Race is Not a Noun, it is a Verb

Part Two of a series. Read Part One here.

What is racism?

Racism is a social process. It is a structure in which individuals act in demeaning or exclusionary ways toward people of color in mutual empowering relation with social institutions that dehumanize and inferiorize them. Through the conjunction of both levels of such derogation of people, a white racialized identity is constituted for white people. It is that identity that is socially bestowed upon whites to varying degrees. And its self-generating context is white supremacy.

For individuals, racism takes the form of prejudice, a panoply of pre-judgments of other persons, eliciting certain pre-established attitude toward them. Racial prejudice is not a result of social experience; it is instead the source of experience of real people. Prejudice has non-experiential origins. White people are told who people of color are by other white people, and in particular, by those who instruct them as to what it “means” to be white. Each white child in a white supremacist society is made white through explanations of who black people are. White people are defined through black people. They essentially live in dependency on black people for their identity as white.

When white people encounter people of color, it is through those “instructions,” and the stories by which those instructions are concretized. When face to face with an actual person of color, a white person will tend to experience that other as if they were a character in those stories. The gratuitousness and irreality (irrelevance) of such white “pre-judgments” are often astounding. Sometimes, the fear or anxiety is palpable (e.g. when a white woman in an elevator grasps her handbag in both arms when a black man enters).

It is often these stories that are responsible for the difficulty white people have in addressing race. They not only refer to a non-real world, but they take up residence deep inside white racialized identity.

This means, however, that white prejudice against black people (for instance) does not actually refer to black people at all. It refers to the narratives by which a white person was taught what it meant to be white in the first place. The paradox of racism, then, is that black people do not exist for whites except as invented by that racism. For a white person to examine racism, then, they would have to begin with how they themselves as white were invented by the racializing process. To understand white racialized identity, one would have to begin with a cultural background that was itself a product of white racialized identity.

But it is important to understand that though white racism and white identity are aspects of the same phenomenon, neither element can be considered “programming.” Of the many modes of whiteness that a person learns – some liberal, others supremacist, and still others in between — each white person is left to decide how, and with which group of white people, they will live their whiteness.

White people gravitate toward other whites with whom they have social or prejudicial affinity. In part, their choice may be initiated by the stories they have heard, and in part, their choices may depend on persons they have grown to respect as persons; but more generally, it has to do with the predominant form of racism in their immediate social environment. Each choice of group (or prejudice level) engenders different tasks of membership. What a white person is actually choosing is what kind of white racialized identity they wish to have. After deciding which white group they wish to relate to, their behavior toward black people will then be governed by that choice. In that sense, racism is a relation between whites.

What this implies is that attitudes toward and stories about black and brown people, in their process of constructing their white identity, are enlisted as scripts about white comportment in different social contexts. Robin Diangelo, in her book White Fragility, says that the fabrications about black people, which constitute white knowledge of them, are the root of anti-black racism. [94] Our analysis here would suggests that was only half the story, the historical half. The fabrications about black people are also the effect of anti-black racism, designed to engender and testify to the sanctity of white racialized identity in the present. It is by living these narratives that white people make themselves white.

More to the point, this implies that black people (and other people of color) are enlisted as a kind of “theatrical” prop to deploy in one’s chosen relation to other whites. The objectification or hostility to which people of color are subjected is thus rarely without a functionality with respect to white people’s relations to each other. That is what it means that racism is a relation between white people for which black people are the means.

How is a white person going to address “racism” if they look at racism’s effects on black people instead of examining how race and racism function among whites, as the means of creating them as white?

White racialized identity

What is white racialized identity? And how is it different from a white identity that is not racialized? Does white identity valorize one’s whiteness as “who one is,” or does one live one’s white privilege, entitlement, and white group membership as the process by which white identity is formed? And in a white supremacist society, does a white identity actually exist that is not racialized?

Entitlement is a proactive sense of having priority over others. It represents a position of assumed “license” to speak for others. Yet, often, it does not assume itself as somethng of overwhelming importance. It is rather like taking a turn on a game board, and moving according to the throw of the dice. It becomes important when someone else contests one’s opinion or judgment, often leading the entitled one to drop into “dominance” mode. Thus, under the surface, entitlement refers to mastery, and elicits the meaning of the root “title” as refering to ownership (aka enslavement).

