Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rip Van Negro: From the Rock of Race to Postracial Sands

For Twunch.

I remember reading a Frank Rich op-ed in the New York Times, a year or so before he retired from that position. During the campaign of then-candidate Obama, Rich had written a few pieces about the social fault line of race, describing his own segregated childhood, surveying the current scene for improvements and regression, and offering insights about the significance of Obama's campaign and opposition to it. As I recall, his take was optimistic, as he insisted that those attempting to re-entrench white supremacy were on the losing side both demographically and in terms of shifts in public opinion. In response to his column, a young white mother wrote that he was harping on an issue that had died. Her children, she exulted, would be completely unaware of race as a way of identifying people. Rich, she explained, was one of the last of his kind. If he still thought in racial terms--even anti-racist terms--he was using terminology that was already antiquated and soon to become alien.

Although I have a number of retorts that I think disable her claim, it's still one that chilled me in a way I've never been able to shake. I'm thirty-three. Is it possible that the framework and vocabulary I have used to analyze the world are already outdated? Unlike Rip Van Winkle, I didn't sleep for twenty years. I was awake the whole time! During my childhood in the 1980s, the era in which we tried to become postracial by becoming colorblind, racism was not a force I could choose to notice or blissfully ignore. How could acknowledging the force of racial hierarchy become optional while I was awake?

An Argument over Time and Frames --
As far as I can tell, the resentment captured in the phrase "playing the race card" comes from a sense that black people are purposely trying to keep slavery and segregation as the primary frames for understanding social relationships in the US.  My sense is that the great majority of white Americans--regardless of political persuasion--want to believe that race never was, isn't currently, or soon won't be an indicator of social rank and life chances. To them, a nation of Rip Van Negroes somehow slept through the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights acts, and missed that everything changed. Depending on the critic, Rip Van Negroes are admonished to ditch the race frame to see that 1) class is really more important than race/the entirety of racial subordination can be explained by economics 2) national or global issues take precedence over supposedly "local" issues of discrimination, 3) women or sexual minorities (and not blacks) are now the primary targets of violence and discrimination, or 4) with legal impediments removed, only bad decision-making can account for blacks' current economic position. *Of course, there are a number of "minority conservatives" who now espouse them same views, too. Still, the polls suggest that the greatest desire to be done with race by saying that it's no longer operative is among white Americans and not various nonwhites.

What would it mean if race could no longer be used to explain social relations? That is, what would I as a thinking black person lose?

I will confess that I am a person who sometimes tries to leave race out as a means of explaining maddening slights and deep injuries. This is, surely, an effect of my time in predominantly white schools. I would have been thought of as crazy(er) if I brought up racism all the time. I was surrounded by a mass of people who could see it, but couldn't admit it because of how much it benefited them. So I had to bring it up strategically: when the situation was egregious, when no other explanation could be brought to bear. Even then, I risked becoming an incredible witness -- because to bring up racism once when a white colleague doesn't see it is already to bring it up all the time. It's to prove yourself a paranoid hysteric, a racial hypochondriac. As one of my high school classmates insisted: "I don't see racism in this school." I replied, "That may be true, but things don't come into existence when you see them. You have never seen China, but there would be 1 billion people to refute your claim that they don't exist."

A friend and an ex-, both white, said that they gained more insight into how and where race operates through their association with me. The ex said, "I see it everywhere now, how do you deal?" The friend credited me for opening her eyes, but I began to feel as if I had conveyed a contagion to these people -- as if conversing with me was akin to eating of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once it is acknowledged that racial hierarchy has been established and that there are deep interests in defending it, there is no return to oblivious innocence. From then on, it's as the song says: "Which Side Are Yon On?"

The joy of having these white people agree with me is the common pleasure of being thought not-crazy, the confirmation that the things that I am seeing, the names I am giving them, and the stories I put them in correspond to things other people recognize. So, if I lost the ability to talk about racism as a force in the world, I would feel not only insane, but also mute. So, the endless conversation about race is about having recognized both my experience of deprivation and that I was intelligent enough to name what happened (or happens). So, beyond losing my own bearings, I would also lose social connections to other people who see the same world I see. *(I should clarify that at this point I'm talking primarily about other black people with whom I can share the joys and frustrations of being black in a country that wasn't made for us).

