Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Verso 2012

To learn and grow through history, one must first look at it.

That arresting statement, printed on the back cover of the first (1994) volume, reflected the fact that, after poring through 885 county-years of Virginia’s colonial records, Allen found “no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status” prior to its appearance in a 1691 law. As he explained, “Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white.’” “White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

Allen was not merely speaking of word usage, however. His probing research led him to conclude – based on the commonality of experience and demonstrated solidarity between African-American and European-American laboring people, the lack of a substantial intermediate buffer social control stratum, and the “indeterminate” status of African-Americans – that the “white race” was not, and could not have been, functioning in early Virginia.

It is in the context of such findings that he offers his major thesis — the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later, civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77).  To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite, in its own class interest, deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and 2) the consequences were not only ruinous to the interests of African-Americans, they were also “disastrous” for European-American workers, whose class interests differed fundamentally from those of the ruling elite.

 

https://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/21/the-invention-of-the-white-race/

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It can be tiring, all that whiteness

feministkilljoys

I am posting a short segment from the first chapter of my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, which was published by Duke University Press last year (https://www.dukeupress.edu/Open-to-the-Public-49485/). As the new academic year approaches, and events and workshops are being announced, I keep noticing how easily whiteness gets reproduced. Below is one example of coming up against whiteness….

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What does it mean to talk about whiteness as an institutional problem or as a problem of institutions? When we describe institutions as being white, we are pointing to how institutional spaces are shaped by the proximity of some bodies and not others: white bodies gather, and create the impression of coherence. When I walk into university meetings that is just what I encounter. Sometimes I get used to it. At one conference we organize, four Black feminists arrive. They all happen to walk into…

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Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing

feministkilljoys

I was very pleased to participate in a conference Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing co-hosted by the Centre for Feminist Research on Friday. It was a wonderful event – I learnt so much from the papers I listened to. I also gave a lecture, which I am sharing here. I have just added some notes and references – otherwise, this lecture is pretty much as I presented it, which please note means that it is not a polished piece!

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“Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing,” presented at Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing, Friday June 12th 2015, Goldsmiths.

With thanks to Morganne Conti and Linnete Manriques for their work in organising this event on passing and for the opportunity for me to speak as part of it. I really enjoyed returning to the question of passing. I say “returning” because one of the very first academics events I…

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On identity-reductionism vs. experience-inclusive revolutionary theory

jiminykrix

against-id-reductionism

the political guideline of “no matter what, it is unacceptable to disagree with someone about x political matter if they have y identity/lived experience” is not a liberatory set of politics.

there’s a distinction that should be made here:

there’s the very real fact that of course we should be open to hearing people’s lived experiences. people who try to insist that they know everything about how things were for a Cuban expat’s family in Cuba are out of line. it’s important to not deny *this particular set of facts*, the narrative of *their own lives*.

but it’s also incorrect for a Cuban expat to be able to show up and have people have no choice but to take their word on Castro.

for instance, there are some Palestinians who collaborate with the Israeli government, in the Palestinian Authority. if we were to talk with them, they might say, “listen…

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Mixed race identity: externally imposed or internally constructed?

Much of modern day scholarship pertaining to the study of mixed race people have tended to be “ethnographies.” That is, an approach whereby one proceeds to interview or interact with individuals of a given community in order to provide an adequate description (or grandly hypothesise) the nature of a given community. In identity studies, this typically involves interviewing individuals to elicit their thoughts, feelings, and responses such that we can tease out the nature behind their perceptions.

The problem with this, as described brilliantly in Mixed Race Amnesia by Minelle Mahtani, is that there is a tendency to forget the historical and structural forces that inform the identity of a given group, particularly if that particular group has historically been subjected to oppression. Contemporary ethnography fails to elicit any meaningful idea of group subjectivity by solely focusing on the individual identification and supposed rational predispositions of the interviewed individual. What is lost, therefore, are the external factors that contribute to the formation of a given identity. By fixating on defining identity as self-identification we are unable to provide a satisfactory understanding of identity as a whole. More often than not, our self-identifications are not a product of rational thought or choice, but arrived at through subliminal interpellation – be they positive or malevolent – due to circumstantial contexts. The structural influences of wider society – be they public (institutional) or private (familial) – will indubitably have an effect on one’s identity formation. Societal norms and ideals, including but not limited to ideas of race, gender, and class, often operate along the lines of “acceptance” or “rejection.” Though it is true that there is always leeway for people to push back against these established norms, the very act of “fighting back” implies that there is a norm to begin with, and it suffices to say that not everybody in an oppressed community participates in romantic resistance.

