Reconsidering Fordham’s ‘Racelessness’


By Salvador Huitzilopochtli

In this post, Education doctoral student in Math Education, Salvador Huitzilopochtli, thinks through Fordham’s (1988) concept of “racelessness.” Concerned by Fordham’s interpretation of “racelessness” as merely dis-affiliation with one’s ethnic community, Sal offers an alternate interpretation of “racelessness” as an eschewing of racialized hierarchies. He believes this post is important for teachers of all content areas so that we are equipped to walk students through the process of understanding their identity in relation to a raced, classed, and gendered society. The following is an excerpt from Sal’s essay titled, “Tracking down the ‘elusive prey’: thoughts on a grand theory of disengagement.” We welcome public comments, but if you would like to message Sal privately, he can be reached at:

It is possible that the concept of racelessness can be a strategy to distance one’s self from their ethnic identity (while accepting White cultural supremacy by making it invisible), as presented by Fordham. However, it is also possible that it is a rejection of hegemonic practices and the model of a racialized society where White cultural norms are dominant. If it was the latter, then the strategy of ‘racelessness’ can preserve the basic humanity of the person by not accepting their social station as an ‘other’ that is inferior. Moreover, eschewing all notions of racialization, they are free to embrace all cultural norms as equally valuable. To illustrate the possibility of this interpretation, I will reexamine key quotations that Fordham cites. The first person Fordham cites is Bradley (1982), whom I will cite at length:

I am a Black. . . . I suppose I still believe that there is a place in space or time where the pigmentation of my skin might be of only incidental relevance — where it could be possible to give a socially meaningful description of who I am and what I’ve done without using the word black at all. I have abandoned the belief that somewhere or someone will turn out to be here and now. So, for all practical purposes, I accept a belief that I have taken to calling “achromism” (from the Greek a-, meaning “not” and chroma, meaning “color”), which is that within the context of the society to which I belong by right — or misfortune — of birth, nothing I shall accomplish or discover or earn or inherit or buy or sell or give away — nothing I shall ever do — will outweigh the fact of my race in determining my destiny. (Fordham, 1988, p. 58, citing Bradley, 1982)

In reviewing this excerpt, there are two interesting points that appear to support the claim of racelessness as a rejection of White cultural dominance, not necessarily a disaffiliation with Black culture. First, Bradley begins his statement with the assertion, “I am a Black.” Clearly, he is not becoming “un-Black” or disaffiliating with Black people. Secondly, his acceptance of “achromism” is couched in a recognition that he was born into a society where nothing he does will outweigh the fact of his race in “determining [his] destiny.” So, his response to stratified racialization is to return a racial value of null; refusal to participate. A similar argument is made by Rita, a student interviewed in Fordham’s 1988 study:

Some — a lot of times I have people ask me that — “Do you think you are a white person?” But I don’t know, maybe it’s me. Maybe I don’t carry myself like a ‘Black’ person [quotes added]. I don’t know. But I’m Black. And I can’t go painting myself white or some other color, it’s something that I have to live with. So it’s the way it is, and it’s not like having herpes or something — it’s not bad. It’s — I think it’s just the same as being white, as far as I’m concerned — everybody’s equal. (Fordham citing Formal Interview, p.67, emphasis added)

Rita clearly asserts, as does Bradley, that she is Black. Speaking directly to the subordinated status of Blacks in America, she states that being Black is ‘not bad’ and that ‘everybody’s equal’. It is possible that Bradley and Rita are speaking of Blackness as the arbitrary birth color that is written in the genes and not the cultural practices of Black America. However, both of them explicitly rejected notions of racial superiority. Fordham could have interpreted the data correctly to the extent that Bradley, Rita, and others interviewed have disaffiliated with those people who accept notions of racial superiority, including Black people that are complicit with hegemonic practices and accommodating to a subordinated role in society.

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