A Conversation on Race

A few months ago either a journalist from The Guardian or somebody posing as one sent me a questionnaire saying that my responses would be published as part of some special issue or Sunday story on race in the US. I was surprised because I have not published anything of any substance thematizing race, other than a few blog entries, although most of them are in a blog accessible only to working group members. It was also a bit strange, I thought, that the journalist contacted me from a personal, not an institutional email address. In any case, I replied, and nothing happened. I recently wrote to ask whether I was free to publish my responses in this blog, since I want to use them for a course I am teaching this semester. I learned that the email address had been terminated. So I can no longer be sure the questionnaire was genuine and not some kind of weird-shit trap meant to trick me into some hit list. Whatever the case may be, here are my responses. I claim no particular excellence for them: i just want to use them for my class.

Interview with Mr. X, allegedly from The Guardian UK 

What inspired you or generated your interest in African American Literature?

Since your question seems to be historical, about the origins of my interest, I suppose I should mention Chester Himes and his Harlem novels, which I read as a teenager.  They fascinated me.  That was probably my first contact with African American literature.  I have of course read many African American authors over the years.  More recently, and more specifically, my interest has to do with understanding the differences and the potential similiarities between the African American experience and the Latinx experience in the US 20th century.  I do not mean to say I approach African American literature nowadays from any kind of anthropological interest.  My interest is theoretical and it has to do with figuring out how to live, how to lead your own existence, in conditions of social subalternity or subalternization.  In general, of course, but also specifically: how to do that in a country I know well, since I have lived in it most of my life. 

Can we apply postcolonial theory (say, Frantz Fanon’s and Du Bois’s postcolonial concepts) to African American literature about discrimination and racism? 

It is not that we can or could, it is that we must and should.  Du Bois and Fanon are crucial theorists of Black experience, and their writings are still fundamentally productive today.  Take Du Bois’ statements about the color line as the problem of the 20thcentury.  For decades that idea flew in the face of the left’s insistence on the absolute priority of class and economic interests.  Fanon took it up again in the 1950s, still against the grain.  But I think the historical process has made it clear by now that class and economic interests will not drown the problem of the color line.  Racism, even in ostensibly attenuated and more or less secret form, will not be solved by changes in the economic structure.  The contemporary insistence on systemic racism must be understood in that context: equality is not just a matter of economic development in the form of trickle-down economics.  Systemic racism is a reality that must be confronted directly and politically, not just economically.  I think Du Bois and Fanon were lucid enough not just to say it, but also to make that insight the very foundation of their work.  That is why they are influential today, perhaps, in a sense, more than ever. 

According to Du Bois, how does segregation produce double-consciousness?

The point of double consciousness in Du Bois’ theorization does not indicate, to my mind, any Black particularism.  It is an experience common to anybody who is seen by hegemonic society in terms that are incompatible with that person’s own self-understanding as a worthy person.  Say, you are a perfectly respectable member of the professional class in 16th century Spain, and you are accused of being a Judaizer and a marrano out of the blue, because your grandfather was Jewish and your wife still has the house cleaned and the sheets changed every Friday as opposed to some other day.  You will go to your grave as a marrano regardless of whether you are a Judaizer or not.  Once you are identified as a marrano, you are in trouble for keeps.  Society sees you not just as inferior but as an undesirable, somebody who is not deserving of honor and must be kept at a distance if not thrown into a dungeon somewhere.  But you yourself are the same person you have always been, except that now you also have to see yourself through the eyes of your so-called community to make sense of what is happening to you and to keep from going mad.  Du Bois identified that structure, named it, and we should all be grateful to him for that.  The structure, such is the contention, is particularly present in Black life, because the color line means that Blacks do not even have to be accused of some imaginary crime: they are the “crime” themselves for hegemonic society.    Obviously the only sane way of living with it, far from the internalization of social bias, is to place yourself as an outsider to hegemony and to find ways to deal with it.  Not always easy.  In the meantime, segregation, in one form or another, and there are of course many forms, is your destiny. 

How can we combat racism to ensure that all members of American society experience equal representation and access to fundamental rights?

I believe we can, but we have to work hard first.  To my mind, it is not simply a matter of denouncing racism in any form.  We also have to produce a different conceptualization of the social, and of democratic life.  The 20th century produced solutions that are today insufficient—they probably were false solutions to start with.  I think the most important thing to say is that a hegemonic articulation of the social always and in every case will produce its own subalternity.  Subalternity, in this case racial, perhaps also cultural, will not be eliminated through any hegemonic articulation of the social: it will simply produce different forms of it, according to whatever ideology becomes dominant.  The dominant ideology of the last, say, forty years is multiculturalism in one form or another, which amounts to the pretension that everybody has a place in democratic society under good democratic rule—we can move towards an inclusionist paradigm, where every group will have proper representation and will establish alliances with all the other groups and so forth.  The flaw here, and it has proven to be fatal, is that subaltern representation within hegemonic society, although surely better than no representation at all, is still and can only be subaltern representation, and it will reproduce endemic conditions, perhaps in altered form, rather than solve them.    We need to think of democracy beyond the constraints of multiculturalism and beyond any merely inclusionist model.  Inclusion into hegemonic space is a bit like the foxes allowing the chicken into their corral—pardon me for a no doubt excessive analogy.  It won’t do.  We need to do away with the idea of the corral.  In Spanish we say, sometimes, “nadie es más que nadie.”  This means, first of all, that in democracy no group has any special legitimacy.  Only on the basis of a radical conceptualization of posthegemonic democracy, to my mind, could we find the ways to move towards a tendentially exhaustive elimination of racial subalternity.   Yes, it is easier said than done.  Education becomes fundamentally important here.  We need to retain the elements of social justice we have elaborated over generations and substitute better ones for the ones that have proved ineffective.  This is a condition of the democracy of the future.  If, that is, we seek true egalitarian symbolization.  