I'm not satisfied with these moments of recognition and agreement, though. One thing I have noticed is that race is an easy conversation for me to be an expert on. I am fluent in the facts and frameworks and I can speak with the Mesmerizing Voice™that lets white people know I am not one of those black people.  Although being the Exceptional Negro Advocate is a tedious role, it also provides comfort and some measure of power *(or, at least, the illusion of both). Because it is an exceedingly rare case when I meet a white person who is both more knowledgeable about the history of racism than I am and unburdened by the guilt that comes along with unearned privileges.

If they have this commitment to not knowing (what they know) and also, then, feel guilty, then they are in the position of wanting something from me--information, recognition, and (with those) absolution. They want, oddly enough, to have the Exceptional Negro designate them the Exceptional White Person: the one who is not guilty, who has already achieved personal colorblindness and, therefore, has nothing more to do to halt the momentum of racism in the broader world. Most want it so loudly, in fact, that we can both ignore what I want. And appearing to want for nothing is a very strong position to speak from, even if the position does not exist. People who want nothing don't speak to other people; they sit satisfied and silent with their own thoughts.

I will go out on a limb and say that wanting to know, to be recognized, and forgiven are universal human desires. The trick of the devil in this matter has been to make it seem as if thinking in terms of race is incompatible with thinking about human beings. Slotting each other into a racial hierarchy is one of the things human beings have done to each other. So how could looking at the results of that not be part of telling the story about how human beings relate to each other?

Racial specificity is not incompatible with intelligence or artistry. In my partisan opinion, specificity is a requirement of both. There is so much more resonance to Breughel's "The Fall of Icarus," or Auden's poem after it, if you know about the boy who disobeyed his father's instructions and flew too close to the sun, melting the wax on his homemade wings, and plummeting to his death in the sea. This is not the fall of any boy; it is the fall of that boy, and the specification makes this story unique.

Part of what makes race a potentially valuable intellectual and artistic tool is the opportunity it offers for specificity. Just as much as nationality, gender, rank, or time period--race locates a person socially. The goal, I'd say, is not to assume that a racial designation is automatically tied to pigmentation but to understand that it emerges from the dynamics of different relationships. Therefore, one's race changes in different circumstances. There's being a Korean-American citizen, at home with your parents or grandparents who immigrated and who might not speak English. Then there's being made to feel and know that your citizenship is subject to question at a predominantly-white workplace, or when meeting your partner's parents who insist on knowing where you're really from (not New Jersey).

Thinking in terms of race is not the enemy of insight and artistry. But to assume that race always operates in isolation and in one, single, predictable way--that promises a story that's shallow and predictable.

I remember watching a touching film, Brother to Brother. Anthony Mackie plays a young man trying to navigate college while dealing with the fact that his father has kicked him out of the house for being gay. One of his college courses causes him to think about the sexual politics of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power Movement. The one drawback of the film, to my mind, is that it can not imagine a relationship between a black man and a white one that wasn't corroded by fetishism. My objection is not that fetishism is avoidable and that we should have had a black man and a white one walking together arm in arm, showing the power of the orgasm to overcome every difference. My objection is that the story is too static! In the Harlem Renaissance and in the twenty-first century, the exact same things happened: white sexual tourists sampled the exotic negro and then moved on when a new flavor came in.  As far as the film is concerned, there is no way out of racist structures. Repeated scenarios across nearly a century barely had any difference.

What would another way of thinking about the collision of race, desire, and love look like? Well, first, it would have to acknowledge that not only interracial love, but love in general, has a fetishistic component. All the current experts say that successful relationships require you to think a little bit better of your partner than what they actually are. Idealization--even idolatry--is part and parcel of being in love. Remember the famous line from Jerry Maguire, "you complete me"...? Clearly, no person was ready-made in Heaven to the exact specifications to fill the holes in our lives. But, that's the fetishistic fantasy of love. And it's a fine one--even, perhaps, inevitable. But the inescapability of it means that fetishism--even racial fetishism--is not simply a bad thing white people do to coloreds.

