility of each insight along the way.

Now, this already rather abstract yet historical contextualizing brings to the fore the point I made about the importance of discussing problems of forming identities beyond formal analytic constraints, an approach that privileges formal logical analysis. That approach seeks to eliminate contradictions often without interest in learning from them. The project of eliminating contradictions could be characterized as a search for consistency. This means that if one were to continue a line of reasoning, all subsequent steps must also not contradict the previous ones. There is a long line of philosophical debate about what happens when evaluating logic or any activity capable of questioning itself. Many arrive upon a realization of a distinction between what it means to behave rationally versus behaving reasonably.

Imagine being married to a person who is maximally consistent, one who never commits a contradiction. There is a word for such a marriage: hell. There would be a point at which adherence to consistency, to being rational or logical, amounts to being unreasonable. This revelation is of reason being broader in scope than rationality. Because it must evaluate rationality and all kinds of thinking, including itself, reason must be open and dynamic. It involves not only maintaining rules but also knowing when to break them – and providing good reasons for doing so.

The incompleteness of rationality premised on maximizing consistency permeates philosophical reflection in every tradition in which the law of noncontradiction has been formulated. But formal logical reflection isn’t the only source of philosophical thinking, and others ranging from intelligibility, coherence, demonstration, description, indirection, dialectics, and a wide range of alternatives in other languages (think, for example, of hasasa or hatata in the Ethiopian language of Gəˁəz) already set the framework for philosophy, as a practice, to open its gates. Ironically, the line of reasoning Tuvel raised on specifically human identities and limits of analogies are already at work in the varieties of divisions, commitments, and identities in the discipline in which she is a practitioner.

Constellation by Nicole Franchy

These critical reflections come forth in many ways in discussions of race in relation to its reality, and are there in challenges from the epistemological to the aesthetic, ethical, and political. Now, respecting the limitations of space in this forum, I won’t recapitulate what I have written on these matters but will instead simply state that “race,” as a designation now primarily posed as a feature of human groups, places it under the purview of human study and, thus, in philosophical terms, under philosophical anthropology. This requires thinking through what “human reality” means and what is required for its study. In my 2006 book Disciplinary Decadence, I argued that all disciplines are human-produced and as such, they have the strengths and limitations of human production. Efforts to liberate them from us are rife with performative contradictions, among which is a form of human cleansing (purification). This effort often takes the form of treating disciplines as if they were created by gods. The same treatment applies to their methods. The result is what I call disciplinary decadence and what Wahba calls “fundamentalism.” Both offer forms of epistemic closure through which, in practice, the disciplines are offered as complete and perfect. This leads to secularized theodicean forms of argumentation. Theodicy deals with the kinds of rationalizations used to justify gods in the presence of injustice and evil. Where a god or the gods are presumed all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, why don’t they do something to prevent injustice and suffering? Two classic responses are that such a powerful god’s aims exceed human understanding and that a loving god respects human freedom. Both responses preserve the integrity of the god through pointing to human limitations. This argument could be secularized through replacing the god with something that could play the same role in the argument. The substitute could be a person, a society, a system of ideas, or a discipline.

Where disciplinary decadence reigns, anything that challenges it must be rejected. In disciplines that study human reality, the response to people who don’t fit their disciplinary presuppositions lead to the frustrating question: “What’s wrong with these people?” This response in effect calls the people into question instead of considering whether it is the discipline itself that should be questioned. It is not a long leap to conclude that a discipline that should not be questioned eventually becomes full of itself. Sealed onto itself, reality could only be considered from within the discipline. We could call this “disciplinary solipsism.” Similar to the response of frustration when confronted by people who don’t fit, disciplinary practitioners who treat their disciplines as complete and its methods as perfect make the same move as proponents of theodicy: they build fortification against a rude intruder – reality.

The varieties of human sciences produced in the Euromodern world posed racialized peoples as problems instead of studying them as people who face problems such as racism.

