Race as technology, or, on the racialization of non-human bodies

Ever since I adopted a pit bull, I have had suspicions and half-grounded intuitions that there was some sort of connection between the vilification of pit bulls and anti-black racism. I just lacked a coherent way of making that connection in a rigorous, academically solid sort of way.

Falguni Sheth’s Toward a Political Philosophy of Race gave me just the conceptual device that I needed to make that connection between pit bull dogs and anti-black racism. In this text, Sheth argues that race is not an identity (i.e., not a physiological or psychological property of one’s person) but a technology (i.e., a set of strategies and tactics for establishing and maintaining specific relations of power). Basically, to argue that race is a technology is to claim that race is mainly a tool for organizing society. In a sense, it’s a sort of algorithm for determining who lives where, who gets/has access to what, how one person ought to act toward another, what life options are available to one, etc. etc.

Among the many strengths of Sheth’s conception of race is that it allows us to analyze the way race governs things that aren’t human bodies. In gender studies, the sex/gender distinction made it possible to discuss the gendering of animals, plants, consumer goods, language, compositional choices in a piece of music…pretty much anything in the universe (indeed, as some non-Western feminists have argued, Western feminists have wrongly assumed the universality of “gender” as a category). Separating out “behavior” from biology, the sex/gender distinction helps show/explain that gender is not something that comes from sexed bodies, but that gendered systems of power are something done to bodies that make them appear to be dimorphously “sexed.” So, for example, we can say that salads are feminized and meat is associated with masculinity, just as boy bands are associated with femininity and hardcore is masculinized. Separating out race as technology from race as identity allows us to make similar moves: if race is not something that comes from phenotypically and/or habitually different bodies, but is the very thing that produces bodies as racially different, then this same technology can also be applied to things that aren’t human bodies…things like language, geography, or dogs. To understand race as (solely) an identity limits the ways in which we can talk about the pertinence of race to non-human objects. So, while the notion of commodity fetishism would allow us to understand how the relations among commodities, as ersatz social relations, trade in racial identities, it does not let us talk directly about the racialization of commodities as such; there still has to be this mediation through social identity. If race is (only) a social identity, then objects themselves are not “racialized”; rather, “race” is a property of the maker and/or consumer, which is then indirectly associated with the made and/or consumed object. To understand race as technology is to allow for the possibility that objects themselves are the objects of racialization.

Take, for example, the case of pit bull terriers. This (very loosely-defined) breed of dog is thought to possess the same sort of “unruliness” (to use Sheth’s term) or “menace to society” as urban black masculinity: they are loaded weapons only waiting to be fired, and even the apparently “good” ones are not to be trusted; they are inherently and irreparably criminal; they are voracious predators on innocent dogs and families. I have a paper on this topic where I analyze this in much greater detail; it’s currently under review at a journal, so I’ll wait to post a link to the article once it’s out (hopefully). Anyway, the point is that pit bulls aren’t merely associated with urban black masculinity b/c of their association with urban black men; rather, both groups are constituted as such in the hegemonic imagination by being situated as the same sort of “threat” or “abnormality.” Pit bulls and urban black masculinity are targets for a specific sort of racialized anxiety about violence and social breakdown, which in turn makes them targets for surveillance, policing, and incarceration. Pit bulls aren’t guilty by their association with urban black men (e.g., the use of pit bulls in hip hop culture); rather, they are guilty in and of themselves for the same transgressions posed by stereotypical urban black masculinity. As a technology, race governs not only human bodies, but also dogs (who, while certainly have bodies, are legally classified not as beings but as property).

My hope is that this conception of race as technology not identity changes the landscape and horizon of critical race studies. I would like to see it generate some nuanced analyses of how racial politics affect a range of phenomena, not just human bodies and “politics” as such.