What Do We Need to Know Now?

"Race," Identity, Hegemony, and Education

By ASA G. Hilliard III

The following is condensed from a speech last spring to a conference on Race, Research and Education, held in Chicago at an African-American symposium sponsored by the Chicago Urban League and the Spencer Foundation.

Dr. Mostafa Hefny, to whom the following letter is addressed, has begun to learn about the global system of classifying human beings and about its links to education. The letter is as follows:

October 2, 1987
Mostafa Hefny
5130 Neckel
Dearborn, MI 48126

Dear Mr. Hefny:

Be advised that the Michigan Department of Education collects racial and ethnic data as prescribed in Directive No. 15, “Race and Ethnic Standards for Federal Statistics and Administrative Reporting.” This directive provides standard classification for record keeping, collection, and presenta- tions of data on race and ethnicity in Federal program administrative reporting and statistical activities.

According to this Directive a white person is a person having ori- gins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa or the Middle East. Since you come from Egypt (a North African and Middle Eastern country) you are white, not black.

You are directed to change your classification on the Race/Ethnic Identification Card. Be advised that failure to do so will have serious repercussions for your career, and will constitute insubordination, which may result in suspension and discharge.

Mrs. Teresa D. Myers
Director, Human Resources

Dr. Hefny, a very dark-skinned Nubian Egyptian native, descendant of a people who have lived at Aswan for thousands of years, wrote a four-page, single-spaced response on January 14, 1988. Among other things, he said:

I am a black man at five levels, the biological, social, psychological, political and ideological levels. I want to reconcile my strong black identity with my classification. … As a black man and as an African, I am proud of this [my African] heritage. My classification as a white man takes away my black pride and my black heritage.

This issue had not been resolved legally for Dr. Hefny the last time I spoke with him, a year ago. Unfortunately, this nightmarish ex-change is no more irrational than hundreds of thousands of other exchanges every day.

Some say that the contemporary concept of “race” is grounded in Nazi Germany. Adolph Hitler was surely aware of the “race” matter and was the person who most clearly saw its full political potential. Scholar Max Weinreich quotes Hitler as admitting to an associate that “in the scientific sense, there is no such thing as race.” But Hitler goes on to note that as a politician he needs a conception “which enables the order which has hitherto existed on [an] historic basis to be abolished and an entirely new and anti-historical order enforced and given such an intellectual basis. … With [the] conception of race, national socialism will carry its revolution abroad and recast the world.” (Italics added.)

Hitler was very clear about “race” as a fabrication, as anti-historical, and as a tool of political power.

In preparing for this assignment on race, education, and research, I found that it is premature to discuss research needs until the “race” dialogue is clarified. Otherwise, we could spin our wheels by using the same popular language, definitions, constructs, paradigms, and problem definitions that have been typical of past work.

Most important, we must tie together the issues of “race,” identity, hegemony, and education. Fundamentally, the question of “race” is not a matter of skin color, anatomy, or phenotype, but a matter of the domination of one group of people by another. Any consideration of “race” is useless unless it also considers racism, white supremacy, and any other form of racial supremacy – and considers them as a hegemonic system. The real problem is hegemony, not “race!”


During my lifetime, I have witnessed several transitions in the ethnic group name used by people of African ancestry. I was born during the time when it was popular to use “colored” when referring to African people. “Negro” was also used. During the 1960s, many people felt a major shift had been made when “black” became popular, with the predictable addition that the “b” in black be capitalized, just as the Spanish version of the word for black (negro), had gradually evolved to the status of capitalization. We even became “Black and proud,” i.e. we made black a positive instead of a negative name.

These changes represented struggles within the African community to take control of our naming and self definition from our oppressors, and to imbue our collective ethnic name with positive meaning. Yet we wrestled with the ascribed terms, “colored,” “negro,” and “black,” as if we had no other choices.

Yet historically, “African” was often the preferred term, especially up until the early 1900s. The term was also used by some in the 1960s, following the publication of the book by Richard Moore, The Name “Negro”: Its Origin and Evil Use. In the last decade, at a national conference in New Orleans led by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dr. Ramona Edlin Hodge, the name “African American” was advocated – followed by widespread acceptance of that designation within the African community. This happened even as many Europeans opposed the action, as if they had any right to enter dialogue about an African family matter.

