The very physical category of femaleness was articulated by feminists and non-feminists alike as the sole property of whiteness in the 19th century,
“Children are the front lines of state racism.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Kyla Schuller. Schuller is Associate Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her book is The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Kyla Schuller: The Biopolitics of Feeling is a historical and theoretical look at the nineteenth-century origins of key ideas of human difference that grip our world today, especially race and sex difference. For example, I show how in the nineteenth century, white scientists, social scientists, and writers alike argued that only the “civilized races” – i.e. white – had achieved full differentiation between male and female. In their minds the sex binary, meaning that men and women had distinct physiological, anatomical, mental, and emotional characteristics, was an advanced achievement. Non-civilized peoples, they argued, had not yet evolved a sex binary, such that femaleness was indistinct from maleness among people of color. I stress that not only the cultural phenomenon of gender – i.e. womanhood – but the very physical category of femaleness was articulated by feminists and non-feminists alike as the sole property of whiteness. This helps explain the political situation today, where a majority of white women support racist, highly conservative candidates. In many respects, femaleness has long been articulated by whites as an element of whiteness. This is another reason why the ongoing work of black feminists today to rearticulate the meanings of gender, woman, etc. is so important. I also show how the state has been especially invested in managing the lives of children. Children are the front lines of state racism, I would argue. This is helpful for placing Trump’s child detention camps, for example, in a longer history in which the state identifies children of color as enemy threats.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The book is a detailed history of liberal social reform agendas led by white and black activists that actually reinforced racist and sexist hierarchies. I look at the origins of foster care, feminist abolitionism, early sexual health reformers, and the support of black elites for birth control, showing how their work strengthened consolidating ideas of race and sex difference even as they fought for liberation. I focus especially on sentimental reformers, or those who worked within the frame that moral, sympathetic support of the suffering would lead to a more just society. I show how the ideology of sympathy as a political doctrine actually went hand-in-hand with the consolidation of violent state power in the era. Sentimental reform wasn’t resistance in the end, but rather a new mode in which the state was coming to have control over citizen’s private lives and biological existences.
This history is important for activists today to understand the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations. Obama represented a new phase of the sentimental reformer: one who sympathetically extended the protections of the state to new, diverse groups within the nation, but reinforced state violence toward others (i.e. the deported, the terrorist, etc.) Trump represents another side of state violence: the explicitly violent, hostile leader acting in the name of white supremacy. Each regime feels quite different to its inhabitants, especially on the emotional level. But for those targeted as enemies, the distinction is a lot blurrier.
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?
In academia, we have long equated racism with what we call biological determinism, or the idea that bodies are born with unequal capacities, and that distinct biology determines distinct destinies. The idea that blacks and whites have different average IQs is a classic example of biological determinism. Biological determinism is certainly racist. But we have often contrasted this ideology with plasticity, or the idea that an individual person can change their capacities over their lifetime. Often plasticity is embraced as necessarily anti-racist, for it endorses individual potential. But this is what I want us to un-learn. Often, ideas of plasticity are just as racist. Many social reform campaigns of the nineteenth century, for example, were premised on the child-like plasticity of African Americans in body and mind. White reformers argued that they could teach blacks to imitate them, especially by educating black children. This would thereby “improve” the quality of blackness over time. It’s a classic example of activism in a sentimental mode that may have been well meaning and inspired by a belief in a common humanity, but at core was intended to eradicate blackness and indigeneity and replace it with its supposed better: the habits of white civilization. Today we see a similar underlying theory in the idea of assimilation – that people of color and/or immigrants should make themselves flexible, adapting the customs of mainstream white society. But these ideas that whiteness is the norm and others must accustom themselves to its agenda are just as racist as ideas that the non-white are permanently, biologically inferior.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I am inspired by the work of cultural materialists like Stuart Hall, Lisa Lowe, and Roderick Ferguson. They show how culture – whether TV, novels, or film, for example – is not merely a representation of the world outside. Culture is also an active site of political and economic struggle. Culture is an economic product, born of specific power relations, and plays a role as both a commodity and an ideological product. This really opens up the ability of scholars to make political arguments about popular culture. I am also deeply indebted to the work of feminist scholars who stress the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, such as Kimberle Crenshaw. The French theorist Michel Foucault is fundamental, as he developed ways to see seemingly disparate phenomenon like public health, state governance, and sexual practices as all coordinated components of new modes of power. He helps avoid the rabbit holes of specialization that lay in wait for scholars to stumble into, instead inspiring analyses that aim for breadth and reach in both sources and analysis. Finally, feminist science studies scholars who unpack the political ideologies built into the alleged neutralities of the scientific method such as Donna Haraway and Anne Fausto-Sterling are tremendously important to my work.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
This is a seemingly tough one for a historical project! But I study how the idea that people are fundamentally different, that sex and race create distinct types of people, became institutionalized because I see a silver lining here. These ideas are not universal! They were invented at a particular moment to do particular political work, especially in support of empire, enslavement, and capitalism. In other words, we can un-think these differences, too. Race and sex can be reimagined as forms of meaningful connection, rather than fundamental difference. And looking at history lets you see the contingency of even our most ingrained ideas. It shows how even the biological sciences, for example, are guided as much by contemporary ideology as by the study of the natural world. “Objectivity,” for example, originated as a guideline for art and moral philosophers. It wasn’t imported into the sciences until the nineteenth century. Understanding the contingency of our paradigms helps us see that we really can imagine the world otherwise, we really can bring new paradigms of being and meaning into reality. Nothing is fixed, nothing is set in stone.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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