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Posts tagged race
afrocaribbeanistlostatsea asked: have you ever read bell hooks' essay, "Postmodern Blackness?" there is a pdf through google. do you think post-modernism, or Eurocentric theories, are useful models to deconstruct 'Blackness'? i am thinking of the quote & title of audre lorde's "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."
I’m glad you asked about “Postmodern Blackness,” if only to bring more attention to the piece itself. In my view, “Postmodern Blackness” should be required reading for any black subject who wishes to engage in projects of Black liberation, particularly for the strong polemic against “authenticity” that she offers towards the end of the piece.
Her argument that projects of Black Liberation must be founded on the constant and ongoing interrogation of notions of “authenticity” is interesting when the trajectory of the academy with regards to questions of Blackness and Black identity tend towards essentialist notion of what constitutes the Black subject. Put another way, the current conversation on Blackness engages in the reinscription of dominant narratives that deny members of our own community a place to speak.
In this light, one can think about the moments when dominant voices demand that a “bougie black person” or someone with white passing privilege should “sit all the way down” due to the fact that their experience of racism does not correspond with the dominant perspective on racism. This is the very situation that hooks’ piece is struggling against: it is not that the “bougie black person” or white passing black people do not experience racism, it is that their experiences of racism are different. Recognition of this difference is to recognize the varied ways in which oppressors engage in the project of racism.
Denying this difference, for hooks, would be to reinscribe a master narrative that generates the notion of the “authentic” Black subject in line with white-supremacist constructions that present black experience only in a singular mode. Thus, for hooks, a recognition of the plurality of blackness is essential for the combat of racism both within the academy and outside of the academy.
Now, as for your second question, whether or not eurocentric theories are useful models to interrogate blackness, I offer an enthusiastic “yes!” Eurocentric models are generated with the white male heterosexual subject as the point zero around which the entire theory is oriented. Thus, the models necessarily hold up and reinscribe the structures wherein these bodies can be at home, and other bodies stand out. Thus, the problem is not the theory, but the subject position from which the theory emerges.
If we are to insert the Black subject into a Eurocentric model, the the whole of the model would have to shift because the orientation of the body around which the model is arranged is different. For example, when I deploy phenomenology to describe aspects of my lived experience as a black male subject, the entire system shifts because my lived experience is different. It is only when we assume the system as a universal default that the system fails to operate for anyone except white male heterosexual subjects.
Now, Audre Lorde’s quote has been used to justify the abandoning of any application of theory that seems “too white,” when really it is a recognition that the subject positions of white feminists were themselves upholding particular forms of oppression due to their orientation around the lived experience of white women. Thus, concerns of racism and homophobia would not be addressed by white feminist structures because they were designed for particular embodied experiences.
A tool has a function, and that function is based on the needs of the body that deploys it in order to expand its capacities. To this end, the tools of Eurocentrism have no need to confront racism because this is not a problem for Eurocentrism (for the most part). That does not mean that the tool is not useful, it just means that when a different body picks up that tool, it must be altered to accomplish the aims that the body sets for itself.
To this end, abandoning “the master’s tools” simply because they come from the “master’s house,” is a foolhardy strategy. I would advocate the taking up of the “master’s tools” and altering them so that they can accomplish the goals that we set for them. Phenomenology, for example, has been successfully deployed by Emily S. Lee, Linda Alcoff, Iris Marion Young, and Gail Weiss as a very successful tool to address the lived experience of women and people of color.
Lee and Alcoff, most notably, address the lived experience of racism, authenticity, and bi-raciality by articulating the ways in which phenomenology can be used as an effective tool for talking about the way race happens in the immediacy of perception without reflection through the orientation of our perceptions in the social world. Put simply, they used a structure that was designed to describe white male subjectivity and perception and turned it to offer one of the most thorough going conversations on the immediacy of racialized perception that I have read to date.
In my reading, the value of Lorde’s statement is to illustrate that if we use the master’s tools in the way in which he intended for them to be used, we will never be able to beat him at his own game. The tools need to be taken up and altered so that they can be used for our own purposes rather than simply discarded.
In order to properly use the tool for our own purposes, we must follow hooks’ model and understand the function of the tool, as she did with postmodernism, and the way in which the master has used it before we can turn it to our own purposes. The only reason why the master’s tools fail to dismantle the master’s house is because we keep using them in the way that the master taught us, rather than recognizing that the hammer he’s given to us can be used to break down the door to his manor so we can set fire to the place.