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The Story: Culmination of my Education as a Sociologist interested in Identity and Culture

Sunshine's picture

*this work is mainly without citation though i draw from many specific theories that i didn't make up myself. if you have any questions about where an idea came from, please let me know so i can clarify! all this stuff is jumbled in my head 24/7 so i often forget which book or which class it came from, or if i'm secretly brilliant and came up with it myself, but i can try!*

“In all, the Marxist compromise to legitimate racism while bracketing “race” at best is not without difficulties or at worst reproduces racism at the level of theory. This is unfortunate if Marxism otherwise could help explain the experiences of students of color.”


Leonardo criticizes Marxism for not speaking to the lived experiences of people of color that do not include economic domination. He speaks of the microaggressions, dehumanization, and under representation that is prevalent and harmful to people of color (Leonardo 64). I will argue that we can use Marxism and its prioritization of class to explain why those transgressions occur. I will also judge the merits of prioritizing race over class in certain situations, while emphasizing how that limits us. Overall I want to prove that Marxism is essential to help us understand how to break down the power structures we live in that perpetuate racism, and we should only prioritize race over class as our main method of discourse when we are thinking about how to survive within the system, not deconstruct it.


For me, the importance of “race” versus race is the constant reminder that we need to analyse where “race” comes from and how we perpetuate that, compared to the idea that race is natural and we only need to criticize race relations, not the way race is defined. We can trace, with America’s World Fairs, how race has been created and defined. Which also means that we need to recognize that race was created for the express purpose of subjugation and othering. In order to establish superiority. It’s also a reminder that the definition of “races” can be changed. The definition of who is White has changed throughout American history. In my sociological theory classes, when we discuss the founding theorists, the races we discuss include Jews and the Irish. Jews, the Irish, and other previously subjugated groups have since ascended to Whiteness, and are no longer “othered”. It is therefore not helpful to view “race” as race, as static, because its definitions are constantly changing.


Marxism can speak to the effects of the transgressions people of color face by speaking to why they exist in the first place. Racial prejudices are not natural. They were carefully implemented by those who wanted to delegitimize the humanity and intelligence of people of color in order to justify exploiting them for economic purposes, in part by America’s World Fairs. I read about America’s World’s Fairs in a book called Africans on Stage by Bernth Lindfors. It speaks to the ways Americans exhibited Africans as “savage” and “primitive” in order to justify the exploitation of Africans for economic purposes. This was done so that slavery and the continued subjugation of African Americans through Jim Crow laws could be justified. There was also an era of shaping the American public’s view of Africans as only useful for the production of goods for Americans. Visitors of the exhibits could see how the enslavement of Africans directly benefited their desire to get certain goods. The dehumanization of Africans was useful for allowing Americans to see more value in the products the Africans produced than in their humanity. The effects of these representations are still prevalent today, even after the structures, like slavery, no longer exist. But they were carefully created in order to facilitate the economic exploitation of certain people.


This does not offer an explanation to what can be done in the classroom because any mediation in the classroom cannot solve racism, because the classroom is an inherently racist space. There is nothing that can be done in the classroom that solves the root of racism, because students still leave that space (both after the end of the day or when they move on to the next educational space or job market) and experience racism. And often the point of education is to prepare students to go into the capitalist job market. And if that is not the goal of the education, while it may be radical in the moment, the student still won’t have the tools to achieve in the society, and will therefore be even more disenfranchised than when they came in. Without dismantling the capitalist structure that needs to have productive members of society educated in order to maximize their utility, education may not be able to evade this contradiction.


It must also be remembered in education that the disenfranchisement that students of color face in the school setting are necessary for capitalism to exist. I took the class, The History of Social Welfare, which was a sociology course that gave us background to the American welfare system. In that course, which I took as a first-year, helped me realize that people needed to be impoverished for capitalism to work. In order to make the most amount of profit, businesses needed people to be poor so that they would choose a minimum wage job as their best option. And welfare was implemented to support people after the Great Depression, because otherwise they couldn’t spend money to support businesses. This is done just enough to prevent the contradictions of capitalism. Just enough. So there will still be a considerable amount of the population who are not supported by capitalism and need to be absorbed somewhere else. Two main groups that I can think of that fall into this category are the homeless and prisoners. The prison industrial complex replaced slavery as a way to absorb all the people that capitalism was not created for. The work of the queer poetry duo, Sister Outsider, speaks to the relationship between students of color in school and the school-to-prison pipeline that so many black and brown men face. These young men face agressions in school at the hands of security guards at a higher rate which makes it more likely for them to get arrested, miss school, end up in prison. Working within a capitalist framework doesn’t solve that because it needs students to end up in prison because it cannot support all of them.


We must therefore recognize the difference, when doing social justice work, between working within the structure and working to tear down the structure. We need to do both at once, which is why I don’t think Marxism is in conflict with race analysis that many scholars do. It just provides a long term solution to social issues, solving them at the core, while other racial analysis gives us tools to deal with the problems in society in the meantime. These solutions, much like a band-aid, help us heal but don’t fix the problem. And we must have both, for as Leonardo emphasizes, there is a lot of trauma that happens on a day to day basis. And racial analysis may be better to deal with those day to day transgressions. But class analysis could be the solution to prevent these transgressions from happening in the first place.


I attended the keynote address of the 2014 LGBTQIA+ History Month by Mia Mingus. Mia Mingus is a queer, disabled, transnational Korean adoptee raised in the Caribbean. She spoke beautifully about the need for love in our social movements, but also about how to effectively achieve our goals for a better society. This keynote address shaped the way I see social justice, and cemented for me the need to have both short term and long term goals. She called for us to make little steps towards a faraway goal. Eventually we will reach it. But if we don’t imagine small steps, then we will be disappointed when we don’t get what we want. But if we don’t imagine the larger goal, we won’t know which direction to go in. And these aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead, we need to constantly be doing both at once. Which I think answers Leonardo’s question. How do we deal with the lived experiences of students of color? We make small movements towards eradicating racism in the classroom, while remembering that our long term goal is to end class conflicts and dismantle capitalism.


To further complicate this perspective, I would add that while Marxism emphasizes the class struggle as the focus for diminishing social problems, I believe that the way to go about that work should be through disability studies. Mia Mingus speaks a lot about this in her work, but I also have an understanding of disability studies and its importance from a course I took called Disabilities, Identity, Culture. In this course we not only complicated the definition of disability and how it is defined and represented (very similar to Marxism’s concept of “race”) but we spoke about what the world would look like if we eradicated ableism. For capitalism works under the idea that we need to be productive and perform at certain levels in order to get diffèrent levels of capital. By challenging the idea that we need to prove our worth as humans through labor, the need for capitalism (as it gives people capital depending on the amount and type of work they can do) dissolves, and socialism can take its place. The heart of disability studies is proving inherent human worth (because people of diffèrent disabilities are constantly fighting to be seen as human), and challenging what is considered to be normal. This plays into deconstructing racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and many other ways of categorizing and othering people based on normative ideals that were created by the standard of the straight heterosexual cisgender rich white man.