In my opinion, few of us in the 1980s were prepared to deal properly with this matter of naming, because few of us were well-informed about the history of our people before our enslavement by Europeans. We did not understand our history as a whole and healthy ethnic people, as not merely a pigmented people. We did not understand how and why we were coerced by Europeans to change our ethnic names to names that caused us to become preoccupied with aspects of our phenotype, mainly our skin color, hair texture, and facial features. The Europeans were looking for names that dehumanized and subordinated us, that contained us in our physical being, separating us from our minds, souls, and spirits. We did not understand how they, the authors of this specious system, were using their “race” construction in irrational and pseudoscientific but calculated political ways.

The names “colored,” “negro,” “black, “African,” “African American,” are more or less terms that have been accepted within the African family. My own strong preference is for African. Nationality and ethnicity are not always the same. The term “African” fits our actual historical, cultural, and even political circumstances more precisely than any other name. As Sterling Stuckey has shown, the Western experience has fused Africans from all over the diaspora into a new family that still shares the African root culture at the core, in the same way that diverse ethnic groups from Europe are tending toward a common European ethnic identity after having spent so many years believing that they had no ethnicity or that they were just Americans. The African continental name reflects that reality of a common cultural heritage and a common political need. Naturally, we recognize that the influences in the diaspora among other ethnic groups are reciprocal. We also recognize that cultural change in response to new environments will continue to happen.

External to the African community, other terms have been used as euphemistic designators to refer primarily to people of African ancestry. Non-ethnic terms, such as “minority,” “the disadvantaged,” “culturally deprived,” “culturally disadvantaged,” “inner-city,” and “at-risk,” are ascribed, fostering amorphous identities that detach Africans from time, space, and the flow of human history. Note that these terms emphasize numerical status, social class, and political status, e.g., how many we are, how wealthy we are, how powerful we are. But they do not denote ethnic identity; they do not tell us who we are. In fact, these names apply easily, potentially, to any ethnic group.

Almost without exception, the group names ascribed by Europeans to Africans are adjectives, never proper nouns as names. Significantly, they are adjectives that suggest no respect for who we are or for our uniqueness as an ethnic family. In fact, they suggest nothing but something of minimal or even negative import. In the case of African people, this demeaning language was part of a strategy to commit “cultural genocide,” a strategy to destroy ethnic family solidarity, a strategy to place emphasis on individual rather than family behavior, a strategy to confuse Africans about their ethnic identity, to destroy our consciousness. Why? As Dr. John Henrik Clarke has so often said, “It is impossible to continue to oppress a consciously historical people.”

I do not believe that there can be a resolution of this matter of ethnic designation or group identity until the question of identity is situated in its historical, cultural, and socio-political context. We must understand how the idea of “race” emerged. We must also admit that the poison of “race” and hegemony, or white supremacy, is now a part of global ideology and structure. And our response to the problem ultimately must be to target ideology and structure, not merely everyday individual behavior.

The ideology of “race” drives much of what happens in the world and in education. It is like a computer software program that “runs in the background,” invisible and inaudible. However, our silent and invisible “racial” software is not benign. It is linked to issues of power and hegemony, the domination of a given group by another. “Race” thinking has no reason for being except for the establishment of hegemony.

We must look beyond “race” as our criteria for identity. We need to ask questions such as: What was the historical nature of group identity when “race” was not in the picture? What is the normal basis for group identity in world history? What were the criteria for ethnic family identity prior to the invention of the race construct?


Color prejudice associated with white supremacy appears to be quite old, as old as several thousands of years ago in India, resulting in the dehumanizing caste system. However, “race” as a “scientific” construct or concept is quite recent. (By “race” I mean the allegedly scientific view that the human race can be divided into varieties distinguished by physical traits such as color, hair type, body shape, etc.) This concept of “race” is the product of Europe’s colonization of Africa and other parts of the world, of its enslavement of Africans, and of the development of apartheid, segregation and the supporting ideology of white supremacy. Other ethnic groups such as Indians and Asians, indeed groups of color around the whole world, came under the umbrella of the construct of “race” and experienced the dehumanizing colonial treatment.

Hegemony was also at the root of the creation and adoption of the construct as it was applied to these other groups. Even European ethnic groups were divided into “races” and ranked, to establish domination of the “superior European race.” In Germany the ultimate realization was the fabrication of the “Master Race.”

It’s important to realize that the concepts of race and racism are a Western idea. But it’s more important to understand that, more specifically, race and racism are tools that Western civilization used to split and dominate the world. A society’s racism is not defined by its degree of racial segregation or how racially prejudiced the population may be. These are manifestations of racism. The racism itself is the tendency of a society to degrade and do violence to people on the basis of race, and by whatever mediations may exist for this purpose.

