In today’s Washington Post, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite compares the rhetorical hysterics of the Sotomayor confirmation hearing to the racial allegory of the Harry Potter books.
Thistlethwaite pivots her argument on the term “mudblood,” a slur similar to the label half-breed and used by some characters in the novels to refer to wizards with one muggle (i.e. “normal”) parent.
The Potter intro makes for an interesting opening gambit, but then Thistlethwaite jumps the tracks and goes on to write:
“Blood does mean race; it always has, and despite DNA evidence, I suspect it always will. It is too powerful, too important a metaphor, and, of course, Rowling knows that.”
Setting aside for the moment the question of what Rowling knows (though I suspect she knows exactly the opposite), it’s maddening to see yet another progressive cave to the racist logic of the Right, and to do so in such spectacular nonsensical fashion.
Race has nothing to do with blood (as Thistlethwaite acknowedges in the very same breath that she uses to assert the opposite). That is long-discredited clap-trap. But more interesting (and troubling) is her assertion that blood as race is “too powerful, too important a metaphor.”
Rather than challenging the lie of race, Thistlethwaite is throwing in the towel, simply because she finds the language of the lie too powerful to contest.
Establishing the definition of race is key to controlling the terms of debate. But this is no easy task. Racism is usually understood as a matter of individual attitudes, not a system of rules. When race is spotlighted, it is often confused with ethnicity (religion, cultural traditions, language, country of origin, etc.) as well as with phenotype (skin color, facial features, hair texture, etc.)
Clearly defining race and racism is a necessary communications task. It requires both a thorough understanding of the nature of race and an elegant script for talking about it.
Many people see race as something you inherit—it’s in your genes. From this perspective, race is a matter of biology, even if it is only skin-deep. The race-is-biology perspective dominates media debate. Common metaphorical terms include “mixed race,” “descendants,” “half-breed” and now “mud-blood.” Of course, some of this metaphorical framework is grounded in an understanding of the positives associated with shared culture, history and geography and the ways that this shared experience as well as oppression have forged common ties.
However, rather than understanding or speaking about race as biology, it can be useful to talk about race as a label, a tag that gets assigned to someone after they are born (when the world can see them), not when they are conceived. For most people, the label they have been assigned is nearly permanent, and it determines much of their fate in the world. In the U.S., for example, the odds of getting ahead are a lot better if you are labeled white.When your racial label limits or cripples your reach in the world, your racial identity can seem to define who you are as much as your genes.
To cross this bridge, it is time to consider discarding the race-is-biology metaphor and develop new metaphors for understanding and debating racism. For example, it can be powerful to use the gaming metaphors “life is a game” and “race is a label.” Players in the game of life can play the game as if life is a puzzle to be solved by searching together for all the missing pieces. Much more commonly however, players play the game as if life is a contest, a board game with winners and losers.
In the board game version of life, when each player arrives at the table he or she is assigned a different racial label (such as white or black), according to the rules of the game. Labels are assigned on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, hair type, facial features, language accent, and more.
Racial labels are assigned according to different rules in different countries. Most countries generally use the same set of criteria: skin color, accent, etc., but in each country these criteria are applied in different ways. In the U.S., for example, if you have one recent African ancestor it does not matter how many of your recent ancestors were Caucasian; you are almost always assigned the label “black,” according to the infamous one-drop rule. Meanwhile a player with a Spanish accent who is assigned the Latino label in the U.S. might be considered white in South America because of the color of her skin and her European ancestry. Different countries even have different and unique racial categories that don’t exist in other countries, e.g., Mestizo in Latin America, Criollo in Mexico. However, just as music and movies from the U.S. have taken over much of the world, so too have U.S. racial categories, which are increasingly adopted overseas.
In the racism game, racism takes on several forms. The life-is-a-game metaphor highlights the systemic nature of racism based in a set of rules, not just individual attitudes. Sometimes the rules are such that they slow down players with certain labels while fast-tracking others. Sometimes the banker cheats to help himself. Sometimes the board has different and more difficult paths for certain players. Sometime one player will refuse to cooperate with others changing the game into a contest where a player gets ahead by putting others behind. In the U.S., for example, racial justice advocates chase redlining banks and corrupt mortgage brokers. The alcohol industry preys on communities of color by marketing unusually potent products and saturating neighborhoods of color with retail outlets. And, white audiences often oppose racial justice initiatives.
The rules are extremely complex. Sometimes the rules are formal: laws, codes, and regulations. Sometimes the rules are informal: social customs, traditions, practices, and attitudes. In the U.S., many of the explicitly racist laws and regulations have been eliminated, but many of the implicit and informal rules of racism are as potent as ever.
The combination of informal, implicit racism and the legacy of more explicit racism creates a dramatic Catch-22 for people of color. Each rule in the game may appear to be well intentioned on its own, but when rules are combined they pave a road to hell. For instance, in the U.S., players labeled “people of color” often start off in a neighborhood without good schools, part of the racist legacy of segregation and poverty that endures in the U.S. The rules say you can’t get into a good school unless your family can buy into a wealthy neighborhood where property taxes and affluent parents pour resources into the schools. But no player can afford to buy into a wealthy neighborhood unless the members of their family have good jobs. Such jobs usually require a good education from a good school. And the Catch-22 for people of color starts all over again as they search for a good school.
The material impact of racism is particularly powerful when the players in the game of life operate with a vision of a game that has winners and losers, that is a game that can only be won when others lose. This win-lose conception of the game of life divides white players from people of color. The win-lose frame implies that players of color can advance in the game of life only at the expense of white players. Employers regularly discriminate against people of color in hiring and promotion. Landlords informally enforce racial segregation among their apartment buildings. And white audiences, blinded by the win-lose perspective, do not see how they could be uplifted by reforming the rules that unfairly privilege them.
Going beyond confronting racism to promoting a vision of racial justice requires looking past the “win-lose” frame of racism and developing a “win-win” vision wherein all players move forward by helping each other. Getting broad audiences to commit to a vision of racial justice requires scripting new metaphors that call upon familiar examples of mutual success. Games and group endeavors such as jigsaw puzzles, orchestras, jazz combos, barn raisings, and square dancing are well-known social activities where everyone succeeds only by working together. Advocates can call upon these activities and others to construct new metaphors for life and for racial justice.
The life-is-a-game metaphor and the race-is-a-label metaphor are powerful and elegant tools for racial justice advocates. These metaphors can be teased out in many different settings, and they talk about race in terms that are internally consistent. The metaphors are easy to understand; gaming concepts like rules, players, and pieces are familiar. Most importantly, these metaphors highlight an understanding of race and racial justice that offers mainstream audiences insight not promoted by the race-is-biology metaphor. Metaphors built upon familiar and shared experiences and social activities in which everyone wins by working together offer all audiences a deeper understanding of their self interest in ending racism and are tools for constructing a powerful vision of racial justice.