In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Camisha Russell. Russell is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Oregon. Her book is The Assisted Reproduction of Race.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Camisha Russell: In some ways, the topic of my book is very specific. I’m interested in the ways that the idea of race operates in assisted reproduction. That is, how does the fact that people expect children to “match” their parents racially impact the decisions people make about purchasing donor eggs or sperm or hiring a gestational surrogate. But I think it works in the opposite direction, too. That is, when people don’t question ideas about what is “natural” in terms of race, even though they’re engaged with a lot of “unnatural” reproductive technologies, the idea and importance of race is subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) reinforced.
I first came to the topic because I was struck in a few news stories (and later on sperm bank websites) by the consistent and unapologetic use of racial categorization in the world of assisted reproduction. I stuck with the topic because I came to see assisted reproduction as a unique site for examining what people do when called up to make explicit decisions about their future children’s assumed racial identities (as opposed to chalking it up to the “natural” result of their choice of partner, based on chance or compatibility or love).
So, I hope readers of the book come to see the persistence of race in our current social climate as a framework for understanding family and kinship. I also hope they begin to recognize how pervasive eugenic thinking remains in our approaches to reproduction.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
For me, given my topic, the activism and organizing question is really challenging. Like any Black woman aware of America’s history of attempting to profit from, destroy, or otherwise control Black women’s reproduction, I’m extremely wary of telling women what they can or cannot do with their reproductive capacities or their efforts to create families. At the same time, I argue clearly in the book that reproductive decision-making around race is never just neutral or apolitical.
Nor is the global fertility industry. Widespread economic inequality (which is deeply tied to race and white supremacy) is what makes things like egg donation or gestational surrogacy so worrisome. Poverty and insecurity leave people vulnerable to the exploitation of their reproductive capacities and labor. And even for middle-class buyers in the fertility industry, their financial or emotional insecurity may tempt them into exploitation of marginalized women (which can be carefully mediated and obfuscated by surrogacy agencies).
Ultimately, I suppose I would hope activists and organizers cleave closely to the principles of Reproductive Justice as they consider what we should do about this ever-growing and rarely-regulated reproductive technology industry. That is, they should always have in mind improving the structural conditions under which women and all people make decisions about reproduction. We want people to make the family choices they want to make without suffering economically, facing social stigmatization, or worrying about how their family will be sheltered, fed, or kept safe.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope readers will unlearn the idea that one’s racial identity signals any kind of close genetic similarity with other people who share that identity. I also hope they will unlearn the idea that that shared genes (and shared racial identity) are the natural basis of family connection or of a healthy family. Racial identity itself does not have to be abandoned, but it has to be understood as constructed, whether for evil purposes as in chattel slavery or the Holocaust, or for good purposes like a sense of social belonging and resilience or political solidarity.
The major argument that runs through my book is that race is not a scientific fact, but a human technology. What I mean by this is, first, that race is a social construction, but moreover, that race is something human beings have both created and used. Our society’s attachment to the idea of race is constantly reinforced by all the ways we use race to organize our society and politics. We use it to tell us which people we need to care about and whose suffering we can safely ignore, rather than undertake the difficult task of taking responsibility for that suffering.
But again, we also use it to give ourselves a sense of belonging and as a means of developing the solidarity needed to fight oppression and injustice. So, it’s not that I want people to see race as entirely fake, full stop. But I do want people to understand how we create and build things with race and to take seriously which uses of race we should support and why.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Dorothy Roberts is a big one. Her book, Killing the Black Body (1990), was incredibly inspirational when I first began this work and it never fails to impress when I return to it. She has a way of putting Black women front and center in academic analysis of reproduction that really offers a clear picture of this country and its history. Nor has she stopped doing amazing work since then.
Angela Davis is another. Her commitment to scholarship and activism is a model I can only dream of living up to. In particular, her ability to hold together in her mind and for her audiences so many interrelated forms of domination and oppression in a complex global capitalist system leaves me in awe. She makes me believe in the power of solidarity and collective action to change the world.
The writing style of Iris Marion Young has also really influenced my work. She has a talent for taking complex philosophical concepts and making them intelligible to a more general audience without sacrificing their nuance. I knew when I started writing my book that hers was the example I wanted to follow.
Also, I can’t recommend enough the book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. It has nothing to do with my book, but it’s rare to see an author pack so much essential insight about the racial history of our country into such a short book. It’s haunting.
And in that vein, why not a shout-out to Nikole Hannah-Jones for speaking truth to power on a massive scale and hopefully inciting a genuine revolution in the way we teach American history to our nation’s children.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I have to say that imagining new worlds is not my personal strong point, but that I understood such imagination to be indispensable to social justice movements.
I argue at the end of my book that, while assisted reproduction is an excellent site at which to critically interrogate our society’s uses and abuses of the race idea, it is not the ideal site for anti-racist interventions. First of all, as I mentioned above, intervening in reproduction is a dangerous undertaking. But beyond that, assisted reproduction only constitutes a small percentage of overall human reproduction, and so-called “natural” reproduction isn’t free from pernicious uses of the race idea either. So there is no reason to single out consumers of the fertility industry to judge their choices.
This, of course, leads one to wonder what should be done about the many problematic ideologies and practices to be found around assisted (and “natural”) reproduction. And this is the part where imagination becomes a necessity. I hope that after reading my book, people will be inspired to engage in deep contemplation of what sorts of social, political and material background conditions would have to be in place to render the use of race in assisted reproduction either unproblematic or unnecessary. I also hope readers will contemplate what notions and ideologies of family would have to look like to secure those conditions.
And if anyone does read the book and engage in such contemplation, I encourage them to share their thoughts with me.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.