Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sawyer seminar - on 'race' relations

The Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was awarded a Sawyer Seminar by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to host a series of events during 2010 and 2011. The Seminar is to be used to develop fresh perspectives on the quandaries and puzzles of the present democratic moment in South Africa from the vantage point of the relationship between race, property and poverty and justice. More information on the series is available on http://www.sawyerseminar-wits.co.za/

The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) is hosting the series, and the first reading group on Old and New Racial Formations began last week. Over the next months, participant will reflect on the readings and the discussions on race. This posting is by Brigitte Bagnol.

Please feel free to participate in the developing conversation by posting comments.

On ‘Race’ relations: Contours, lines, frontiers and borders

Taking upon Joan Scott’s invitation (1988: 44) to use her analysis of the process of construction of gender relationships to analyse other social process such as race, ethnicity and class, I would like to embark in this challenge adapting her model to “race” relations.

Paraphrasing Scott (1988: 42-49) my definition of “race” has two main parts and several interrelated elements. “Race” is a constitutive element of social relations based on perceived differences between people of different physiognomic and or physical characteristics but also of distinct linguistic and ethnic/national groups. “Race” is one of the social markers signifying relations of power. It can be a primary or a secondary way of signifying relations of power depending on the context and the structures of power of which it forms part.

Relations between groups of people of different origins or physical characteristics are also very often informed by perceived differences based on class and which are used to maintain unequal economic relation. But, for this reason, transformations in the forms of production and exploitation create different relationships and different forms of perceptions between people of different physical characteristics or origin. This is so because relations of alliances and conflicts evolve over time according to forms of production and exploitation thus modifying social boundaries and opening possibilities for the establishment of new forms of relations between people from different social classes and groups.

Social relations based on perceived differences between people of different colour and groups are influenced by factors that are specific to a context, thus stressing the importance of an emphasis on localised analysis. But they are also informed by a world history and globalized economic and cultural policies. The latter might explain why “race” relations and expressions of asymmetries, marginalization and discrimination have many similarities in France, United States, Brazil or South Africa although the history of these relations differs widely.

The question we need to ask is in what conditions and under which discursive and political situation specific differences become a determinant characteristic of relation between people? Among the factors shaping perceived differences between people of different colour/ethnicity/nationality one can distinguish the symbolic order which includes the language, signs and norms as well as the political and legal system; and the subjective identities.

1- Cultural symbols and norms (here I am condensing two categories developed by Scott)

Myths, lends, cultural concepts about colour/ethnicity/nationality associated with social value offer representations about differences that set up hierarchies. By example, dichotomic vision of white/black, pure/impure, light/dark, life/death, luck/bad luck, good/evil have influenced and might continue to influence perceptions of people of different colour/ethnicity/nationality. Cultural symbols are found and reproduced in context such as kinship, religious, educational, healing, political and legal systems and contribute to the creation of iconic and fixed identities in opposition to a reality of contestations and challenges of these symbols and norms.

2- Political context and legislation available

The national policies of inclusion or exclusion of different groups according to colour/ethnicity/nationality might or might not open possibilities for (re)imagining boundaries of identities and (re)thinking old culturally constructed archetypal identities. Policies such as Black Economic Empowerment in South Africa or the institution of racial quotas in Brazil contribute to the reformulation of identities or the fixation of identities based on colour/ethnicity/nationality.

3- Subjective identities

The search for a colour/ethnic/national identity evolves through a more or less transitory and circumstantial fixation at a certain time, in a given circumstance and along the life cycle. People with a basic colour/ethnic/national identity may play out a different colour/ethnicity/nationality identity depending on conventions, personal interest and social pressures. As queer studies indicate, identity can be separated from the physical body allowing people to experience identity without embodiment of physical characteristics. People in situations of migration experience the anxiety of non-identities, des-identities or trans-identities in-between borders, continents at the margins of assigned identities and in the process of creating a new identity. There is not a unique and monolithic way of being and feeling that one belong to a specific colour/ethnic/national identity as other markers of social identify might interfere or even supersede. Thus, aspects such as intersectionality (gender, age, kinship, lineage, religion, education, class) and performativity also need to be considered as they have a significant role in shaping perception of differences and social relations among polychromatic, polyethnic and polynational groups and individuals.

By Brigitte Bagnol

Scott, Wallach Joan. 1988. Gender a Useful Category of Historical Gender Analysis. In: Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 28-50.

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