Race is a Verb

‘Race’ functions as a verb before signifying as a noun.

Speech is the shadow of action. (Democritus, quoted in Diogenes Laërtius, *Lives of Eminent Philosophers*, IX.7.37)

In his critical theory of race, Kendall Thomas, Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, proposes that:

“Race” is a verb, and that we are “raced” through a constellation of practices that construct and control racial subjectivities. (Kendall 1993:1806-7)

In other words, your “race” is not something you are, it is something people and society do to you. It is a categorization made by others. Since “race” has disintegrated as a biological or physiological theory, we must confront it as a socially and culturally manufactured idea. For instance, the criteria that signifies whether a white person is White or a black person is Black – and the specific degree of whiteness or blackness that is required to be included in either “race” – are fluid, historically arbitrary, culturally dependent, and never consistent. In more technical terms, John A. Powell, from the Institute on Race and Poverty, puts it this way:

Before someone can be said to possess a racial characteristic or identity, there must first be a process of “racing” in which the attributes that differentiate racial classifications are designated and signified. (Powell 1997:104)

If, in fact, “race operates as a verb before it assumes significance as a noun,” we must ask the question: who, exactly, is doing the racialization? The historical precedent is clear to Powell: it is a top-down process driven by the most powerful and dominant social group. (Ibid 104)

If Kendall and Powell are right, then our assumptions about the role of “race” in society demands critical reconsideration. Most of us, it seems, are happy to suppose that “race” refers to some innate characteristic of ethnicity. Subsequently, because of these differences, “races” find themselves involved in struggles for power, equality, and dominance over one another. But what if this theory is backwards? Instead, what if it is because of one group’s dominance over another that the concept of racial differences are invented to cement and leverage the power dynamics? Wherever you find the idea of race, you find it brandished as an appliance of domination.

Ashley Montagu writes, “The meaning of a word lies in the action it produces.” (Montagu 1974[1942]:432) Today, when you hear (or use) the concept of “race” and apply it to either yourself or others, try considering the word as a verb, not a noun.


Thomas, Kendall. (1993). The Eclipse of Reason: A Rhetorical Reading of Bowers v. Hardwick. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 79, No. 7, Symposium on Sexual Orientation and the Law (Oct., 1993), pp. 1805-1832

Powell, John A. (1997). The Racing of American Society: Race Functioning as a Verb before Signifying as a Noun, 15 Law & Inequality 99 (1997)

Montagu, Ashley. (1974[1942]). Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Fifth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.