Although they didn’t use that formulation, the impact of disciplinary decadence on the study of race and racism is well documented among philosophers and social theorists over the past few hundred years, ranging from Ottobah Cugoano to Anténor Firmin to W.E.B. Du Bois to Frantz Fanon. The varieties of human sciences produced in the Euromodern world posed racialized peoples as problems instead of studying them as people who face problems such as racism. By making those people the problem, the disciplines and the societies in which they are produced are left off the hook of political responsibility. There are additional fallacies in the study of race that are produced by disciplinary decadence in the human sciences. They include presumptions of a “pure” human species from which so-called inferior races deviate. There is also the presumption that “origins” must be pure. And there is the view that a human identity could be studied by itself without a relationship with other identities. It took some time to overcome the damage of these combined fallacies in contemporary thought. In genetics, we have come to learn that species originate from points of the most diverse combination of their genes. “Deviation,” so to speak, tends to move toward purity. With regard to the notion of isolated, pure identities, consider this: race never actually works by itself. Nor does gender. Nor does class. Nor do sexuality, religion, national identity, and many more. No one has ever seen a race walking, a gender walking, nor a class, sexuality, religion, or national identity. We encounter combinations of these embodied in each human being. That is because each of these are relational terms that, through fallacious, disciplinarily decadent interpretations, are decontextualized and placed outside of the relations through which they were produced and by which they are lived. This negative process is also called, in philosophical terms, “ontologizing.” Once identities are not ontologized, the question that follows is: What kinds of reality are they? The general answer is that they are forms of social reality. A crucial feature of social reality is communication. Without the ability to communicate, one would be locked into oneself. There would be no “outside,” and no others to whom to be accountable and with whom a concept such as evidence could make sense. Practitioners who behave this way in a discipline ignore what other disciplines offer. This process mirrors the racist attitude of those who believe that they have nothing to learn from other races. The superior race becomes an end and means. In both cases, what is needed is a way of going beyond them. As both impede one’s relationship with reality through investments in the self as reality, what is needed is a commitment to reality that transcends them. In the study of disciplines, I call that a “teleological suspension of disciplinarity.” That involves being willing to go beyond one’s discipline for the sake of reality or truth. In a discipline such as philosophy, this means being willing to go beyond philosophy for the sake of what many, if not all, philosophers claim to seek – namely, reality and truth. In the case of race and racism, it means being willing to go beyond the notion that one’s “race” has all the answers and is superior. Clearly, if racism is both wrong and premised on falsehoods, then such an effort involves a commitment to reality and the quest for truth. Now, what should be evident is that the willingness to go beyond the presupposition of the intrinsic legitimacy of one’s discipline, group, society, or system of beliefs requires not only a willingness to communicate with and be accountable to others, but also the ability to act and take responsibility for one’s actions. The decision to do so or not is an expression of freedom. It is also an expression of power since it involves the ability to bring meanings and their consequences into being. Power here means the ability to make things happen, along with access to the conditions of doing so. Those conditions are, in a word, reality. These observations amount to reality not as a “thing” but as what precedes our actions and what can be produced by them. There is, however, something that haunts at least our experience of reality. Just as it is possible that humanity could have not emerged, so, too, could all that preceded us. A terrifying thought for many, besieged with existential reflection, is that all of reality, from the physical to the metaphysical, need not have come about. None of us – indeed, nothing – had to be. In effect, human beings live in a reality that did not have to produce us. It is one of the reasons we in effect “live” or exist through human reality. Beyond the reality we produce, we are, in a word, homeless. We alleviate the homelessness of our existence through producing values and valuing those values. These range from our decorated habitats to our relationships with one another and our social institutions to our systems of knowledge through which we understand the world in which we live. Actions inaugurating and supporting these features of human reality include those that produce the public realm of communication through which we can manifest citizenship and, thus, politics. ***

Artwork by Nicole Franchy

The upshot of all this is that to speak of the reality of race is not to speak of it in ontological terms as one would a chair, stone, or tautological algorithm. It is to speak of the intelligibility of communicating it within the sphere of action. In other words, people act on race, and in such action produce it as a feature or a form of human reality that could be called “racialized human reality” or, simply, “racialization.” The logic of power by which race is produced is deceptive, since it requires treating as a fixed, natural, or ontological feature of reality that which is made or constructed. What is made, we should remember, must be maintained to stick around. This is another way of saying it can be unmade. Avoiding this conclusion requires at least two options. The first is coercive, which is the deployment of power to block others – in this case, those racialized as inferior – from conditions of being able to make things happen. The second is for the dominated group to make things easy by blocking themselves. If they believe either in their inferiority or the impossibility of changing their conditions, if they fail to see or understand their ability to act, the consequence would be identical with their condition not being made but given. In either interpretation, the result is an outcome, through the production of race, that is disempowering.

