Saturday, 31 May 2014

The scarred language of race.

It's interesting how racial language lingers to this day. Sometimes it is the case that the words we employ fail to keep pace with the progressive strives we have accomplished.  The rise of feminism in the 1970s and subsequent shifts in attitudes and lifestyles has led to a state of affairs where we increasingly fixate on what kind of language is most appropriate. Many couples I know have debated to themselves how appropriate terms like 'girlfriend/boyfriend', 'partner', 'spouse', 'my other half', are today. The decline of marriage and increasing prevalence of cohabitation and the emergence of non-monogamous relationships has led many to find such terms estranged from their own lives. The same is true in other areas.

On the racial front we find the idioms of scientific and cultural racialism remain with us. In census forms 'white' and 'black' are used as identity-markers abstracted from any historical context: the events of Bacon's Rebellion, where European indentured servants and African slaves fought side by side, only for the legislative moves towards instituting white privilege. The word 'white' was first used as a racial term with laws passed to prevent Europeans from marrying Africans in the Thirteen Colonies. The European workers were bound to the slave-masters even as they had much more in common with the African. This was how the white race emerged. It was not biological, yet it is objective, - as Theodore Allen told us long ago - it came about in the late seventeenth century as a formation of social control.

With the nineteenth century came the intensified biologisation of racial classifications. Racism became scientific and anthropological. It increasingly became about skin-colour, but not totally over night. For a long time, the Irish were not regarded as equals to 'white' American and Englishmen, they were regarded as racially inferior, often marginalised to the same quarters as African-Americans, and attacked as 'monkeys' in such outlets as Punch. Once the Irish were accepted as 'white' then they campaigned against German immigrants on the grounds that the new settlers were not 'white'. This was going on throughout the nineteenth century. The classifications of race were certainly flexible and highly relative. Its relativity and ambiguity reveals the absurdity of such classifications.

The use of the word 'coloured' to describe Africans, South Asians, and 'mixed-race' people, is somewhat revealing. It's a floating signifier with multiple applications, but it's clear from the outset that those who are 'colourless' are 'white' people. In South Africa a sudden shift in classification could move one's relatives to another part of town and deny them freedom of movement and a whole array of other rights. Of course, neither white nor black is a colour. Perhaps the terms of race sets its own rules by which we are one or the other. Many progressive Americans use 'people of colour' to refer to African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, unifying Black and Brown; while 'coloured' has been properly relegated to the past along with its cousin term 'negro'.

Both terms could serve to further reinforce the status of white people as colourless, but only in negative relation to those who are coloured. In the same way as John Derbyshire writes of 'non-blacks' when he means 'white people'. It makes sense that the origins of the 'white race' lie in the slave trade and the type of power structure necessitated by class society. The displacement of class consciousness by racial consciousness facilitates class society to reproduce itself. The promise of a harmonious and organic social order in conjunction with a thriving capitalist economy has been the dream of conservatives for centuries. The 'white race' finds itself situated as multi-class formation against those who are external to this collaborative relationship. The 'non-whites' are conceived as a disruptive presence in what should be a harmonious social system.

Then we have the way in which we talk about miscegenation. The term mixed-race is derivative of miscegenation, a word which was coined by anti-abolitionist propagandists in 1863. It was used in a pamphlet accusing the abolitionist movement of pursuing 'race-mixing'. This is a persistant trope on the Far-Right to this day. It used to be acceptable to describe someone as 'half-caste' for having a white parent and a black parent. It's a sore point for the generation of those who fail to understand the term, its history, and implications. It literally translates to half-pure. Setting aside the obvious implication that the person is 'halved', and somehow incomplete, it has far from an immaculate past to put it lightly. Half-caste was originally a term in Australian law. The children of European and Aboriginal Australians would be seized by the state under the auspices of this law and forcibly assimilated into 'white' Australian society.

All of this just goes to show the extent to which the language of race is itself highly problematic. We can't decode every term we use before we use them and yet we cannot dispense with them either. Without the proper historical perspective we can easily take such terms to be constant, unchanging and timeless. Can we do any better right now? The primary alternative to talking of race has been to talk of culture. We have gone from the era of multiracialism to multiculturalism since the late 1980s. There are those on the Right who push back against multiculturalism as they insist that their problem is not with multiracialism. The banal and toothless language of culture does more to obscure and gloss over than to illuminate and challenge. In multiculturalism race is left intact as a disavowed category while in multiracialism the categories are reinforced and left unexamined.

No comments: