Friday, December 14, 2007

Getting rid of race

I am a true academic geek (wait, isn't that just being repetitive? Aren't all academics GEEKS, otherwise how did we end up studying a narrow subject for so long and so intensely) because I had my final meeting of the Paul Gilroy reading group on Tuesday, and I was scrambling to finish the book, Postcolonial Melancholia, before the meeting not because I feared letting down my group members (it's the end of semester and most people were only able to get through the intro and to skim one of the chapters) but because I couldn't put it down. That's right--this dense piece of cultural criticism had me up late and up early because I thought it was a page turner.

And why? Because I was intrigued by Gilroy's central idea--the one that animates his entire work and, I would argue, that informs his other works as well:

Lets get rid of the category of race altogether and focus on anti-racism.

If you are saying, "Huh?" then let me try to break it down. It's sort've like a chicken or egg thing--which came first, race or racism? Gilroy says

"If the historical anomaly represented by archaic racial division does, contrary to expectations, remain legally or morally open, if it is still somewhere 'on hold' and therefore a muted part of the history of our present, the discomforting events to which these discussions refer are most likely to be recovered or remembered in the name of the same racial, ethnic, and national absolutes and particularities that I intend to call into question. 'Race' would then become an eternal caue of racism rather than what it is for me--its complex, unstable product" [emphasis mine] (14).

It's not race that causes racism--it's race that is a byproduct, an after-effect, of racism. We (especially Americans) are immersed, obsessed, disgusted by, proud of, distraught over race because we are living with the legacy of racism--because racism, the colonial, imperial, institutional forms of racism have undergirded the systems of power and philosophy that comprise our lives.

Although Gilroy's audience is mainly other academics (or any non-academics willing to slog through the jargon), and although he does not give concrete, practical examples about HOW we are to eliminate the category of race and to, instead, insist on a category of anti-racism, his work provokes thought and debate on this subject, and highlights what is for many counter-intuitive: race, while having a material effect, is nonethless a total fabrication--a social construct invented to dehumanize one group of people for the benefit of another group.

And it makes me giddy to think what we could do if we could shift the conversation from race to racism--or more specifically, if we could start to recognize the ways in which an anti-racist paradigm and philosophy would really benefit us ALL because we are ALL impacted/invested in a racist ideology that has constrained us into believing in race--into believing that we need to chop people up into categories and to hang values and judgments on people based on race.

Now, let me be clear, I recognize that we have lived with race for a long time and we will have this category around for quite a while. And I'm not about to stop teaching Asian American literature in favor of "American" literature or to stop talking about race and America and mixed-race America just because I agree with Gilroy's call to shift our focus.

But I do think that trying to have conversations about the history of race and about what an anti-racist praxis would look like is really key because racism is the key--it's the ideology that permeates so much of our lives and that is so pernicious that we take it for granted and we choose not to see the ways in which it has infected the ways we live our lives, and I'm not just talking about obvious stereotypes, I'm talking about the things you never think twice about like the mere fact that the land I own was cultivated as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and taken as a result of American Indian displacement. Sure, some people think of this all the time, but the majority of us never truly realize that these two signal events as the cornerstone of America's founding is also the reason (free and cheap labor and land that was taken) we were able to become a rich country and a powerful first-world nation and that there were other people--those whose skin tones and practices literally looked different from Europeans and were rendered inhuman by European thought that allowed this to happen. And we are living with the aftermath of this history. And if you think that this is something that happened in the past and doesn't impact our current lives, then you need to look at Jena 6 and the noose incidents and even the last post I wrote (which is nothing compared to these other two events) to understand that people still judge and discriminate based on race.

So what do we do? What does an anti-racist praxis look like? Well, to start with, it is about cross-ethnic/racial coalitions as well as paying attention to class/sexuality/gender intersections. It's like I wrote in a previous post--we need white allies to talk about racism and preach anti-racism, and to have straight folks stand up for queer rights and to have those of us in the middle-class advocate for working class and poverty stricken people--and not just to do this as a "cause" but to work WITH people who comprise these communities.


srh said...

I wish I could have read your post before I so poorly articulated a similar position to a colleague. As a teacher in a formerly rural, currently suburban area of NC we struggle daily with this notion of "race". I agree fully with Gilroy-there is no way to use the term race without "cueing" these ancient categories.

