Race is a Technology (and so is Gender)

I think there are two very different ways of talking about race and racism which frequently get conflated, and I think this confusion is responsible for a lot of wasted energy in various online debates. The same goes for discussions about gender and sexism. On the one hand we have a moralistic view of racism/sexism. This view seems more likely to be held by people who are decrying accusations of racism/sexism than by those who try to call attention to them, but not exclusively. Those who call out racism/sexism, on the other hand, are more likely to be talking about race/gender as technologies of power which work to systematically marginalize certain voices (and certain lives) than they are to be accusing anyone in particular of being immoral.

Because the operations of this technology work in part by denying their own existence, it is important for those who feel its harm to call it out and bring attention to it. In doing so they are not trying to reduce everything to race (or gender), nor are they trying to say it is necessarily the most important aspect of a discussion, but often quite simply to make the invisible visible so it can be discussed openly.

This is why it is so frustrating for those who seek to make this discussion possible to then have their efforts attacked from the so-called “left” who claim that moralizing about racism (or sexism) is hurting the movement. I won’t deny that such moralizing doesn’t happen, but I think it is largely besides the point. The utility of racism (and sexism) as concepts does not lie in their ability to assign moral blame, but in their ability to expose invisible technologies of power so that their effects can be part of the discussion. To then silence these discussions by conveniently finding some moralists to excoriate thus perpetuates the problem.

Another mode of silencing is to accuse those attempting to highlight these technologies of reductionism, or of ignoring the “root” economic causes which underly all our social ills. Again, it is always possible to find some examples of such reductionism in order to dismiss the whole project. After all, what political project doesn’t have its share of fools who can be conveniently held up for mockery by opponents? But shouldn’t we look to those who best articulate the ideas underlying a project to evaluate its worth? When we do this (look to the best arguments, not the worst) I think such charges of reductionism evaporate, leaving behind only the residue of the very racism (and sexism) which sought to silence these voices in the first place.

3 thoughts on “Race is a Technology (and so is Gender)

  1. With these entirely reasonable sentiments I wholly agree. I am, however, reminded of another debate.

    “Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions, and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.”

    –Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, No. 1

  2. There are indeed two different discourses sharing the label “racism”. Thus the seemingly ridiculous “racism without racists” is not necessarily the paradox it appears to be: racism-as-technology can exist in the absence of racism-as-immorality. (Whether this is actually the case in particular settings is, as they say, an empirical question.)

    It seems to me that racism as immorality is so strongly associated with the word, though, that it renders racism as ‘technology’ or social order easy to ignore. When confronted with discussion of racism (in the second second sense), listeners can note the absence of racism (in the first sense) and ignore the apparently false talk.

    I have long thought that some other label, maybe “racialization”, might be useful. But I recognize that there are reasons — some strategic and some habitual — for maintaining the current labels.

  3. I think that the moralistic discourse on racism tends to think of racism in terms of personal character and interpersonal and small-group relationships, often in a context of self-transformation (making yourself less racist) within a group within which accusations of racism can play a role in internal disputes and power struggles. It reminds me a lot of the “criticism / self criticism / struggle” activities within Sixties and Seventies ultraleft groups, and the “trashing” which happened within feminist groups of about the same time. (I’m not closely informed about Occupy, but they seemd to have fallen into this small-group dynamic to a considerable degree.) It likewise seems congruent with the kinds of things that happen in other small face to face non-hierarchal groups such as Amish or Brethren groups and so-called “tribal” peoples, where fission is often the solution (and something that the Amish seem to have routinized.)

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