One day last fall, Paula M. Maouyo ’14 sat in front of her laptop in Matthews trying to think of a topic for her Expos paper about racial identity.
When Maouyo was a child, she identified as biracial. Her father is black, originally from Chad and her mother is white and American. But by the time she was nine, she began to move away from a biracial identity.
“For a long time I just didn’t identify,” Maouyo said, though she acknowledges that when most people look at her, they immediately categorize her as black.
She had never articulated her non-identification in concrete terms. That is, until she began brainstorming for her Expos paper.
After floating around ideas and fiddling with labels and words, Maouyo suddenly conceived of a term she felt most accurately captured her own identity: araciality.
“People use apolitical and asexual,” Maouyo observed. “Why not aracial?”
As soon as she stumbled upon the term, she began to search for evidence that her neologism existed.
“I googled a billion terms: araciality, aracial identity,” Maouyo said. “I was JSTOR-ing and googling out the wazoo.”
But Maouyo had landed upon a term that had rarely been used before. A google search of “araciality” turns up only seven results—most of which link back to a single reference. Instead, Google asks “did you mean: asexuality, raciality, asociality?”
While Maouyo may have just coined a new term, she is not the only person who has conceptualized of an aracial existence—it is more commonly known as “racial transcendence” or “racelessness,” terms that will be used interchangeably in this article.
Maouyo prefers “aracial.” “Racelessness,” to her, implies a denial of sorts. And “racial transcendence”—“it feels lofty. Like I am above this silly construction of race. Which is sort of what I am saying, but I think “aracial” sounds better.”
Terminology aside, Maouyo had hit upon a theory of abandoning race that is just beginning to be acknowledged and explored by scholars and researchers.
It is well-known that race is a social construct and has no biological basis whatsoever. The fabricated categories we use now—i.e., “black,” “white,” “Asian”—are historically contingent and have been subject to numerous changes over the years. Grouping disparate populations by skin pigmentation is as arbitrary as grouping people by height. Nevertheless, because race is a social reality, it is often treated as “real” in scholarly work. While a fair amount has been written about how to dismantle racial discrimination, far less has been written about dismantling the concept of race itself.
At some point, every Harvard applicant is asked to check a box, choosing between five racial identification options; but what if one of the options was “none”?
THE RACIAL SKEPTIC
“Transcendent identity” was first described by Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, a former sociology professor and author of Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America. The current working definition of racial transcendence that she offers—and the one that will be used in this article—is the conscious rejection of racial identity altogether. Not “black,” “white,” or “both” —but rather, “none.”
“My journey has taken me past constructions of race, past constructions of mixed race, and into an understanding of human difference that does not include race as a meaningful category,” wrote Rainier Spencer, the founder and director of Afro-American Studies at the University of Nevada, who identifies as racially transcendent.
Spencer grew up in a black neighborhood in Queens in the 60s with a white mother and black father. Over the years, Spencer has identified as everything from Afro-German to New Yorker to academic to baby boomer. It was not until his thirties, when he was a philosophy teacher at a northeastern college, that he began to question racial identity itself.
During the 1990s, debates about the politics of multiracial identity began to emerge in academic circles. According to Spencer, most of the discussion at the time revolved around the relative importance of multiracial versus monoracial identity.
Spencer entered the debate as a racial skeptic. “A lot of the black scholars who are against multiracial identity are very invested in black identity,” Spencer said. “I think all racial identity is bogus, and that makes me kind of unique.”
Race transcendence should not be confused with color-blindness, which advocates ignoring race without confronting the inequality and discrimination it breeds. Color-blindness implies that racism can be solved passively. Racelessness is far more complex, because people who transcend race “are actually aware of how race negatively affects the daily existence of people of color. They have very likely experienced discrimination, yet they respond by understanding those situations as part of a broad societal problem; one in which they are deeply embedded, but not one that leads to their subscription to racial identity,” according to Rockquemore as cited on a website for race transcenders.
Someone who is race transcendent or raceless may choose to identify by ethnicity instead, or emphasize another part of their personal heritage, such as nationality, language, or culture.
But this is where it gets complicated. Spencer identifies as raceless in his personal life and believes fervently in deconstructing race, but when he fills out a form, he checks the “African-American/Black” box. While this may sounds hypocritical, Spencer believes that if people refuse to check the existing race boxes on forms, then they are undercutting the government’s ability to collect statistics that might uncover instances of discrimination.
“I think that regardless of how people perceive themselves personally, they should—in support of anti-racism efforts—check the race box that corresponds most closely to the way they are perceived by others who do not know them.” Spencer wrote in an email. By this line of thinking, a biracial or multiracial person should check the box that describes what they look most like—an idea that has sparked a fair amount of controversy, Spencer said.
Spencer believes that racelessness must be accompanied by social awareness and unrelenting advocacy—“if it is not, then it is simply a useless and naïve exercise in solipsism. In other words, I do not merely say that I am raceless, and then go on about my business as usual. Instead, I am constantly arguing against and working against the idea of biological race whenever I can.”
Though Maouyo and Spencer’s lives have parallels, Maouyo’s journey to araciality was not so much a tireless social justice mission than a process of finding an identity that felt like a good fit. Maouyo does not conceive of herself as an crusading advocate—hardly a preacher, she is laid-back and open-minded in discussing araciality.
Maouyo said that she has never regarded race to be an important part of her life. Her elementary and high schools were predominantly black and most of the time she was never asked to identify because “everyone was black.” When her mom picked her up from school she would sometimes tell her classmates it was her au pair to avoid having to explain their physical differences.
Maouyo’s parents never talked to their children about race, and though Maouyo has yet to tell her parents that she is aracial, she said she does not think they would care. A Christian identity is more important to them, Maouyo said.
Maouyo’s older sister identifies as black, and her younger brother identifies as mixed. “I think that’s kind of silly,” Maouyo said, “No one is going to look at me and say I am mixed anyway.”
While no one will look at Maouyo and say she is aracial either, Maouyo said that araciality is a way of simplifying her identity for herself.
“People like to talk about how complicated their identity is, like, ‘my grandfather was one-eighth native American or my great-grandmother was Asian and the United Nations are within me,’” Maouyo said, “It doesn’t have to be that complicated.”
THE ORIGIN OF RACELESSNESS
The origin of the word “racelessness” is unclear, because the terminology has never been fully established.
Many of the Harvard faculty members interviewed for this article had never heard of racelessness or race transcendence before. Often they responded immediately with cautious concern, a knit brow, and questions such as: “honey, have you ever heard of something called ‘white privilege’?” or “do you understand why we’re not post-racial and why color-blindness is naïve?”
In fact, the biggest hurdle in any interview was laying the groundwork and coming to a common understanding of “racelessness” before proceeding with discussion. There exists no common vocabulary, in part because racelessness has hardly been studied, and because many people who are race transcendent do not know that their identity has, in recent years, been given a name.
In a 1982 issue of Esquire, a writer named David Bradley wrote, “I accept a belief that I have taken to calling ‘achromism’ (from the Greek a-, meaning “not,” and chroma, meaning “color”). Bradley’s use of “achromism” does not perfectly correspond to racelessness, but it begins to broach the idea.
Six years later in the spring of 1988, a young doctoral student named Signithia Fordham coined the term “raceless” to describe a strategy for success that she observed among high-achieving black students at Capital High, an almost entirely black high school in Washington, D.C.
Fordham, who published her results in the Harvard Educational Review, found that high-achieving black students distanced themselves from blackness in how they dressed, spoke, and self-identified. When they were asked to describe themselves using only one category, almost none of them used “black,” instead opting for gender, age, or another word.
Fordham’s high-achieving students never used the term “raceless,” and according to the definition presented earlier, they were certainly not “race transcendent.” They simply chose not to identify strongly as black in order to achieve their specific, individual goals. Today this is often discussed as the burden of “acting white” that is required to be successful in mainstream America.
And this is how Fordham sees race transcendence today—as a simple coping-mechanism that marginalized folks use for the purpose of escaping social realities. “Some of us have to create that kind of world in our minds and in our imaginations,” she said.
Racelessness—using Fordham’s own definition—is a survival strategy that she recognized in herself long ago.
“It was delusional. Reading books in my social science classes, I learned we had a meritocracy. I knew that wasn’t really true, but I believed so completely in that, it made it possible for me to get through school and do well,” Fordham said recently. “Now I don’t run around thinking what should be. I think about what is.”
