In the wake of ever more spectacular and spectacularized developments in the science of genetics, calls for a dialogue between humanists, social scientists, and life scientists on the “reality” of race, and the meaning of that reality, are beginning to appear with a certain frequency in the English-speaking press. The latest one, by geneticist David Reich—published in the March 28, 2018 edition of the New York Times—caught the attention of the co-editors of this volume for the way in which it highlights the stakes of our scholarly efforts. In this piece, Reich places himself in the position of the concerned scientist who believes that his “genetic studies and discoveries” have proven, without a shadow of a doubt, that the division of the human population into “races” has firm “biological” grounding, and therefore he fears that if humanists remain blindly attached to what he calls the “orthodox” view of race as a “social construct,” soon bona fide racists will mobilize the rediscovery of genetics to justify their racism. Hence Reich’s call for humanists to recede from their social constructivist orthodoxy and open themselves up to a dialogue with rational, and well-meaning, scientists like himself.
So, let us have this dialogue, but let us have it as peers: each expert (or group of experts) seeking to identify blind spots in the other’s approach. Reich’s problematic science has already been corrected by the 67 scholars who promptly responded to his letter, but what that response fails to critique is the “discursive construction” of the category of race in Reich’s article. This construction—to which Reich is entirely blind—takes place when he casually interchanges the terms “race” and “population” with those of “genetics” and “biology,” thereby naturalizing (this is, after all, what “social construction” means) their equivalence so that the ideologically loaded terms of “race” and “genetics” can be neutralized and reabsorbed by the inoffensive panacea terms of “population” and “biology.” The social construction of both “race” and scientific “discourse,” therefore, is what is at stake in Reich’s call for an interdisciplinary, public dialogue with humanists and social scientists. Our first order of response is, and must always be, that of highlighting the performativity of both discourse, in general, and race, in particular, which are in fact the focus of this fourth volume of Zapruder World.
All of the volume’s contributions—spanning over a century and four continents—examine the different practices through which race has been, and continues to be, experienced, emphasizing the myriad ways in which the construction and reproduction of racialized discourses has interacted, and in many cases collided, with the practices which implicitly underpinned them. Each of the volume’s articles explore the spaces where race has been negotiated and socialized, and, in so doing, they reformulate prevailing analytical frameworks towards unraveling the modalities by which race has been constructed as a performative identity through specific practices, strategies, and experiences. Additionally, each of the volume’s articles explore the tensions which emerged between racialized institutional practices and patterns of quotidian resistance. This particular focal point mobilizes an understanding of identity which seeks to move beyond “identity politics” by addressing the underlying sociological processes of identification while, simultaneously, highlighting the flexibility of racialized discourses in everyday life towards the deconstruction of the notions of race created by those very same discourses.
Today, race continues to shape the cultural, economic, and political landscapes of our societies. Despite a widespread consensus among scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences regarding the social construction of race, the phenotypic characteristics by which we are frequently identified as members of specific racial groupings continue to permeate our social experiences. Discursive, social, and political discriminatory practices have an undeniable structural continuity, and their persistence continues to be fueled by the enduring racial imaginary, as well as vocabulary, of nineteenth-century European racism. The embodiment of racial experiences changes the way in which others perceive us, the way we perceive others, and the way we perceive ourselves. Even at the level of supra-national politics there still exists much confusion. While the European Union denies the existence of biological races, a number of member countries have passed legislation aimed at combatting racism and racial discrimination, which, of course, indirectly acknowledges race as a factual—whether social or biological—category.1 Furthermore, many public authorities in Europe have invested a considerable amount of energy in establishing ethnic or racial categories for national censuses and affirmative policies. These are not marginal issues, for they recenter race as a principal category of social, and legal, existence, even in today’s “post-racial” societies.
One of the central issues raised by Critical Race Studies (CRS) is the ordinariness of race in shaping the social worlds around us. To quote the words of Toni Morrison, we live in “a wholly racialized world,” in which the banality of contemporary racism and violence is expressed in our daily lives as a normal mode which shapes “the daily experience of most black people.” Racism saturates everyday life in a variety of unnoticed ways. Even when race has no institutional voice, it permeates the ways in which people relate to and look at the world, their individual aspirations, and their awareness of themselves as individuals and as members of a larger community. Building upon recent contributions made by Critical Racial Theory (CRT) and intersectional studies, the articles in this volume explore the myriad roles race has played within individual and collective identification and behaviors, as well as the ways in which people socially or discursively reproduce themselves.
In “Black Music Styles as Vehicles for Transnational and Trans-Racial Exchange,” Veronica Chincoli explores the racialization of musical styles in London and Paris between the 1920s and 1930s. By investigating the nature of inter- and cross-racial musical exchange, she sheds light on how the popularization of these new musical styles introduced changes in both contexts. Chincoli’s research focuses on the transmission of knowledge that characterized the reception of these new styles, claiming the centrality of the urban experience in the circulation of black genres through the creation of different spaces for music—such as theatres, concert halls, nightclubs, but also musical schools—as well as through personal encounters. In her analysis, she demonstrates the importance of examining racialization via the prism of its historical locality, investigating the everyday practices of musicians in order to understand how cross-cultural exchanges—facilitated by a common urban experience—developed new and conflicting perceptions of blackness.
Similar topics and themes are explored in Christine Kelly’s article, which focuses on the life of African American folk singer and activist Odetta, whose musical career was labeled “the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement.” Odetta’s biography provides the author with the opportunity to explore negotiations of racial identity in relation to the search for individual and social freedom. The life of this prominent African American figure takes us into the social and cultural context of the Civil Rights Movement, highlighting her contribution to the movement not only through benefit concerts and fund-raising initiatives, but also through her lived experience as a black female performer. Focusing on how Odetta combined “performance and story to link the ‘individual’ to the ‘social’ and vice versa,” the article shows how she exposed and challenged the role that racist cultural norms played in shaping black subjectivity.
