By Asha Dinesh
Let’s talk about race.
I’ll be honest: this was difficult to write. In fact, I just checked, I first started drafting this to send to Gender and the City in November last year. I think what I needed was a moment of inspiration, a force to push me to explore in writing this particular topic, which is currently so publicly pervasive but also deeply personal to me. That force was Beyonce’s Lemonade album.
I have never felt comfortable talking about racial identity in the largely white communities that I had been a part of for most of my formative years. I have never really tried to explore this lens in ‘mainstream’ everyday debates, whether amongst friends or colleagues, whether about feminism or films. This may be from a fear of alienating those of my peers who cannot relate to my experience and viewpoint as a non-white female, or it may hark back to my adolescent weariness of looking different to the ‘norm’ and not wanting to emphasise it further.
It is an innate part of human nature to neatly categorise things, places and people. It is an evolutionary survival response, probably developed in the prehistoric ages when our ancestors developed labels for which berries to eat and which to avoid. Perhaps this is why we ask questions like ‘Where are you from?’ Beyond the benign purpose of breaking the ice, it is a (probably subconscious) way to gauge whether someone is a friend or foe, a berry you can eat or one that will poison you.
The question ‘Where are you from?’ has over the years triggered a range of emotional responses in me, including anxiety, pride and plain confusion. It has elicited an even wider range of verbal responses, from ‘Mostly here/there’ to ‘I grew up here but my parents are from there,’ to a begrudging bulleted version of my background. Perhaps the question is conceptually flawed, because as the impeccably articulate Taiye Selasi questions, how can a human being come from an idea such as ‘country’? The question is, I think, also flawed on a more morally questionable level, because often what is really being asked is ‘why does your skin colour look different from mine?’ In other words, it is a sharp focus on one clearly visible aspect of a person’s identity – their race.
Amartya Sen developed the idea about how multiple and simultaneous identities make up an individual, such as race, gender and religion. He argued that the obsession with tying people down to one identity can foster mistrust and violence. That is, not having an ‘intersectional’ lens which sees multiple identities in tandem causes one aspect of an individual’s overall identity, be it race or gender, to supersede other aspects in the eyes of others, leading to tensions arising from that particular aspect being at odds with their world view.
This single-identity lens pervades our society; it is ingrained within institutions and entrenched within public discourse. At best, this causes protests against works of art that fall into the single-lens trap, at worst, it leads to damaged community relationships, unjust public institutions and widespread violence. Would Michael Brown have been shot to death if Darren Wilson had seen him as an 18-year-old unarmed high school graduate who misguidedly shoplifted, rather than a black man who threatened his safety? Would Hillary Clinton face the same amount of vitriol in the media if she was analysed by pundits through a multi-layered lens rather than a gendered one?
This single-lens criticism is the typical argument made against ‘white feminism’. Don’t get me wrong, white feminism has achieved things that were previously unimaginable. Amongst numerous milestones, it got women the vote and a host of other rights, and it might get us a female POTUS. However, once you overlay an ‘intersectional’ lens on certain issues – that is, view them through a multi-layered perspective – a whole new anthology unfolds.
Commentators and academics have highlighted the gender-race scale, whereby the further away you are from a white male, the worse your lot in life appears to be. Non-white women are more likely to experience street harassment and violence. Non-white women tend to earn less than their white male and female counterparts, even when levels of education and affirmative action policies are taken into account. Disparity is also evident in the arts, arguably one of the most liberating of avenues; outspoken members of the music and entertainment industry have long lamented the treatment of non-white female artists compared to their white counterparts, leaving aside the gendered hierarchy of the industry.
Over time I have become more comfortable with the ‘Where are you from’ question and the myriad of forms it takes (my personal favourite: ‘Where are you originally from?’). I realised that my uneasiness with it is not to do with the very question being asked, as getting to know each other’s background is part of the process of how we connect with people. The uneasiness stems more from instances in which the conversation ends with or focuses exclusively on this question.
In these instances, once enough information has been gathered to categorise you into one grouping, no further exploration into other aspects of your identity is deemed necessary. Whether it is the drunk guy at the pub suddenly turning his attention to your ethnic identity, or a new acquaintance clearly having trouble matching your accent with your skin tone, this question only bothers me when there is no follow-up on other aspects of my identity. Because focusing so acutely on my race reduces me to a single dimension, which is unacceptable. The conversation needs to move beyond this single-identity lens –intersectionality needs to pervade our everyday conversations as well as the public dialogues. And art has a crucial role to play in encouraging this dialogue on both domains.
Art, in my view, is a deliberate arrangement of visual, aural and other sensory components with the aim to provoke. Its very purpose is to evoke an emotional response, and the most powerful art goes beyond this, often provoking people to act on their emotional reaction, whether with their words or actions. And so it is with Beyonce’s latest album, Lemonade. It has been hailed as a cultural phenomenon, the epitome of the #blackgirlmagic movement. It has caused middle-aged white men to foray into the largely siloed terrain of complex racial identity politics; it has caused powerful responses to said forays. It has raised the profile of debates around race, feminism, politics, power and every point in the Venn diagram where these themes meet.
Whatever side of whichever layer of the debate you fall on, you cannot disagree with one central lesson of this latest stormy episode ignited by Beyonce and that is this: what her art teaches us is to not shy away, to not be afraid, to be that bitch that causes all this conversation. So, let’s talk about race.