I’m revisiting Jodi Byrd’s book The Transit of Empire right now, as I work on revising my dissertation. There’s some disagreement between my advisor and myself about my use of her theories, in part because I didn’t incorporate her as effectively or as precisely as I like, and in part because he finds my harsh criticisms of the United States and liberal humanism to be, well, too harsh and unyielding.
So I’m revisiting her to ensure that I do her work justice, and also to look for ways I can remain strong in my arguments and find the nuance appropriate to the voice of a graduate student. Or, perhaps, appropriate to the voice of an academic, since I find that academic voices are much more interested in conservation than I realized when I decided to enter the hallowed halls of the Academy.
As many will guess, or already know, I have little patience for this kind of thinking, especially as I remain longer and longer within the academy. I return again and again to Lynn Worsham’s definition of the intellectual: one who challenges rather than conserves. I resist the idea that my work needs to conserve anything, especially concepts of the United States as a nation that has ever been great, or that is founded on anything other than bloody crimes.
But that’s too harsh. So I’m working on a more nuanced approach.
I’m happy to revisit Byrd, anyway, because her text is rich and I get more out of it with every reading. I also find myself in need of a refresher on some of my theory because I started this project a while ago and some of what I’ve read gets lost or muddled with the rest.
In the introduction, Byrd establishes some key problems with postcolonial studies, and also discusses racialization and the myth of the postracial in the United States. This is helpful for me in large part because I take issue with the habit of ethnicity studies to deracialize. Yes, that’s right. I’m taking issue with the conflation of ethnicity and race as the same categories, rather than viewing them as overlapping or related concepts. J. Martin Favor provides a pretty good reason for this line of thinking, and I’m inclined to agree with him: renewing a focus on race requires us to confront irreducible and sometimes irreconcilable differences, whereas ethnicity tends to come out on the side of unity, which too often actually means “assimilation.” The focus on difference doesn’t seem to be all that helpful in discussions of race, on first glance, but I find the focus on “but we’re all part of the same human race” or “race is superficial and there’s no real difference between people” to be counter-productive to the idea of equality. Why is it that we have to focus on sameness to agree that all humans deserve equal treatment, equal human rights? This is actually counter to the idea of liberal democracy, counter to the idea of humanism, and counter to the idea of multiculturalism. If we must all be the same to be deserving, then that really isn’t equality at all. Focusing on the difference, then, is where we face the real challenge of developing a truly humanistic society, and perhaps a way we really could move on to post-racist society and government (I don’t say post-racial; I say post racist because race isn’t the problem; racism is).
What’s really striking to me in Byrd’s intro is her discussion of the ways Indianness has been used to build the United States, but also to oppress indigenous peoples in the same moment. This is something I’m working out in my dissertation, too. It’s a tricky area to look at, because much like chivalry in the Middle Ages, when it comes to women: “Women were admired, looked up to. Surely that meant their situations were improved.” Yeah, no, not really. Not at all, tbh. Maybe for the aristocracy in some really limited ways, but not for anyone else. In a similar vein, people often say “But look! Everyone was inspired by Native Americans! We couldn’t be treating them badly! We respect their culture!” But respecting cultural traditions means nothing when you’re still engaged in land theft. Incorporating Indianness into the identity and nation building stories of the United States attempts to erase or at least gloss over the facts of treaty violations and various forms of genocide. As Byrd says, increasing the ability to participate in the government and increasing “inclusiveness” isn’t actually enough to fix the problems of continued racism and cultural oppression.
More as I continue to read and write.