Could H:SE develop some community guidance to assist people to ask questions about race?

Someone asked a question about racial classification. In dismay over the number of downvotes, he asked if the downvotes were due to issues concerning race. That strikes me as an opportunity for community guidance.

Aside:. The consensus is that race was not relevant to downvotes, but the user's question still seems to be an opportunity to clarify site guidance on how we should treat questions about race

  • I'm sorry, I completely fail to see what the point of either the source question and this Meta question is. I'm not trying to be silly, I just don't see it. Happy to take it to chat if needed. Is it the use of the word Negroes?
    – rath
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 12:30
  • Ah, I see. The question was in the title which has been edited into obscurity. The question could've been repeated in different form in the body, but it's not a very good question either way.
    – rath
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 12:33
  • Now this Q's would come in handy, for this, if we'd finished it in time. The Q I linked to seems to be much better suited as an example? Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 12:41
  • Feel free to link in as an example. I rather agree.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Oct 29, 2018 at 12:48

7 Answers 7


I think that this is a good question, and I think it's a good idea for us to offer guidance on sensitive topics like this, if we can.

However, in this particular example I'm not sure that the problem with the question had to do with the fact that it was about racial classification.

In this case, the question went from being a moderately upvoted one (net vote count +2), to a moderately downvoted one (net vote count -2), after the question title was edited such that it no longer matched the body of the question. In those circumstances, I think the downvotes are hardly surprising!

Further, the new title would probably have invalidated an existing answer to the question (which happened to be mine). Now, I just edited my answer to point out that I'd answered an earlier version of the question (I have no intention of chasing question edits to ensure that my answer matches the latest version of a question!).

This issue has also been discussed here on meta. My personal opinion and approach have not changed since then. However, the practice of changing questions to invalidate existing answers really isn't popular here on History:SE, and that might be another reason this question has started to attract downvotes.

  • 5
    I have to agree with this, the reason I downvoted and voted to close this question was due the the edit of the title changing the meaning of the question, and making the question unanswerable in that form. I have hesitantly removed my downvote and close vote as of this time, due to the edit back to the original form.
    – justCal
    Commented Oct 13, 2018 at 19:11

Questions about race are in tension with the stackexchange code of conduct. If the question doesn't generate a site rooted in "kindness, collaboration, and mutual respect", then it will be challenged.

I'd go further that if the question doesn't promote a spirit of honest intellectual inquiry, then the question will be challenged.

Review your question and ask how members of the minorities in question are going to view the question?

Comments ask whether adhering to the code of conduct would "cripple" H:SE. I think that "cripple" is an unsupportable exaggeration; I think a better question would be "what impact would the code of conduct have on H:SE, and is that impact worth the benefit?" For me the answer is very clear, that the impact is negligible and that given the choice, I'd prefer to incur the cost. The code of conduct does not mean that we cannot discuss race, discrimination or other unpleasant historical events, it requires that we show sensitivity. I believe that is also the standard in historiography.

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    If you explain the Code of Conduct like that, isn't a site like History partially crippled? Minorities have been talked down to and oppressed for years. We may not like it, but that is how history recorded it. We don't have to accept all rants, but this was a quote. And yes, considering it was written in 19th century, it probably has language we may find offensive. But I can think of plenty of questions involving honest intellectual inquiry citing much more offensive quotes that can't be asked if we uphold the CoC like this.
    – Mast
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 7:33
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    @Mast The problem wasn't with the quote in the body of the question, it arose when the title was edited. And yes, I think that the wording of the current Code of Conduct does raise some potential difficulties for a site like History:SE. Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 19:32

The term "negro" is meaningless – like phlogiston or ghost, it has no place in modern science. (I acknowledge that it has a place in political policy, but I think all sides regret that). If you can rewrite your question to focus on scientific terms with clear definitions, do so. If your question uses terms that are ill defined, then it will be challenged.

As @Sempaiscuba notes,

As for there being accepted definitions of any_race, it's worth noting that _Modern scholarship regards race as a social construct, that is, a symbolic identity created to establish some cultural meaning. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race is not an inherent physical or biological quality. – from the Wikipedia page on Race (human categorization)

In my opinion this extends not just to "race" but to most "human categorization". Human categorization is junk science that has no place on H:SE.

A comment asserts (without citation) that "Race is very much an inherent physical and biological quantity." I am unable to find any defensible definition of "race". I believe that "race" is like any other word on Stack Exchange; if you're going to use the term, and if the definition is germane, you're going to have to demonstrate that the word is cromulent, and provide uffish citations. I will be surprised if anyone can meet that standard.

