Understanding both race and gender can seem difficult at times. Concepts can be illusive and definitions can feel like they change mid-course.
What if it turns out that it doesn’t just seem that way – it actually is that way?
An article that has been very helpful to me is by Troy Duster called “The Morphing Properties of Whiteness” in the book The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness.
His approach moves us from an ‘essentialist’ understanding of race to an elemental one. That is my phrasing, not his – but it holds great possibility for discussions around race and, I would add, gender.
It is in vogue today to say that is race is not a biological reality (DNA, science, etc) but is instead a socially constructed category. That is fine and true BUT that does not help us deal with historical and ongoing effects of race and our previous racial understandings.
In adopting a “Morphing Properties” approach, it gives us a framing metaphor of steam/water/ice to help distinguish between abstract concepts (gas), fluid definitions (liquid) and concrete consequences (solid). It also acknowledges that things can change very quickly. His personal story on p. 123 is telling.
I have been using this article for over a year in whiteness workshops, church settings, and in the classroom. It seems to help people make sense of an overwhelming, complicated, and elusive topic. This gives them an entry point without their white fragility causing them to get their hackles up right away.
I have also started utilizing the elemental approach to gender with those who have inherited an essentialist binary of male/female. I am working here off of Elaine Graham’s Transforming Practice where she engages Judith Butler’s notion of perfomativity. (see below)
I’m arguing that masculinity is performed and that whiteness operates on a performative register.
My thesis: We enact and embody (concrete) our understandings and ideas (abstract) in a fluid environment of social relationships (liquid).
This is a conversation that I would very much like to have in 2017 so I wanted to recommend this article.
If you are looking for a good paperback, I would suggest How The Irish Became White.
If you want a good (and inexpensive) Kindle book, The History of White People is a doozy.
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