Of Race as Space: The Biopolitics of Race and Microaggressions
by Mauricio Rebolledo
A specter is haunting the colleges and universities of the United States —the specter of political correctness. All throughout the country the most prestigious and liberal universities are adopting particular beliefs and practices that make up what is known as political correctness. Just like any growing movement political correctness is a divisive and contended set of ideas, beliefs, policies and practices. The main argument of those who advocate for political correctness is that there are certain words, expressions and practices that further offend and marginalize already oppressed and marginalized social groups. The key of political correctness, then, is to offer a more intelligent and nuanced way of interacting with others.[i] Nevertheless, critics of this school of thought contend that political correctness is an attack to a fundamental freedom of expression and the creation and rise of a victimhood culture, that is, a culture in which self-victimization becomes not only a norm but an aspiration. Yet, the rise of what has been called PC culture in the US seems to be inevitable and unstoppable. However, as this paper attempts to prove, political correctness through its use of several mechanisms is part of a larger system which politicizes all aspects of life, including race, gender, and sexual orientation. This system is what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, along with Michel Foucault, calls biopolitics. For Agamben, the politization of life, that is, biopolitics, is the metaphysical foundation upon which the modern State stands and one that led eventually to the Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War. Thus, the present paper will serve as a critique to the mechanisms used by advocates of political correctness and to point out how in fact they are perpetuating the biopolitical system instead of attempting to resist it.
In the last couple of years PC culture has reinvigorated a term that seemed lost in the vast ocean of academia: microaggressions. According to psychologist Derald Wing Sue, the man who brought the term back from obscurity, microaggressions are:
“[T]he everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group
Thus Microaggressions are not always intentional. In fact, as some pundits have pointed out, these comments may appear as jokes or even compliments, but actually contain a hidden insult towards a marginalized group.[iii] In a vacuum, microaggressions are seemingly small and inconsequential. Nonetheless, recipients of such comments claim that they are in fact extremely hurtful and degrading. Also, psychological research has shown that these comments, jokes or questions can often have a psychological impact on the mental health of the recipients. Such an impact can lead to depression or even a decrease in productivity.[iv]
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that most of the eventual political criticism has been directed towards the definition or redefinition of freedom of expression. Put differently, to what extent is the right to self-dignity —that is, the right to determine your own identity— of one person undermining the right to free expression of another person? Indeed, that is a very important debate; a debate that dates back to the origin of the idea of rights and liberties. Nonetheless, I consider this to be a debate that for the time being it has reached a theoretical limit and that it can no longer advance under the categories and concepts that are currently being used. That is why in this paper I will attempt to refresh the discussion. I will move away from some of the categories and concepts of the current discussion and, instead, introduce a new and more nuanced perspective. I will attempt to analyze microaggressions, in particular microaggressions related to race, through the perspective of political philosophy of space. What this means is that in this essay I will conceive race as a space, a public space which is subject to politization, and in fact has been politicized.
2. Political Space
In his famous conference from 1967 titled “Of Other Spaces”, Michel Foucault offered a brief and general history of the politics space. Foucault recalled the topographical hierarchy of the Middle Ages in which they had:
“sacred places and profane places: protected places and open, exposed places: urban places and rural places […]there were the supercelestial places as opposed to the celestial, and the celestial place was in its turn opposed to the terrestrial place. There were places where things had been put because they had been violently displaced, and then on the contrary places where things found their natural ground and stability”.[v]
Subsequently, the politics of space suffered a tremendous change with Galileo and his discovery that the Earth in fact revolved around the sun and not the other way around. One could say that Galileo’s discovery opened up space and turned an enclosed category into an extensive and potentially infinite category.
Finally, in Modernity Kant in his “Critique of Pure Reason” described space, just as time, as a pure intuition, and not an empirical category. Put differently, space is not a category contained in objects, but an inner a priori intuition[vi] which permits us to differentiate one object from another.[vii] Space, then, is not many different spaces, but only one space which has been divided into many forms. In this essay I will identify three particular ways in which space is divided, I shall call them spheres, namely: the intimate, the private and the public sphere.
