Sunday, September 11, 2016

What Do We See? What Do We Not See?

Greg Tate has written some very good stuff; sometimes he's gone right off the rails into wackery; sometimes he steams boldly down the middle.  On Tuesday he posted this on Facebook:
You (incredulously) hear some folk say that they ''never see color '' or that bugaboo 'race', but you've never heard anyone say, ''I never see gender''. The former argument seems motivated by a pre-emptive guilt reflex--a knee-jerk desire to prove one isn't capable of racism because you're a magician of entitlement-- one who can make racism and yourself disappear from the world by refusing to be implicated or even see that race and difference keeps mattering, keeps producing violence against those invisible others. But gender related isms and phobias don't grant the same superpowers or superpowered delusional desires--the ability to bestow innocence on yourself by denying the existence of your own genitalia and everyone else's.
His initial claim grabbed my attention, and it has some truth in it, but only some.  I'm not sure I've actually heard or seen anyone claim that they don't "see gender," but I have seen a lot of nice liberal people claim that we shouldn't see it, for example in those memes that point out that a skeleton has no gender or sexual orientation, so we should just look past the deceptive flesh to the honest bones.  I've also heard of gay people who were told by their closeted partners that they didn't think of their sex, they just loved them.  Of course there's as much bad faith in those memes as in the claim of color-blindness.

That last quoted sentence is the wackery here.  "Gender related phobias and isms" certainly do generate entitlement and violence, not by "denying the existence of your own genitalia and everyone else's" but by creating a mythology about their vital cosmic importance, in order to "bestow innocence" on those who use that mythology to exclude, control, and punish others.  As Karen E. and Barbara J. Fields wrote in their brilliant book Racecraft:
The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss.  Consider the statement "black Southerners were segregated because of their skin color" -- a perfectly natural sentence to the ears of most Americans, who tend to overlook its weird causality.  But in that sentence, segregation disappears as the doing of segregationists, and then, in a puff of smoke -- paff -- reappears as a trait of only one part of the segregated whole [17-18].
The same applies to sex/gender, which Tate seems not to understand very well.  The distinction between (biological) sex and (cultural etc.) gender, invented to express an important difference, failed for many reasons as the distinctions turned out to be difficult to draw, and nowadays "sex" and "gender" are often conflated, which expresses something true but also puts us back where we were before.  Biological sex is mostly visible on naked bodies (though there are well-known ambiguous cases), but since human beings cover our bodies in varying degrees, we create other markers to declare sex very visibly.  Weirdly, to my mind, we often cover the visible bodily markers to signal sex at the same time we hide it.  Gendered clothing, cosmetics, decorations, stylized body stances and signals, conventions of language intonation and even vocabulary, divisions of labor, and so on, express and enforce a society's assumptions about bodily configurations, and because they are mostly not directly connected, all these conventions can float free, and that freedom is used culturally for many purposes.  Cross-dressing, for example, can be a disguise, or entertainment, or ritual, or the expression of a deeply-felt personal essence ("identity").  It can be nonconformist or conformist.

Whatever else it is, gender is something one shows to the world -- not always consciously, much as I sometimes forget which t-shirt I'm wearing and am startled when someone comments on it -- but then, "race" can be that too, because "race" as Americans use it is not just skin color but cultural and personal expression.  Many people of various "races" would be furious, I expect, at the idea that "race" too can be performed, but when "race" is conflated with culture (analogously to "sex" and "gender"), it is certainly being performed.  (So is something like "age," by the way, as in the admonition "Act your age!")  I still remember the impact Cornel West's remarks about young black men's "stylizing their bodies" (Race Matters [Beacon Press, 1993], p. 88) had on me the first time I read them.  I had never believed that "black male styles of walking, talking, dressing, and gesticulating in relation to others" (ibid.) were innate, but it was exciting to see West state that they were cultivated and write about what they meant.

The question, I think, is not whether we "see" race or color or sex or gender or age, but what we do with what we see, or choose to see.  Of course I see color -- which does not equal "race," of course, though many people believe it does; that's what the Fields call "racecraft" -- as I see gender, but I don't make assumptions about the person whose skin color, or whose style of walking, talking, dressing, or gesticulating I see.  I'm aware of cultural conventions, as I am of gender conventions, but I don't universalize them: I know that the variation in behavior, beliefs, attitudes, and traits within groups is immense, far greater than the average differences between groups.