I argue that this is especially true of mixed race individuals. The societal norm of modern day society still, I believe, operates along the lines of “monoracial” or “monocultural” ideologies despite a tonne of evidence that point to the contrary. Mixed race people often find themselves “confined” between heritage or the other. This “confinement”, expressed in the language of “not fitting in”, is a clear indication that outdated norms surrounding race and culture are not only pervasive but ingrained. In the case of Eurasians, many of us find the massive discrepancy in cultural norms between our parents’ respective heritages extremely hard to navigate. This is because irrespective of cultural differences, many societies still subscribe to ideas of racial/communal “purity.” In Korea today, for example, despite recent efforts by the government to instil multicultural acceptance the notion of a “pureblooded society” remains: danil minjok (pureblooded Korean race) is a concept deeply embedded in Korean society despite a plethora of evidence pointing to its historical inaccuracy and even outright fabrication. In America the residuals of the one-drop rule that existed throughout the dark age of eugenics in the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth is something that is often ignored despite its pervasiveness. Black-white mixes are often simply considered Black; Asian-white mixes are often considered simply Asian. In Asia, Asian-white mixes are often considered white. The fact that Eurasians (and many other mixed race people) feel like they don’t “fit in” has a simple explanation: we do not fit within the confines of mainstream ideas of race and culture. Despite mixed race people having vastly different experiences (a half-Japanese and half American person has a very different social and cultural experience to that of a half Chinese and half English individual, for example) it is common for mixed race people to “share” a similar epistemic experience: that of “not fitting in.” This feeling of “not fitting in” is not something that we ourselves construct, it is something externally imposed.

Is this feeling transhistorical? If we scour the memoirs of Eurasians (for example) throughout the last few centuries, it would seem as though this phenomenon has always been around. Of course, everyone is technically “mixed”, but if we define “mixed race” in terms of cross-cultural miscegenation (for lack of a better term), we can see that these feelings have always existed, expressed through more or less the same kind of language. I am sure those of you who are reading this are at least somewhat aware of mixed race identity issues, and do not need any modern day examples of the language used by mixed race people today to express their struggles. If we look at texts by Eurasians from a century ago the language used by these writers are strikingly similar in their meaning and emotion. Despite the radically different social, political, cultural, and linguistic contexts that separate them from us and us from them, the epistemic experience that links many mixed race people together is unmistakeable:

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“To the Eurasian Lads Who Fell in the Battle of Hong Kong” 

Here ‘mid these eternal hills they found their rest,

No solemn cross to mark their peaceful sleep,

With name and date. Upon their tranquil breast

The sod lies easy; they slumber sound and deep.

Theirs was no rod of Empire, rule of men,

The seat of power, the pomp of circumstance;

Helots of the office ledger, desk and pen,

They trailed no purple robes of governance.

They knew no homeland, dearer on distant view,

The ivied cottage, the ancient spreading tree,

The smell of purple heather damp with dew,

The cliffs of Albion looking out to sea.

But youth was theirs in running measure full,

The joy of life, the urging discontent,

The dawn of love, roseate, wonderful,

And hope, surpassing all accomplishment.

These they gave in their stintless giving,

For this Eastern homeland of their own,

They faced the surging tide and perished fighting,

In these lone hills, unsung, unhonoured, unknown.

They sowed in blood that we in joy may reap,

In the peaceful evenings, who’ll remember them?

Only the stars will their nightly vigil keep,

Only the soughing pines’ll chant their requiem.

– Dr Edward Law

20th October 1945

As cited in Eric Ho, Tracing my Children’s Lineage, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), p. 329.

Indicting popular culture

In Orientalism (1979), Edward Said wrote:

Here I come to the third meaning of Orientalism, which is something more historically and materially defined than either of the other two…Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient. I have found it useful here to employ Michel Foucault’s notion of a discourse, as described by him in The Archaeology of Knowledge and in Discipline and Punish, to identify Orientalism. My contention is that without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period. Moreover, so authoritative a position did Orientalism have that I believe no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism. In brief, because of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action. This is not to say that Orientalism unilaterally determines what can be said about the Orient, but that it is the whole network of interests inevitably brought to bear on (and therefore always involved in) any occasion when that peculiar entity “the Orient” is in question.

– Orientalism, p. 3.

In short, Orientalism is not simply about racism; it is the construction, perpetuation, and exportation of knowledge about the Orient by the West, that results in a power imbalance between the vocal West and the silent “Other”. This knowledge is a distortion, for it is created and maintained in a cultural context distinct from the very subject they are producing knowledge on. This blog has already discussed the works of Franz Fanon and the internalization of racism as a product of European colonialism and imperialism. The continuation the logic of imperialism and colonialism not only perpetuates a systemic unbalance, but makes it incredibly difficult to tackle due to issues of consent and  self-identification.

