Monday, September 8, 2008

How NOT to Read a Book

Let me take a minute to respond to a popular misreading of my new book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness. I should probably call it an under-reading, not a misreading, especially since I’ll be talking with my students just this very week about the extent to which readers always co-construct what they read.

Writers lose interpretive control of their cultural productions once those things start circulating, and most authorial attempts to sanction particular interpretations (while disqualifying others) represent the epitome of futility. Readers re-write books in (or against) their own ideological, emotional and political image. But that doesn’t mean that the author won’t have a stake in pushing back against certain glosses.

I just read a short review of my book in the magazine Color Lines. The reviewer, Julianne Ong Hing, tries to argue that I mistakenly privilege a psychological reading of racism over a structural one. However, she then goes on to claim that “by keeping it light” (a euphemism, I think, for not writing the book more polemically), I ignore “the deeper psychological impacts of a lifetime of racial micro-aggressions.” She claims that I emphasize “personal interactions as the crux of the racial impasse plaguing U.S. society in the 21st century.” This is the heart of her critique:

“The realm of personal relationships may be the most accessible for folks to begin to discuss race, but too often the conversation stops at the personal, as it does in this book. Jackson misses the point by equating the frustrations of people of color with those of whites. There are sharp differences between a group that’s imprisoned at disproportionately high rates and one that is not, between a group whose members own the vast majority of the country’s wealth and the groups with the highest poverty rates. Jackson does a disservice to his readers by limiting his analysis to the “he said-she said” between people of color and whites without delving into the structural roots of racism that permeate our daily interactions and our social, political and economic institutions. Even though Jackson acknowledges larger, structural racisms and recognizes the danger of his argument, he nevertheless persists.”

This is a reading of the book’s argument that Hing brought with her to its pages.

Of course, that’s part of why race and racism are such thorny issues. We are all already tangled up in some ideologically sticky webs of our own (and others’) spinning when it comes to this topic. We are on the defensive, overly sensitive to the potential of Trojan-horsed attacks -- or of the other side’s cold-blooded disinterest.

As reviews go, I think Hing's is nicely written (even funny in spots), but it is also predicated on only a partial understanding of what the book actually claims. And I do think that Hing actually took the time to read most of the book, which isn’t always the case. One of the first reviews of Racial Paranoia, published by Kirkus, was far more problematically misleading and inaccurate, and I honestly believe that its author didn’t even bother to read the book. They read the opening section, jumped to the concluding chapter and then jumped even farther to their own conclusions. It was (as I said then) a “wildly irresponsible” review. But I understood why it was even possible. People think they already know everything they need to know about what other people are going to say when it comes to race/racism, so why even bother listening?

As I said, I do believe that Hing read the book, but she had some typical blinders on:

I am not arguing for a “personal” reading of race and racism at the expense of a structural one. As explicit forms of racist rhetoric are suppressed in public discourse (and potentially repressed by certain whites who don’t want to be considered racists), our conversations across racial lines get less and less trustworthy. “De cardio racism,” which I define in the book, stands in for the idea that one of the ways in which African Americans (especially) try to square an egalitarian and explicitly inclusive public discussion about race with the perpetuation of just the kinds of structural inequalities that Hing lists is by mining everyday inter-racial exchanges for subtle expressions of hidden bias, for racial wolves trying to pass themselves off as color-blind sheep.

Hing says that I want to stop at these personal readings. That isn’t true. I just want to maintain that it is unproductive to simply dismiss these readings (between-the-lines of social life) as hypersensitive or ridiculously paranoid, which is how people responded to comedian Dave Chappelle and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (just tw examples from the book). I argue that McKinney and Chappelle are responding to structural transformations in America’s racial landscape, and that what detractors pooh-pooh as paranoia might represent an appropriate (if incomplete) response to how “plausibly deniable” and potentially euphemized commitments to racism function today.

That is a controversial claim, I know. And I don’t think that a lot of people want to hear it -- on the left or the right (though for different reasons). But it isn’t about arguing that these “personal” readings (these “paranoid” readings) are some kind of analytical endgame. They represent one starting point for cultivating a new language about race that captures its unprecedented contemporary manifestations. For most of America’s history, racists could be unabashed with their racial venom. Up until the 1960s, for instance, politicians ran on explicitly racist platforms. Championing, say, segregation could help get you elected. Today, any whiff of explicit racism can damage a politician’s career.

Moreover, I don’t just “equate the frustrations of people of color with white people.” I do claim that racial skepticism isn’t just “a black thang.” Whites can also be racially skeptical, racially paranoid, but I am far from arguing that white racial paranoia and black racial paranoia are the same -- or are even equally justifiable. I make those differences clear in the book.

3. Hing says that I develop my argument “without delving into the structural roots of racism that permeate our daily interactions and our social, political and economic institutions.” This is a patently false claim -- so much so that I don’t even know where to begin with a response. My entire book is a refutation of that position. I argue that “the structural roots of racism” are precisely what set the stage for our current post-Civil Rights dilemma. I spend several chapters trying to make that clear. From what Hing’s review emphasizes and omits, I can only imagine that she must have skimmed those chapters too quickly.

Indeed, one thing that I think helps to explain Hing’s reading (and one fair critique of the book that she doesn’t offer) has to do with the fact that it talks about contemporary America, a multiracial America, in decidedly bi-racial terms -- blacks and whites. It is surprising that Hing doesn’t mention that point in her review, but she opens with a discussion about how differently whites get treated in Chinatown restaurants, which seems to implicitly gesture toward that general vicinity. I think that this latter point is the reason why my definition of racism’s “structural roots” doesn’t mesh with hers. It seems that she really wants to ask me to open up the discussion of racism to include other racialized communities, which is a fair point. Race is structured differently in a browning America, in ways that are hardly reducible to the mostly bi-chromatic make-up the Old South. I under-played that hand in the book, but I did so because I wanted to talk about a different “structural” reconfiguration of race relations, a reconfiguration that starts with the profoundly formative history of chattel slavery in the United States and reads subsequent developments (histories of immigration and multiracialization) with that founding premise as starting point.

A reader can take issue with that emphasis. I’m not sure I think it is totally justified -- intellectually or politically. But Hing should have made THAT case—as opposed to criticizing me for not dealing with structural realities. The book is completely about the structural transformations of racism in America, and it mines the micro to explain how macro changes impact even seemingly innocuous interactions across class lines. (This is key, I think, because the mass-mediated stories we hear about race pivot, disproportionately, on how we dispute accusations of racism during exchanges that usually aren’t as explicit as what our collective past produced.)

Of course, I wrote an entire book that tried to explain all this, so these few extra (and hastily penned) paragraphs probably won’t help to clarify things for those who already think they know the two or three alternative tracks that every argument about racism must take. Even still, I couldn’t help myself.

(cross-posted at the Chronicle's Brainstorm blog)

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