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Category Archives: race

As Selma, Alabama hosted a commemoration this weekend of the 1965 marches for voting rights, the first of which is known as Bloody Sunday for the violence protesters endured, the US Supreme Court’s conservative majority is probably about to gut the Voting Rights Act and fundamentally undermine the right to vote for lots of people.

The case centers on Section 5 of the Act, which mandates that certain jurisdictions have to clear any changes in their voting laws with the Department of Justice. As The Daily Beast put it, “Section 5’s innovation was to stop the discrimination before it occurs. By forcing jurisdictions—mostly, though not exclusively, in the South—to gain preclearance, the Voting Rights Act stops potentially discriminatory laws from being put into place to begin with.”

The complaint is about singling out those particular places, and as the Washington Post explained, “The Supreme Court’s conservative majority strongly suggested Wednesday that a key portion of the landmark legislation protecting minority voting rights is no longer justified and that the time has come for Southern states to be freed from special federal oversight.” (Incidentally, it’s not just the South: also covered are the states of Alaska and Arizona and counties in South Dakota, New York, Florida, and California, including the one across the river from where I grew up. Full list.)

The way the issue was addressed included some particularly appalling soundbites, as when “Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress’s decision in 2006 to reauthorize the law was a result not of a studied decision but of a ‘phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement,’” because apparently the desire to be able to vote makes one “entitled” rather than exercising a guaranteed right (WaPo).

But it’s not totally off-base to argue against it. Just not in the same way.

I think about Section 5 the way I think about a lot of things—affirmative action, hate crime laws, etc—it doesn’t solve the problem it’s supposed to, and in fact defines the problem in a way that makes it harder to solve . . . but we can’t afford not to do anything at all.

I do think that singling those jurisdictions out is a problem. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that “Chief Justice John Roberts, a vocal skeptic of the use of race in all areas of public life, cited a variety of statistics that showed starker racial disparities in some aspects of voting in Massachusetts than in Mississippi.” Though those statistics are probably cherry-picked, he’s right that the South isn’t the only place with an institutional discrimination problem.

I mean, clearly these particular jurisdictions have ended up on the list because they do have a history of obvious institutional racist action that weighs on the present. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out in the proceedings, “it was a recent violation by a town in Shelby County that led to the current case. ‘Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?’ she asked” (WaPo).

The problem with Section 5 is that it defines the problem in a way that makes it harder to solve: It implies that election laws other places don’t need scrutiny for how they disenfranchise people of color. But they do. They desperately do.

The recent spate of Voter ID laws, for example, make voting harder for poor people, and people of color are disproportionately poor. Unimaginable as it may be for the middle class, lots of people live without state-issued ID, because they don’t drive, don’t use checks, don’t have a bank account, etc. Demanding that people get an ID in order to vote is a de facto poll tax.

It may be “just a few dollars,” but for people truly on the edge every penny counts; as eloquently described by John Scalzi, “being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.” That person can’t afford the 20 bucks an ID costs here in Illinois. And the actual fee doesn’t account for work time lost to go to the DMV, since the working poor tend not to have jobs where they have paid time off.

On top of that, the kinds of documents one needs to prove one’s identity aren’t always readily available if your parents were also poor or if you were ever homeless. Not to mention the ways the requirements for replacing documents are self-referential: generally, all of the forms of ID you need to get a Social Security card require a Social Security card to get. So good luck with that.

Moreover, navigating bureaucracy to get any of these forms of ID—or to apply for a hardship exemption on the fee, say—is a middle-class skill that poor folks often don’t have. And even if they do, getting overworked, underpaid, badly treated and generally grumpy bureaucrats to help, well, Scalzi again: “Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid. Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.” (Read the whole thing. And the additions to the list in the comments. It’s amazing and wrenching.)

This is just one requirement, voter ID, but we can see how it fundamentally undermines the supposedly guaranteed right to vote. Middle-class people of color won’t have problems, which then opponents of laws like Section 5 can then point to as evidence that protections aren’t needed, but they clearly are. Just because suppressing the right to vote doesn’t look like this picture on the right anymore, people argue that it no longer exists, but I’ve just shown how the same problem has taken new form.

