The problem of race ambles around inside my mind often — like a parasite, gnawing away at the pleasures of everyday life. The substantial effort made by heroes — yesterday and today — in pursuit of racial equality is remarkable. But nevertheless, racism’s pernicious role in our society has proved quite resilient. We have entered a “woke” era in which racial injustices are better understood than in times before. But as a black American, I do fear that our approach to combating racism has concerning blindspots.
In our attempts to attack racism we sometimes neglect its malevolent roots. If we seek true progress, we must strive to deconstruct the concept of race altogether.
Racism was soaked into the American cloth long before talk of revolutions and constitutions. So it should be no surprise that it’s a stain requiring a backbreaking effort to remove — a centuries-long project near and dear to social progressives. Obviously, any solution must begin with identifying the problem at hand and as a result — in recent years in particular — journalists and social scientists have made a good faith effort to understand and publicize racial injustices. It’s been well-documented that in this country your race has a tremendous impact on your economic and social opportunities.
Individuals can strive to counteract institutional injustices by looking inward toward their own racial biases. “How are my biases affecting my behavior towards someone?” Because so much of racism is subconscious, in order to make a self-correction, one needs to employ vigilance. This approach has positive effects, but ultimately fails the long term goal of deconstructing race.
It necessitates racial categorization — further focusing our perspective through the lens of race. One must know each and every stereotype to actively combat it. Recall the H&M controversy, where the company (likely accidentally) listed a shirt reading “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” with a black child as the model and were met with strong backlash. The expectation inherent in this backlash is that H&M should have been aware of the historical significance of the imagery, noticed it, and amended it. The controversy illustrates how this approach can force Americans to maintain racial stereotypes in the foreground of their consciousness.
This approach of acknowledging and emphasizing race certainly has short-term positive effects, so it is difficult to write it off entirely. I would personally prefer if people thought twice before “complimenting” me for being “so gosh darn articulate.”
In a similar vein, members of oppressed groups have taken it upon themselves to adopt ways of coping with racism’s boot. The Black Pride movement illustrates how a group repeatedly beat down by messaging of their worthlessness can fight back against those notions. Here at Harvard, there are many affinity groups which provide their members with a nurturing way to encourage pride like Black Men’s Forum or the Asian American Association. Fighting the emotional stress of racism by embracing one’s own race allows for healing. It is incredibly valuable. But, this too has a long term trade-off.
Practically, race clearly matters a great deal, but I believe that the ultimate goal in a just society is to weaken race as a salient identifier. The Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon said it best when he argued, “the man who adores the Negro is as ‘sick’ as he who abominates him.” Fanon pushed back on what in his time was called “negritude” — the movement to embrace and cherish one’s own blackness. He argued that it was nonsensical to cherish something that should not even exist.
In other words, society is “sick” with the constructed social phenomenon of race. And many progressives’ approaches to grappling with racism fail to address the root of the problem — the existence of race itself.
There is a constant trade-off between the benefit of emphasizing race to form a solution and the harm of strengthening race as tool of categorization.
Redistributive remedies require identifying the recipients and their needs. We cannot be race-blind. However we must always be cognizant of the trade-off. As, say, an interviewer, the anti-racist benefit of correcting one’s own biases might outweigh the cost. But this is not always the case. For example, I struggle to see how preventing Katy Perry from wearing cornrows has enough of a positive effect for me and other black people that it should outweigh the cost of implementing stringent social rules about race. Solidifying racial distinctions is no trivial cost.
These rules declare that who you are should matter, which is very different from responding to how it does. Though in good faith, they seem contrary to progressive ideals. In some cases, we must embrace the importance of race as it is the only path to progress. But simultaneously, we must always remember the trade-off because deconstruction is the only escape from the problem of race.
Daniel L. Aklog ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.