Determination

Andy Daitsman adaitsma at mail.cc.trincoll.edu
Sun Mar 19 11:56:51 MST 1995


Kenny writes:
>The racial system in the U.S., complete with the widest variety of
>enforcement mechanisms, insists that Black people are Black not based on
>anything in their consciousnesses--certainly you can't tell one "racial
>consciousness" from another on any grounds other than stated
>articulation, which are of course unrealiable grounds in the extreme--but by
>skin color.

However much this might be a valid statement to describe racial definitions
in the US (and I'm not entirely convinced that it is), it still remains a
description of only one way - the North American way - to construe race.
The point is that this society has agreed on what qualities distinguish
white folks from black, and has also decided that white folks behave in a
certain way and are to be treated in a certain way, and black folks behave
in a certain way and are to be treated in a certain way.  None of those
attributes can be reasonably attributed simply to skin color.  In other
words, we're back to social definitions, back to social constructions, back
to consciousness.

 A white blues singer is
>not Black, but it simply a white blues singer.  Note that "race" and
>"culture" are fundamentally different variables.  Inasmuch as it makes
>sense to make such a statement, U.S. popular culture in its dominant form is
>extremely "African".  That doesn't mean that producing, consuming or in
>any way living this culture makes one Black within the white supremacist
>system.

I sense that you're responding here to my argument about Salvadoran Indians.
 I'd like to pin you down, if you don't mind.  Are you suggesting that
"Indian" is a "cultural," rather than "racial," category?  I would argue
with you tremendously if you do.  Either way, I think you have to deal
conceptually with the historical fact that "Indians" disappeared in El
Salvador from one year to the next.  Your categorical position, that race is
determined by skin color, would seem to make such an ocurrence impossible.

>The consequences of this, of course, are not that solidarity is
>impossible along racial lines--on the contrary--but that one can't stop
>reproducing the racial system by pretending its not there.

Nobody's talking about pretending the racial system isn't there.  I think
we're doing our damnedest to understand how the fucking thing works, so that
we can be good and certain that after we smash the living shit out of it it
doesn't raise its nasty head back up to bite us on our collective tush.

The only way to reduce race to skin color is to ignore cross-cultural
evidence.  Take one look at racial definitions in Brazil or Cuba, for
example, and you'll realize in a second that "black" doesn't mean quite the
same thing there that it does in the US.  "Skin color," that is, is not an
absolute biological given, but is rather a variable physical trait subject
to a tremendous amount of social interpretation.  Which leads us back to
racial definitions being made in the minds of human beings--by no means
according to the way any particular individual would like or prefer that
definition to be made, but instead according to the way that the dominant
mode of race relations has already determined that it would be made.

I get the strong sense from you that you equate consciousness with
voluntarism.  But, as I already wrote in an earlier post, I don't define my
own subject position, it is given to me by the world in which I live.  My
capacity as an individual to change society is pretty limited, needless to
say.  Which means my capacity to change my subject position, determined by
my particular insertion into society , is also pretty limited.  Concretely,
I can't as an individual change social norms about how one can change one's
race.  Yes, if I were a Salvadoran (or Peruvian, or Mexican, etc.) Indian,
that is if I lived in a society which allowed for relatively simple
transitions from one racial category to another, why then I could change the
racial element of my subject position with relative ease.  As a white man in
the US, however, I'm pretty much stuck with what I've got.  Our society
doesn't allow such transitions.  The point here is that neither the
Salvadoran Indian nor me is changing our society's construction of race.
That construction is the materialityof our racial identity, within which we
have to operate.

Look, at root we're talking about how to defeat racism.  Unless we approach
that task with the best and most sophisticated theory available, then we're
just spitting into the wind.  Reducing race to skin color, it seems to me,
is tantamount to starting the battle against racism with both hands tied
behind your back, that is to conceding defeat before the battle is even waged.

Andy



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