Or, "Reifying Race"
(A little something I wrote last year. It stewed, became relevant again, and embiggened. ~__^)I am not a monad: I'm not indivisible; I'm not a single faceless interchangeable part of a homogeneous greater whole; I am more than the sum of my concrete, measurable parts. And I will not be subsumed; I will not disappear.
This post is written from a U.S.-centric point of view.
My senior year of college, in literary theory class, I was taught the term "reification." It means, simply, "to make real." To take an abstract and to treat it like a solid, to take the theoretical and treat it as though it were tangible (in order to make it discussable at all). Also important -- to recognize that the intangible view of the thing is not necessarily less valid than the tangible, but that to fail to differentiate can be disastrous.
Example. "Democracy." Nice word. Positive connotations. Millions of people feeling warm and fuzzy when they hear it (a tangible result, come to think of it -- this is chemical, and therefore physically measurable ~__^).
Democracy is not an object. It cannot be bottled, or held in the hands, or studied in a lab. People cannot even agree on what it is. In the cantons of Switzerland, people go out and vote individually on issues. (It takes a while.) In the U.S., citizens
hold popularity contests
vote to choose representatives who will pack up and go to a small city that is not actually affiliated with any State and has no representation in Congress to go and vote on issues. (Still takes a while, actually.) In, what, ancient Athens or whatever, voting on issues happened, but only amongst a small elite group of resident men of a certain income. All of these places do/did describe what they were doing as "democracy."
It's fluid, it's abstract, it's subject to interpretation, and yet people refer to it as something that can be "spread" or "shared" or even "owned." We call it "living" and "vibrant" and add to it anthropomorphic and other traits that it may or may not have, but does not necessarily
have by definition
. Universality, desirability to all people, inherent moral value. We use the phrase "our democracy" (generally just a heartwarming little example of synecdoche in which "democracy" stands in for "nation," but sometimes as an actual possession) -- it is a very, very malleable and esoteric thing, but it would take a
prime idiot *coughGARYKAMYIAcough*
a really, really specific sort of intractable and nonempathetic mind-set to conclude that this sort of thing therefore did not exist
Just because something is not dissectible or viewable under a microscope does not mean 1. That it has no existence as a concept or 2. That is has no quantifiable effect on the lives of real people or 3. That it doesn't matter.
Democracy. Different sorts of "-isms." "Rights." "Citizenship."
(Er, has anybody seen a quark yet? I'm not a physicist. ^______^)
How far you wanna go? "Ethnicity"? "Language?" (Heck, Swedes and Norwegians understand each other quite well, and I've heard tell that some small subsets of Lithuanians are supposed to be able to muddle through Sanskrit. Difference between Hindi and Urdu? Nearly purely political. And when exactly does
a pidgin graduate to a patois, or a creole to a bona fide language?)
How fluid are these things, and who gets to define them, and how different are the things they bring to mind for different people? (Emphasis on the word "DIFFERENT." Which is not a dirty word.)
Since they're vague, since they don't "exist
" in any consistently, uniformly, universally quantifiable form, shall we put the kibosh on mention of all these things? Shall we deem them irrelevant? And go the rest of our days gingerly talking around
How 'bout "race?"( Especially U.S.-centric bits coming up now )Next-day edit after being COMPLETELY unable to let this go to an extent that scares me a bit:
I was gonna lj-cut that, but eh.
In light of the following, people need to be pretty effing circumspect when telling other people how to refer to themselves, I think.
1. Language was the first thing that enslaved Africans in the "New World" were deprived of in order to make them easier to control -- same-tribe/same-language people were separated at every opportunity.
2. Native Americans, same thing. In many learning institutions geared toward assimilating children speaking anything but the "target tongue" would result in corporal punishment. (Not even getting into the whole evangelism and rooting-out-of-previous-belief-system business.)
3. Gaelic languages have nearly disappeared because of this same thing. Really, it's an established technique across the board, I'd think.
4. 20th-century Japanese occupation of Korea, same deal.
5. Heh. As a kid, my dad sat up in his Port Antonio, Jamaica, elementary school singing "When I was an apprentice in fair Lincolnshire." Never set foot in England in his life. Okay, that one just makes me (and my family) giggle. I needed a giggle there. Shaddup. ^_________^
6. Groups of people who have managed to maintain a cohesive identity throughout exile, oppression and dispersion did it primarily through language
. Retaining the language enabled them to retain major, vital aspects of their culture. I'm thinking of Jewish people, Koreans in China, Haitians in New York City, Cajuns ...the folk of Bretagne, to an extent...
7. I am wrong, aren't I, in thinking this "oooh, don't talk in terms of race" nonsense only comes up when it's an Obama or a Tan talking about how who they are affected how they grew up and developed their sense of self, and not when a Watson is all "anyone who has had black employees knows
how blame stupid they are amIrite" -- right? It's because of the nature of the things I tend to read, right? SOMEONE must have used that argument against Watson. Right? RIGHT? *is plead-y* (It's still a crap argument, but it's far less infuriating when deployed against the vile. No fair, I know, I know...)
8. One of my UCL classmates was a Swedish girl who told me that because she had learned lit-crit in English, she could not do any of her assignments in Swedish -- she had trouble even thinking about her literary theory courses in her native tongue. She lacked the vocabulary. (Luckily -- as UCL is an English institution, I think I can safely call it that? predominantly English-language at least -- this conversation was pretty theoretical.)
9. Language matters