: ZKM :: Magazin :: racism_embodiment


Racism and Embodiment

María Fernández


++ I am at a dinner with my partner. A group of adults around my age are seated around a round table eating and drinking. Conversation is lively but I notice that when I speak no one acknowledges my speech. People interrupt, raise their voices over mine, speak to one another and talk to each other as though I am not there. Thinking that perhaps I am speaking too softly, I shout. No result. I begin to think that I am ignored because I am a woman, but I quickly realize that other women's speech is properly acknowledged. Suddenly, I realize that I am the only person of color sitting at the table.


++ In a cyberfeminist electronic forum, a Latin American artist comments on the Eurocentrism and elitism of the list. No one acknowledges her message. A few days later, another participant who identifies herself as Italian American makes similar comments without reference to the previous message. This results in a series of flames, all directed to the second woman, which ultimately lead to discussion. The Latin American artist disappears from the list.

Discussions of race are rare in electronic media theory and criticism because the hierarchies of the fleshed world are believed to be inapplicable to cyberspace. Margaret Wertheim writes: "In the bit-stream, we are told, inequities of race, and color, age and gender will melt away, cleansing us of the sins of the body and rendering us as being of the ether. Disembodied and dematerialized, we are released into a packet-switching paradise of digitally -induced democracy with infinite personal expression” 1 Despite the implicit association of race with sin, she seems to agree with this opinion.

In a recent anthology entitled Race in Cyberspace,Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura and Gilbert B. Rodman note that in elite electronic fora such as academic mailing lists, participants studiously avoid and actively silence discussions of race. 2 Still more rare are studies of racism on the net. A few investigations focus on explicit expressions of racial hatred in web sites and mailing lists but little attention has been paid to the subtleties of electronic interactions. 3

The two memories mentioned above suggest parallels between strategies of silencing in the lived world and in electronic interactions. In both, a person is rendered invisible by a group's failure to recognize her presence and participation. In what follows, I will examine racism in relation to theories of embodiment. As many other authors recognize, racism is a multi-level and multi-dimensional system of oppression. My principal proposition that is that it operates and it reproduces, in part, as a complex of embodied practices which are not necessarily the expression of an ideological position. This is only the beginning of a much larger project. It is my hope that more understanding of racism in the fleshed world will encourage closer examination of these issues in electronic communication. To dwell upon racism might seem outdated in light of recent theories proclaiming the erasure of the colonial concept of race in a world structured by transnational commerce, the scientific understanding of humanity based on genetics, and bodies and organisms progressively transformed by biotechnology. While there is undoubtedly potential in these new conditions, I contend that the old concept of race remains active in, if not central to, multiple social economic and political practices. Paul Gilroy, who asserts that the concept of race is anachronistic and even vestigial admits that "deconstructing 'races' is not the same thing as doing away with racisms." 4 Instead of formulating strategies for activism on a grand scale, this essay proposes an activism of small gestures. It attempts to reactivate the old feminist dictum "the personal is the political" in a new context.


Racism serves the purpose of legitimating privilege. It consists in an overvaluation of differences real or imagined and the utilization of this valorization to the benefit of an individual or group. 5 Racism is part of our social and cultural legacy. Stereotypes which disseminate and reinforce negative representations of specific groups have been ubiquitous in all kinds of media, from nursery rhymes and cartoons to scientific literature and elite cultural forms, for generations. The genius of racism lies in its adaptability. It provides simple, reliable images of the other updated and validated by current scientific discourses. 6

Most theories of racism offer a discursive approach to the problem. Racism is recognized as an ideology manifested in discriminatory and violent actions. Arguing that these actions are detrimental to society, the theories focus on critiquing or undermining the ideology. Some authors also recognize psychological components of racism including hopes, fears, and desires. 7

A great obstacle in challenging racism as ideology is that very few people are willing to recognize themselves or anyone they know as racist. Despite his overtly racist pronouncements, Austrian leader Jörg Haider portrays himself as a "populist" as do segments of the international media. In the United States, the incarceration rate of one in four African American men as opposed to one in 25 white men, the government's attack on Equal Opportunity and education especially in inner city areas, the statistically inaccurate portrayal of the "welfare queen" as black, opportunistic, and lazy; exemplify institutionalized, pervasive racism. Most Americans have little difficulty recognizing racism as an abstract force yet they deny its manifestations in specific individuals.

