Blogbook - Chapter 1: What Is Race?
Entry 2 (Wed, 24 Feb 24)
What it means to be an antiracist literacy or language teacher starts with a deep, historical, and political understanding of the relationship between race and language. That is, you have to know how race has shaped languages, literatures, and all that those things mean in our society, and of course, in our classrooms, and in schools and colleges. So, an antiracist orientation as a teacher of language and literacy begins with a deep understanding of the history of race. Throughout this blogchapter, I’ll have to speak broadly, but of course, race and language are always intersectional, specific, location-based, and dynamic -- they are constantly changing, as Omi and Winant explain so well in their book, Racial Formation in the United States.
To inhabit an antiracist orientation and be an antiracist teacher, we need to have a vocabulary. This vocabulary gives us a set of assumptions and understandings about race, racism, Whiteness, and White supremacy in our society, its literatures, and its histories. The precise definitions of terms matter, and they affect how we inhabit or take on antiracist orientations in our teaching, or toward the materials we must teach. In the end, our orientations are the stuff of our pedagogies, teaching strategies, lessons, assignments, and assessment practices. Our orientations toward what and who we teach is the stuff from which our students learn. And our orientations come out of our language and its nomenclature.
For some, just learning about key concepts will be hard but important inner work. For others, these key terms and understandings may be a review of things that have not yet found their way into their teaching of literature and language. And perhaps still for others, the ideas and history of race and racism that I offer in this blogbook will be challenging. It may even make some readers feel guilty or upset. These are normal and valid reactions. Don’t shy away from them. Working through your reactions to the materials of an antiracist orientation is a part of what it means to be an antiracist teacher.
Your reactions, both intellectual and emotional, tell you about your current orientations, and suggest how you might reorient yourself. Most of us are not accustom to paying careful attention to our orientations.
To help you along the way, I’ll ask you to pause and write, to do brave inner work as you read this blogbook. That part of this blogbook is really important, if you are reading it to reorient yourself. Reading a book don’t make nobody an antiracist teacher. It’s your brave inner work that reorients you. You gotta make language of your own in order to reorient yourself. I hope you’ll take me up on this brave work. Antiracist work isn’t something one can do quickly, like all good, life-changing learning, it takes time. We soak in it, steep in it for years. I hope you’ll spend the time you need.
race noun (2)Definition of race (Entry 3 of 3)1: a breeding stock of animals2 a: a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stockb: a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics3 a: an actually or potentially interbreeding group within a speciesalso : a taxonomic category (such as a subspecies) representing such a groupb: BREEDc: a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits4 obsolete : inherited temperament or disposition5: distinctive flavor, taste, or strength (note 1)
Brave WorkWrite for 5 minutes.Read Merriam-Webster’s definition of “race” out loud slowly. Write down the words that have a biological and inherent association to them.Which words feel like they have the most meaning and weight to them as a way to describe “race” for you? Why are those terms so loaded and heavy for you? What are the nature of those words? How do they describe race (biologically, socially, politically, something else)?
Write for 5 minutes.
Think of a time when your perceived racial identity by others shifted or was different in some way than how you are typically understood by others. When did it happen? Who were you with and what was the context? What racial markers were read differently? Why were they read that way by others around you at that moment or time?
If your racial identity has never been perceived differently (that is, it has stayed the same for others) throughout your life in all situations, then consider why this is the case. What racial markers about you make such a stable racial perception of you by others? How are your racial markers read so uniformly? What would have to change around you or in your context for you to be perceived differently?
What, then, is a race? It is a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life. (note 2)
Don’t let the reference to “common blood” fool you. Du Bois was an historian and sociologist, so he was likely considering these things along such disciplinary lines. Yoking “common blood” with “language” suggests that he is referencing something like a common lineage or group from a particular area. This interpretation agrees with his other ideas in the essay and later in life. While his views on the subject continued to evolve throughout his life, race, for Du Bois at the turn of the century, was sociohistorical and well ahead of his White peers. (note 3)
(a) All men living today belong to the same species and descend from the same stock.(b) The division of the human species into ‘races’ is partly conventional and partly arbitrary and does not imply any hierarchy whatsoever. Many anthropologists stress the importance of human variation, but believe that ‘racial’ divisions have limited scientific interest and may even carry the risk of inviting abusive generalization.(c) Current biological knowledge does not permit us to impute cultural achievements to differences in genetic potential. Differences in the achievements of different peoples should be attributed solely to their cultural history. The peoples of the world today appear to possess equal biological potentialities for attaining any level of civilization. Racism grossly falsifies the knowledge of human biology.
Brave WorkWrite for 5-10 minutes.If race is sociohistorical, meaning it is constructed by people in historical moments and not real in a purely biological way, if the concept also refers to common language and cultural practices of an area and the people who live there, then can a phenotypically Caucasian person be Black, if they grew up and live in an area designated as a Black area, say East St. Louis or Compton?Consider the well-known case of Rachel Dolezal (also know as Nkechi Amare Diallo). She was born to White parents and had no verifiable Black ancestry. She represented herself as Black for years and was the President of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. She claimed to be Black and that her identification was genuine. How might this be true? What problems might develop from such a racial self-identification? If you so choose, could you identify as another racial group tomorrow? What would it take to be “authentic”? And what would racial authenticity mean for you then?
This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.