Race & Anti-Black Racism in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Ainsley LeSure/Laura Garbes
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Laura Garbes: I'm Laura Garbes, a PhD student in Sociology who focuses on racism, sound and cultural organizations, and today I'm speaking with Professor Ainsley LeSure about the recent panel discussion on Race & Anti-Black Racism in America. How are you doing, Professor LeSure?
Professor Ainsley LeSure: I'm great, Laura. Thank you for joining me to have this conversation. This is great.
Laura Garbes: Absolutely. Great, so I really loved watching the [Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America] CSREA panel and I have a few questions I'd like to ask to continue the conversation. To get everyone up to speed, in the panel discussion on April 23rd you offered us a really compelling reading of [Frantz] Fanon’s experience in the world and showed us how anti-Blackness in the world “deprives Black people of their birthright” through objectification. You asserted that if we follow [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty’s line of thought on the Phenomenology of Perception, Fanon’s openness to the world and engagement and awareness of his own physical body and space should prevent him or render him unable to hallucinate or break with the world and yet Fanon’s encounters with others cause him to hallucinate. So you offer an explanation for this mismatch and that is that this cultural world is one structured by white supremacy and it has been produced and overlaid upon the natural world. Is there a way we can understand these hallucinations and breaks produced from encounters with the other as a tactic that can be leveraged to undermine the current white supremacist cultural world?
Professor Ainsley LeSure: Thank you for that question. I think hallucination is bad and we want to get away from that. We want to actually be grounded in reality. And this distinction between the natural and cultural role that you get in Merleau-Ponty when he's talking about perception in the Phenomenology of Perception -- it actually falls out of his later work -- it’s particularly useful, though, to understand what Fanon is up to and what he's describing in terms of his experience, the violation that he's experiencing. But the other beautiful aspect of that distinction, especially the way Merleau-Ponty lays it out when he's giving us his account of the person who is hallucinating, is that even when one is hallucinating, that person never loses sight of reality. Right? So it's like even though the hallucination may take on a value of reality, they might be held by it or whatever, when that hallucination is up against reality they can tell the difference.
And so Merleau-Ponty makes this distinction between a cultural world and a natural world and I take that up, but part of my project, too, is about insisting upon the fact that we only have one world. And so in a lot of ways, rather than saying a natural world, and one might really want to say the cultural layer of the world, which is violating the natural layer. When we're talking about natural, I'm not talking about typically how we think about nature, I'm talking about the ways in which we are tapped into the world because of our human perception, the fact that I can see, and I can taste, and I can hear, and I can feel. And even if you think about impairment of any one of those sensorial capacities, you would have others. It is our ability to interface with common objects and feel them and touch them and interact with them. And we know we don't know now because you can't see my dining room table, but I'm at my dining table and we know you can hear it [rattling noise] even as I'm touching it I can hear it, too. Right? There's something about the facticity of this thing I'm telling you about that registers in the commonality that we have together.
And so I think that what Fanon gives us in his engagement with Merleau-Ponty is an account of what the violation is. The violation is to really disrupt and undermine the significance of one's being in the world! And White supremacy can do that because you have this pattern of behavior in coordinated actions that has built up over time that allows this pretend to go on as if it is reality. But that, really, at the end of the day, what we want to do is we want to tap into reality. So that's how I would respond to that. No to hallucination. Yes! to reality and honoring our embeddedness and position in the world.
Laura Garbes: Thank you. I think that was a really rich response. You also spoke about the limits of how our current polity is constructed, and accountability and responsibility often get lost in the way the nation and our democracy is set up. I wanted to hear a little bit more about the polity where one's agency is not lost or subsumed in the long historical forces that proceed us as individuals. What might a polity that has more robust structures of accountability and has a focus on this agency look like, sound like, or feel like to you?
Professor Ainsley LeSure: That's a really good question. It's kind of abstract, my thinking about it, but I can give examples. So there's this article, it’s by Sally Haslanger, [it] gives an example of two young Black men with their Spanish teacher who is white. One Black man is American, the other one is Egyptian, and this is important because the ethnically Egyptian Black man, he’s a teenager, he asks his Spanish teacher if women in Chile are allowed to go freely in their society? And the teacher responds, “Well, Chile is not like your society.” The young man responds, “Women can go about freely in Egypt.” And the teacher says,” No! They can't!” And he's sort of taken aback and was like, “What are you talking about?” And she punishes him for challenging her authority. The other Black young man that's watching this encounter, watches it and because of it basically loses trust in the teacher and basically withdraws from the rest of the class. The point that Haslanger is trying to make is how race is created through institutions structurally. The harm that’s done, Haslanger would suggest, is that the teacher is not acknowledging the Egyptian young man’s capacity as a knowledge producer, not respecting him in that way. And the social meaning in the context in which they are interacting produces this circumstance outside of the teacher's intention. The teacher may not have intended to reduce him or not value his knowledge production, but that's ultimately what ends up happening. So my response to that is, well, we have to talk about intention and we have to talk about the teacher's responsibility to this situation and we have to think about it as a perpetually unfolding event. Maybe the teacher did not intend to produce this harm, but we can begin to judge where the teacher is situated and how she relates to them in terms of how she responds to someone bringing this to her attention. And also thinking about the responsibility of the school administrators to hold the teacher responsible for this kind of violation and to produce the kinds of relations that are going to allow the relational respect with regards to knowledge production in the school. People thinking about where their power lies, oftentimes the initial harm is not the most telling thing. It's the response to the harm and the way that others then respond to the harm that don't allow us to begin to acknowledge the actual relations that are unfolding on the ground, that are producing the harms of racism. And then we commit greater harm in our response to people who are bringing it up.
So I'm saying all of this to say that part of what it looks like to build a polity that can enable the kind of accountability and responsibility that we need in order to move outside of the harms of racism and racial injustice involves thinking very locally about our daily interactions with each other, to structure our relations so that we abide by principles like equality. What does that look like when you have different roles? So, you know, a teacher and a student are not equals to the extent that one has authority and the other one doesn't in their role as teacher and student, but in their role as human beings, as citizens -- or citizen in a robust kind of way -- the fact that you are part and parcel of a community and an institution. By means of that kind of situatedness there's a kind of treatment that you are owed in a kind of relation, a kind of relationality, a reciprocity and responsiveness that you are owed, that we have to take care to deliver and to hold people accountable when they don't deliver it.
Sidelining the question of individual responsibility and accountability to me is a mistake. Those kinds of questions actually do have a place in the discussion even if we want to talk about situations where structures might be doing something that is distinct from individuals. Like we might be able to imagine something like that, but individuals have a role to play and do play a role in perpetuating it. We need to name it and we need to think about how we are going to hold each other accountable to each other and not just to our own reflexive insights. I think the way we talk about individuality is about having one's own reckoning and then, upon having your reckoning, you bring yourself in line. And then you can say, “I really tried, but it didn't work” or “I'm really trying.” And what you're saying doesn't matter because this is what I'm doing, it makes it this private thing so it actually cuts people off from accountability to others, right? It’s very important that this accountability and this responsibility are to people outside of ourselves, which might be demanding especially when folks with the prerogatives of domination don't have to be accountable. Having to live a life where one is accountable might be hard at first and one needs to get used to that, but that is not the work that one needs to do to sort of produce the right kinds of relations and responsiveness to others that we are going to need to create if we're going to repair racial injustice.
Laura Garbes: That's great. And that also lends well to my next question because you sort of noted that it's not just self-reflexivity, it's self-reflexivity in a situated matter that makes you vulnerable to accountability. How might this process enable us to understand not just experiences, say, in our own workplace directly, in our own schools, in our neighborhoods, things like this, but also in global struggles that may not seem as immediately direct to us all. And it may be that it’s easier to turn our attention away because in the day-to-day we don't necessarily see those in our embodied experiences.
Professor Ainsley LeSure: Right. That's a really challenging question and one that I grapple with. What is going on in Israel right now, the conflict with Palestinians, and Zionism, and the refusal to share the world. Which I think is an imperative, we must share the world with each other and when we refuse to share the world with each other that is a violation of humanity. Sitting here in the U.S. and watching that global conflict unfold, it’s like what can I do? There are lots of things I can do: I could give money to organizations, I could contact my representatives, I could be an activist on social media. And I think all those things matter and, at the same time, I think that the way that our political institutions are currently structured, we're really removed. We're also enmeshed. Like, I'm an American citizen, I am enmeshed in an American imperial project that enables the kind of violation that is happening right now, abroad, all over. One of the things is that I cannot do anything about that at this moment. It just is. And I just think that an important sort of way to think about what it looks like to even begin to construct a better broader world, is to think about how that broader world is implicated in your present local position.
Danielle Allen actually in Talking to Strangers: [Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown V. Board of Education] talks about what it would look like to think about your relationship to a community of 99,999 people. She uses that number to then think about one's community in that robust way and what it looks like to share and to be in community with each other. The way that I say [that] we have to think about the individual as accountable and responsible for racism, for me it's about thinking about the individual structurally, you have to think about our isolated past structurally. And I think so many people are calling us to do that, right? But it's like, what does that look like when you are present in your actions? And you can begin to imagine what things have to change in order to imagine a better collective world. So to bring this back to the polity, I don't think that our political institutions allow us to do that work so it's kind of like you're on your own in doing it. And I can hear activists in my head now, all these great activist communities that do this work, but there's a way in which it doesn't level up.
And so you just have this hard and fast distinction between formal political order and the informal political order, or, you know, civil society. Dare I say civil society. I don't think that our political institutions allow us to do that work on the scale that we need to be able to do it. And then it just also makes me think about what it looks like to build a cultural world that's aligned with the natural world, aligned with our sort of humanistic sensorium. And I feel like that's how that groundedness in our humanity and our present in a political system, a collectivity that honors that, is what we need to be striving towards now. But I do think, yeah, democracy is important. Equality is important. Those kinds of principles I think are important and shouldn't be thrown away and can be held on to and used to think about what we need to do going forward.
Laura Garbes: Well, that's brilliant. And I think that's a wonderful place to stop. Thank you so much for your time and I'm grateful for your insights.
Professor Ainsley LeSure: No, thank you so much. Your questions were amazing! Great.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu