Featured Philosopher: Sandra DeVries

Sandra Emonica DeVries.jpg

Sandra DeVries is at the University of Waterloo where she is writing her dissertation on the role of multiracial identities in the philosophy of race. Her work focuses on the Canadian context, where the number of multiracial children being born annually is growing exponentially. In addition to her areas of concentration in race and language, Sandra has completed a cognitive science diploma also at the University of Waterloo. Sandra also works for the Center for Teaching Excellence, and has developed a workshop on social dimensions in the classroom. She is currently instructing this workshop, entitled Teaching Diverse Learners, and instructing a 100-level course on the philosophy of ethics and values. Sandra plans to finish her PhD in Winter 2018.

Why I study multiraciality in the philosophy of race

Sandra DeVries

As I work to understand multiracial identity formation, and the role that hybridity plays in philosophical discussions of race, I am motivated by my own experience of race in Canadian culture, and I hope to discover commonalities and differences between various ways of being multiracial. My work is on one role that multiracial identity should play in the philosophy of race, namely, the calibration of our race concepts away from centralizing the projects of whiteness, and toward justice for all races. Because of my own racial make-up, this work can raise red flags. Philosophers and friends might look at me and see that I am black, and question my politics and my reasons for exploring multiracial identity, which they view as at best a distraction, at worst, a false solution to racism[i], and opposed to blackness. Sometimes well-meaning friends come out and ask me. The question goes something like this. “Why would you choose to privilege your mixed identity over your blackness? Are you clinging to mixed heritage to take advantage of your white privilege? Do you hate your blackness?”

Initially I didn’t understand why people would suggest this. I responded with incredulity and defensiveness to the question. “I am mixed! Don’t you see? Mixed people experience racism and racialization differently than singly-raced people!” I wanted to explore those similarities and differences, and I felt that my blackness should not prevent me from doing so. The anger came later, when I thought more about the importance of black solidarity for anti-racism movements. I was angry that I had been taken to side with people who have rejected their blackness, whose minds have been colonized to the point of self-hatred. It hurt that other black folks saw me as an outsider and a threat. I was offended that my friends and colleagues would regard me as anti-black. I felt pressure to identify as only black, and rebelled against rejecting my white roots in favour of my black heritage. It felt like I was being asked to exorcise my Dutch heritage, in favour of my visible African heritage. But this too, was an imbalanced response to a legitimate concern. I still get a little hot and red-faced at the suggestion that I might be anti-black, but it also saddens me and reminds me of the fact that the black-white binary still dominates social understandings of race. The fact is, many black people are anti-black, I am not exempt from the worry just because I am studying race. I believe that in most cases, genuine concern motivates those questions, even though some people make erroneous assumptions about what I am doing in my focus on multiraciality. I also suspect that some of these assumptions are knee-jerk reactions to my work, evidence of a problematic adherence to the black-white binary.

I will explain what I mean by the “problematic adherence” to the binary. I am talking about the racial binary in the philosophy of race, the tendency for philosophers of race to talk about people as either white or black, ignoring or eliding the racial categories that are neither white nor black. Though this is not problematic in itself, nor universal in the philosophy of race, it is damaging when it dominates our discussions of race in general. In Ronald Sundstrom’s 2008 book, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice, he breaks down the binary into six different conceptions, each with its own focus and motivation. The short version is that the black white (henceforth B-W) binary consists of the notion that racial problems in the U.S. can be understood with reference to the relationship between blackness and whiteness, which are taken to constitute two end nodes of a racial spectrum. Holding the B-W binary as the centre of the philosophy of race has certain implications for a black and white multiracial philosopher. The binary defines racial categories and understandings of racism against the backdrop of blackness and whiteness. It privileges the concerns of blackness, and rightly so. However, when centralized in the philosophy of race at the expense of other ways of describing racial reality, the B-W binary makes a claim of B-W multiracial identity seem like a rejection of blackness. For many reasons related to solidarity and resistance, because blackness and whiteness are politically structured in opposition with each other, if other people consider me black, I should also consider myself black, as opposed to mixed. I am sympathetic to this claim, but there are reasons why I think that the B-W binary should be limited to fields explicitly concerned with blackness and whiteness, and not be taken to represent all races and racial relationships prescriptively. I’m particularly concerned with how the dominating force of the B-W binary obscures the structure of settler colonialism in race studies.

I ultimately diverge from Sundstrom in my understanding of why the ubiquity of the binary is damaging to the philosophy of race, but I do find the clarity of his taxonomy of the six conceptions of the binary to be helpful for organizing my thoughts around the binary. The first three ways of latching onto the binary are not entirely problematic, but the fourth, the political conception is quite dangerous. Sundstrom describes the political view as held by “the majority of the proponents of the black-white binary. They do not claim that the binary provides a demographic description but that it describes prescriptive patterns of racial hierarchical organization.”[ii] He cites the political binary as according with Richard Wright’s 1957 claim that “The history of the Negro in America is the history of America written in vivid and bloody terms” and that of James Baldwin, who in 1962 wrote that Black person is “the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or dark as his.”[iii] Sundstrom suggests that this focus on the binary as prescriptive has historical specificity in the case of Baldwin and Wright, but that “their vision of black and white America swept away other relevant facets of American racial divisions, such as Native American legal struggles to guard and recover tribal sovereignty during those decades.”[iv] This intrigued me. How does the philosophy of race, in clinging to the B-W binary, obscure Indigenous political realities today? My friends pointed me in the right direction. (Thanks Amanda Plain and Ena͞emaehkiw Rowland Robinson!)

