Race as a technology

As well as adding to Understanding Race, this post responds and adds to two recent conversations I had, one with Khadijah Diskin and Josh Briond on the Return to the Source podcast and the other with Momodou Taal on The Malcolm Effect podcast.

In my book Why Race Still Matters, I provided a way of thinking about race:

‘I formulate race as a technology for the management of human difference, the main goal of which is the production, reproduction, and maintenance of white supremacy on both a local and a planetary scale.’

Lentin (2020: 5)

As I explained, my way of thinking about this evolved from reading a variety of thinkers, in particular Stuart Hall in ‘Race, the Sliding (or floating) Signifier’ (reproduced in The Fateful Triangle, 2017). (*For those with a Kanopy subscription – free via the local library – you can watch the whole of Hall’s lecture, Race, the floating signifier there).

I explained that I was motivated to write the book because of a simple question: ‘how do we explain race and oppose the dehumanization and discrimination committed in its name if we do not speak about it?’ (p. 5) I want to explain that just because racial logic promotes the idea that there are inherent and incommensurable differences between groups of human beings does not mean we need to we accept this logic. Rather,

‘Talking about race does not mean accepting its terms of reference. Like any structure of power – capitalism, class, gender, heterosexualism, or ability – the reason we must speak about race is to attempt to unmask it in order to undo its effects.’

ibid.

A number of kind people who have read my book have credited me with the formulation of ‘race as technology’. But, in fact others have used it in the past. The main reference for me is Wendy Hui Kyong Chun‘s 2012 essay, ‘Race and/as Technology‘ which in fact is the introduction to a special issue which collects various articles around the theme and which mainly deal with race and media, visuality and representation. Chun’s piece is vital because, in response to questions about the articulation between race and technology, she examines race as a technology in itself; as a means of thinking about the constant potential for racial logics to adapt. I will return to what is so useful about ‘Race and/as Technology’ shortly.

However, when using this formulation, I was unaware of the much earlier contribution of the political philosopher of race, Falguni Sheth, to which Syed Mustafa Ali thankfully drew my attention on Twitter in late 2021. To assuage my feeling of discomfort about not citing Sheth in my work, it should be pointed out that neither does Chun. Sheth’s book, Towards a Political Philosophy of Race, was published in 2009, several years before Chun’s. Perhaps this is a question of a lack of communications across areas of study (Chun is a media studies scholar, Sheth a philosopher). Nevertheless, as we shall see, both work with Heidegger’s interpretation of technology, using that as a basis for thinking about the functioning of race. I will explain this below.

Before elaborating on Chun and Sheth’s contributions, let me say a bit more about why I use the formulation of race as technology. This first important thing to say is that, as my explanation of what underpinned my motivation for writing Why Race Still Matters shows, I am concerned most with the how rather than the what of race. Thinking about what race does takes us away from ultimately fruitless questions about whether race is biological, cultural, religious or geographical for example. It helps us answer the question, posed in the first chapter of the book and also elaborated on in an earlier blogpost, of what is socially constructed about race, or put another way, how is race constructed sociogenically (to use Fanon’s term). This is very similar to Sheth’s motivation in exploring the technological nature of race in her book. Examining debates among ‘constructivists’ (those who see race as socially constructed) and ‘objectivists’ (those who see biological or scientific grounds for race), Falguni Sheth comes down firmly on the side I share which is that, in the end, the important question to ask is, how is race ‘deployed as a weapon for political management’ (Sheth 2009: 7). Where our approaches differ is that, as I am not a political philosopher, I am not engaged in these questions as debates among philosophers. Rather, as a political sociologist/cultural theorist working from a race critical approach, I am most interested in tracking the multiple functions of race and, crucially, its varying manifestations across space and time.

