Last Thursday I attended a talk given by Rebecca Walker, a renowned scholar, activist, and feminist. Her discussion topic was about Obama, Palin and the discourse on race and gender that their candidacies has revealed. What she ended up talking about, however, was a further deconstruction of gender, race, and class, arguing that, in some sense, this sort of discourse was entirely socially constructed. Now, that was fairly straight forward and easy to understand. The next bit, however, got very interesting, and also raised some questions by many people in the crowd. Essentially, Walker argued against the concept of self-identity…in that we tend to grab ahold of identities such as our race, class, or gender, and therefore are identifying ourselves as being socially constructed. Instead, she argued for a sort of “openness”, where each individual acts as what they want to, not as what they are socially dictated to. At least, this is what I think she was getting at. It was a pretty complicated thing to firmly grasp.
What I thought was most interesting, however, were the discussion I had with many people afterwards. Many people pointed out that it must be easy for Walker, coming from a privileged background, to have this outlook. What about people who’s identities are all they have? What about people who use this identity to pull themselves up? It was an especially difficult concept for people who held their identities strongly, who responded with a “who does she think she is to say I can’t identify as__________”. (For the record, I didn’t get the impression that she was saying you “can’t” do anything…she simply was presenting a different approach).
By the end of it all, I finally reverted to the French sociologist Bourdieu. He argued that from birth, every individual has constraints, or “magical boundaries” placed on him or her, and these boundaries prevent us from making certain choices, or from being able to view certain ideas. These boundaries are entirely social constructs, and provide a good explanation for how culture is manifested: each culture enforces these constraints on members of the society, as carried out through ritual, and these therefore channel members of that society to hold certain things more valuable then others. Space is certainly a form of boundary construction, as is language. Our current state, or the combination of all these boundaries, is called habitus. Each individual has a habitus, and it is unique to every other person, since we all have a different set of boundaries and experiences. I think Walker was very much talking from this point of view when she talked about race, class, and gender as social constructs, and in terms of identity. In a sense, society places race, class, and gender upon us as boundaries, shaping our habitus. When someone self-identifies as a certain race, class, or gender, they are in fact supporting a system that uses these categories as limiting categories.
With this understood, it makes more sense how Walker is able to approach race, class, and gender in such an “open” way. She started her talk by stating that her parents, who were extremely active in the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements, had envisioned her to be a boundary-less child. Therefore, the constraints placed on her from an early age were very unlike those placed on most children growing up in the world. Her ability to grasp this concept that identifying with a socially constructed boundary such as race, class, or gender, supports a system that disempowers people is very difficult for many people to grasp. This is because most people did not grow up in a space that broke down those boundaries before they could latch on.
There is so much more to say about this topic, and how it is manifest in various cultures in America. If you think about how certain people are raised, those who believe all African Americans are shifty, or those who think all muslims are terrorists, or those who think all white people are racist, or poor people are not smart, you begin to see how these boundaries shape people, and make it difficult to view a world that is “open”. Boundaries are the exact opposite: they close people off to other concepts and visions, and that is where Walker’s discussion was the most valuable. It forced people to think about their own boundaries, and to wonder if there is another way of viewing the world. And although it may be difficult for us to do, it might be easier for us to raise children who do think in that way. I don’t think it was coincidence that Walker is all of a sudden “into motherhood” and in the process of developing a new world view…she is now going to through the process of raising a child to be as “open” as possible, and that is quite a challenge.