Review: How Race Is Made

Smith, Mark M. How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

It is perhaps best to start a discussion of Mark M. Smith’s creative book with some of his own words: “Modern discussions of ‘race’ and racial identity are hostage to the eye” (2). Although not the thesis of the book, this short statement is the book’s raison d’être. In How Race Is Made, it is Smith’s goal to expand our understanding of race to include the totality of senses: sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch. His argument, then, is that race is not made simply through sight but through all the senses. This may seem counterintuitive to many readers, given that most people associate race with skin color, but Smith reminds us that “the preference for ‘seeing’ race is as much a social construction as ‘race’ itself” (2). Only when we are able to conceptualize race as a rounded sensory construction, Smith maintains, can we fully understand the history of race in America. (Although the argument could easily be made for the construction of race globally, Smith’s evidence makes the case primarily for the United States. Naturally, it is also focused on the south.) To be sure, Smith warns, “seeing remains—and always has been—extraordinarily important for locating racial identity. But remembering that race was mediated and articulated in ways in addition to seeing helps profile ordinarily hidden dimensions of racial thought and racism” (3, emphasis mine). All the senses play a role in making race, and recognizing this reveals how race is made in ways we are not aware of. Each sense makes race in its own way, but it is the sum of the sensorial effects that creates the language of race and the grammar of racism.

Central to Smith’s argument is the claim that “nonvisual senses indexed viscera and emotion more than thought and reason” (2), which benefitted white people. As Smith elaborates, “the senses facilitated the rule of feeling and made men and women unthinkingly comfortable with their racial worlds. . . . The sensory underpinnings of slavery and especially segregation took on a visceral quality that relieved most white southerners of the discomfort of thinking, levied no tax on the mind, and allowed white conceits about blackness to go unchecked” (4). The larger point Smith makes with this idea is that the construction of race and the development of racism were not logical phenomena but emotional ones, and it is for this reason that racism was so pervasive and stubbornly resistant in American society. Although this claim—that the nonvisual senses led whites to be “unthinkingly comfortable with their racial worlds”—seems plausible, Smith isn’t able to sustain it through argument. We might ask, for example, if the senses signify the absence of thinking, how is it that whites “used the putatively premodern, proximate, nonvisual senses to invent ‘modern’ racial stereotypes” (4, emphasis mine)? The verb “invent” connotes thinking and taking thoughtful action to achieve some purpose (even if the purpose is unknown), not emotional reaction. This may be a harsh reading, but I would hope someone making this argument would be mindful of such nuances. Even if we give Smith the benefit of the doubt and say that he meant the sensory stereotypes were invented to facilitate the unthinking, emotional reactions of whites, the ontology of the sense experience comes from whites thinking during the process of invention. Furthermore, if sight—the sense most associated with reason and logic—was used to construct race along with the other senses, then reason and logic were always apart of the race equation, even if only partially.

I am not trying to suggest that Smith’s argument about the senses constructing race is entirely unconvincing; rather, I am saying the argument is unconvincing when he puts too much emphasis on the binary of feeling/emotion and logic/reason. For if white people’s “senses had stolen their capacity for reasoned thinking” (139), then the suggestion that race was constructed in “a fit of absence of mind” is only a few logical steps away.[1] But I don’t think this is the argument Smith is making, nor do I think his lack of attentiveness to logical conclusions ruins his larger point. In fact, the larger point about the role all the senses played in the construction of race and the development of racism is quite successfully made. In other words, although his argument about the emotionality of the senses isn’t quite convincing, his contention about the culpability of all the senses, visual and nonvisual, in the construction of race is.

Part of the success of Smith’s argument comes from the way he presents and navigates the material in six chapters (not including the introduction). The book takes as its starting point the first British encounter with West Africans in the sixteenth century and continues chronologically until the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in the 1950s. Although this is quite a stretch of time, he focuses mainly on slavery and segregation, as the title suggests, showing how the senses worked to construct race in unique ways during both eras. His sources comprise autobiographies, letters, periodicals, sociological accounts, memoirs, and even a few prints—practically all the sources traditionally used to write history. Though many of the sources have been used by other scholars, Smith’s innovation comes from his culling of the material for sensory qualities. This, avers Smith, is the way to a full understanding of the history of race in America: “Part and parcel of thinking beyond race entails coming to terms with the historical construction of race in all its forms and in all its senses” (10). How Race Is Made allows us to do this, and this is perhaps its greatest strength.


[1] The phrase “in a fit of absence of mind” comes from John Robert Seeley, but he was referring to the British Empire: “We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures (Boston, Roberts Brothers, 1883): 8.

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