This is not to say that I think of race as in any sense perennial. Rather, as the centrepiece of the modern colonial world system, race as a form of disciplinary power is best understood as a constantly adaptive set of logics and systems and processes of rule. In that, I have followed Ann Laura Stoler‘s insistence on race as intrinsically unstable, polyvalent and mobile (Stoler 2002: 373). In a similar vein, Patrick Wolfe has written about race as an idea in need of constant reassurance, which both explains its constant adaptativeness and presents us with its weakness, something which helps us think outside of race as destined to repeat (thinking non-teleologically about race helps us to consider it as historically situated but should not lead to us dismissing it as purely fictitious). It is perfectly compatible to think about race as the ‘theodicy of Europe’s modernity’ as Lewis Gordon puts it, because ‘blackness is fundamental to the formation of European modernity as it is one that imagines itself legitimate and pure through the expurgation of blackness’ (Gordon 2013: 729). However, this does not mean that this was always the case. Gordon, inspired by Sylvia Wynter’s meditation on the human, surely agrees with her that Columbus’ landing in the Caribbean in 1492 ‘laid the basis of our contemporary single world system as well as of the single history that we now live’ (Wynter 1999). In other words, as a world-making project, race is inextricable from the project of mass-scale European colonisation. More recent work by Geraldine Heng on race in the Middle Ages, as well as Cedric Robinson’s explanation of the development of racial regimes within Europe well before the colonisation of the majority of the globe, temper that periodisation somewhat or, at least, points to how logics of race were already at play in disciplining Europe’s internal others before before being elaborated on colonially. But, the fact is that race is developed and constantly worked on. We may not agree on a fixed start date but, those of us working within race critical theory, do agree that it does not operate on one single register. That is why I open Chapter 1 of Why Race Still Matters by quoting Patrick Wolfe:

‘Useful though it may once have been for denaturalizing race, the well-worn piety that race is a social construct (with exculpatory quotation marks to prove it) does not get us very far. It simply begs further questions: ‘Under what circumstances was (or is) race constructed?’; ‘Has race been differently constructed under different circumstances?’, and so on.’

Patrick Wolfe (2011: 274)

What I take from this, and what I try to elaborate on in the first chapter of my book is that we must pay attention to how – under what circumstances – race is produced and reproduced. Politically this is important, as I then show in Chapter 2, because if we stay with a static definition of race, we end up being derailed into arguments about what the prototype for race and racism is which, in turn, leads to antiracists having to defend against those who arbitrate over what is and is not racism. (In my graphic essay, below, I am elaborate on the idea of ‘Not Racism’)

Race as a technology

Let me now look at how Falguni Sheth theorises race as a technology. I find her theorisation most useful, but I also want to start by saying that I think her embeddedness in a discussion among European philosophers can also be limiting. On this I am very much inspired by Alexander Weheliye’s critical work on Foucault and Agamben, two major figures in recent western philosophy whose work has often been used to explain racial regimes but which, he argues, ultimately fall short because of their failure to place race and colonialism at the heart of their work on power, the state, or the camp. Indeed, Sheth begins with expressing her frustration as a philosophy scholar at the failure of white philosophers to take race seriously which then motivates her project, which is essentially also a critique of liberalism.

The primary focus of Sheth’s analysis are the ‘legal vehicles and political institutions that enabled slavery, segregation and anti-miscegenation’ in the US. She proposes that looking at these will help understand

‘how power constitutes race, and how race – not as a social desertion, but as a tool of political management and social organisation – infuses the very ground of politics and sovereign-subject relations at every moment of a society’s history.’

Falguni Sheth (2009: 4)

Sheth defines race as a ‘mode or vehicle of division, separation, hierarchy, exploitation’. It is not a ‘descriptive modifier’ (ibid.). She insists that race is essentially brought forth via laws and policies, through the institutions of the state that enact power. They are responsible for distinguishing, dividing and pitting populations against each other. Categorisation is key to these processes, both cultural and in terms of political identity. Race, in other words, produces groups that are understood as having social and cultural affinity (Indigenous people, Muslim people, etc.) but it also produces statuses such as citizen, resident, alien, immigrant, etc. This is crucial to understand in my view. However, I think that Sheth’s insistence on the primacy of the role of legal and political institutions (something Aileen Moreton-Robinson also writes about in The White Possessive) should also be supplemented with Weheliye’s definition of race as:

“Ongoing sets of political relations that require, through constant perpetuation via institutions, discourses, practices, desires, infrastructures, languages, technologies, sciences, economies, dreams, and cultural artifacts, the barring of non-white subjects from the category of the human as it is performed in the modern west”

Weheliye (2014: 3).

