“Talking about race is difficult.” A statement which is so easily and often repeated that it has lost its integral meaning, has become really just a slurry of syllables. Behind it, a person hides, suddenly unsure of how to broach a conversation which is in its nature unspeakable, the unfortunate coincidence of time, the advent of national tensions, of a gradual disillusionment we must all endure. How can we talk about an institution which is both incredibly visible and completely untraceable, which cannot be understood as a rational entity which can be empirically touched, understood, observed, experimented with – how do we talk about an idea, or a system of ideas? “These things are hard to talk about.” And every brown person in the room rolls their eyes because it is not so difficult to think about race as superstructure, as idea-system, as ideology, as existence. For the Black person in the room, the weight of their race has forced them to think of racialization as their very ontology, as their bare life. Race becomes one’s ontology, the inescapable categorization in which the spirit is bound. And of course the Brown person, the Black person, is aware of the cage which shackles them, even if the non-raced, the White person, cannot see the cage, can only see the illusion which is superimposed over the brown body, cannot fathom that what lies beneath that shroud, the threadbare image the racialized are forced to adorn, is far more recognizable, far more familiar, than they could have ever imagined. Talking about race is not difficult if you are willing to listen to the testimonies of others, to not fall prey to the conspiratorial desire to disenfranchise and to disavow the marginalized for what is ostensibly an invisible institution.
Talking about race is not difficult once you realize that racism is inside of you.
About a year ago, I was invited to be on my sister’s show the Grapevine. They were filming an episode about the relationships and tensions between Africans and African-Americans, and, knowing that I research contemporary (West) African literature, my sister invited me on the show for what was, in my opinion, a nice and informative conversation about the complexities of life in the United States for people whose bodies are read as Black, yet who experience Blackness in different, nuanced ways particular to their ethnic and national identities. The episode I was on was never aired, mostly because my sister and the showrunner, Ashley Akunna, were worried that it would start a war in the comments, but a recent reshoot of this segment, split across three episodes in order to include West Indian experiences, incurred such great vitriol among Black people from all walks that Ashley turned off the comments on the videos. I will provide links below, but I wanted to take the time to reprise a post I wrote in April of last year which defined African-American as an socio-ethnic marker in order to explore some of the pitfalls of this classification, as well as the great necessity for increased conversation on the merits and complexities of ethnicity in discussions of race in the United States.
On cyberfeminism, rhetoric and our social limitations
I recently subscribed to an educational Youtube channel because I’ve always been a fan of educational television but don’t have cable anymore. The channel, Second Thought, has a lot of content which is enlightening, but there’s this one video that led me to immediately unsubscribe. The video is titled “What the Hell Happened to Feminism?” and is a pretty tone-deaf overview of what the narrator described as Tumblr Feminism (fourth-wave / cyberfeminism), highlighting specific instances of feminists living and fighting for their survival as somehow invalidating the entirety of 4WF politics. I’m not about to rip Second Thought to pieces here because that channel is only one instance of a general issue which is happening all across American cultural politics, and is not simply limited to issues of gender, but to issues of identity itself – lack of compassion.
I have been asking myself the same question for two years now: “How is identity performed?” I guess the word perform here makes identity seem like a sort of role, or mask, insofar that is not necessarily lived, which can be seen as the operative opposite of performance. Nonetheless, I think the word perform has specific uses, primarily when we are dealing with often homogenous understandings of our identities, commonly produced and propagated through consumable and shareable media. It is the desire to perform identity, as oppose to living it, which makes cultural politics and coalition-building so difficult, for the means by which identity is interpreted and realized is often determined at the axes of political cultures. I will attempt in this post (my first post in a while about race!) to explain what I mean.
Swarthmore’s Black community is relatively small, comprised really of concentric and/or adjacent rings of friend groups. I suppose the entire community itself is one cluster, with a few outliers who have decided, for some reason or another, to completely disassociate or limit their contact with other Black students. This, however, does not delegitimize their experiences as Black people at Swarthmore, or as Black people in general. These students, who have their own lives, have their own perspectives wrought by their own experiences, have their own crucibles of existence in which their identities were forged, tried and tested, are free to come and go from the community, or to completely disengage from it, and this do not mean they are any less Black, that they bear a self-hatred towards their Black skin or their Black forbearers, that they do not hate micro- or macroaggressive racism any less than the community insiders do. Those who belong to SASS, Swarthmore’s BSU, are not legitimized in their blackness, neither are individuals in SASA, the African student group, or SOCA, the Caribbean student group, or anyone who frequents the Black Cultural Center, or students majoring in Black studies, or students who attend summer research programs at the Schomburg Center, etc. Nonetheless, we were always trying to answer the question of “why do they isolate themselves?” wondering what it was about our community which makes it unwelcoming to these students. I will not try to list our conjectures, but it is a question I ask myself often as I attempt to conceptualize my own blackness.
But what is blackness? Is it cultural (eg: Africana culture; what does Africana even mean outside of a purely sociohistorical context in or relating to American (continental) slavery)? Is it biological (eg: pigmentation, hair texture, etc.)? Is it sociological (eg: race as social construct)? Or an uneven mix of all three? Even if we were to define blackness as a sort of lived experience, there are always exceptions, always outliers, which statistically we are prone to eschew as “those who do not belong,” but who nonetheless should always serve as the new margins from which we conceptualize a global, as opposed to exclusive, experience. It is also totalizing for me to give an inevitably faulty working definition for what blackness means, for my experience is not the universal experience, nor is/are the experience(s) of the person or cluster of people at the “center” of Swarthmore’s black student “solar system,” or those of any Black person. The way we experience, understand, internalize and engage with our blackness is different, for the paths of our lives as Black people take meandering paths and it is not the destination which makes us who we are, but the people we become along the way.
hegemony [n] – the ideological manipulation of a subordinated group by a dominant ruling class whose intent is to convince the subordinated to view their domination as justifiable; the process by which the subaltern accept, internalize and enforce their alterity.
Shit. This is a big topic, and I’m of course not going to touch on all of the possible manifestations of hegemony, like kyriarchy, patriarchy and antiblackness, but what I want to do here is clarify a term which entered my vocabulary my junior year. I had seen the word hegemony or heard it in conversation, (reading it as he-guh-moan-ee) but never really understood its significance until I read an essay (which at the time I barely understood) in which the term was for the first time brought into its Marxist context. The essay was written by Antonio Gramsci, commonly understood as one of the forefathers of Marxist cultural studies, and Gramsci discusses hegemony primarily from the cultural vantage, going so far as to call his conceptualization cultural hegemony. Hegemony is one of those words like neoliberalism, neocolonialism, and patriarchy which are thrown about a lot in academic discourse, be it in papers or in seminars, in ways which can detract us from its basest manifestations insofar that its application seems ubiquitous. The overarching theme in many of our lives, it’s easy to riff on hegemony without really basing it in our everyday experiences as scholars. I’ve found that the vantages in my discipline which are used to concretize hegemony (which is, talking about in books) nevertheless keep the concept removed and bound within the theoretical world of race, as opposed to its real-world analog. If I accomplish anything in this post, I hope to clarify and make the concept clearer for an audience who perhaps hasn’t read Gramsci or Althusser, primarily through a study of what one of my primary research questions; the importance of ideologies in our lives.
In part, this post is also a definition of ideology, for we can’t really understand cultural hegemony without first exploring the mechanism through which hegemony functions. Rather than give a definition, let’s start with a story.
When I was young, I had a bunch of white friends. It was part of the experience of being in higher level classes in a school district which enacted its apartheid regime based on “intellectual capacity” that I only had white friends until I began to realize, at some point in high school, that I was not in fact white and that I enjoyed my Black friends’ presence a bit more than my white friends, although they weren’t in any way bad or, worse, racist (!) people. It was also a hassle to get my mother to let me go anywhere in middle school. I would have to call and beg for her to let me stay out in town longer than usual, and going to my friends’ houses was essentially a teeth-pulling fit every single time. I didn’t understand why my mother was like this until recently, when I began to reflect on what it meant to be a Black kid in a rather White suburb, and the discourses which parents transmit to their children in ways which are not directly legible. My mother would tell me every time she’d reluctantly acquiesce to letting me go to this or that friend’s house that I should “be good” and respectful and “never bring shame to the family name.” I thought this was kind of a medieval thing to say, conjuring up images of honor and chivalry, and I’d shrug it off. I didn’t really know how I could bring shame to the Lee family name, because everyone’s parents naturally loved me. I was a friendly, bright, funny and respectful young chap, but I was black. This was a realization I never really internalized, for my mother never really said it, but she knew that white parents would interact with me differently because of my blackness. They switched on a certain lens when interacting with me, be it conscious or not, and as a 11-year-old, I wasn’t aware of the switch. I had to constantly negotiate the fact that I was being interacted with through the veil of my blackness, through the concepts and notions which constitute a cultural ideology about what it means to be a Black person. This is perhaps my first introduction to the Gaze that everyone riffs on in critical theory; the concept that my otherness is visible and mapped onto my body, and that anyone interacting with me will perceive and inevitably act on notions which constitute the image which my visibility invokes. As a ten-year-old bourgeois black boy, I had never experienced marginalization outside of being picked on for being fat, which I inevitably internalized. This is hegemony, in a way, but a subject for another time.
One of my mother’s admonishments was: “Don’t eat at other people’s houses. There’s food at home.” I didn’t know what this meant, but I assumed at the time, comically, that it was because, in my family’s imagination, white people didn’t know how to cook. At the same time, there are tropes about white cleanliness in the Black community, too, which put me off from eating at their houses. So for the most part, I hesitated, but indulged from time to time. Yet, in retrospect, she told me not to eat at white people’s houses because they would think I either don’t have manners because of the way I eat, or that I don’t eat at home, two concepts which are rooted not in my general comportment, but in the specificity of my being a Black person. She was afraid they would map these rather stupid ideas onto me and mistreat me, and actively taught me to avoid such pigeonholing by curbing what would otherwise be “authentic” behavior. If I was hungry, I should eat, but because I was in the company of white people who may think that Black people don’t get enough to eat, or don’t eat well, or don’t eat exotic foods like lasagna, I needed to bend my behavior in order to spare myself the scrutiny and marginalization which would disillusion me and make me cognizant of the ramifications of my birth condition as an Other. That’s heavy shit, but it’s also something that many Black kids experience, particularly those who must exist in white space and occupy the position of the Other.
This is hegemony; the education of self-minimization to Black children, the transmissions of lessons which dictate that one’s natural behaviors, which may or may not be the product of one’s race, nevertheless inflect on others a reason to actualize and accept a preconceived notion of an entire group of people; that one must curb one’s natural tendencies in the presence of White people lest they corroborate a negative image of the collective Other which one represents. It’s teaching young girls to cover their bodies to keep the nasty boys from getting distracted by their bare shoulders and erotic knees. It is a remedy to a symptom of a greater issue, for the issue is not the Black mother or the father of teenage young girls, but those marginalize their children. It is so much harder to say to White people “maybe a Black kid is just hungry, and not hungry because he’s Black,” for a Black parent can’t speak to every White person their child will interact with. The easiest thing to do is to teach that child to bend and conform; and thus a hegemonic discourse is produced, internalized; it becomes an heirloom, transmitted across generations.
Hegemony interacts with ideology by responding to dominant narratives of the Self and the Other. These words, and the English language, aren’t discursive or expressive enough to really express what I’m talking about, but the Self in this case, sometimes also referred to as the Nation, is the conceptualization of the default person whose qualities therefore determine the existence and categorization of all else; the Others. Ideologies are best described as the assemblage of values, images, discourses and ideas which constitute a/the collective perspective of a people. It’s hard to distinguish an ideology from another, and for the most part, I view ideologies as rhizomic systems (from Deleuze and Guattari; something which has no central point of departure or arrival, and builds around a central core for which there is no fixed locus) as opposed to arborescent ones (something that has a root from which all else branches). When we think of race, for example, as an ideological system, we have no point to dictate the origins of the concept, for concepts rarely work this way. Even ideas which are coined, like intersectionality, are not necessarily new concepts, insofar that Black women have been riffing on the idea of intersectional feminism since at the very latest the 19th century.
I could get really heady, bringing in Althusser and de Certeau and Lefebvre to talk about how ideologies are manifest in physical space and in society, but this is a brief sketch. I wanted to really just tell this story, because my mother read my fellowship bio and noted that she didn’t understand what hegemony meant, despite me knowing damn well that she has experienced and internalized hegemonic discourses throughout her life, particularly when it was time to raise 4 young black kids in a New Jersey suburb. While I think it’s good to have other ways of talking about things, and that words like hegemony and discourse can raise more questions than they answer, I nevertheless remain open to the ambiguity of these words, and find that in their flexibility they can better speak to a system of conditions and experiences, as opposed to particulars which remain abstract and difficult to define.
African-American [n/adj] – an ethnic group of Americans (citizens or residents of the United States) who are the descendants of enslaved Africans.
This will likely be the most controversial post in the define series, likely because there is no real consensus as to how the term African-American should be used. Depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, the term is either readily used as an umbrella for Black people in the New World, which I will attempt to prove prejudicial, or that the term is a politically correct way of referring to Black people, which is also, in a way, incorrect. A search on Wiktionary will reveal that the word African-American is typically used to refer to people who are 1) American and black 2) Black 3) Black American, all of which ignore the history which slavery has played in creating our experience and solidifying our unique ethnic identity.
I was against the term African-American when I was younger because I saw something in that word to which I could not connect — Africa. To me, Africa was a mythical place, like Aztlan, from which my ancestors were pulled by the millions in order to cross the edge of the world to work on plantations in North and South Carolina. Africa, like most Americans believed, was a continent of wilderness and alleged savagery and I was pushed away from the concept, seeing my Americanness somehow as being a more reformed — perhaps even evolved — form of that which my ancestors once were. I used the word Black because of the political implications of such a word. It means ugly, hated, sickly and rotten; how apt a word to describe our condition as what seems to be the world’s most detested, mocked, and imitated people?