Racial consciousness = fetish?


This piece takes up after the famous British sociologist, Paul Gilroy, who sought to redefine anti-racism by abandoning the analytical relevance of the term ‘race’ altogether. His arguments, which are too substantial and nuanced to rehearse here, are set out in ‘Race ends here’ (1998) and ‘Against Race’ (2000). The present reflection upon Gilroy, however, has been in part prompted by the US presidential campaign.

Fetishes aren’t all unhealthy. Some of them can be kind of fun. But I want to rely upon the kind of fetishism that implies an ‘unhealthy obsession’ to raise an argument about why racial consciousness can become a ‘fetish’, why unhealthy fixations tie us to our embodiment as racial subjects. I will conclude that racial consciousness is only meaningful as a moment of transformation that enables the possibility for deeper social and political awareness.

Identity politics began with the civil rights and women’s movements of the late 1960s as a means to redress the social disadvantage experienced by certain oppressed social groups. For African Americans, the civil rights movement opposed forms of racial violence expressed not only through organisations such as the KKK, but by formal authorities such as the Alabama police. For Asian Americans racism was visible in state instrumentalities that controlled and curtailed the movement of Chinese Americans, that interned Japanese Americans during World War II, and that were visible through other forms of legislative and social control.

Race, therefore, was one of the most important symbols in understanding institutional discrimination, and these identity-based social movements drew upon one noteworthy tool in the empowerment of its members. This was ‘consciousness-raising’ – the expression of collective experiences of oppression through grassroots organising, history-writing, political protest, political sloganeering and importantly, fashion. It gave birth to cultural and musical idioms which would eventually make phrases such as ‘black is beautiful’ commonplace.

Forty years on, however, identity politics and racial consciousness has changed. The critique of race has expanded into cultural studies, and in particular literary psychoanalysis. It has become attuned to the ways in which popular culture limits the way ethnic and raced peoples experience the social world.

As political movements capable of generating social justice its time in all likelihood has passed.

Though these modern racial discourses remain important, the problem is simply that they simultaneously tie ethnic peoples to reinforcing racial hierarchies as a persistent and unyielding structure of social power.

What I mean by this is that if racism did not exist the raison d’etre for racial consciousness itself would cease. For racial consciousness to remain a significant tool in reforming social identity, it cannot imagine the kind of transformative change that would fundamentally dissipate racism’s power and influence.

One example, racial consciousness in Asian American studies comes out of an understanding of a kind of second-tier citizenship forced upon Asian Americans throughout US history. Commemorating these narratives of exclusion frustrates or distracts from the capacity of new generations to transcend these historical events, and ignores the privileged place of certain classes of new Asian migrants in the modern US economy.

Of equal concern, racial consciousness demands that we fold something as complex as human subjectivity into a psychology of racial identity and identification. Consciousness-raising bends the complexity of human experience towards certain shared histories and narratives, inevitably narratives of racialised exploitation, discrimination and oppression. This process produces fundamentally perverse effects.

One of the more serious effects is that racial consciousness, though concerned with empowerment, might simultaneously conscribe human potential, for instance, limiting our intrinsic desire and capacity for freedom, liberation and transcendence. Simone de Beauvoir, who was highly-attuned to the external limits placed upon human subjectivity, is instructive in this regard. In The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948) she wrote;

It can be seen that, on the one hand, freedom can always save itself, for it is realized as a disclosure of existence through its very failures, and it can again confirm itself by a death freely chosen. But, on the other hand, the situations which it discloses through its project toward itself do not appear as equivalents. It regards as privileged situations, those which permit it to realize itself as indefinite movement; that is, it wishes to pass beyond everything which limits its power; and yet, this power is always limited. Thus, just as life is identified with the will-to-live, freedom always appears as a movement of liberation. It is only by prolonging itself through the freedom of others that it manages to surpass death itself and to realize itself as an indefinite unity.

In de Beauvoir we might recognise that our engagements with racial consciousness are only ever meaningful as a transitional or translational device. de Beauvoir identified the potential of the relation between self and other, drawing attention to the liberation and freedom of others as constitutive of one’s own. Racial consciousness subsequently is better considered as a moment of becoming that enables depth in our subjective experience. But it is only meaningful if it grows into or enables something else, like a greater engagement or solidarity with ‘Others’ and ‘strangers’, not merely those who might be attributed as members of the same social group.

The truth is that identity politics only ever made sense as an outgrowth of class politics. The institutional oppression of those identity groups underpinned those social movements. The celebration of identities served as a mechanism for generating political agency and the potential for political solidarity.

An identity politics which abandons class is nothing more than a refraction of ethnocentric chauvinism. Further, identifying as ‘Other’ – as the ‘domesticated object of the coloniser’s gaze’ – is not only a kind of ontological surrender but also a kind of fundamentalism which conceals the capacity for colonialism to be waged beyond traditional racial lines. It denies our capacity to recommit symbolic violence through racial inscription, against ‘Others’, against our own kin, and against ourselves. Most importantly, identifying as an object of another’s attention fetishises our subjectivity by actively denying aspects of our agency in the world.

Ultimately, what rings true in Gilroy’s treatise is the history that created racism’s hegemonic force. We can look through the monocle of history and see racism’s power borne by the outpouring of biological sciences (such as phrenology), and the racial zeitgeist that these forces produced, embodied in concepts such as the ‘great chain of being’. Gilroy’s description for that time is evocative, ‘The truths of race were produced performatively from the hat that biological science provided, like so many startled rabbits in front of a noisy, eager, imperial crowd.’ The significance of race arose within the vortex of colonial power relations. It was this frightened rabbit which delivered Western Europe an ideological hegemony that global ethnoscapes remain encumbered to. To part with the illusion demands more than an attentive reflection of this spectacle, but a denial of its relevance through transformation in our lives, and through our capacity to imagine and create new paths.

Jen Tsen Kwok

Author: Jen Tsen Kwok

Jen Tsen Kwok has been a member of the AASRN since it was formed and drawn inspiration from the organisation throughout the completion of his doctorate in political sociology at University of Queensland. He works for the NTEU. He is also a member and co-founder of the Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC).

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