In Decolonization Is not a metaphor (2012, so good, read it!), Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write: “Native American is a racialization that portrays contemporary Indigenous generations to be less authentic, less Indigenous than every prior generation in order to ultimately phase out Indigenous claims to land and usher in settler claims to property.”[v] Tuck and Yang explain Patrick Wolfe’s theory of the logic of elimination, which in his 2006 article, Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native, is compared with the logic of capture and containment of the African slave for the use or exploitation of black bodies. Wolfe states: “Black people’s enslavement produced an inclusive taxonomy that automatically enslaved the offspring of a slave and any other parent. In the wake of slavery, this taxonomy became fully racialized in the “one-drop rule,” whereby any amount of African ancestry […] makes a person Black. For Indians, in stark contrast, non-Indian ancestry compromised their Indigeneity […] As opposed to enslaved people, whose reproduction augmented their owners’ wealth, Indigenous people obstructed settlers’ access to land, so their increase was counterproductive.”[vi] Wolfe goes on to state that race can only be understood with reference to settler colonialism. While xenophobia and cultural genocide pre-date racial categorization and targeting for extermination or exploitation, race is “made in the targeting”.[vii]

Taking these claims together, my focus, on the role that multiracial identity might play in the re-calibration of our philosophies of race, is granted more validity. Sundstrom’s political conception of the black-white binary, which claims that the American story about race can be understood by reference to the relationship between blackness and whiteness, when allowed to dominate our concepts of race and racial oppression, obscures the tri-partite nature of settler colonialism, which Wolfe shows to be at the foundation of the very concept of race, and the beginning of racism. If we can agree that the deconstruction of white supremacist aims depends in part on the full revelation of its central structure, one of the aims of anti-racist work should be to expose settler colonialism’s effects. Kim Tallbear points to the one-drop rule as a barrier to any other way of imagining racial identity. She argues that the binary, which she refers to as the “one-drop rule” is so deeply ingrained in North Americans that it makes it hard for us to grasp Native American identity.[viii]

Inquiry into the many ways we are racialized, including and especially the issues of hybridity and internal colonization can be useful inroads to understanding racial identity and what Wolfe calls “the grammar of race”.[ix] Indigenous and Latin American philosophies of identity and race necessarily include discussions of place, displacement, homelands and borderlands.[x] Importantly, these discussions overlap, but don’t completely replicate the discussions of place, displacement, homelands and borderlands in black studies. The B-W binary, when taken as inclusively representative of all races, silences and erases other ways of being racialized. Racial concepts should be accountable to real experiences of race and racism, some which come from the in-between spaces, what Gloria Anzaldúa called the “borderlands”.[xi] I will be drawing heavily on Mariana Ortega’s In-Between: Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Mutiplicity, and the Self (2016), and other works of Latina/o philosophy of race and identity to provide narrative models of inquiry and examples of biographical account, which will calibrate our race concepts away from the settler colonial logics of extermination and capitalization, and toward specificity in our racial concepts, which will account for all racialized peoples. It is to these philosophies, and to philosophies of race that exist outside of the binary that we must turn, to decenter the aims of whiteness in the philosophy of race, and to enrich our understanding of what it means to be racialized.

Multiraciality is broad and deep and growing in Canada, but our understanding of multiraciality is shallow and narrow and just getting started. I want to understand why we are erased and silenced. Our stories are not being told, our faces are not being shown as multiracial in the media. Growing up mixed has been a lonely experience, racially speaking. The charge of anti-blackness makes me feel lonelier still. Multiracial people have relationships to race and racism that are not necessarily duplicated or discussed in monoracial spaces. I am motivated to explore race as a multiracial black person, I am motivated to understand our relationships to racism. I am not focused on my own blackness as opposed to whiteness, I am for the time being, focused on multiraciality, hoping to show how multiracial identity stands in relation to settler colonialism. My body includes blackness and whiteness. I am not ignoring my blackness or my whiteness, I am rejecting the idea that the B-W binary alone should dictate my racial identity, my racial concepts, and my discipline. To the charge of anti-blackness today, I might say: “why are you asking?” and I am genuinely interested in the reply.

[i] See Mahtani 2015 for more on the falsehood of the “multiracial saviour” trope. Mahtani, M. (2015). Mixed Race Amnesia: Resisting the Romanticization of Multiraciality. University of British Columbia Press.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Eve Tuck, & K. Wayne Yang. (September 01, 2012). Decolonization is not a metaphorDecolonization : Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1, 1.)

[vi] Wolfe, P. (January 01, 2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the nativeJournal of Genocide Research, 8, 4, 387-409. pp. 387-389

[vii] Ibid., p. 388

[viii] Latour, 2012

[ix] Wolfe, 2006

[x] Whyte, K. P. Indigeneity and US Settler Colonialism. In Zack, N. (2017). The Oxford handbook of philosophy and race. Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands: The new mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute., Alcoff, L. M. (March 01, 2009). Latinos beyond the binarySouthern Journal of Philosophy, 47, 112-128.

[xi] Anzaldúa 1987

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