In other words, for Weheliye institutions on their own are not enough to perpetuate racial rule. Race as a ‘set of political relations’ requires this whole range of arenas to be reproduced. Both Weheliye and Sheth’s approaches allow us to see that the practice of race as a force for division and control can be applied to a range of groups (‘often subjectively constituted through certain allegiances, moral, religious, or cultural beliefs, political commitments – and even populations who can only be constituted as a group diasporically’, p. 5). This is important because it detaches race as an overall system of rule from the delineation of ‘racial groups’ which are produced by the process of racialisation, not organically defined by those assigned to those groups themselves. Even as we understand the power of racial identification as an act of resistance and internal solidarity, we must start from an understanding of race as something that is imposed and thus unwanted, something those assigned to racial categories under white supremacy did not ask for.

Sheth’s aim in insisting on the primary role played by legal and political institutions in enacting race is to counter the dominant tendency to think about situations as ‘race neutral’ within a liberal framework. Concepts such as ‘reason’ or ‘cultural difference’ are, according to Sheth, deracialised under liberalism. She says attention to the more subtle ways in which conceits such as these are mobilised to assign people to the status of a threat in society (the primary example is Muslim people within the global War on Terror) without using the language of racial superiority. This is vital because a central argument over whether race is constructed or existent in fact revolves around the ultimately useless question of whether or not it can be said that a person is being discriminated ‘on the basis of race’, commonly understood as referring to a belief in biologically determined inferiority which can be read on physiognomic markers such as skin colour. This mode of argument accepts the terms of 18th-19th century ‘racial science’ itself all while purporting to act against it!

With this preamble in mind, how does Sheth conceive of race as a technology?

Race functions a technology in 3 ways: as instrumental, naturalizing and concealment. As an instrument, race

‘channel[s] an element that is perceived as threatening to the political order into a set of political classifications. These classifications, in turn, constrain us to think about human beings as belonging to races. I name this element – which can refer to a comportment, character trait, or an entire population – the “unruly”.’

(p. 8)

The function of race then is both to produce and to discipline the unruly. As naturalising race involves transforming the ‘unruly’ into ‘a set of naturalising criteria on which race is grounded’ (ibid.). In other words, fictitious racial categories are imposed on the populations that require ‘taming’. Lastly, race conceals our ‘relationship to law and sovereign power as one of vulnerability and violence’ (ibid.). Race exposes the ‘unruly’ to being cast out (imprisoned, detained, expelled, or worse). This comes close to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as ‘the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’ (2006: 28). The context for Sheth’s working out of race as a technology on these three bases is that of liberalism. The liberal setting is particularly important because of the general belief that liberal conditions are the grounds for expunging racism; that only through adhering to its principles of ‘freedom’ and equal distribution of power among individuals under representative democracy, racism can be challenged and contained. Liberalism, however, births the idea of race neutrality and adhering to liberal ideals actively participates in concealing the functioning of race by purporting that institutions are democratic and meritocratic. Race, under this vision of things, always appears anomalous, originating externally from the liberal polity. However, by attending to the operations of liberal institutions, Sheth can show how there is no such thing as objectivity; and that race operates in and through liberal institutions all while concealing their racialised nature.

But why does Sheth use the word technology specifically to theorise the operations of racialising power? Whereas, for me, using this word evoked the sense of race being enacted on people conceived of as populations rather than something that groups possess intrinsically, Sheth, like Chun, had a more precise genealogy in mind. Both authors repurpose Martin Heidegger’s explanation of the function of technology to think about race. Sheth takes Heidegger’s description of technology in the passage below and replaces the word ‘technology’ with the word ‘race’:

‘The essence of [race] is by no means anything [racial]. Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of [race] so long as we merely conceive and push forward the [racial], put up with it, evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to [race], whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of [race].’

