Towards a phenomenology of racial embodiment

When one realizes the indeterminacy of racial categories, their fluid borders and cultural variety, it is often tempting to adopt a nominalism about race: that race is no more real than phlogiston or witchcraft. In this essay, I resist this conclusion primarily on phenomenological grounds. Race is real, certainly more real than phlogiston, though like witchcraft its ʻrealityʼ is internal to certain schemas of social ontology that are themselves dependent on social practice. Moreover, the current reality of race is certainly capable of radical transformation and perhaps eradication. My focus, however, will not be on the possible future permutations of racializing practices but on the intense present reality of race. I will explore reasons for the current confusion about race, consider various approaches to knowledge about race, and venture a preliminary phenomenological account of racial identity as it is lived in the body of various racialized subjects at a given cultural moment. Only when we come to be clear about how race is lived, in its multiple manifestations; only when we come to appreciate its often hidden epistemic effects and its power over collective imaginations of public space, can we entertain even the remote possibility of its eventual transformation.

Contemporary confusions about race can be directly traced to the historical emergence of the present concept. Recently, the West (meaning Anglo-European cultures) has been credited with originating the idea of race, in the era of early modernism and even more specifically in the era that Foucault called the Classical episteme. [1] In this era, Foucault suggests, the newly emerging sciences understood knowledge primarily as a practice of ordering and classifying on the basis of essential differences. [2] Race-making also had a strong historical as well as conceptual relationship with mapTowards a phenomenology of racial embodiment

Linda martín alcoff

making, in which the expanding geographical areas that came to be known by Europeans were given order and intelligibility in part through their association with racial types. The ordering and labelling of natural terrain, the classifying of natural types, and the typologies of ʻnatural racesʼ thus emerged simultaneously and were no doubt motivated by European anxiety about the suddenly increased size and diversity of their world. This diversity could come to be both known and neutralized through the formulation of an ordering system. Given this genesis, the concept of race and of racial difference emerged as that which is visible, classifiable and morally salient. In our own materialist society, where science trumps religion and where cultural rituals – whether religious, patriotic or familial – must increasingly revolve around the exchange of material commodities in order to retain their significance, what is true is what is visible. Secular, commodity-driven society is dominated by the realm of the visible. In such a context, visible differences operate as powerful determinants over social interaction.

However, in the early modern period, the juxtaposition of these classification practices with an emerging liberal ideology espousing universalism produced a confused and contradictory account of race, from which I believe Western discourses as well as Western ʻcommon knowledgeʼ, in a Gramscian sense, are still suffering today. Visible difference is still the route to classification and therefore knowledge, and yet visible difference threatens the liberal universalistic concepts of truth and justice by invoking the spectre of relativism. Classification systems can attempt to contain this threat and impede relativism by enclosing the entirety of difference within a taxonomy organized by a single logic, such as a table of IQ test scores grouped by race. Ranking differences thus works to nullify relativism and protect universalism. But the resultant juxtaposition between universalist legitimation narratives that deny or trivialize difference (one might think of Habermas, here, or Rawls) and the detailed taxonomies of physical, moral and intellectual human difference (as, for example, in the recent bestselling book The Bell Curve) is one of the greatest antinomies of modernism. [3]

The new development of critical race studies has begun to erode most of the theoretical props for racial hierarchies in academic discourses. Today the naturalistic classification systems which would reify human variability into moral categories and the Eurocentric teleologies which would excuse, if not justify, colonialism have been largely exposed as specious. And the realm of the visible, or what is taken as self-evidently visible (which is how the ideology of racism naturalizes racial designation), is recognized as the product of a specific form of perceptual practice, rather than the natural result of human sight. Anti-essentialisms have corroded the sense of visible difference as the ʻsignʼ of a deeper, more fundamental difference, a difference in behavioural disposition, in moral and rational capacity, or in cultural achievement. Moreover, there is a newly emerging biological consensus that race is a myth, that the term corresponds to no significant biological category, and that no existing racial classifications correlate in useful ways to gene frequencies, clinal variations or any significant human biological difference.

However, at the same time, and in a striking parallel to the earlier modernist contradictions regarding the significance of race, in the very midst of our contemporary scepticism toward race as a natural kind stands the compelling social reality that race, or racialized identities, have as much political, sociological, and economic salience as they ever had. As Goldberg puts it, liberal Western societies today maintain a paradoxical position whereby ʻRace is irrelevant, but all is race.ʼ [4] The legitimacy and moral relevance of racial concepts is officially denied, even while race continues to determine job prospects, career possibilities, available places to live, potential friends and lovers, reactions from police, credence from jurors, and the amount of credibility one is given by oneʼs students. Race may not correlate with clinal variations, but it persistently correlates with a statistically overwhelming significance in wage levels, unemployment levels, poverty levels, and the likelihood of incarceration. As of 1992, black and Latino men working full-time in the USA earned an average of 68 per cent of what white men earned, while black and Latina women earned 59 per cent. As of 1995, Latino and black unemployment rates were more than double that of whites. [5]

But for those still working within a liberal framework, the devastating sociological reality of race is but an artificial overlay on more fundamental constituents of the self. The specificity of culturally embedded and marked bodies is routinely set aside in projects that aim toward a general analysis. Even for some post-structuralists, because race is a contingent construction, the epiphenomena of essentialist discourses, it is ultimately without any more explanatory power or epistemological relevance than on the liberal view. Thus, for all our critical innovations in understanding the vagaries of racist domination and the conceptual apparatus that yields racism, too many today remain stuck in the modernist paradox that race is determinant of a great deal of social reality, even while our scientists, policy-makers and philosophers would have us deny its existence.

