It has been an exciting month here in the postracial United States. Rod Blagojevich proclaimed that he was blacker than Obama in Esquire magazine. Harry Reid lauded Obama as a viable presidential candidate, particularly because of his light skin and lack of “Negro dialect.” And just this Wednesday, Chris Matthews of Hardball proclaimed that he forgot Obama was black during the State of The Union address, suggesting that Obama is truly a postracial figure. The race discussion hasn’t just been limited to happenings in the United States, however. In the wake of the recent earthquake in Haiti, Rush Limbaugh suggested that the Obama administration’s fast response would help Obama gain credibility with both light-and dark-skinned African Americans. Pat Robertson recently suggested that Haiti was struck by the earthquake because of their “pact with the devil” in the slaves’ bid for independence from France in the 1700s.
Phew. It’s been a fun month.
It is customary in our politically correct culture to generally absolve “liberal” folks of these comments from any responsibility in these instances by calling them gaffes or minimizing their responsibility. These folks are never labeled as racist because we believe their intentions, their “hearts” are good. On the flip side, it is also customary for our culture to decry the horrible racism of those on the “conservative” side, and Limbaugh and Robertson are often lambasted for being racist and generally ignorant.
I’m proposing that both the liberal and conservative versions of these racial comments are racist because of the function they serve in the larger racial narrative—to code otherness, specifically blackness, into popular culture and media discourse. Codes work in similar ways for other “others.” Lou Dobbs constant labeling of undocumented workers as “illegal aliens” is a strong code for Latino immigrants that allow a particular racial image without actually having to say “Latino.” The same holds true for the word “terrorist” and the contexts within which the word is used—the word can easily become a code for Arab or Muslim.
The current dominant discourse in the United States is that we are somehow postracial—that we have indeed transcended and “gotten beyond” the issue of race as it plays itself out in our society. However, just as Michel Foucault in the History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 argues against the repressive hypothesis of sex by pointing out that his culture actually obsessively talked about sex in order to define the rules of sexuality, I argue that our culture, as opposed to being postracial, is obsessively talking about race in order to write new codes and rules for how we relate as racialized bodies.
The word “racist” is a shameful word in our current cultural language. Nobody wants to be called a racist because our current rules of race envision racism as a personal problem which only hate groups, White supremacists, and mean people embody. Or, we see racism as a large superstructure—a big “thing” out there in our society that comes as a result of historical slavery and structural inequalities. Importantly, structural racism is not really anyone’s fault; it just sort of happens, and we feel really bad for “minorities” because it happens directly to them.
While both of these aspects of racism certainly exist, I am most concerned about targeting the relations of power (Foucault, History of Sexuality) that come from everyday interactions which code and mark power through language. These relations happen at the level which we live our everyday lives: the choice to lock your car door when a black man walks by; flocking to adopt a Haitian child and expecting the child to learn English, instead of you learning French; telling your friend that you don’t have a race because you’re “just white”; joking that the “terrorists are coming” when Arab classmates get up to give a presentation; clutching your purse closer to your body when a black man gets on the elevator; dressing up as “ghetto-fabulous,” a pimp, or a rapper for Halloween; telling your articulate black friend that you “don’t think of them as black”; and asking your colleague from India if this is the first time they are eating salad. In this rendering of relations of power, we can better pinpoint actions that enact racist assumptions.
According to Beverly Tatum, racism can be visualized as:
“…a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking.” (Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?)
So, where do the discourses of those like Chris Matthews fit into this rendering? I see these discourses as the electricity and belts that move the walkway—the codes and rules for how racism moves in our particular culture. Hence, I am arguing that statements like the one by Chris Matthews and other “liberals” are in fact not accidental gaffes. These, like the statements of Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh, are constitutive elements of our codes of racial narrative—the electricity behind our racist moving walkway. These statements send important signals about the positionality of “black” in our culture.
Within this framework it is possible to see how individual people and our society collectively enact racist practices on the level of discourse (media) and everyday relationships. With this rendering, to say someone is racist is not a judgment on the “goodness” of their heart. It is an incisive marking of the practices that individuals enact that code our relations of power in ways that keep our racial hierarchies intact. It is, in a sense, a way to “make visible” the invisible codes at work in relations of power.
What all of the comments from the beginning of my blog had in common is that they all found ways to make black seem a less-than-desirable place to inhabit. These discourses are a deeply embedded, problematic, and common way that our society structures racial understanding. These codes belie the rules of how we relate to difference. Chris Matthews’ statements are just as racist as those of Rush Limbaugh. Likewise, “having a friend” from Lebanon or Mexico, or one that is black (or many for that matter) does not have any bearing on the power relations you may enact which marginalizes them.
We are surrounded by these racial codes in behavior and in media discourse. We are not postracial; rather, we are entrenched in a racialized society and we are constantly enacting, writing, and re-writing the rules. Oddly enough, in all of this “rule writing,” the same groups of people keep getting written into the bottom of hierarchy. More importantly, one single group is always written at the top. The direction of our walkway still hasn’t changed.