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Rethinking “Post-Racial”

Aymar Jean Christian November 20, 2009 uncategorized 16 Comments

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I’d originally planned to do reams and reams of reading on this, and an extensive literature review, but I’m so busy writing, curating, filming, editing and researching other things I won’t get to it for another year, and I don’t want to cite some theories and miss others. Eventually I will have to do a full lit review on this, tying in key works from the critical race theory, etc., for my dissertation. When that happens, I’ll update or redo this post.

The subject has been bothering me to such a degree that if I don’t write it now, I’ll implode.

Now the question:

What does “post-racial” mean and why must we move past it? Come take a ride with me…

What Post-Racial Means Now

Since late 2007, this word has been everywhere. Yet, I believe the common definition is foolish, so silly I believe we should throw it out all together and make a new one.

“Post-race” has basically become a punching bag for every black person, and especially every black academic, in America right now. The reason it has become this punching bag is because the common definition is a lie, and so outrageously wrong, it cannot help but be punched. Who needs a punching bag? The issue of race is so important, I want a real opponent, one that can punch back.

What’s the common definition? I would argue it is this:

Race does not matter and is not important. We don’t need to talk about it because racial equality has been achieved. All attempts to talk about race are foolish, because history has ended. We are in a new era. Everyone is judged by the content of their character. Hallelujah. Amen.

Now that I’ve said it plainly, doesn’t it sound stupid? Who, except conservatives, who have been denying the race problem in a post-Civil Rights era since, well, 1965 and are therefore irrelevant, would believe such a statement?

Bring on the punches:

Five signs we are not post-racial.

Ten reasons we are not post-race

We are not post-racial Just Yet.

We do not live in post-racial America.

Holdon, we’re not post-racial yet.

How post-racial are we?

Mixed Race America: We are NOT living in a post-racial America

Post-Racial, Still Racial: Has Obama Really Helped?

Anyone who thinks we move in a post-racial society is someone who’s been smoking crack

Of the authors listed above, a few — the ones I know — are bright, even geniuses, and people for whom I enormous respect. So it’s not their fault. If you accept the common definition of “post-race” it makes sense to rail against it. You have to rail against it.

I don’t want pretend that common definition of “post-race” isn’t a word that is used and believed by a significant number of people. Post-racial is a strategy used by media industries — from casting in shows to writing headlines — and, often indirectly, by politicians. It’s out there, and powerful people assume the common definition. But part of the reason they use it is because everyone else also accepts the common definition.

What’s wrong with the common definition of “post-racial”? The “post-racial” assumption, as it stands now, is that race doesn’t matter. Well: of course race still matters! For me, this is a “duh” statement. A cursory review of almost any set of statistics or books about culture will confirm this — be it in health, socioeconomics, education, gender, sexuality, music, film, television, prisons, technology, fashion. Heck, the fact the media actually loves to talk about race obsessively whenever it comes up is proof enough. Teabaggers and birthers hold up signs of Obama as a Nazi, or saying go back to Africa, or of him as a monkey. In what way, I would ask, could race not matter?

So why do very intelligent people take on such a lowly opponent, the “race doesn’t matter” phrase? Punching “post-race” allows us/them to rattle off statistics that otherwise don’t get aired: about black poverty, educational disparities, prison rates, and on and on. In some ways, the “post-race” punching bag is useful. It gives us a chance to speak a truth that is continually neglected.

What’s my problem? For one, hitting the punching bag doesn’t move forward our discussions of race. It convinces no one but the converted. I will fully acknowledge that for many people, the fact that race matters is not so obvious. But let’s lead them to new places instead of fighting the “race matters” debate. It’s beneath us.

What Post-Racial Could Mean

The reason why the term “post-race” even exists says something meaningful about our culture today. It symbolizes that the way we talk about race has changed since 1965. If we are ever going to adapt a new rhetoric of race that works – that develops progressive policies – we must meaningfully take stock of the moment we’re in, and we can’t do that when we’re fighting important battles against wimpy opponents.

For me, then, what does post-racial mean, or at least, suggest? A starting point:

We have racial problems. They are many in number, and we’ve had few solutions. Many problems have been around awhile, but the culture has changed. We need to engage racial discussions in new ways to achieve racial progress, in ways that place race alongside multiple social, cultural and personal problems.

How does this work on the ground? The perfect example is Barack Obama’s Jeremiah Wright speech of March of last year. The fact that Obama needed to give a speech is proof that America is not post-racial in the way we use that term now. If we don’t have to talk about race, why would he have to give a speech about race? He obviously did. Well then we’re not post-racial, race still matters. Okay, now let’s move the discussion forward.