Someone in Spencer’s camp would probably respond that the youthful “racelessness” Fordham described truly is delusional—and is closer to color-blindness than racial transcendence. In any case, why can’t we think about what should be? Certainly we are not yet “post-racial” if that means post-inequality or post-racism. But if we know race is a social construct, at what point do we begin the process of deconstruction?
WHO GETS TO BE RACELESS?
A lot of people might claim not to have a race for one reason or another. According to professor Jennifer Hochschild, who teaches “Transformation of the American Racial Order?”, there are three groups of people that might refuse to identify by race: 1) disaffected (probably white) people who believe the world is post-racial and that we should all be color-blind; 2) recent immigrants for whom American racial categories simply do not resonate nor make any sense; and 3) bi-racial or multiracial people who do not identify with any particular racial category.
It is safe to say that this article is not concerned with exploring the first two groups of people. It is too easy to call the first group naïve and the second group puzzled. The third group—biracial and multiracial individuals—is interesting, but lacks complexity.
There is a difference between a multiracial person who is ambivalent about his or her identity, and a person (of any color) who wishes to transcend race altogether in the way that Rockquemore describes. Perhaps multiracial individuals are particularly well-positioned to consider race transcendence, but the option is not necessarily limited to people who are of color.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say there’s a bit of ambivalence about what it would mean for a white person to be race transcendent. Let’s suppose this white person doesn’t belong to Hochschild’s first group and has truly thought through their rejection of race. Is he or she allowed to do that? What is the person “transcending”? Whiteness? Is that fair? Don’t white people get to wake up raceless every single day by virtue of the fact that they are white, the privileged mainstream, American baseline color?
“Wow. That would be very progressive,” Spencer said. “The final barrier is whiteness” and the power that is associated with the concept, he said.
Maouyo feels similarly. “Because I have adjusted to the concept, I would say, ‘cool, me too.’ I might ask them some questions about how they came to this conclusion,” Maouyo said. “But I wouldn’t really resent it or say ‘it’s white privilege.’ You’re a human. Me too.”
There is very little information about how many people identify as raceless at Harvard or in the United States generally. Some raceless individuals may check the “other” box on forms; some may opt out of checking any box at all, and some, like Spencer, may check the box that describes the way society regards them based upon their physical attributes.
There seem to be a greater number of individuals who say they sort of “feel raceless,” even if they do not actively identify that way.
When someone asks Signa L. Mahung ’14 “what are you?” she replies “everything.” And when she fills out forms, she ends up checking “basically all of the boxes”—”African-American/Black,” “Hispanic,” “Caucasian,” and “Asian.”
While explaining her ethnic composition is exhausting, Mahung said she sees her multiracial background as part of what makes her who she is.
“In some ways I feel like kind of an outsider,” Mahung said. “But the way I approach it is that I can either feel like I do not fit in with any group, or I can embrace it. I recognize that I am a unique individual and it’s okay.”
Mahung said that though she has not met anyone who identifies as raceless, she would be curious to hear how the person arrived at that identity.
“I think it would be liberating,” she said.
Anjali R. Itzkowitz ’13 is also multiracial, and said she often checks the “other” box on applications and fills in white and Indian, which she feels describes her better than “Asian.”
Itzkowitz, who is from London, said she tends to think of herself not in terms of race, but rather focuses on ethnicity and the cultural component of her Indian heritage. “I think ethnicity is a more helpful term than race. It is a very American thing to focus on race,” she said.
Itzkowitz, who is also a Crimson arts editor, explained that she feels this way in part because recent immigration to the UK has shifted the focus to culture rather than race. “I don’t know if I ever considered myself raceless, but the question never arose,” she said.
While Itzkowitz does not usually use race in describing herself, she would not call herself raceless. “If I just said I was raceless, I think it would provide confusion and not clarify,” she said. Itzkowitz said she feels that racelessness “is sort of a cop-out” if the person does not directly confront racial discrimination.
Maouyo said that most of the time when she tells people she is aracial, she gets confused looks. Some students have told her they think it is impractical, but for the most part, “people don’t want to question it because it’s not PC,” Maouyo said.
Maouyo said that even though she is “aracial” she most often checks “African-American/Black” when filling out forms, in part because of the federal statistics issues that Spencer describes, but also because she is aware of the many resource opportunities that are available to her as long as she identifies that way.
