Understanding Race Week 1: Working with and against race. Some words on Du Bois and Chun

In preparing for this new year of Understanding Race, the Masters of Research class I teach at Western Sydney University, I have been thinking about the call to speak more about race in settler colonial ‘Australia’. As I have written, there is an elision of race at the heart of what I have termed ‘racism studies’ in much Australian social science research. This allows for racism to appear as a set of attitudes and practices of discrimination that float away from the fact of the matter; that these are sovereign Indigenous lands that are being colonised by a white settler state. Hence, racism needs to be analysed within that context and constantly brought back to its function as the ideological construct that accompanies a project of racial rule which, while, global, has a particular local iteration.

At the core of my attempt to grapple with the constantly adaptive dynamics of race as a system of power is the vital recognition of the fact that what race does is, as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has written, is to pose itself as

fundamentally a question of relation, of an encounter, a recognition, that enables certain actions and bars others.’

Chun 2012, p. 23

So, before I turn to a few comments to start us off on this semester’s journey, I want to say something about my relation to all of this. In writing recently a response to Robert Nichols’s brilliant book, Theft is Property! I was thinking about settlerhood and what it has meant and continues to mean in my life. I wrote in the introduction to my commentary:

I did not think at an earlier time that I would become a settler again. Brought up in Catholic Ireland in the 1970s and ‘80s, my parents having returned from a failed attempt to live in Tel Aviv, where I was born, in 2012 my family and I moved to so-called Australia, settling on Gadigal land. The move brought home to me the extent to which, ‘Aboriginal people and perspectives are excluded within antiracism’ (Lawrence and Dua 2005, 120). The European antiracist movements and scholarly conversations I had been involved in about how best to challenge racism and dismantle racial logics and processes of rule, rarely gave consideration to questions of Indigeneity, or sovereignty as a mode of resistance. This is in part due to the acceptance of the world as postcolonial rather than still colonial, as seen in the repressiveness of the border regime of the Global North (El-Enany 2020). One of the facilities of race as a mode of thought, as well as a technique of governance, is its perpetual will to rupture. This goes as well for the concepts we use as for the fragility of the solidarities we can or cannot build in the face of the ever-adaptive structures of race. This is how we lose from sight the threads of connection that link the different practices and processes that the racial-colonial-project entails despite its myriad instances and effects. It is the losing from sight of the patterning of race that triggers the antiracist cycles that appear to be eternally starting from zero.

The second time I became a settler was a choice, then. But not one that was fully informed about what this really meant until, over the ensuing years, it spoke back to the partial story about race I had at my disposal. The confrontation with the dailyness of settler colonialism puts me in relation to what it means to have come from dispossession, yet to colonise; twice. My forebears fled Romania and Lithuania respectively. My maternal grandmother’s family left behind property and businesses in Bucovina (Northern Romania) to land in a small apartment in Tel Aviv, signalling that colonisation need neither be a positive choice nor a personally enriching one. Nandita Sharma has objected to the tendency she sees of the ‘expansion of the term colonizer’ to encompass migrants (Sharma 2020, 8). However, in our case, the real ‘fear of persecution’ (ibid. 28) sits uncomfortably with the fact that Jewish existence in Palestine has not only long surpassed meeting the need created by European antisemitism but was predicated long before this on a Zionist project emulating and embellishing Euro-racial-coloniality (Lentin, R. 2018). The illegalisation of Palestinian homes in Silwan we watch from our lockdown couch has nothing to do, to be blunt, with the Shoah.

These thoughts about my personal relationship to race and attendant ‘structures of dominance’, as Stuart Hall put it, are constantly in play as I move through the world as a Jewish European white woman on sovereign Gadigal land. But more than stating this, it is important for me to ask what such statements mean in practice. I see a lot of what Sara Ahmed has called the ‘non-performativity of antiracism‘ in statements of colonial complicity, something that the Gomeroi legal scholar and poet Alison Whittaker has critiqued in her essay, ‘So White. So What‘. For another comment I wrote, this time on an essay on ‘Eurowhiteness’ by József Böröcz, I remarked,