Because to end the discussion there misses a key moment in history. The hallmark of Obama’s speech wasn’t only that he gave America a lesson in race 101. It was that he attempted to re-frame debates about race. For one, in his speech, Obama incorporated white people in the discussion: that he understands, but does not forgive, why working class white people hate affirmative action; that he understands his grandmother has had racist thoughts, but still loves her nonetheless. The overall aim was to shift toward a political position of commonality and complexity (that race doesn’t happen in a bubble and there are cross-racial battles to be fought), without losing a position of difference (black people have specific political and cultural investments).

What Obama did was make a rhetorical play without undermining structural problems. He strategically expanded the discourse about race (here, including class and family) in order to coalesce Americans around a progressive agenda (we can debate, now that he’s in office, if that agenda was progressive; the point is the rhetoric has the possibility of a progressive politics).

Rhetorical strategies do not need to mask structural problems. Obama realized that being “post-race” means expanding the terrains on which race is discussed, so that we can talk about the way race has always been and should be in the future.

Not all of this is new; much of it is quite old. Some of these discourses stem from classic Marxist about class and power, arguments still being made, and not without controversy.

A new racial discourse can exist outside of traditional politics. Take Precious. One reading of Precious is it dramatizes racial oppression and unearths structural problems in a way that proves “we are not post-race.” Yet another reading of the film is that racial oppression is seen as coinciding with larger structural problems that incorporate more than racially marginalized people. The film is also about obesity, child abuse, sexual abuse, the welfare state, etc. These issues disproportionately affect black people, but they are not limited to black people. Can we engage in a politics that sees these issues as American and, really, global? Can we extend racial discussions in ways that do not diminish the fact of racial inequality but place social realities alongside others.

Sound simple? Maybe not. But my point is: race does not happen in a bubble. The post-racial conversation, while mostly stemming from a need amongst white people to “get past race,” could also be a move to see race within the matrix of many factors and issues, from multiple positions, in a way that reflects an ethics of nuance, that incorporates the fact of individuality (and that individuals do not perfectly mimic structures).

Representation and Authenticity

The moment we live in means, sadly or not, invoking the word “race” or “black” does not mean what it once did. If I say, “black people are XYZ,” I immediately hear, “but we are also ABC” or “we are all not XYZ.” We are both Barack Obama and Louis Farrakhan, Michelle Obama and Sistah Souljah, Queen Latifah in 1992 and Queen Latifah in 2009. We need acknowledge that race is both a rhetorical move and also a structural, material one. (Like through most of this essay, I’m deliberately not citing the long academic literature because there’s too much for a blog post. Stay tuned for when I start excerpting my dissertation. I know you’re excited.)

If race is as much rhetorical as it is historical, material and political, then we need to acknowledge the word itself is a battleground. If the goal then is have a racial politics that works and is practical, then perhaps representation (see my previous post on Precious) may not be the best terrain on which to wage it. Or, perhaps more accurately, analyses of representations that place race in a bubble do little to move forward the discussion on race.

Quick definition: by representation I mean specific images and texts of people and things. Betty Suarez on Ugly Betty is a representation of a Latina. The Obamas and Oprah are as much as representations as they are real people.

Figures like Oprah and Obama teach us something: there are many ways to be black. What we should not do is dismiss them as exceptions that are not “authentic” or exceptions that have nothing to do with a lived experience of being black. They are exceptions, but powerful ones. They should inform racial politics not lie outside of it.

That’s what we’ve been doing. “Obama may be post-racial, but we are not;” “Grey’s Anatomy may be post-racial but we are not.” Instead the culture should inform our politics. These representations show us blackness isn’t about only being black, “being black” is a precarious position, racial politics need to be open and flexible to individuality, class, religion, performance, etc.

It also means we need to think of power in new ways. So the major networks may be white, but the producer of Grey’s is black. Wall Street may be white, but Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch had a big role in bringing on the crisis. Is this a return to strucuture and capital (in which race takes a second seat)? No. Is it an understanding that “white power” is as global and unstable as its ever been? Perhaps.

Post-Race We May Not Be,

Then Where Should We Go?

Perhaps then “post-race” is simply a bad word. “Post” is to come after, to succeed. We are not “after race.” We are very much in it. But we are also not in it the same way we were 100 years ago, or 40 years ago, or 50 years from now. How could we be? We are in a moment when the word “black” can be put in quotes and become a contested site, and we’ve been here for a very long time.

We need a new politics that acknowledges race isn’t what it used be and isn’t what it will be.

What does a new racial politics look like? My opinion is constantly being revised on this issue. But my focus is on rhetoric and practice: making things work. In other words, how do get raced people equal?