Ashley Montague, who has written extensively on the problem of the validity of the concept of “race,” notes:

The modern conception of ‘race’ owes its widespread diffusion to the white man. Wherever he has gone, he has carried it with him. … This is not to say that discrimination against (personal) groups on the basis of skin color or difference did not exist in the ancient world; there is plenty of evidence that it did. But it is to say that such views never became the officially established doctrine, upon any large scale, of any ancient society. …

While the concept of race can be described as both an oversimplified theory and an outmoded methodological approach to the solution of a highly complex problem, it has become these things only for a small number of thinkers, and when the history of the concept of race finally comes to be written, it is unlikely that it will figure prominently, if at all, among the fruitful (ideas). The probabilities are high that the concept will be afforded a status similar to that now occupied by the nonexistent substance known as “phlogiston.”

Race is the phlogiston of our time. (Montague, 1970 p. xii.)

According to Montague, phlogiston was a substance supposed to be present in all materials given off by burning. Phlogiston was advanced in the late 17th century by the chemist J. J. Beecher, and was accepted as a demonstrable reality by all intellectuals until the true nature of combustion was experimentally demonstrated by Lavoisier a hundred years later. It is an illuminating commentary on the obfuscating effect of erroneous ideas that Joseph Priestley, who stoutly defended the phlogiston theory all his life, was unable to perceive that he had discovered a new gas in 1774, which according to the (Fall) theory he thought to be “dephlogisticated air,” but which Lavoisier correctly recognized and named “oxygen.”

“Race” must also be situated in its global political context. As Mills notes:

One could say that the Racial Contract creates a transnational white polity, a virtual community of people linked by their citizenship in Europe, at home and abroad (Europe Proper, the Colonial Greater Europe, and the “fragments” of Euro- America, Euro-Australia, etc.), and constituted an opposition to their indigenous subjects (p.29). …

Economic structures have been set in place, causal processes established, whose outcome is to pump wealth from one side of the globe to another, and which will continue to work largely independently of the ill will/good will, racist/anti-racist feelings of particular individuals. This globally color-coded distribution of wealth and poverty has been produced by the racial contract and in turn reinforces adherence to it in its signatories and beneficiaries (p. 36).

Kotkin and Huntington make a similar point. They argue that while large parts of the world’s population are becoming more diffused, a few ethnic groups rule the world, groups they refer to as “global tribes or civilizations.” According to Kotkin and Huntington, these tribes or civilizations are able to dominate because they preserve a strong sense of ethnic identity. This is the basis of the trust within that permits collaboration in economic and political arenas.

Some scholars, I among them, argue that greed and/or fear are the elemental sources of the drive to dominate others. Scholars such as Hodge, Struckmann, and Trost further argue that the greedy and fearful actions lead to the creation of definitions, assumptions, and paradigms which are embedded in the belief system, which then dictates domination or hegemonic behavior. They write:

A common Western notion, occasionally expressed, usually implied, is that Western culture is superior to other cultures. Western culture is generally considered to be identical with ‘civilization,’ and the non- Western world is considered to be in varying states of development, mov- ing toward civilization. “Primitive” and “uncivilized” are terms frequently used by Westerners to refer to people in cultures which are unlike the West.

That the people of a culture should view themselves as culturally superior is certainly common. But not so common is the feature contained in Western cultural thinking, that the superior should control the inferior. It is this kind of thinking which emphasizes the value placed on control, that produces the missionary imperialism. The notion of “white man’s burden” is also derived from this type of thinking. Western control over non-Western people is thereby often considered morally defensible. (Hodge, Struckmann, and Trost, 1975, p. 3)


Prior to the 1700s, identity was fundamentally an ethnic identity based upon cultural traditions, linguistic traditions, historical traditions, and so forth. This does not mean that physical features or phenotypical diversity went unnoticed. It simply means that phenotype was not the core of ethnic identity!

“Race,” or phenotypical diversity, did not become the core of ethnic identity, or more accurately, a substitute for ethnic identity, until there was a political necessity to make it so. Why? Because one of the most significant forces for the expansion of racism and white supremacy was the successful attempt by Europeans to shift the basis of group designation from its traditional cultural and ethnic base to an exclusively physiological one. They treated phenotype as if it were “race,” and they treated “race” as if it were the primary explanatory factor in human social behavior.