The next two articles, by Caroline Merithew and Angelica Pesarini, focus on Italian colonialism. Merithew deals with colonialist and especially anti-colonialist movements during the Italian-Fascist occupation of the Horn of Africa in the 1930s. According to Merithew, the Italo-Ethiopian conflict offered oppressed subjects the opportunity to “slip” through the cracks of long-standing and available racial binaries, by deploying the familiar categories of race and gender in order to respond to different forms of colonial oppression. By investigating women as active agents in the “Keep Ethiopia Independent” movement, Merithew shows how they succeeded in shifting both discursive and quotidian dimensions of race and gender relations, and shaped the people’s lived experiences under a system of racial oppression.
In “‘Blood Is Thicker than Water’,” Angelica Pesarini investigates the multifaceted implications of Italian colonialism in East Africa in order to shed light on contemporary discourses of race, citizenship, and belonging. Pesarini applies the lens of performativity to the analysis of juridical norms that regulated the right to citizenship for “mixed race” children born in the colonies during both the Liberal and Fascist periods. By arguing that legal norms served as a primary tool through which the racialized body was performatively and discursively constituted in Italian East Africa, Pesarini’s essay demonstrates how the notions of race which informed these norms produced the black body. At the same time, the article also documents the modalities through which racialized subjects challenged the fragility of the color line divide.
Articles by Susanne Schotanus and Elisa Ivana Pellicanò plunge into the tensions between collective identities and personal agency from a more contemporary standpoint. Although focusing on different processes in different geographical settings, both authors investigate the globally significant issues of sexuality and beauty, highlighting the dichotomy between fantasy and reality. Schotanus’ article on race play draws our attention to the complexities at the intersection of pornographic representation and race relations. Starting with and analysis of the so called “ManyVids controversy of 2017,” she investigates the conflation of racism and race play in the staging of people associated with different racialized backgrounds in different power positions in BDSM-practices. The article explores what the author calls “representationalism”—that is, the way in which individual sexual choices become a collective problem, and come to constitute the basis for how we understand race play dilemmas. Furthermore, Schotanus’ article focuses on the development of a more productive vocabulary necessary for a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences between race play and racism.
Along similar lines, Pellicanò’s article explores the back and forth between “Westerness” and “Japanese-ness” in the making of female-oriented hair styles in contemporary Japan. Her analysis of the ambivalent exoticism that surrounds the foreigner (gaikokujin) tackles the capitalistic commercialization and fetishistization of whiteness, complicating the ways in which the concept of race is constructed in a setting that has been often considered “Other” by the Eurocentric gaze. The desire for “Westerness” in Japan, Pellicanò argues, does not necessitate the adoption of whiteness in any essentialized form but, rather, operates as a selection mechanism which transforms “Westerness” into a beauty-enhancing accessory without overriding its original racial features. Although the existence of a global beauty industry has the effect of propagating a Eurocentric ideal of beauty, Pellicanò’s research problematizes this relationship by demonstrating the ways in which ideas of “Westerness” have taken on ambiguous meanings among young Japanese women.
The performativity and fluidity of race in contemporary quotidian practices, which emerges in Schotanus and Pellicanò’s contributions, acquires further nuances in Rosa Fong’s documentary Deconstructing Zoe, and her accompanying commentary to the documentary, which conclude this fourth volume of Zapruder World. In the documentary, Zoe—the film’s main protagonist—narrates her life story as a gender-fluid performance artist and individual who was raised in a Chinese family in Malaysia. Now living in the United Kingdom, Zoe recollects the experience of both racism and tranmisoginy that have affected their life and hones in on the personal, cultural, and economic implications of the exotification of Asian women and the portrayal of Asian men in the West. In her essay, Fong explains and expands upon the key themes explored in her documentary, highlighting the ways in which the categories of race and gender are culturally constructed by staging the interactions, collisions, and superpositions of different identities, such as the Chinese men/East Asian women dichotomy and their Western counterparts. The fluidity of gender, sexuality and race lies at the core of Zoe’s performance, questioning any and all essentialist notions of racial, cultural, and gender stereotypes.
Countering notions of race as either a fixed biological reality or a social phenomenon that can somehow be “measured,” the articles in this volume demonstrate, on the whole, how forms and practices of racialization are performed in specific ways and in different contexts, so as to deepen our understanding of identity-construction processes. Increasingly, performativity itself has been foregrounded as a vehicle for spreading awareness about race’s social constructivity. To conclude with Kwame Anthony Appiah:
If you build something you can rebuild it socially. […] The idea of ‘race’ as socially constructed is not only true, but it gives the opportunity for people to try to think what damage racism has caused in the world; that allows to reflect on the fact that we have ways of reasoning which are dead-ended, and, equally, that we can decide if we want a history that develops from certain assumptions or not.”2
- “Since all human beings belong to the same species, ECRI rejects theories based on the existence of different ‘races’,” The European Commission on Racism and Intolerance has written, continuing: “However, in this Recommendation ECRI uses this term in order to ensure that those persons who are generally and erroneously perceived as belonging to ‘another race’ are not excluded from the protection provided for by the legislation.” See ECRI General Policy Recommendation No. 7 on National Legislation to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination, adopted on 13 December 2002, p. 5.
- Gabriele Proglio, “Il colore coatto della subalternità,” Il manifesto: quotidiano comunista, February 19, 2015, https://www.ilmanifesto.it/il-colore-coatto-della-subalternita/.