Lydster: The Biopolitics of Feeling

19th-century “scientists

Biopolitics of FeelingSometimes, your teenager hangs in their room all day. Other times, they wander into your office and engage you in a fascinating conversation.

My child started talking about how sexism, homophobia, and transphobia has been promulgated by a false duality. If they didn’t exist, perhaps those social ailments would not either. What prompted the discussion was an Instagram book report on the book The Biopolitics of Feeling by Kyla Schuller. The subtitle of the book is Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. It was published by Duke University Press in 2018.

Ah. From the book report: “The sex binary – the idea that there are only two, inherently opposite sexes – is not natural. It is a political invention that emerges from 19th-century race science. It has since been naturalized such that in 2020 people understand the sex binary as an indisputable ‘biological fact.’ This is historically inaccurate.”

I was aware that some 19th-century “scientists” were “invested in identifying presumed anatomical differences between the races to justify discrimination.” But I did not know that they posited that “that only the white race could achieve a pure, binary distinction between sexes. BIPOC people were dismissed as gender non-conforming and sex indistinct… They used this racist interpretation of evolutionary theory to define fixed norms and roles for men and women that still influence us today.”

A serious book

In the description of the book, the publisher notes a remarkable analysis by the author. “Kyla Schuller unearths the forgotten, multiethnic sciences of impressibility—the capacity to be transformed by one’s environment and experiences—to uncover how biopower developed in the United States… Her historical and theoretical work exposes the overlooked role of sex difference in population management and the optimization of life, illuminating how models of binary sex function as one of the key mechanisms of racializing power.” Got that?

“Schuller thereby overturns long-accepted frameworks of the nature of race and sex difference, offers key corrective insights to modern debates surrounding the equation of racism with determinism and the liberatory potential of ideas about the plasticity of the body, and reframes contemporary notions of sentiment, affect, sexuality, evolution, and heredity.” There are some impressive reviews cited for The Biopolitics of Feeling.

Fat shaming and racism

Since my daughter pointed out something I didn’t know, I shared with her an article I had only recently come across. CBSN has a piece called The racial origins of fat stigma.

“Fatness wasn’t always culturally undesirable in the Western world. … As the art and fashion historian Anne Hollander wrote in a New York Times article from 1977, ‘The look of actual human bodies obviously changes very little through history. But the look of ideal bodies changes a great deal all the time.'”

While the… article considers the switch to thinness as the preferable body type to be part of “a period of revolution in both taste and politics” in the late 18th century, Sabrina Strings’ research traces how that ‘revolution’ is actually rooted in slavery and Protestantism.

Those involved in the slave trade “decided to re-articulate racial categories, adding new characteristics… One of the things that the colonists believed was that Black people were inherently more sensuous, that people love sex and they love food, and so the idea was that Black people had more venereal diseases, and that Black people were inherently obese, because they lack self-control. And of course, self-control and rationality, after the Enlightenment, were characteristics that were deemed integral to Whiteness.”

“Who we are” about race

stark contrast

who we are

Jaquandor noted, in his blog response to the January 6 tyranny, “We are who we were.”

Specifically, “The road we walk is the one our ancestors paved, for good or ill. It’s a road that leads to amazing things: a nation that helped defeat Fascism on opposite sides of the globe, and a nation that built itself on the stolen labor of some and the stolen land of others…

“We’re a nation that elected a black man President, and then turned around and enabled a four-year tantrum by people who hate that this ever happened.

“‘Who we are is who we were.’ We were racists and white supremacists and violent conquerors of people who lived here before us. We weren’t just those things, but we were those things…and who we are is who we were.” It’s impossible, then, to avoid looking at America through the prism of race.

Why is it ALWAYS about race?!

As I read conservative websites, few philosophies of “the Left” aggrieve them more than the critical race theory.” The view is that “the law and legal institutions are inherently racist.”

Some conservatives actually say we need to root out racist behavior. The trouble is that the examples of blatant announced racism they can point to are comparatively unusual.

What’s more likely is that a white Columbus, OH policeman, Adam Coy, a “19-year veteran of the Columbus Division of Police,” will shoot and kill Andre Hill, an unarmed black man holding a cellphone. And within 10 seconds of the encounter. Coy refused “to administer first aid for several minutes.”

Did  Coy shoot Hill because he feared him based on his race? Can someone prove that? No, but the preponderance of unarmed black folks dying that way forces one to ponder that possibility.

