“Beyond” as a problem in Race & Difference work

What are the effects of our truths? – Michel Foucault

There is a statement I hear often, when the topic is social issues having to do with racism, especially, but other social oppression and justice-related identity and relations issues as well.  I have a problem with this:  “let’s get beyond the race issue” idea.  I also have a problem with a statement that I see in the trailer for the new movie: Harimaya Bridge. I am very excited by the movie, don’t get me wrong about that.  But it won’t stop us from thinking about certain things, assumptions, worldviews.  So I want to make a few inter-related points about this.

So there is the line in the movie:  ‘there are there are more important ways to identify with people than color of skin”  or something to this affect.

Now these statements about ‘getting beyond’ skin color and ‘getting beyond’ the ‘race issue’ etc.  are very very dangerous weapons that continue the problem of accepting difference.  The statement above sound as if they are going toward peaceful relations, but are actually couching the very problem itself–that which brings the reality of assimilation and colonialism to the fore, and acted out through the processes of globalization, of course.  The gentrifications of identity.

This gentrifying of identity, of supposedly moving beyond race, is a way to say that race/ethnicity are trivial or superficial trappings that hide the real human being underneath.  Usually, this real human being, that is presumed to be what is being pointed to, that is beyond the difficulties of conflict, looks very middle class, and very materialistic, and very homogenized.  There is an assumption that globally, people are the same:  the same values, the same concerns, the same experiences, the same worldviews and the same way of doing things.  Of course the ‘differences’ are just slight–you know–the way ‘they’ cook and the way ‘they’ wear different kinds of clothes, and the way ‘they’ laugh, and the way ‘they’ do their different religion.  It’s all the same God in different clothes, it’s all the same food with different colors and tastes, it’s all the same underneath.

In this way, there is an assumption of sameness.  The reason this sameness seems more ‘real’ is that our world today, is systematically destroying the different.  Usually, the ‘different’ are the ones that make things seem ‘poor’ and ‘uneducated’ and ‘have different values than the good values of individual pursuit of happiness.’   Partha Chatterjee, in his book The Nation and Its Fragments’ speaks eloquently about the system through which our PRESENT ARRIVES.  The present is not eternal.  The present is MADE from the past.  The past is this moment in the next moment.  Do we understand this?  What you are reading right now, is the past.  I wrote this before you wrote it.  In two seconds, two minutes, two hours, two days, two months, two years, two decades–it is already the past once we have read it, once we have uttered it.  IN THIS PRESENT, what is happening?   So Partha Chatterjee mentions that much of modernization and Europeanization of the world, comes with the effect of the ‘extinction of the peasant.’   What do you think of this statement?  Although he is speaking to India and South Asian history in the context of postcolonial realities, that idea which he speaks to, rings true for the entire global movement.  It is our historical present.  We will medicate, urbanize, nuclear-family-ize, middle-class-ize, and make the whole world UNDERSTANDABLE to us.  The other things that we don’t understand, we are just baffled by, and this is not neutral.  If we are baffled by it,  we seek to change it into a ‘higher’ form–we analyze it from our OWN POINT OF REFERENCES  (i.e. — our own cultural/racial/gendered/ and class realities).  The more privileged we are, let’s say–an American or German or Japanese, or Australian, or any region where there are urban and corporate elites participating in the global market, the more we are willing to ‘lend a helping hand’ for those less fortunate.  In order to make them fortunate, they must enter the MACHINE of globalization and the market system in operation today.

The poor nations were made more poor with the structural adjustment policies that require AID–be it for floods, earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, war–be ATTACHED to stipulations and loans and ways of changing the local ways.  So in keeping with this analysis, we have to look at the ways in which we think of racism, sexism, classism, anti-semitism, heterosexism, and the various social oppressions through which our present realities are created.

Getting beyond, means that a person’s ethnic/national/cultural heritage, has nothing to do with skin color?  And is race about skin color?  In the middle class and elite global structure it is very much so but not completely.  If one is educated in Oxford UK, and speaks in a certain way and dresses in a certain way, then they are more apt to be invited to the big boy’s table.  The same goes true for ‘fair-weather liberals’ who pretend to love diversity.  Their friends may be Chinese, Korean, West African, Aborigine, Swedish, Argentinian, Cherokee, Algerian Bedouin, and Finnish, yet they are most likely very much in the same social class, and act in certain ways that are palatable, and perhaps with the same politics and socio-economic level that is evident.  How does urban street African-Jamaican develop in the light of the globalizing world?  Is it ‘their’ culture?  Oppression has very much to do with it.  What has been ‘allowed’ and ‘accepted’ by the dominant is allowed and accepted.  How can one get beyond that which is a history?  A history is not just a bunch of events of the past, no longer alive right now.  Everything has to do with everything.   So a person’s diverse friends are made to prop up someone’s self-image as a ‘good person’ who has a lot of ‘diverse friends’ and therefore he/she is not a racist right?  All of these friends may reject an urban street Latino or African-American or Vietnamese from the ‘other side of the town’ even though his views may be similar to the group of diverse friends.  Of course, we are not supposed to be friends with everyone.  This is not my point.  The point is:  What are we AVOIDING, refusing in our goodness?

