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  • Race and the State: Male-Order Brides and the Geographies of Race
  • Jacqueline Stevens (bio)

In his [ New Yorker ] article Philip Gourevitch modified one of my statements by having me say, “What do I have to do to not be racist? Marry a black woman? With AIDS, if possible?” However, as my recording of our interview shows, I said marry “a black person” (“ un noir “), and not a black woman” (“ une noire “). My expression, on this side of the Atlantic, has an obvious ironic meaning that Mr. Gourevitch did not pick up. I am sure your readers will catch all of its humor.

Jean-Marie Le Pen 1

Le Pen’s translation, as an effort at setting the record straight, is quite odd. The reference to “un noir,” a black—as in “a black person and not a black woman”—can mean only that Le Pen is speculating about marrying a black man (a person-not-a-woman). Also, he thinks it important to clarify that talk about marrying a black woman with AIDS is something we might take seriously, whereas we will catch the humor in his marrying a black man. Why? What is it about marriage to un noir that Le Pen finds so amusing? The “joke” is supposed to be funny because marriage is the kind of contract we just know that Le Pen in particular would only have with a White, French woman sans AIDS. That is because marriage is thought to suggest love and intimacy, which is why Le Pen thinks mocking this projection of political correctness is especially amusing. What Le Pen presumably does not realize is that the reason marriage is the punchline is that the institution does not just passively accommodate the racist prejudices of people such as Le Pen, but actively constitutes “un noir” and “une noire” in the first place.

When faced with the crudely stupid and harmful rhetoric of someone such as Le Pen it may seem off-point to focus on the sloppiness of his word choices. If the point of attacking Le Pen is to achieve inclusive, egalitarian norms and practices of the sort he so clearly despises, then the pursuit of precision in racial terminology is not the obvious strategy for accomplishing this. It would be easy to observe the unfounded bases of his disciminatory ideology and to respond with boilerplate liberal precepts that would highlight the logical and political inadequacies of policies that harm people based on crude measures of racial background. And yet, it is precisely because figures such as Le Pen, and organizations in the United States such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation, are the exceptional manifestations of more humdrum mechanisms of race that inquiry into the long-standing structures of race are important. That race may so often seem to be a harmless sort of difference, especially in liberal ideologies, distracts us from the governmental institutions and state forms that always inform racial taxonomies. That race-s are constituted and sustained by government agencies, and even more importantly, that races are reproduced through political territories of origin experienced as intransigent and immutable, means that there are no cases in which race is apolitical and no possibility for one’s race to be a form of being with emancipatory possibilities. While the practices associated with racial affiliations may vary quite widely, membership in a race depends on reiterations of exclusions and hierarchies that are epitomized in political societies. As opposed to some who argue that racism creates race, the contention here is that race always entails race-ism, just as much as gender differences always entail sexed forms of domination and that class entails exploitation. To see the character of the power particular to racial domination is to note its coincidence with, rather than its independence from, those expressions of power particular to the state form.

By virtue of functioning as the sine qua non of group differences, race is the culmination of political society, family, nation and ethnicity. To point this out is not to claim that racism is more virulent or pervasive than any other form of discrimination, nor is it to claim racial taxonomies have a...

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