In my cultural studies class, I used Avenue Q’s song about racism to introduce the term “racial projects,” defined by Omi and Winant as the simultaneous interpretation of racial dynamics to impact the redistribution of social resources.
We spent the class discussing the musical number as a racial project, and my students made some stunning observations, many of which I did not see myself. Three things really popped out–the privilege of ethnic jokes, the absence of men of color, and the absence of arab or hispanic representation.
The privilege of ethnic jokes.
My class saw a gap between the ability to make jokes about one’s own race, or the race of others. To make light of a category often deployed to categorize, repress and disenfranchise communities seems like a privilege available only to those who could associate race with “everyday representations” rather than with traumatic events. For some students, to claim that “everyone’s a little bit racist” seems to connote that everyone is impacted by racism the same, or that one man’s racial slur equals another’s. For Omi and Winant, all racisms are not equal because structural organization and management of race makes one racism (white supremacy) far more violent, and much more possible to enact through white privilege. The ability to joke about real racial inequalities (as I often do) and to flatten all racisms to be not only the same, but “ok,” was seen by one of my “peanut-gallery” students, as “hipster bullshit.”
The absence of men of color.
The student who pointed this out claimed that the absence of men spoke volumes about how “legitimacy” for racist institutions was often invested within the participation of female racialized bodies. The figure of the woman of color often connoted innocence, or victims to the “culture of patriarchy” seen in the Moynihan Report. I gave the students a counter-factual: How would this video be different if men of color were included? Would it be a different racial project? Most students said yes, because the figure of violence associated with a prison system over-represented by people of color, with radical or political violence, and with terrorism or gang warfare, would disrupt the project’s light-hearted romp through racial bodies (and puppets). The students seemed to identify how white hegemony could be sustained through this racial project by insisting upon patriarchal relationships. Here acceptance of cultural difference was only possible through the subjugation of women of color.
The absence of Arabs or Hispanics.
Another keen observation my students made was the absence of hispanics or arabs. That this musical came out in 2006 (and won the Tony) seemed strange, because if it really was insisting upon anti-racism through open discussions of race, then why not get to the heart of the matter and discuss how race shapes labor practices and U.S. imperialism abroad? Again, this problem in the project signaled that the project itself, while perhaps a significant critique against colorblindness, was still limited in using the representation and interpretation of race to see the significant structural and organizational modalities enabled by these representations.
My students had more to say about the genre of musical and the puppets, but then the bell rang…