The challenge here is that the discrimination is most immediately and clearly on the basis of class, which is currently not a protected category (even though it really should be, but what can you do when the law is fundamentally an essentialist enterprise?). Again, the problem gets defined in a way that makes it harder to solve.

Of course, due to histories of discrimination people of color are disproportionately poor, which means that this has a disproportionate impact on them. There’s a reason that things like poll taxes and literacy tests worked as a way to keep black folks from voting in the South. (And, the history is less well known, but probably Native folks in Alaska and Latinos in Arizona were subject to similar obstacles to land those states on the list.)

Voter ID has both a financial and educational component, so it’s even more efficient. It also seems reasonable and uncontestable because it plays into post-9/11 paranoia and surveillance culture.

But it’s not just being implemented in the South, and neither are any of the other ways voting is being restricted. And again, legally confining the problem to those jurisdictions might make the rest of the country feel better, but it doesn’t improve people’s capacity to vote.

The Washington Post says that

“The symbolic significance of Section 5 could make the court reluctant to strike it down entirely. Instead, the justices could keep the section but declare that the formula used in selecting the covered states is outdated and must be revisited. Proponents of the law say that would effectively doom Section 5, because it would be hard to get a new formula through a partisan and polarized Congress.”

What’s important to realize, though the law doesn’t and can’t, is that the symbolism, the encoding in law of the idea that you can’t change your laws if it’s going to disenfranchise people, acts as a levee against change even in jurisdictions that aren’t directly subject to it. If it goes away, the dam is open for everyone. (Even more than it clearly is now.) This is the same reason that I see a silver lining in hate crime legislation.

Killing Section 5 by asking for a reworking isn’t acceptable to me, obviously, but in a perfect world I would indeed want a reworking, to take into account precisely the ways that the problem of disenfranchisement looks different now and our old modes of protection just don’t work. In fact, though clearly it’s incompatible with judicial and political reality, I’d advocate for extending it to every voting rights change instead.

We hardly know voting rights in any meaningful sense already—the promise of the universal franchise is persistently undermined by an apathetic and uneducated populace, massive advertising expenditures, the talking head class, and the modes of disenfranchisement already built in—but we need this one. Even if it can’t be expanded, we need the line to hold.

In the first part of January, there was an exchange over the email list of the Association of Internet Researchers that started with a scholar looking for pointers to sources on social-media-based tribes. In addition to responses that just answered the question came some that were critical of the racist/colonialist underpinnings of the term “tribe” itself.

(I’m torn here between giving those contributors credit and respecting that what they said was not, strictly, public, particularly given AoIR’s long history of thinking about online research ethics and protecting the identities of one’s sources. So I’m erring on the side of not naming names or even quoting, since that would be Google-able).

The conversation about “tribe” raised a question for me: Can we separate out the usefulness of “tribe” as a type-of-social-organization term from its racist/primitivist history? And if we can’t, how can we talk about those forms of social organization?

It just so happened that I had an upcoming meeting of my queer studies reading group that was going to look at queer indigenous studies, so I put the topic on hold in anticipation of the insight that reading and group discussion would provide. And, sure enough, it did.

(What follows is heavily influenced by having read and discussed excerpts from Scott Lauria Morgensen’s Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization, but in a way that makes it hard to point to specific page numbers. So, this is both a blanket citation and a blanket disclaimer that he may not think about this the same way I do. It might be more accurate to say, like those old anti-drug commercials: This is my brain on Morgensen.)

It seems clear that “tribe” in online contexts works in much the same way as it does in other white folks’ appropriations of nativeness. It gestures toward an untainted, pre-civilizational past upheld as pure and superior, which seems like a positive representation until you realize that it relies on a primitivizing logic and on actual indigenous people disappearing into the past.  (Which I wish advocates of a certain mascot on my campus could comprehend.)

