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  • The Color of Eros
  • Carlos Ulises Decena (bio)
The Erotic Life of Racism. Sharon Patricia Holland. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. xii + 168 pp.

The Erotic Life of Racism is a challenging and necessary text. It is provocative because it explores an often-neglected problem in feminist, queer, and critical race studies: race and racism are embedded in collective values and hierarchies, but they are also central to the organization of desire. Conversely, desire may seem autonomous and individual, but this perception neglects grappling with our investments in the reproduction of social inequality. Throughout Holland’s study, these two insights operate in relation to one another, exploring the erotic and its political implications for future studies of race, sex, and power. But through these two points, Holland also accounts for the relationship of eros to quotidian racist practice in social justice activism and theory.

Holland holds critical race theory as her “first grounding” (3) in this study, orienting some of her central contributions to that field. “Can work on ‘desire’ be antiracist work? Can antiracist work think ‘desire’? What would happen if we opened up the erotic to the scene of racist hailing” (3)? When set next to one another, these questions move Holland’s conceptual horizon toward a definition of the erotic that travels between moorings familiar to feminist and queer studies—“family, generation, and desire” (10)—to everyday relations, “the feeling that escapes or releases when bodies collide in pleasure or in pain” (6). In this way, Holland’s “erotic” opens up space for considerations of intimacy, proximity, distance, and the sensations they produce in contexts that include erotic/sexual encounters, kinship formation and reproduction, and interpersonal relations. These sites bear the traces of scripts shaped by a racist culture built on assumptions about how white and black bodies are supposed to relate to one another. One such quotidian, resonant scene stands at the beginning of the book, a personal anecdote of an encounter with a white woman at a parking lot that puts pressure on the more banal sense of the erotic. This banality, Holland suggests, demonstrates [End Page 578] how the “black/white binary” is not a matter of historical record—to be “left behind,” as some of Holland’s interlocutors in the field suggest—but a “psychic continuum” (29) that saturates the social. Efforts to move “beyond” the black-white binary neglect the resilience of the psychic dimension of that binary and inadvertently keep it in place.

The study is divided into three chapters and an extended, hybrid conclusion, in which Holland turns the theoretical exegeses of the first three chapters into an analysis of sensation, touch, and racism in William Faulkner. Chapter 1, “Race: There’s No Place like ‘Beyond,’ ” focuses on critical race studies and argues for the relevance of the intimate, the quotidian, and the emotional to the texture of everyday racism. Chapter 2, “Desire, or a ‘Bit of the Other,’ ” provides a panoramic view of the sex and pornography wars that were foundational to the emergence of queer studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, Holland explores and critiques the problematic (and gendered) politics of queer studies work that has argued for the “autonomy” of desire. Finally, she zooms in on the rift between a (black) feminism viewed as identitarian versus a queer studies project neglectful of the larger social dynamics shaping desire. The third chapter, “S.H.E.: Reproducing Discretion as the Better Part of (Queer) Valor,” interrogates the persistent problem of thinking feminism and queerness together with a disappearing “colored” body, particularly the bodies of queer women of color. Holland explains that the persistence of an erasure of queerness as it is conjoined with blackness and femaleness tells us something about the conditions of possibility under which such figures can be engaged. Seen as “too narrow” or even “too identitarian,” “black.female.queer” names an absence that is constitutive of fields such as feminism and queer studies. In no small way, this erasure is reminiscent of the erasing of black feminist scholarship in both feminism and race studies, a parallel that suggests that black.female.queer desire may constitute the unthinkable for all these fields...


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pp. 578-580
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