Heidegger (1950)

Sheth uses this quote to expose the trap that many who argue about whether race is real or constructed fall into: they ‘regard race as something given or neutral’ (p. 21). The quote from Heidegger shows us that there is nothing essential or intrinsic to race just as there is nothing intrinsic to technology. A technology is only notable as something that does something or produces an effect. So, it is much more important to talk about the function of race, rather than talking about what it is or is not, because as I have already shown, this is in a process of constant adaptation. In this way of looking at things, Sheth claims, ‘race is no longer descriptive but causal: it facilitates and produces certain relationships between individuals, between groups, and between political subjects and sovereign power’ (p. 22).

Heidegger was ‘fervently antisemitic’ according to correspondence, The Forward

Chun further explains what is useful about Heidegger’s approach to technology. By writing that the essence of technology is not technological, he was drawing our attention to what is produced by technology which is the important question. So paying attention to what technology produces shows us that what is changed is ‘the nature of essence as such, making what is essential that which ensues rather than its generic type.’ When we take this and apply it to race, what we can see is the answer to the question of why race is under a process of constant reproduction and adaptation. Because what is important is what ensues, not what the origin of a given technology is. In other words, how can the techniques we use to produce the desired effect – in this case the governance of unruly racialised populations – be ensured? What other means can we find to ensure this? This way of looking at things reveals the whole fallacy of thinking about race as either biological or cultural, for example, a question I have written about amply. As soon as we propose that race now uses cultural means to discipline populations because using biological arguments has become taboo (the main argument of the advocates of ‘new cultural racism’) , we miss the point that race has always relied on a host of legitimatory strategies to enact rule. Indeed, historically, both cultural and biological, as well as geographical, religious, juridical, argumentation have co-existed and supplemented each other. This is why the proposition that Islamophobia is not racism because ‘Islam is not a race’, beloved of Islamophobes everywhere is such a ruse, and easy to dismantle in the face of comparison with anti-Semitism for example.

The effect of technology, for Heidegger, is to reduce everything to ‘standing reserves’. What he meant by that is that we think about things only in terms of what their utility is:

‘all things increasingly present themselves to us as technological: we see them and treat them as what Heidegger calls a “standing reserve,” supplies in a storeroom, as it were, pieces of inventory to be ordered and conscripted, assembled and disassembled, set up and set aside. Everything approaches us merely as a source of energy or as something we must organize. We treat even human capabilities as though they were only means for technological procedures, as when a worker becomes nothing but an instrument for production.’ 

Understanding Heidegger on Technology (Mark Blitz)

Of course, it is easy to see how this applies to human beings. Race, particularly under Nazism to which Heidegger himself was an enthusiastic adherent, reduces people to standing reserves ‘some to be destroyed, others to be optimised and made more productive’ (Chun, p. 20). This is also the case whether we look at enslavement, Indigenous genocide or contemporary racial capitalism. Chun speaks to what is particular about race as a technology when she explains that it is ‘understood as a set of visible or invisible genetic characteristics’ therefore it ‘is a mode of revealing that renders everyone into a set of traits that are stored and transmitted: race is then seen as what allows the human to endure through time as a set of unchanging characteristics’ (p. 21).

This is useful but it seems to speak mainly to only one of the dimensions in which Sheth explains race as a technology operates: naturalising. Sheth goes beyond Heidegger and introduces Foucault into the equation. From him she takes the idea that race is instrumental in that it produces particular effects. The focus shifts from individual bodies to whole populations because the purpose of race is to manage and maintain whole populations through sovereign power (Sheth p. 24). The element of concealment is also significant because, under liberalism the aim to manage and discipline populations is not apparent, even at times – I would add – to those for whom it is designed. We generally have an overwhelming degree of belief in the liberal system such that racism is generally thought about as something that is produced externally to that system and comes to act upon it. That is why we see formulations, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, that racism ‘is a virus’. But as Frantz Fanon reminds in ‘Racism and Culture‘, we must not content ourselves with the idea of racism as ‘a plague of humanity.’ Rather we need to constantly seek to find out the effects of racism.

