Jackson probes definitions of race in society

In Bronfman Auditorium on Thursday night, John Jackson, professor of communications and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, addressed the issue of creating a sense of race in a more dignified, inclusive way. Much of Jackson’s research focuses on race and class in contemporary America. His lecture, titled “Racism, Post-Raciality, and the Hidden Injuries of Colorblindness,” was part of the Multicultural Center’s (MCC) lecture series and Black History Month celebrations.

Soon after a short introduction by members of the MCC, Jackson engaged the audience with an anecdote from his teaching experience. He told of a discussion with junior high school students in which he asked them to define the term “race.” Their answers varied from “race is in the blood” to “race is made up.” The ambiguity was soon resolved with the conclusion that race is simply a cultural phenomenon. Jackson used the story, along with the results of his research, to explain that to the concept of race is first introduced and then heavily influenced by the power of culture.

Jackson defined culture as “the thing we see work best when it’s not doing its job.” He pointed out that the fact that race is a cultural issue does not make it more malleable. After comparing a few rivaling theories on the nature of race, he reasoned that one’s phenotype is not necessarily representative of one’s genotype, since many people who look different can have a lot in common genetically.

He continued throughout the lecture to explore ways in which the clichéd definition of race can be deconstructed. Jackson challenged the common contemporary notion that society has resolved its racial controversies by claiming that they are “Frankensteinien” and even “vampiric.” Race, he argued, has created a deep-seated, embedded paranoia. Even though discrimination does not exist de jure anymore, it is still alive – but in a more implicit version. “The world demonized public display of racial intolerance,” Jackson said. “However, we should make sense of the reasons why the implicit version of racism is dangerous, too.”

Jackson contrasted the old, explicit variant of racism with today’s case, which is “politically euphemized.” According to him, it is easy to banish negative rhetoric from the media and the public spaces. However, the fact that something has not been said does not mean it has not been felt, a situation that Jackson refers to as, “cardioracism.” He clarified that being aware of the existence of cardioracism might indeed indicate that one is hypersensitive, but “we should embrace the paranoia,” he said. “To be American and not be paranoid about race is to be delusional.”

An additional topic of discussion was Jackson’s interpretation of President Barack Obama and the 2008 election. He noted three main reasons that he believes explain why candidate John McCain failed. First, McCain did not recognize the importance of the “brown” electorate. Jackson expressed certainty that talking about race would have been a clever strategic move on McCain’s side. In addition, he elaborated, vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin had a subtly implicit aspect of “white difference” that excluded many members of the “brown” population from McCain’s supporters. “The final rhetorical nail in the coffin of McCain’s campaign, however, was his appeal to Joe the Plumber, the ultimate vision of white Americana,” Jackson said.

Jackson is confident that Obama has the equipment to take sophisticated but firm actions on the subject of race. He highly values Obama’s appreciation of the idea of “multiraciality” and his “Herculean effort” to finally give American society the opportunity for a full racial inclusion. On the other hand, he warned that the post-election moment does not automatically provide everyone with a protective cover.

The lecture then brought to focus the subject of language as the one thing that “reinforces the walls between us.” Jackson recognized as an essential component of communication not only having conversations about race but creating an environment where people can be honest without the threat of any physical, psychological or emotional danger. We are still segregated from one another, Jackson said, and so are our social networks.

When asked during the Q-and-A portion if society should abandon the notion of race altogether on its way to becoming post-racial, Jackson firmly refuted this suggestion. He said that race is a part of history, and society will always carry along such a history in its cultural framework. “The solution is not to find a blade and slay racism forever but to prepare for a true battle and put up a good fight,” he said.