on my desk: thinking about race

Selina Xu On My Desk (Letters from Library)

on my desk is a regular feature on the blog where I jot down brief thoughts on the books I’m reading, either for class or leisure. In light of the protests against racial injustice in the U.S. and around the world, I revisit a few formative works that have shaped how I think about race.

Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon

A tour de force. With an eruptive, immersive language, Fanon places the reader in an ironic situation, enacting a double role as both the offender and the offended, as the insulted and the insurgent. Think, for instance, of the the sheer shock and power of the opening enunciation of the chapter on “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” A little white boy cries, “Look! A Negro!” This moment of encounter fixes not only Fanon but also the reader in a subject position. Reading the rest of the book is very much a phenomenological experience.

Through personal experience, historical critique, psychoanalysis, and even Hegelian dialectics, Fanon reappropriates and reassembles the racism that black bodies experience and uses the language of racism to reassemble his agency. By mimicking the voice of racism, Fanon ironizes the mode of racist discourse, instantiating the power invested into the ontology: bodies are constructed; one is not born black but becomes black. Blackness, à la Fanon, is the body schema collapsing into an epidermal-racial schema under the white gaze and use of language.

If you’re interested… read The Wretched of the Earth, also by Fanon. He turns the psychoanalytic lens towards the colonial condition and the path to decolonization.

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

My first taste of Baldwin. So many years later, his treatise on race relations in America still lights the way. His vision of what America must become burns all the more urgently amidst cries of making America great again. There is something quite gentle about his message (I think he is a romantic at heart), one which embraces love in the face of polarity and antagonism, emphasizes mutuality mediated through difference, and elucidates the sensuality of black people’s resilience (“To be sensual is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread”). His profundity is hidden amidst everyday detail.

Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?

More than conjuring the image of the manor house set ablaze by ex-slave Clytie in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Baldwin also attacks the assumption behind “integration,” which in 1963 meant the acceptance of blacks by existing white norms and institutions. Instead, Baldwin challenges that it is black people who must accept the whites and accept them with love. America must be freed and renewed, its long-clutched innocence of origins itself a crime and a feature of white supremacy.

Provocatively, Baldwin champions love. Blacks and whites have a duty to achieve their country together, like lovers. At the end of the day, Baldwin chooses reciprocity, engagement, and understanding, painting an affective world in the context of racism and a history of antagonism.

God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!

If you’re interested… also read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (heavily inflected with Baldwinian themes + uses the epistolary form of a letter to the younger generation) and Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.

Orientalism, Edward Said

A definitive work in my intellectual journey. I first came across it in Sec 2 when I was doing a literature project (with Zhao!) comparing Western and Eastern fictional portrayals of Empress Cixi. Said’s concept changed my worldview. Before coming across his theory, it had never occurred to me that literature could be demonstrative and complicit in a larger power structure that produces knowledge, fictions history, and essentializes an entire region (what Said calls the Orient is the Middle and Near East; in my own thinking, I naturally extend it to Asia as well) with discursive dominance.

Two years later, the book surfaced again in another research project (with Tianyi!) investigating how the post-9/11 Bush Doctrine legitimized the War on Terror through rhetoric. Orientalism, I realized then, is still very much alive, employed in media and demagoguery and manifesting in political realities with real-world repercussions.

Orientalism can be discussed…as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.

According to Said, the West, or “the occident,” defines itself and strengthens its identity by producing an oppositional and premodern “orient.” The orient, then, functions as a sort of surrogate and even underground Other, as everything “other than” what the occident is. If the occident is modern, fluid, active, and masculine, the orient is backward, static, passive, and feminine. Orientalism, in short, exists for the west’s purpose — the occident authors, projects, entrenches, and disseminates an image of the orient so as to define itself.

It has been eight years since this book came into my life. From secondary school to JC to college, in countless papers, Said’s writings have shaped my own. As I write this, I’m hard-pressed to name another theoretical work more formative in my life than Orientalism.

If you’re interested… also look up techno-orientalism, what Roh et. al.’s anthology of the same name calls the “phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo- or hypertechnological terms in cultural productions and political discourse.” You can read my review of the Introduction to Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media below:

Another entertaining, incisive read on the techno-orient is Anne Anlin Cheng’s film review, The Ghost in the Ghost, in the LA Review of Books.

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, Mae Ngai

Where does the “illegal alien” originate from? How has immigration policy changed over time alongside race? How does the nation-state evolve with the legal regime of citizenship, immigration restriction, and categories of racial difference?

Ngai looks at the U.S. In this book, she examines how national-origin, numerical quotas, expanding state authority, and changing notions of race (e.g. European versus non-European migrants) remapped not only the idea of “America” but also the nation’s territoriality and contiguous land borders. Ngai’s close reading of Supreme Court rulings such as United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), Ozawa v. United States (1922), and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) traces the logic of a legislative body over time, delineating its landmark moments and changing priorities of labor, geopolitical relations, and population census.

Immigration lies at the nexus between domestic processes and international empire. Demonstrated somewhat by Trump’s recent immigration order to restrict Chinese students and scholars, ideas of desirability, of exclusion, of legality, and of “alien” versus “citizen” are constantly shifting in service of the pressing political agenda of the hour. The subtle “racial hierarchy” underpinning the broader discourse on equality and rights (including voting rights) belies the unanswered question that Ngai unsettles and probes: How can a person be illegal, after all?

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Currently reading mostly Chinese novels as well as Ready Player One. I’m a hermit, slow at replying text messages and away from my phone most days of the week. x

Stay safe, with love,

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