Thursday, May 31, 2007

Talking About Race

Nicolette Bethel has an interesting recent blog post: “On Why Race Matters” (Nicolette Bethel’s Blog, May 24). I’d like to quote one passage in particular:

“It’s time, I believe, for us to open our mouths and start talking to one another. Until we examine the things that shape our race relations — like slavery, emancipation, labour’s struggle, the fight for equality, and the massive influx of Haitian immigrants — we can never hope to build a united society. Although it’s no longer a matter of law or custom, there are still churches and clubs and parks and professions and schools that are avoided by whites or blacks. There is still very little opportunity for mingling, for getting to know the people beneath the skin. And we have to say so.”

Bethel’s words refer specifically to the Bahamas, but with one minor tweak, they speak to the contemporary U.S. context as well. Except for South Florida, Haitian immigration is not a hot button issue in the U.S., though immigration in general clearly is.

I do think that the U.S. (and most every other nation-state in the Americas) needs more dialogue on race and more interaction across racial and ethnic lines. However, for those interested in a society based on equality and where race doesn’t matter, we also need to talk differently about race.

In his History of Sexuality series, one of Michel Foucault’s important arguments was against what he called the “repressive hypothesis,” proponents of which argue that to be sexually liberated, we need to talk more about sexuality in order to eliminate sexual repression. Foucault pointed out that in western culture people talk endlessly about sexuality, but in ways that pretend to not talk about it, or which express distaste (a good example would be the countless news editorials from about ten years ago which professed to be tired of speaking of the Monica Lewinsky – Bill Clinton scandal and then proceeded to discuss it at length), and ultimately in ways that subject some, such as women (though Foucault doesn’t acknowledge that so much) and homosexuals.

Foucault’s point was that there’s little reason to hope that simply talking more about sex and sexuality would liberate anyone – at least not unless the content of the discourse also changed. In the U.S. and elsewhere, we face an analogous situation with regard to race. In the U.S., we talk quite a bit about race, but mainly in ways that don’t transform the basic premises of people’s discourse.

Recently, there’s been endless high profile discussion in the U.S. about immigration, especially undocumented/illegal immigration, and about Don Imus’ racist comments about the Rutgers’ women’s college basketball team. Most of the conversation consists of continuous (and usually simplistic) rehashing of a few basic themes, though. Immigrants are a threat to the American way of life vs. immigrants make the American way of life possible. Don Imus’ comments were racist vs. Don Imus has an inalienable right to free speech.

More of the same sort of discourse won’t change much. How to talk about race differently, though? I don’t have a blueprint, but I do know that we need to discourse differently on race if we’re to move toward a society where race actually matters less. I do have a couple suggestions:

1. More of the mingling that Bethel seems to be looking for would help – so long as it’s done with an open mind, lest it actually be counter-productive.

2. We can each individually try to talk about race differently. Counter arguments to racist propositions are important and necessary, but so are arguments that change the shape of the debate altogether.

To take again the immigration and Imus examples, discourse which simply presents the goals, motivations, aspirations, and experiences of immigrants could help make the discussion less about “aliens,” and perhaps at least ratchet down support for the most hate filled anti-immigrant screeds.

As for the Imus affair, most debate has seemed to miss the point to me. I’d suggest instead an argument that takes something like the following form: Obviously Imus has an inalienable right to free speech, including to say stupid, offensive things. Just as obviously, the corporation he worked for, as a private entity, has the same right, including to not be associated any longer with his speech, and other citizens have the same right to express disgust and anger at him. Now, why would he want to say what he did? What does the whole affair say about him or anyone else?

Again, I don’t claim to have a blueprint for how to go about engaging in a different sort of discourse on race, one that works more to open up dialogue and understanding and less to subject people (in Foucault's sense of discourse and subjection). I do know that when our public debate takes the form of people yelling the same things back and forth, more of the same isn’t going to change anything.


Jonathan David Jackson said...

Excellent, excellent reasoning, once again.

Jonathan David Jackson said...

Excellent reasoning, once again.