 What makes African American writers (say, Mildred Taylor) focus on children in their stories and making them resist the racism they are exposed to? 

I think the tradition of story-telling, such as it has come down to us from oral history, from mothers to children, from grandfathers to children, can be reproduced, to a certain extent, in books for children better than they can in the contemporary novel.   Taylor is of course important in that sense—although as you may know I am no expert.  But there is a sense of history in traditional story telling that those who are not exposed to it may never understand or experience.  Story-telling, in the traditional way, tells us about an immemorial past where, perhaps paradoxically, true memory resides.  And true memory is always the memory of uprightness, and integrity, and decency, even if the drift of any particular story might seem to be the opposite and concentrate on the outcasts or the losers or the vanquished.  At the end, however, goodness prevails.  I suppose we still want our children to learn that, at the very least to be exposed to that thought.

Applying Fanon’s postcolonial theory will help in dismantling the mainstream’s culture of domination, injustice and racial discrimination (say African American). Please explain

Fanon was of course a complex thinker and a study of his life can provide many insights on the cosmopolitan experience of a Black politically-committed intellectual in the mid 20th century.  But I would think the main lesson of Fanon’s life for today is his experience of how race and racial injustice, which involves discrimination also at the everyday level, informs the political struggle for justice of those who are this side of the color line.  It is a political struggle whose motivation lies in experientally- and existentially-felt discrimination, which he was able to distinguish from any whimsical or potentially paranoid notions of personal victimization and from any sense of willed personal entitlement and to put in the light of world structures that needed to be altered.   There was no room in Fanon for what we could call petit-bourgeois narcissism. This is what is crucial about Fanon—his life was not only informed by an anti-colonial commitment but his anti-colonial commitment was itself a direct result of his lucid working out of personal and singular experiences as a black man living and working in non-black hegemonic spaces.  In other words, his struggle was not only political but also existential, and his existential struggle was not focused on personal, individual desire for progress, but on deeply felt notions of justice and fairness.  I think a return to serious reflection on existential predicaments is a condition of political life in our present.  We could invert the old 1968 maxim “the personal is political” into the notion that the political is always and should always be personal, singular, specific, and lived, beyond or before any commitments to collective life and as their very condition.  It is a matter of coming down from the politically abstract, which always leaves ample room for catastrophe, to the concrete determinations of your own life, which then need to be projected into the collective as a condition of universal equality.  This is the way democracy becomes a democracy of every one, a democracy of the last human.     

What does Spivak mean by racial subalternity’ and subaltern identity?

Gayatri Spivak’s early notion of subalternity, which could be summed up in a famous sentence I have never stopped thinking about, namely, that the subaltern is the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic, something like that, has proved to be not simply better than most definitions but absolutely crucial for the future.  It is a bottomless sentence that could be connected to many of the most important developments in modern political thought, and always in a radicalizing and revisionist manner.  It means, first of all, that the subaltern is the constitutive outside of any hegemonic articulation.  A consequence is that any aspect of subaltern life that lets itself be caught in hegemony will only reproduce its own subalternity.   History is narrativized into logic, that is, it becomes historiography, always at the cost of a certain expropriation.   And we need to break away, always and in every case, from any hegemonic notion of subalternity, always expropriating, in order to release subalternity into its own, without which there is no real hope of redress, no hope for equality and justice.   Subalternity should not be instrumentalized in the name of a “good enough” liberal historiography.  It should be the focus of any thinking committed to true egalitarian symbolization.  This is why I started responding to your questions rejecting an anthropological approach and appealing to what we could call a “theory” of singular existence.   Let me finish by saying that Spivak’s definition very much includes the color line in its scope, but is not directly about the color line or indeed about the social death caused by slavery and post-slavery through history.  This is the reason why a struggle against systemic racism has many dimensions and should not be exclusively focused on Black experience.  Black study is essential to understand and determine, but differentially, and never in order to homogenize, which is another word for hegemonize, the structures of subaltern life—they include Latinx life in the US, immigrant life, Native American life, and so many other life experiences—that doom our liberal democracies to be always insufficiently democratic.   As I have said before, there is a lot of work to do, for everyone concerned with equality.  

What are the differences between structural, institutional and systemic racism?

To your list of terms we could add “societal racism,” which is a phrase one also hears now and again.  I think that, while there may be technical precisions to be made and there is of course a philological history of the invention and use of those phrases, and I do not mean to minimize their importance, they all come down to the same claim in my opinion.  The claim is that racism is not just a matter of individual behavior but that it extends to the wider society—to its institutions, hence to its structure–through hegemonic ideology or even through hegemonic practices.  It is a feature of hegemony that it projects—successfully, since otherwise hegemony would not be hegemony–both its positions and its presuppositions to the general field of engagement.   It could be argued that hegemonic positions in contemporary liberal societies are not racist, but the contested area is that of presuppositions, that is, of largely unconscious practices.   The claim that contemporary hegemony in the US, for instance, has elements of structural racism can be radicalized into the claim that contemporary hegemony is purely and simply racist; hence that the issue of police violence against blacks or Latinxs, when it happens, for instance, is not just a function of individual police officers but rather a symptom of a general state of affairs.  This debate is a matter of politics, but politics with a bite, since the negotiation between different claims must refer to the real: is there or is there not systemic, structural, institutional, societal racism in reality itself, whatever the institutional or systemic rhetoric may be, whatever individual intentions may be?   The dispute of course does not refer to the register of law and regulations but of everyday life wherever it takes place, but in all areas of it. 

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