28 November 2012

Thoughts on SPEP 2012 Part 2


Thoughts on SPEP 2012 Part 2

This post is about the comments and discussion about my paper “I’ve Lost Control: Negative Affect, Feminism, and Race.” You can find links to the paper and the media I discuss in it here.

First, though, I really want to thank the conference staff for helping me work around my tech problems (apparently my adapter is an outdated model, and incompatible with the newer projector). Yay, tech actually worked at a philosophy conference! FTW.

Second, I want to thank Kathryn Gines for some really great and productive comments. Here is a somewhat more fleshed-out version of the verbal response I gave in the session. It focuses primarily on the following comments and questions Kathryn posed, which I quote from the written version she sent me:

·      Is a performance like Grace Jones’ required to undo whiteness?  In other words, are whites relying on “minoritarian subjects” to have their whiteness disrupted and loosened?
·      Would Jones see herself as critically engaged in the type of project that James is describing here using Halberstam and Beauvoir’s terms? 
·      I am also curious about how capable the average white person trapped in his/her whiteness really is in arriving at such an interpretation of Jones’ performance. How does one move from the first moment of only seeing negative stereotypes, to the next moment of rehearsing or performing negative stereotypes to undo white heteropatriarchal norms?  What does it take to see that Jones has positively assumed hegemony’s demand that she be a “black woman,” and turned this against hegemony itself? 

Positively assumed negativity is a collective enterprise that complicates conventional understandings of activity and passivity, agency and responsibility. Just as privilege is not something that whites passively receive, but actively reproduce and recreate, undoing is not just something that happens to whites.[i] Whites will experience undoing to the extent that they also participate in it, both implicitly and explicitly. So people of color do not bear sole responsibility for unmaking the crappy, racist world that whites have made; as Beauvoir would maintain, we collectively make the world together, so its unmaking is a similarly collective project. While working together, we certainly need to be aware of and account for power differentials. The cooperative undoing of white supremacy can and should not reproduce “magical negro” models, in which people of color rescue whites from their own bad decisions/flaws/etc; this formula re-centers white people and their problems, and instrumentalizes people of color, keeping them in positions of servitude.[ii]
 
Conventional, habitual models of agency, responsibility, activity, passivity, and cooperation will only reproduce master/servant, privileged/oppressed, subject/object relationships; they cannot serve as the basis for the kinds of collective anti-racist projects I’m advocating here. That’s why we need alternative ontologies like the one I sketch above. In part, the work of disorientation involves reshaping relations of servitude and exploitation into more “genuine” interdependence. Whites depend on people of color, but they/we’re also responsible for actively participating in our disorientation and the disorientation of whiteness.

How do or should whites participate, coalitionally, in the de-centering of whiteness? As Charles Mills and others argue, whiteness is a form of self-deception (or an “epistemology of ignorance).[iii] If this is the case, then normatively whites will be unable to recognize or respond to de-centerings of whiteness. Whites have to turn to, attend to, and take seriously the disorienting stuff that’s already going on all over the place. White people are responsible for re-orienting their/our attention and resources to activists and artists of color, to collective anti-racist projects, etc. Its not that whites need magical negroes to raise our consciousness; whites need to re-train their/our faculties, habits, and behaviors.[iv] This re-habituation will not just happen; it’s not going to be revealed in a transformative moment, and it’s not likely that individual white people will be able to accomplish this without significant assistance. Whites are responsible for committing to and being actively involved in projects of dis-orientation. This means helping oneself, as an individual white person, and helping other whites. So, for example, my interpretation of Jones and Piper might be opaque even to highly-educated whites who are more literate than average in music, race, or African-American culture. This is why we must talk to and learn from one another. Especially because whites are given epistemic credence and media/institutional access, they have responsibility for focusing institutional and discursive attention on racism and white supremacy as such. By funneling resources and attention to artists, scholars, and activists of color, whites can literally re-orient the mainstream media apparatus, and in so doing help other whites re-orient their own perceptual faculties to recognize, and thus be disoriented by and hopefully contribute to, the anti-racist work that is already happening.  Part of what art can do is familarize people with the affective experience of this undoing, and thus prepare them to recognize it, or make them unafraid enough of it to not shut it down/avoid it when it arises.


Further Thoughts on the Discussion

Several people pointed out the odd shift, almost immediately, to pedagogy—i.e., to teaching about race and racism to our students. This move, I think, puts us back in the position of mastery. It might generally appear to be a position of care or concern, but teachers are masters. And this move to mastery is exactly what I want to avoid. What does it mean for whites to not be in control of the situation, to not be in a position of (at least partial or relative) mastery?

The undoing of mastery is what I took to be at least part of the point of Falguni’s question about the two black boys that drowned in the Sandy flooding. It literally undid us—me included.