If we can have a story in which wealthy white connoisseurs indulge their exotic sexual fantasies with colored people, can't we also have savvy colored people who know what's going on? Maybe one is a romantic who falls in love despite insurmountable odds, but another is shrewd (if a bit cold). He exalts in having the power to grant or deny white johns' wishes, the attention, notoriety, and the money it allows him. Nice work, he thinks, if you can get it. And maybe one of the whites is heartless, simply treating colored boys as interchangeably as different bills of currency, while another feels, suddenly, strangely disempowered by it all, fearing that he never bought the love he wanted, only a quantity of time and attention.

I'm borrowing from Toni Morrison's fixation with contradictory twins (see Paradise) and these stories could be even more complicated and unpredictable than I have made them here. The idea is that human stories, in the world that we have created, can't get around the racial thing but there's no need for them to get stuck in the muck with it either. Race inarguably exerts a force, but it moves--like the Lord and the Devil--in mysterious ways.

I suppose what I am saying is that one doesn't need to move to the "postracial" to be reset on shifting sands. For the rock of race behind which many of us have sought shelter has never been as solid, nor offered the protection we thought it did.


  1. Great post, incredibly nuanced -- I might have to reread.

    If I'm understanding your final point, it's that postracial politics are motivated in part (or completely) by a need to reflect the complexity of racial relationships, both personal and sociological, but race has always been complex (sand, not rock), so there's no need to jettison it because it's too heavy and unmoving for our global, complicated times.

    If that's what you're saying, I think it's spot on. But I will say white people are mostly, but not exclusively, to blame. I think we as scholars and writers need to do better at doing what we were supposedly doing in the 90s, which is being very specific when we invoke race: i.e., race is always intersecting with class, gender, sexuality, geographic location, demographics, etc. This is old hat stuff in the academy, but I think we still don't do it right, or enough, especially in the public sphere. We've been less-than-willing to engage class in particular, in part because invoking class seems to allow others to say race doesn't matter ("how about class-based affirmative action, not race?").

    I'm not sure what this looks like in practice, but the affirmative action debate might be instructive. It seems the debate is now: "race or no race." It's been shaped that way both by the right, but also scholars (and Sandra Day O'Connor) who say "race matters" -- full stop! But anyone who's been to Harvard knows it's not just about race (I've met a slew of black people more privileged than I). "Race matters" better explains the need for AA in employment better -- all those studies about "Jamal" getting passed over for "Jack," even with the resume. But that's classed too.

    We say "race matters" because "race" is under attack, as you showed above, even as a word that can be uttered, let alone dealt with in policy. But we need to not be defensive, and instead deal with race as deeply and simply (because this is about messaging, really) as we can. To extend you metaphor: run on the sand, not stand on the rock?

    Rambling thoughts; I got up too early this morning.

  2. Thank you, AJC. I should say that I'm pretty sure I did not say white people were exclusively to blame. After all, one of my examples of over-simplified race-thinking was a black film-maker's work (Brother to Brother).

    I think my point is less that race "intersects" with gender, region, class (et al) than that race actually emerges from them. In other words, Barack Obama is a different *kind* of black person because of his immigrant father, his Harvard law degree, and his pretty black wife and daughters. All of those elements color his blackness which is not preset before them. Some of the "whiteness studies" people have been trying to do this with so-called white-trash, calling theirs "whiteness of a different color."

    I have a favorite quotation on this, but it may be that it doesn't back up my point. So I'll offer duCille for discussion but stick with my own metaphors for now: "phenotypical
    markers — what the eye sees and instantly codes and categorises — not only connote race; they also signal citizenship and class position. The term ‘position’ is important here because class, of course, denotes not only social caste and economic status but, quite literally, social location — place, who belongs where, and even who gets to be American. Class, then, is a finely geographical terrain, whose maps and legends are
    profoundly racialised." -- ANN DUCILLE, "The Colour of Class:
    Classifying Race in the Popular Imagination" Social Identities, Volume 7, Number 3, 2001

    As I think about it, I think duCille is nearly completely correct. I would only add that race may be ascertained through phenotype or a broader set of cues such as dress, speech, deportment, and property (stepping out of a Volvo, a Lexus, or a 95 Buick, holding a brown paper bag or a briefcase).