No wonder, then, that we are confused about what to do with the category of race. Naturalistic approaches to the ʻrealʼ – in which conceptual frameworks are thought to be determined by nature herself – cannot make sense of the cultural variety, recent history and biological invalidity of race, though there are some positions that endeavour to define race in this way nonetheless. Universalistic political systems in which justice is predicated on sameness cannot help but view racial consciousness with consternation and dismay. Thus, within the modern episteme, the continued use of racial categories leads inevitably to paradox.

Race theory today

Contemporary race theory has endeavoured to transcend the paradoxes of classical liberalism and to address explicitly the implicit ideologies of race. On the questions of the status of the category race and whether racial identity should be continued, this recent body of work falls into three basic positions:

1. ^ Race is not real, principally because recent science has invalidated race as a salient or even meaningful biological category. It is the biological meaning of racial concepts that have led to racism. Therefore, the use of racial concepts should be avoided in order to be metaphysically accurate as well as to further an anti-racist agenda. 2. Race is always politically salient and always the most important element of identity. Members of racial groups share a set of characteristics, a set of political interests, and a historical destiny. Current racial identities are stable across history. 3. Race is socially constructed, historically malleable, culturally contextual, and produced through learned perceptual practice. Whether or not it is valid to use racial concepts, and whether or not their use will have positive or negative political effects, depends on the context. The first position – what I will call a nominalism about race – fails to capture the multiple meanings of race and assumes incorrectly that race can only refer to biology. It also falsely assumes on the basis of a commitment to semantic realism and an overinflation of the importance of science that racial concepts can have no possible referent and thus no valid meaning. It naively assumes that an end to the use of racial concepts will solve (or contribute toward solving) the current enormous sociological and economic determinism of racialized identities, before we try to understand the ways in which beliefs and practices of racialization have informed every political theory, every conceptual framework, and every metanarrative, at least in the West.

The second position – what I will call an essentialism about race – fails to capture the fluidity and openendedness of racial meanings. It wrongly assumes that racial identities are obvious and easily demarcated, that racialized groupings are homogeneous, and that ancestry is all-determining. It operates on a mistaken notion of what cultures are, as if they are merely the developing expression of an originary logic rather than the effect of negotiations from multiple sources. And it promotes the futile mission of opposing the tide of global hybridization.

The third position – what I will call a contextualism about race – is clearly the best option both politically and as a metaphysical description. [6] It can acknowledge the current devastating reality of race while holding open the possibility that present-day racial formations may change significantly or perhaps wither away. It provides a better explanation for the variety of racial beliefs and practices across cultures, and thus acknowledges the contingency and uncertainty of racial identities and boundaries. One can hold without contradiction that racialized identities are produced, sustained, and sometimes transformed through social beliefs and practices and yet that race is real, as real as anything else in lived experience, with operative effects in the social world.

Contextualist approaches come in two forms: objectivist and subjectivist. Objectivist approaches attempt a definition of race general enough to be applicable across a variety of contexts even while recognizing that context will determine the specific content and political valence given to a racial concept. These approaches start with sociological facts, census categories and their transformations, and the history of racializations to develop an account of how race organizes social relations. Sanjek, for example, defines race as ʻthe framework of ranked categories segmenting the human population that was developed by western Europeans following their global expansion in the 1400s.ʼ [7] Most of the current debates over race concern only objective definitions of race and racial identity.

However, objectivist approaches to race that chart its impact in the public domain sometimes hinder an appreciation of the everydayness of racial experience. Objectivist approaches that define race by invoking meta-narratives of historical experience, cultural traditions, or processes of colonization and that take a third-person perspective can be inattentive to the micro-interactions in which racialization operates, is reproduced and sometimes resignified. In contrast, subjectivist approaches which begin from the lived experience of racialization can reveal how race is constitutive of bodily experience, subjectivity, judgement and epistemic relationships. Such descriptions can then justify the claim that oneʼs designated race is a constitutive element of fundamental, everyday embodied existence and social interaction.

Omi and Winant offer an account of race that attempts to include both the macro-level and the microlevel of social relations. The macro-level consists of economic, political and cultural structures, or ʻsitesʼ, in which the formation and management of racial collectivities occur, and thus is what I am calling an objectivist account. The micro-level consists of the micro-processes by which individual identities are formed. [8] With regard to the micro-level, they claim that ʻOne of the first things we notice about people when we meet them (along with their sex) is their race.ʼ [9] They also develop a description of ʻracial etiquetteʼ as ʻa set of interpretive codes and racial meanings which operate in the interactions of daily life. Rules shaped by our perception of race in a comprehensively racial society determine the “presentation of self,” distinction of status, and appropriate modes of conduct.ʼ [10] Although Omi and Winant donʼt pursue this approach much further, it is a productive way to explore how race operates pre-consciously on spoken and unspoken interaction, gesture, affect and stance, and in this way to produce what I am calling a subjectivist account. Greetings, handshakes, proximity, tone of voice, all reveal the effects of racial awareness, the presumption of superiority vis-à-vis the other, or the protective defences against the possibility of racism and misrecognition. [11] I will argue that Merleau-Pontyʼs concept of the habitual body – a default position the body assumes in various commonly experienced circumstances that integrates and unifies our movements – could be useful here to understand how individuals fall into race-conscious habitual postures in cross-racial encounters. [12] MerleauPonty is mainly discussing motor habits of perception and movement used in performing various operations such as driving or typing, but the concept can easily be applied to postural attitudes and modes of perception taken in interactions with others whose identities are marked by gender, race, age, and so on. Following Fanon, Gordon and Weiss, I will also argue that racialization structures the visual sphere and the imaginary self, and can block the development of coherent body-images. [13]