It felt odd to write that, because it seems so obvious, and I think most people would say they agree with it.  The curious thing in most people's discourse about this topic is the way they oscillate between the belief that these traits and behaviors are innate -- rooted in biology, unchangeable -- and the belief that they are surface phenomena -- customs, conventions, culturally created, changeable.  The position they take at any given moment about a given trait is generally determined by their attitude toward it: if they don't like something you're doing, they assume you can change it; if you don't like what they're doing, it's natural and they can't change it.  Or a trait is unchangeable if they use it to defend a certain social arrangement: black people were born to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, women were created to stay at home and clean house, girls can't throw a baseball because their arms are built differently, blacks are just naturally better at (certain) sports than whites, these things are in our DNA and cannot change.  Beliefs about innateness generally predate any evidence about the basis of the trait under discussion, and are fiercely resistant to evidence against them -- indeed it seems that the belief will be expressed in the face of disconfirming evidence.

Cultural stereotyping, of race or gender or age or religion, heightens this contradiction.  That the trait, doctrine, behavior is socially constructed is all the more reason why it must be enforced and protected and nonconformity punished, yet Nature is often invoked in its support.  The apostle Paul notoriously claimed, for example, that "nature itself teach[es] that if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him" (1 Corinthians 11:14), and a commentator whose name I can't recall claimed that Paul was using "nature" to mean "custom."  I think that by "nature" Paul was referring to custom, but he was obfuscating the distinction, whether he did so consciously or not.  To use F. G. Bailey's terminology, he was using his "moral mind," which flouts evidence and reason to establish one's bona fides.  That's true of most discourse in such matters, including Greg Tate's as I've quoted him here.  But then, people who claim they don't see race are also using their moral minds.

Of course I see color, and because I'm a reasonably well socialized American I see "race" -- that is, I know the convoluted mythology America has invented around skin color, ancestry, culture.  But I know it's a mythology.  I don't claim to have escaped it completely; no one has, and that includes black people.  What matters is not that you see color, but what you think it means and how you act as a result.  That's why I immediately become wary when someone insists on the "reality" of race: are they getting ready to deploy some version of mystical biological determinism?  Robert Reid-Pharr wrote in Once You Go Black: Race, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual (NYU Press, 2007):
While the black body so ably described by postwar Black American nationalists may be a marker of a more politically efficacious political rhetoric, it also seems to be the last depository of wildly simplistic thinking regarding Black American history and culture.  George Jackson, arguably the most sophisticated of mid-century nationalist intellectuals, makes the point nicely:
My recall is nearly perfect, time has faded nothing.  I recall the very first kidnap.  I’ve lived through the passage, lain in the unmarked, shallow graves of the millions of fertilized the Amerikan soil with their corpses; cotton and corn growing out of my chest, “unto the third and fourth generation,” the tenth, the hundredth.
I continue to return to this rather stunning quote from Jackson precisely because the beauty and economy of the prose belie the incredible sloppiness of the thought.  Jackson has no recall, no memory whatsoever of the African continent, the middle passage, enslavement.  Indeed in his admittedly noble efforts to reclaim the lost African body he shuts himself off from the most basic realities of Black American history and culture.  That is to say, confronted with the reality that there is no authoritative history of the slave, Jackson constitutes a sort of Baroque poetics of the black body – fecund modifier substituted for stale fact [127].
I would add that I've also become wary of "black bodies," a critical-theory term which seems to have spread like a radioactive virus through public discourse on race in America in the past few years.  "Black bodies" may serve as a reminder that your mind doesn't matter, it's your body that the police will seize and punish.  I suspect that Rodney Harrison claimed that Colin Kaepernick wasn't black (in an attempt to discredit the latter's protest against racist oppression in the US) because Kaepernick's adoptive parents were white -- as though that would have shielded him from racial profiling or other racist practices.  Similar accusations were made against Barack Obama during his first Presidential run, as I recall.  (I wonder if Harrison would claim that a white kid raised by black parents wasn't white?)  But I'm not sure that's all that "black bodies" is meant to imply.  So far it seems to be just a buzzword, which is harmless enough.  What would speaking of "white bodies" signify, I wonder?  So I'm still listening carefully when a black speaker refers to "black bodies," to try to hear what else is being said.  I've found it instructive, for example, when I hear (or am tempted to use) the word "racial," to substitute "racist" -- "racial epithet," for example, or "racial language."  Sometimes "racial" is meant to suggest that whatever is going on is inspired if not caused by "race," when it clearly comes from racism.  It's a subtle distinction, but I think it's real, and useful to bear in mind.

"Race and difference keep mattering," Greg Tate wrote, and he's right.  Rather than deny difference, as do people who claim not to see it, we need to see it and think about it.  What would those people do if they did "see" color?  But as Barbara and Karen Fields insist, racism doesn't happen "because of" race; "race" was invented -- "constructed" might be the right word here after all, because the term already existed, with different meanings, long before it took on the meanings we are used to in the US today -- to rationalize the oppression that some people wanted to impose on others.  The same is true of the sex/gender oppression that Tate apparently wants not to see.  What does he see?  What does he not see?

(The title of this post, by the way, comes from a relevant poem by the radical poet Muriel Rukeyser.)