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[Readings]

Color Theory

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From Afropessimism, which will be published this month by Liveright.

In February 2001, I attended the Race Rave conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with my wife, Alice. Between two hundred and three hundred activists, scholars, students, and others met “to explore racism and the intersections of oppression, to promote reparations and healing, and to develop the framework for a truth and reconciliation process in the United States.” It was billed as the first of a series of such gatherings on college campuses across the country.

The organizers told us to break into groups that reflected how we were seen by the police. This meant that there would be a white group, a black group, a brown group, a red group, and a yellow group.

The non-black people of color were angry. They demanded a say in how they were categorized. The organizers said that being pigeonholed was the whole point: that the police treated you as a color and ignored your cultural and ethnic singularities, and that the purpose of the exercise was to assume the police’s gaze and see what came of the discussion. “That’s the exercise!” “Let’s get to it!” “Right on!” roared up from the blacks.

And it might have gone down like that. But something unexpected happened. One group of people who had formed part of this scrum of discontent became more vocal than the rest. But they didn’t voice their objections on the basis of cultural integrity. In fact, they mobilized the same term as the organizers: “race.” They were biracial (one black parent and one white parent) and they didn’t want to be “pigeonholed” as black (though they didn’t say that they would be just as irate to be “pigeonholed” as white).

The organizers were stunned. Stymied. But not by the argument. It was the affect, the bodily performance of the biracial contingent. They postured and gesticulated in a manner more stereotypically “black” than biracial. In other words, their loud talk, their indignation, their runaway-slave rage made the organizers quake. It worked like a charm. The organizers gave the biracial people a room of their own.

Each group was given the same sheet of paper with the same instructions and discussion topics. We were to come up with ways to talk about what happened in our groups with our “allies,” when we returned to the plenary session ninety minutes later.

The first thing the blacks did when we were alone was to tear the sheet up and throw it away. We realized that the regime of violence that subjugated us could not be reconciled with the regime of violence that subjugated our so-called allies. What had happened in the auditorium confirmed this. In other words, what the organizers had prompted was a realization that racial oppression has two, not one, regimes of violence: the violence that subjugates the subaltern and the violence that subjugates the slave, or the black.

Once we had liberated ourselves from the constraints of having to make our suffering analogous to the suffering of the other people of color, something truly profound occurred. For me, someone who was beginning to move on from Marxism to what would later be called Afropessimism, the session was instructive because I was able to see and feel how comforting it was for a room full of black people to move from a discussion of the spectacle of police violence to the banality of microaggressions at work and in the classroom, to the experiences of chattel slavery—as if the time and intensity of all three were the same. No one, absolutely no one, said, “Hey, hold on,” for example, when a young woman said that she was forced to breastfeed all the white people at her job like she’d done on the plantation. No one said, “You’re speaking metaphorically, right?” The room simply said amen and right on. It was a collective recognition that the time and space of chattel slavery shares essential aspects with the time and space—the violence—of our modern lives.

Folks cried and laughed and hugged one another and called out for the end of the world. No one poured cold water on this by asking, “What does that mean—the end of the world? How can you say that? Where’s that going to leave us?” Or, “How will we make sense of the end of the world when we go back to speak with our ‘allies’?” The dangerous fuse of the black imagination had been lit by nothing more than the magic of an intramural conversation. No one wanted it to end.

With thirty minutes left, a sense of dread set in. Someone floated the idea of not returning, of just going home. But someone else came up with a better idea: we would go back in and refuse to speak with them. Not a protest, just a silent acknowledgment of the fact that we would not corrupt what we had experienced with the organizers’ demand for articulation between their grammar of suffering and ours.

Now there was movement outside our door. We looked up, thinking that the organizers had recalled us early. But when we opened the door we found the entire group of biracial people, people whose hyperbolic “blackness” had rescued them from our room. They were greeted with grunts and cold stares. One of them asked if they could come in. Silence.

I broke the silence by saying, “You never left.”

Their discussion had centered on the presumption that they could access the social capital of civil society. Their talk had ranged from what a special place on the U.S. Census questionnaire could mean for their mobility and their quest for recognition on what they had described as their “own terms,” to the gut-wrenching conflicts they experienced in the tussle of allegiance in their individual family lives. In other words, how do we honor both parents, white and black? But this discussion didn’t have the gravitas needed for ninety minutes; eventually, they turned to police violence. It wasn’t long before they realized that to meditate on this through their biracialism wasn’t going to get them anywhere. No cop had ever said, “Look here, I’m going to shoot you in the shoulder and not the heart, because you’re only half black.”

When we returned to the plenary session, the room took note of us—all of us. The organizers asked us who had been designated as the spokesperson for our group.

“We have decided to remain silent,” I said.

“Can you say anything?”

I said all that I had been mandated to say: “We had a good session.”

“Well, we can see that!” they said. Then they asked the biracial group to speak. One of them said, “We ended up joining the black group.”

The room was puzzled. But no explanations were forthcoming.

It went south from there. The whites reported on their bric-a-brac dialogue. The white women said it was important to divide the room along gender lines and have a discussion about how women fare under patriarchy. Several people said they were Jewish and that perhaps they should have pressed the organizers for their own room. One white man said that it was important for them to do a round-robin in which each person should name the state they lived in before they came to California. One by one, they began to shout the names of states where they were born and raised, and they would have descended into personal narratives had Alice not exploded.

“This doesn’t have a damn thing to do with our relationship to the institution of policing! Let’s get back on track.”

But no one was willing to get back on track. Alice was shut down because the exercise threatened the most constitutive element of whiteness: white people are the police. At a deep, unconscious level they all intuited the fact that the police were not out there but in here, that policing was woven into the fabric of their subjectivity. No wonder that the discussion veered away from a conscious encounter with this horrifying aspect of their structural position and became a chorus of declarations about gendered identities and stories about their sojourns to California. And, conversely, no wonder that the black people, in their room, understood that no kind of psychic or material immigration would ever be expansive enough to open such doors to them—to Alice and her people. But for the non-black people of color, access remained a possibility.

The discussions among the Asians and Latinos and Native Americans had begun with questions of violence and ended with questions of access: immigration policy, Spanish in schools, Indigenous casinos, and sovereignty. It was clear: the articulation was between the whites—whose access to civil society was so unquestioned that they had no reason to question the regime of violence that fortified it—and their junior partners, who were anxious for expanded access. None of these groups were antagonistic toward civil society itself. What they embodied were gradations of marginalization.

The organizers had divided people up on the basis of their color—how the gaze of the police perceives them. But only one group of people is essentially subjugated by this kind of gratuitous violence. The blacks. The slaves. For all the other groups of people, there is a certain contingency that interrupts, as well as makes legible, the violence of the state. These people must transgress, or be perceived to transgress the law before the anvil of state violence falls on their heads. For the blacks, the slaves, no notion of transgression is necessary. The pleasure of maiming black bodies is its own reward. It is this pleasure that divided the conference not into five colors, but into two species: blacks and humans.

But the non-black people at the conference could not comprehend or explain this a priori species division between the human and the slave. The black people and, ultimately, the biracial (black) people knew this, if only intuitively. But the terrain wasn’t fertile enough for that knowledge to flourish. The black people were shackled to the cognitive maps of their well-meaning masters.


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April 2020