One way of approaching the question of race in an American context is to acknowledge that American culture, and the American language (or, if you will, the English language) is highly racially aware. There is a type of vocabulary and expression that Americans associate with black people living in urban ghetto areas. Moreover, there exists, on a fundamental level, a conceptual space in the American language that makes race and racial distinctions understandable. The sheer fact that it is possible to speak about race and to easily understand what it means, implies that race is firmly integrated into the hegemonic vocabulary of the American language (an especially poignant point, seeing that biologist do not apply the category ‘race’ to human beings). And that certain ways of speaking has come to be seen as African American implies that images portraying black identities have compounded to such a degree that African American-ness has assumed a (falsely) homogenous character.
To a large degree, we have American mainstream media to blame for this (as novelist Percival Everett once wrote: there is only so much space for “intelligibility” in mainstream culture).
“Chair ain’t recognize your ass.”
Catherine Rottenberg once wrote that “[…]the interpellation ‘Look, a Negro,’ famously addressed by Frantz Fanon, is parallel to ‘It’s a girl!’ And once interpellated, subjects must, in turn, incessantly cite and mime the very race norms that created their intelligibility (and thus their condition of possibility) in the first place. In short[…] race performativity is the power of discourse to bring about what it names through the citing or repetition of racial norms.”
American mainstream media thrives on this particular process of repetition, of repeated naming, and of repeated representation. Re-descriptions of reality seem not to work, always, as re-description, but as a process of departing from what is perceived as real: if, for example, the black writer’s voice is thought of as a voice of emancipation, of the ghetto, of poverty, or of slavery, then accounts that reinforce that thought are bound to be considered real, or true. Race performativity is subject to repetition, but that repetition does not have to be based on the real. Once the right vocabulary exists and is in place (i.e. “Look, a Negro”), it will assume the right to describe reality, regardless of what that may be.
In “Autobiographies of the Ex-White Men” Walter Benn Michaels discusses briefly the journal Race Traitor, a publication “devoted to the abolition of the white race.” The project to abolish ‘whiteness’ assumes that racial divides are fundamentally a mistake, a misunderstanding; and “imagines,” further, that “white men[…] ‘by some engagement with blackness, perhaps even an identification as “black”’ – can become ex-white men.” The project to abolish racial distinctions make sense insofar as it suggests that people should attempt to blur the cultural boundaries that seem to separate different ethnic groups; this by, for example, engaging with cultural practices commonly understood as ‘otherly’. It is, however, and arguably, difficult to make this process complete, given that there continues to exist in language – in the hegemonic vocabulary – the tools that equip us to speak of things and practices in terms of categories. That it is possible for a white man to learn how to sing the blues does not, supposedly, make him any more black; only does it do so if you similarly assume that basketball, because it is a sport dominated by African Americans, is a black sport, and that a white man, by playing basketball, thus engages with ‘blackness’.
To argue that race may be subject to abolition – that whites might cease to be thought of as white, that blacks might no longer be thought of as black, that all be thought of similarly as human beings – assumes that, rationally, human beings are in control of the production of reality. That is not, however, how reality, at the moment, and historically, has been brought off in human societies. To recall what Richard Rorty once wrote: “As Kuhn argues in The Copernican Revolution, we did not decide on the basis of some telescopic observations, or on the basis of anything else, that the earth was not the center of the universe[…] Cultural change of this magnitude does not result from applying criteria (or from ‘arbitrary decision’) any more than individuals become theists or atheists[…]”
Cultural change results, instead, from a process of re-description, and a little hope that somehow, eventually, the hegemonic vocabulary may change. In an increasingly commercially driven culture – one that we may arguably be said to be observing today – much of cultural production seems to cement and reinforce many cultural stereotypes. To evoke a Baudrillardian theory: much of cultural production seems to add to existing stereotypes false and/or misleading ideas or images. The simulacrum, indeed, by constituting a false or fictional reality, suggests the fragility of the very reality human beings take for granted, of the reality that is deemed to be the real reality.
Consequently, we are forced to navigate through a maze of cultural codes and a hegemonic vocabulary that hide that most of what is brought off as real in American culture, is based on false conceptions: the simulacrum, “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”
Many will disagree with me when I suggest that ‘race’ isn’t a valid category in terms of naming human beings. African-Americans, especially, may have cause to think differently, and why shouldn’t they? To suggest that race — after slavery, after the Reconstruction, after the Civil Rights movement — isn’t a way to identify people certainly can be construed as an insult to an epic historical struggle.
And yet, I maintain that there isn’t really any such thing as race, and no such things as white people or black people. It’s just that while there isn’t, there also is. And there isn’t. Reality is just brought off that way, and reality quite often doesn’t make any sense.
Ellsworth H. LaFontaine is a Swedish freelance writer.