Oakland 2006

One of the recurring quirks of (and gripes about) academic conferences has to do with scheduling. To be sure, conference organizers have it rough in this regard, since they’re pretty much guaranteed to make someone unhappy with whatever they do. No one, after all, wants to be on the first morning panel on the final day of a five-day conference — not when a third of the conference has already left town, another third is on their way to the airport, and the remaining third is still sleeping in after the final night’s revelries — but someone has to fill that timeslot. And the usual (and common) complaints about how “all the good sessions” are scheduled opposite one another are impossible to resolve, given that opinions about which sessions are “the good ones” will vary, so that making one subset of the conference happy this way will upset some other subset.

That said, some scheduling quirks are rougher than others. And the panel I was part of (as a respondent) at the 2006 American Studies Association conference wins the prize (at least in my oeuvre) for the least favorable scheduling ever. It was a fabulous panel — Margaret Werry, Shannon Steen, and Frank Guridy were the main speakers — and so it’s sad that only two other people in the world were there to witness it. But we had three strikes against us that day.

  • Strike #1 was that we were scheduled to start at 6 pm or so (give or take 30 minutes). ASA is fabulous compared to many other big conferences, in that it uses 105-minute sessions, rather than 75- or 90-minute ones. So there’s time for 3-4 20-minute papers and plenty of Q&A/discussion after. But a side effect of this benefit is that the days start early and run late. In this case, we were on the last session of the day, which put us up against many people’s (reasonable) desire for happy hour and dinner.
  • Strike #2 was that we were placed in a room that was as far removed from everything else as I’ve ever seen at a major conference. We weren’t just at the end of a long corridor on a floor that was separated from most of the other meeting rooms. We appeared to be in the only room on that floor being used by the conference. You would have to have been looking for the room to find it, and even then, it was easy to miss it.
  • Strike #3, though, was the one that killed our attendance. Directly opposite us on the schedule was Angela Davis. As part of a Black Panthers reunion. And while that would no doubt have drawn a huge crowd almost anywhere in the world, that session was undoubtedly extra popular that year, since the ASA was meeting in Oakland. I’m still sort of surprised that we had anyone in the audience.

All of which is a long set-up for another piece from the archives. Since it’s a response to three presentations that only 5 other people in the world were witness to, the odds are good, dear reader, that some of this will seem opaque (more so than usual, anyway). But I think there’s still a nugget or two here worth sharing.

First, by way of preface, I want to thank the panel for asking me to share the podium with them today. Especially since I’m not sure that the few words I have to offer in the wake of their presentations can do justice to their individual and collective labors.

Second, also by way of preface, I do want to make my response one of few words. Not because the papers we’ve just heard don’t deserve lively and sustained discussion, but precisely because they do — and the idea that I should monopolize most of the discussion time left in our session strikes me as unreasonable. So I will try to be brief, in order that folks in the audience have plenty of time in which to join in the conversation.


I am not a white man — nor do I play one on TV — but it is a role in which I’m cast with great regularity. Typically, this happens without my knowledge or my consent. I will simply be going about my business — riding the bus, shopping for groceries, teaching a class — and someone will say or do something that makes me realize that they’ve been working from a script in which I’m supposed to be playing the part of a white man. If past experience is a useful guide, some of you — maybe even all of you — have spent the past hour working from a similar script. It’s a common side effect of this costume I can’t seem to slip out of, this Crayola-and-BandAid-“flesh”-colored makeup that won’t wash off.

Less often — but still often enough to keep me off balance — I find myself cast as a black man in other people’s dramatic tableaux. This scenario is much more common in spaces (on stages?) where the local cast is relatively diverse. For instance, when I ride the Metro in Washington, DC — where I was born and raised, and where the resident population is overwhelmingly black — the odds that I’ll be read as just another light-skinned member of the black bourgeoisie are high enough that I’m no longer surprised when it happens. On the other hand, when I ride the light rail in Minneapolis — where I live and work today — this never, ever happens . . . but, again, if past experience is any guide, it’s probably only a matter of time before I find myself unwittingly playing the role of “local color” in the Twin Cities. As much as scripts of racial performance come with a certain measure of predictability, they’re inherently unstable: especially — though by no means exclusively — for mulattoes (like me) and other people with “ambiguous” racial/ethnic identities (such as the Maori actors dancing on the edges of Werry’s paper).

