The Madness of “Race”

I am a big Radiolab fan. If you aren’t familiar with them, RUN TO THEIR WEBSITE AND LISTEN TO THEIR PODCASTS.

They recently had two podcasts that blew my mind. The first one explored the backstory to a recent Supreme Court case — Adoptive Couple vs Baby Girl. Essentially, a young woman got pregnant and the father elected to sign away his parental rights. She decided to adopt out the baby, whom the birth dad never met. However, once the baby was adopted and being raised by a new family, the birth father was able to successfully sue for full custody. As a native American — an enrolled Cherokee — the birth father had special privileges under the Indian Child Welfare Act, which trumped the adopted couple’s rights … There are more nuances and details — go listen to the podcast!! — that I won’t get into.

No matter how the court ruled, I couldn’t imagine a clear “win” for anyone. One family was going to be royally f’d. But the case also had major implications for how race operates in relation to the law. Natives have special rights — their relationship to the land due to their indigeneity marks them differently within dominant racial structures. ((btw, one of my best friends, a native, always tells me that as a “race” person, I just don’t understand some things. And that is true. “Race” is a foundational structure in the social paradigm I grew up with and continue to operate within.))

The second podcast followed up with a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling and its implications for the Indian Child Welfare Act, the child, and the families that were involved. The court ruled in favor of the adoptive couple, but also in a very very narrow fashion that left the ICWA mostly in place.

However, what struck me about the second podcast (and what motivated me to write this post), was Radiolab’s decision to air the followup to the case with another story. This second story featured a family in Mississippi whose experiences directly illustrate the social fiction of race. The family is considered “black” though everyone in it can pass for “white.” The two adult daughters have chosen different affiliations. One considers herself white, whereas the other considers herself black. Intriguingly, the mother calls herself a “negro,” rather than “black” — more later about what I feel are the implications of this appellation.

I LOVE the fact that Radiolab aired the two stories together. I think it’s BRILLIANT for how they so ably demonstrate the inherent illogic and irrationality of “race” as a scheme for categorizing people. The family is “black” because everything about the community where they live has enforced social perceptions of their blackness. It’s fascinating. The daughter that has chosen to pass as white — Ally — described her transformation. And it really was as simple as a change of dress and *most particularly* of ATTITUDE. She became white because she insisted upon it and made friends with folks who believed her.

Blood quantas are still applied as a rubric for determining indigeneity. Baby Veronica is something like “1.2%” Cherokee. Though the court ruled in favor of the adoptive family, they did not recategorize baby Veronica’s Cherokee-ness. The family in Mississippi similarly has a very minor quanta of “Negro.” I’m not even sure how far back in their ancestry you’d have to go to find Africans. But this perceived quanta, however tiny, was the basis for the family’s recognizability and categorization as black.

There’s been a LOT of race talk in the national media, thanks to the George Zimmerman case and the Paula Deen debacle. I won’t even get into those.

However, I think that all these things taken together help illustrate two things: Firstly, the FICTION OF RACE is incredibly powerful. It’s a narrative, a social projection, that we continue to hold onto. How does one apportion out “blood” or bodies in terms of percentages, anyway?? Biology simply doesn’t work like that. It demonstrates that race is actually cultural, though we continue to imagine it is somehow fundamentally biological. The fact that the southern family identifies and therefore operates as black illustrates this. Yet, the fiction of race’s POWER lies in how it muddies these distinctions while simultaneously stabilizing itself as something it is not.

Secondly, these podcasts help illustrate that as a fiction, race is ultimately a TECHNOLOGY FOR SUBJECTION AND OPPRESSION. Subjection refers to the social processes that make a person legible or recognizable to the state. In the US, race is a primary — if not dominant — way we are visible to others. Wow, is that evident with those two southern daughters. And listening to Ally’s experiences growing up “black” before she elected to become white is heartbreaking because of the *utter* ridiculousness of it. I am not calling her suffering, or her sister’s suffering, ridiculous. The REASON for their mistreatment is beyond absurd. Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches came to mind. And just because the Cherokee father had certain rights within the purview of the ICWA doesn’t mean that his Cherokee-ness is a social “advantage.” Take a look at the history books. To be racially subjected is NEVER a good thing. That’s why “white” folks hold all the privilege. In this paradigm, they don’t have a “race.” I hope it’s clear, though, that “whiteness” is as much a racial fiction as anything else is in the race paradigm. It’s just the one that wins.

OH — about the way the mother in the family used “Negro” — I was struck by that, because it gets at the cultural foundation of blackness, I feel. It’s not about a visual or otherwise “racial” marker (race is usually imagined as skindeep AND penetrative). It’s an interesting term. It’s outdatedness points to its relationship to history in a way that “blackness” doesn’t. I think that woman is very smart to use that term. It’s a nuance.

