John Protzko

Can someone be mistaken about their race?

Posted on | November 10, 2015 | No Comments

I’ve been doing some very elementary reading into debates about what race is (does it exist, biological, cultural constructionist etc.).


In all of this, I’ve come to ask one very silly question:

Can someone be wrong about their race?

Under the biological view, that races are genetic, the answer would seem to be yes. An individual can think they are a member of one race but genetically be mistaken and actually a member of another race.

On an extreme social constructionist point, that races don’t exist, this is a moot question as claiming anyone is a race is false. Basically any view that claims that races might not exist would say this question doesn’t refer to anything.

But on more nuanced views, views that take into account social construction but not necessarily hard anti-realism, the question is a little more difficult.

Gooding-Williams, for example, discusses the difference between being Black and being a Black person. To be Black, he argues, is to be considered Black by a particular racial classification. To be a Black person, one has to internalize that, classify oneself as Black, and begin behaving in light of one’s identification as Black.

This would suggest, then, that someone cannot be mistaken about being Black.

So take a certain individual. If other people perceive them as Black, they internalize this notion, and formulate plans and make decisions based on their identity as Black, then it would suggest that no other information about this person, not their skin color or their recent heritage, matters. They are a Black person and they cannot be mistaken about that.

Whenever I think of whether race exists, I like to think of the early 1990s rapper Snow.

Snow, or Darren O’Brien, was an Irish-Canadian who grew up in poor housing projects. He became famous for his Dancehhall song Informer (“A licky boom-boom down”). He sang Reggae and Dancehall because he grew up poor surrounded by Jamaicans. If we presume Snow identified as a Black Jamaican, could we say he was mistaken?

snow informer

Although he doesn’t “look” Jamaican, what if he did (say by a weird genetic mutation)? Could we say such a person was mistaken about being Black? Even though (due to the genetic mutation) they looked it, others treated them that way, and they identified as such?


Or take, for example, a Mexican child who is accidentally switched at birth and raised by Saudi parents. He is raised Muslim, considered a Saudi Muslim by his parents, his friends, the community. He identifies as Middle-Eastern, and he even looks Middle Eastern. Is he wrong about being Middle-Eastern?

I think if we say yes, then we have to admit some objective basis for race against which we can be right or wrong. This cannot be entirely rooted in culture or else the Mexican-Middle Eastern child is actually Middle-Eastern, despite no one in his lineage coming from the middle east…ever.

I don’t think it is the same as passing as one race or another, like the case of the white NAACP leader who passed herself off as a Black woman. I think if someone can be wrong about their race, or if others can be wrong about someone’s race, that seems to require some objective standard. It might not need to be genetic, but I don’t know what else it could be.


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