Today, I live in a settler colony. I have become a white settler. I have joined their ranks. The white settlers explore their guilt, sharing their excavations ad nauseum with the colonised. Guilt, when turned inwards in the nonperformative manner of whiteness-interrogation so beautifully deconstructed by Sara Ahmed, is the most useless of emotions . Its carriers are able to turn even the ongoing crime of Australian colonial domination into a cross to bear. But I am not a white EuroChristian. When I am guilty of something, I have to pay a price. I cannot both cry about my wrongness and make that wrongness the centre of my existence to the negation of the very wrongs I was trying to draw attention to…. Yes, I agree, we need to turn European attention to its white supremacist foundations. We must refuse the externalisation of the problem of race and whiteness as Americanisation. And we must think deeply about how to undo the effects of the ‘white possessive’ on Europe itself – an entirely imagined idea that in its imagination obscures both its inherent racialized insecurity and its internal and external coloniality. However, in doing this we must forcefully resist the tendency I see all around me to make whiteness the core again, by giving it so much thought, so much importance that the reason for thinking about, or to put it plainly, the people who are affected by it, pale (pun unintended) into insignificance. That is the challenge. Abolish whiteness.

These are some of the things I feel it is important to share before I begin to think with W.E.B. Du Bois and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun about the ‘mutability’ of race (my thanks to Yasmin Gunaratnam for putting it this way!)


In 1940, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about ‘The Concept of Race’. As he admits in the conclusion to the essay, a chapter of his book, Dusk of Dawn, this is rather more a meandering than a conceptualisation:

I have wandered afield from miscegenation in the West Indies to race blending and segregation in the Americas and to a glimpse of the present in Africa…

W.E.B. Du Bois 1940, p. 65

If one was looking for a clear definition or an answer to the question, ‘what is race’, it is not there in Du Bois’s chapter. But, that is exactly why ‘The Concept of Race’ is such a brilliant intervention precisely on the race concept. It is because Du Bois lived such a long life (in 1940 he was 72 and was still to live another 23 years) that he was – through his experiences and thus his growing understanding of the patterns of race – able to conceptualise it this ‘group of contradictory forces, facts and tendencies’ in the conclusion to his chapter (1940, p. 67). What he shows in ‘The Concept of Race’ is that race is subject to ‘continuous change in the proofs and arguments advanced’ (p. 50). He describes his life’s work in essence as the attempt to get to grips with what race means both for his personal life and for that of other Black people, but also for American and global society. And in that endeavour he admits,

no sooner had I settled into scientific security here, than the basis of race distinction was changed without explanation, without apology.

p. 50

So, what the chapter presents us with is his peregrinations through the various modes of race as they align with his experiences, or rather more specifically, the situations he found himself in. He begins from the beginning explaining that in his early eduction, race went mainly unexplained. Later at Fisk University, ‘race was faced openly and essential racial equality asserted and natural inferiority denied’ (p. 49), while, later again at Harvard, ‘it was continually stressed… that there was a vast difference n the development of the whites and the “lower races”‘ (ibid.). Finally during graduate school and his studies in Germany, the emphasis shifted again and ‘race became a a matter of culture and cultural history’ (ibid.). The discussion was now centred not on physical superiority/inferiority but on which people had contributed more to history.

Du Bois and classmates at Fisk University

Du Bois realised in essence that it was the uncertainty of race that is what constitutes its certainty, or rater its perpetuation. Race has been noted by many scholars to be inherently unstable and thus, as Patrick Wolfe remarked, in need of constant remaking. It was this realisation that led Du Bois away from the guiding force of his younger years – that ‘the theory of race was quite in my blood’ as a ‘member of a closed group with rites and loyalties, with a history and a corporate future’ – and towards a dawning realisation that ‘despite everything, race lines were not fixed and fast’ (p. 51).

The majority of the chapter then is taken up with Du Bois’s discovery of his own diverse family friendship which involved migration, slavery and slave ownership. At the end, however, he was brought up among the Black members of the Burghardt-Du Bois family:

I was brought up with the Burghardt clan and this fact determined largely my life and “race”. The white relationship and connection were quite lost and indeed unknown until long years after. The black Burghardts were ordinary farmers, labourers and servants.’