Although Said specifically focuses on the interaction between sociocultural contexts and politics, his points – coupled with Fanon’s – are particularly relevant today in the realm of Western popular culture. In Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (2003), Christina Klein examines how “middlebrow” popular culture (“educational” films, plays, and media) was a liberal construction that preached tolerance and inclusion. Seeing the America as the liberating force for East Asia, middlebrow intellectuals took it as their task to educate the American and Asian populace about global and inner integration. This task often corresponded with American foreign policy and the proliferation of philanthropic social movements such as transracial adoption. Much of the ideology that underpinned this movement was, of course, American capitalist liberal democracy and anti-communism.

Popular culture is a powerful tool. It is a tool that has insidious effects and the potential to be pernicious if remained unchecked, and historically this has proved to be correct (see film depictions of non-American “cultures” for example: Indiana Jones, the Green Inferno, or more recently, Silence), even if they ostensibly come from a place of goodwill. A plethora of examples can be seen in contemporary popular culture.

Take the recent hype around Disney Channel’s first Asian-American-Centered show “Andi Mack”, which features heavily both mixed-race and Asian American women. On the surface, it is a gesture of progress; it not only focuses on women but also Asian American minorities, and makes a point of tackling “taboo” subjects surrounding race, gender, and youth. However, there are two significant problems with this show. First, featuring it as a “majority Asian-American cast” seems to, once again, paint this diametrically opposed binary that is white versus Asian. Yet, this “Asian American cast” centres on a mixed-race family with a Eurasian lead. Once again, we can see the subtle “Othering” of anyone  even vaguely Asian and not “100%” white, despite the lead actress being, of course, half white. While it is true that this is a societal norm, as long as the status quo remains an adherence to some postcolonial variation of the “one-drop-rule”, discussions about the complexities of mixed-race identity will suffer. Secondly, the male characters in the show are virtually all white males. Not having a single Asian male lead in the cast raises all kinds of issues about Asian visibility, white masculinity, Asian femininity, and their effects on the desirability politics behind white men and Asian women relationships.

While it is understandable that not everything can change overnight and that society still has a long way to go, there is something extremely problematic about this show when we consider the notions of fetishization and exoticism. The byproduct of featuring mixed race (and half white, at that) individuals as “Asian American” coupled with an obvious disparity between white and Asian male leads perpetuates the gendered issues of Asian male emasculation, white male dominance, and the exoticization of mixed-race/Asian women, not to mention the anti-Asianness/desirable-whiteness that arise out of casually regarding a mixed race family and mixed-race Asians as just “Asian American.” Not only does this trivialise the dynamic of a mixed-race family, it causes some serious issues of mixed-race self-alienation. Without fleshing out the mixed-race condition, we risk perpetuating the pernicious tropes mentioned above. Subliminally, a show about attractive Asian/mixed-race women and white men, although seemingly trivial, in fact continues the already existing tropes of white dominance and Asian submissiveness. Moreover, it seems as though popular culture has already made the decision for how mixed-race Eurasians identify: as Asian American minorities. The silence of the minority and the vocal white majority (the producers are, of course, all white) drowns out the voices of what the show is really about – a mixed-race family.

It’s fine to make a show about a mixed-race family, and feature Asian Americans. Just don’t champion it as a super progressive gesture, because clearly it isn’t it many ways.

Interrogating desire

Are racial preferences in dating an exercise of individualism, or a byproduct of internalized racism created, maintained, and reinforced by global Westernised mass media and popular culture? Can we justify our human desires for certain types of people by appealing to freedom of choice, or should we strive to understand why we arrive at these “preferences”?

Hitherto discussion of heteronormativity has largely been confined to the realm of gender. Judith Butler’s seminal works Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (first published 1990) and Undoing Gender (2004) are articulate and thought-provoking exposés of the social construction of gender that are created and reinforced by society, acting as constraints on one’s personhood. Butler’s work has pried open pandora’s box, influencing a tidal wave of debates over gender, identity, and personhood.

