- Racial Experience as Bioculturally Embodied Difference and Political Possibilities for Resisting Racism
Introduction: Race as a Social Problem
In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois addressed the question "How does it feel to be a social problem?" (1). In 2008, Moustafa Bayoumi answered the same question for Muslims in the United States. Both Du Bois and Bayoumi provide powerful critiques against any notion that racialized minorities are inherently problematic. Both men generally argue that one cannot blame racialized minorities for the ill treatment they endure under systematic oppression. Du Bois and Bayoumi are two of many voices fighting against the popular stigmatization of racialized peoples that include public intellectuals, civil rights activists, politicians, community leaders, educators, and many others. One of the things that all these voices have in common is that when it comes to the civic/political sphere, the question of race is always framed as a political problem. This should continue to give us all pause for thought: we only know of race in the civic/political sphere as a problem in need of a solution.
Of course, we can explain that race is a problem because it is conceptually married to racism; consequently, efforts to undo racism often task themselves with a critique of the idea of race or racial groups. In the United States, this is a historical and cultural fact that is understood as the consequence of how racial ideology was tied to political economic exploitation (Harrison; Fredrickson; Nash; Wolfe, ch. 2). Historically, the North American academy has taken seriously the equation of race as racism. During the Progressive Era, scholars from the emerging social sciences formulated a critique of the relationship between race and biology, on the one hand, and social marginalization and structural disadvantage, on the other hand, that rendered racist ideologies as nothing more than prejudiced and oppressive (Hobbs and Torres Colón). This critique was pushed by public intellectuals seeking to reconceptualize race as culture, and they invited the American public to think of race as a [End Page 131] social construct in order to dismiss the racist notion of biological determinism (Baker).
However, as I have argued elsewhere with colleagues (Benn Torres and Torres Colón; Hobbs and Torres Colón), thinking of race as a social construct prevents us from considering the full range of experiences that are racial in nature and, more importantly, how those racial experiences might affect cultural, social, and political formations. Once we learn to think about human biological diversity without the concept of race, we must still deal with the full range of racial experiences that are bad, good, and mundane. It is true that racialized peoples cannot be made responsible for their marginal condition because of racism, but people still experience race in ways that profoundly affect how they make a meaningful existence for themselves in this world. Here, I want to examine experiences of race that are not necessarily racist in order to substantiate a theory of racial experience as a biocultural extension of embodied difference. This approach follows previous work that, following Thomas M. Alexander, argues that embodiment occurs "with every instance of sensed collective bodily distinction. This sensory experience extends from the cognitive to the non-cognitive and is always aesthetic at the point of collective bodily distinction" (Benn Torres and Torres Colón 308). Finally, I will return to the question of anti-racist politics vis-à-vis the theoretical proposition of racial experience as bioculturally embodied.
Race as Lived Experience
When theories utilize conceptual language that already exists as folk theories (i.e., everyday parlance, political rhetoric, or news media), it is easy to read the latter into the former. Therefore, it is important to explain why I choose to retain the word "racial" in my universal concept of "racial experience," which I will argue is a form of embodied difference. For instance, I could argue that race is simply a form of embodied difference, and then point out that embodied difference also occurs with social processes of gendering, ethnic formation, and class formation. Such an approach would reproduce the current institutionalized approaches in social sciences to diversity. However, I think it is...