Our research for this project has in no small part consisted of encounters with sticking points and stickiness of various kinds: methodological, conceptual, political, ethical.
One of those areas in which we keep getting helpfully stuck, as a project team and in the many rich conversations we’ve been having with our research participants, is the vexed terrain of terminology. How to define ideas such as ‘race’, ‘racism’ and ‘whiteness’ across and between terminological cultures so that necessary and difficult conversations about those ideas can begin? The concepts and social formations central to our research have been defined over and again (by activists, artists and researchers) in conflicting ways that stake out positions, declare allegiances, (re)configure power relations and that make certain kinds of thought/action (im)possible.
The definitions we’ve been thinking through are too numerous to list within this blog post. But here’s one reflection on the problems of defining ‘race’ that has been on our minds lately. Academic and poet Chris Chen includes this Addendum on Terminology in his 2013 article ‘The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality’.
ADDENDUM: ON TERMINOLOGY
“Race” has been variously described as an illusion, a social construction, a cultural identity, a biological fiction but social fact, and an evolving complex of social meanings. Throughout this article, “race” appears in quotation marks in order to avoid attributing independent causal properties to objects defined by ascriptive processes. Simply put, “race” is the consequence and not the cause of racial ascription or racialisation processes which justify historically asymmetrical power relationships through reference to phenotypical characteristics and ancestry: “Substituted for racism, race transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object.”5
I have also enclosed “race” in quotation marks in order to suggest three overlapping dimensions of the term: as an index of varieties of material inequality, as a bundle of ideologies and processes which create a racially stratified social order, and as an evolving history of struggle against racism and racial domination — a history which has often risked reifying “race” by revaluing imposed identities, or reifying “racelessness” by affirming liberal fictions of atomistically isolated individuality. The intertwining of racial domination with the class relation holds out the hope of systematically dismantling “race” as an indicator of unequal structural relations of power. “Race” can thus be imagined as an emancipatory category not from the point of view of its affirmation, but through its abolition.
Footnote (5): Barbara J. Fields, ‘Whiteness, racism, and identity’, International Labor and Working Class History 60 (Fall 2001), 48-56.(emphases in the original)
To read the full essay:
Chris Chen, ‘The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality: Notes Towards an Abolitionist Antiracism’, endnotes 3 (September 2013), https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/chris-chen-the-limit-point-of-capitalist-equality