Argentinian philosopher Ernesto Garzón Valdés proposed that modern Liberal-democratic space should be divided into three spheres: the intimate, the private and the public sphere. Each sphere counts with its own particular set of characteristics and all three are fundamental in our development as persons and citizens. First, the intimate sphere is the domain of our thoughts, fantasies, and secrets.[viii] In it, the intervention of a third party is not necessary at all since whatever happens in here will most likely have no effect on others. The intimate sphere is also the space of our bodily needs, our sexual fantasies and our childhood traumas. In this case, the presence or intervention of others is not only not necessary, but highly unpleasant.
Next, the private sphere is characterized as the domain in which we are still in control of our decisions and actions, but we allow the intervention of others, mostly our family members, our romantic partners and other close members of our life. It is up to each person to decide who is allowed into their private sphere and to what extent. Generally, the management of our private sphere is in part dictated by our cultural and social context. According to Garzón Valdés, the private sphere is vital in the exercise of our autonomy and self-determination, because it is there along with our intimate sphere where our identity is mostly shaped.[ix]
Finally, the public sphere is characterized by the free accessibility from others into our behavior and decision making. The public sphere is particularly important when a person holds a political or judicial office and is accountable before its citizens for their actions and decisions. Just as in the private sphere, in which the individual determines who is part of their private life, the transparency of the public sphere is vital in the proper functioning of a liberal democracy.[x]
However, as Garzón Valdés himself admitted, the lines of demarcation between these three spheres has slowly been fading away and become almost unrecognizable, mostly due to the introduction of technological tools and gadgets such as social networks and smart phones.[xi] Yet, Italian thinker Giorgio Agamben suggests that this fading has, instead, been largely the result of slow but steady historical transformations that have shaped our contemporary political landscape into what can be called biopolitics. This category, first introduced by Foucault, but revised and deepened by Agamben, will help me explain how race is a category of political space, but first in order to do so I first need to quickly review what the West has understood race to be.
The question for the ontology of race has been part of the philosophical landscape ever since Aristotle proposed or introduced concepts such as essence, accident and category. Since then, philosophers have debated on whether race defines not only superficial physical traits such as our skin color, but also our behavior or even our cognitive abilities and intelligence level. In sum, the contemporary debate can be divided into three schools of thought: racial naturalists, racial skeptics, and racial constructivists. Racial naturalists hold that races bear what could be called biobehavioral essences, that is, natural or genetic properties which have been passed on throughout the generations, that are shared by all and only the members of a race, and explain behavioral, cultural predispositions of individuals and racial groups.[xii]
Racial skeptics, unlike naturalists, hold that races of any type do not exist. In other words, races and the biobehavioral characteristics that they entail are not real, but rather an ideological and political construction of institutions who seek to oppress and marginalize certain groups based on “natural” characteristics. In sum, racial skeptics propose that race as a category should disappear.
Racial constructivists acknowledge that biological race may in fact be false, but argue that the category should still stand, because it signifies the division of social groups, and also the ability for certain groups to organize, mobilize and demand a change in policies, justice and dignity. In other words, racial constructivists argue for the conservation of race as a category mostly because it has been stablished as a major component of an individual’s political identity. In this respect, civil rights movement members, social justice warriors and defenders of Political Correctness can and ought to be categorized as racial constructivists. One such example is political Philosopher Meena Krishnamurthy, who in an essay regarding Rachel Dolezal[xiii] argues that whatever definition we use for race it should be on the basis of what is considered respectful and just.[xiv] This is because each race carries with it a social and political history. In other words, to belong to a particular race is not only having certain physical features, but also acknowledging and being part of a centuries old history with its political twists and turns.
It is precisely from this conception of race that microaggressions are given birth. Microaggressions, as I previously pointed out, have the objective to challenge individuals to address members of other social-racial groups in a more intelligent and nuanced way. What this means, however, is that when addressing a member of a different social-racial group you must keep in mind that you’re not only addressing that particular individual, but also an entire political history, with its figures, its martyrs, its challenges and its victories. This process is what I shall call the politization of race.