@racialliteracysolidarity

Using FrantzFanon’s 1964 essay RacismandCulture, #race critical scholar #AlanaLentin argues against calling #racism a #pandemic

♬ original sound – RacialLiteracySolidarity
On why Fanon says racism is not a pandemic

Sheth’s foregrounding of the ‘unruly’ as the disciplinary subjects of race as a technology is highly useful because it helps us to think precisely beyond the very racial categories that race (science) establishes. The problem with discussions of race, as I alluded to earlier with regards to Islamophobia, is that it is the property of some but not other groups. As we know, of course, race is primarily self-referential in its origins. In other words, it is the delineation of the divide between Europe and non-Europe that drives the racial project forward as ‘colonialism speaking’ to cite Patrick Wolfe. So, in disciplining populations conceived as other, the dual purpose of race is to define and draw a line around what comes to be thought of as whiteness. That is why in my definition I insist on the aims of race as a technology of power being the production and maintenance of white supremacy. Importantly, whiteness here needs to be understood as a system of power, one which has endured globally for at least 500 years. This is what I take Falguni Sheth to mean by ‘sovereign power’ because while it is important to free race as a set of processes for enacting rule from the very racial classifications it spuriously sets up, it is nonetheless important to name what regimes of power race becomes intrinsic to and why. Race originates in Europe and becomes the central mechanism for dividing both among the populations within those porous borders and for legitimising and effecting the take-over of the majority of the world for the purposes of exploitation and domination. The ‘success’ of race is predicated on its possibility for adaption which is what its naming as a technology gets at. Therefore, contained in this vision of things is the potential for race to be enacted in other contexts not necessarily anchored in, yet invariably shaped by – as we live under the modern colonial world system – European racial rule. This is what I took from Sivamohan Valluvan‘s review of Why Race Still Matters in the Ethnic and Racial Studies symposium on the book:

The wager of postcolonial thought (Mbembe, 2008) is herein an important one, an intellectual and political wager that has steadfastly interrogated the limits of nation-making across various Global South contexts. This is accordingly a wager that might also constructively complicate the centering of race and whiteness as the only or primary ontic engine of the aforementioned political technologies. Instead, a wider reading of racism but also cognate structures of communitarian exclusion and expendability might allow for a wider conceptual map consistent with the practices unfolding across multiple global settings. These being settings less touched by the pathologies of whiteness but where other invocations of nativism and communitarian majoritarianism can effect comparable outcomes.

Sivamohan Valluvan, ‘Racist apologism and the refuge of nation’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2022.

The Possible Misuses of Race as Technology

Thinking about race as a technology, for me, means naming the purpose of that technology, explicitly, all while being aware of its multiple and adaptive usages. This is particularly important because there is a certain way in which mobilising Heidegger’s notion of technology and putting it to use to explain the workings of race runs the risk of dislodging race from its historical bases. I don’t think it’s useful to suggest that just because race is adaptive it can become anything, or be used for purposes far beyond its original intent. Once again, this is why I insist on embedding it in the project of white supremacy even as we can imagine the operations of that supremacist morphing to become adaptable to postcolonial contexts, as Vallu rightly suggests. We simply don’t know the various ways in which racial rule can take expression because we have not yet lived them all; this is itself a terrifying prospect. I also concede that there are specific ways in which race can be put to projects that are resistant to power. However, we cannot in good faith re-write race as humanly productive (in terms of joyful futurities) even as we find ways to build solidarities within and against its confines today.

