Insight: Deconstructing Race/Reconstructing Difference

This is an insight written by Heather DeMocker on the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace 2018 Annual Lecture: Deconstructing Race/Reconstructing Difference presented by Professor Jabari Mahiri, University of California Berkeley, on September 20, 2018.

Insight: Deconstructing Race / Reconstructing Difference

Since its inception, America has always had a race problem. And in an era of increasing globalization it is no longer just ours. Our history of oppressing so many different non-white, religious, and ethnic minorities, from slavery to the Trail of Tears to even anti-Irish sentiment, is unique to us. However, as the leading producer of music, media, and all things pop culture, we are becoming more responsible for how the world defines race. I’ve had numerous professors, regardless of their socio-political orientations, say that a true-post racial society is impossible. While a harrowing belief, this is something I resigned myself to agree with.

On September 20, 2018, I took a breath of fresh air when attending my first event held by the University of Maryland’s Baha’i Chair for World Peace. Jabari Mahiri, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, gave the annual Peace Day Lecture, entitled “Deconstructing Race / Reconstructing Difference.” The lecture focused on how to break away from binding racial categories and instead celebrate more nuanced identities.

Rather than immediately jump into his lecture material, Professor Mahiri took a moment to contextualize race as one of many issues facing our nation. He acknowledged that other issues such as women’s empowerment and environmental degradation are just as, if not more pertinent than discussions of race. This acknowledgement of how race overshadows other socio-political issues also illuminated how race can shape those issues. E.g., immigration and Census-taking are increasingly debated and conducted in racially coded language.

Deconstructing Race: A Social Fact and Performance

Professor Mahiri’s first argument concerned race as a social fact. Americans have long been ascribed to both prisms and prisons of race. When white light enters one side of a prism, a rainbow of colors exit the other side. Professor Mahiri stated that just like the white light and the prism, we define all other races in terms of how they differ from whiteness. As evidence, look to the United States Census records (link to Pew Research Center comparison tool). Since the Census’ inception in 1790, the racial category of “white” has remained constant. All other categories changed around it. For example, 2010 Census category of “Black, African American, or Negro” was represented as “Enslaved persons” in 1790 and “Black / Mulatto” in 1870. Other categories, such as “Hawaiian” or “Mexican,” have come and gone with the decades as well.

Professor Mahiri explained that race, like gender and sexuality, is performative. Furthermore, it is especially performative in communities of identity. He used the example of a young Haitian woman who is ostracized by her Black peers: for those born of African descent, her Caribbean heritage “isn’t Black enough.” Therefore, the young woman feels the need to perform Blackness to gain acceptance. This performance aspect of race is evident among Whites too. A second example is a Eastern-European Jewish woman who immigrated to the United States as a toddler. When the supermarket with her parents, she used to physically distance herself from them if they spoke their native Russian.

Just as with gender, we perform our racial category to find a place in society. In this way, we are trapped in a prison of race. So much of our self-expression and social life stem from these racial performances. Professor Mahiri also connected such performances to the fact that non-whites seem to have adopted the same purity notions that have long defined whiteness. A pop-culture example is the backlash actress Amandla Stenberg faced after being cast as Starr Carter in The Hate U Give. Fans were upset that she, a biracial woman, had been cast instead of someone “Blacker.”

Deconstructing Difference: A New-Self Definition

Through the aforementioned contextualization, Professor Mahiri brought us to what W.E.B. DuBois called the “color-bind.” DuBois constructed the color bind follows: America is so stuck in its current strict mentality of racial categories, that we leave no room for nuanced identities and self-expression. (Notably, DuBois was a firm believer that the “color-line has always been porus and penetrable.”)

So if we shouldn’t define ourselves along race lines, how should we define ourselves? As previously stated, when we only define ourselves by race, so many other pieces of our identity get lost. Professor Mahiri used the sample of a three-year-old boy named Santi, whom the world would label “Black.” While his father is African American, his mother is Latina and her mother was an immigrant from Columbia. He and his brother are both being raised bilingual. His brother, however, is seen as Latino because he inherited a more Columbian phenotype from their mother. Instead of trapping one another in narrow race identities, we should celebrate every part of our ourselves, not just the part the world sees at first glance.

Here, Professor Mahiri echoed DuBois again, stating, “Skin color is illegible, we cannot read someone’s skin and know exactly who they are.” He urged the audience to define themselves, and others, not in terms of race, but as the sum of all their parts: their history, ethnicity, ancestry, hometown, etc. “Everyone’s mind and history is as unique as their fingerprint,” and our current racial heuristics do not properly allow that uniqueness to be celebrated. I completely agree: identity is more than what surface characteristics meet the eye. Using myself as an example, there is more than “White.” My dad grew up by the Canadian border and my mom grew up in the Caribbean. I am Jewish, and my ancestry is Belarusian, Dutch, and Scottish. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of my hometown culture, education, or personality.

Next Steps: Education and Personal Takeaways

After the lecture, I was left wanting more direction on how to implement Professor Mahiri’s research. So during Q&A time, I asked: “Can you go into more detail about possible strategies for moving forward, particularly with regard to the next generation and creating the world we would like to see for Santi and my little cousins?”

On the subject of educating the future, Professor Mahiri detailed a 7-generation chart activity and the importance of empowering youth. The 7-generation chart is an exercise Professor Mahiri trains his teachers to lead. In this activity, elementary school students create family trees stretching back 7 generations (or as many generations as possible) to get a better idea of their ancestry. The philosophy is simple: the first step in celebrating your heritage is knowing it. For adults, perhaps we could complete an Ancestry or 23AndMe kit, then research our resulting DNA profiles.

Of everything I heard that night, this part of his response stuck with me the most. “Social justice must be blended into an everyday curriculum.” Professor Mahiri echoed a belief that my mother ingrained deeply in me from a young age: that children are the future, and as such, hold tremendous power for change. Although on the cusp of true adulthood, this event marked the first time in a long time where I saw that power in myself. Like all aspects of our identity, race does not exist in a vacuum. It is shaped by our education and social landscape. A next step for moving forward is certainly to create a landscape more conducive to social justice and change. We must help children like Santi be that change. We must practice what we preach regarding justice and other values. When speaking with various attendees after the event, I learned that this idea — that someone’s passion must be evident in all their actions — is a cornerstone of the Baha’i faith.

While I believe that race will remain a pertinent issue for generations, the key is that race must not be our only determination of identity. It is both Professor Mahiri’s and my belief that education will continue to be the greatest tool for this social progress. Although more next steps for implementing Professor Mahiri’s research are yet to be determined, that such research is being done and shared is still incredibly important and eye-opening.

You can watch the video of the Annual Lecture here.

To find out more about The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace visit our website and watch our video.

About the Author: Heather DeMocker is an undergraduate studying Criminology and Criminal Justice, with a Law & Society minor. She also studied Sociology of Law at Universitetet i Oslo, in Norway. Besides writing for the Baha’i Chair Blog, Heather tutors inmates with the Petey Greene Program and edits creative shorts for the UMD Athletics Department. She hopes to attend law school and become a defense attorney with the Innocence Project.


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