4. Politization of race
In his famous work “Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life”, Giorgio Agamben theorizes on a category coined by Michel Foucault, that is, biopolitics. In order to explain this Agamben utilizes the definition given by Foucault himself: “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question”.[xv] Put differently, there was a time when man’s political sphere was clearly different from his other spheres. However, modern man faded away the delimitation of such spheres and has put every sphere of his very own existence into a public, and thus, political spotlight. Nevertheless, such a transformation was not a sudden event; instead, it is a process that has been taking shape during thousands of years. In this respect, Agamben describes the process in the following way:
“It is almost as if, starting from a certain point, every decisive political event were double- sided: the spaces, the liberties, and the rights won by individuals in their conflicts with central powers always simultaneously prepared a tacit but increasing inscription of individuals’ lives within the state order, thus offering a new and more dreadful foundation for the very sovereign power from which they wanted to liberate themselves.”[xvi]
Indeed, Agamben’s analysis and diagnostic of political conflicts is upsetting, especially when we take a look back at the United States’ recent history, from the 1960’s onwards, during in which it was the venue of several important movements, mobilizations, associations, and advancements regarding civil rights, equality and racial justice. In a way, Agamben invites us to ask ourselves what have been the subtle, or not so subtle, implications of what we perceive as social victories. I, along with Agamben, contend that one of the implications has been the effective politization of race.
Yet, before I go on, there is a question that I must address which I have not yet answered: how is race a space? Once we understand why race is category of space, then we will understand how it was politicized. Looking back, again, at Foucault’s 1967 conference “Of Other Spaces”, he introduced the concept of heterotopias which are:
“There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places —places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society —which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.”[xvii]
Now, in order for a place to constitute as a heterotopia, Foucault proposes six governing principles. However, in this case I want to focus in the third, fourth and fifth principle. The third principle states that “the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”.[xviii] He gives as an example a theater stage which is a relatively small space, but can be turned into a city, or a church or the main bedroom in a house. Next, the fourth principle states that heterotopias “are most often linked to slices in time — which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies”.[xix] Heterotopias have a particular relation with time, for example, in some cases time is accumulated as it is the case in museum or archive rooms; in other cases time enters in what we could call a different realm like in a cemetery, in which time seems to be both eternal and diluted. Finally, there are heterotopias in which time is neither conserved nor eternal but a mere flash or moment, as in a festival or carnival. Lastly, the fifth principle states that heterotopias “always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable”.[xx] There are certain heterotopias that require some sort of rite of passage in order to get in, such as an airport, in which you must first buy a ticket and then go through a security protocol which functions not unlike any process of purification; the TSA officer makes sure that you are “clean” and fit to board the plane.
Therefore, according to these principles, I think it is safe to argue that race is a place, namely, a heterotopia. As exemplified by members of the PC Culture and other racial justice activists, race is not just a particular set of physical characteristics, but the membership to a group with a history, with political conflicts, with traditions and defining figures. For example, when we use politically correct terms as African-American or Mexican-American we are referring not only to an ethnicity but two different places; two different places that are manifested in one same space. In the same vein, race is the accumulation of time, similarly to a museum perhaps. When activists in university campuses ask us to watch ourselves and not engage in microaggressions they are asking us to bear in mind the long history of a particular race, especially those that have been oppressed and marginalized throughout the years. Finally, race is accessible but only through certain means, some will argue that only through heritage and ancestry, others will argue that through by engaging in practices and traditions typically associated to a particular race group, others will argue that it is a matter of third-party recognition, that is, if others recognize you as a member of a race, and there are others who argue that is through first-party or self-identification. In any case, each of these forms presupposes certain rites of passage that differentiate a race from another, but also allows one to be part of a race. It is in this way, that I understand race as a place, as a category of the political philosophy of space. Race is a heterotopia.