This is why I found one use of ‘race as technology’ troubling in my reading. In her contribution to the special issue edited by Wendy Chun, Beth Coleman writes about the potentials of race as technology to ‘think of race as a disinterested object of our delight’ (p. 180). She asks whether race can ‘survive as something other than the remnant of a traumatic history’ (ibid.). She suggests that moving from the history of race as a ‘contraption by one people to subject another’ to ‘an aesthetic category of human being, where mutability of identity, reach of individual agency and conditions of culture all influence each other’ (ibid.). In other words, race can be used for good as well as for ill. She writes, following the logic of ‘race as technology’ in the Heideggerian sense, that we can create a ‘distance from the inherited logic of race’ as biological structure and go towards embarking on ‘an aesthetics and an ethics of race’ (p.182). Race can become a question of ethics, she suggests, rather than one of science.

The problem I have with Coleman’s suggestion, as I understand it, is that it relies too heavily on a narrow account of race that utilises the terms of 18th-19th century racial science itself, and does not take account of race as a project of (internal and external) colonial, state and capitalist power which did not rely exclusively on discourses of biology for its enactment (as I argue above following Stoler and others). If race can do something other than fix us biologically, we can argue that it has already done so; it fixes us culturally, religiously, and geographically, and articulates with class as Stuart Hall amply demonstrates snd with gender. But it has always constrained, never freed.

Coleman, in contrast, believes that the important point is, if race is a “hammer”, ‘the question remains: in whose hands does it rest?’ Her response in part mobilises what has been possibly one of the most insidious periods in recent US (and hence, global) racial and political history: the presidency of Barack Obama. She claims that Obama’s 2008 speech on race ‘powerfully reframed a rhetorical understanding of race in America’ by working against its ‘occular truth’ and positing it as a ‘tool he would enlist towards societal change’ (p. 179). In a grandiose move, Coleman argues that this speech and Obama’s presidency ‘changed the body politic’ (ibid.). Her argument hinges on the idea that by evoking American society as the perfecting of unity in diversity, Obama’s black body appeared and receded at once. In other words, he mobilised his presence as undeniably Black in order to fade race into the background of US-America life (there is no mention of the land theft and genocide on which ‘America’ is based).

Coleman is not necessarily passing judgment or claiming a political stake, but her point is that thinking about race as a technology suggests that it was not that Obama was not perceived as Black (a la colourblindness), but that ‘there was no prejudgment, or at least much less prejudgment, of what it is to perceive a black person’ (p. 189). Leaving aside the benefit of hindsight with which some see Donald Trump as largely a ‘whitelash’ against the Obama era, the unproblematised presentation of the worthiness of fading race out of the US-American story while using its hollowed-out signifiers (skin colour) to lay claim to the ‘perfectability’ of an enlightened America, no longer encumbered by ‘old racism’ strikes me as markedly naive, at best.

Coleman understand that, far from actually receding, race is constantly finding new modes of expression, not least in the ‘race realism’ of the new genomic and cybernetic sciences (p.194). However, she wishes to stay with the idea that, by reverting to ‘societal habits around race’ that we are bound to repeat, we don’t ask ‘what would it mean to pass for neither white nor “native”, but for something in between that is thoroughly disruptive?’ (p. 195). For me, this is possibly asking the wrong question because, if Obama is the prototype used for what that disruptive subject could look like, in practice, his legacy as the first imperial Black president as Joy James puts it, enacting US hegemony not least via antiblackness in for example Somalia, makes of Obama an enactor of racial rule, if we are to understand race as intrinsic to the ongoing modern-colonial world project.

Coleman posits that there is another side to race, that is not necessarily consistent with its use in ‘a violent and coercive manner’ (p. 199). The problem is that we have no historical or contemporary examples of race being put to other than nefarious purposes, least of all in the regime of Barack Obama. It appears that, while race as a technology, is an important theorisation, when stripped of the realities of (settler) colonialism, war, genocides, imperialism, (racial) capitalism, the prison industrial complex, and on and on, it runs the risk of falling into a trap of theorising for its own sake.


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