Applying Philosophical Theories of Race


This activity helps students apply various theories in the philosophy of race to popular race “memes” that students may have seen on social media. It helps students practice their understanding of those theories of race and allows them to see how popular memes embody (perhaps problematically) those theories.

Background Information

Courses and topics

  • Philosophy of Race
  • Metaphysics
  • Social construction
  • Applied Ethics
  • Social Philosophy

Assigned Texts

  • James, Michael, "Race", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
  • Albert Atkin, Philosophy of Race, Routledge, 2014, Chs. 1-3
  • Alyssa Ney & Allan Hazlett, “The Metaphysics of Race”, Ch. 10 in Alyssa Ney Metaphysics: An Introduction, Routledge, 2014

(Any of these will do; there’s no need to read them all. In order of ease for students, the Ney & Hazlett is most accessible, then the Atkin, and the SEP article is suitable for students with more philosophical background)

  • I have created a google document of the memes to apply the theories to. Here is a link to it: This is a public link; anyone with the link can view the document and copy the images from it. It is also rather easy to find these (and other) memes via a websearch (e.g. a Google image search with “race” as the search term).

Additional Texts for Instructor (Optional)

What’s important is that the instructor have an understanding of the different ontological views of race (What sort of category is “race”?) and of the different normative views about the race (what should we do with the concept of “race”?) Labels for these positions seem still in flux, but here is one way of carving up the positions (the activity works no matter how you understand the various positions, how many positions you think there are, or how you label them)

Ontological Views

  • Biological Realism: Races are biologically real categories. There is some biological difference between people of different races.
  • Social Constructivism: (This sometimes comes in “strong” and “weak” versions) Races are social constructions like “The United States” or “Quarterback”.
  • Racial Skepticism: The view that there are no races. Race, like “ether” or (perhaps) the astrological star sign “Saggitarius” is an empty concept and races don’t exist.

Normative Views

  • Eliminativism: We should eliminate from our thought and talk the concept of race.
  • Preservationism or Conservationism: We should retain talk of race.
  • Reconstructionism: We can rework our concept of race to suit various (usually anti-racist) purposes.


This activity helps students understand various theories of race (both the metaphysical or ontological theories about what race is and normative theories about how what we should do with the concept of race). By asking students to apply the difficulty philosophical theories to popular quotations and memes regarding race that they may have encountered on social media, students can see the theories “in action” and come to a deeper understanding of those theories. What is interesting is how non-obvious some of the answers are. Does this reveal that the memes themselves are conflating various theories? Or that the theories themselves are not fully understood? Students’ pre-reflective views on race might be well-captured by these memes and so then this activity helps them unpack which of the philosophical views they themselves endorse. It can also help students distinguish anti-racism (“it’s bad to be racist”)--a position (it is hoped) they all endorse--from the different ontological and normative views about race. Students are familiar with the idea that one shouldn’t be racist, but will be less familiar with the debates over the ontological and normative theories regarding the concept of race. It is interesting for them to discover that two people can both be anti-racist, but hold different views regarding the concept of race.


Students will need to have read some account of the various theories of race before the activity, or have been taught those concepts in class. The memes can be distributed to students ahead of time, given to the students in class, or presented in class by the professor.

Activity Plan

Students are simply asked to determine which theories of race are embodied by the memes. This can happen via a homework assignment, in small groups in class (my preferred way), or in an all-class lecture/discussion.  Students will come up with different theories for the same memes, so they should be asked to explain their answers and defend their answers in light of different answers from their classmates.

An extension activity would ask students to create their own memes based on particular theories.

Discussion Questions (optional)

  • For which memes was it most challenging to come up with an answer? Why is that?
  • Does every meme embody both an ontological view of race and a normative view of race, or are there memes that embody just one of those views?
  • Are there memes that embody the same ontological view but different normative views? How is that possible?
  • Are there memes that embody the same normative view but different ontological views? How is that possible?
  • Are there memes that are anti-racist but embody different ontological and/or normative views? How is that possible?


Andrew P. Mills (Otterbein University)