Welcome to Race Theory Week by Reggie Bell and Carolyn Block. We hope you enjoy our post! Below you will find a summary of each of the readings with some contemporary (and not so contemporary) examples of how these readings manifest themselves in society. Because discussions of 'race' are often personal and at times, heated, we ask that you approach these readings with an open mind. Try to put yourself in the role of the 'other.' Even if you already classify yourself as such, remember that all of us in the class are not fully an other.
Storey, Chapter 8: 'Race', racism and representation
'Race' and racism
The concept of race is not based in biology but in cultural and historical categories designed to highlight differences between people for the purposes of establishing political and social hierarchy. How difference “is made to signify is always a result of politics and power, rather than a question of biology” (Storey, 167). Stuart Hall recognizes three moments in history of ‘race’ and racism in the West: slavery and the slave trade, colonialism and imperialism, and 1950s immigration following decolonization. The concept of and belief in ‘race’ is a result of continued racism. Without racism, there would be no ‘race.’
The Ideology of Racism: Its Historical Emergence
Racism first developed in England to defend the economic profits that resulted from slavery and the slave trade. Black and white people were seen as different species in which the whites were naturally superior. Fear of mixed race children “as mischievous as monkeys and infinitely more dangerous” (170) helped to keep the institution of slavery alive. The ideology of racism spread to those who did not directly benefit from slavery or the slave trade. Indeed by the nineteenth century, it was widely accepted that the human race was divided into two categories: superior whites and inferior others with only whites being capable of “thinking and governing” (171). These beliefs were based in scientific evidence and conquest was directed by God.
Edward Said (1985) describes the “Orient” as a creation of Europe to help define the West as its “contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (171). Orientalism was created as a fictional ideology designed to highlight differences and maintain Western power over the Orient. These fictional stories have two basic plot structures: white colonizers succumbing to the powers of the jungle and “going native” (Kurtz in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now) or whites who impose themselves on the jungle and its inhabitants (Tarzan). This imperialistic approach shifts the attention away from who, what, or where the story is about to those who tell and consume the story. How Hollywood tells the story of the Vietnam War is a particular example of Orientalism. The way in which discourses about the war are constructed tells America and the rest of the world that what happened in Vietnam, “happened because Vietnam is like that” (172). The stories allow people to experience Vietnam and may become the war itself. The historical accuracy of Hollywood depictions of Vietnam does not matter. What matters is that they produce a specific reality for audiences. Three ‘regimes of truth’ are featured in Hollywood films about Vietnam in the 1980s.
• The war as betrayal- America’s defeat in Vietnam was a result of 1) bad politicians 2) incompetent military command or 3) civilian betrayal. All films in this category are centered around loss- prisoners, pride, innocence
• The inverted firepower syndrome- America’s techno-military advantage is inverted. In these narratives, individual Americans are seen fighting against the innumerable odds of countless North Vietnamese military soldiers and Viet Cong.
• Americanization of the war (“imperial narcissism”) - The United States is center in the narrative and Vietnam and the Vietnamese exist only as context for the brutally loss of American innocence that was doomed from the very beginning. America and Americans are the only victims.
For cultural texts to be effective they must be integrated into the lived experiences of the audience. Simply because a Hollywood narrative was designed as a narrative about American tragedy and bravery does not necessarily mean that the audience received or consumed it in the same manner. Examples ranging from Presidents to soldiers illustrate that this seems to be the case for Hollywood and its creation of American memories.
Hollywood is great at perpetuating this idea of orientalism. From the conquering of the American Frontier to 300 to The Kingdom to the Hurt Locker to Borat offer us a multitude of examples of how 'regimes of truth' can be passed down through media. It is important to remeber that the term does not only apply to the Orient or Asian cultures. It refers to anytime we exoticize people and view them merely as objects to serve us rather than as humans.
Anti-racism and cultural studies
The work of cultural studies is “to intellectually, and by example to help defeat racism, and by so doing, help to bring into being a world in which the term ‘race’ is little more than a long discussed historical category” (179).
Fannon: Decolonizing, National Culture, and the Negro Intellectual (Social Theory 364-369)
Decolonization is always a violent event that does not occur overnight. It can only be understood as a historical process where two antagonistic forces with a long history of violence and control must negotiate the new identity created through liberation. In decolonization, “the last shall be first and the first last.” However, this change-over will only occur after violence ensues.
West: The New Cultural Politics of Difference (Social Theory 511-521)
The new cultural politics of difference are not designed to simply contest the mainstream for inclusion or to blatantly shock the conventions of the upper class. Rather, they are articulations by cultural contributors who choose to align themselves with the under privileged in hopes of enabling social action and expanding freedom and democracy. Cultural critics are faced with a double-bind where they are simultaneously condemning the very institutions that are financially reliant upon. The new cultural politics of difference face three obstacles—intellectual, existential, and political. The intellectual challenge is how to understand representations in terms of history, culture, and society. The new cultural politics of difference are built upon and go beyond flawed Eurocentric traditions: the Age of Europe, the emergence of the United States as the world power, decolonization of the Third World. The legacy of these events present a precarious situation in which the postmodern movement must come to terms with “crimes against and contributions to humanity.” The plight of Africans in the New World is indicative of this ambiguity.
European control included brutal enslavement, institutional terrorism, and cultural degradation of Black people. Efforts for identity, dignity, and material resources through selective appropriation, incorporation, and rearticulation of European ideologies and institutions created an uncritical acceptance of non-Black conventions and standards in two ways. First, asserting that Black people were like White people (assimilation) disregarded differences in history and culture. Second, all Black people were assumed to be alike (homogenizing impulse), thus eliminating differences in class, gender, region, sexual orientation between Black people. It is the Black women’s movement that has voiced the most opposition to how bureaucratic elites use language about “homogenous national communities and positive images in order to repress and regiment their diverse and heterogeneous populations” (519). Black cultural workers must work to “deconstruct the earlier strategies of identity-formation, demystify power relations that incorporate class, patriarchal and homophobic biases” (519) and construct new ideals of Black complexity and diversity.
