MAP Talk

Mon, Mar 29, 2021, 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm
Virtual event

Princeton MAP Presents:

 Linda Martín Alcoff


  "The Historical Formation of Racial Identity"


This paper will argue that race is best understood not as a social construction, but as a historical formation. Social constructivist theories of race have provided a helpful antidote to biological essentialist theories. They have argued that, as Jeffers puts it, it is “only through social and historical processes that the particular physical, biological, and geographical differences that we recognize as racial have come to gain some relatively stable significance.” (Jeffers 2019, 45) And yet some prominent versions of social construction have supported the false idea that what has been constructed might be deconstructed by ceasing official usage of the category of race. Haslanger, for example, renders a view of social construction in which the idea of race uses “social terms” to identify group differences, that are mostly based on false beliefs that could be eliminated (2019, 24-25). Racial differentiation allows political differentiation and the establishment of hierarchy, on her view, that then feeds a system of racist ideology and systemic oppression. Ideas of race are therefore inherently and unchangeably pernicious. To make change, then, some social constructionists argue that the institutions of the state cease engaging in the tabulation and management of populations identified by racial categories (examples include Rwanda and France). The assumption is that, without such practices, the use of racial categories will wither away. 

I will argue here that racial identities are best understood as formed through historical events, and that this genesis can only be obscured by disavowals of racial categories as conceptually mistaken and inevitably morally pernicious.  In this sense, races are formed not simply as ideas, or ideologies and policies, but as forms of life with associated patterns of subjectivity including, as a wealth of social psychology has shown, presumptive attitudes and behavioral dispositions (Jeffers 2019; Steele 2010; Sullivan 2005).  As historical formations, racial identities are thoroughly social, contextual, variegated internally, and dynamic: for these reasons, the substance of racial identities is best understood as local (Hall 2014). The view that races and racial identities are historical formations does not solidify their existence in the way that biological essentialism tried to do; rather, the emphasis on history enhances our understanding of the contextualism and dynamism of racial identities. Further, the historical formation view of race focuses the debate about how to make progress in reducing racism by addressing the historical processes, many ongoing, that formed racial identities. Following Omi and Winant among others, I will argue that these processes included state sanctioned exclusions, differential treatment, and the distribution of protections and privileges, but that we must also include movements of resistance and collective expression among the stigmatized. Social constructionist approaches can focus so much on the establishment of official hierarchies that the collective and individual agency of the racially oppressed gets overlooked in our understanding of the historical formation of racial identities. To change the future of race and racial identities, we must work from the bottom up to change the direction of history. 


Talk will take place virtually

from 4:30pm – 6:00pm ET on Monday March 29th, 2021

Zoom info: 

Katie Rech is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic: The Historical Formation of Racial Identity

Time: Mar 29, 2021 04:30 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)


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Meeting ID: 961 8199 1138

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Meeting ID: 961 8199 1138