Examining Racial Constructions to (Re)theorize Race Relations in the 21st Century
Rebecca Beucher Title: Breaking the Mold—Contemplating Race Relations in the 21st Century
The dominant white culture is killing us slowly with its ignorance…The whites in power want us people of color to barricade ourselves behind separate tribal walls so they can pick us off one at a time with their hidden weapons; so they can whitewash and distort history. Ignorance splits people, creates prejudices. A misinformed people is a subjugated people. Gloria Anzaldua, 1987, p.108.
In a capitalist economy, there exists the “potential” for a minority of people to accumulate great wealth, which inevitably leaves the rest of us with far less. So in the Twenty-First Century, people must not only suffer unemployment, but it must necessarily be that way for the old adage “the rich get richer while the poor…” well you know, to remain true. In other words, for the system to work, there need to be people to fill the slots. To make matters worse, there is a logic informing whom the winners and the losers are.
Racism, among other forms of discrimination, has historically played a role in determining who occupies positions of privilege and of oppression. This history is important to keep in mind as we consider how race and racism manifest in a post Fordist, postmodern, neoconservative world. While theorizing about race and racial formations themselves has become increasingly complicated by the restructuring of economies through globalization, despite this restructuring, racism seems to have adapted to this changed world to work in much the same way that it has in the past.
In its infancy, United States’ cultural norms collapsed ethnic groups into racial categories to serve a political purpose. For instance, they erased ethnic differences hegemonically through groupings that formed “black” by collapsing “Asante or Ovimbundu, Yoruba or Bakongo” (Omi and Winant, p.129). In Anglo dominant Great Britain and the United States “black” referenced “the common experience of racism” which people organized around” (Hall, 1985, p.199). Certainly there is something powerful about engaging with politics of representation. However, naming a singular form of racism for all racialized people becomes problematic when we begin to understand how these fixed notions of identity continue to be reified and drawn upon by hegemonic forces as evidence to counter claims of racism, as we see through the efforts put forth by those claiming that we live in a “post racial” America.
Rather, we need a way to allow for people to rally around a common struggle that allows for fluidity of identity. Fixing identities for the purposes of social control is undoubtedly racism at work. And the systematic erasure of difference, which is threaded through our institutions, spanning the academy (see Harrison, 2008), to public schools (amendments to Arizona’s House Bill 2281), is absolutely directed at specific bodies. When there is an oppositional politics at work seeking to erase attempts at (re)claiming and opening space for the voices that are continuously silenced by a seemingly benign neoconservative agenda (see Omi & Winant, 1986) that decries the erasure of difference, a strategic identity politics must be engaged. This recent move towards inclusivity via claims of a post-racial America needs to be exposed for the guise it is. Post-racialism is merely a rhetorical veil enabling a healthy racism to exist in its adapted state. Perhaps because of the visible disruption of institutional concrete ceilings, some members of non-dominant groups such as President Obama, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice appear to have ‘transcended race.’ However, other Black pop-culture figures who appear to have made it, such as Michael Jordan are merely “cog[s]” in the corporate project. Specifically, Holt argues that these brown bodies are merely symbolic representations demonstrating “a ‘crucial truth’ about the national character [where] identity appears to be affirmed—its justice, its fairness, its color-blindness” (Holt, 2000, p.112). So instead of concrete ceilings, they are merely glass.
Not even students of the so-called liberal University system are safe. Harrison sites numerous instances of black female intellectuals being erased, misrepresented, and stereotyped in the public arena (p.277). Thus, not only has the move towards embracing diversity effectively used othered bodies to demonstrate some symbolic change towards acceptance of diversity, it actively resituates and oppresses people in those elevated positions. And, while many would have us believe that because the United States citizens have elected a black (ah hem, not to mention, multi racial; multi cultural; multi national) president we now live in a post-racial society, to claim post-racial is absurd. That President Obama is primarily identified as Black (despite having a white mother) speaks to ‘America’s’ claim on our success in overcoming racism; however, if we examine the racial composition of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ who compose the various tiers of the multinational corporate hierarchy, one will see a rainbow of colors along the spectrum of black and brown bodies falling on the lowest rungs, and white at the highest.
Certainly, people occupy multiple locations and the forms of racism, as well as politically organized responses to racism, are always in flux. Further, people who occupy socially defined categorical positions can’t be assumed to share homogenous goals or experiences universally. In this way, race is both unstable and transformative through “political struggle” (Omi and Winant, 1986, p.123). It is: “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” (Omi and Winant, p.123). Theorizing race in the Twenty-First Century is a complex task. We live in a time of blurred boundaries, resulting from globalized economies and the World Wide Web, which has allowed people cross cultural access in ways previously unattainable if even imaginable. And at the same time, certain boundaries are reified via nationalism, world wars, and the United States’ policies, which have rendered this nation perpetually challenged in its abilities to be cross-culturally literate. Yet, considering that the dominant agenda is a neoconservative one, these seemingly disparate occurrences that both define and blur boundaries actually converge to serve a similar purpose of promoting an ideology that claims to be for everyone while at the same time serving a very specific few.
Since 2001, the United States has rallied countries around the world to join “us” in its quest (against “them”) to bring democracy to the Middle East. And so just as Nike positioned Michael Jordan to sell culture to millions of people around the world, the United States military and government worked on behalf of multinational corporations to sell democracy to the Middle East. Similar to the symbolic transcendence and concurrent subordination of people of color in US institutions, the presence of the US military shoving democracy down Afghani and Iraqi people’s throats is done with a similar blatant dismissal of their voices. Shortly after invading Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military via the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which operates on a $3.2 billion budget, invested over a million dollars in a new translation technology. DARPA invested around $1 million towards the development and purchase of the Phrasalator, a device that was aimed at assisting soldiers on the ground in one-way translations from English to one of the many foreign languages they were encountering abroad (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA#cite_note-DARPA-1). Dismissing a need for human translators, the military has celebrated this advancement in technology as being an adaptive ($2000+ a pop) tool that serves to break down cultural and linguistic barriers.