What is the purpose of the use of this invalid construct of “race”? What are the consequences of the use of the construct? How is society structured to project and to legitimize the construct? These are the fundamental questions that we should be following with research

Unfortunately, we have been following the detour of “race” rather than the ideology which propels it. Some of my most respected friends have made the study of “racial identity” a core of their academic work. Implicit in the study of “black racial identity” is the idea that “race” is real, that it is valid and meaningful, and that we should strive to have a “healthy ‘racial’ identity.” Of course, when this work is conducted as an anti-hegemonic exercise, in other words to counter European defamation, I would be the first to defend it. I also suspect that these scholars tend to use “racial” categories as if they were ethnic categories.

However, I do not believe that the appropriate response to the use of invalid “racial categories” is to reify the categories by having the victims create a better use of the categories. I believe that the search for a “racial identity” leads us in the wrong direction. It is not a matter of research methodology, of assessment instruments, of educational theory. It is simply the wrong question! The right question is: “How do we restore a healthy ethnic identity?”

This does not mean that problems with respect to our perception of our phenotypical characteristics do not exist. The centuries of propaganda and defamation have definitely taken their toll. The continuing brisk sales of Nadinola and Porcelana skin lightening or bleaching creams in the United States and even in Africa itself tell us that something is wrong.

I believe that our goal should not be to search for “racial identity,” but to decolonize our minds and purge them of images of white supremacy – and to restore the African family. This must include a move to restore our ethnic base and nurture a healthy ethnic identity. Then the question of our obvious phenotype will take care of itself.

We do not need an oppositional ethnic identity. We are not a “civil rights” people, even though we have fought to the death in heroic struggles for our rights. We do not exist merely because we are oppressed. The essence of our identity does not depend upon our oppressors. Who would we be if they did not exist? Our condition may find disproportionate numbers of us in poverty; however, our identity is not “the poor.” Genuine identity is based upon collective culture and traditions, not on opposition to white supremacy, no matter how necessary that struggle is.


Where does this bring us in terms of research and education? I believe that we must know the history, purposes, consequences, and structure of the racial paradigm. And we must dismantle that evil paradigm brick by brick. Then it is our obligation to go about the process of healing ourselves.

We cannot make ourselves whole merely by studying problems of “human relations,” “stereotypes,” “prejudice,” “bigotry,” and so forth. That vocabulary tends to trivialize the hegemony problem, to misdirect attention from the root problem. The real problem will never be remedied by capitalizing the word “black,” making Africans the only group in the world’s list of ethnic groups which is an adjective instead of a proper noun.

We need to do whatever is necessary so that our children and our people accept themselves, with all our magnificent phenotypes, as people of beauty. But to stop there is a gross mistake. To use phenotypical features as the essence of identity is literally to remove the bearer, or the bearer’s ethnic family, from time and space, from the human historical and cultural process. That is the ultimate in dehumanization and cultural genocide.

Ethnicity implies history, culture, location, creativity. Color does not. To become pathologically preoccupied with phenotype, to the exclusion of an understanding of one’s place in the cosmos, to an understanding of the evolution of the ethnic family, to creating stronger bonds among ethnic family members, will lead our people down the wrong path.

After serious study and debate, the Harlem scholars led by Richard B. Moore concluded that we should be referred to as African Americans. They understood the cultural criteria for designating family membership. But it is the family that the hegemonic oppressor sought to destroy! They wanted to destroy any bond, any unity, any solidarity. It is family that the current systems of neo-white supremacy still seek to destroy. And, therefore, it is family and its preservation that is the issue, not phenotype. Family, independent and conscious, is the opposite of hegemonic victim.

The fundamental question, as I have stated elsewhere, for people of African ancestry, is: “To be African or not to be?”

In my work, I have looked at common elements in structures of domination throughout history. Specifically, dominating populations suppress the history of their victims, destroy the practice of the culture of their victims, prevent the victims from coming to understand themselves as a part of a cultural family, teach systematically the ideology of white supremacy, control the socialization process, control the accumulation of wealth, and perform segregation and apartheid.

It is very important to realize that these are matters of structure, and matters of systematic practices founded upon ideology. No attempt to remedy problems in education can occur apart from an understanding of these things. In fact, one of the reasons that we have been so unsuccessful in producing educational equity is that our understanding of the structure of hegemony was focused on a single element, that of segregation of “the races.” This left the other elements largely untouched since they were not prominent in our understanding of segregation.


Education, like “race,” is situated in a context. There should be no need to go into great detail about the history of the education of Africans under slavery, colonization, apartheid, and white supremacy ideology. The record is clear. The treatment of Africans was not a matter of negligence or accident. It was not benign. Massive and strategic attempts were made to use educational structures to destroy “critical consciousness,” to alienate Africans from tradition and from each other, to teach African inferiority and European superiority.

