the context of race
January 13, 2015
As I continue on my re-reading of Orientalism by Said, as well as further studies on the history of racism, the more and more it strikes me how much modern discourse on race has… ellided the historical context of racism – as system – for reasons of expediency and economy. And, when talking about the ‘discourse of racism’ I really mean anti-racist discourse, not popular discourse. Popular discourse mainly serves to erase nuance and context in the aims of white liberal notions of ‘equality’ and other such bullshit. Anti-racist discourse has aspirations towards a nuanced, contextualized discourse directed towards liberation. And yet… really digging into the history of racism reveals certain compromises and ellisions in these claims to nuance.
The main one is this general lack of the history from a white perspective. Anti-racist discourse is at its most successful when it focuses on the oppression of the people subjugated and harmed by racism. This is an important step, since we are in the age of teh Dictionary Definition of Racism, used by many a white person as an authority about what racism is and how it functions. And, yes, centering the experiences of people harmed by racism matters a great deal for resisting racism and working towards dismantling it.
One surprising thing I’ve experienced, whenever I discuss the history of racism, is an amazing amount of pushback from people who are committed to anti-racist liberation. It is actually this pushback that led me to start reading primary sources on scientific racism because, in general, people have largely claimed that I’m making this stuff up (or misrepresenting the situation). So, I figured I’d play into academic-normative standards of discourse and begin doing ‘real’ research so that I can reference this material as ‘evidence’ that racism is a historically bounded ideology. An ideology created to serve certain material and historical purposes and an ideology that became institutionalized into the system we have today.
And so I began to talk about this sort of stuff on twitter, my tumblr, and this blog.
And immediately I receive pushback of an interesting kind.
The first one was both a question and an observation that netted me this anon on tumblr. Which, while true – since I don’t get an opinon on how Indigenous ppls in the Americas talk about their oppression – seems a bit strange to me. At the basis of my observation is two things: first, that the contemporary discourse on settler-colonialism I’ve seen focuses heavily on Indigenous genocide as an almost by-product of the need to acquire land and that settler-colonialism/Indigeneity ought not to be reduced to simply ‘racism’ (with some explicity claims that anti-racist discourse erases Indigenous American struggles by making Indigenous American ppls just another marginalized ‘race’ when their historical and geographic struggle is more than just race); second, that scientific racism does, indeed, assign both a race and colour to the Indigenous ppls of the Americas (both North and South). Moreover, we can see from history and the way that scientific racism formed the justification for colonialism (settler and otherwise) and also quickly became entrenched in legal and political institutions, it seems odd to me that the suggestion that Indigenous peoples in the Americas were, historically, targetted because of race would engender such a reaction.
Like, if we look at one of the most harmful (if more subtle) instantiations of scientific racism in governance, eugenics, we quickly see that the Indigenous peoples of America were targetted as physical, material human beings. Their bodies, as much as their lands, were the focus of the settler government. It feels like, to me, the notion that the Indigenous peoples of America being oppressed and targetted for genocide as people rather than as (perceived) by-product of a need for land shouldn’t really be… a dire imposition on current discourse, especially since I’m mainly making an historical claim.
The other example, which came as no surprise to me, is mentioning the scientific classification of Jewish people as white in the post. Literally as soon as I articulated this, I had people jumping on me to say “There are Jewish people of colour!”. Which, of course, is not really relevant when discussing the bounded, historical creation of scientific racism. Part of this, I suppose, is my fault for failing to mention that Jewish people – in scientific racism – do not belong to their own racial category. Rather, they are often lumped in with Arabs – the so-called ‘Semitic’ race. And, despite repeatedly mentioning that race – as science and ideology – is reductive, people still seem to think that discussing claims made by crusty, white Germen men in the 1800s is that same as me asserting their truth. Literally the whole point of racism is that it reduces a vast diversity of people (the entire GLOBE) into three-to-five races and into stereotypical and distorted essential characteristics.
This is one of the principle functions of race. And this function exists because reducing the vast plurality of peoples makes them easier to govern/control/subjugate. It makes developing ‘foreign’ policy really easy. Rather than trying to understand the difference between, say Persians and Arabs, white people can just say they are white Orientals and work from there. Race is how the vast French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese empires were able to govern so many different kinds of people without too much effort on their part. They didn’t have to learn about each individual ethnicity and culture they were trying to subjugate, they simply had to refer to a white-created system of classification that they could use as short-hand for ‘understanding’ the people they controlled. And so they only need one kind of policy or attitude towards colonies in the Americas, one kind of attitude towards colonies in Africa, one kind of attitude towards colonies in Asia.
‘Reductionism’ is erasure. Pure and simple. Race is a reductionist ideology that requires the erasure of nuance and context for individual cultures and peoples. It is literally the entire purpose of the thing.
And, one thing that this research into the history of racism is making clear to me is that this reductionism tends to work at the ideological level as well, not just amongst people.
This is, I believe, why racism/anti-racism has been rejected by some contemporary Indigenous American thinkers. Because the criticism that framing Indigenous peoples as just another ‘marginalized race’ erases the specificity of their struggle against settler colonialism is entirely apt and appropriate. It does do this by virtue of the reductionist function of the discourse.
It also, I believe, explains some of the claims I see from Jewish people about anti-Semitism. I occassionally see claims that appear to reduce anti-Semitism to just another kind of racism, something that strikes me as odd and ahistorical. From every indication I can see, anti-Semitism predates racism as a discourse. This means that it exists independently from racism, rather than as a sub-discourse within it. Thus, claims made by Jewish people that anti-Semitism is a unique articulation of oppression that must be resisted as a distinct axis of oppression is entirely true.
I’m bringing out these two examples because they seem to be on opposite poles. One appears to disavow or diminish the relevance of racism to their experience of oppression and the other appears to over-endow the importance of racism to their experience of oppression. However, both appear to have lost track of the fact that racism, as ideology, is itself a bounded, historical occurrence – rather than a stable domain of reference.