What do we do to get white homeowners better able to deal with the discomfort they feel at opening their door and homes to black women in crisis? I honestly do not know. I think I know a few things that art and/or philosophy might offer. This is a really complicated problem, and I do not have all the answers here. It seems like we would need the expertise of therapists, organizers, ethnographers, and educators. I’m one of those things, an educator. I also think about and make art, so I can offer some suggestions as to what art can contribute to that project, but I don’t have all the answers. It’s beyond my limited expertise to have all the answers.  And I think this limited-ness is actually part of the point of my paper. White people need to recognize that they don’t have all the answers, that we’re not saviors who are going to swoop in and solve everything. This incident is the result of very, very complicated problems that can only be effectively attacked collectively from many angles….And this is actually where Alexis Shotwell’s paper becomes relevant. She was talking about how white institutions (like the media, or the government) compels non-whites to “confess” their histories, their subaltern knowledges, etc. Basically, this is the demand to let whites become the masters of non-white narratives, knowledges, and histories. It keeps whites in positions of epistemic and institutional mastery. My limitation of my claims to the one specific Jones song and the one specific Piper work were, in part, an attempt to not claim mastery over things I haven’t yet studied with sufficient care and attention. Because these things deserve extreme care and attention, as does any object or topic of scholarly inquiry. I realize I’m riding a fine line between “not in my expertise” and “not my responsibility.” In other words: my hesitance here could be seen as a shirking of responsibility for racism, for knowing black culture, etc. But maybe this is an example of a white double bind? An instance where whites are a little damned if they do, and a little damned if they don’t? Because oppression often consists in being put in double-binds like this, perhaps this white double-bind is an example the discomfort, undoing, and de-centering of whiteness I discuss in my paper? (That’s a genuine question; I need to think it through more carefully.) (Also: Linda Martin Alcoff talks about “white double consciousness;” maybe this idea of white double-bind is related?)

So, thanks again to everyone for a really productive session and post-session conversations! I’ve submitted a revised version of the paper to the JSP SPEP special issue, so I’ll let you know if it gets accepted.


[i] On this point I am indebted to Michael Monahan’s paper on privilege at the 2011 California Roundtable on Philosophy and Race.
[ii] Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in "Magical Negro" Films
Matthew W. Hughey
Social Problems , Vol. 56, No. 3 (August 2009), pp. 543-577

[iii] Mills, Charles. The Racial Contract Ithaca: Cornell UP 1997, p. 18.
[iv] In her response, Gines asked: Is a performance like Grace Jones’ required to undo whiteness?  In other words, are whites relying on “minoritarian
subjects” to have their whiteness disrupted and loosened? Yes, they are, but in a way that dissociates dependence from servitude. Part of the work of patriarchy and white supremacy is to predicate relations of dependence on oppression and domination. The supposed autonomy and independence of privileged subjects rests on the exclusion of care workers from full moral personhood. So, for example, Kant can say we treat moral persons only as ends, never as means, if and only if those people on whom he depends (e.g., care workers who make his lunch, clean his house) aren’t part of the kingdom of ends. Part of why we need an alternative ontology such as Beauvoir’s is to do this work of disarticulating dependence from servitude and domination. Maria Lugones’s work on abnegation, arrogant perception, and loving perception also speaks to these issues in productive ways. Lugones, Maria. “World-Travelling and Loving Perception” in Hypatia Vol. 2 No 2.

2 comments:

  1. Hi, Robin:

    Thanks for thinking through your paper and your thoughts here. I think you are the right that the move to mastery is quite problematic. The move to mastery is a deceptive refuge by which to avoid a discussion of the existential implications of the fact that we are still in a serious racial crisis. That was also part of my point in raising the question about the Black woman who could not find someone to help her as she watched her boys drown. It is not clear to me that those who teach about race/phil. race (myself included) are in any position of expertise to insist that we know the "right way" to think about race, given the myriad ways in which we can hide, avoid, conceal ourselves from a number of implications (whether b/c we are white, brown, bourgeois, academic, or any number of avoidance mechanisms). In any case, good paper and important discussion.

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    1. Hi Falguni: Thanks so much for your comment. I thought maybe that was part of what you were doing with your comment, and it ended up begin very effective. I was also thinking about the tension between professional conventions, which expect me, the speaker, to "be the master" in that situation by turning your question into something "productive" that reflected my supposed brilliance, and the work that your comment needed to do, which was short-circuit the turn to mastery that was happening in the session. So that, along with the pedagogical situation, is another instance where we academics need to reflect on our self-presentation as "masters" or "experts". I take your point about us needing to avoid expert-posturing very seriously--which is really hard to do when we face tons of institutional pressure to sell/position ourselves as such (and this institutional pressure likely makes the refusal of mastery-narratives even more important). The discomfort or awkwardness of not presenting oneself as a master (perhaps, even of "failing" or falling short) is maybe one thing my paper suggests but doesnt' directly speak to. It would be an interesting line to follow through more fully (and maybe I'll try to post here about it over break). So thanks for steering me here :)

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