Because of what I’ve read recently, in terms of appropriations of nativeness I’m thinking primarily about gay, lesbian, and transgender social movement uses of indigenous histories of gender and sexual diversity here (I’m not aware of any bisexual organizing using this tactic, but I’m happy to be corrected), but one of the AIR-L contributors mentioned the use of Native American imagery to demonstrate masculinist pride and martial prowess through things like “Apache” helicopters.

Like these uses, the use of “tribe” or “neo-tribe” to describe online forms of social organization both grounds a way of being in a historical, “natural” and so uncontestable, precedent and perpetuates the subordination of the both the thing it defends and the precedent.

How does that work? Well, in saying that “tribal” groupings are legitimate because they have a precedent in real, live indigenous people somewhere, this logic perpetuates the idea that such groupings need a justification rather than being legitimate on their own merits. This is then advocacy for “premodern” forms of social organization without contesting the ways “modern” forms of organization—bureaucracy, say—are considered inherently good. This perfectly demonstrates Morgensen’s contention that “impersonating indigeneity and believing in colonial modernity are noncontradictory acts” (p. 17).

On top of this, and more importantly, the valorization of supposedly spontaneous and natural ways of being aligns nativeness with nature rather than culture and constructs indigenous peoples as the antithesis of civilization, a logic which played a major role in justifying dispossession and genocide in the first place. It relies on a primitivist—or, indeed, primitivizing—logic. So much for this being a sign of respect.

Morgensen discusses this dynamic as establishing “anthropological authority to determine Native truth while leaving their desire for it unexamined” (p. 15). People decide what indigeneity means and then either want to eliminate it or celebrate it (and mourn its elimination), eliding their own process of construction and not questioning the logic that makes nativeness a screen for those anxieties or desires.

But I want to take a step further.

Even if we stop using these loaded tribal logics and languages, we have to also examine the desire for historical legitimacy itself. On one hand, that is, to be able to point to people who have done things differently disrupts the naturalization of contemporary norms—“it doesn’t have to look this way, look, someone else did it differently!” Authenticity begets authorization. But this slides very quickly into resting the legitimacy of one’s difference on there being a precedent rather than making a robust argument for difference as inherently legitimate.

This contention perhaps sounds familiar, as this is the same structure by which people claim homosexuality is biological to legitimize it. What Shannon Weber calls biological homonormativity, in using nature as a cover, supports the idea that no one would ever choose same-sex desire if they weren’t compelled, and in the same way the appropriative logic of tribal authenticity relies on a belief that collective organization is lesser but legitimate because “pure.”

And instead of participating in these logics, I think the arguments in favor of diverse forms of human community need to be much queerer.

This isn’t, of course, to say that indigenous folks can’t or shouldn’t make arguments about authenticity and authority with regard to their own cultures and histories in order to make claims to things like land. I’m not legislating a queer approach to everything or for everyone, because it’s not for everything. (Also, it would be radically unqueer to do so.) Queer is a screwdriver, and sometimes you need a hammer; not recognizing that will lead to trying to screw everything when sometimes it needs nailing.

But I am arguing that appropriating “tribe” to legitimize collectivist forms of organization is not only racist, primitivizing, and reproductive of the crimes of colonization—which would be enough reason to dispense with it—but it’s actually not even productive for the purpose to which it’s set.

An interesting article came through my email recently, forwarded to my grad program’s student listserv by my colleague Ergin Bulut. It was a piece by Huw Lemmey published in The New Inquiry entitled “Devastation in Meatspace.”

The essay starts out talking about the optics of war generally and how armies visualize their activities for themselves and the citizenry. Lemmey remarked on the way that “the mediated aesthetics of war have always tread a fine line between the banal and heroic, always used to justify, rightly or wrongly, the slaughter of young and old while always failing to really convey the profound and fleeting moment when a state chooses to end a human life, again and again and again a thousand times over.”

This points to the latest iteration of an old technology of vision, which reminded me of Caren Kaplan’s November 2nd talk at the University of Illinois, “Desert Wars: Virilio and the Limits of ‘Genuine Knowledge,’” in which she elaborated how mapping and eventually aerial surveillance was used to make sense of Mesopotamia and eventually Iraq during successive European and then American desert wars there.

