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Introduction: Racial Subjects

The 'Race' issue is an attempt to engage with questions about 'race' or ethnicity, to which there are no straightforward answers.
Joe Lockard, Jonathan Sterne, and Matt Wray, Issue Editors

Issue #33, September 1997

In our 1993 Manifesto and in many subsequent writings, Bad Subjects attacked different versions of identity politics for having done so much to fragment and disperse progressive left politics, and for too often abandoning class analysis along the way. Our critique of 'feel good' multiculturalism's ideological mushiness, however, was never accompanied by a coherent consideration of 'race' or ethnicity, leaving many of our readers wondering where we stood on these questions.

The 'Race' issue is an attempt to engage with some of these questions, to which there are no straightforward answers. This engagement grew out of other needs as well: the need to revisit the topic of multiculturalism(s); the need to express the diversity of views on race and ethnicity held by Production Team members and other BS contributors; and the need to reaffirm our commitment to the value of ongoing, internal, self-reflexive critique.

In facing these needs, we experienced several unresolved tensions that, on the whole, seem to us to be productive. Perhaps the most strongly felt tension is the fact that the BS Production Team is entirely comprised of light-skinned folks. Whatever our individual views concerning our own 'race' or ethnicity, we are largely viewed by others in the United States as 'whites.' How does this experience of our own 'whiteness' affect our ideas about race? What kinds of insight and blindness are generated by being placed at (or very near) the top of the social hierarchy of race in the US? These and other questions about whiteness and white ethnicity have sparked interesting and often contentious debates among the editors, with the end result that we are better informed and more conscious about our agreements and disagreements concerning 'race.'

The quote marks around the 'race' indicate one common understanding. 'Race' is a social ideology with a history, and 'race' is a social construction rather than a human inevitability. But it is also more than these things. Race is a lived dimension of human experience. For all its constructedness, race is a dimension that shapes people's life chances, their self-understandings, their dreams and aspirations, and others' perceptions of them. Though countless writers have tried to draw lines between race, ethnicity, and culture (among other terms), hard and fast analytical distinctions are almost impossible: what was race in one time and place is ethnicity in another. Or rather, these distinctions are drawn and transformed in everyday practice and political agitation, and not simply in the minds of those who step back for a moment of reflection. This issue is meant to explore the ways in which race and racism are represented and dealt with (or hidden and ignored) in everyday life. We present here a set of articles that wrestle with the question of how race works, not to resolve the issue of how to think about race, but rather to explore how it already permeates so much of what we think about.

Consequently, the essays in this issue take up 'race' in a number of different ways. Colette Gaiter, a visual artist, writes about the transit between racialized experience and representations of American technology, as embodied in the 1960s space program. Joe Lockard extends these considerations into social questions of visibility and invisibility as they pertain to America's racialized histories.

Greg Dimitriadis' essay about recent African American films considers the limits of social constructivist and anti-essentialist approaches to race by focusing on the lived realities that race and racism create. Freya Johnson's essay explores the American fascination with fascism through a reading of Newt Gingrich's novel about Nazis, showing us ways in which our simultaneous attraction to and disavowal of them speaks tellingly of our need to identify as capitalists.

The next two essays take up the question of white racial identity. "Making and Unmaking Whiteness" is a report from the organizers of a recent Berkeley conference which uses media response to the event to help us understand how everyday journalism positions whites in discussions of race. Adam Cornford addresses the normative presumptions of whiteness that shape American cultural life, and suggests that whiteness constitutes a central paradigm of capitalism in the United States today.

Next, we feature two essays which attempt to deal with the question of American Jewish identity. Joel Schalit's essay critiques conservative Jewish ideologies of victimization and leftist antisemitism. Annalee Newitz writes a personal essay about her own hybrid white/Jewish upbringing, making a case for foregrounding the fluidity of racial categories as a means of combating separatism.

Tomás Sandoval, also writing in a personal vein, reflects on his experiences of teaching Chicano studies to his students, colleagues, and professors. He concludes that consciousness of one's racial identity can and does change according to context and that racial consciousness is an ongoing process, not a fixed state of awareness. We conclude the issue with Kevin Carollo's meditations on the geography of racial representation in the recent documentary, When We Were Kings, but this by no means concludes Bad Subjects' meditations on racialized subjectivities. In the atmosphere created by Proposition 209 and anti-affirmative action rhetoric in general, we see a need for continued engagement with the unrealities of 'race' and realities of racialism.

Copyright © 1997 by Joe Lockard, Jonathan Sterne and Matt Wray. All rights reserved.