What's A Body to Do in a Post-Racial World?

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

This past weekend, at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting , I had the opportunity to hear a paper presentation by George Yancy , an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania.

ASA Program

In his paper, “Whiteness and the Black Body: Implications for Doing Philosophy in Black,” Yancy problematizes the abstract Cartesian statement “I think, therefore I am,” through a careful phenomenological consideration of his own (Yancy’s) existence as a raced body. Most importantly, Yancy argued his existence as a fundamentally embodied experience, as opposed to one that, in the Cartesian sense, could be abstracted into thought. To live in a raced body is to experience oneself as fundamentally not-abstract because all of the meanings of race happen at the site of the body.

Now, I’m not one for philosophy (as I have little experience with it), but the idea of embodiment has me quite excited.  Yancy’s careful consideration of the nature of living and knowing oneself as a raced embodiment got me thinking about the ways in which abstract notions of race have become problematic. Indeed, if “black” or “Latino,” if race is best understood as a lived phenomenon, then terms like “post-racial” could indicate a schism—a sort of “post-body,” that doesn’t allow for people who inhabit raced bodies to actually exist. Yancy’s ideas made me think about how race, while certainly inscribed by social practices, is inscribed onto the bodies of people. It is at this site—the body—that meaning about race is made.

Around the time that Obama, our so-called “post-racial” President was inaugurated, there was a horrific barrage of police brutality that was being inscribed onto the bodies of young black men. Oscar Grant, III of Oakland , Adolph Grimes, III of New Orleans and Robbie Tolan of Bellaire, Texas were all shot by police. Grant and Tolan were unarmed. Grimes was carrying a permitted weapon, and was shot 12 times in the back. Neither Grimes nor Grant survived. Tolan was shot in front of his own home, in front of his own family, accused of stealing his own car.

These are significant practices that inscribe race onto bodies. They were not new at the time of President Obama’s Inauguration. (Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Rodney King). Nor are they the only practices that inscribe race onto bodies (The Hottentot Venus).

Hottentot Venus
The physical experience of living in a black body in the United States is historically located in violence, starting with slavery. Nor are black bodies the only raced bodies that are inscribed by social practice. The war on terrorism is a war enacted on raced bodies. Every community of color has a story about social practices that are inscribed on their bodies to mark them as raced. Indeed, it is these very practices that mark them as “other.” 

Looking into my own life for understanding, I realize that my experiences of being black—both positive and negative—are also firmly rooted in my lived experiences. I remember being 12 years old and in church, when the pastor’s daughter introduced me to one of her friends. “Don’t worry,” she said, “Lydia isn’t a real black person.” I remember going to ask my father to interpret exactly what wasn’t real about me. He was at a loss for words (that is, until he saw the pastor the next day…).

I learned at the age of 12 that my blackness, my body, was something to be feared. I also learned that if I enacted specific social practices with my body, that people might be willing to “overlook” my blackness. But at the end of the day, my body, and how people were going to interpret my body, was inescapable. My blackness, my body, had to be explained away as unthreatening.

The abstract notion of a post-racial person of color, or a post-racial society, is not a possibility where race is an embodied experience, a set of social practices written on the body.

For the other people of color out there, I’m curious to know: what embodied experiences have you witnessed which lead you to understand that you are raced?

For the white people out there, I’m curious to know: what informs you about being white? Is it embodied experiences? Something abstract?