But Lemmey was doing something more expansive. He contended that the contemporary practices of visualization of Israeli military action are “an extension of the historical ‘propaganda war’: control of the networked space online. The IDF have run a comprehensive social media campaign from the first stages of the new assault, announcing the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari on Twitter, followed up by YouTube footage of his targeted killing within minutes.”

This is not just letting people see, then, or telling them what it is that they’re seeing, but something quite new. I call attention here to the use of the phrase “social media campaign,” terminology far more familiar in the context of marketing than that of providing a citizenry with the information they need about their government’s military actions. That is, while the rapid-fire nature of digital media can clearly be used to hold governments accountable and get out information to people to make decisions, this is something else again.

The link to marketing is not coincidental but actually the fulcrum for the shift Lemmey identifies. As he contends, “the images posted on Instagram and the infographics released across platforms form the core of the IDF brand; with a coherent visual theme, and consistency with the brand narrative, they are reimagining an urban conflict and occupation on a new consumer scale.”

This is not just nation-branding in the sense that has long been practiced as an incitement to tourism, but both narrower in scope (the military as national subset) and broader in dissemination (out to everyone, everywhere, simultaneously).

Lemmey’s biggest claim is that “liking and sharing IDF visual material becomes no more controversial than sharing your favourite Nike campaign — not a matter of politics, let alone ethics, but just another part of the construction of your online persona.”

This is the point at which the technological break with what Lemmey describes in the title as “devastation in meatspace” is complete. This information has become data, branding, decorative, has come to operate within the orbit of other fun and exciting technological things. And, on the model of the well-attested and expansively critiqued Israeli pinkwashing, I’d like to call it techwashing.

Pinkwashing is the term used in queer critique for the practice by which Israel plays up its gay-friendliness in a way that attempts to establish them as modern or advanced or forward-thinking and distract from more repressive aspects of their state policy on the basis of other categories of difference like race, ethnicity, or religion.

(Incidentally, the word pinkwashing is also used to describe the attachment of breast cancer awareness pink ribbons or pink coloring to a product to get people to buy it, even at times products with carcinogens in them. This makes me think maybe the gay one should be called rainbow-washing. Also, gay-related pinkwashing also happens in other places than Israel, like South Africa.)

The IDF social media campaign is thus usefully understand as the making same move as pinkwashing in a different arena. Thus, “we’re so gay-friendly, never mind that we also systematically deny rights to and chronically immiserate whole populations!” becomes “We’re so tech-savvy, never mind that we’re using this technological capacity to systematically deny rights to and chronically immiserate whole populations!”

Techwashing, like pinkwashing, like greenwashing before it, is ultimately a form of whitewashing. This is, on one hand, a metaphor about paint—the idea that you can slap a covering layer over unpleasant things and make them look nice.

But on the other hand these things are whitewashing—certainly with techwashing and pinkwashing, and maybe with greenwashing too—because they are deeply racialized. I mean, I know that race does not work in Israel quite like it works in the US context that I’m familiar with, but clearly the same structure is in play even if its component parts are defined differently.

These forms of -washing require a particular form of willful colorblindness, a refusal to see the racially disparate access to gay-friendliness or to the technological “wow” factor. Even more damningly, it requires obscuring the ways in which these forms of “modernity” act as bait-and-switch on tangible, meatspace, life-and-death human rights violations.

And ethically, it’s incumbent on us not to let that sleight-of-hand go unremarked.

Dear readers,

After an unreasonably long hiatus, I am now once more able to carve out time for this blog. I hope to never abandon you for so long again. And now, for the latest installment . . .

On Saturday, November 17, while at the National Communication Association conference in Orlando, FL, I attended a performance by Tallahassee-based performance troupe Mickee Faust, and I really liked it. I liked their intentionally bad jokes. I liked their skewering of the bourgeois dessert negotiation. I liked their Alice in Wonderland take on the TEA Party. I was with them the whole way.

