Definitions of Race Matter

The Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) has the best definition of ‘race”. Period. Dot. Came across it again today while doing my homework assignment (See prior post.). See it below from a document titled “Structural Racism” written by Keith Lawrence and Terry Kehler for the 2004 Race and Policy Conference.

RACE: A specious classification of human beings created by Europeans (whites) which assigns human worth and social status using ‘white’ as the model of humanity and the height of human achievement for the purpose of establishing and maintaining privilege and power. (Ronald Chisom and Michael Washington, Undoing Racism: A Philosophy of International Social Change. People’s Institute Press. People’s Institutefor Survival and Beyond. 1444 North Johnson Street. New Orleans, Louisiana, 70116.1997. Second Edition. p. 30—31.)

This definition could be more specific in terms of what economic class of whites created the concept, but it is still the best out there for at least two reasons: (1) It’s clear in racial terms about who created the term. Dr. Joe Feagin, a sociologist of Texas A & M University, author of The White Racial Frame,  points out that when history is written on the racism experienced by African Americans it tells us the object of the sentence (African Americans) but not the subject (white people). For example, we might read something like “In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were often denied the right to vote”. Feagin might rewrite the sentence to say “In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were denied the right to vote by a variety of white institutions.”

Secondly, it tells us the purpose of the term of “race”. We are not learning about “race” as a naturally occurring, politically neutral concept, but rather its being exposed as an ongoing shaper of our reality that penalizes and benefits. This definition then plays an active part in the undoing of racism, which of course is the goal of the People’s Institute. The Institute has done training for Grantmakers in the Arts, of which I am a board member, and it’s been the most impactful professional development of my time in this field.

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