As various theorists propose, racism may have roots in the imaginary; yet it remains politically elusive in this realm. bell hooks and Chela Sandoval, among others, propose "an ethics of love” as the solution for racism. No one will dispute that this would be an ideal solution. Yet, to love through differences is easier wished than achieved. 8 After all, "love” is the message that multiple religions have disseminated for millennia with very limited results. Love is seldom the result of a moral choice but it is often a practice that involves bodies.

In a 1998 interview Anthony Appiah verged on arguing for incorporated practices as antidotes to racism. He stated: "I’m clear now . . . that there’s a whole range of important responses to racism that are not at the level of argument and at the level of the intellectual . . . And it seems to me that if I wanted to identify another line of approach to racism along with the intellectual one. It would be one that said, ‘Look, in the end, people find it easiest to be comfortable with and nice to people with whom they have done things’. And I would say I would put a lot of faith in children growing up together, not because we’re lecturing them all the time about being nice to each other but because they just grow up together and they form friendships.” 9 "Doing things” with other people and "growing up together” both suggest customary bodily activities.

Few theorists would dispute that racism is simultaneously an ideology and an active manifestation of dominance. Almost twenty years ago, Albert Memmi declared: "racism is a discourse and an action; a discourse that is the preparation for an action which is in turn legitimated by a discourse." 10 If this is so, racism should be addressed as both discourse and performance.

Embodied Mind

Recent theories in various disciplines stress the interdependence of mind and body in opposition to the traditional division of mind and body and privileging of mind expressed in Cartesian thought and in most of Western philosophy. The integration of mind and body in a philosophical framework has been constitutive of some currents of feminist theory for at least three decades

Feminist theorists including Jane Gallop, Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixoux and Elizabeth Grosz view the body as a social and discursive object essential to the production of desire, signification and power. In Grosz's appraisal, the body is integral to the production of knowledge systems, regimes of representation, cultural production, and socio-economic exchange. She proposes a model of embodiment as a Mobius strip where outside and inside are one continuous surface. In her opinion, an ideal feminist philosophy of the body should expose articulations and disarticulations between the biological and the psychological and include "a psychical representation of the subject's lived body as well as of the relations between body gestures, posture and movements in the constitution of the processes of psychical representations." Such a philosophy would change the character of philosophy itself. 11

Other feminists actively have critiqued the disembodiment prevalent in western philosophy, a discipline that overwrites the bodies of women. What is silenced and repressed in the philosophical enterprise is often associated with women- their bodies, their voices, their desires-, which amounts to a denial of their subjectivity. 12

Multiple social theorists including Michael Oakeshot, Pierre Bourdieu and Paul Connerton have argued for the primacy of bodies in the production and reproduction of ideologies and social values. In Connerton's opinion, he fact that we no longer believe in grand narratives does not mean that these narratives have disappeared but that they affect our ways of thinking and acting as unconscious collective memories. Social memory is lodged in the body and activated through commemorative ceremonies, performances, habits, and body automatisms. 13 For Bourdieu, bodily habits are manifestations of political mythologies which in turn reinforce specific ways of feeling and thinking. 14 Thus, ideologies are discursive complements of concrete behaviors archived in habit memory. 15

These theorists posit that the body is acculturated by means of two social practices: incorporation and inscription. Incorporating practices are messages sent by an individual's own bodily activity. Inscribing practices are a system of signs which purportedly operate independently of embodied manifestations. In the opinion of Katherine Hayles, "incorporating practices perform the bodily content; inscribing practices correct and modulate the performance." 16 Social habits are essentially legitimating performances. 17 In class societies, objects associated to an individual indicate her position in the social structure as do specific forms of incorporation: manners of walking and sitting, ways of using implements, tones of voice and styles of speech. 18 Connerton maintains that power and rank are expressed through certain postures in relation to others: "From the way in which people group themselves and from the disposition of their bodies relative to the bodies of others we can deduce the degree of authority which each is thought to enjoy or to which they lay claim." The meaning of postures varies according to time and place but in all cultures, the "choreography of authority” is expressed through the body. 19 Both Connerton and Bourdieu argue that our experiences of past and present are co-dependent. We experience the present in terms of our knowledge of the past and our views of the past legitimate a present social order. For Bourdieu, the "unconscious" is never anything other than the forgetting of history which history produces and perpetuates through incorporating practices. Because habits are learned through imitation and not by the conscious application of specific precepts, they are the product of a modus operandiof which individuals have little awareness and control. Thus, people's behaviors produce and reproduce meanings which always overrun their conscious intentions. 20

