Understanding both race and gender can seem difficult at times. Concepts can be illusive and definitions can feel like they change mid-course.
What if it turns out that it doesn’t just seem that way – it actually is that way?
An article that has been very helpful to me is by Troy Duster called “The Morphing Properties of Whiteness” in the book The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness.
His approach moves us from an ‘essentialist’ understanding of race to an elemental one. That is my phrasing, not his – but it holds great possibility for discussions around race and, I would add, gender.
It is in vogue today to say that is race is not a biological reality (DNA, science, etc) but is instead a socially constructed category. That is fine and true BUT that does not help us deal with historical and ongoing effects of race and our previous racial understandings.
In adopting a “Morphing Properties” approach, it gives us a framing metaphor of steam/water/ice to help distinguish between abstract concepts (gas), fluid definitions (liquid) and concrete consequences (solid). It also acknowledges that things can change very quickly. His personal story on p. 123 is telling.
I have been using this article for over a year in whiteness workshops, church settings, and in the classroom. It seems to help people make sense of an overwhelming, complicated, and elusive topic. This gives them an entry point without their white fragility causing them to get their hackles up right away.
I have also started utilizing the elemental approach to gender with those who have inherited an essentialist binary of male/female. I am working here off of Elaine Graham’s Transforming Practice where she engages Judith Butler’s notion of perfomativity. (see below)
I’m arguing that masculinity is performed and that whiteness operates on a performative register.
My thesis: We enact and embody (concrete) our understandings and ideas (abstract) in a fluid environment of social relationships (liquid).
This is a conversation that I would very much like to have in 2017 so I wanted to recommend this article.
If you are looking for a good paperback, I would suggest How The Irish Became White.
If you want a good (and inexpensive) Kindle book, The History of White People is a doozy.
I have written on this elsewhere:
A unique aspect is the use of Judith Butler’s notion of ‘perfomativity’. Think of actions and the roles that we play in society like learning a language. The social structures and conventions that we participate in are both reproduced by us (as we utilize them) and they pattern us internally. We are formed by them as we conform to those expectations. She explains:
Practice is therefore structured behavior which follows certain rules or patterns. However, social actors are not unthinkingly rehearsing social conventions but purposefully reproducing them. Thus social structures are ‘reproduced social practices’ that endure to orient ‘the conduct of knowledgeable human agents’. (quoting Giddens)
Graham is very clear that there are powers at work and structures that are reinforced as practices are adopted and transmitted through social relations and activities. Religion, like literature, medicine, and other structured activities, is both embodied and transmitted as we are simultaneously agents and actors within these given forms. “Practice is constitutive of a way of life, both individual and collective, personal and structural.” In this way we both conceive of ourselves as free acting agents and are perpetually aware of the limited options on our menu and sense the perimeters (boundaries) that are heavily policed. “Practice both reflects and reinforces social relations and ideologies.” Ideas come from somewhere, beliefs are grounded in some inherited framework, and practices (even religious ones) have effects both within us as participants and simultaneously reinforce the given structure.
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