I was even with them when they sang a song about abortion and the constitution dressed as Supreme Court justices and then put on Klan hoods. At least at first. Or, it didn’t jolt me out of the space of watching the performance or make me want to walk out or anything. I texted a picture of it to my colleague who studies the rhetoric of race and sexuality in Supreme Court decisions, like “you missed this!”

But afterwards I found myself really wanting to talk about it. I showed my conference roommate the picture. I texted it to my two friend-colleagues with whom I discuss race and sexuality. I didn’t know why, yet. I just needed to tell people.

It wasn’t until one friend wrote back “What?! I do not understand! Why aren’t people objecting? This seems really wrong” that I was able to identify what I was feeling as unsettled. So then, a couple more texts with that friend and the other one who whom I’d sent it, and a phone call, and I figured I needed to blog about it. (As, to be honest, was suggested by the friend quoted above.)

Abortion rights are important. The denial of abortion rights is absolutely a means by which women have it enforced on them that they are second class citizens. (And non-uterus-having humans are also reminded that uterus-havers are inferior and incapable of making their own decisions about said baby-incubating organ.)

This is not the same as a systematic campaign of violence intended to terrorize a population.

There is a case to be made for systematic terror campaigns against abortion doctors—but even then it is nothing like the same scale. This is not a case where every member of a population lives under the constant threat of being identified as a target when visually identified through racist optics.

When you compare everything to the worst-case scenario, the worst-case scenario loses its meaning. As my colleague T.J. Tallie put it in discussing how people have been responding to the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, “can we not directly compare nations to Nazis right now? Not to make Nazis particularly ‘evil’, but it cheapens the historical reality.”

This is also the problem with the “gay rights are like civil rights” discourse. Gay folks—the white, middle class gay folks who tend to want to get married—are not systematically denied access to basic services and rights. They’re denied access to a privileged-person state-sanctioned economic benefit. And yes, it is a helpful thing to have access to because it’s a means by which resources are distributed, but it supports an incredibly unequal system wherein capital can exploit productive wage laborers because those workers are exploiting reproductive laborers. And just throwing around civil rights analogies erases the substantial difference in privilege in the two cases.

Ultimately, these things aren’t comparable. And I’m perhaps most distressed by the fact that the troupe had otherwise progressive politics. They were perhaps a little too self-congratulatory on their inclusion of folks with visible disabilities, but they were clearly thinking in broad terms about society and its ills.

Granted, it was mentioned in the question and answer period that the performance at NCA came from their retrospective showcase and that particular piece was written 25 years ago, which was admittedly an era of less awareness around the issues I’m raising here. But they’re still doing the sketch.

And, just to head this critique off at the pass if anyone from the troupe or who attended the NCA performance should want to make it, the fact that there are people of color in the troupe—and in that sketch, even—does not mean that it is not problematic. The existence of one or some members of a structurally undervalued group who aren’t offended by something doesn’t mean it doesn’t participate in deeply troublesome logics.

In the end, Mickee Faust is an awesome social critique cabaret. I would go see them again. I might even pay for it as opposed to having it be a conference panel. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need critiquing. And in this case they clearly do.

In that spirit of friendly critique from someone who shares Mickee Faust’s overall goals and politics, I have deliberately not linked to their website or included any pictures, since I don’t want this to seem like an attack or an invitation to attack them.

Yeah, you read that right. Got you to look at the post, didn’t it?

This is not (just) an attention-getting shock tactic (though a little more site traffic has rarely hurt anyone. I guess we’ll see whether I come to regret this). Anders Behring Breivik, on trial in Norway for killing 77 people with a bomb and a shooting spree because he wanted to “save” Norway from supposedly nefarious multiculturalism, does indeed have point. Just not the one he thinks he does.

As reported in a number of news outlets (my source here is an April 23 article in the New York Daily News) Breivik has declared questions about his sanity a “racist plot” to discredit him. The confessed mass killer correctly pointed out that the sanity of Islamic terrorists generally isn’t questioned, and wondered therefore why the issue was being raised in relation to his own behavior.

