Race and Its Others

Jill Lane and Marcial Godoy-Anativia

In her contribution to this issue, “The Coolie Speaks,” Lisa Yun tells us of the “peculiar fatality of color” that befell Chinese indentured workers and African slaves alike on the plantations of Cuba in the final decades of the chattel slavery on the island. This “fatality” is another name for that transatlantic racial formation in which race was lived as violent destiny: abducted into bondage from the other side of the Atlantic or the Pacific, the slave and the “coolie” crossed international color lines to become racialized labor in the Americas. As one indentured Chinese laborer on a sugar plantation explained, “two cells, one for black persons and one for Chinese. And both blacks and Chinese in cells wear shackles.” In this context, color unites them in shared misfortune, and also articulates their difference from each other.

Chinese and Indian “coolie” laborers in the Americas disembarked in such varied sites as Vancouver, San Francisco, Lima, Barbados, Guyana, and Havana. Their arrival roughly between the 1840s and 1870s coincided with the era of slave emancipation in much of the Hemisphere, and has been imagined as the “transition” from slave labor to free wage labor across the Americas. Yet the overlap of indentured Chinese labor and slavery in Cuba, as Lisa Yun argues, reveals that the contract—the primary instantiation of wage labor—functioned “as a transparently racialized instrument, which fed upon and reinscribed the subordination of particular people through labor and profit.”

This conjuncture of multiple axes of racialized exploitation powerfully illustrates the relevance of the three key modes through which this issue of e-misférica hopes to understand the relation of race to performance in the Americas.

First, we understand race in the Americas as always contextual, dialectical, and relational. The very meaning of being “Chinese” or “African” was forged in the passage to America, where both would be defined always and only within the new world alchemy of race. Color carries its “peculiar fatality” only in the logic of the colonial and postcolonial plantation. The distinctions of status and social difference that the Chinese or the African experienced in their home contexts were dissolved on the auction block and others instituted in their place. While those distinctions may have continued to carry great force for any one individual, they largely ceased to be the terms by which their meaning would be made in relation to others in the Americas.

Second, we understand that racial difference is almost always expressed in relation to material relations, often through explicitly embodied forms. The shackles worn by the Chinese and Africans on Cuban plantations are the enactment of such logics: it is not that being Chinese or African leads to shackles, but the other way around: being shackled realizes—brings forth, enacts, performs—a particular meaning of being Chinese or African, and a particular way of both melding and differentiating the experience of both. In her groundbreaking study, Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman reminds us that the “naturalization” of blackness (or, we could add, “yellowness,” “Chineseness”) “requires an extremity of force and violence to maintain its seeming ‘givenness.’” That “givenness,” she continues, “results from the brutal corporalization of the body and the fixation of its constituent parts as indexes of truth and racial meaning” (Hartman 1997: 57). Similarly, Christen Smith’s analysis of police violence in Brazil in this issue suggests that the lived experience of racial violence is what reifies racial categories in the everyday. In the routine beatings inflicted on black men by Brazilian police, it is the acts of violence themselves that inscribe race onto the individual body, the social body and the body politic. The “givenness” of race, then, requires constant reiteration through repressive practices (beatings, shackling) and their representational sedimentations. The constant reiteration of racial difference across social, economic, and cultural domains produces “race” as lived category, and enables race, in turn, to organize a vast range of social relations beyond the domain of “race” proper—creating what Marisol de la Cadena, in her contribution to this issue, calls its “externalities.”

Third, the geography of race in the Americas reveals competing racial formations that overlap, interpenetrate, and otherwise chafe against each other—racial tectonic plates whose instability and movement generate enormous tensions and critical territory. In the example of the “coolie” trade in the mid-19th century, Chinese laborers were “exported” not only to different national or colonial sites, but to sites organized by considerably different ways of understanding and practicing race—differences that continued to shape the possibilities for Chinese social life in each of these settings. Thus while there are some experiences and understandings of race that may span the hemisphere, there are many others that interrupt, contradict, and contest those understandings at the local, national, or regional level. Most national discourses in the Americas were founded on specific and explicitly racialized ideas of inclusion and exclusion (what Jean Rahier in this issue refers to as the “ideological biology of citizenship”) such that national borders may at times function to delimit racial formations themselves. Yet other modes of practicing race—produced through migration, diaspora, and now frequently neoliberal practice and discourse—also overlay this same terrain, posing alternate racial economies that cut differently across the map of race in the Americas. That geography might be marked as a series of racial contact zones (to extend a phrase from Mary Louise Pratt, 1992), zones in which not races but racial formations collide and alter one another. It is precisely this layered, mobile landscape of race that this issue of e-misférica aims to illuminate.

Race and Its Others listens to scholars and artists from across the Americas who examine the legacies of race in and through performance. Our critical approaches attend to the persistent weight and violence of that history, but also attend to the ways hemispheric perspectives offer other ways of imagining connection through and beyond race. We have been particularly conscious of the challenges of thinking race “hemispherically” in our efforts to translate texts in this issue. The very language at our disposal is already shaped and saturated by the racial contexts in which it was forged. How do you translate the evocative English word “blackface” into Spanish? How do you translate the extraordinary weight of meaning carried by the Spanish word “mestizaje” into English? Is it impossible to translate the English word “miscegenation,” as Tavia Nyong’o suggests in his essay? The absence of clear equivalents to these and other racial terms across American languages has historical explanations rather than philological ones. Yes, blackface was and remains a common experience in the Spanish Americas (as our special dossier on “Racial Impersonation” amply demonstrates), just as the U.S. has had a long historical engagement with questions of racial mixing (as recent debates around U.S. president-elect Barack Obama make clear). But the very challenges posed to translation by this lack of clear equivalences index these different geographies, and in many ways enact the frictions between them. We offer the articles, artist presentations, and extensive book and performance reviews in this issue as a way to begin to think critically across our shared and different realities of race.

Works Cited

Hartman, Saidiya V. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Race and American Culture). New York: Oxford UP.

Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.