The logic of power by which race is produced is deceptive, since it requires treating as a fixed, natural, or ontological feature of reality that which is made or constructed.

When people are disempowered, their agency is only expressed inward. They act, at best, onto themselves. Pushed further inward, they are immobilized. Pushed further, they implode. Clearly, the best course is to move outward, to render disempowerment impotent. Outward directed power is social.

Without the social, one’s reach is that of one’s physical body. The power of language enables us, through communication, to affect the world beyond our physical reach. Social power is such that one could be in one country but affect those on the other side of the planet by virtue of what is communicated through the technologies and institutions at our disposal. Racism is the rallying of institutions, manifestations of social power, for the sake of disempowering people who are racialized as inferior. It is also the propping up of a certain group as superior through granting them the supposed right to determine the rules of who counts as superior and otherwise. Since an individual aspiration or effort to block others would be impotent where there are no forces to spread it through the institutions and mechanisms of possibility in a society, racism is patently a political matter. Individualized, it is at best an insult or the attitudes of, in colloquial language, haters. The biggest fear of haters, however, is becoming irrelevant. The more power they lack, the more irrelevant they become. The enemy of racism, then, is the realization of its irrelevance. When racism is unable to permeate institutions – through organising their structures – it ceases to be anything more than individual aspirations. Put differently, the result is racists without racism. Racial eliminativists have argued otherwise. For them, the goal should be the elimination of race. Without race, there is no target, and, therefore, they argue, no institutional location for it to acquire intelligibility. A problem with that argument, however, is interpreting concepts in the way one would exact, singular terms. Concepts, however, especially when premised on human action, can have many meanings through how they are used. Thus, even the eradication of the term “race” and specific racial designations marked by colour such as “black” and “white” do not entail the eradication of racialization in racist societies. In the United States, for example, the shift from “black” to “African American” did not eliminate racism. The term “racism” in fact came out of the European experience, even though the practice of racism preceded its coinage by nearly a thousand years. The prototypical term raza referred to Jews and Moors. Despite the efforts of Jews to escape race, even with arguing for the singularity of antisemitism, the grammar of racialization is there. It is an error to think of racialization as requiring morphological similarity or homogeneity, for, as many blacks know, black homogeneity is a stereotypical racial construction. That is because black peoples are morphologically and culturally diverse. There is thus no reason why a group as diverse as Jews, whose complexion ranges from the lightest to the darkest hues, cannot be racialized. This, too, is the case with Muslims. This makes sense since Muslims were part of the prototypical designation. It is so with varieties of Southwest Asian groups who are placed outside of the orbit of belonging to the holy and the natural. Think of Dalits (from the Hebrew word actually meaning “crushed,” “low,” “poor,” “weak,” but more familiar today as “Untouchables”). This list can go on. It can because the grammar and ongoing practices (Wittgensteinians would say “language games”) of racialization persist through the institutions and conditions of intelligibility of racist societies. Critics of the expression “racist societies” often mistakenly interpret it to mean that every member of the society is racist. As we have already seen, it’s possible to have racists without racism. There are many instances of racists from a racist society visiting another society in which racism is not part of its history or institutions. Think of travellers or explorers arriving in societies where the indigenous peoples have no idea of what is being introduced by the visitors or, in some cases, invaders. In those contexts, especially where the invaders lose, there is simply anomaly. If, however, we consider societies in which racism is intelligible, there is a stronger argument that can be made. In those instances, we should think back to the discussion of human reality as an open instead of closed reality. What this means is that racism is an effort to impose closure on human reality. But since each human being is a relationship with human reality – that is, human beings are not properly beings or substances (things) but, instead, ongoing relationships in the making – then the idea that every single individual relationship in a racist society is a racist one is not viable because it is not liveable (though it is, admittedly, logically possible). The racially dominated are also in relationships with racist societies, so racism is always, by virtue of the forces it is deploying, being resisted, circumvented, and challenged. The sustainability of racism depends on rallying energy away from so many other aspects of racist societies such that, to paraphrase a familiar adage, its members discover that no society