- The American SubplotColson Whitehead's Post-Racial Allegory in Zone One
When Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, many people declared that the U.S. had become a postracial1 society. The conservative radio host Lou Dobbs, for example, said in 2009 that "We are now in a 21st-century post-partisan, post-racial society that is being led by those who are racial and those who are partisan" (The Lou Dobbs show, November 12, 2009).2 The Black novelist Colson Whitehead echoed these statements in a 2009 satirical op-ed for the New York Times. Mocking the idea of a post-racial society, Whitehead claimed that in "officially" becoming one, the U.S. had "eradicated racism forever" (par.1). As the self-declared Secretary of Post-Racial Affairs, Whitehead asserted that people of color simply suffer from a "branding problem," and coined a new politically correct term for people of color: "People Whose Bodies Just Happen to Produce More Melanin, and That's O.K. or PWBJHTPMMATOK" (par. 4). He joked that his next official action would be to tackle popular culture, including revising Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) by replacing an angry and hostile ghost with a more "Casperlike one," and re-imagining Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing (1989) to include a group of multi-cultural hipster Brooklynites who host a block party on a hot summer's day. By erasing all semblance of race as a meaningful category of identity in American culture, Whitehead pretended to promise that we could continue to live in a post-racial world where race no longer matters.
Whitehead's hyperbolic op-ed helps to illustrate the folly of the notion of a post-racial society and makes clear that, despite the 2008 election of its first Black president, the U.S. is not free from racism, racial injustice, or oppression. Though his article is meant to be humorous,3 there nonetheless remains an undercurrent of criticism leveled at those in the U.S. who have adopted post-raciality as a fact—a population Eduardo Bonilla-Silva identifies as "colorblind" racists (262). Bonilla-Silva explains that most white people would rarely identify themselves as racist; rather, they see race as an irrelevant factor in the U.S., declaring that "they don't see color, just people." The concept of colorblindness helps white people justify racial inequality, allowing them to believe that the higher levels of incarceration for Black men or residential and school segregation have nothing to do with race. Instead, [End Page 60] white people link these glaring disparities to personal choice or "natural" inclinations to remain within distinct racial or ethnic communities.
Colorblindness dismisses what people of color in the United States have always known, and what poet Langston Hughes gives voice to when he declares, "America never was America to me;" or more significantly, "There's never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this 'homeland of the free'" (Hughes 5, 15–16). Nearly eighty years later, racial inequalities continue to exist, despite the desire of white people to believe the U.S. has moved beyond them. In fact, as Stephanie Li points out in Signifying without Specifying 2012) the use of "post-" denotes this wish:
the urge to identify "post-" moments of social development reflects a desire to be done with the complicated legacies of oppression and inequality that still plague our nation. This totalizing gesture implies that fulfillment of liberty and justice for all, the promise of an ideal America at last made true, as if the wrongs of any nation can be neatly surmounted with a prefix.(4)
Here, Li argues that tacking on the prefix "post-" to the concept of race indicates a conflation of race and racism so that the "end of race" signifies the end of racism too. Therefore, as discourse on race becomes irrelevant, a means of effective change also becomes irrelevant. Li, like Bonilla-Silva, claims that this conflation of race and racism is just another "iteration of the misguided aspiration for 'color-blindness'" (3), and a way to both ignore and erase the legacy of race...