Functioning beyond consciousness, incorporating practices become naturalized and unresponsive to questioning. They contain, writes Bourdieu "the fundamental principles of the arbitrary content of culture . . .The principles em-bodied this way . . . cannot be touched by voluntary deliberate transformation, cannot even be made explicit; nothing seems more ineffable, more incommunicable, more inimitable, and, therefore, more precious than the values given body, made body by the transubstantiation achieved by hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy, capable of instilling a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy, through injunctions as insignificant as 'stand up straight' or don't hold your knife with your left hand." 21 According to Connerton, every group ... will entrust to bodily habits the values and hierarchies they are most anxious to conserve. 22

In as much as the previous discussion emphasizes the inflexibility and resilience of social habits, most theorists maintain that incorporating practices are affected by subjective experiences. Habits are simultaneously resistant to change and open to transformation as their performativity implies continuous improvisation. 23 Merleau Ponty posits that habits are not simply repetitions due to long established custom, for this implies that the body is passive. Rather, acquiring a habit constantly revises and challenges a person's understanding of the body. 24 Connerton argues that just as there is individual variation in the performance social habits, different groups within a society have memories which are specific to them. Within each social group, memories are passed on through acts of transfer, or specific acts of repetition. 25 Recently, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson developed a theory of embodiment which differs little from Grosz, Bourdieu and Connerton's principal arguments but is buttressed with empirical research based on the application of neural models. In this case, neural models are computational simulations of neural behavior.

Like Grosz they argue for the interdependence of mind and body. In their words, "the mind is inherently embodied, reason is shaped by the body." 26 Like Bourdieu, Oakeshot and Connerton, they believe that most of human thought is unconscious. They suggest that at least 95% of all thought occurs beneath the level of conscious awareness and even this may be an underestimate. They call these inaccessible aspects of cognition "the cognitive unconscious". Like several of the theorists above mentioned, Lakoff and Johnson believe in the persistence of habit: "once we have learned a conceptual system, it is neurally instantiated in our brains and we are not free to think just anything. Hence we have no absolute freedom in Kant's sense, no full autonomy." 27

Lakoff and Johnson 's most significant contribution, its similarity to Bourdieu's work notwithstanding, is their argument that we reason with metaphors which develop as a conflation of sensorimotor and subjective, nonsensorimotor experiences. In their view, our most important abstract concepts from love to causation to morality are conceptualized via multiple complex metaphors, molecular structures made up of atomic parts named 'primary metaphors'. Our system of primary and complex metaphors is part of the cognitive unconscious. In contrast to previous theories of embodiment Lakoff and Johnson's postulates meet current scientific criteria by providing support through computer simulations based on neural models. To demonstrate the interdependence of body and mind, for example, a neural model of a perceptual and motor mechanism is constructed and the same mechanism is employed for conceptual operations. The models show that neural structures that can execute tasks of motor control and perception can simultaneously accomplish functions of conceptualizing, categorizing and reasoning. The authors acknowledge that there is "no neurophysiological evidence that the same neural mechanisms used in perception and movement are also used in abstract reasoning what we do have is existence proof that it is possible." 28

While Lakoff and Johnson's claim to account for human commonalities and differences, the absence in their work of references to class, race, and gender presupposes a normative white male reader for whom the concepts of "human" and "body" are ultimately self reflective. In contrast, feminist theories of embodiment stress the specificities of bodies, culture and environment. Gender and cultural differences impact the behavior and the shaping of our bodies. 29 Elizabeth Grosz posits that "there is no body as such: there are only bodies-male or female, black, brown, white, large or small- and the gradations in between More recently, Katherine Hayles differentiates body from embodiment. In contrast to the body,an idealized concept always normative to some set of criteria, embodiment is "contextually enmeshed with the specifics of place, time, physiology and culture which together compose enactment." 30

Back to Racism

It is almost thirty years since the publication in French of Bourdieu's book Outline of a theory of Practice. Given the long trajectory of studies on embodiment, it is puzzling that little of this knowledge has been applied to a study of racism. Part of the problem, in so far as white racism is concerned, is that (feminist theorizations of embodiment notwithstanding) whiteness has been construed as disembodied. In the opinion of Radhika Monrahan "blackness and whiteness assume the status of the Cartesian body and the mind respectively. Black bodies are represented trapped in the web of nature while white bodies have freedom of movement. Such a freedom disembodies whiteness. This construction of the black body freezes it as a pre-modern, pre-capitalist construction which enables whiteness to be located within capitalism as well as modernity." 31 Thus, discussing white racism in terms of embodiment destabilizes the oppositions black/ white, embodied/disembodied, static/mobile and their attributed valorizations.

