This is the moment to see how emotion drives social action and US politics

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The discomfort and outright lies that characterize our talk about race, the impact of emotions generated by our racialized lives, the network of social relations at political, economic and ideological levels that shapes the life chances of the various races — these are the reasons the American Sociological Association (ASA) chose “Feeling Race” as the theme for its national conference next month.

I have been feeling race since childhood, well before I knew what race was all about or that I was a black boy of Puerto Rican extraction. James Baldwin solved the puzzle of how black children feel the weight of race before knowing what race is in “The Fire Next Time,” writing:  “Long before the Negro child perceives this difference [white socially imposed superiority], and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it.”

{mosads}We all feel race — which social scientists argue is a socially-produced category, created and recreated in everyday life, culturally as well as through practices such as residential and school segregation, discrimination and routine acts of racial domination (so-called “microaggressions”). But race is not just an objective product, partly created from markers such as the way we look, the language we speak, or our ancestry. Perhaps more deeply, race also is an “affective category.” Once we are reared as black, white, or any other racialized identity, we bond emotionally into an “Us” versus “Them.” And to be clear, these categories are neither innocent nor symmetrical; they express real, existing power differences between the races in society.


We are all racialized subjects (and, of course, much more). Our subjectivity is emotionally glued; one simply cannot live a racialized life without emotions. Because racial groups are constructed as good guys versus bad guys, corresponding racialized emotions follow. If black and brown people are depicted as bad and dangerous, are we surprised that whites fear them? (The fear is unwarranted since most crime, thanks to residential segregation, is intraracial.) If whites control many spaces and organizations, are we surprised that people of color experience anxiety and discomfort when navigating these environments?

Racialized emotions are not universal or eternal, since they correspond to the racial regimes that emerged in modernity. Before the 15th century, when race did not exist as a category of group affiliation, blackness was not feared and, as historian Frank Snowden has shown, was “neither romanticized nor scorned” by Europeans. And of course, we moderns have variations in our racial subjectivity because of the individual context of our racial socialization, friendship patterns, type of educational experiences and other factors.

This means that there is more than one kind of white or black person — which allows for, among other things, deviance from emotional groupthink. If this were not the case, we would not have had in history people such as anti-slavery leader John Brown, the students and white liberals who joined the civil rights movement in the 1960s, or the courageous activists who opposed white supremacists in Charlottesville a year ago this month.  

The fact that these emotions are social products, and that those who feel them have a degree of variance and even ambivalence, does not make them less important. They are powerful social forces shaping our identity and many of our actions. We have witnessed recently the multiple ways in which seemingly non-racist whites patrol boundaries, enforce rules and maintain the racial etiquette of the day. We have seen videos of black men not allowed to use restrooms at Starbucks in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, white women demanding that an 8-year-old black child selling water bottles, or neighbors barbecuing in a park in Oakland, show permits, or calling the police on a graduate student at Yale University for the crime of napping while black.

White men berated a Puerto Rican woman in a Chicago park for wearing a shirt with the Puerto Rican flag, and restaurant workers for speaking Spanish in a New York restaurant. Some whites feel threatened by the demographic changes in the United States and express their frustrations much like the New York lawyer who told the restaurant workers, “My guess is [you aren’t] documented, so my next call is to ICE,” and added, “[They] come here and live off my money — I pay for their welfare. … The least they can do is speak English.”

All these incidents exemplify whites’ racialized emotions (anger, frustration, disgust, etc.), but many, focused on the presumed violation of racial norms, ignore the racialized emotions they generate on the victims. That 8-year-old girl reported to the police — what will be her scars?

During the ASA’s conference, scheduled for Aug. 11-14 in Philadelphia, attendees will deal with dozens of controversial, topical social issues. “Feeling Race” is the general theme because this racially difficult time is, socially and politically, the ripe moment to think about it. We will explore the various ways in which racialized emotions matter.

And we are not just talking scholar to scholar. Policymakers and social analysts should care about “feeling race” because emotions, more than cognitions or analysis, drive social action and impact our political environment. We need to study how emotions work, examine their effects, and contemplate how we can change them. The goal is moving all of us from “feeling race” to, in the words of legal scholar Janine Young Kim, “feeling equality.”

Only when we see one another as fellow humans, will we be able to create the beloved community that Martin Luther King dreamed about.  

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is president of the American Sociological Association and James B. Duke Professor of Sociology at Duke University. His most recent book is “Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

Tags Discrimination Human behavior Microaggression race and society Racialization

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