can live by racism alone. All this leads to a meditation on failure. After all, once political solutions to racism are announced, the question that remains is how to put them into effect. Many examples of failed efforts to transform racist societies can be pointed to, but one should bear in mind that there is a fallacy at work in these examples. The failure is determined through the individuals who acted. There is an implicit non-relational metaphysics in the judgment. It leads to the fallacious notion that the world can only be changed if an individual can do so alone. What else could such an individual be but a god? There is, however, another way of reading individual efforts to change the world. If those individuals and their efforts are read as relationships that are part of a larger series of relationships that are constitutive of a society, any action that challenges that system requires a realignment of power for their suppression. Consequently, other sites and practices would be unlocked. This is because there is no such thing as an omniscient and omnipotent human system. Failure is not the measure of a moment; it is a conclusion of a practice or effort that has been exhausted. But as each effort is the condition of possibility of others, there is a form of anonymity of future actions at the heart of each effort of social transformation. Made plain: those of us who enjoy broader options today do so on the basis of the conditions of those who preceded us. Think of those many past enslaved women and men who were told their struggles for dignity and freedom didn’t matter. They had no way to know those of us whose lives and opportunities came about from their actions. At best, their actions were for them expressions of commitment. We who are the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ punished actions may be unintelligible to them. The same will no doubt be the case for our successors. Whether in the past or the present, political action against coercive models of power – and for the distribution of power into empowered action – requires political commitment. This is an expansion of freedoms that are antipathetic to racism. This is one of the reasons why antiracism is ultimately a struggle for democracy. A society devoted to disempowering (dehumanizing) portions of its population is patently undemocratic and often worse: anti-democratic. The fight for the eradication of dehumanization is worthless if the result is a socially impotent group. As a struggle for democracy, anti-racism is thus a transcending activity in which communication is a necessary condition. The communicative practice of democracy requires conceptions of citizenship beyond contemporary formulations of voting. A “thick” or rich model of social access – brought about by having institutions that make such things possible – would patently not be a racist one. As racialization is always part of a constellation of other forms of reification, a long list of its convergences or intersections would come into play – from gender to sexual orientation to class formation and others constitutive of how people actually live. *** I’m aware that these implications of the transdimensionality and radical potential of human reality may be dizzying for the reader. This is a normal response. Human existence is a struggle for stability amidst our ongoing metastability. Existence (from the Latin expression ex sistere), after all, also means to stand out. This includes standing out sufficiently to pose human reality as a concern of inquiry. I have written here about asymmetries, incompleteness, openness, and other considerations that amount to additional discomforting and discomfiting implications of human reality, which, in the effort to stabilize, gave rise over the ages to varieties of avowed stabilizing efforts such as class, gender, and race (among many others). At the heart of their correlative dehumanizing practices of class oppression, misogyny, and racism is misanthropy. Although the trans stories are manifold, at the heart of them is the unlocking of possibilities by which human beings could live otherwise. This raises a consideration at the core of existence. To stand out, even from initial manifestations of doing so, because contingent and free, need not be, in a word, “straight.” There is something queer about human existence, and just as dehumanization involves closing off the openness of human reality, so, too, are efforts of de-queering. I leave the reader at this point with that thought, which so many other courageous souls are not only articulating and developing, but, also, as we already know, living. Lewis R. Gordon is Professor and Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut at Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Honorary Professor in the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University, South Africa; Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg; Chairperson of the American Philosophical Association Committee on Public Philosophy; and Chairperson of the Awards Committee and Global Collaborations for the Caribbean Philosophical Association, of which he was the organization’s first president. He is the author of numerous books, the latest of which, Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization, was published this year by Routledge.

Twitter: @lewgord


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 3 ("Concept and Reality"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


bottom of page