In feminist theory, narratives of disembodiment are frequently associated with white males, yet, disciplining, restricting and concealing the body played part in what Kate Davy calls the "politics of respectability” at least until the late nineteen sixties. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Kate Davy and others have demonstrated that discourses of modernity and mobility were selectively employed by white women to differentiate themselves and claim superiority to women of color. 32 In cyberfeminist writings, the cyborg- extolled as a figure of transcendence, ultimately serves to validate the dominance and privileges of specific groups. In cyborg narratives, the demarcation of privilege falls along traditional racial and economic lines as people of color and the poor are either left out of technological futures or coerced into cyborgian conditions.

Like other social habits, racist practices are legitimating performances. In the US., whiteness has been construed as a mark of authority and privilege. Although poor whites may be just as economically disadvantaged as poor blacks, they believe themselves to be better off, to be privileged because they are white. Imprisonment statistics suggest that this belief carries weight in the legal system.

Examining racism as a complex of incorporating practices and social habits, reinforced and modulated by inscribing practices, provides a better understanding of the non-discursive nature and pervasiveness of racist behavior than theories which privilege racism as discourse. I'm proposing that like other social habits, racist behaviors are learned through the body by imitation, not always through the conscious application of specific principles. Indisputably, individuals can choose to adopt racist beliefs, associate to racist groups, and treat others derogatorily; yet, I argue that many racist behaviors occur below the level of conscious awareness. More common than committed racists are individuals who oppose racist beliefs and consistently behave in racist manners. In sum, racism is not always the reflexive application of a moral code but acting in accordance with habits of behavior. 33 Contextual transformations of habit could account for the uncanny ability of racism to renew itself through time and space and to adjust itself to changing circumstances.


How is one to combat racism given the resilience of incorporating practices? Although several theorists have drawn a detailed outline of the workings of habit few have discussed practices to overcome habits. The modification of habit has been the realm of clinical psychology, especially behavior therapy presently enhanced by virtual reality. Undesired habits are first identified and monitored; later through various techniques of behavior modification, the client is coached gradually to replace the unwanted behavior for a desirable or neutral one. Changing a habit by making a person aware of the dangers of the habit or the benefits of changing it has proven to be ineffective. For instance, it is practically impossible to change unhealthy eating habits by extolling the benefits of a healthy diet. Nail biting and other compulsive habits are equally resistant to counseling.

The application of behavior therapy to racist behavior proves difficult due to the lack of acknowledgment of racism as habitual behavior. The study of racism as embodiment is yet to be developed. Many colonial and postcolonial texts include descriptions of racist behaviors. To choose one example among many, various intellectuals of color have written about being made "invisible". The relevant question here is how does one body enforce invisibility on another?

In a recent article, Tina Grillo and Stephanie M. Wildman, argue that white supremacy instills in whites the expectation of always being the center of attention. So strong is this expectation, that even in situations designed to focus on the concerns of people of color, members of a dominant group often attempt to take back the pivotal focus. In their view, "When people who are not regarded as entitled to the center move into it, however briefly, they are viewed as usurpers. " The members of the dominant group then steal the center "with a complete lack of self consciousness."
Two of Grillo and Wildman's examples illustrate these points:
"During a talk [by a black scholar] devoted to the integration of multicultural materials into the core curriculum, a white man got up from the front row and walked noisily to the rear of the room. He then paced the room in a distracting fashion and finally returned to his seat. During the question and answer period, he was the first to rise to his feet to ask a rambling, lengthy question about how multicultural materials could be added to university curricula without disturbing the "canon"-the exact subject of the talk he had just apparently, not listened to-. . . .At another gathering of law professors, issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia were the focus of the plenary session for the first time in the organization's history .. . . . The first speaker to rise was a white woman, who after saying that she did not mean to change the topic, said that she wanted to discuss another sort of oppression- that of law professors in less elite schools." 34 From these examples and others such as the two memories cited at the opening of this paper, it is possible to suggest that embodied practices communicating messages of invisibility may include: failing to acknowledge a person's presence or speech, interacting with others in a group and consistently excluding a specific person; engaging in distracting behavior; making belittling comments... In other words, suspending rules of etiquette and rank that are customarily observed with other members of the same group.

