“Race has never been much about skin color, or physical features, so much as the need to name someone before doing something to them,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes. “Race is not a sober-minded description of peoples. It is casus belli.” He refers to the oft misunderstood Toni Morrison line about Bill Clinton as the America’s first black president. Pundits, who don’t read novels and wouldn’t know Toni Morrison except as the originator of that line, still repeat it:
Most Americans understand race as indelible—as a thing which you really are—and thus Morrison’s point went right over the heads of even relatively educated people. This is convenient. As long as “race” can be considered as who you are, and not what someone else did to you, then Americans can see themselves as heroic do-gooders in struggling against our more ignorant and animalistic impulses.
Morrison’s argument sprang from another worldview—one that sees race as a choice, as an action, as a made thing. This worldview is less convenient. For if race in America is a “made thing,” an action, then it is not sufficient for people who wish for a world without such categories to simply sigh in self-congratulation.
Morrison’s clarifications, included in the original link, remind me of a passage in Beloved:
The more colored people spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle the whitefolks planted in them.”