The Mercurial Nature and Abiding Power of Race: A Transnational Family Story

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2010-01-21 21:19Z by Steven

The Mercurial Nature and Abiding Power of Race: A Transnational Family Story

The American Historical Review
Volume 108, Number 1 (February 2003)
pages 84-118

Martha Hodes, Professor of History
New York University

There are many ways to expose the mercurial nature of racial classification. Scholars of U.S. history might note, for example, that the category of “mulatto” first appeared in the federal census of 1850 and then disappeared in 1930, or they might discover that immigrants who had not thought of themselves as “black” at home in the Caribbean found themselves classified as such upon passage to the United States. Such episodes serve to unmask the instability of racial systems, yet simply marshaling evidence to prove taxonomies fickle tells only a partial story. In an effort to tell a fuller story about the workings of “race”—by which I mean principally the endeavors of racial categorization and stratification—I focus here on historical actors who crossed geographical boundaries and lived their lives within different racial systems. A vision that accounts for the experiences of sojourners and migrants illuminates the ways in which racial classification shifts across borders and thus deepens arguments about racial construction and malleability.

At the same time, however, the principal argument of this essay moves in a different direction. We tend to think of the fluid and the mutable as less powerful than the rigid and the immutable, thereby equating the exposure of unstable racial categories with an assault on the very construct of race itself. In a pioneering essay in which Barbara J. Fields took a historical analysis of the concept of race as her starting point, she contended that ideologies of race are continually created and verified in daily life. More recently, Ann Laura Stoler has challenged the assumption that an understanding of racial instability can serve to undermine racism, and Thomas C. Holt has called attention to scholars’ “general failure to probe beyond the mantra of social constructedness, to ask what that really might mean in shaping lived experience.” Hilary McD. Beckles affirms that “the analysis of ‘real experience’ and the theorising of ‘constructed representation’ constitute part of the same intellectual project.” Drawing together these theoretical strands, I argue that the scrutiny of day-to-day lives demonstrates not only the mutability of race but also, and with equal force, the abiding power of race in local settings. Neither malleability nor instability, then, necessarily diminishes the potency of race to circumscribe people’s daily lives…

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Light in August in Light of Foucault: Reexamining the Biracial Experience

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2009-11-10 01:26Z by Steven

Light in August in Light of Foucault: Reexamining the Biracial Experience

Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 64, Number 4, Winter 2008
pages 49-68
E-ISSN: 1558-9595
Print ISSN: 0004-1610
DOI: 10.1353/arq.0.0020

Bethany L. Lam

Comparatively little current criticism of Foucauldian racial theory exists, primarily because [Michel] Foucault never formulated a full-blown racial theory. Some critics, such as Robert J.C. Young and Ann Laura Stoler, have successfully used Foucauldian principles to inform their views of race studies. Foucault himself said little directly pertaining to race studies, admits Young: “Foucault had a lot to say about power, but he was curiously circumspect about the ways in which it has operated in the arenas of race and colonialism. His virtual silence on these issues is striking” (57).  This silence does not deter Young and a few other critics from extrapolating Foucauldian thought into various areas of race studies. Young focuses his discussion on racism; he evaluates Foucauldian influence on colonial studies, particularly on Edward Said’s Orientalism, before applying Foucauldian commentary on ethnology, power, and sexuality to a theory of racism. Like Young, Ann Laura Stoler relies heavily on Foucault’s History of Sexuality in her applications of Foucault to colonial studies. Stoler has authored two of the more extensive explorations of Foucauldian thought as it pertains to race studies, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things and Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule.  Both of these works deal with race primarily in the context of sexuality in colonialism, neglecting the larger picture of Foucault and racial identity.

One element that has been noticeably lacking in the theory thus far is a thorough application of Foucault to the study of multiracialism. But Foucault has much insight to offer in explaining the attitudes of society towards the multiracial, the attitudes of the multiracial towards himself, and the resulting interaction between society and individual. The viability and value of these explanations become evident when applied to literary characters and their social (albeit fictional) contexts. Foucault deepens our understanding of the multiracial in society, showing not just how the individual and society affect each other, but—more importantly—why they view and treat each other as they do; merging his theory with literary criticism sheds new light on the tensions between multiracial characters, such as Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, and their societies, moving our explanations beyond mere “identity confusion” to the underlying causes of the confusion.

Before applying Foucault directly to Faulkner, let us spend several moments tracing the outlines of a Foucauldian theory of multiracialism. To understand society’s perception of multiracialism, we must begin with the racial hierarchy, one of the many ways by which society orders subjects. In order to do this effectively, we should first look at Foucauldian thought regarding power, knowledge, and discourse. Foucault describes discourse as “an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it” (History 101). “It is in discourse,” he states, “that power and knowledge are joined together” (100). Discourse is both product and producer of power, the place where power and knowledge intersect.

In a Foucauldian paradigm, one might view race as a visual discourse. Its power emanates first of all from the prevalence and potency of race-based societal stereotypes. These racial stereotypes act as self-ful-filling prophecies, continually producing and reproducing themselves. The stereotypes lead to a second source of power in the discourse of race: the race-based ordering of society. These stereotypes and ordering feed off the knowledge aspect of racial discourse, knowledge based both on visual perception of skin color and the expectations created by the stereotypes themselves. Society uses its knowledge to assign a place in the racial hierarchy to each person. Race, then, becomes an indicator of societal expectation for a person, to which that person more or less conforms.

Multiracialism problematizes this visual discourse through its nonconformity, both to the visual code and to traditional racial categories. A mixed-race individual is the result of an ancestral transgression of the racial order, a transgression either of the parents or of a more…

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