- The Habits of Racism: A Phenomenology of Racism and Racialized Embodiment by Helen Ngo
Helen Ngo. Lanham, MD:
Lexington Books, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-4985-3464-2. xiv + 193
pages. Price: $90.00.
Helen Ngo’s The Habits of Racism: A Phenomenology of Racism and Racialized Embodiment is an indispensable book for scholars working on race and the body. It offers an in-depth and insightful account of racialized embodiment that is in dialogue with major contributors to the field: Alia Al-Saji, Linda Martín Alcoff, María Lugones, Shannon Sullivan, Gail Weiss, and George Yancy, to name a few. Ngo’s mastery of the field is impressive, and it goes without saying that newcomers to it will find a helpful compass to guide them through contemporary phenomenological work on racialized embodiment.
The Habits of Racism is written in four chapters, all centered around the question of the character of racialized bodily experience. The first treats racializing bodily habits and makes a case for framing racism in terms of bodily habits. The second concerns the lived experience of racialized embodiment. The third examines the experience of not feeling “at home” in one’s body, a hallmark of racialized experience. And the fourth develops a comparative analysis of Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s accounts of the gaze in order to depict the objectifying character of the racializing gaze. While each of the chapters is rich in its analyses of [End Page 212] racialized bodily experience, Ngo’s work is most original in the third and fourth chapters. Accordingly, I spend more time surveying these chapters than the first two.
But, to begin, why frame the question of racism in terms of bodily habits? In chapter 1 (“Racist Habits: Bodily Gesture, Perception, and Orientation”), Ngo observes that “racism is not simply a practice that one engages in through conscious words or actions, and nor is it merely a set of attitudes held in thoughts” (1). Instead, she asserts that racism is “more deeply embedded in our bodily habits of movement, gesture, perception, and orientation” (1). In other words, racializing bodily habits constitute the background to more visible manifestations of racism, such as the use of racial epithets or overt racial violence. Ngo’s aim, then, is to probe this background. Having framed her inquiry into racism in terms of habit, she explores two paradigms for understanding habit: Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account of habit and Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus. In the sections on Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu, Ngo considers Iris Marion Young’s evaluation of the relative merits of Bourdieu’s work and phenomenology, and sides with Young in valuing Bourdieu’s work on habit because of it “extends to habit an explicitly social and historical dimension” (11) but in preferring a phenomenological framework to analyzing the habits of racism. It is worth noting that while this chapter discusses Young’s and Nick Crossley’s appraisals of Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty, there is no reference to Gail Weiss’s comparative work on Bourdieu, Merleau-Ponty, and William James in Refiguring the Ordinary (2008). This is a notable lacuna. Even so, Ngo’s defense of phenomenology as a starting point for understanding racism holds a lot of promise. It is well illustrated by her reconstructions of George Yancy’s phenomenological description of black racialized experience in his 2008 book Black Bodies, White Gazes and of Alia Al-Saji’s account of reactions to Muslim women in “The Racialization of Muslim Veils” (2010). In her discussions of Yancy and Al-Saji, Ngo drives home the point that the process of racialization is mediated by perceptual and bodily habits. It is also worth mentioning that Ngo enters into a regrettably brief discussion of the extent to which we are responsible for racializing habits; her view is that we are responsible for our habits, however reflexive and embedded they may be.
Chapter 2 (“The Lived Experience of Racism and Racialized Embodiment”) plumbs the experience of racialized embodiment. The central moments of this chapter include her discussion of the bodily and [End Page 213] existential...