I start with this autobiographical note as a brief illustration of one of the principal themes that runs through all three of the papers presented here: the notion that this thing called “race” is not just a social construction, but — more specifically — that it is routinely produced and maintained through performance. At some level, of course, it’s old news that race is something rooted in culture (rather than a nature), a fairy tale invented and perpetuated as a crucial way to keep the machinery of Europe’s global imperialism greased and running smoothly. That old news, however, is also repeatedly erased from the dominant narratives of race that circulate through US culture: erased so thoroughly and consistently, that it’s only in audiences such as this one (and, even then, not always) that I feel safe in assuming that the idea might actually be generally understood and accepted. Put a bit too bluntly, for white privilege to maintain itself, it is necessary for race to be broadly understood as a natural way of dividing up the people of the world and as a natural logic by which the social order can (and should) be organized. Constructionist and performative visions of race won’t magically dismantle white supremacy and give us a racially egalitarian world — not by a long shot — but forceful reminders of race’s performative qualities (such as those articulated so eloquently by the panel) are a valuable and necessary part of any sustained efforts to make a world without racism into a reality.

More significantly, the papers presented here offer up complicated and nuanced understandings of how racial performance works. Individually, each of the presenters points to a different set of performative and political tensions that arise around different forms of racial identity in different historical conjunctures. Taken collectively, the diverse range of issues raised by the panel demonstrate that, even at the most general level, race is a dense and tangled thicket to navigate cleanly. Given the frequency with which naturalized narratives of race gravitate towards soundbite-laden scripts — black or white, check one box only, etc. — I think we need more discussions of race (such as the ones we’ve just heard) that emphasize the complexity, the messiness, and the unavoidable instability that characterizes the contemporary terrain of race.

For instance, Guridy’s discussion of the quasi-military costumes, the street parades, the oratory preaching, the uplifting music — and how important all of these were to the UNIA’s success and longevity as an organization — reveals the degree to which even separatist movements depend on embodied performance to produce what is arguably an essentialist understanding of racial difference. The Garveyan uplifting of the race, Guridy suggests, didn’t depend on the revelation of some hidden, essentialized quality at the core of the black soul, or on the removal of ideological blinders that prevented white folks from seeing the natural and inalienable facts of black goodness, truth, and beauty. Rather, it depended on the disciplined transformation of abject black bodies into proud bearers of a noble, but curiously ephemeral, “essence.” Garvey’s “uplifted” Negro differed from his or her racial peers precisely because of how he or she walked and talked and moved through the world: i.e., because he or she performed blackness in very specific ways.

Guridy’s insistence on using a performative lens to examine the Garveyites also helps to recuperate the work done by women to keep the movement alive. I’m reminded here of Virginia Woolf’s discussion of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister and how, given the paucity of written record on (and from) Shakespeare’s female contemporaries, Woolf had to imaginatively reconstruct what life would have been like for female would-be playwrights in Shakespeare’s time. Guridy has a marginally more tangible set of historical records on which to draw, but he also has to extrapolate from a very thin archive in order to reveal the forgotten labors of Garveyite women: a feat that he can only accomplish because of the perspective offered him by performance studies.

Guridy ends the longer version of his paper by asking “how the potentialities of performance can enrich transnational organizing against social inequality in the present.” Presumably without planning to do so quite so explicitly, I think Steen’s paper offers a detailed analysis of one potential answer to that question — the performative public policies enacted by the San Francisco Chinatown Chamber of Commerce in response to the SARS panic of 2003 — even if that answer is a somewhat fraught one. It is, however, the tensions and contradictions in this unusual form of (dare I say it?) “dinner theatre” (sorry) that make Steen’s analysis an important one.

