Shifting Categories of Race

In my last post, I mentioned in passing how the categories of race are in some ways imagined categories with shifting boundaries and content. A perfect example of this was pointed out at Sociological Images: “Laura A. sent in a video in which African American men ask people in Fuzhou, China, what race they believe people in some photos are.” The video is embedded below. I suggest reading the Sociological Images post for their analysis.

One of the things I noticed with the policing of race by the African-American videographers is the kind of “leading” they did to assert what they considered to be racial boundaries. The policing of race here I think serves a manifold purpose. First, it allows the videographers to position themselves as the arbiters of distinguishing race, which, second,¬† says more about them than those they interview. Third, this is connected to a larger discourse of race that plays out in North America connected to the politics of identity. That context is absent in China, which leads to part of the “humor” of the video.

The racial signification taken for granted in North America does not play out in the same way in China. On the other hand, the colonial legacy in China’s post-colonial lineage can be seen by the disturbed reaction of the Chinese boys who are taken aback by the suggestion that they are black. The policing of race by the videographers makes quite a lot of sense given the way race is handled in North America. Owning one’s oppression, in this case race, is a powerful tool in the strategies of social justice–so too does the strategy of authenticity. What I find interesting about the video is how it deconstructs itself. The very fact that the videographers are constructing a narrative that highlights the quite different context of race in China shows how much their own construction of race is itself historically contingent on the contexts that shape it. This redirects the narrative towards the ephemeral foundation of the category of race itself. By policing race in this context, the performance of racial essentialization brings into relief its own deconstruction. The polical strategy of owning an essentialized racial identity to resist the oppressive use of that identity against oneself works well in a racist social context. It is much less successful in context where the discourse of race has a much different structure. Perhaps it even falls apart when one Chinese interviewee argues that one of the videographers is not really black. While this could relate to a North American politics of authenticity where signifiers of blackness are policed within the African-American identity (i.e. you’re not black enough), I think it is much less loaded than in the North American context. Given the range of confused responses shown in the video by the interviewees, my guess is that the construction of race is happening at the very moment of the interview, it is being formed as we watch it. The designation of the one videographer as not-quite-black, and the Chinese youth as black, highlights the underlying shiftiness of race itself.

More can be said…

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