The hardest conversation about race: what is it?

Cecelia Kok interrogates the taken-for-grantedness of the concept

Calls for South Africans to engage in ‘the difficult discussions around race’ are commonplace. What baffles me is how seldom (if at all) one comes across discussions about what race is. This seems to me by far the hardest question with which one must grapple before one can have any meaningful discussion invoking the concept. It also seems to be the most fundamental question. After all, if one cannot clearly define the concept, one cannot have intelligible discussions about it.

In this piece, I briefly examine various prominent accounts of race and conclude that no account is satisfactory. I must, however, be clear about one point which is often fallaciously taken to follow from this, namely a denial of the existence of racism. That fallacious argument goes something like this:

Premise 1: If you believe there is no such a thing as race, you must deny the possibility of the existence of racism.

Premise 2: You believe there is no such thing as race.

Conclusion: You deny the possibility of the existence of racism.

This argument is false because race need not exist for racism to exist. Racism (with potentially momentous consequences) is brought about by the false beliefs that people have about race in the same way that women were persecuted and burnt at the stake due to the false beliefs people had in respect of the existence of witches. It is evident that the notion of false beliefs in witches and race is very different to the notion of actual witches and actual races.

The false biological notion of race

Broad scientific consensus exists around the fact that there is no biological marker which is necessary and sufficient to constitute race. Historical and current attempts at racial classification bear out this fact. Someone who is considered to be a member of ‘the black race’ in the United States of America, for example, is quite likely not to be considered ‘black’ in Brazil.[1]

Roughly, there are four different candidates for biological markers of race: genetics, skin colour, morphology and geographic location. I examine each below.

  1. There is no genetic material within a person’s DNA that can satisfy necessary or sufficient conditions for race given that two human beings from different population groups may share more genetic material than two human beings from the same population group.[2]
  2. Skin colour cannot be necessary or sufficient for race given that Albinos, for example, are considered black but have lighter skin than most whites. [3] As already mentioned above, a black person in the United States of America may not be classified as black in Brazil given the vastly different perceptions around skin colour that prevail within these countries.[4] Even in the same country, the existence of pantones precludes the possibility of clearly allocating individuals to certain races. This is one reason why, under Apartheid, individuals would move between racial categories depending on the particular officials at the Race Classification Boards who classified them.[5] Sometimes, if skin tone was not taken to be clear enough an appeal to the next category, morphology, was made.[6]
  3. No morphological features (such as nose, mouth and eye shape or hair texture) can be considered necessary or sufficient for race given the fact that great variety of such features exists between individuals of the same alleged racial group.[7] The infamous ‘pencil test’ under Apartheid was one way in which hair texture was taken to be such a marker: if the curl of one’s hair was of such tightness to hold a pencil, one was considered non-white according to this morphological marker.[8]
  4. Often it is assumed that because individuals share the same geographical location, they must be of the same race. Again, geography has proven to be neither a necessary nor a sufficient marker for race given the overwhelming diversity of geographical ancestry found even in similar looking individuals in the same geographic region.[9]

In light of the above, none of the biological markers, neither on their own nor combined, can provide necessary and sufficient conditions for race.

On this basis, if someone points to another person and categorises such a person as black based on their dark skin for example, they cannot be referring to the biological marker of skin colour as being necessary and sufficient to constitute race when uttering such a statement. The only biological feature to which such a statement could legitimately refer is that person’s skin tone qua phenotypical feature, which may be darker than another’s, just as hair colour or eye colour may differ from individual to individual.[10]

Nonetheless, racial categorisation is omnipresent. In democratic South Africa, just as under Apartheid (which rested on a false biological notion of race), when one is required to complete a census, medical or accident questionnaire, one is virtually always requested to indicate the race to which one belongs. In addition, racial affirmative action programmes also rest on some kind of racial classification. In light of such ubiquitous racial classification in some parts of the world, what then is race if it cannot be the false biological notion thereof?

Some may respond that racial classification need not be complicated or biologically based if it rests on the individual’s self-classification, allowing the individual to choose with which race they identify. However, it is not clear that this is a simple matter at all. After all, if a pale, blond, blue-eyed man born to pale, blond, blue-eyed parents self-classified as black and attended a job interview for a job reserved for a black candidate, such a person would surely be told they are mistaken about their race.

