Understanding Race 2019

Last year, the course I run at Western Sydney University as part of the Masters of Research degree, ‘Understanding Race’, was well received among a wide range of people because I posted the readings and the blogposts I wrote weekly online.

This year, I am running it again starting tomorrow, Thursday 25 July. The first five weeks of the course will run along similar lines as last year because they are introductory weeks, and I have new students. If you followed along from elsewhere, you may like to look at texts you didn’t have a chance to read last year. Last year’s syllabus is here. The Google drive of readings for the course is also under constant update, so please check in there. I will also be reflecting on the approach I took last year and adding new perspectives. For example, the work I did on the social construction of race became a major part of the new book I have written for Polity Press, Why Race Still Matters, which will be out next year. I elaborated on what we mean when we say that race is socially constructed and how this may be inadvertently gifting the right a language at a time of growing white supremacism, building on Jason Antrosio’s idea that the social construction of race is a ‘conservative goldmine‘.

I will also be thinking a lot more seriously about so-called ‘race realism’ which has taken off in unprecedented ways in the current time of mounting open white supremacism. I think that sociologists of race, myself included, have not paid enough attention to the flourishing of these ideas. In fact, there has been a division between those of us who ‘do’ institutional and systemic racism and colleagues who study white supremacist extremism. I also bought into this divide, but increasingly I think we need to think seriously about how the two are mutually sustaining. We also need to think inter alia about the rise in the obsession with ‘populism’ among scholars and how this often fails to take race seriously, or even downplays it considerably.

In Week 5, adding to the focus on Linda Tuhiwai Smith‘s seminal work on decolonizing methodologies, and the work on white logic, white methods by Zuberi and Bonilla Silva, I want to engage with the new volume by Jason de Santolo and colleagues, a sort of sister publication to Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonising Methodologies, Decolonizing Research out this year with Zed Books. I also hope that my PhD student, Tabitha Prado-Richardson will share with us her work around Julietta Singh’s book, Unthinking Mastery. This will add to the work on Black feminist methodologies that structure a lot of the thinking behind this week.

From weeks 6 to 12, I intend the special focus of the course to be racial capitalism, broadly understood. I am going to suggest this to the students tomorrow, and if they are keen, we will focus on works by Cedric Robinson and those who have written about his work, such as Robin Kelley, Robbie Shiliam’s book Race and the Undeserving Poor and Gargi Bhattacharyya’s Rethinking Racial Capitalism. All of this will be preceded by a grounding in the literature on race, coloniality and property, principally via Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s The White Possessive and Cheryl Harris’s groundbreaking work on whiteness as property. I wrote an extensive blogpost on this last year, but I feel I barely scratched the surface.

I welcome you to provide any feedback in the comments below. Also if you are in the Sydney locality, you are welcome to attend the course in real life by writing me an email to let me know why you’re interested.


  • Adam Hochman

    August 4, 2019

    Hi Alana,

    It is interesting what you say about social constructionism. Recall the opinion piece in The NY Times by David Reich, which gives a qualified defence of racial hereditarianism? I’ve recently been invited to write a response to Reich and one of the main themes of my paper is his simultaneous endorsement of racial hereditarianism and social constructionism about race. Since then Noah Carl, a well-known hereditarian, has written that “just because the meaning of ‘race’ has varied over time and across societies, this does not mean that it is a wholly social construct. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for treating race as a partly biological construct too” (2019, 265). I think that you are right that the social constructionist metaphor “may be inadvertently gifting the right a language at a time of growing white supremacism” and I predict that we will be seeing more hereditarians endorsing social constructionism about race in the future, as it gives a veneer of respectability. And most versions of social constructionism are compatible with hereditarianism. The only version that isn’t, on my reading, is better labelled as anti-realism about biological race.

    Good luck with your unit – your students are very lucky to have you!


  • Alana Lentin

    August 8, 2019

    Hi Adam, Thanks for these very interesting comments. When you write your paper please do share it with me if you don’t mind and I swill cite it in my book where I deal with this issue more extensively, as well as some other debates coming through via epigenetics. I use the furore over Noah Carl as an example of the central role played by politics in ‘race realism’.

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