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“Race” and the Difficulties of Language

Phillips, Debby A. ARNP, CS, PhD; Drevdahl, Denise J. RN, PhD

Critical & Postmodern Perspectives

“Race,” a construct created by scientists, is deeply ingrained in everyday discourses. Using postmodern theories to help us think through the complexities of language in relation to race, we come to understand that truths about race are changing, contingent, and contested products of cultural construction. It is impossible to understand or represent race as an object of study such that it can be known, yet untouched, by language. Health effects are one important consequence of race, particularly related to quality, access, marginalization, and privilege. Analyzing the effects of race bring it visibly into being, and makes evident how language shapes our understandings of the world and its human inhabitants.

POSTMODERN theories, like feminism and deconstruction, help us think through the complexities of language in relation to important and consequential constructs like “race.” The language chosen for the recent ANS issue on “Ancestry and Ethnicity,” for instance, surfaces some of the complexities of the language of race. Research shows that nursing scholars understand race, ancestry, and ethnicity in many different ways, and as interchangeable concepts. 1 For example, skin color is often assumed to be an unspoken distinction among races, although some cultural discourses also constitute skin color as an indicator of ethnicity or ancestry. What, then, are the relationships between ancestry and race, and between ancestry and ethnicity? Does the word ancestry sidestep the political and historical residue associated with race and the consequences of belonging to a particular race? What meanings adhere to language that describe boundaries between humans? What does the language of race speak and what are its effects?

Dictionaries function as a source of truth about race, ethnicity, and ancestry, but these, too, are problematic. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2 for instance, defines ancestry as “the relation or condition of ancestors; progenitorship; ancestral lineage or descent. Hence, distinguished or ancient descent.” In the same source, race is defined as a “group of persons, animals, or plants, connected by common descent or origin.” Definitions of both ancestry and race end up referring to “descent,” while ethnic is defined as “pertaining to race.” Thus, we are caught in a continuous process of deferral, back to where we started, with no foundational definitions of race or ancestry or ethnicity that do not refer to or assume each other.

It is clear that race is not a neutral, harmless, easily defined, demographic variable among a list of other demographic variables, such as age or birthplace. As a construct that is culturally determined, race is one way that boundaries between groups of people are created, and as such, is an organizing principle of everyday life. Originally applied to groups that shared some close relationship, it has shifted to being applied to much broader groups, utilizing physical, religious, and/or language qualities as a basis for assigning various groups to a single entity called “race.” 3

Nobles argues that racial and ethnic categories are “intellectual products, social markers, and policy tools” 4(p1745) that have been forged through mechanisms of colonization, immigration, and other political projects. 5 European explorations in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries led to the discovery of groups of human beings whose physical appearances and cultural practices differed from their discoverers. Created in the scientist's lab to assist with the study of differences in terms of skeletal measurement (especially craniums), skin color, hair texture, and other bodily characteristics, race emerged as a potent force in the larger social environment. There it served as the foundation for a complex and detailed human classification system. Nevertheless, the supposedly fixed characteristics currently used to demarcate populations from one another are actually arbitrary boundaries. That is, racial classification simply do not align well with most patterns of gene frequencies in human population groups. Bodily features that exist between various populations, for example, are often due to geographic gradients. 6 However, while critical analysis like this explicates the construction of race as an historical invention, it is a mistake to assume that such an invention is not a durable and powerful strategy for perceiving and understanding the world. 7 In Western societies, race functions as a means of creating a sense of group cohesion and identity that can be used as the basis for claims of superiority or rights over those seen as exterior to the group. 7 As such, the words we use and the meaning that language carries has import for health-related policies and research, and for health care.

Postmodern frameworks are useful in raising critical questions about race and for exploring the purposes race serves in contemporary society. 5,8–15 From these frameworks, truths about race are assumed unstable, changing, contingent, and contested products of cultural construction. Understanding the construction and the contingency of a particular definition are aims of much postmodern social and human science that focuses on race. Embedded in particular historical cultural discourses, it is impossible to understand or represent race as an object of study in such a way that it can be known, yet untouched, by language. Benhabib, 16 for example, argues that language is no longer understood as originating with the individual and as a reflection of the private content of individual, human consciousness. Instead, critical postmodern perspectives on language assume that people participating in cultural conversations share the understandings produced by the language of these conversations. 12,17–22 Thus, language constitutes the realities of race; language does not transparently reflect some innate, or natural, true meaning about race.

By questioning basic assumptions about race, as well as gender and sex, postmodern feminist scholars debate the usefulness of these simplified and seemingly transparent categories in social and human science research. 1,23 Race is complex and its effects are multifaceted. Any study of race, therefore, will be complicated, requiring a critical approach. La Veist 24 argues that research and scholarship on race and its connection to health is far too difficult, and far too valuable, to be given anything less. The epistemological and theoretical turn toward postmodern theoretical frameworks moves questions about the nature and consequences of race, ethnicity, and ancestry to the center of inquiry. Feminist scholarship, as one postmodern framework, has produced an enormous body of work on women, gender, and identity. Because of the significance of women, gender, and identity to feminist research on race, this paper presents an accounting of some key feminist positions, before moving on to poststructuralist frameworks.

From the School of Nursing, Seattle University, Seattle, Washington (Phillips)

The Nursing Program, University of Washington at Tacoma, Tacoma, Washington (Drevdahl).

Corresponding author: Debby A. Phillips, ARNP, CS, PhD, School of Nursing, Seattle University, 900 Broadway, Seattle, WA 98122 (e-mail:

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.