As highlighted by police brutality, white entitlement is actually the (cultural) licensing of impunity. Whether in the form of police arbitrarity, or vigilantes chasing and killing people, or white passers-by calling the police on a black family enjoying themselves in a park, impunity is an inherent aspect of white racialized identity. Among other things, it seeks to ensure that all white behavior toward racialized persons will appear as a defense of white society. This is true for white liberals as well, witness the Moynihan Report (1965, written in the wake of the Harlem and Rochester uprisings of 1964).

Privilege, on the other hand, is what being white looks like from the perspective of those disempowered, dispossessed, and discriminated against by racism. White privilege is the spoils of entitlement, the residue left over from the civil war that dismantled the direct commodification of human beings. When the police racially profile someone on the street, they are exercising their entitlement as opposed to their law enforcement duties. When they leave white people alone in the same environment, they are extending the privileges of common entitlement. “Privilege” names the way whites live the power granted by the systemic nature of the racism that entitles them.

Sparing whites the feeling of being privileged is a trick performed by white supemacy. Most whites feel entitled, but few feel they have privileges (unless they have been thinking about it). For instance, legislation equalizing opportunity between blacks and whites (affirmative action) was interpreted by many white people as an attack, and they condemned it as a quota system, deploying the privilege to ignore Jim Crow as itself having been a 100% pro-white quota system.

Impunity may cause problems when exercised in excess, perhaps by producing unwanted social disturbance. When an armed KKK motorcade assaulted a black community in North Carolina, and the people fought back, also with guns, it led the police to hint to the KKK that they had gone a little too far (Monroe, NC, 1957). But in general, the injustices committed by police and courtrooms and paramilitary gangs appear as “normal” collateral for privilege and entitlement, which simply “happen” to white people.

Racial privilege is what doesn’t happen to black people. And that is something white-identified people generally refuse to see. Conversely, white supremacy happens to black people, and doesn’t happen to whites. These are the axes of racialization, the core of its social presence.

Let us put this in more colloquial terms. It is white supremacy that a black person addresses when they say, “oh god, why do I have to put with all this stuff?” And it is white privilege that a white person addresses when they say, “oh god, I’m so glad that stuff doesn’t happen to me. I must be doing something right.” Across the color line, privilege makes white people white, and white supremacy makes black people black. What is difficult for a white person to grasp is how white supremacy is what makes white people white as well as entitled. One way it makes white people white is by valorizing the narratives about black people which, when accepted, become a comfort zone. To extricate oneself from all that — which would mean to see people of color as sovereign individuals and relate to them as such — can be painful. Indeed, society as a whole would have to undergo a transformation of its most basic assumptions on justice and equality, just to recognize the autonomy of others.

What makes white people white

Most cultures are not based on being racializing, though many have been xenophobic. But those resulting from European colonization in the Americas have been. In each case, the colonizer sought an “objective” way of discerning the difference between colonizer and colonized, something other than mere appearance. Color could have been used, except for fact of its continuity. Continuity means that between any two people of different color, a third could always be found whose color would be between them. That implied there were no natural divisions in the human species based on color. Color could not be used to define race.

For colonial purposes, an additional factor was needed to produce a significant difference between colonizer and colonized, at least for administrative purposes. The colonizers brought in heritage, the fact that the children of mixed parentage (European and indigenous) would have a color other than white. The insulation of whiteness from mixture (for administrative purposes), and the definition of heritage levels (European, Creole, indigenous, etc.) produced “race.” And “race” produced structures of racialization to rationalize colonialism. In racializing people, color was racialized as well, and integrated into the colonizing process. It was racialization that transformed color into a marker for what then wouldn’t exist without that marker.

(When the English first arrived in Virginia, they did not originally think of themselves as white in any racialized sense. The idea of a white identity only developed in the 1690s, after the codification of slavery. It became a cultural identity after 1720, with the founding of the slave patrols, after which “race” was defined by European naturalists: Linneaus, Buffon, etc. (Cf, Steve Martinot, The Rule of Racialization).

If “racial division” exists only by definition, then it is not inherent in people. It is added socially to them after they are born. White people are not born white. They are made white by white supremacist society. And similarly, black people are not born black, but are made black by white supremacist society. Bestowed by a racializing culture derived from colonialism, “race” was inherently a hierarchic structure in which whites were hegemonic. Though racialization occurred differently in different countries according to the specifics of their colonization, each developed a mode of white supremacy.