  • 2
    I'm sorry, that's a terrible inexactitude. Race is very much an inherent physical and biological quantity. For example, European peoples are generally not lactose intolerant, in opposition to almost every other ethnic group. Now using racial categorization to support racist views is junk science, but that doesn't allow us to disregard an entire chapter of biology just like that.
    – rath
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 12:21
  • 3
    @rath, thing is, there's almost no overlap between genetic "race" and social race. For example, there's more genetic variation between individuals in Africa (one social race) than there is in the entire rest of the world (a whole bunch of social races).
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 20:10
  • @Mark I agree, and thank you for that. My point is that race is, essentially, genetic variation, as you have correctly phrased it, and not something that can be dismissed by Wikipedia as a social construct.
    – rath
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 23:03
  • 6
    @rath if you look at how "race" was and is used, based on phenotype, politics, religion, tradition, superstition vs the genetics (since when do we know how that works? This is about how HistorySE deals with it.) compared to intergroup and intragroup variations, then it should become clear that the biology of "race" has at best a miniscule overlap to the dominating social construct. Even in Europe the variation in lactase-persistence is considerable and the Massai would like to have a word with that classification. Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 16:31

Even more than usual, when it comes to questions about race, non-trivial assertions must be supported by citations. This should also be true for similar assertions made in answers and comments.

There are three reasons for this:

  1. As Mark has pointed out, questions about race will often be in tension with the SE code of conduct.
  2. Several questions about race (and a number of answers to these questions) have had the appearance of being 'push questions' (or, perhaps, 'push answers') intended to "promote or discredit a specific idea, theory, cause, group or person", and do not appear to be "a good-faith effort to learn more about history as defined in the help centre". Citations are obviously essential in such cases.
  3. Most, if not all, of the theories of 'racial origins' developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have now been discarded in the light of modern DNA evidence. If we are to attempt to answer a question, or judge the merits of an answer, we need to know the sources upon which it is based. (I'd argue that a recent paper published in Nature and based on DNA evidence, for example, will be far more credible than one published in the 1930s based on the "research" of the Ahnenerbe using craniometers and tape measures).

To provide concrete examples for the last point, I have seen assertions based on Giuseppe Sergi's 1901 book, The Mediterranean Race: a Study of the Origins of European Peoples, and C. G. Seligman's 1930 book, Races of Africa (the latter text actually remained in print (in an updated form) until the late 1970s, and remained on many university reading lists well into the 1980s).

The theories promoted in these books are no longer considered to be supportable by the majority of modern researchers - the 'evidence' that was thought to underpin them having since been disproved by advances in DNA analysis.

A problem arises, of course, when those theories, or extracts from the 'evidence' presented in those texts, are presented without proper citation in support of a question or an answer (or, indeed, in a comment).

  • 2
    Perhaps I am too blind, but I thoroughly fail to see the distinction necessary that writing about race and racism as a subject of historical inquiry is part and parcel of history (so how exactly can 1. be violated?), while using concepts promoted by Gobineau, or even Aristoteles, uncritically now to explain, present a modern view is way off. Talking about racism is not racism, but using racist arguments most times is. The OP-Q that prompted this seems like "using", aggravated by the later question titles that shifted it further into (pretend?) innocent naivité. Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 15:16
  • @LangLangC As Mark pointed out in another answer, "If the question doesn't generate a site rooted in "kindness, collaboration, and mutual respect", then it will be challenged" under the SE Code of conduct. For example, the language used in many historical sources in respect of race would, rightly, be deemed unacceptable today. If such language is quoted from a source, then that source must be properly cited. Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 16:55
  • 2
    Well, "properly cited" should go without saying. But the discussion reads a bit like the topic as such is very short of being a taboo, not even quoting the material allowed. (I have witnessed a student protest that wanted to shut down a philosophy lecture about Aristotle "because of his racism". I think we should try to avoid that 'level'.) Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 17:25
  • @LangLangC I don't think there is a problem with quoting the material, in context and properly cited. In general, we ask that assertions should be supported with properly cited sources. I would argue that in the case of sensitive areas (like racial classification) we should require that non-trivial assertions be supported with properly cited sources. This way we can help ensure that no area of historical enquiry is 'off limits', while still complying with the letter and spirit of the SE Code of Conduct. Commented Oct 15, 2018 at 17:54
  • That gets into strange lands. I'd argue we should require properly cited sources always. Is there a list of the sensitive topics *for this specific (SE) culture"? It seems to me that race, religion, gender, sex, wars, Nazis, Germany, Jews, Muslims, Holocaust etc are all "sensitive topics". Not long ago there was someone with a grudge about the Spanish-American war, just now I read comment by someone being offended by a perfectly valid observation about religion. By holding true to those measures on a casuistic basis from this special Western perspective we're about to cast out Max Weber. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 11:34
  • @LangLangC I'm not sure I understand the problem. We already require a higher standard for questions about Nazis, the Holocaust, etc. We've had a few recent questions/answers/comments about race (in one form or another) that seem to be pushing a (potentially) racist agenda, and which seem to me to highlight the fact that we might have an issue. Requiring proper citations isn't a panacea, but I think it will help. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 19:26
  • 1
    @LangLangC As for people being offended by comments which seem to be perfectly reasonable observations to others, that is an issue with the current wording of the SE Code of Conduct. Is the intolerance here on the part of the one who made the comment, or the one who claims to be offended? Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 19:32