As for me and my house which, as the running joke goes, is more ethnically diverse than my Honors English classes, I will use Jennifer's/Gilroy's? inspired definition of race, that is, "a social construct invented to dehumanize one group of people for the benefit of another group" and focus instead on what I tell my students is our twisted inheritance; racism.

We white southerners, especially need to embrace the language of cultural and ethnic diversity and refuse any discussion using the prejorative term race. We do not have to rename "Asian" or "African" or "Mexican" literature any more than we should rename "Irish" poetry. These terms at least attempt to give some kind of cultural or historical context. We get in trouble when we diffentiate using the loaded term "race". Think of your own response when you read the corrupted word Mexican. The term Mexican American is rarely used in contemporary discourse as it is rife with stereotype, prejudice, and the politics of fun sounding descriptors such as illegal aliens. Some of my own students born in Mexico consider only their parents who cannott read or write English to be "Mexican." They call themselves Hispanic or Latina/o. Some students ask me to find the countries of Hispanic or Latino-Land on the map. They get it-the race-ism problem in the US. They wear the Mexican flag on their t-shirts and respond with definitive hand gestures when harassed.

Let us bury then this primitive word race and determine to uncover the clear and present dangers of rampant racism. I suspicion that this old code word "race" lives on only because we let it, because we need it, because we do not accept our own place on the planet-that we are no better and no worse than our neighbor. The word race lives on because we are unwilling to surrender our addiction to demagoguery. We have yet to discover our deep need for one other. The solution is painfully simple: We let go of our hate and we love our neighbors. I said painfully simple, friends, painfully.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for finding your way to this blog and leaving a comment. I wish it were so simple--for us to stop using the word "race" and thus to end racism. Because really, that's the problem--an end to racism, to tribalism, to ethnic nationalism.

And I wish it were a matter of choosing love over hate--it should be that simple, and yet...we humans seem so complicated and complex--so capable of boundless evil as well as infinite kindness.

So what to do in the meantime (the meantime being, before we either annihilate ourselves or solve our most tragic problems)? Perhaps just keep talking, try to listen to one another--and to recognize that while we won't get rid of the category of race anytime soon, we can at least work on the racism--the institutionalized forms of it as well as the individual instances.

Anonymous said...

It seems rather selfish of you to have this agenda to erase race. Because for you, it justifies your existence as someone of mixed race back ground.

People who are not mixed are not bad people for being proud of their ancestry, their culture, and their racial roots. And it is not a bad thing to want to preserve the aforementioned.

To me, in my opinion, I consider it ethnic murder to want to "erase" races from the world. The way I see, that's the most inhumane and evil thing someone could say. "I want to get rid of race." That means murder in my eye and that's not something I can support.

I'm not saying I'm against mixed race relationships, I'm saying it's evil to have a desire to remove black people, white people and asian people off the face of the earth because it justifies "your" existance.

It's almost as though you're a mixed race hitler with a genocidal agenda.

Thankfully though, I'm a soldier of the allied forces here to stop you as best I can.

Jennifer said...

Thank you for leaving a comment -- I have not had someone leave such an impassioned and opinionated comment in a while, especially one that tries to challenge me on the basic premise of not only this post but the entire site.

I don't wish to sound...condescending...but perhaps you didn't fully understand the point I was making in this post and the tenor of this blog and purpose of this blog.

The point of this post is:

Lets get rid of the category of race altogether and focus on anti-racism.

In other words, if we stop talking about race and we focus on what caused racial categories to begin with--racism--systemic inequality that makes one group believe they're better than another--that's something we can all, regardless of how we identify, get behind.

I'm happy to enter into dialogue with you about this issue, even if we disagree or even if I believe you misunderstand what I write. However, in the future, I'd appreciate it if you stop with ad hominem attacks. Calling me selfish just raises my hackles--I may, indeed, be a selfish person, but not for the reasons you articulate (in other words, I'll need better proof of my selfishness before agreeing with you). Calling me selfish seems designed to provoke me, and if you read the Rules for this Blog you will see that I don't appreciate being provoked or having you provoke others in a non-constructive/ad hominem way.

Finally, you should probably read more of the blog before coming to certain conclusions about who I am and what my agenda is. If you do keep reading, I truly would love to keep talking with you.