Michael Omi and Howard Winant, “Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s”

August 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

Hey everybody do you want to know how not racist I am? I’m so not racist that I don’t even see color! Because color is only skin deep. And/or we’re all pink on the inside, the end.

Sure except for no, race actually matters quite a bit — for every reason except skin color. Well, skin color in and of itself. But as Omi and Winant argue, skin color isn’t and can never be considered in and of itself, and that’s precisely the issue. Specifically, per them, race is politically contested and constructed both on a macro (social) and micro (individual) level. In short, the concept of “race,” which arises out of a particular historical and political and social context, renders arbitrary biological traits (i.e. phenotypes) symbolic. Traditional paradigms of race –understood in terms of ethnicity (identity), class (inequality) and nation (territory)– don’t take the symbolic into account, thereby reifying the assumption that race is a thing in the world.

But it’s not a thing, is neither epistemologically natural nor ontologically necessary. You can’t count it, you can’t hold it. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t “exist” in the experiential sense (fucking semantics, how do they work). After all, when faced with biological difference, our perspectival imperative is to call it race. And when we see someone being an asshole in response to biological difference, our neoliberal imperative is to call it racism. That said, what sets off the race bells –skin or hair color, facial structure, whatever– are not accidental. How and why and through which channels these particular traits became symbolically loaded is the ultimate question, and is what the authors argue must be interrogated. Because a lot is at stake! For one thing, unless we know what exactly we’re dealing with, how might we hope to mitigate the effects of institutionalized inequity?

At first glance, this is probably an odd concept to parse. Because wait, race isn’t real? Then how come that guy’s black? And does that mean there’s no such thing as Mexicans? –not stupid questions, given what racial formation theory asks of its audience, namely to imagine a world without racial ideology. It’s sort of like imagining –at least, trying to imagine– a world without capitalism. Every single thing we see and think and do is tied into nests upon nests of ideological assumptions so pervasive and so thoroughly naturalized that the very structure and coherency of our world seems to hang in that balance. The concept of “I” for example, or “you,” or the fact that by virtue of being me I can never be you. Monads and shit! We take these things for granted — not because this is really how the world is, but because this is how the world ended up. Omi and Winant call this process “racial common sense”; it’s no surprise that people look at you like you have fifteen penises growing out of your forehead when you tell them that race doesn’t exist (in the way people think it does).

Video related, this is exactly what Omi and Winant are talking about i.e. arbitrary characteristics taking on symbolic significance due to historical and political factors.

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