This politics acknowledges people as always potential allies, even the most ignorant. That white ignorance is as much as a sign of privilege as it is an invitation to inform and discuss. That placing boundaries around race helps as much as it hurts. That structural problems — inequality — are as cross-racial as they are racially specific. That power is a changing reality, based in history, and that it’s relationship to race is never constant. That marginalized people are neither always oppressed and innocent, nor always equal and ascendant.

These changes are already happening. We are already thinking about race in new and dynamic ways, especially in the academy. How will this translate to real world politics? In some ways we’ve seen this already, and in other ways it has yet to be seen. That is another post for another time.

“Post-racial” might deservedly be the ultimate swear in conversations about race today, but it’s a word that means something nonetheless about our culture now, then and in the future.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

16 Comments

  1. Max Koss November 21, 2009 at 2:48 am

    Nice job! Saw the NYT article, clicked the link… and realized I’m “following” you on academia.edu. Keep up the good work. – I just got to the US from Europe, and landed at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, Chicago, where a lot of the issues of the post-race debate crystallize, almost in an ironic fashion (there’s nothing post-racial about the middle class enclaves of say University of Chicago or Yale for example…) Coming from Europe, where debates are shaped slightly differently, more around notions of culture rather then race, I am quite struck by the all too readily invoked diverging ideological differences over here ( I wasn’t aware that people were still calling themselves Marxist in all earnestness ), which sometimes seem to blind people to the actual complexities of issues of race, class, sexuality etc. So, I can only endorse a more nuanced approach to this debate. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Derek Lee McPahtter November 24, 2009 at 4:28 am

    I want to hear more on this “ethics of nuance” you speak of. I’m not sure how actionable it will be because people need to simplify. I do think you’ve proposed a skeleton of a more productive use of a post-race term, but I also think sustaining a multi-valent critical stance (one that would satisfy all the identity factions from gender to race to age to…) may always be something of an cumbersome exercise.

    Nuance requires room to elaborate and we aren’t getting out of the age of the soundbite anytime soon. So the question of utility, what works is an interesting prescription. We want results. We want deliverables. Yes, but what if the result is the actual change in process…what does a nuanced metric look like?

    And now my prescription: The “televisuals” must return to the age of the idea, to the longer forms. Attention spans must grow once more to ingest well-formed positions that aren’t reductionist…yes yes yes, to move forward we must outgrow the age of the soundbite…

  3. Aymar Jean Christian November 24, 2009 at 7:26 am

    I think people still like long-form — in studying web series, which right now are very short, *everyone* from fans to producers say they need to be longer — it’s just that with niche audiences not everyone consumes the same long-form stuff.

    For me, nuance is built in when you try to form cross-racial, cross-identity movements. If the focus is on inclusion, unity and consensus-building, ideological rigidities have to fall away for the good of forming progressive movements.

    When you can’t say a problem or representation is only one thing (“welfare is about race,” “Hillary Clinton’s fall is about gender”) and must, in order to move forward, be about many things, you get to a place where all our categories become contingent, but contingent for the purpose of assimilating different perspectives, moving forward not to erase difference but to see it more globally, holistically.

  4. MPG April 13, 2010 at 7:25 am

    I never saw your post-racial post that you link to in the Tyler Perry piece. May I say, a bit late, that black people have been putting race in conversation with other forms of difference and oppression since *at least* DuBois…. class, gender, colonialism, religion… you name it. It is the legacy of the Enlightenment that to talk about race (or to be a colonized nonwhite speaking) is to be deemed insane, provincial, and unreasonable. Therefore, those multi-pronged critiques have not been addressed, except in academic theory.

    It’s not so much that we need a new way of talking about race, it’s that it has to be understood that to talk about race is not, on its face, crazy. It is a legitimate pursuit and, like all legitimate pursuits, complicated and multi-faceted. But one does not have to go past race, beyond it, or post-it to get to the complexity. The complexity is already in race, we’ve just been taught that talking especially about blackness is a bull-ish exercise, and that’s insane.

    And, umm, Obama’s Philadelphia race speech is a monstrosity. It speaks to and soothes so many constituencies that it does not hold together at all. It was an excellent piece of politicking, and it served its purpose. But it had no actual *content* — that is to say, its aim was *affective* … the act of giving the speech, in the not-at-all-angry way that he gave it *was* the only content of the speech for most of his audience, especially white folks. I dare you, ask one if they remember any *lines* from the speech, besides the ones that got looped by Fox about his grandmother.

  5. Aymar Jean Christian April 13, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Strong point re: Obama Philadelphia speech. I guess I actually respect the affective aspects, and the rhetorical ones. I guess I’m interested in this ability to talk about race in a way that offends no one but still talks about social inequality (a little bit, Obama didn’t really do that obviously). I hear you that it politicizes nothing and calls no one to action, that much is true. But I suppose what’s remarkable about it is it’s so difficult today to say anything about race that doesn’t immediately cause 30-50% of the people listening to shut their ears.