We have two major concerns. First, there is the need to access and to dismantle a tremendous array of aggressive negative beliefs, behaviors, and strategies. Second, there is the need to construct normal nurturing.

Appropriate research will contribute to our understanding of what is going on with race, hegemony, and education. Except for simple and overt factors, much of what we need to know is now “silent and invisible.” Obviously, there are thousands of studies that could be done, producing interesting information, even useful information. However, I will limit myself here to examples of categories of needed research. The following brief list is suggestive only.

  • Abandoning the Race Construct. The continued use of the race construct is an issue. Racial comparisons, especially biological aspects, are prominent in educational research and in public policy. For example, I have pointed out to the American Psychological Association that our field of psychology is saturated with studies of racial comparisons in spite of the absence of construct validity for race. And yet there is a dearth of information on hegemony. For example, the words racism and white supremacy do not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that defines mental illness, yet I believe they both belong there.

    What might be the consequences if we continue to focus on “race” rather than hegemony?

    Interestingly, the policy chapter in the popular Bell Curve book, which appears to seek to scientifically bolster the white supremacist view that the African “race” is genetically and intellectually inferior, speaks about those in the bottom 25% of IQ test scores as being “expendable.” In the authors’ own words:

What happens to the child of low intelligence who survives childhood and reaches adulthood trying to do his best to be a productive citizen? Out of the many problems we have just sketched this is the one we have chosen to italicize. All of the problems that these children experience will become worse rather than better as they grow older, for the labor mar- ket they will confront a few decades down the road is going to be much harder for them to cope with than the labor market is now. … People in the bottom quartile of intelligence are becoming not just increasingly expendable in economic terms: they will sometime in the not-to-distant future become a net drag. In economic terms and barring a profound change in direction for our society, many people will be unable to per- form that function so basic to human dignity: putting more into the world than they take out … For many people, there is nothing they can learn that will repay the cost of the teaching. (Murray and Herrnstein, 1994, pp. 519-520.)

  • Equitable Treatment. One of the most common errors in educational research is to operate on the assumption that when children fail to perform, the problem is with the child, the family, the community – in short the child or the child’s non-school environment. Furthermore, within the child’s environment, we emphasize the problems of poverty, crime, gangs, and so forth. While these and other potent forces are important and may impact teaching and learning, it is also true that the school’s treatment of the child is potent, and under some circumstances more potent than almost anything else. Therefore, we must have detailed and valid information about how the child is treated in school. These are intervening variables. Rarely do we control for them, especially in comparative studies involving “race.”

    The absence of sufficient studies on these factors within school foster the belief that African children tend to fail in school primarily because of internal and non-school factors. This belief system is a part of the structure of domination.
  • Alien and/or Invalid Curriculum. African children are subjected to massive doses of misinformation and neglect in the school curriculum. Many of these messages are “silent and invisible.” Studies must be done to reveal more precisely what goes on under the name of curriculum. Anthropologist Sheila Walker, for example, did a study of library holdings in the Oakland Unified School District. Her study showed vast gaps between the content offered about African people and what is true, valid, and important. We may also wish to do research on the beneficial effects on students when valid and affirming curriculum is offered.
  • Schools and African Academic Excellence Without Excuse. Few things are more important than to document that not only can all children learn, but that children are learning in many schools with ordinary teachers and no special programs. Yet most of these schools, or classes, are “silent and invisible.” As a result, educators and policymakers become unsure about what we can “expect” from poor African children.
  • The Effects of Special Treatment. The structure of services, such as special education, more often stratify students rather than benefit them. Tracking and “special” services, in the main, label and stigmatize students, disproportionately by “race,” with minimal to negative benefits. We need many sophisticated studies on the alleged benefits of such services, especially when there is disproportionate impact by “race.”
  • Culture as Context. The great error in behavioral research, now acknowledged by prestigious scholars, is that in most cases there has been a failure to take context into account. Research tends to proceed as if constructs, methods, instruments, and interpretations in culturally embedded studies are universal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most researchers are ill prepared to do research in a culturally plural environment or to deal with hegemony as it relates to culture.

So what needs to be done in terms of research and education? What do we need to know now?

We have an enormous task before us. We must forego our preoccupation with the false construct of “race” and focus instead on our African ethnic identity. We must support a healing process for damaged ethnic families. And we must focus the spotlight on hegemony so that we can take actions against it.

Scholarship is a double-edged sword. It can cut two ways, for good or for evil.

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Asa Hilliard is professor of urban education at Georgia State University and the author of numerous books and articles on education, particularly the education of African-American children.