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 Is it possible that the framework and vocabulary I have used to analyze the world are already outdated?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?
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.