June 6th, 2005

operesque

Nipposexual 3: Damned if you do...

artysmokes raised a very interesting point in our discussion of nipposexuality yesterday. "Personally, I've never fancied a black woman, but I'd be horrified if someone levelled accusations of... racism at me [for that]," he said, pointing up a simple but puzzling Catch-22: it's both racist if you do fancy someone of another race, and racist if you don't. The only way out of the accusation of racism is to say that race plays no part in your attraction to, or lack of attraction to, the otherly-raced person. And so we get the somewhat absurd spectacle of someone trying to pass off a big tangled knot of historical, cultural and racial features as nothing more than personal attributes. "It's not her Japaneseness that I like, it's the fact that she has lovely dark hair and eyes, and makes great sake teriyaki, and wears lovely kimonos at obon... In the end, though, she's just a unique individual, and all the other stuff is just a bonus."

I often think it's terribly sad that the identity politics movements of the 60s and 70s, which were all about discussing matters of race and gender and using them as criteria for analysing the world, became, in the 80s and 90s, the complete opposite: a way of saying "Shut up!" If Artysmokes risks being called a "racist" for either fancying or not fancying a black woman on account of her race, all his accuser is really saying is "I don't want racial considerations to be an issue in this conversation at all. My use of the term "racist" is the final statement in which race is the structuring concept that I want to hear in this discussion. Shut up about race!" And so identity politics, which in the 60s and 70s was very much an invitation to have a discussion about race and gender, became, in the 80s and 90s, a way to close those same discussions down. What started as an initiative to foreground and spotlight the concepts of race and gender became a call to sweep them under an extremely large and dark carpet. Far from advising you to join the Black Panthers and structure your entire life around racial struggle, today's conservative liberationist wishes to liberate you from the concept of race itself; he will often tell you that race, as a scientific concept, doesn't exist at all.

But wishing don't make it so. Race and gender are sociological facts, whatever they may be to science. After being foregrounded by identity politics in the 70s, they were deconstructed in the 80s. Then, by means of benign-sounding ideological tropes like equality of opportunity, the uniqueness of individuals, the commonality of all humanity, and blindness to race, colour or creed, race and gender were shown out of the hotel lobby, frogmarched down the service corridor, and set to work in the kitchen, out of sight. It's not that these things instantly stopped determining the lives and histories of people. It's just that we didn't talk about them, because we felt strongly that they shouldn't determine the lives and histories of people.

So successful were concepts like "racism" and "sexism" at taking race and gender off the conversational agenda that attempts were made to create other taboos in their image: "rockism" was meant to make rock music go away, and "homophobia" to make either prejudice against gays, or, more sinisterly, gays themselves in all their difference and particularity, disappear into the woodwork. But think of all the neologisms that weren't coined! All the missed opportunities to stigmatize! Nobody has invented the reproach "marketist" for anyone who attempts to say that marketers have specific attributes rather than being "individuals, same as everyone else". No, marketing is "unproblematical" and doesn't need to be deconstructed. Carry on marketing! Nobody calls "businessmanist" those who single out businessmen and say they have unique attributes, either good or bad. You're still allowed to say "I want to marry a businessman" rather than twist yourself up in knots with constructions like "He needs to wear a suit and be savvy with money and go out daily to wheel and deal and bring home the bacon, but I wouldn't say that necessarily means I'm saying he needs to be a businessman. I mean, there are lots of people who meet those criteria who aren't businessmen at all. I'm not being businessmanist about this. You know, scientifically speaking there's no evidence to say that a businessman is different from any other human being. And people who say businessmen are hot are being just as offensive, reductive and patronising as those who say they're not."

In aggregate, then: deconstruct everything or deconstruct nothing. Make everything taboo, or nothing.