This is a community wiki answer; any answer that gets more than five votes will be incorporated into this answer. That way there is a single answer that can be provided for reference, that represents the consensus of the community.


Race is an unacceptable theoretical category as it has been vigorously excluded from the scholarly tradition. For example, the following is most unacceptable:

  • As their origins were social refuse, aren't white Australians criminal trash?

Treating historical approaches to race as objects of study, particularly as social and cultural phenomena is acceptable to the discipline and thus here:

  • When did the accusations of convict stain against white Australians stop being culturally significant?

The first treats race as a historically real phenomena, it accepts race as a theoretical category. The second acknowledges that people in the past had cultural beliefs about race and asks about change in those categories, or the social treatment of people categorised as a result, over time.

We do this because this is the consensus position of the scholarly community and its ethical practice in this area.

(As one may guess, people usually classify me as a "white Australian," thus leading to my use of my culturally assigned category as an example.)


The community consensus is: we do not tolerate promoting racism here. And as elsewhere Ignorantia juris non excusat.

Apparently necessary prolegomena:

What is "race"?

"Race" is an either biologic or biologistic system of categorisation or taxonomy for grouping life forms. This was also applied to human pouplations but came to be recognised as scientifically obsolete since the 1950s, as biologistic determinism proved incompatible to explaining greater intragroup variation to lesser intergroup variations in human populations on the one side and shifting weights within the nature-nurture debate that lessened emphasis on genetic determinism for individual human development.

What is racism?

Racism is an attitude, belief or ideology according to which people are categorised and judged as so-called "races" on the basis of a few external characteristics – which suggest a common descent. The characteristics used for differentiation such as skin colour, body size or language – but also cultural characteristics such as clothing or customs - are interpreted in their biologistic meaning as a fundamental and determining factor of human abilities and qualities and classified according to their "value". Racists generally regard all people who are as similar as possible to their own characteristics as superior, while all others (often graded) are discriminated against as inferior. With such race theories, which are allegedly scientifically supported, various actions were and are justified, which contradict the general human rights as understood and applied today.

Basically, racism is taking a number of minute statistical differences in either behaviour or biology of groups of people and declaring that without basis in sound evidence as essential and deterministic to individuals and populations alike, always carrying a value judgement that is designed to degrade others. As the biology of race is so weak it cannot be a meaningful foundation for justifying the racist outgrouping and dehumanisation that appears sociologically or politically. The human rights issue is just the icing on the cake of scientific dishonesty, although some might prefer to start their reasoning from there. The result will be the same.

There are just tiny problems here when applying this to History.SE: what exactly is "promoting racism" and how do we deal with ignorant (see above) postings? I think there can be cases when a posting can be improved to comply to guidelines; from "can be read as being racist content" to "tackles the topic of racism but is not racist itself". Almost 'naturally', there will be cases of racists posting racist dreck that cannot be improved and posts that should just be deleted, on sight on this site.

There was a new (I think) 'borderline' case on main: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/49045/what-is-the-most-advanced-scientific-basis-for-anti-russian-sentiment (In hope that it gets edited, the following will refer to revision 1 in the edit history of that currently deleted question)

Statistics: estimated reading time 4 minutes, 6 downvotes, no upvotes, 8 links showing research but with questionable context given, put on-hold (within less than 3 hours), mod deleted (for racist content).

Mod Mark did comment:

There is no scientific, rational, basis for racism. The statement that X "are incorrigibly inferior and unable to improve." is racist and cannot be supported by any scientific argument.

He wrote a sentence that is completely valid, now, and reflects the community consensus. However, this is probably not what this question was really about. Great minds like Aristotle, Kant had some ideas now considered racist and thought of that as scientifically valid (speculation/reasoning). Both philosophers would have a hard time lecturing that at face value at any university now. But as far as I understood it, the question on main is about a setting from 1920–1950.

In that timeframe some held the view that "X 'are incorrigibly inferior and unable to improve.'" Since most of now think of this as a racist statement and that it cannot be supported by any scientific argument, OP probably wants a character that sounds as if he would have scientific arguments that seemed to support his position.