You might have heard about that attempted coup of the US government on January 6. According to the Associated Press report: “The Pentagon asked the U.S Capitol Police if it needed National Guard manpower. And as the mob descended on the building, Justice Department leaders reached out to offer up FBI agents. The police turned them down both times…”

This despite the fact that far-right activists on social media telegraphed violence weeks in advance.

By comparison, last summer, “a diverse group of largely peaceful protesters for racial justice were met with tear gas, military tactics, and legions of police in riot gear.” The contrast was stark.

Difference in tactics

Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner wondered, “Was there a structural feeling that well, these [on January 6] are a bunch of conservatives, they’re not going to do anything like this? Quite possibly. That’s where the racial component to this comes into play in my mind.

“Was there a lack of urgency or a sense that this could never happen with this crowd? Is that possible? Absolutely.” No rows of “camo-clad and helmeted National Guard troops” watching this crowd, some of them wearing neo-Nazi apparel and/or waving the Confederate flag.

President-elect Biden saw it. “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting…, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. We all know that’s true, and it is unacceptable.” As the article title declares, “What’s happening is white privilege.”

I just started reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. The subtitle is “a forgotten history of how our government segregated America.” I’ve gotten far enough to know that the redlining of the US occurred as a result of de jure, rather than de facto segregation.

I’m sure the folks at the Daily Signal are tired of what they deem identity politics. Their conclusion: “the purpose of all teaching about race in American schools is to engender contempt for America.” (SMH) No, the purpose of teaching about race is to recognize that we are on a long, and sometimes imperfect journey. We are striving to form a more perfect union, and we’re not quite there yet.

A random look at the 2020 blog

Thank Allah for music

while blackSome blogger buddy used to do this look at the previous year. He’d select a post date and a sentence from that post at random.

I’ve found it interesting to see how well, or poorly, it reflected the past year. So, the 2020 blog in one post. Sort of.

January: “Willis was the son of people identified only as Jacob and Charlotte.” This was the first of two posts that week about Raymond Cornelius Cone, who I had just discovered was my biological grandfather. Willis was his father.

February: “Those particular matinees mean three things: cheaper tickets, a lot of older patrons, and best of all, a discussion with the cast after the shows.”This was back in the days when I was going to Thursday matinees at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady.

March: “She had to go into work on Monday and Tuesday last week, which I thought was crazy.” An Ask Roger Anything answer about retirement. I was referring to my wife’s school’s COVID methodology.

April: “Yet, and ‘Holy Crap This Is Insane’: Citing Coronavirus Pandemic, EPA Indefinitely Suspends Environmental Rules.” The 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I was pessimistic.

May: “The United States was allegedly staying out of it.” The music of 1940. The “it” was WWII.

June: “In light of the nationwide outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, movies like Just Mercy and I Am Not Your Negro are available to stream.” Juneteenth links.

Caesar months

July: “He believes the continued popularity of white depictions of Jesus is ‘an example of how far in some respects the United States has not moved.'” He being Edward J. Blum.

August: “He often combined the two.” Another Ask Roger Anything answer about why I’m a duck. “He” was the late Raoul Vezina, who combined his love of art and music.

September: “The moderator said a particular bill meant X.” A discussion of the Federalist Paper No. 62 of James Madison and how far we’ve moved from it.

October: “The search committee was afraid that these folks wouldn’t cotton to working with a black person.” This was the job I held for over 26 years but almost did not get.

November: “Freedom for the Stallion – the Oak Ridge Boys.” A link to a song by the legendary Allen Toussaint.

December: “If I were to have major surgery, such as for this situation, one doesn’t want to deal with the complicating factor of this patient having a bad reaction from the antibiotic.” So, I’m NOT allergic to penicillin!

People who do not read this will ask, “What is your blog about?” Other than About Me, I have no retort. So maybe, just maybe, this shows what was reflected in 2020. Music, COVID, race, genealogy, health, politics. I guess that’s about right.

The race for the jobs

But the South!

race-and-ethnicity-main-imageIn the many jobs that I’ve had, I never thought my race was a factor. Some of them were affected by previous relationships. Being a page at Binghamton Public Library, doing bookkeeping at the Schenectady Arts Council, managing at FantaCo, for instance. In each case, there were people I knew, one black, two white, who undoubtedly helped me secure employment.

Then there was a slew of jobs where the employer just wanted a competent person for the position. my two stints as a janitor qualify. And BTW, I was pretty good at it, especially in Binghamton City Hall in 1975.

