by J J Cohen
Yesterday GW MEMSI sponsored its spring symposium "Race?". I'd put the event together rather quickly, mainly because I'd realized that the Institute had inadvertently been dwelling in a temporal ghetto (I use that word deliberately): while the topics we examine are of wide interest, we hadn't made a sufficient effort to include our colleagues and students who specialize in later periods in our conversations. Because my own work on race bears the tangible impress of the time I've spent at GW, I figured that this most vexed of categories -- the contradiction laden nexus of culture and nature -- would provide an entry into a wide-ranging, transhistorical discussion. Fellow GW faculty members Jennifer James, Tony López, Andrew Zimmerman, and Tom Guglielmo joined special guest Ayanna Thompson (about whose excellent work I could fill several blog posts).
I opened the event by projecting one of my favorite images of a racialized other, the Saracens I examined in Medieval Identity Machines who impersonate their own race via masks (you can access the image from the Grandes Chroniques on my personal home page). I wanted to foreground the "thickness" of race-in-motion from the start. Each panelist then gave a brief presentation. Topics ranged from Phyllis Wheatley's poetry of resistance to the early modern stage to Cuba and the "post-racial" to World War II military racial classification schemes and the problems they created. Even though no one had conferred ahead of time, every presentation had much in common: the protean nature of race, conjoined to its ability resist historical change; the violence that race has enacted; the perplexity it has engendered; the centrality of performance to race; its multiple category overlap. Although we spoke briefly about the pleasures racial affiliation can offer, for the most part we focused upon the social injustices that seem, eternally, to go hand in hand with racialization.
The audience of about seventy was engaged, offering excellent questions and guiding us into contemporary debates over what "colorblind" and "post-racial" might signify (especially when right-leaning pundits opine that we are "post-racial" because our current president was actually elected), and how such a declaration might serve to render invisible lasting economic and social disparities. Many who came that afternoon were students in my "Myths of Britain" course, who have a sweet way of following me from place to place like that. About eight of these young men and women are seniors in the nearby School Without Walls, who are allowed to take several college-level courses at GW in a system I helped arrange while I was department chair. Because it's a DC public school, SWW is racially quite diverse. The students are typically very good, and speak up regularly in my class. Yesterday it was one of these students who reminded me of the power of utopia.
This student -- let's call him R. -- has never volunteered in class and isn't doing as well in the course as I would like. I could see that he was becoming agitated during the discussion of the falsity of "post-racial." After I suggested that since we have never been pre-racial, we are never likely to move to that "post," his hand shot up. "When I look around my school," R. said, "I see people who date across the race. I see people who don't think about race. Race doesn't matter." His fellow students nodded their heads; a few then spoke with reverence about the world they inhabit, where everyone has a chance to be the person they desire.
At that moment I knew that I and the panel were being rebuked. I guessed that what R. and classmates were saying was: don't tell me that the world is and always has been so fallen. Don't tell me that my skin color is my unhappy destiny. Don't ruin my utopia. I thought for a long time before I answered. I remembered my student A., who at GW had never felt marked by complexion, but returned from her study in Paris achingly aware that the darkness of her skin declared her an Arab and ineligible for the same treatment that her friends enjoyed. I thought about other stories of hurt I'd collected; I've been a teacher for a long time.
I didn't want to tell these stories to R. I said: "First, I don't think you should ever believe an old person when he tells you how the world works. But now I will, and I hope you'll be skeptical. I've taught at GW long enough to have seen that many young people in their high schools and then at college are able to find a place where the color of their skin is not an everyday problem, and they say things like Race is a nonissue or Young people don't care about race any more. Some come back later in life and say the world has a way of making race matter, of telling them who they are in ways they shouldn't ever have to hear. My hope for you -- my fervent hope -- is that this never happens. I hope you hold on to your utopia, I hope you make your utopia endure."
I don't think he will. There is too much history that suggests otherwise. Utopia is nowhere. But to find a group of young men and women, some with dark skin, some with light , who for a year or two are not feeling the divisions that race imposes ... well, I'm not one to take that away, I'm not going to insist that they are naive, I'm not going to ruin the fragile thing they hold. I fear some day their hearts will be broken; I can guess too easily the hurt to come. For me, though, there is something refreshing, life-giving, and affirmative in the certainty of these 17 year olds that the scholars who were speaking to them about history and hurt are wrong.