Subjectivist and objectivist approaches to understanding race are not mutually exclusive, and I agree with Omi and Winant that a full account would need to encompass both. But it seems to me that although subjectivist approaches have important advantages in accounting for how race works, they have been underdeveloped in the recent theoretical literature, even while there are many first-person memoirs and rich descriptions of racial experience that might be tapped for theoretical analysis.

A possible reason for the hesitancy one might have in going in this direction is a fear that phenomenological description will naturalize or fetishize racial experiences. This can happen when descriptions of felt experience begin to operate as explanations of felt experience, as if the experience itself is fully selfpresenting. For example, if one believes that human beings group perceptual objects under concepts as the natural result of our need to cope with the blooming, buzzing variety of perceptual experience, then one might be led to think that racial categories are the understandable result of the need to group and categorize. In other words, racism is the unfortunate but inevitable result of human cognitive processes. Phenomenological descriptions that detail the overwhelming salience of racializations for given individuals would then be seen as support for such a belief.

Against this, I will argue that although racial classification does operate on the basis of perceptual difference, it is also the case that, as Merleau-Ponty argues, perception represents sedimented contextual knowledges. So the process by which human bodies are differentiated and categorized by type is a process preceded by racism, rather than one that causes and thus ʻexplainsʼ racism as a natural result. Such an account is compatible with Hegelʼs view that conflict arises from our parallel desires rather than our ʻinnateʼ differences – a view that has many advantages, it seems to me.

Renée Green, Partialy Buried, 1996.However, I would not want to say, as some nominalists seem almost to say, that racialization has only an arbitrary connection to the realm of the visible. Visual differences are ʻrealʼ differences, and by that very fact they are especially valuable for the naturalizing ideologies of racism. But there is no perception of the visible that is not already imbued with value. And the body itself is a dynamic material domain, not just because it can be ʻseenʼ differently, but because the materiality of the body itself is, as Grosz puts it, volatile: ʻIt is not simply that the body is represented in a variety of ways according to historical, social and cultural exigencies while it remains basically the same; these factors actively produce the body of a determinate type.ʼ [14]

In what follows, then, I will pursue a subjectivist approach that relies on Merleau-Pontyʼs non-foundationalist account of lived experience. A phenomenological approach can render our tacit knowledge about racial embodiment explicit. Despite the fact that, at least until recently, it appears generally to be the case that most whites did not consciously ʻfeel whiteʼ, there were gestural and perceptual practices correlated to racial identity and a tacit but substantive racialized subjectivity. Other groups in the USA have often been very conscious of the ways in which racial categories affected experience and presentations of self, but some of their knowledge about race is also tacit and carried in the body.

By drawing from tacit knowledge about racial identity, subjectivist approaches also, I would argue, operate from a different epistemology or justificatory strategy, and one that can make productive use of Gramsciʼs account of ʻcommon senseʼ or everyday consciousness discernible in practices, rather than a selfconsciousness achieved through reflection. Common sense is made up of that which seems obviously true and enjoys consensus or near consensus. Despite its felt naturalness, however, common sense is formed, not as a false consciousness is imposed from above, but by the sediment of past historical beliefs and practices of a given society or culture. [15] If we apply this account to a racial common sense, we would not understand it as the imposition of ideology, but as part of the backdrop of practical consciousness, circulating, as Foucault would say, from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Racial knowledges exist at the site of common sense. Effectively in agreement with this Foucauldian approach, Omi and Winant also argue that racialization should not be understood as simply an imposition; for example, they suggest that racial ʻetiquette is not mere universal adherence to the dominant groupʼs rules, but a more dynamic combination of these rules with the values and beliefs of subordinated groups.ʼ [16] They emphasize that a subordinate group can play a role in shaping racial formations through the particular patterns of resistance taken up.

The epistemically relevant point here is that the source of racializations, or at least one important source, is in the micro-processes of subjective existence. I would add to this, however, the obvious point that racial common sense varies both across and within racial groups, and the differences we find are likely to be significant. In any case, it has largely been an uninterrogated white common sense, albeit in all its internal variety, that has dominated the public discourse and theoretical analysis about race in the United States.

Kerouac in denver

Here is Jack Kerouac, the iconic white Beat prophet, writing in his journal in 1949, describing a late evening walk through the black and Mexican neighbourhoods of Denver:

I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot, red chili in paper containers. I bought some and ate it strolling in the dark, mysterious streets. I wished I was a Negro, a Denver Mexican, or even a Jap, anything but a white man disillusioned by the best in his own ʻwhiteʼ world. (And all my life I had white ambitions!) [17] Kerouac was this passage is characteristically ahead of his time. Kerouac was aware of the racialized others, whom he recognizes in their unified non-whiteness, but unlike many other whites (at least, Northern whites), he was also aware of his own whiteness and able to articulate the contours of its segregated subjective life in his comment that even ambitions have a racial identity. He is disillusioned with the pretensions of white culture, and out of this disillusionment he senses the arbitrariness of his dominant status, which makes it impossible for him to rest easy with it or relax in it. And thus he longs to escape it.