    That inability to actually have a more inclusive conversation might be because, well, race is divisive and people need to understand the stakes. A broader conversation might be politically neutering — as in, it inspires no one to social justice. I think that’s how it is most of the time and it’s where the discontent with Obama comes from, as in he soothes angst rather than inspires action. That’s a problem. However, I still think there’s something significant in a Obama-like conversation. And I’m wondering if there are ways to actually mobilize to real politics in it. I don’t know who’s doing it, and certainly there are historical guides (abolitionism, civil rights) but I’m tempted to sit back and wonder if there isn’t something about now that opens up new kinds of possibility. Because when we talk about the realities of race now, for some reason it does sound crazy to people as you say. So the logical thing is change how we talk about it. But I’m not smart enough to come up with how that actually can be done. There’ll probably be some historical catalyst that will show the way, if this is even a way to go.

    (BTW, you didn’t see this post because I didn’t post it on Facebook/Twitter/anywhere when I wrote it. I just wanted to see if I actually had a clear idea and I wrote it out to see if it made any sense. But I’m still unsure about the ideas, so I didn’t want to blowhorn it!).

  6. MPG April 13, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Ahh, stealthy! Well, Aymar, I suppose that the slight age difference between us is cause for my difference in approach. In the late 80s, the term “offensive” seemed to become the foundation for claims of racism, sexism, etc. Injustice was thrown out the window. From my vantage point, that’s why causing offense seems like such a great sin to 80s babies, whereas social injustice seems actually undetectable, especially to people of the middle class.

    I don’t know how to speak to that. Even less to the 90s babies after your set. However, I am not convinced that inoffensiveness is what is called for. Rather, (and I know I’m gonna be shot for saying this)… I think I’d like something like a return to their being an expert class. It used to be that academics were political and cultural authorities, but as the academy opened up to white women and people of color (as well as to women’s, ethnic, and sexuality studies) suddenly the knowledge produced in academe was of no use.

    The fact is, that sociologists, historians, and cultural critics know some things about how inequality works in our society. But that knowledge is made to seem crazy by people who usually haven’t spent a moment doing the work we have to do. So, I’m sort of a battering ram on this stuff. All the years that folks were kept *out* of the academy because we “didn’t have the background” for it… well, on race white folks have to show me that they’ve got more than their opinion and personal experience. Otherwise, they’re not qualified to speak.

    I know, it sounds harsh. And it has never gone over very well with anyone I’ve been forced to say it to. But the thing is, it doesn’t say you can’t speak *because* you’re white. It says you can’t speak until you do some work to get caught up to speed. I’m not having the “why white people can’t say the N word” conversation for the 500th time since 5th grade! Sorry, my white friend, but you’re late to that party. I’ve been there/done that.

    Now, how do I have so many white friends :)

  7. MPG April 13, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I’m going to stop after this. To sum up: You advocate seeing problems as “American” or “global” instead of “black.” The problem is that these “larger” categories are not larger at all. They are actually smaller because to be cosmopolitan or American means not to be advocating for native-born nonwhites, immigrants, women, gays. Pulling out all those groups makes the circle much smaller. I’m actually advocating centering the discourse ON the minoritized position. What if, for example, the politics of a Brokeback Mt. wasn’t “gay men are men too” but rather “the prevailing construction of manhood is damaging to children, women, and men”?

    I think the specific vulnerability of what I like to call “targeted groups” indicates the precarious position of even currently privileged groups. It seems that the only transformative politics would have to be based in centralizing the targeted group rather than making them the exceptional case. Have you ever read Agamben’s State of Exception? He argues that the exceptional actions of government (those in which they suspend the normal rules restraining them) are the pure and fundamental expression of governmental power. Not exceptional but constitutive. That’s how I feel about blackness, femininity, and queerness in America or globally. They’re not exceptional; they’re constitutive.

  8. Aymar Jean Christian April 13, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    I agree. And thanks for the book recommendation; that’s why I love you!

    I agree with everything you said, except “instead of.” I would offer “alongside,” maybe? I dunno. This is when my youth kicks in and I say I need to read more (it’s also where the subtle generational difference kicks in as well, as you smartly pointed out). I have an inkling that there’s a way today not to talk about other things “instead of” race, but to integrate issues more seamlessly. As always, historical precedents exist. We’ll be having this conversation for many years!

    Re: The expert class. I don’t think it’s as crazy as you think it sounds. By and large, people will be uninformed, I think. That’s not a knock on people, it’s just most don’t have the time/energy to do what we do. It’s why I think the news vs. entertainment argument is so silly. It’s not like there was some magical time when people were really informed about issues. What to do with pervasive ignorance is a quandary though.

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