In rereading some of Judith Butler’s work as published in 2004 in The Judith Butler Reader, I was startled to note how little she actually addresses race. This seeming silence on race is particularly odd when editor and introducer Sara Salih gives Butler a lot of credit for looking at race and in light of Butler’s fairly unambiguous antiracist credentials. (For example, in her refusal of an award from the Berlin Christopher Street Day (i.e. gay pride) people due to racism within their organization)
Indeed, it seems that Butler in some sense “discovered” race sometime between Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993); her 1990 objection to Mapplethorpe’s depiction of “naked Black men” as one which “engage[s] a certain racist romanticism of Black men’s excessive physicality and sexual readiness” (197) is not on par, theoretically, with the kinds of complex arguments she was making about gender at the same point in her career.
In the Reader, it was only in her 1999 introduction to the reissue of Gender Trouble that she pointed out that “racial presumptions invariably underwrite the discourse on gender” (95) or that “gender norms” are substantially “underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation” (101).
These brief mentions, and the recognition that “race and gender ought not to be treated as simple analogies” and “the sexualization of racial gender norms calls to be read through multiple lenses at once, and the analysis surely illuminates the limits of gender as an exclusive category of analysis” (95) are really all she gives us.
It thus becomes the reader’s job to discern how Butler’s ideas about gender illuminate (or don’t) aspects of the operation of race as a system of discrimination (in both the “differentiation” and “inequality” senses, a dual valence Butler points out with respect to Wittig on p. 29), and so I shall.
The idea of performativity tends to generate resistance because it violates cultural common sense: “What do you mean, race (or gender) is produced by doing? I can see with my own eyes that this person has a race (gender)!” (The fact that this obviousness only occurs with respect to marked categories of race or gender, and white people and men don’t “obviously” have a race or gender to most people, though important, is beyond what I can consider here.)
Accordingly, the social construction of the matter of bodies generally has to be established before performativity can make sense (which makes the fact that Butler explained gender first (1990) and then the body (1993) unfortunate for both her and her readers).
Butler argues that body parts (or bodily characteristics) only come to exist at the point that we notice them (145); accordingly, the physical features that say “race” to us are products of paying attention to them. This does not, however, mean that they are not “real,” either materially or socially, but only that we make sense of bodies through social categories (100) that tell us that this skin color or that eye shape indicates membership in a particular race category.
These are, like sex categories, arbitrary—people from some Pacific Islander groups have the same, objective, “hue”–as it is described by Richard Dyer in his 1997 book White–skin color as some Africans, for example, but we understand them to be different “races” through classifying what “matters” about the “matter” of these bodies, and in so doing materializing these bodies in particular ways (and not others).
Once the matter of bodies is understood as social, performativity becomes easier to accept. Though there’s nothing inherent in the body about the races or genders we inhabit, we experience them as the inner truth of a person because they “act like it.” The possibility of “doing” race out of line with the socially produced body is exemplified by the idea of the “Oreo” or “banana”—people of color who “act white” and are presumed then to be “white on the inside.”
Finally, as Butler notes about gender, performances of racialized selves are not volitional acts—we are hailed at birth into a race as much as a gender, and the social imperative to be raced and gendered is difficult and painful to refuse (What are you?).
In the end, then, I think it is clear that Butler’s work on gender can be useful for making sense of race, though clearly this does not relieve Butler of the obligation to make these articulations herself.