Breivik, of course, meant that this inquiry into his sanity was racist against him as a white person—more or less his attitude toward all things he dislikes. And he is wrong about that. But he’s not wrong that there’s a racist logic at work in that differential accusation of insanity.

Whiteness has historically been constructed as rational and controlled through constructing nonwhiteness as irrational and out of control (I know parenthetical citations and works cited are bad form in a blog, but the sources are too numerous to link, so here it comes, with apologies: Dyer 1997; Floyd 2009; Roediger 1991; Savran 1998).

Whiteness, then, is at once stabilized by the deployment of this constitutive Other (as I noted in a 2010 post  on Nietzsche,  a “good vs. bad” morality) and simultaneously holds that Other inferior for failing to live up to the standards set by the dominant ( a “good vs. evil” morality).

According to this structure, “of course” brown folks from the Muslim world would be violent and destructive, because they’re Other to the norm of control, at the same time that this alterity is also evidence of their “pathologized psyches” (Puar and Rai 2002, p. 117).

Moreover, whiteness is the unmarked category that masquerades as no category at all, as default, universal, invisible, nothing (Chambers 1997; Dyer 1997; Frankenberg 1993; Hill 1997a, 1997b; Kusz 2001, 2007; and Newitz and Wray 1997a), which means that white folks are understood as individuals. Nonwhite people, however, are frequently imagined to be explained by the category to which they belong.

Hence, the sanity of the Islamic terrorist isn’t questioned—we already “know” he’s insane because members of his group definitionally are (as is explained in considerably more depth in Puar and Rai 2002). But there is a presumption that a white Norwegian is rational and individual. His extreme violence requires an explanation. He must be insane to do such things.

This happens in much smaller ways all the time. I’ve been startled to notice in the last little while the ways that people’s bad behavior is excused under exactly these sort of racist premises. Being a jerk is a personality flaw, not the essence of somebody’s racial or ethnic category.

It is fundamentally racist to ascribe anybody’s behavior—good or bad—to their race.

Now, I’m not some sort of radical individualist (as I hope is clear from my posting history). We should absolutely examine and question the norms and options available to people on the basis of belonging to whatever category, because these do absolutely constrain behavior.

But we can’t let “Person A is a member of category B, which comes with XYZ baggage, which influenced the way they ultimately behaved” become “Person A did X because they are B.” Ever.


Works Cited

Chambers, Ross. 1997. “The Unexamined.” In Whiteness: A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill, 187–203. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Dyer, Richard. 1997. White. London: Routledge.

Floyd, Kevin. 2009. The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Frankenberg, Ruth. 1993. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Hill, Mike. 1997a. “Introduction: Vipers in Shangri-la Whiteness, Writing, and Other Ordinary Terrors.” In Whiteness: A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill, 1–18. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Hill, Mike. 1997b. “Can Whiteness Speak?: Institutional Antinomies, Ontological Disasters, and Three Hollywood Films.” In White Trash: Race and Class in America, ed. Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray, 155–73. New York: Routledge.

Kusz, Kyle W. 2001. “‘I Want to Be the Minority’: The Politics of Youthful White Masculinities in Sport and Popular Culture in 1990s America.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 25 (4): 390–416.

Kusz, Kyle W. 2007. “From NASCAR Nation to Pat Tillman: Notes on Sport and the Politics of White Cultural Nationalism in Post-9/11 America.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 31 (1): 77–88.

Newitz, Annalee, and Matt Wray. 1997a. “Introduction.” In White Trash: Race and Class in America, ed. Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray, 1–12. New York: Routledge.

Newitz, Annalee, and Matt Wray. 1997b. “What is ‘White Trash’? Stereotypes and Economic Conditions of Poor Whites in the United States.” In Whiteness: A Critical Reader, ed. Mike Hill, 168–84. New York: New York Univ. Press.

Puar, Jasbir K., and Amit S. Rai. 2002. “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots.” Social Text 20 (3): 117–148.

Roediger, David R. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso.

Savran, David. 1998. Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.