This felt disjuncture for Kerouac between his white body (or his non-nonwhiteness) and his sense of having a non-white sensibility operates in the very postural model of the body, a concept introduced by Sir Henry Head to name that nonlinguistic imaginary position of the body in the world and its imagined relation to its environment and to other bodies. [18] Kerouac pictured himself as outside ʻwhite societyʼ or positioned on its margins. He thought of himself as having the aesthetic sensibility and temporal orientation of the other-thanwhite, in his irreverent cynicism toward the white worldʼs self-presentations and declared intentions. In a different diary entry, he said that ʻthe best the “white world” has to offer [is] not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, music; not enough night.ʼ [19] Who is this ʻmeʼ whose ability to appreciate and to desire joy, kicks, music and life exceeds the white world? Who is it indeed whose virility and capacity for feeling is larger than the sallow, impotent blandness the white world can afford? It can only be a non-white, though Kerouac here relies precisely on the white worldʼs own projection of ʻtoo much emotionʼ outside of itself, outside of white identity. In other words, even in his ʻnon-whiteʼ sensibility, he operates from within a white schema of signification (a paradox that can also beset non-white bodies).

Kerouacʼs non-white postural body image, though, is pierced by the experience of walking through these ʻdarkʼ streets, encountering the ʻrealʼ other in the flesh, which then prompts him to recognize the incoherence between his own felt body-image – the one he surely felt in upper-class white society – and the body-image now induced by the alienation he felt in what for him were foreign neighbourhoods. Returning to the entry where he described his Denver walk, we find him saying:

I was so sad – in the violet dark, strolling – wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-minded, ecstatic Negroes of America.… How I yearned to be transformed into an Eddy, a Neal, a jazz musician, a nigger, a construction worker, a softball pitcher, anything in these wild, dark humming streets of Denver night – anything but myself so pale and unhappy, so dim. [20]

Fanon suggested that for black people in the colonial world, it was Sartreʼs third ontological dimension of bodily experience that dominated – that is, the consciousness of oneʼs body as a body-for-others. [21] Kerouac experiences this in the non-white Denver neighbourhoods, where the third dimension comes to dominate his own preferred body-image, to render his postural model incoherent, leading him to a melancholic resignation of his ʻpalenessʼ.

Notice also that in these passages Kerouac juxtaposes, perhaps unconsciously, reiterations of the darkness and mystery of his surroundings with a characterization of ʻNegroesʼ as open, fully readable, transparent. What is ʻdarkʼ to him is not their nature or state of mind, which he presumes to know fully, but their ability to be happy and true-minded. This capacity has escaped him, and he hasnʼt a clue about how to retrieve it. He is not satisfied with the level of ecstasy available in the white world; and yet he cannot discover how to access the affect he perceives here. He yearns to be ʻanything but myself so pale and unhappy, so dimʼ. Just as ambitions are racialized, so too are his melancholia and their happiness.

Fanon also suggested that racism and colonialism create significant challenges for the creation of an equilibrium in oneʼs body image, an equilibrium achieved, as Weiss helpfully explains, through reconciling oneʼs own ʻ“tactile, vestibular, kinesthetic, and visual” experiences with the structure imposed by this historico-racial schema, a structure that provides the “racial parameters” within which the corporeal schema is supposed to fit.ʼ [22] The near-incommensurability between first-person experience and historico-racial schema disenables equilibrium and creates what Fanon calls a ʻcorporeal maledictionʼ. Kerouac, coming from the other side of the colonial equation, must have experienced this corporeal malediction as well. His desire to be transformed into an ʻEddyʼ, etc., is a desire to resolve the disequilibrium induced by conflicting firstand third-person dimensions of the body, in favour of the first. I would suggest that today, more and more whites are experiencing a similar disequilibrium, as they come to perceive the racial parameters that structure whiteness differently in different communities – white and non-white – and may find that none of these can be made coherent with their own preferred body or postural image.

The domain of the visible

Because race works through the domain of the visible, the experience of race is predicated first and foremost on the perception of race, a perception whose specific mode is a learned ability. Merleau-Ponty says of perception:

Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out, and is presupposed by them. The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perceptions … man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself. [23]

If race is a structure of contemporary perception, then it helps constitute the necessary background from which I know myself. It makes up a part of what appears to me as the natural setting of all my thoughts. The perceptual practices involved in racializations are then tacit, almost hidden from view, and thus almost immune from critical reflection. Merleau-Ponty goes on to say that: ʻperception is not presumed true, but defined as access to truthʼ. [24] Inside such a system, perception cannot then be the object of analysis itself. Thus Kerouac could ʻseeʼ with immediacy the character of non-white lives and non-white emotional subjectivity. And yet the mechanism of that act of perceiving itself could not be seen, and thus could not be seen by him as also racialized.