I graduated from library school in May 1992 and applied for several positions. The State Library offered me an interview in July of that year, but I was unsuccessful. Then I heard about this job at the New York Small Business Development Center. My friend Jennifer was interning there. They had just gotten a grant to provide library reference services, not just for the NYSBDC but for the whole country.

Michele, who had started the library as a half-time position became the director. Jennifer was the second librarian hired for what was dubbed the Research Network. I was interviewed and became the third librarian on October 19. Lynne was hired on October 22 and was the fourth. Since the program ostensibly began on October 1, we had a lot of work to do from the get-go, including getting the materials from the Georgia SBDC, which had the gig before New York.

How would they deal with it?

It was only five or seven years later that a person who would be in the know and impeccably reputable told me a story I found rather unsettling. I shan’t reveal who they are except to say they were most definitely in the know.

I had interviewed well enough. But apparently, there were one or more persons on the committee who were concerned about my race. Specifically, the job required that the librarian in that position create liaisons with the state directors and other staff in the other states’ lead centers. Many of them were in the South, of course. The search committee was afraid that these folks wouldn’t cotton to working with a black person. So I was rejected for that reason.

Then, someone up the State University of New York food chain told them, “You can’t do that!” SUNY is the host institution of the NY SBDC. I ended up getting the job after all.

The news, a half dozen years after the fact, was initially jaw-dropping. Then, thinking back on who was on the search committee, not so much. If a certain party hadn’t intervened, I would not have gotten the job. I would not have known why, either.

Of course, it got me to wonder about all the other people who didn’t get the job because of bias. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, I have no doubt that racism has crept into the employment mix.

Book: So you want to talk about race

We have to talk about it because we’ve harmed people

so you want to talk about raceA friend of mine asked if I had read So you want to talk about race, the 2018 book by Ijeoma Oluo. I said it was on my list. The truth is that it was in the house, but in a flurry of tidying up, it got misplaced.

Now it’s found. And I read the 240-page paperback in three or four hours over two days. The story was compelling because she put a lot of herself, a “black, queer woman” with a white single mom, on the pages.

“It’s about race if a person of color thinks about race.” I related to that. At the same time, she notes that “almost nothing is completely about race.” And that explaining systemic racism is not always easy.

In the chapter about talking about race incorrectly, the primary subject was her own mom. “Why can’t I be talking about… anything but this.” Conversely, Ms. Oluo tells about her OWN failure to check her privilege. She explains intersectionality better than most people I’ve read.

Her chapter on affirmative action was not academic but personal, with her family finding the need to sneak into a vacant apartment in order to take showers. A school game tagged her brother as “homeless,” when in fact the family had literally experienced this.

Lock ’em up

The school-to-prison pipeline the author talked about is quite insidious. I recently saw a story on the news about an eight-year-old mixed-race kid with special needs. He was arrested for felony assault for hitting his teacher in December 2018. He couldn’t be handcuffed because the boy’s wrists were too skinny. The child is STILL traumatized by this experience.

The particular pain of the author, at age 11, and her brother being subjected to the N-word in what they perceived to a safe setting was particularly awful. She explains an almost comical example of cultural appropriation at a dining establishment. I’ve never understood why any white person would ask a black person if they could touch their hair. Yet it’s a common phenomenon.

I’ve never liked the word “microaggression.” It seems to trivialize the pain of being, for instance, the fat black kid afraid of eating pizza, even though she hadn’t eaten all day. I myself hear the one about my proper use of English. Also, generally, “you aren’t like other black people,” as though that was supposed to be a compliment; n.b., it is not.

Ijeoma Oluo’s then eight-year-old son didn’t want to sing the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance at school. He wanted to duck a school assembly to avoid it; it did get worked out. I’ve had my own issues with those symbols, albeit slightly later in life. He also realized he ought not to play with toy guns like his white friends did because he didn’t want to end up dead like the 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Importantly, in “But what if I hate Al Sharpton,” he addressed a lot of myths. About Martin Luther King and what he really stood for. About Malcolm X. (The late folk singer Phil Ochs also addressed this in Love Me, I’m a Liberal.)

The book ends with a call for action, including Vote local, Bear witness to bigotry, Boycott bigoted businesses, and Supporting businesses owned by people of color.

Yes, Ijeoma Oluo may tell you a few things you already knew if you’ve read other books on racism. But because she puts herself in the story, So you want to talk about race got me to turn the pages. And watch this video. Listening to her speak explains why people who listen to her audiobook enjoy it so much.