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Post-racial Rhetorics and the Depoliticization of Blackness

by Darnell Moore
29 Nov 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.2] | Commons

Let me begin this brief commentary with my conclusion: the rhetoric of post-raciality depoliticizes the “black struggle for liberation.” I know that this type of race talk is dangerous and angers the anti-essentialist guard and, to be honest, it calls into question my own set of queer politics that just happen to be the reason for my aversion to any notion of stabilized essences of identities, like sexuality, gender, and race. In what follows, however, I want to take a leap into the messy minefield of race talk and scan the rubble for considerations that might explode and multiply our understandings of the politics of race.

But, first, let me explain what I mean by “black struggle.” Elsewhere, I have taken up “black struggle” as a trope for a “counter-hegemonic tussle against white-stream structures, technologies, and discourses that seek to short-circuit the emancipatory potential, that is, the daily move towards the full disruption of white power and white privilege, in the macro and micro spheres of human experience.”[1] I go on to name black struggle as a project through which one “scrutinizes the mundane, the typical, the ‘everydayness,’ and the particularities that shape the experiences of African-American peoples.  It interrogates America’s past, and contemporaneous, racial and sexual imaginary as destructive constructs that must be named, witnessed against, and reconstructed.”  Moreover, I name black struggle as an ideological and material quest for liberation, one that “takes serious the place of the black body, in historical and social contexts.”

The following is a brief re-articulation of what I have previously iterated elsewhere on raciality and the anti-identitarian politics of queer theory. This rumination serves as another example of the ways that racial logics perpetually travel. In other words, race does not cease to exist even if it lurks behind the post . Consider this a movement of thought that signals race’s continuous place among us, far from others’ desire for the ascendance of raciality into a posterior position of ambiguity. This commentary explicates what James Baldwin has called, “the unforeseen paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning,” which surfaces as a result of the detonation of categories that were meant to “define and control the world.”[2] It is a brief rumination on the ways in which meaning is composed, and politics forged, in the space of this epistemological breakdown. What follows is less of an answer to a particular set of guiding questions and more of a series of thoughts on liberatory politics.

Annihilating Blackness, Ensconcing Whiteness

“Postblack” is a term initially deployed by art historian Robert Farris Thompson in the early 90s as a critique of the discursive limitations of categories modified by the post prefix, like postmodern in particular. Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, and artist Glenn Ligon first used this term to describe a particular political posture taken up in the arts by black artists. In an interview on, Golden notes that she and Ligon employed the “post-black” art concept to signify a particular “stance,” an “attitude,” maintained by some artists of African descent. In defense of a “post-black” posture, Golden provided the following argument:

…naming had become such a contested place. It had filled a whole decade, the 80’s, with conferences and books and articles about what it meant. On one level, I thought there was a way to cut through some of the theory and move back to a naming that was somewhat literal, not descriptive, by using the term black art and taking it away from some of its negative connotations. I wanted to just use it very simply as a way to talk about what was a more complicated realm, art made by artists of African descent all over the world, who name and call themselves many different things.[3]

Golden’s articulation of “post-black” was expressly concerned with a particular generation of African diasporic artists’ attitudes towards certain racial pasts and futures, their rememberings (and imaginings) of particular raciated identities and the cognitive modes through which younger Black artists deconstructed and produced raciated terminologies. The “post-black” posture of which Golden spoke signaled, in her estimation, the performing of “a certain level of agency” expressed on the part of a younger generation of artists creating at The Studio Museum: a performance of choice and will; the delivering of oneself from racial categories; and the locating of space to name oneself, one’s art as s/he desires. Moreover, it represented a move on the part of a generation that “seemed not oppressed by the strangle-hold of the terminology.” But what of the presumed sociopolitical visions of “liberation” that are lodged in the “black” imaginary? How does a “post-black” posture in a white supremacist capitalist society frustrate the potential for an anti-racist future?  How might “post-black” theorizing complement and/or complicate a “post-black” praxis in a world imagined and materialized through the specter of “whiteness”?

Rather than freeing black art from the grips of “its negative connotations” and African diasporic people from the “strangle-hold of the terminology,” post-black rhetoric purges black sociality and politics of its “blackness” and contains it within a limited historical frame. “Black,” in this formulation, functions as a sign of alterity: it is secured and pushed to the periphery. In addition, consider the affective potential of the rhetoric of post-blackness: the emotive undercurrent is characterized by senses of relief and safety, tranquility and progress. Blackness is imagined as a force of raciality that one ought to move beyond: to be black is to be historical or, somehow, a raciated subject temporally grafted into a black, dark past/present; therefore, to be post-black is to exist as part of a racial future outside of and escaping that past/present. Take for example, the following descriptive statement from the introduction of Ytasha Womack’s, Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity:

There are new dynamics redefining African American life. This book is about that change.  Blink and you’ll be two steps behind. But how they’ve changed, for the worse or for the better, to whom and how, depends on which side of the African American ideological fence you’re betting on. Politicians, organizations, business leaders, social advocates, average citizens and the like are heavily vested in the perception of who African Americans used to be. How we were defined fifty, twenty-five, or even ten years ago. There are those invested in who we should be. But there’s very little understanding of who we are…This book is about who we are becoming. [4]

Womack’s rendering of “post-black” is one of change and progression.  Her use of the descriptive “blink” connotes rapidity and mobility: the swift change in the “dynamics” that characterize African-American life; the speedy reversed transmogrification of African Americans from that which we were (worse off) to that which we are (better off); and the hurried sense of ontological progression or the process of our new becoming. In this formulaic motif, blackness is disappeared, but what of whiteness?

The rhetoric of post-whiteness portends a sociocultural vision and a political project similar to that of post-blackness. The post prefix, functioning as a linguistic vehicle of temporality, transports whiteness from its contemporaneous space of ubiquity into futures characterized by profound obscurity. As representation, it signals an unmaking of a social reality, the undoing of racial projects of domination, and the un-becoming of the racialized subject into something other…something other than white…and, therefore, a no-thing. Sean Brayton, in his essay “The Post-White Imaginary in Alex Proyas’s ‘I, Robot’,” describes “white racism” as that which is “historically ‘othered’” and argues that such othering allows a racist present to go undetected.[5] Put another way, post-whiteness signifies the displacement of the white subject from its un-interrogated racially privileged position. The raciated subject, who has escaped and been a beneficiary of the racist project of othering, must now reckon with its own dispossession.

As a result, hysteria and anxiety surface among some white folk as by-products of this project of dispossession. Consider, for instance, the following thoughts offered on the View from the Right blog:

In Obama’s post-racial America, all the anti-white policies and attitudes, from affirmative action to open borders for Hispanics to the multicultural rewriting of history to endless campaigns against “white racial privilege,” will remain in place. What will change is that whites will not protest these anti-white policies any more, will not mutter under their breath about them any more [sic], will not even think about muttering under their breath about them any more [sic]. Instead, they will unreservedly embrace them, in the joy of racial unity and harmony…Post-racial America is an America in which whites, as whites, go silent forever. [6]

The writer reads post-raciality as an apparatus of racial suppression that produces an inaudible white voice. The reader seems to think that a post-racial America is a dystopia wherein white subjects become objects of subjugation, policing, and silencing. There is a sense of panic in the utterance as a result of this twisted reversal of power. Post, in this case, modifies and transfigures raciality (namely, whiteness) altering whiteness into a discursive and material form of crisis. If post-racial imaginaries function as what Mike Hill[7] names a “psycho-temporal fantasy,” it seems that post-blackness figures as this fantasy while post-whiteness figures as a psycho-temporal nightmare.. Is this the type of dread that the famous black rap group, Public Enemy, presaged in the early 90s as the “fear of a black planet,” or, rather an anti/non-white planet?

The affective responses to post-racial language are striking. The rhetorics seem to signal a set of political projects that seek to depoliticize black struggle while burgeoning the project of whiteness. There is a type of racialized panic surfacing as a result of the post-racial discourse. On one hand, black people are being asked to welcome the dismantling of racial categorizations and to do away with the raciated selves that have been fashioned by white racism or refashioned through a politic of black liberation. On the other hand, white people are left to consider what is at stake by taking on a similar task and to sit with the discomfort of dispossession of a materialist and ideological form of power. And maybe this type of deconstructionist work is good for all of us considering that “blackness” solely conceptualized as a racial identity destructively shaped by the racist technologies of our past/present is a limited conceptualization. Black is more than that! But when considering “blackness” as a liberatory politic, an emancipatory way of life, a project of meaning-making, and a counter-hegemonic movement against racist regimes of psychological, material, and spiritual oppression, we have to question what it would mean for African diasporic peoples to leave behind a racial past, to leap from our racial present, and to become anew in a non-racial future only to relieve ourselves, and others, of the guilt associated with the project of white racism. The naming of “blackness” is the announcement of a political project of liberation that averts, what philosopher George Yancey calls, the “white gaze” or the “distortional ‘seeing’ that evolves out of and is inextricably linked to various raced and racist myths, white discursive practices, and centripetal processes of white systemic power and white solipsism.”[8] The black struggle for liberation intends to refocus the white gaze in the direction of whiteness, that is, upon itself so as to correct its distorted affects. And why would we want to depoliticize the black struggle for liberation, a project that has the potential to transform all global citizens, but for no other reason than to resist such possibilities of transformation. Who’s scared? And, why? Our answers to those questions might just be the beginning of a global project of racial reconciliation catalyzed by the formation of new racial logics and politics.


1.  Moore, D. (2011)  ‘An Interrogation of the Black Presence in the  Queer Project’, Trans-scripts: An Interdisciplinary Online Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences at UC Irvine, 1,, (Assessed January 27, 2011). [↑]

2.  Baldwin, J. (1983) Notes of a Native Son (p. 19). Boston: Beacon Press. [↑]

4.  Womack, Y. (2010) Post Black: How a New Generation is Redefining African American Identity (p. 22). Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. [↑]

7.  Hill, M. (2004). After Whiteness: Unmaking an American Majority, London and New York: NYU Press,  (pg. 2) ( [↑]

8.  Yancey, G. (2008). Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (pg. xviii). London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. [↑]

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