Perceptual practices can be organized, like bodily movements used to perform various operations, into integrated units that become habitual. In the following passage Merleau-Ponty explains his idea of perceptual habits through the example of a blind manʼs use of a stick to find objects:

It would appear in this case that perception is always a reading off from the same sensory data, but constantly accelerated, and operating with ever more attenuated signals. But habit does not consist in interpreting the pressures of the stick on the hand as indications of certain positions of the stick, and these as signs of an external object, since it relieves us of the necessity of doing so. [25]

In other words, the overt act of interpretation itself is skipped in an attenuated process of perceptual knowing. He goes on to contrast this account with a more positivist approach:

Intellectualism cannot conceive any passage from the perspective to the thing itself, or from sign to significance otherwise than as an interpretation, an apperception, a cognitive intention.… But this analysis distorts both the sign and the meaning:

it separates out, by a process of objectification of both, the sense-content, which is already ʻpregnantʼ with a meaning, and the invariant core … it conceals the organic relationship between subject and world, the active transcendence of consciousness, the momentum which carries it into a thing and into a world by means of its organs and instruments. The analysis of motor habit as an extension of existence leads on, then, to an analysis of perceptual habit as the coming into possession of a world.… In the gaze we have at our disposal a natural instrument analogous to the blind manʼs stick. [26]

This account would explain both why racializing attributions are nearly impossible to discern and why they are resistant to alteration or erasure. Our experience of habitual perceptions is so attenuated as to skip the stage of conscious interpretation and intent. Indeed, interpretation is the wrong word here: we are simply perceiving. And the traditional pre-Hegelian modernist account of perception, what I called above ʻpositivismʼ, blocks our appreciation of this. It is just such a modernist account that would explain why it is commonly believed that for one to be a racist one must be able to access in oneʼs consciousness some racist belief, and that if introspection fails to produce such a belief then one is simply not racist. A fear of African-Americans or a condescension toward Latinos is seen as simple perception of the real, justified by the nature of things in themselves without need of an interpretive intermediary of historico-cultural schemas of meaning.

If interpretation by this account is inseparable from perception, at least in certain cases, why would not such a view lead only to pessimism about altering the perceptual habits of racializations? Here I would think that the multiple schemas operating in many if not most social spaces today would mitigate against an absolute determinism and thus pessimism. Perceptual practices are dynamic even when congealed into habit, and that dynamism can be activated by the existence of multiple forms of the gaze in various cultural productions and by the challenge of contradictory perceptions. To put it simply, people are capable of change. Merleau-Pontyʼs analysis helps to provide a more accurate understanding of where – that is, at what level of experience – that change needs to occur.

Days of obligation

Phenomenological descriptions of racial identity can reveal a differentiation or distribution of felt connectedness to others. Kerouacʼs sadness is prompted by his lack of felt connection, a connection he may have anticipated when initiating his walk through the black and Mexican Denver neighbourhoods, but one that does not present itself. However, felt connection is a complex issue, undetermined solely by phenotype. The felt connectedness to visibly similar others may produce either flight or empathic identification or other possible dispositions.

Compare Kerouacʼs perceptions with the autobiographical confession that dramatically opens Richard Rodriguezʼs book, Days of Obligation:I used to stare at the Indian in the mirror. The wide nostrils, the thick lips. Starring Paul Muni as Benito Juarez. Such a long face – such a long nose – sculpted by indifferent, blunt thumbs, and of such common clay. No one in my family had a face as dark or as Indian as mine. My face could not portray the ambition I brought to it. [27]

There is actually little contrast with Kerouacʼs account: Rodriguez echoes the racialization of ambition, in which his desire to be a writer and a public intellectual in the United States cannot be associated with an ʻIndianʼ face. In an earlier memoir, he recounts how as an adolescent he tried to shave the darkness off his skin in a fit of agonized frustration. [28] Like Kerouac again, Rodriguez wants to escape, and he experiences racial identity as a cage constraining his future, his aspirations; also like Kerouac he experiences it as somehow at odds with his felt subjectivity. His postural body-image is internally incoherent, and Rodriguez struggles persistently against the racial parameters that Fanon says characterize colonized consciousness. Where Kerouac forgoes white ambition and yet resigns himself to whiteness, Rodriguez pursues white ambitions and in this way seeks to escape his visible identity and to repudiate his felt connection with visibly similar others.

Rodriguez recounts a conversation he had with an American Indian student when he was teaching at Berkeley: ʻYouʼre not Indian, youʼre Mexican,ʼ he said. ʻYou wouldnʼt understand.ʼ

He meant I was cut. Diluted.

Understand what?

He meant I was not an Indian in America. He meant he was an enemy of the history that had otherwise created me.… I saw his face – his refusal to consort with the living – as the face of a dead man. [29]

Rodriguez experiences Mexican identity as necessarily hybridized, ʻcutʼ, ʻdiluted.ʼ He projects on to his interlocutor the belief that Mexican identity is a deformed identity, when in actuality the man simply said ʻYou are Mexican and not Indianʼ, counterposing two identities rather than an identity and a dilution of identity. Yet Rodriguezʼs projection is of course overdetermined by the denigration of mixed identities, particularly mixed racial identities, that is a painful feature of many, though not all, societies. The mixed person, unless she or he declares in her self-representation as well as her everyday practices to be identified with one group or another, feels rejection from every group, and is ready to be slighted on an everyday basis for presuming an unjustified association. She is constantly on trial, and unable to claim epistemic authority to speak as or to represent. [30] Rodriguez experiences a doubled hybridity: the hybridity of a Mexican-American educated and enculturated in an Anglo environment, and the hybridity of Latinidad itself, between indigenismo and conquistador.

Rodriguez deflects this denigration by demarcating his hybrid world into neatly mapped spaces and urging their segregation. He argues that Spanish, the mother tongue, the female tongue, is proper to the private sphere, and should be spoken only at home by bilingual Latinos in the United States. He characterizes English as the public language, the language of social intercourse, the language for intervening in politics, and thus a language clearly coded masculine. English is justifiably normative because its universality is simply inevitable, Rodriguez argues. Thus he has been an important public critic of bilingual education programmes and any policy that might have the effect of incorrectly merging what should be carefully sequestered realms of discourse.

Rodriguez also construes his own white ambitions – to master English and assimilate in a public Anglo world – as representing life. Life moves forward, it adapts, it transforms and in this way survives. Assimilation to an Anglo world is life; the resistance to this is an embrace of death. Thus he sees the manʼs face in the cafeteria as the face of a dead man. Unlike Kerouac on this point, Rodriguez does not romanticize the non-white racial Other, which is a form of love Lewis Gordon aptly likens to pet loving. [31] By incorporating aspects of an Anglo identity, and pursuing an identity based on the metanarrative of ʻAmericanʼ progress and cultural development, Rodriguez perceives himself as choosing life. He further describes his interlocutor in the conversation already quoted as a ʻmoody braveʼ, and ʻa near-somnambulist, beautiful in an off-putting way, but interesting, too, because I never saw him without the current issue of The New York Review of Books under his arm, which I took as an advertisement of ambition.ʼ [32] For Rodriguez, ambition can only be white; there is no conception of an ambition beyond or apart from intercourse in a dominant Anglo world. In the description just given, Rodriguez associates the manʼs physical appearance with distance: it is offputting despite its beauty. Racial difference is often experienced as a distancing without regard to spatial proximity. Yet Rodriguez has hopes for the possibility of a relationship, of the man being included in Rodriguezʼs own wider frame of reference, by his possession of a journal that signifies a transcendence of the physical mark. Anglo identity is again associated with the public, the realm of ambition, of action in a social world, where Indian identity remains on the body, pulling against ambition, social intercourse, even, Rodriguez says, life itself. Thus, he sees the man as a near-somnambulist, a man poised between the life embodied in the New York Review of Books and the death of a historical dreamworld.

No less than Kerouac, Rodriguez reads others and himself through visible signs on the body, reading his ʻlong nose sculpted by indifferent, blunt thumbsʼ as ʻincapable of portrayingʼ his ambition. I would argue that this mediation through the visible, working on both the inside and the outside, both on the way we read ourselves and the way others read us, is what is unique to racialized identities as against ethnic and cultural identities. The criteria thought to determine racial identity have ranged from ancestry, experience, self-understanding, to habits and practices, yet these sources are coded through visible inscriptions on the body. The processes by which racial identities are produced work through the shapes and shades of human morphology, the size and shape of the nose, the breadth of the cheekbones, the texture of hair, and the intensity of pigment, and these subordinate other markers such as dress, customs and practices. And the visual registry thus produced has been correlated with rational capacity, epistemic reliability, moral condition, and, of course, aesthetic status. Rodriguez has learned this visual registry in its dominant white form, and thus he moves back and forth between exploring its racism33 and adopting it as his own perspective, letting it dominate his body-image almost as a perceptual habit-body, or habit of perception. ʻVisibility is a trapʼ, says Foucault. He explains: ʻHence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.ʼ [34] What could be more permanently visible than that which is inscribed on the body itself?

Racialized identities that are not visible create fear and consternation. In the film Europa, Europa the young, closeted Jewish hero is chosen by his teacher to model Aryan facial features before a classroom of boys. His teacher has ironically but terrifyingly got it wrong, ironically in mistaking his Jewish student as a paradigm of Aryan looks, but terrifyingly in bringing the boy to the front of the class for inspection. Despite the teacherʼs mistake, the modelling nonetheless conveys the importance of visibility within the Nazi regime. Jews had to be visible, and thus were measured carefully, from nose to ear, and navel to penis, in the attempt to establish a reliable and perceptible means of identification.

Similar to the Jews, the Irish were a racialized group internal to Europe until this century. Gibbons quotes the following passage in which a first-time English visitor to Ireland records his observations:

I am haunted by the human chimp-anzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country.… But to see white chimpanzees was dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours. [35] The observer in this passage experienced a disequilibrium in his corporeal self-image prompted by finding his own features in the degraded Other.

Clearly, one source of the importance of visibility for racialized identities is the need to manage and segregate populations and to catch individuals who trespass beyond their rightful bounds. But there is another reason for the importance of visibility, a reason I would argue is as significant as the first, and this is that visible difference naturalizes racial meanings. Merleau-Ponty claims that ʻWhen we speak of the flesh of the visible, we do not mean to do anthropology, to describe a world covered over with our own projections.ʼ [36] In other words, the visible is not merely an epiphenomenon of culture, and thus precisely lies its value for racialization. We may need to be trained to pick out some features over others as the most salient to identity, but those features nonetheless have a material reality. This is why both Kerouac and Rodriguez experience racial identity as impossible to alter: Kerouac cannot ʻbecome Negroʼ, no matter how much he would like to, and Rodriguez can only fail to shave off the darkness of his skin. Locating race in the visible thus produces the experience that racial identity is immutable.

This is why race must work through the visible markers on the body, even if those markers are made visible through learned processes. Visible difference, which is materially present even if its meanings are not, can be used to signify or provide purported access to a subjectivity through observable, ʻnaturalʼ attributes, to provide a window on the interiority of the self – thus making it possible for a Kerouac confidently to assume an ability to perceive directly ecstasy and true-mindedness, knowing nothing more about the individuals that surrounded him than the colour of their skin.

In some cases, the perceptual habits are so strong and so unnoticed that visible difference is deployed in every encounter. In other situations, the deployment of visible difference can be dependent on the presence of other elements to become salient or all-determining. For an example of such a situation, I will relate a case I discussed with a philosophy graduate student with whom I regularly converse about issues in the classroom. White undergraduates walking into an introductory philosophy course in upstate New York might not expect an Asian instructor, but after an initial surprise the students appeared to feel at ease in the class as he – Iʼll call him John – discussed Descartes and Leibniz and patiently explained to struggling undergraduates how to follow an argument in early modern texts. John himself then began to relax in the classroom, interacting without self-consciousness with a largely white class. His postural body image was at those moments normative, familiar, trustworthy. Despite the hierarchy between students and teacher, there seemed to be little or no racial distancing in their interactions.

However, at a certain point in the semester, John introduced the subject of race into the course through an assigned reading on the cognitive dimensions of racism. This topic had a visceral effect on classroom dynamics. Previously open-faced students lowered their eyes and declined to participate in discussion. John felt a different texture of perception, as if he were being watched or observed from a distance. His previously felt normativity eroded, and with it his teaching confidence. It was not that before he had thought of himself as white, but that he had imagined and experienced himself as normative, accepted, recognized as an instructor capable of leading students toward greater understanding. Now he was reminded, forcibly, that his body-image self was unstable and contingent, and that his racialized identity was uppermost in the minds of white students, who suddenly developed a sceptical attitude toward his analysis and imparted it in a manner they had not been confident enough to develop before.

I have actually experienced this scenario many times myself, if I raise the issue of race, cultural imperialism, the US invasion of Panama, or sometimes issues of sexism in classes not focused on these topics, and other colleagues of mine who are AfricanAmerican or Latino have described similar classroom experiences. Such an experience, as Eduardo Mendieta has suggested, is as if one finds oneself in the world ahead of oneself, the space one occupies as already occupied. Oneʼs lived self is effectively dislodged when an already outlined but very different self appears to be operating in the same exact location.

Fanon argues that the ʻNegro, because of his body, impedes the closing of the postural schema for the white man.ʼ [37] But this seems not to be the case until something that seems to be a ʻnon-white subjectivityʼ is made apparent. Before a non-white professor assigns an article on race, white studentsʼ postural body image can remain intact, unchallenged. The teachersʼ otherness at this stage can be subsumed under a number of non-threatening categories, from servant, to assimilated other who demonstrably accepts a white world-view as the truth, and so on. The students do not perceive the teachersʼ recognition of them as challenging in any way. At the point where race enters the classroom as a theme, and especially as a theme introduced by a non-white, their confidence and ease about how the teacher is perceiving them begins to erode, creating a break between firstand third-person perspective. Only then is their postural schema disrupted. Disequilibrium for whites is not an inevitable result of the presence of racial others, even in a historico-racial schema of white supremacy, though it may be a potential disruption that the body appreciates and which puts it in the mode of watchfulness.

For a non-white called back from a normative postural image to a racialized ʻepidermal schemaʼ, as Fanon put it, the habit-body one falls into at such moments, I would suggest, is protective, defensive. Double layers of self-awareness must interrogate the likely meanings that will be attributed to every utterance, gesture, action one takes. The available options of interaction seem closed down to two: combative resistance without hope of persuasion, or an attempt to return to the category of non-threatening other, perhaps through the place of the not-really-other. Neither can yield a true relationship or dialogue; both are options already given within the white dominant racial structure. No original move can be recognized.

When I was much younger, I remember finding out with a shock that a white lover, my first serious relationship, had pursued me because I was Latina, which no doubt stimulated his vision of exoticism. Our first encounters, our first dates, which I had naively believed were dominated by a powerful emotional and intellectual connection, were experienced by him as a crossing over to the forbidden, to the Other in that reified, racializing sense. [38] I felt incredulity, and then humiliation, trying to imagine myself as he saw me, replaying my gestures and actions, reflecting back even on the clothes I wore, all in an attempt to discern the signs he may have picked up, to see myself as he must have seen me. I felt caught in that moment, finding myself occupying a position already occupied, incapable of mutual interaction.

There is a visual registry operating in social relations which is socially constructed, historically evolving, and culturally variegated but nonetheless powerfully determinant over individual experience. And, for that reason, it also powerfully mediates body-image and the postural model of the body. Racial self-awareness has its own habit-body, created by individual responses to racism, to challenges from racial others, and so on. The existence of multiple historico-racial schemas produces a disequilibrium that cannot easily be solved in multi-racial democratic spaces – that is, where no side is completely silenced. Racial identity, then, permeates our being in the world, our being-with-others, and our consciousness of our self as a being-for-others.

Phenomenological descriptions such as the ones I have discussed here operate uncomfortably to reactivate racist perception and experience. One might worry that such descriptions will have consolidating effects by repeating, even explaining, the process of racist attribution, suggesting its depth and impermeability. But the reactivations produced by critical phenomenological description donʼt simply repeat the racializing perception but can reorient the positionality of consciousness. Unveiling the steps that are now attenuated and habitual will force a recognition of oneʼs agency in reconfiguring a postural body-image or a habitual perception. Noticing the way in which meanings are located on the body has at least the potential to disrupt the current racializing processes.

If racism is manifest at the level of perception itself and in the very domain of visibility, then an amelioration of racism would be apparent in the world we perceive as visible. A reduction of racism will affect perception itself, as well as comportment, body-image, and so on. Toward this, our first task, it seems to me, is to make visible the practices of visibility itself, to outline the background from which our knowledge of others and of ourselves appears in relief. From there we may be able to alter the associated meanings ascribed to visible difference.


I would like to thank Robert Bernasconi and William Wilkerson for their very helpful critical comments on this article. Numerous discussions that I had with Raul Vargas, David Kim, Eduardo Mendieta, Paula Moya,

Michael Hames-Garcia, Tom McKay, Paul Taylor,

Simon Critchley, Elizabeth Grosz and Lewis Gordon had a significant effect on the formulation of the arguments below. The discussions of bodily experience in Lewis Gordonʼs Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (Humanities, 1995) and Elizabeth Groszʼs Volatile Bodies (Indiana, 1994) inspired my analysis here, and the publication of Gail Weissʼs excellent book Body Images (Routledge, 1998) after I began work on this article caused me to rethink many points. This article will appear in Robert Bernasconi, ed., Race, Blackwell, forthcoming.

1. ^ On the origin of race as an idea, see Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formations in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s, Routledge, New York, 1986, pp. 58–9; Steven Gregory and Roger Sanjek, eds, Race, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ, 1994, p. 2. See also Emmanuel Eze, ed., Race and the Enlightenment, Blackwell, Cambridge MA, 1997.

2. ^ Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Random House, New York, 1994 [1970].

3. ^ The widespread popularity of the Bell Curve thesis, which classifies and ranks intellectual ability by racial identity, and assumes a single standard of intelligence, is proof that vestiges of the classical episteme remain in place today. See Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, Free Press, New York, 1994.

4. ^ David Theo Goldberg, Racist Cultures: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993); Cornell West Prophesy Deliverance!, Westminster Press,

Philadelphia, 1982, p. 6.

5. ^ For more statistics on racial disparities, see Andrew Hacker, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile Unequal expanded edn, Ballantine, New York, 1995.

6. ^ I prefer contextualism to social constructionism because of the wide misuse and misunderstandings too often prevalent with the use of the second term. Social constructionism is sometimes interpreted along the lines of an idealism in which total agency is given to individual actors, as if we can construct new identities out of whole cloth. I hope that contextualism will convey the idea that what race is is dependent on context.

7. ^ Gregory and Sanjek, Race, p. 1.

8. ^ Omi and Winant, Racial Formations in the United States, pp. 66–7.

9. ^ Ibid., p. 62.

10. ^ Ibid.

11. ^ Mixed-race people who are not easily categorizable by visible markers create unease precisely because one doesnʼt know how to act or talk with them. All of these practices change enormously across cultures; for example, in Latin America mixed-race persons do not create a cognitive crisis because they are the norm. There, racial identity is determined along a continuum of colour without sharp borders.

12. ^ See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands NJ, 1962, esp. Part

1. ^ See also the elucidation of this concept in Gail Weiss, Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality, Routledge, New York, 1998, ch. 1.

13. ^ Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann, Grove Press, New York, 1967; Lewis Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands NJ, 1995; Weiss, Body Images, esp. pp. 26–33. See also Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994) for an excellent explanation and development of the concept of body image, esp. chs 3 and

4. ^

14. ^ Grosz, Volatile Bodies, p. x.

15. ^ See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith,

Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1971.

16. ^ Omi and Winant, Racial Formations in the United States, p. 62.

17. ^ Jack Kerouac, ʻOn the Road Againʼ, unpublished journals, The New Yorker, 22 and 29 June 1998, p. 56.

18. ^ See Grosz, Volatile Bodies, pp. 64–6; and Weiss, Body Images, pp. 7–9.

19. ^ Kerouac, ʻOn the Road Againʼ, p. 56.

20. ^ Ibid.

21. ^ Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, chs 5 and

7. ^

22. ^ Weiss, Body Images, p. 27.

23. ^ Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, pp. x–xi.

24. ^ Ibid., p. xvi.

25. ^ Ibid., p. 152 (emphasis in original).

26. ^ Ibid., pp. 152–3.

27. ^ Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Viking, New York, 1992, p. 1.

28. ^ Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, Bantam, New York, 1983, p. 124.

29. ^ Rodriguez, Days of Obligation, p. 5.

30. ^ Danzy Sennaʼs novel Caucasia (Penguin, New York, 1998) powerfully describes this particular form of alienation.

31. ^ Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, pp. 117ff.

Gordon argues that romanticizing and exoticizing racial others (as in ʻI just love black peopleʼ) is like animal loving in that it seeks an object that has consciousness without judgement, that can know it is loved but be incapable of understanding or judging the one who loves.

32. ^ Rodriguez, Days of Obligation, pp. 4–5.

33. ^ There are numerous insightful analyses of racism in Days of Obligation; see especially ch. 1.

34. ^ Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, Random House, New York, 1979, p. 200.

35. ^ From L. Gibbons, ʻRace Against Time, Racial Discourse and Irish Historyʼ, Oxford Literary Review, vol. 13, nos 1–2, pp. 95–117; quoted in Ania Loomba Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Routledge, London, 1998, p. 109.

36. ^ Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Northwestern University Press,

Evanston IL, 1968, p. 136 (emphasis added).

37. ^ Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 160, quoted in Weiss, Body Images, p. 28.

38. ^ I learned this because he has written a novel based on his experience of our relationship.

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