Phenomenology of Race
There was one instance in which my body was taken from me, then “returned to me spread-eagled, disjointed, redone, draped in mourning”. As a member of the varsity basketball team, I had access to the team room before and after practices and games. There was a nice couch that I liked to do homework on, so I would study there before practices and games. One day, one of my teammates walked in on me studying, and said:
-Langston, you’re so fucking white, man. Oh wait, you like anime too, so you’re a fucking Asian.
-How am I white? That makes literally no fucking sense.
-Just everything about you. The way you talk, the way you study, I mean you watch fucking anime dude. That’s Asian. How are you even Black?
Another teammate chimed in, asking the right question.
-So does being black mean you can’t be educated or speak properly or like certain shows?
And while they continued the conversation, I experienced something Fanon recalls experiencing himself:
Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man…I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from my self, and gave myself up as an object.
There was a disgusting compilation of emotions in my heart, some of which left permanent stains. I did not know if I wanted to be black or white, or if I wanted to fit a stereotype or be my own person. I did not even know if I was a person or if I had a community. I had no one to talk to about being a black guy with an identity crisis. I was marginalized and alienated and enraged and stepped on all at once. Even though there is nothing “uniquely evil” about that teammate, he destroyed me in that instance, “enforcing the whims of his country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” In trying to piece myself together, attempting to regain my body, I searched introspectively to find when my body first began to be taken by the “other.”
I consumed Oreos for the first time over a game of Boggle with my grandmother, but I first became an Oreo (Black on the outside; White on the inside) in 6th grade when I moved from a semi-affluent, predominantly Black and Latino community, to a very affluent, predominantly White and Asian community – from Montgomery Village, Maryland to Rockville, Maryland. They say you are what you eat, but I do not think it was geared towards this context. The phrase was thrown around a lot, but I never knew how to process it. That confusion only intensified in high school. In a class of 565 students, only 22 were Black, over half of whom seemed to “conform to these images” of stereotypical black individuals. In continuing to build my reputation as a strong, intelligent, and non-stereotypical individual, I sought to avoid the black students in my school, whether they were stereotypical or not. There was a black community, but a life of diversity and a desire not to be grouped kept me far from it. A part of me embraced the Oreo label because on a subconscious level I subscribed to a belief that Fanon mentions in his work, the belief that:
the wretched black man could whiten himself and thus rid himself of the burden of this bodily curse.
And for the purposes of not being grouped with those students, it worked. I was black, but not ghetto or uncivil or inclined to argue or fight. I was my own version of black, not the version of black society and my peers were showing me. In trying to figure out how to be Black in a predominantly White and Asian school, how to function and keep a level head as the only black student in my classes, and how to deal with the highs and lows of high school in general, people complimenting me or mocking more for being a studious black guy was the least of my concerns, until the Oreo label turned into White and Asian. That is when I gained a better understanding of the implications of my race, while also encountering a new level of confusion regarding how to identify myself and how others identify me.
“To define” is the first phrase that comes to mind when I think about race. How do you define it? Does it define you? How does the changing definition apply to you as you seek to define yourself? To be frank, I hate race, especially as I attempt to grasp the concept through the lens of a Black male. Where people associate blackness with a rich history and a strong sense of community, I associate it with historical travesties, a community against the world and itself, and most importantly, an infinite number of unanswerable questions. There is no security in this abstract concept that may or may not exist. There are only answerless questions with fruitless societal yields. How can this word that means so much, yet so little, pervade every facet of my life? I cannot even enjoy my favorite snack, Oreos, without thinking about the layered meaning of the layered treat.
My quarrel is not with the experience, but it is with the meaning of the experience – or rather, lack of meaning. In reflecting on my experience to understand the full impact, I have gained nothing. I share with you an intimate and painful insight to my being, exposing myself to you by putting my thoughts on paper. But as you read through your analytical lens, my circumstances, and the circumstances of people in similar predicaments, do not change. My fears and struggles and limitations are still there. You just made me think about them even more than I already have to. No definition or level of understanding will serve as retribution for the “powerful social reality” that race has.
In her article Toward a Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment, Linda Alcoff claims that “the reactivations produced by critical phenomenological disruptions don’t simply repeat racializing perception but can reorient the positionality of consciousness”. While critically analyzing race phenomenologically is a step towards changing the cultural view of race, hoping that discussion alone will alter one’s consciousness is not only a naïve, but is false. Those with power and privilege, those who make philosophical breakthroughs, those who talk in circles theorizing may feel empowered by doing so, but words without actions are meaningless, actions without intentions are meaningless, and intentions without results are meaningless.
Linda Martin Alcoff, “Toward a Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment,” In Race, ed. Robert Bernasconi et al. (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 269-283.
Naomi Zack, Thinking About Race (California: Wadsworth, 2006), 6-15.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 89-191.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me” (New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 1-151.