Such behaviors have ambiguous meanings but they do effectively negate or diminish another person's presence. It is precisely the multiplicity of meanings that makes these behaviors powerful. If they are ambiguous, they cannot be named. Patricia Williams has aptly compared racism to a ghost affecting everyone in society: "It is deep, angry, eradicated from view, but strong enough to make everyone who enters the room walk around the bed that isn't there, avoiding the phantom as they did the substance, for fear of bodily harm. They do not even know what they are avoiding; they defer to the unseen shapes of things with subtle responsiveness, guided by an impulsive awareness of nothingness, and the deep knowledge and denial of witchcraft at work." 35

The importance of embodied practices was recognized in the sixties and seventies in popular books on body language. Body language, especially posture, gestures, and facial expression, were viewed as tools for evaluating and improving personal relations. By reading another person's body one could judge her emotional states: discomfort, mistrust, defensiveness etc. The books were aimed primarily at a female market.

Taking the lead from the Civil Rights movement, Second Wave feminists also recognized the importance of incorporation. The pioneering book, Our Bodies Ourselves stressed the interconnection of body, identity and empowerment. 36 The slogan "the personal is the political" suggested the necessity of altering personal habits. Consciousness raising focused on customary behavior that contributed to women's oppression. The effects of questioning those habits were profound.

At present, awareness of body language is regarded as a good business tool. Progressive women's magazines regularly feature articles on how to succeed in the job interview by being attentive to messages communicated by the body. Similar, advice is given to executives to achieve their goals in business negotiations. The Center for Nonverbal Studies, with branches in Spokane, Washington and La Jolla, California, routinely conducts lectures and seminars for businesses and corporations. Law, the police, and the military also recognize the importance of nonverbal communication. 37

To combat racism as embodied practices, it is necessary to appropriate and refine techniques that other revolutionary movements, the behavioral sciences, commerce and the military have used so successfully. Never mind if it is unfashionable. Never mind that many institutions have certified the body "dead". If we are committed to improving communication among people today we must commence by raising consciousness, by observing the ways our own bodies behave in the presence of "difference. In this age of relentless ethnic strife and technologically facilitated everything our bodies are our most immediate instruments for change. And I mean both- our physical and our virtual bodies.


++ A mailing list is created with the purpose of involving nonwestern scholars and artists in a discussion of net culture. Most interventions by nonwestern contributors are deemed irrelevant, outdated, or offensive by the rest of the participants. Many of these nonwesterners ultimately, "self-exclude". (to quote the explanation of a perceptive colleague).

Contrary to the tiresome rhetoric of equality, racism is alive on the net; both in blatant and "invisible" forms. Embodied practices are perpetuated in the virtual- although at present the processes of translation of these practices to the virtual realm are little understood. If we accept that our mind is embodied then we also must take the performative power of language seriously. Mark America puts it succinctly:"In new media words act. They do more than just sit there”. 38 If we stubbornly refuse to recognize racism in the fleshed world the task becomes ever more difficult in cyberspace. The time to confront the ghosts of racism in all the "spaces" where we function is NOW. 39

1 Margaret Wertheim, "The Medieval Return of Cyberspace” in The Virtual Dimension., ed. John Beckmann (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 55. ^

2 Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura and Gilbert B. Rodman, eds. Race in Cyberspace (New York : Routledge, 2000), 3. ^

3 See Colin A. Beckles,”Virtual Resistance: A Preliminary Analysis of the Struggle Against Racism via the Internet” ,Department Of Comparative American Cultures Washington State University, For an extensive bibliography compiled by Lauren M. Ferguson, MLS, see "Racism & the Internet" ^

4 Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line(Cambridge, Mass: The Belkap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), 37 and 251. Natalie Angier, "Do Races Differ? Not Really, Genes Show." The New York Times,Tuesday, August 22, 2000. ^

5 Albert Memmi, Le Racisme: Déscription, définition, traitment (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), 98-99, recently translated to English as Albert Memmi, Racism,Steve Martinot, trans. (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999). ^

6 John Solomos and Les Back, Racism and Society(New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1996), 210. ^

7 See for instance, J.L. A. Garcia, "Racism as a Model for Sexism” in Race and Sexedited by Naomi Zack (New York: Routledge, 1997) 45-59. Homi Bhabha, "The Other Question: Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism” in The Location of Culture, edited by Homi K Bhabha (New York: Rou

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