There are like a thousand people who have written more intelligently and ably about all this stuff, but I thought these two podcasts were so incredibly illustrative. If you have the chance, please go listen to them.


North Korean propaganda reveals “the orphan to be the national symbol of North Korea, the figure, it seems, most capable of being revolutionary.  After all, just as the orphan is a broken link in a chain, so revolutions seek to create a radical break with history.”
Clare Callahan, Duke U. Human Rights Archive

This pains me to read. My father, my mother, the various people I loved — they have had written into their spirits this un-requitable break. Reft from ancestors, family, homelands, and languages, these orphans have populated my spirit. They have cut and swung out at each other, at themselves, in the way they reached for that space inside them which caved in. I swell with their novel vacuity, their bright, mourning eyes of impenetrable isolation.

There’s nothing romantic about an orphan. They are quiet — yes — because they no longer hunger; they dwell interminably at a loss. They move but everywhere they go remains for them the same. An isolation. A dystrophy.

Where’s the whip that lashes at this throat of history? The torn throat that fails to sing. To break from, to swallow without enunciating. To turn aside in the dust and moan.

I am going to have terrible, consequential dreams.


am I prepared

No beginnings as all beginnings. The greatest beginnings. To sow in flames.

How the body bleeds. To staunch a wound — is fire the only salve?

When you burn yourself, the body holds the heat inside for days. Oh that blistersome heat. It scorches, even after the ice packs, cold compresses, the gauzy salves or pursed lips in their loving, cooing administrations. To feel a sun press through you in the middle of the night. To have it murmur against your body while you turn in your sheets, the windows wide open and crickets churning in the grass. Let. Me. Sleep.

to ride a hysterical horse into the sea

He lifted up his shirt. Fat, bubbly blisters like plastic packaging populated and pocked his back. You need to go the hospital immediately. The largest were as big as quarters. I don’t know how it happened. I want to cry at how they softly–so quietly–cling like gossamer barnacles to his skin. My hand coils tight against my side. Suddenly, I can’t breathe.

The Delusion of “Post-Race”

This term gets floated around a lot. Post-race. Post-racial. It’s clearly a reactionary term. To actually believe in it as a fundamental standpoint is totally ludicrous.

It’s on my mind at the moment because I just read Amiri Baraka’s excoriating response to the anthology Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American LIterature. Baraka essentially points to the delusion inherent in trying to erase an entire sector of lived experience for somehow harming or reducing the artistic merit of work produced by non-white artists. I say non-white because only “white” artists are allowed be “free” from history and society. “Whiteness” doesn’t have a “history.” That’s why it tries to destroy everyone else’s. But that is a blog post for another day.

POST-RACE only exists when “race” ceases to operate as a structural framework for exclusion, limitation, and oppression. To pretend it doesn’t have power doesn’t make it go away. Artists often turn to the aesthetic or formal as a way of distancing themselves from the social and material, which I personally think is delusional. Ignoring your body doesn’t make it go away. It makes it wither and sicken.

I call race a consensual fiction, but that DOESN’T mean that I think the way to transform it is to ignore it. I call it a consensual fiction because the differences that “race” brings into legibility actually aren’t fundamental differences at all.

Baraka is a spitfire intellectual who has provoked on many occasions. I, for one, am a fan.

As an “Asian American” author, these sorts of questions are always on my mind. To be “Asian American” is always a question of being. HOW am I what I am being right now? This is a constant negotiation between me, my environment, and my social context. History runs through and around me always. I am never just “me.” How to channel all these things into something fundamentally different is my constant challenge.

I love poetry for how it can model alternatives in thought. To read a poem is to have your brain potentially rewired. As a social phenomenon, though, poetry also exhibits society’s best and worst symptoms. These sorts of debates — of grouping and privileging, of distancing and differentiating — these are power plays.

Let’s be Real. Actual. True.

Support for Wang Ping

Wang Ping is one of my favorite Chinese writers living and working in the United States. I first got to know her work through her poetry collections Of Flesh & Spirit and The Magic Whip. Her poems have a great sense of voice and social critique, play energetically with form, and find incredible resonances across languages that she richly explores. She’s also got a great sense of humor, which you don’t find often enough in a lot of poetry.

I was horrified to hear that she’s been facing discrimination at Macalester College, where she teaches. She finally filed a lawsuit. It’s brutal.

If you have a minute, please sign this petition on her behalf. By doing so, you can show that the world is watching what happens to her.

Click here for a few of Ping’s poems.