To be sure, as Steen notes, the “Chinatown Summer Scrubdown” could plausibly be read as reinscribing racist visions of Asian bodies as inherently “unclean” and reinforcing the long and problematic history of Chinatown’s status as a never-ending theatrical extravaganza for the amusement of white audiences. At the same time, as Steen suggests towards the end of her paper, it’s also possible to read the Chinatown response as an active and self-reflexive use of “performance tactics as a defense against . . . theatricalized abjection.” Greil Marcus once described the Sex Pistols as a band who “used rock ‘n’ roll as a weapon against itself”: a tactic that failed to provide a permanent solution to the bloated excesses of the rock formation circa 1976, but that did succeed in changing the rules of the game in important and valuable ways. In Steen’s analysis, I hear traces of an argument that the Summer Scrubdown functioned as a community’s use of theatricalization as a weapon against further theatricalization.

I’m not interested in resolving the tension between these different interpretations of Chinatown’s post-SARS performance tactics — and Steen’s research on the subject would undoubtedly allow her to make a much better informed case, either way, than any argument I might offer here and now — but I would like to make one other comparison here to underscore the productive value of the tensions that Sheen brings to light for us. In her sublime Seeing a Color-Blind Future, Patricia J. Williams discusses another problematically racialized tourist space: the various black churches in Harlem that are included, against their will, on the Manhattan tour bus circuit. Williams describes how church services are routinely disrupted by flocks of white tourists who come in late, chatter loudly, and leave as soon as they’ve drunk their fill of “local color.” Williams is deliciously and appropriately scathing in her condemnation of the racist presumption that black worship — the most sacred and intimate form of community performance — can be treated as just another commodifiable experience for white pleasure . . . but there’s also nothing in her description of the Harlem situation that resembles Chinatown’s active efforts to respond to a particular racist form of theatricalization with what might potentially be a more progressive one.

Werry’s paper echoes and extends Steen’s emphasis on the spatiality of performance in productive ways — but I think it also offers a different potential answer to Guridy’s [unspoken] final question about the use value of performative models of race than Steen’s paper does. If Steen’s discussion of Chinatown suggests a way that performance tactics might be used to combat discursive and institutional racism, Werry’s discussion of neoliberalist nation-building and “post-racial” global cinema suggests that comparable questions are already being addressed by people on the wrong side of all those racial inequities . . . and that the racial ambiguities inherent in particular bodies and spaces are already being re-mobilized and re-articulated so as to forge a “post-racial” world order that somehow manages to dislodge the stability and fixity of all racial categories except whiteness. Without wanting to dispute Werry’s reading of her chosen terrain at all, as I thought about her argument more, I found myself — and this probably reflects my own fascination with certain contemporary aspects of technologically driven media subversion — wanting to do a sort of mini-“mash-up” of her analysis of Lord of the Rings [which appears in the longer version of her paper] with Tolkien’s story: a mash-up where “The Ring” becomes “mashed-up” with “whiteness.” What is it, after all, that simultaneously renders you invisible and (potentially, eventually) all-powerful when you put it on? “One race to rule them all, one race to bind them . . .”

This is obviously not a cheery note on which to end. And while it would be tempting to conclude with something cute and hopeful about how we need to find our own Frodo to undertake the impossible quest of carrying the burden of whiteness back to its maker so that it can be destroyed, Werry’s withering (and insightful) critique of the racial politics of the basic Tolkien tale makes that something less than a viable solution in this “mash-up” version of the story. So let me try to offer a different impossible answer — though it’s also far from flawless. The putatively white editors of the “new abolitionist” journal Race Traitor write:

The rules of the white club do not require that all members be strong advocates of white supremacy, merely that they defer to the prejudices of others. The need to maintain racial solidarity imposes a stifling conformity on whites, on any subject touching even remotely on race. The way to abolish the white race is to disrupt that conformity. If enough people who look white violate the rules of whiteness, their existence cannot be ignored. If it becomes impossible for the upholders of white rules to speak in the name of all who look white, the white race will cease to exist. . . . How many will it take? No one can say for sure. It is a bit like the problem of currency: how much counterfeit money has to circulate in order to destroy the value of the official currency? The answer is, nowhere near a majority — just enough to undermine public confidence in the official stuff.

In their own roundabout way, I think that what Race Traitor’s editors are calling for here is also a potential answer to Guridy’s [unspoken] final question about the possibilities of dismantling racial hierarchies through performative tactics. Will this work? Hell if I know. But I do think that we need to find something in the way of new tactics to try. ‘Cause the old ones don’t seem to be doing the trick.

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