It is another reason white people have trouble talking about race; they are made to live something that is given them by others without their knowledge, and told to believe it is real (an admission that it is not). It has a reality, but it is based on colonialism.

In sum, we can no longer consider “race” a trait, characteristic, or anything to do with inherency. The word “race” cannot be considered a noun. It is something that one group of people does to others. In the US, race is something that white people do to others they define for themselves as not white. That means the word is a verb. The verb is “to racialize.”

Let us follow the metaphorics of this grammatical structure to its various implications. White people, as the racializers, occupy the subject position of the verb. They have, through that position, the power to define those they place in the “object” position of the verb. They can do so because, as colonizers and later racializers, they have seized the power to do so. Treating the racialized as objects rather than humans is a direct result of white racialization of those people.

Racialization only goes in one direction. Other people don’t racialize whites. They do not have the institutional power behind them to do so. They may resist racialization by forming communities of resistance around the racial identity given them by white supremacy (or alternatively, by the commonality of original origin, such as Africa). But that is not a form of racializing whites. It is an attempt at autonomy within and against the racialization to which they have been subjected.

In other words, where white privilege is what being white might look like from the perspective of those who are “deprivileged” or marginalized, racialization of others (people of color) and the production of white racialized identity is what “acting white” accomplishes practically.

Acting white” subsumes all those practices and attitudes by which white people differentiate themselves from people of color, while at the same time inferiorizing them, without saying or doing anything overtly “racist.” Most white people tend to be as blind to how they act white as they are to white privilege. When a white person patronizes or excludes a person of color by ignoring them, they may detect an anger or coldness on the part of the other in return, without comprehending where it comes from.

It takes concentration to discern how one may be “acting white.” In order for a white person to talk about “race,” they would have to know how to talk about “acting white,” and not only about the position they put other people in. The injustices that are inherent in the hierarchy that acting white establishes are as injurious as overt racism, but more difficult to respond to because not overt. Nevertheless, acting white means one is not, as a white person, a bystander to the processes of racialization. Instead, one is actually participating in that structure.

Ultimately, while it is not possible for black or brown people to be racist against whites, it is possible for them to act in a racializing manner toward other people of color, that is, to “act white,” mimicking the racializing actions of white people. For instance, the brutality of black cops is in general indistinguishable from that of white cops. White liberalism provides a model for black and brown liberalism. These instances imply that the dominant division of society under the force of racialization is between the racializers and the racialized. One sees this fairly clearly in the history of race superseding class division in the US. Class relations show themselves thereby to be racialized. [Cf. “The Racialized Construction of Class in the United States.” in Social Justice, vol 27 (1); Spring, 2000.]

In large part, the unconscious nature of acting white is what has allowed the processes of racialization to continue endlessly. In recent times, we have seen its further unfolding. After 911, Middle Eastern and Islamic people were racialized, to be shunned as a group, fired from their jobs, attacked in their religious worship, and even shot as they walked down the street by whites suddenly incensed by their presence. Latinx immigrants have been racialized as “illegal” persons, shunned as a group, forced to work jobs white people won’t take, paid less in wages, and then blamed for economic problems like unemployment.

If white people were to abandon their continual racialization of others, it would mean (among other things) that they would no longer be white. And it would mean that black people would be released from their racialization to be members of society in equal standing with whites. To give up acting white is not obtained by looking inward but by seeing the other as a free, self-respecting person.

This may be a hard transformation for white people to live with. It creates a real necessity to develop an alternate basis upon which to arrive at a non-racial identity (not white). There is no such thing as a white identity that is not racialized. But our knowledge that race and whiteness have had an historical beginning directly implies that it can also have an ending. That is not beyond the realm of possibility.


There are a few corollaries to this way of accounting for “race.” One is that the subject-object construction is the real relation that white people have with people of color. Second, white privilege is not given by social institutions, but is a benefit attached to the activity of racializing. Third, racism is not primarily expressed in those derogatory events in which it is discernible, but in the ordinary events of whites living as racializers, to which the racialized have little or no response.

Finally, it must be said that it is possible for a white person to relate to others in a non-racializing way. It is possible to abandon acting white, and thus to abandon one’s white racialized identity. But that indicates the most essential reason why it is hard for white people to talk about race. To do so would put their racialized identity in jeopardy.

For whites, then, the project of being an anti-racist would have to include relocating oneself outside the entire system of coloniality and its system of racialized power relations that have produced that identity.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.