If race is a place, is it part of the intimate, private or public sphere? Naturally, given the characteristics that I have just provided, race is part of the public sphere. When activists and philosophers demand that racial issues —for example, the definition of race or microaggressions— ought to be treated in harmony with political principles, they continue to politicize race. In connection to this, Agamben in another section of Homo Sacer states that once contemporary democracies accept their new referent to be the bare life, that is, the life that may not be sacrificed, yet may be murdered with impunity —in other words, the bare life is a life in state of exception or, put differently, the sovereign’s power over life and death— traditional political distinctions such as “right and left” or “private and public” lose all their clarity and intelligibility and wind up in a zone of indetermination.[xxi] Put differently, once a category has been politicized, its delimitations become irrelevant. Once it is understood that race is a space and that it has been effectively politicized, then it will begin to be clear that microaggressions and denouncing microaggressions are part of the same pathology, that is, the politization of race. In other words, politizicing race, just as the politization of life itself (abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, etc.), prevents us from precisely reaching a level of self-determination, dignity and self-respect, these understood, of course, not as political categories but existential ones. Just as Agamben proposes, biopolitics is the key component of the contiguity between democracy and totalitarianism. Biopolitics is the key component of this link, precisely because it takes anything that may belong to the intimate or private sphere and moves it perpetually to the public sphere, away from our autonomy and jurisdiction.
What the biopolitical state has done, as it was previously mentioned, is to delete the demarcation between all three spheres, that is, the demarcation between the intimate, the private and public sphere. In Agamben’s terms the biopolitical state has wiped away the boundaries between the bíos and the zoé. It situates our natural existence (bíos) and our social-political existence (zoé) in the same sphere, that is, the public sphere. Thus, our biological characteristics such as our gender, sexual identity or skin color enter into a state of exception in which it is not the individual, but the sovereign who decides upon it. Therefore, to further recognize the denouncement of microaggressions as a beneficial tool of social justice is to maintain the bíos in the politization of the public sphere.
All in all, only by recognizing that race is a social construct, instituted only to divide and oppress certain individuals, and thus getting rid of it as a political, social, and scientific category, that is, eliminating the concept of race, is that an individual can begin to recover the autonomy and self-respect that have been lost over time. In contrast, the compulsive watch over and denouncement of microaggressions only perpetuates and furthers a biopolitical agenda.
[i] Runyowa, Simba. The Atlantic. 18 de September de 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/microaggressions-matter/406090/ (último acceso: 20 de December de 2017).
[ii] Sue, Derald Wing. Psychology Today. 05 de October de 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/racial- microaggressions-in-everyday-life (último acceso: 19 de December de 2017).
[iii] 3 Runyowa, Simba. The Atlantic. 18 de September de 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/microaggressions-matter/406090/ (último acceso: 20 de December de 2017).
[iv] Desmond-Harris, Jenée. Vox. 16 de February de 2015. https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are- microaggressions (último acceso: 19 de December de 2017).
[v] Foucault, Michel. «Of Other Spaces.» Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité. Paris: Groupe Moniteur, 1967.
[vi] An intuition is the immediate representation that I have of an object.
[vii]Kant, Immanuel. Crítica a la Razón Pura. 1st. Traducido por José del Perojo. Barcelona: Losada, 2011.
[viii] Valdés, Ernesto Garzón. «Lo íntimo, lo privado, lo público.» Claves de Razón Práctica, nº 137 (2003).
[xii] James, Michael. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. February 17, 2016. (accessed December 19, 2017).
[xiii] In 2015 during an interview the parents of a civil rights activist in Washington State claimed that her daughter, Rachel Dolezal, has been misrepresenting herself as a black woman despite her Caucasian heritage. Dolezal was the president of its chapter of the African-American civil rights organization NAACP, as well as a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University. During her time as advocate she has regularly spoken out on local media about African-American issues in her community. Despite her heritage, which her mother pointed out to be primarily of German and Czech descent, Rachel Dolezal self-identifies as a black woman. This case sparked a serious debate about the ontology of race and what are the requisites, if any, to be a member of any racial group. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/12/civil-rights-activist-rachel-dolezal-misrepresented-herself-as- black-claim-parents)
[xiv] Krishnamurthy, Meena. «Race Talk, Justice, and Self-Respect: A Brief Analysis of Rachel Dolezal.» Philosopher, March 2017.
[xv] Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: El poder soberano y la nuda vida. Traducido por Antonio Gimeno Cuspinera.
Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2016.
[xvii] Foucault, Michel. «Of Other Spaces.» Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité. Paris: Groupe Moniteur, 1967.
[xxi] Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: El poder soberano y la nuda vida. Traducido por Antonio Gimeno Cuspinera.
Valencia: Pre-Textos, 2016.