The way I read the question, it was about historic racism. About how to incorporate a character (who is essentially a racist) as a believable character. That is different from portraying a racist theory within a novel and that that theory would be believable now, or that it could be used for that. (If that kind of promotion is indeed the intention of the example question then I am seriously in error about that example and the rest of this answer immediately does no longer apply to the example question any more as a whole. Please regard the following then and therefore as a general comment on the situation.)

That would mean that the character at least hints at by name to a once widespread idea/concept/theory from the racist realm. This might be a primitive parole, heard in a speech, read in a book or newspaper, then regurgitated by a character in a novel, who would then look racist and unintelligent to wel educated readers. But racism and dumbness are not perfectly proportionally correlated and they never were. Racism is more of a belief system than something to understand –– but also, like other belief systems, something intelligent people tend to somehow rationalise, however misguided.

We now know, or at least should know, that racism is inhumane and inherently stupid, from a scientific viewpoint. For a character to be believable as racist and not coming across as totally stupid a modern author might want to resort to that character adopting scientific concepts that were once used as reinforcing arguments for the basically unrelated but foundational outgrouping mechanism that is racism. These scientific concepts might now be completely outdated, disproven or laughed at or whatnot. They are not taught in that way in good schools any more. And that makes it difficult for a modern fiction writer to go beyond that what everyone should know now.

Mainly, I think that it this kind of context that was missing from the original question. Assuming best intentions from the OP I guess then further that a non-native speaker did write some parts down that at least look racist to an American, or if just taken at face value: parts that even are racist (guessing: without OP even realising it). Most readers thought: "Aha, a racist needs better racism for rambling in the streets and on SE!" But I hope it is still discoverable in the text of the deleted question that they should have read: "Oh, what a valid but difficult idea and how horrible this is presented. It invites misunderstanding, let's improve it!". The key is that the motivation should come out clearer and that the intent is really the absolute opposite of racism: not explaining (past) 'racism as good' (still) with 'science concepts', but explaining that even scientifically minded persons succumbed to the flaws of thinking, group dynamics and feeling at that time.

In this case, how should OP signal his intentions better? More careful wording, proper grammar and definitions for the intended meaning, resulting in a clear distance from what characters say and what might be read as what the posters holds as true or even some kind of "a truth universally acknowledged".

While being very glad that this din't go 'hot' (having all the hallmarks of a Q for that) I think the downvotes are quite extreme. The Q is not a good one in presentation now, that's a given. But aren't most readers just mislead for the intentions OP had with it (despite being discoverable in the text)? –– Anyway, as I think that this can be made good, I'd plea for a delay should deletion votes come in quickly.

To re-iterate: The way I read it: Promoting racism is not the intention. Intention is (well, I hope should be?) Fictional character (most probably not the hero (good guy) should be historically accurately, or believably, be painted as racist, and argue for his position without sounding too idiotic, unbelievable. A problem well educated writers might face easily!

I guess this is much more about historical racism, than intended as being promoting racism itself, now. But the wording misleads most readers. In parts it actually is rebuilding racist ideas without connecting that back to the thoughts laid out above.
To be clear: I may very well be in complete error about the intent and actual content as intended in the example question. This is no unconditional plea to get it undeleted. If I am wrong about the example it should stay deleted.

That kind of questions could be improved, they can be improved, they should be improved. Questions about racism are difficult, to say the least. But they should not be a total taboo. They are important. We do not want to promote racist content. We do not want to foster racist ideas. But one method to achieve that might be to have content that describes how racism appeared to have worked and appears to work in the minds of those who held those views.

As another answer here wrote:

Race is an unacceptable theoretical category as it has been vigorously excluded from the scholarly tradition.

The unappetising thing about our history is that race was an acceptable theoretical category for perceived or imagined differences between human groups and it has been vigorously excluded from the scholarly tradition only fairly recently, in some parts of the world.

In my personal opinion, just naming a group of people ––(example: skin colour varies, I see that, but what follows from that? Not much. Properly educated "blacks" can get a noble prize and properly miseducated "whites" can be so incredibly stubbornly stupid as to necessitate this post. Change the colours around to your liking if you have to.)–– in any way should be unproblematic, regardless of what that name is. But giving out certain names is considered bad etiquette (I agree, gruntling about the humanity) and even a kind of racism itself (no full agreement). The common ground for what I would even opt to enforce the etiquette reason here is that those names deemed unfit for conversation is that these tainted names are symbolic communications that are meant to or even do carry the deterministic, disrespectful and degrading value judgements that are racist.

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