"The Negro is not. Any more than the white man.” So wrote Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born revolutionary and intellectual, in his 1952 masterpiece, Black Skin, White Masks. He was making an argument about the illusory character of racial categorisation. And, yet, more than 70 years after Fanon wrote those lines, they still feel unsettling, as if they are a challenge not just to racialisation but also to our identity, our very being. That they should do so exposes the deeply conflicted relationship we still possess with race.
We live in an age in which in most societies there is a moral abhorrence of racism, albeit that in most, bigotry and discrimination still disfigure the lives of many. We also live in an age saturated with identitarian thinking and obsessed with placing people into racial boxes. The more we despise racial thinking, the more we seem to cling to it.
This paradox is at the heart of my new book. Not So Black and White is a retelling of the history both of the idea of race and of the struggles to confront racism and to transcend racial categorisation, a retelling that challenges many of the ways in which we think both of race and of antiracism.
Most people assume that racism emerges when members of one race begin discriminating against members of another. In fact, the opposite is the case: intellectuals and elites began dividing the world into distinct races to explain and justify the differential treatment of certain peoples. The ancestors of today’s African Americans were not enslaved because they were black. They were deemed to be racially distinct, as black people, to justify their enslavement.
We think of race today primarily in terms of skin colour. But that was not how 19th-century thinkers imagined race. It was, for them, a description of social inequality, not just of skin colour. It may be difficult to comprehend now, but 19th-century thinkers looked upon the working class as a distinct racial group in much the same way as many now view black people as racially dissimilar to white people. Only in the 20th century, as the working class was drawn into the democratic process, and as the new imperialism redrew the “colour line”, did the contemporary understanding of race emerge.
Many today imagine, too, that identity politics is a new phenomenon, and one that is associated with the left. I show that its origins lie, in fact, on the reactionary right and its primary expression, long before it was called “identity politics”, was in the concept of race, the belief that one’s being – one’s identity – determined one’s moral and social place in the world.
If much of the history of race has been obscured, so, too, has much of the history of the challenge to racism. Until recently, those confronting inequality and oppression did so in the name not of particular identities but of a universalism that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world, from anticolonial struggles to campaigns for women’s suffrage.
These struggles expanded the meaning of equality and universality. There has developed in recent years an impassioned debate about the Enlightenment, which both supporters and critics present as a peculiarly European phenomenon. For the one, it is a demonstration of the greatness of Europe; for the other, a reminder that its ideals are tainted by racism and colonialism. Both miss the importance of the non-European world in shaping many of the ideas we associate with the Enlightenment. It was through the struggles of those denied equality and liberty by the elites in Europe and America that ideas of universalism were invested with meaning. It is the demise of that radical universalist tradition that has shaped the emergence of contemporary identity politics.
There have always been identitarian strands among antiracists, from 19th-century “Back to Africa” movements to Négritude in the 20th century. Only in the postwar world, however, have they come to dominate and to be seen as progressive. The reasons lie in a myriad of social and political developments, from the erosion of class politics, to the emergence of culture as the primary lens through which to understand social differences, to the growth of social pessimism, that have helped marginalise the universalist perspective.
I cant edit my posts? No wonder I never come here. *leaves*
Shelly Fields is a 46-year-old white woman living in Richton Park, a racially diverse Chicago suburb. She says she's raised her four daughters, who are biracial, to see people of all races as equal, just as her parents raised her. Fields doesn't think that racism will ever disappear completely, but she's hopeful that it lessens with each passing generation.
"The more biracial children there are, the more equality we see," Fields said. "The more people of color we see in positions of power – it will help to change the way people see race."
Her oldest daughter, Summer, is a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Chicago. When she was in high school, Summer probably would have agreed that race relations were looking up. The '90s and early 2000s were "a post-racial fantasy time" in Richton Park, Summer said. "Being firmly in the middle of the Obama era – it [was] a moment of progress. It was validating."
Now, as the Obama era ends, she is of the mind that racism isn't going anywhere.