With this kind of mentality dominating our discussions involving encounters with cultural diversity, it makes it difficult to argue against amendments to a bill (HB 2281) that outlaws the teaching of “other ethnic groups” and curriculums that “[advocate] for ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Operating by the logic that rationalizes spending billions of dollars developing technology to make the United States more competitive on a global scale, and funds projects that render cultural diversity useless, what need, aside from a threat to the ‘American way,’ would learning about non-White cultural practices serve? A perceived threat to the ‘American’ way is apparently informing HB 2281, which lists as the first thing schools must not do is “promote the overthrow of the United States Government.” As an educator, I am flattered to think that a public school education could have such an impact; I also find the rhetoric absurd considering it is directed towards the education of individuals, many of whom fought tooth and nail to live in the United States. But I know this is only strategic rhetoric, a tool to sell a branded culture.
Returning to what the United States is selling in Afghanistan and Iraq and all over the world, let’s be honest, ‘American’ culture is really about promoting an allegiance to the dollar as much as it is to the flag. What poses a threat to ‘this country,’ which is ruled by an upper class that so few of us will ever have access to, is the idea that there may be something better than more stuff. I can’t help but feel pity and shame for those who believe that they belong to a “we” that includes the billionaires of the world rather than being much more like their racially ‘diverse’ neighbors across the tracks. But while “we” would be better served to realize the “them” are “us” this story is not new and has been the fuel for racism since the first wars Anglo ‘Americans’ have engaged against the enemy (who happened to not so coincidentally be of color).
If ‘American’ can be sold in a Happy Meal package, and if from this ‘American’ perspective, cultural barriers can be transcended with talking machines, what has become of our souls? Looking at the recent surge of attacks on Latina/os in Arizona would suggest that in these times, people are suffering a severe neglect of empathy for other human beings, for their humanity.
Perhaps the frenetic claim to a historically viable national identity is a warped consequence of this threat to an increasingly ambiguous idea of what it is to be American due to the globalized corporate structure. My question is, wouldn’t we want to converge around common interests to combat the powerful manipulation of lives via the corporate machine rather than have the lines of unification and division dictated to us? If the powers that be have transcended borders, we need to do the same to have a fighting chance at preserving some control over all of our futures. Directing our anger at other powerless beings is counter to gaining any real power for any of us. Multinational corporations are not the only entities that are experts in crossing borders.
Theorist, feminist, lesbian, chicana activist Gloria Anzaldua (1987), in writing about her life of living between and straddling the United States-Mexican borders wrote of the richness of her knowledge as a consequence of being multicultural. Speaking eight languages, she transcended cultural boundaries with her savvy code switching. HB 2281 is a bill that completely discounts the value of such knowledge. Diminishing non-Anglo culture and languages supports an ideology that believes a machine can be more culturally and linguistically intelligent than a human. This is absurd, and to be so dismissive of ethnicity and culture is shameful. We are all cogs in this system when we participate in celebrating a thing that allows us to supposedly transcend real and embraced differences to get “our” one-way job of selling “our” culture done.
In organizing for resistance, we need to understand our interconnectivity. Feminist Theorist Chandra Mohanty (1991) argues that “potential alliances and collaborations [should form] across divisive boundaries, and ‘community’ [which] suggests a political rather than biological or cultural basis for alliance” (p.196). However, depending on one’s subjectivity, there are specific roles for people to play in what Mohanty calls an ‘imaginative’ process of political identity formation. For Mohanty, alliances can form because all bodies are socially constructed. Rather than race, class, gender, sexuality being static, they are flexible “political links” which we autonomously select as unifying identifiers chosen “among and between struggles” (p.196). Omi and Winant argue that racism is not inherently white, and anti-racism campaigns can easily fall into the trap of just reversing whom is subjected. Certainly, those of Anglo ancestry are the current beneficiaries in the short term in a system that purges ethnic studies in favor of an invisible Eurocentric curriculum, but in the long term, we are all silenced. Policies that work to silence members of our human community, that, as Anzaldua would say, “tame wild tongues”, are diminishing our own humanity.
Diminishing the diversity of any species has dire consequences, as we are seeing very clearly in the ways that we have rendered another form of nourishment, our own food vulnerable to attack in our non-natural creation of monocultures (remember the Dust Bowl?). In trying to create monocultures of people expunged of alternatives, we will see how we have created our demise when we discover that the direction we have been heading is making us vulnerable to destruction. That the near collapse of Wall Street wasn’t enough, frightens me, and makes me wonder whether it is too late. But knowing that unlike so much of our food, there is still a rich flow of linguistic and cultural diversity in this world.
And because of this, humanity stands to survive. Just as the smog clears up in Los Angeles after a good rain, if we stop enacting practices that hurtle our neighbors into prisons for the sake of corporate gain, and if we listen to our peers who possess an intimate knowledge of language and culture and soul that many of us have lost sight of, perhaps collectively, we can ward off the attack of this racist virus that has and continues to adapt to societal changes. But it is almost too late, and what is happening in Arizona is the toxic manifestation that Anzaldua long ago warned of long ago. Let us shed our ignorance and realize how each one of us is reflected in the Other.
Rebecca Beucher is a doctoral student in Education at CU Boulder, and a member of RISE ((Racial Initiatives for Students and Educators).