California State University, Fullerton

A-Z Index

CSUF Home   »   INSIDE

A Phenomenology of Race

Professor Explains New Area of Study in Philosophy

May 4, 2010

The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book, "A Phenomenology of Race," by Emily S. Lee.

Emily S. Lee. Photo by Mimi Ko Cruz

Philosophy of race sits at an impasse.

Initially, philosophy of race has explored the theory that racism arises from conscious individual prejudices. Although dismissed as irrational, this theory coheres with the possibility of racism originating from malicious intent.

In response, legal tenets have been established to prohibit such individual racism, yet race continues as a key indicator of social standing. Consequently, race theorists have argued that racism persists because it is embedded in the institutional structure of society. Such an understanding of racism aims to explain the persistence of it without reducing racism as a product of conscious intent. This does not deny the relevance of conscious individual forms of racism; rather, non-conscious, non-malicious racism illustrates the depth of racism in the very structures of our society.

Yet, even with this understanding of the institutional embeddedness of racism, race still determines much of one’s everyday realities, such as judgments of one’s financial status, careers, places of residence and possible friends and lovers.

Phenomenology elucidates this difficult situation where race continues as a key social indicator by addressing an important but glaring chasm — a lived experiential understanding of race. Experience eludes analysis because the ephemeral structure of experience counters theory’s systematizing tendencies. Descriptions of experience range from the too specific to the too broadly sweeping to be useful for analysis. Despite such difficulties, a lived sense of race aims to portray this immediate, every day experience of race.

This is precisely the aim of existential phenomenologists’ work on race.

Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre and scholars in this tradition, working on race, have illustrated the experience of living as racialized subjects in the aftermath of colonialism. Carefully heeding the weight of history, this research portrays the psychoanalytic and existential consequences of living in a society with particular overdeterminations and meanings of race.

An exploration of a lived understanding of race through phenomenology provides insights about the workings of racism.

First, such an account of racism illuminates how clearly expressions of race and racism have not been static. Racism has been dynamic; I would say that expressions of racism have been downright creative in their multiplicity. Phenomenology consistently adheres with the well-accepted understanding that our social history constructs racial significance and symbols (the body features that exhibit the signs). But, additionally, phenomenological framework offers an explanation of the creativity of seeing and experiencing race.

Phenomenology insists that our experiences of the world occur phenomenally — ambiguously and indeterminately — rather than already clearly distinguishable and divided as subjective or objective. Phenomenology introduces the idea of a lived world, an open-ended framework with meaning complexes between consciousness and matter. Phenomenology posits that the world arises perceptually, experientially and ontologically in negotiations between the intentions of the subject and the givens of the world.

The open, ambiguous, phenomenal framework accommodates creative change in meaning of both the sign and the symbol of race. Phenomenology recognizes that human beings cannot possess absolute, temporally static knowledge of the things in the world. Within these epistemological and ontological conditions, our understanding need not reduce race and racism into one finite, determined and essential expression; we may admit that expressions of racism evolve and transform.

The non-essentialistic structure of phenomena provides an epistemic framework for understanding the ambiguous, open and creative manifestations of racism and acknowledges the historical specific meaning of race in the past of the immediate aftermath of colonialism and in the present with its denials that race still functions as a significant axis of meaning.

Emily S. Lee is an assistant professor of philosophy. She helped organize this year's 40th Cal State Fullerton Philosophy Symposium, which featured "Phenomenology, Embodiment and Race."

Back to Top