Many of us read the many things that are going on in this world, to stay informed, and to critically reflect, and to read things we’re not comfortable with, in order to get the fuller picture.  Many of us do the opposite.  We read what we like, then we believe it to be true, and we ignore the rest.  In addition, we add moral judgement to it.  That’s good and that’s bad or that’s neutral.  But most of the time, we don’t know much about it.  We only know ‘our’ version.  We want to be oh so Good.  And in this being ‘good’ we stay away from what we think is bad.  We are told that certain things are bad.  The school textbooks and many of our teachers and our judges and the police and our corporate managers, and our social work institutions, have already pre-determined what ‘good’ is, and we follow it.  Then we create our own moralities.   So everything is self-evident.  Except that there are many things we have ignored and built opinions and truths about, and form conflicts and evasions and silence about, that may need to be looked at more seriously.

In getting ‘beyond’ something, what assumptions are being carried?  Racial differences are bad, apparently.  If we ‘get beyond’ our racial difference, then we are truly arrived at ‘human.’  This is a big problem with a certain way of looking at ‘human.’  I have had friends who think that everytime I bring up racial/ethnic differences in perspective, and the history of oppression that informs the views and the difference, to call me someone who is ‘bringing up the race issue.’   As if it was not something that SHOULD be brought up.  When it is brought up, what happens?  Conflict.  Perhaps discomfort. Why?  From those friends’ perspective, if I would’ve never brought ‘race’ up, then there would not be any conflict.  They are dead wrong.  There is already a DIFFERENCE.  The conflict happens when there is a REFUSAL on their part, to accept, acknowledge, ADMIT, be concerned with, and be an ALLY to what I bring up.  These ‘friends’ will not accept MY RACE and all it has to say.  Isn’t this right?  The issue is not that I brought up race.  The issue is that these people REFUSE the DIFFERENCE it brings from a supposedly KIND and BENEVOLENT UNIVERSAL human being which is the CORE, apparently.  This CORE HUMAN seems to have No History, No acknowledgements of the power relations that go into decisions and marginalization and empowerments, No differences acknowledged.  The conflict stems from the structure of their assumptions.  It is LOADED with racism, sexism, etc.   It is not that these friends are hateful, or evil, or not nice.  But at the same time it is about that.  IT is because they have chosen to go to the COMFORTABLE location and position of the Universal.

The Universal human being is a tactic of assimilation.  At any moment, after all the poor blacks and homosexuals and mixed race people and the poor white hillbillies and the poor starving Indians and Africans and the reservations and the chemically-bombed and malnutritioned people and all the others, have been successfully annihilated through complete assimilation, that is when they would come after something else for complete control and dominance.  In the mean time, all of us in the DIFFERENCE camp will be thought of as terrorists and nuisances.

So, I refuse to move BEYOND in order to be judged by whom YOU might consider me NORMAL, GOOD, WHOLE and complete as a universal human being which we supposedly are ALL trying to get to (manifest destiny & Christian cultural dominance in our thinking).  Progress, Evolution, change, getting better, being better, evolving, growing, maturing.   These words are great words that I think are helpful and can move us.  However, most of the time, the above words are used to assimilate, destroy, belittle, talk down to, ignore, refuse, forget, and to commit genocide ultimately.  Getting OVER and MOVING beyond are tools for us to oppress ourselves into becoming that which we desire.  We have been made to desire so that will LIVE a CERTAIN way, and to buy certain things.  Nowadays, we’re not thinking it strange that the very people who run the world have gotten us to drink bottled water without a peep.  NO, I refuse their idea of whom I should be.   That would be a SMALL PERSON in my book.  For you….too.  We can become much bigger, more just and more powerful as communities when we do NOT accept difference as CONFLICT. Difference is not the source of conflict.  REFUSAL and ignorance is.

At the same time, I will acknowledge that many people who have been through lifetimes of identities and positions that are ‘underclass’ in this world, no matter where we are, have chosen to want to BECOME the master.  When we do this, we take on many of the masters’ behavior.  We put down, we annihilate difference, we subjugate difference, we assimilate others we think are ‘lower.’

I hope that the success of this model of having us–more and more in this world–internalize the larger and globalizing colonization of the mind, would be deterred and we can change course.  WE may, if we take steps to think, reflect, and watch how we can become more honest with ourselves in a context where history and RESPECT for DIFFERENCE could be struggled with.  In this struggle, we must figure out how to make relations that are ethical and not continually demand everything we want all of the time.  THAT also comes from living in the present system.  Greed and DEMAND and isolation are brothers and sisters of internalized colonization.

Let’s not move BEYOND.  Let us move WITH, struggling to look deeply and to agree to a better world.  We cannot wait for those governing us.  And those governing us are creating new realities for us to be more dependent on them.  Look at our ravaged planet, which is rapidly becoming uninhabitable.  Let us work together WITH difference, to welcome struggle, and to also ask for ethics.

Partha Chatterjee information: http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/chatterjee/

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