(p. 56)

As a child he recalls his great-grandmother, Violet. Du Bois writes,

Perhaps she herself was born in Africa or had it of a mother or father stolen and transported.

p. 56

The ‘it’ he speaks of is the song he used to hear as a child, a ‘heathen melody’ which

the child sang it to his children and they to their children’s children, and so two hundred years it has travelled down to us and we sing it to our children, knowing as little as our fathers what its words may mean, but knowing well the meaning of its music.

p. 58

In writing about this, Du Bois reflects on what all the knowledge he acquired over the years about the necessarily undefined and undefinable nature of race – as essence – means for the feeling that he has for his Africanness. Despite the song that lingered and was a feature of his childhood, the ‘cultural patterns’ he grew up with were ‘not African so much as Dutch and New England’ (ibid.). So, his ‘African racial feeling’ came about only as a result of his learning, later in life, and his ‘recoil from the assumption of whites’ (ibid.). He concludes that,

racial identity presented itself as a matter of trammels and impediments as “tightening bonds about my feet”. As I looked out into my racial world the whole thing verged on tragedy… I saw the race problem was not as I conceived, a matter of clear, fair competition, for which I was ready and eager. It was rather a matter of segregation, of hindrance and inhibitions, and my struggles against this and resentment of it began to have serious repercussions on my inner life.

p. 66

So, Africanness for Du Bois is something that he admits has but the most tenuous of meanings for him given that he had so little knowledge of the continent in his early life. Everything he came to know about Africa he gained first through study and later through his travels. He of course made Nkrumah’s Ghana his home try late in life and it was there that he died.

W.E.B Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah

However, he writes, it is not the fact that the connection is evident in him ‘in colour and hair… These are of little meaning in themselves’ (p. 59). What is important is the fact

that since the fifteenth century these ancestors of mine and their other descendants have had a common history; have suffered a common disaster and have one long memory…. the physical bond is least and the badge of colour relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa.

(p. 59)

It was Du Bois’s actual coming to Africa that led him to think beyond race as either science or culture and to ‘more clearly see the close connection between race and wealth.’ It was not so much the belief in the inferiority of Black people that drove their domination, though that certainty was there, but the ‘conscious or unconscious determination to increase their [white peoples’] incomes by taking full advantage of this belief.’ Therefore, Du Bois realised that,

the income-bearing value of race prejudice was the cause and not the result of theories of race inferiority; that particularly in the United States the income of the Cotton Kingdom based on black slavery caused the passionate belief in Negro inferiority and the determination to enforce it even by arms.’

(p. 65)

It appears to me that what Du Bois concludes is what Wendy Chun observes when she writes,

Could race be not simply an object of representation and portrayal, of knowledge and truth, but also a technique that one uses, even as one is used by it – a carefully crafted, historically inflected system of tools, mediation, or enframing that builds history and identity?

Chun (2012, p. 7)

She goes on to describe race as a technology, a concept that I have found son useful for my evolving understanding of what race does, and how it functions across its myriad formations, guises, and in the diverse locals it operates. Chun rightly points us to the question not of what race is, but ‘to the how of race’, to the ‘doing of race’ (p. 8).

To return to my starting point, many people realise this, know it intuitively because – I think – they too have gone through the same type of journey that Du Bois recalls for us in Dusk of Dawn and have come to the realisation that there is something more than race as identity or as personal trauma and that its function – the how of race – is what needs uncovering if the ‘discrimination and insult’ are ever to end. However, this requires more than intuition, What we need is too treat are as a systematic field of enquiry. We need to look at it in its myriad presentations because it is the dominant force of the modern era, that which above all, determines social, political and economic relations because of its imbrication in all the other formations of domination – class, gender, sexuality and bodily ability.

So, it is insufficient to say ‘we need to look at race, not racism’. rather, we need to explain (a) why this should be so and (b) how we are going to go about it. I am very very far from having even a tiny part of the answer to these questions, but I hope to offer in Understanding Race a window through which to look in the hope of finding more pieces of the puzzle.

For more on Race and/and technology in Wendy Chun’s work, see my blog post here.

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