African American Studies · american literature · Ethnicity Studies · graduate school · Native American Studies

Thoughts on Essentialism/Antiessentialism in (anti)Race Discourse

I’ve been reading lots and lots and lots and lots of theory lately. I have my comprehensive exams for my PhD coming up. I’m doing a lot with the concept of ethnicity in my work, since I decided to craft a reading list that looks at ethnic literature around the United States. I have some writers that are just in the main American literature canon, though they can fall into various categories of ethnicity (as we all can; the main canon just tends to be whiter than those categorized under “ethnic”), I have black American writers, and Indigenous American writers, and then I have theory to match.

The latest read is American Indian Literary Nationalism, a co-authored collection by Jace Weaver, Craig Womack, and Robert Warrior. I’ve encountered sections of this book before, in the first Indigenous literature course I took in college (which didn’t happen until I was a doctoral student; I never had the opportunity before that since the minority literature offerings were sparse at my undergrad and master’s program). I also encountered Craig Womack’s Red on Red at this same point. I was, to say the least, incredibly put off by his arguments, because he seemed to suggest that, as a non-Native, what I had to say about Native literature wasn’t as valuable. I much preferred the scholarship of Elvira Pulitano, who said that everything is hybrid so everyone can say stuff about everything. (her argument is much more complex than that, of course, but that’s what appealed to me at the time). Race, ethnicity, culture–none of it really matters in terms of poststructuralism right? Because all of that is just a social construct.

I still believe that race, culture, gender, are largely social constructs–the performance of these things, at least. But I have increasing difficulty with readings that want to be completely antiessentialistic, because it seems to be that these people are often overlooking the actual, material reality that is produced by these social constructs of race.

And I have to ask the question, is race all a social construct? I mean, there are physical differences between cultural groups. There are biological differences, in terms of skin pigmentation, bone structure, build, genetic dispositions for certain characteristics over others. So, when we look at these material realities, can we actually say that it’s all a social construct? And this is the really confusing part to me: why must we argue so vehemently for race being a complete social construct? So what if there are biological differences between races? Why is that, if we say there are differences, that suddenly becomes bad? I suppose what I’m beginning to notice, more and more, in all of these arguments for inclusion, for ending discrimination, is that at the root of these arguments I see so much that makes the argument that “We’re all the same underneath.”  But what if we’re not? Does that mean that, if we aren’t all the same, that justifies discrimination? That violence based upon race is justified, because the differences are material realities and not just constructs? Why is it that acknowledging and accepting biological differences is somehow automatically a doorway into racism? Why do we have to be “the same” in order to be equal?

Because in all of this antiessentialist discourse, in all of this argument that race is purely a construct, what often results is erasure of difference and an assimilation into the dominant culture. What often happens is that the dominant discourse gets to invalidate the oppressed discourse through dismissal of any shared cultural experiences because those experiences get to be labeled as essentialist, and therefore unworthy in the poststructuralist world.

Granted, there can be a lot wrong with essentialism–the initial attacks on it came about because it was being used as a way to justify discrimination. Africans were essentially inferior to Anglo-Saxons, so that’s why slavery was okay. Indigenous populations were inferior, so taking their land was okay. So the first move toward dismantling racism seemed to be getting rid of these essential ideas and generalizations about race.  But, now, that seems to have gone so far that a person within the ethnic/racial/cultural group doesn’t get to say anything about shared cultural experience, either. And that is also a sort of silencing mechanism and a form of oppression and racism.

Of course, I realize that essentialism within a group can also cause oppression. Labels of not being “Indian” enough, “Black” enough, etc., or in terms of gender not “woman” enough, “man” enough, etc. So I do understand the urge to avoid that, and the necessity of interrogating essentialism when it shows up.

But does it need to be erased? Is it always harmful? Is it always wrong? I repeat my earlier question: do we all have to be in the same nebulous state of sameness in order for there to be equal treatment? Why must we be the same? Why must everything be normalized in order to be valued?

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