    I think this applies to the Affirmative Action conundrum. The purpose was not to provide Ivy League educations to the black elites of the Caribbean and Africa, just because they are the same colors as African-Americans. The point was to provide economic mobility to black Americans who had been boxed into the lowest economic strata. So, Affirmative Action was always supposed to have a class component built in. I wonder at the who, when, and why of its transformation into a color-only issue in some people's minds...?

  3. Racism still exists and is very relevant. I think with those who disprove of the language and consider it ancient, most likely don't realize the difference between racism and bigotry. They're probably still racists despite not hating black people.

    As a person who is both white and black (and sometimes light enough to pass for one and not the other) I can definitely attest for the racism that exists everyday in this country...tho, you don't need my confirmation.

    In terms of the Exceptional White Person, I would say what makes them different isn't so much that they aren't racist and that they aren't guilty, I think it's their ability to listen and perhaps acknowledge some of their privileges of being white. THAT, I believe, makes you exceptional.

    The important thing to consider, when evaluating the post-racial world, is to recognize that it is indeed post-"racial". Whether or not we're actually past the racial phase is insignificant. We are living in a world that has shifted over the last 400-500 years. Regardless of the motives of that shift, race was a large factor in justifying it. We can't simply ignore that just because white people want us (yes, I said "us") to do so. And the fact that they would both want for us and expect for us to remove the racial "artistry" from our thinking, is actually quite racists.

  4. Greetings, BG: You wrote: "In terms of the Exceptional White Person, I would say what makes them different isn't so much that they aren't racist and that they aren't guilty, I think it's their ability to listen and perhaps acknowledge some of their privileges of being white. THAT, I believe, makes you exceptional."

    I wasn't trying to put forward what I think an exceptional white person would be but to imagine what motivates a white person who asks to be treated as not run-of-the-mill white but exceptionally so. I think that person wants to be exempt from any changes that have to be made. I also fear that at this late date, just being able to listen and acknowledge white privilege is no longer enough. We have a generation of people who took their one required ethnic studies class and can mouth along to that song. It's put up or shut up time as far as I'm concerned. I am most impressed by people who *do* something to alter the racial hierarchy and disparities in their corner of the world.

  5. It's been awhile since I read up on it but I think there might be a bunch written about AA's social justice rhetoric in its early years and its transformation to "diversity," in which color is about a kind of rainbow-visibility and representation at its most simplistic, rather than a policy linked to a race politics "emerging" -- not merely intersecting! -- from various lines of inequality, notably class. "Diversity" I think is tied to what you're talking about here, where race is merely a signifier filled with already-known connotations and relationships -- yes?

    And yes precisely what I liked about this post was your laying the problem of our race discourse not solely on whites. Postracialism is most often purported by whites, but we're all in the discourse whether we like it or not. I was just trying to rephrase your argument in my own words to make sure I understood.

  6. AJC -- Thank you for the reminder that "diversity" is the culprit. I knew there was a reason that word has come to make my flesh crawl. As I recall, the Michigan cases that O'Connor ruled on allowed for race as a factor in providing "diversity" in graduate admissions but did not allow for it as a boost (my word) to get into undergraduate (the real gateway to the middle class). I remember thinking then, as I do now, that "diversity" has become a selling point for those white students who want something "different" for college. It's now a consumer option, like automatic transmission. Any opportunity a prestigious four-year college offers someone to enter the middle-class is incidental, it seems to me, just so long as all the "cultures" are there to offer their foods, music, and fabrics to sample.

    I'm not sure what you meant about race being "merely a signifier filled with already-known connotations and relationships." Are you rephrasing the version of racial analysis that I think was never adequate?

    As for us all being in the discourse of postracialism, I'm not sure that's true. Do you mean we all help produce it? Or do you mean that we all have to address it because it is hegemonic? Because I sure as heck didn't help produce it. And I'm not sure I'd even have to address it if I worked in one of those predominantly black settings where such claims hold little weight.

  7. Yea I was rephrasing.

    And yes, we're in it because it's the dominant discourse, and, true to dominant discourses, most people reproduce it without knowing it -- cable news anchors, the president, whomever. But I'd never accuse you of helping to produce it! Ha.