“It is so overwhelmingly in your favor to identify by race if you’re a minority,” Itzkowitz said. “You would be a fool to say you’re raceless if you’re black.”
Senior lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93 said he would also be mindful of the practical consequences of identifying as raceless. “It is unrealistic because race is not just about self-identification but also about the perception of others,” he said. “If racist white guys beat the shit out of you, identifying as raceless is useless.”
Nevertheless, McCarthy said he believes that racelessness is powerful in its aspirations. “It is powerful to imagine a world where race doesn’t matter. A place where these hierarchies and animosities no longer exist,” He said. “We don’t need to be in a post-racial color-blind world to be equal. We can create a world where we are all equals.”
If a growing number of students begin to identify as raceless, Harvard and other universities will be compelled to decide how to best accommodate that sort of identity.
Many students, including Maouyo, said that they felt pressure upon their arrival to Harvard to identify more strongly with a racial group.
The application process, the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, and affinity groups all encourage students to strengthen their allegiance to a particular racial or ethnic group.
“Certainly Harvard forced me in a very manifest way to adopt a racial identity on the application,” Itzkowitz said, though she acknowledged that this request was not unique to Harvard, but a part of all college application processes.
McCarthy said he believes there is a deepening sense of racial identity during college years, when students are thrust into a heterogenous community and have an opportunity to define how they fit into their new world.
Before Maya I. Anderson ’13 arrived at Harvard she identified as black, white, one-eighth Hispanic, and one-eighth Native American. Now, she said she is more likely to identify as either biracial or black.
Anderson said that she liked to emphasize her multiracial background in her diverse high school in Decatur, Georgia as a way of identifying with the white students in her AP classes. “I wanted to tell them that a part of me is the same as you too. I’m not different,” Anderson said.
But after discovering “black people like me” at Harvard, she said she feels more comfortable identifying as black.
McCarthy pointed to the proliferation of affinity groups as an indication that students are feeling a need to identify. “The fact that those groups have only increased shows that students have an increasing rather than diminishing interest in their identity,” he said.
Interestingly, a group called Remixed—which was specifically geared toward multiracial students—folded soon after it was created several years ago.
But the question remains for students like Maouyo: how should Harvard consider students who do not wish to identify by race at all? Should Harvard even acknowledge that choice?
One possible way of acknowledging racelessness would be for Harvard to include a “none” box when it asks students to identify. But some argue that while this would make it easier for raceless students to comfortably check a box, it would be a pyrrhic victory.
Many students expressed concern that white applicants would identify as raceless to “game the system,” although it is unclear what advantage or value racelessness would carry in the admissions decisions.
White students might also check “none” for other reasons. Sometimes white students will check the “other” box is if they are uncomfortable with the social meaning of whiteness, said Natasha K. Warikoo, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education who studies race, immigration, and inequality in educational contexts. “It signifies privilege and racial exploitation, a history that some white people are uncomfortable with,” she said. In the blank line, these students might write “Italian-American,” or “Jewish-American,” Warikoo said.
To solve this problem, Harvard could have two sections—one in which you identify for the purpose of statistics and civil rights compliance, and one in which you identify in the way that reflects your personal life. This would allow raceless students (and the perplexed white students) to identify by race, and by whatever else they like.
There is no indication that any changes to the current format will occur anytime soon. The admissions office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
So in filling out the current form, students must “understand that the boxes are specifically for fighting racism and are not a validation of personal identity—a step that far too few students are capable of taking intellectually,” Spencer wrote.
In addition Harvard could encourage more lively conversations and seize its opportunity to be “an incubator for the social interaction that we hope produces a better world,” McCarthy said.
A revamping of Community Conversations might be in order, and trying to include a broader cross-section of Harvard students in Sustained Dialogue might also be an option, Maouyo suggested.
She added that she would like to hear more discussion of racial transcendence at Harvard, especially because it is tiring for her to try to explain araciality to every classmate that asks.
Maouyo said that sometimes she just tells people she is black to sidestep a lengthy conversation. “Maybe that is selfish because I am keeping other people from learning about araciality and from having that freedom,” Maouyo said. “But frankly I’m thinking more about my pset than my race.”
A special thanks to Carlos Hoyt, who taught me to think about race, and then to think beyond it.