Contemporary debates surrounding identity stunningly pays little to no attention to how the social construction of race, gender, and culture have immense ramifications in the realm of individual choice (which is inextricably linked to desirability politics). When we follow the logic to its conclusion, to speak of the social construction of gender we must also speak of the social construction of race, since these two categories of analysis are indubitably intersectional. Even though that in academic circles race has largely been accepted as a social construction, in mainstream popular culture and discourse this is clearly not the case. The constant backdrop of white (or other ethnocentric versions) supremacy and racial hierarchy can be seen, in all its subtlety, in Western (especially American) popular culture. Nancy Wang Yuen’s book Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism offers a telling analysis of the reasons behind the Oscar’s extreme whiteness despite the proliferation of acting talent from people of colour. Interviewing over a hundred actors and actresses, she exposes the day-to-day racism actors of colour experience in talent agents’ offices, at auditions, and on sets. Yuen highlights the sexist hiring and programming practices and structural inequalities that actors of colour, especially women, face in Hollywood. Bloggers have also analysed the ways in which Asians are portrayed in popular culture (the blog I linked may be somewhat exaggerated in certain instances, but nevertheless make some vital observations that would otherwise go unnoticed to the average viewer.) Popular media and culture is arguably the most pernicious form of social conditioning in modern society. As Goran Therborn expresses in The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology, the influence of society and the social setting subtly guides our preference formation, from political views to moral values.

In my opinion, this lack of discussion is predicated on the taboo of “individual choice” that forms the foundation of Western society’s liberal epistemological framework. In reflecting and critiquing our own choices and desires, we inevitably reach the brick wall of interrogating just how “free” our individual choices are. The permanent dialectic of “freedom” versus “the good” renders it difficult for us, as creatures who undeniably desire freedom of expression and of individuality, to engage in self-criticism when it comes to choices of fulfilment (sexual partners, career choices, food, etc). This inequality as a result of hierarchical and prioritisation of individual choice and individuality over consequentialism (often deemed as inescapable products of the exercise of free will) – in many cases subconscious – can have unintentional yet dramatic ramifications, including the perpetuation of pernicious stereotypes, reinforcing white supremacy (such as Western standards of beauty; Euro-American modes of economic production; imposition of incompatible Eurocentric ideologies (ahem, IMF)) and, in our particular case, normalising a particular form of “objective” hierarchical desirability.

But choice has severe consequences. If we all agree upon the fact (as we should, in my opinion) that sometimes choice and absolute freedom must be second to some version of the good, then we must face up to these consequences and thoroughly interrogate our desires. Our standards of beauty surrounding body size, height, and race are all subject to the subjection and interpellation as described by Butler, Althusser, and Therborn. In many instances, people who desire particular “types” are unwittingly participating in subconscious discriminatory practices such as anti-Blackness, anti-Brownness, anti-Asianness, even by people of colour themselves. To offer a colloquial example, discussion over a person’s “tastes” in men and/or women and whether or not we agree with those tastes implicitly assumes that there is a “type” of man or woman that we can all “agree” to.

To tie all of the above together and relate it to the context of Eurasians, there exists a “darker” side to desirability politics that can have massive implications. This blog has already discussed Elliot Rodger and his psychotic killing spree. His particular case, as reflected in his chilling “manifesto”, is perhaps a symptom of problematic popular culture – he was extremely anti-Asian; believed himself to be a “beautiful Eurasian” (subscribing to the beauty myth); and he was extremely averse to being considered as “Asian” in any sense. This intense self-hatred is an extreme example of how complex identities within multiracial people coupled with an aspiration for the unattainable (in this case, whiteness) can have horrific consequences.

What is perhaps more worrying, is the recent phenomenon of white nationalists and supremacists marrying Asian women and having mixed race children, despite their racist and xenophobic views. Notorious founder of the Alt-Right movement Richard Spencer has publicly admitted that he has a thing for Asian girls. Controversial political writer John Derbyshire, author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and has publicly defended white supremacy, acknowledged telling his Eurasian children (he is married to a woman from China) about how to “handle” African-Americans, including information about IQ disparity, Black people being openly hostile, and advising them to refrain from helping Black people in distress. Alt-right conservative writer Mike Cernovich, who has openly supported the idea that “white genocide” exists, is married to an Indian woman. The very fact that PoC women even choose to be involved with men with views that are discriminatory to their very selves is problematic to say the least and mind-boggling to say the worst. If, like Andrew Anglin (founder of racist white nationalist website The Daily Stormer), frequently court women in places like Southeast Asia where many women strive to find white men to marry, this poses even larger problems. One thing is for certain: it is time to interrogate our desires, understand its potential relationship to global white supremacy, and begin a discourse on the morality of desire.

Multiracial families that are ironically and problematically founded on non-multicultural views by one or both parents definitely create potentially dysfunctional families. Given that biracial Asian American children are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder, it is dangerous to avoid or dismiss these problems, particularly as mixed race is the largest growing population in the United States, with the next generation reaching adulthood within two decades. We must at least talk about these issues before problems reach a critical mass.