Public figures such as South African DJ Kazi Mlungu or American civil rights activist and former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Spokane, Washington, Rachel Dolezal, also bear out this complexity. Both women identify as black but have come under severe criticism for doing so. Indeed, such ‘transracialism’ is seen as outright scandalous and deeply offensive.[11] After intense public shaming, Rachel Dolezal is quoted as saying ‘I wasn’t identifying as black to upset people. I was just being me’.[12]

Interestingly, many of the very same people who critique the likes of Mlungu and Dolezal celebrate figures such as American transgender TV personality Caitlin Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, who came out as a trans-woman while still known as Bruce, famously exclaiming: ‘For all intents and purposes, I am a woman’.[13]

Many might claim that race and gender are social constructs. What, however, does this mean exactly? Also, if both race and gender have the same type of existence, how can it be that they are treated so differently?

In summary, there is overall agreement that there is no biological marker that is both sufficient and necessary for race. Thus, pointing to any one of the four biological markers as that which picks out biological race is illegitimate. Also, even if there were such a thing as a biological marker that satisfied necessary and sufficient condition for race, it is unclear that anything would flow from this, ethically or otherwise. Furthermore, no clarity exists around race as a ‘social construction’ either.

The significant implications flowing from the above


A very common point raised in relation to the above is one around redress. ‘Well, even if all the above is true, we simply must use race to determine the beneficiaries of redress.’ Together with Mark Oppenheimer I have written at length about how non-racial affirmative action is far preferable in attempting to address wrongs of the past than racial affirmative action here. Racial affirmative action is unjust and ineffective. I have also produced a podcast episode, featuring Gwen Ngwenya and Mark Oppenheimer, dealing with affirmative action which can be listened to here.


Research linking something to ‘race’ is anything but uncontroversial. Given the exceptionally unclear notion of race, invoking this concept to explain an issue fosters the mischaracterisation and obfuscation of the issue, its solution as well as the fundamental mischaracterisation of human beings (by often attributing a ‘race’ or a ‘racial identity’ to them).[14]


I agree with the calls to ‘have difficult discussions around race’ but let’s start with the most fundamental one: What is race?

Cecelia Kok is Head of Research and Advocacy Projects at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. In this role, Cecelia heads up the organisation’s civil society and environmental projects in South Africa. Cecelia holds a BA LLB and has just completed a Master’s Degree in Applied Ethics. She writes in her personal capacity and has published pieces on non-racial affirmative action, property rights and the nature of ideas and national identity.

[1] See Michael James, ‘Race’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, (2016)

[2] See Bryan Sykes, The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry, New York: W. W. Norton, (2002), Lynn B. Jorde and Stephen P. Wooding, ‘Genetic variation, classification and 'race'’, Nature Genetics, 36, (2004) and D. J. Witherspoon et al, ‘Genetic Similarities Within and Between Human Populations’, Genetics,176(1), (2007)

[3] see Flavia C. Parra et al, ‘Color and genomic ancestry in Brazilians’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(1), (2003)

[4] See James, ‘Race’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

[5] See Deborah Posel, ‘Race as Common Sense: Racial Classification in Twentieth-Century South Africa’, African Studies Review, 44(2), (2001), pp.95,97,105,107

[6] Ibid., p.105

[7] See Parra (2002)

[8] Posel (2001), p.105

[9] See Parra (2002)

[10] See Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House, New York: Oxford University Press, (1992) on this point also, p.37

[11] See, for example, Gaopalelwe Phalaetsile, ‘Let’s be real – Kasi Mlungu is problematic AF’, (2017, 17 February)

[12] Chris McGreal, ‘Rachel Dolezal: ‘I wasn't identifying as black to upset people. I was being me'’, (2015, 13 December)

[13] Emily Yahr, ‘Bruce Jenner’s in-depth interview: ‘For all intents and purposes, I am a woman’’, (2015, 24 April)

[14] Fields and Fields (2012), Racecraft, p.268 A