"Race" as the Trope of the World
Gates addresses the issue of race with a discussion of the arbitrary ways researches and theorists have attempted to signify “differences” in race. Race, which he calls trope, is a futile method to underscore difference because “The biological criteria used to determine difference in sex simply do not hold when applied to race” (522). Nevertheless, many whites considered blacks to be inferior simply because of their skin color.
One popular justification for the denigration of blacks during the Enlightenment period was the belief that blacks lacked the capacity to reason. The ability to reason well was determined by one’s ability to write well, which required a person to master “the arts and sciences” (523). Moreover, the ability to write well also signified the difference between animal and human (526). Since blacks had proven they could write, they were not considered human and, as such, should be enslaved and sold. However, because of the writings of such persons as Phillis Wheatley, James Gronniosaw, John Marrant, and Ottabah Cugoano, blacks were able to prove they are more intelligent than animals and that one’s race is not an indication of their intelligence level.
Interestingly, though such studies and beliefs would be considered ludicrous by many today—I actually laughed while reading it, such studies and beliefs are still prevalent today. Race and Intelligence: Science’s Last Taboo, a 2010 documentary, addresses how several academicians still believe that race is more than skin deep and that white people are much cleverer than black people. Though blacks were able to “write ourselves out of slavery” during the Enlightenment period (526), it is clear not everyone is convinced of their capacity to reason as well as their white counterparts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM6Ekv4L6h4&feature=related
Spivak: Can the Subaltern Speak?
Spivak’s contribution to this week’s reading is designed to caution researchers and theorists to guard against allowing their hermeneutic of what is right and wrong to shape their research. The case study for her discussion involves a Hindu widow who willingly immolates herself shortly after her husband’s death. Because such practices were foreign to the researchers who devoted themselves to studying and “improving” the life of Hindu women, they set out to abolish this sacred act. From their perspective abolishing this practice was a noble deed because it enabled them to, in essence, “save brown women from brown men” (539). However, by not immersing themselves into the Hindu culture and by interpreting the act through their worldview, they missed the fact that “the woman actually wanted to die” and that the unorthodox act was her way of expressing herself (539). This leads Spivak to conclude that the subaltern cannot speak.
Oppressed groups are better served when researchers approach and assess the condition and context from the subject’s perspective, not their own. This will require the researcher to “question their position as investigator” and “unlearn” their way of life so that he or she can comprehend the true essence of the subject (538). Such a process minimizes the possibility of misinterpreting foreign acts and assigning uninformed solutions. Moreover, research from this vantage point will position researchers to identify ways to carve out spaces for subaltern members to speak for themselves instead of everyone else speaking for them.
Anzaldua: The New Mestiza
The underlying question in Anzaldua’s piece is “What should a person do when he or she is constantly displaced?” Anzaldua is forced to wrestle with this question due to her displacement geographically, sexually, and culturally. She cannot refer to a particular geographical location as her ethnicity’s homeland because they either migrated or were forced to move numerous times. Her sexual orientation prohibits her ability to neatly situation herself within the heterosexual confines of her Catholic and Mexican rearing; neither group is ready to accept her rebellious lifestyle. Finally, her impacting experiences with white culture, Mexican culture, and Indian culture causes her internal conflict because each culture constitutes a relevant part of her identity. As a result, her answer to the question of displacement is the stop trying to fit into the predetermined spaces and make a new space based on her unique experiences.
Collins: Black Feminist Thought in Matrix of Domination
The key word in Collin’s article is intersectionality. Intersectionality argues that we should focus on how different systems of oppression interlock. To identify these systems and, ultimately, empower the oppressed, Collins emphasizes the importance of gaining new knowledge for the purposes of overturning oppressive practices. Her solution is black feminist thought.
Black feminist thought is important for two reasons. First, it “fosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift in how we think of oppression…by embracing a paradigm of race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression” (541). This means that it does not start with gender and then add other variables such as race, class, sexual orientation, disability, etc. It sees these distinctive systems of oppression as being part of one overarching structure of domination in which all these systems are dependent on one another. Instead of arguing about who experiences the worst oppression, intersectionality focuses attention on how these systems of oppression interconnect in different peoples’ lives. Second, “black feminist thought addresses ongoing epistemological debates in feminist theory and in the sociology of knowledge concerning ways of assessing truth” (541). This approach acknowledges that “truth” is always relative to a particular person in a particular context and should be dealt with as such. For example, Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech Aint I a Woman in 1851 demonstrates the reality that what she considered “right” what vastly different than the “right” her white counterparts envisioned. As such, we must all view our experiences not a universal truths, but as truth revealed in our limited contexts.
Questions to ponder
All of us can see racial differences and issues of denomination when it comes to black/white issues. Fox 13 news does a segment "Memphis in Black and White" every time they need their ratings boosted. But, how do other cities deal with issues of difference? For an example, we turn to Arizona and their battle of immigration reform
How can intersectionality be applied to explaining Memphis's recent consolidation?
Spivak is concerned about research that minsinteprets the subject and attempts to "save the brown woman from the brown man." What are some steps you can take to ensure your methodology is not dominated by your worldview? Is it really possible to "unlearn" your way of life so that you can fully immerse in another's culture?
In light of Anzaldua's article, how can we identify and support the validity of new "cultures" developing in our field of study?