Although I wasn’t in Portland last semester, I still heard a lot about the racially charged events that took place on our campus in the fall. Every year since I came to Lewis & Clark there has been some act of hate on our campus, usually following the Ray Warren Symposium on Race and Ethnic Studies. This week in Environmental Theory, we are taking time to conceptualize Environmental Justice. Although we can’t by any means explore justice issues in the depth that it deserves in two classes, I’m still so glad that we will have room to explore this issue since it has been omitted from many other classes I’ve taken even though it’s alarmingly relevant.
Instead of attempting to deconstruct race or tackle some of the huge issues at hand today, we took a (fittingly for an Environmental Theory course) theoretical approach. We read four different pieces that dealt with ideas like essentialism, non-essentialism, and strategic essentialism. Below I will give a brief definition of each one in terms of race.
“Essentialist conceptions of race hold that the characteristics of physical appearance referred to by racial terms are indicative of more profound characteristics (whether positively or negatively construed) of personality, inclinations, “culture,” heritage, cognitive abilities, or “natural talents” that are taken to be shared by all members of a racially defined group.” (Stubblefield 1995)
“Non-essentialist conceptions of race claim that similarities and differences in physical appearance do not entail further similarities and differences.” (Stubblefield 1995)
“’Strategic essentialism‘ to refers to the ways in which subordinate or marginalized social groups may temporarily put aside local differences in order to forge a sense of collective identity through which they band together in political movements.” (Dourish 2008) This term was coined by Gayatri Spivak.
Stubblefield’s article is in favor of non-essentialism, but she argues that the essentialist labels projected onto minority groups causes them to have a shared experience, and therefore something in common. In other words, although the group may not have had anything in common besides very general shared physical attributes, they do have something in common after those essentialist labels are associated with them because they’ve had to deal with having similar preconceived notions of who they were.
Our assignment this week was to come up with a case study of these terms to discuss in class. On Saturday, Beyoncé dropped a new music video for her single, Formation, and the internet responded accordingly. There were plenty of articles thrown around criticizing her video as well as praising it, including coverage by National Public Radio and the New York Times. Although there are probably plenty of more academic case studies of strategic essentialism, I thought it would be interesting to use this pop culture icon to analyze the use of these methods. Based off of the definition I referred to above, I think Beyoncé’s Formation video is a very powerful use of strategic essentialism. She presents powerful lyrics and imagery related to black culture, especially southern black culture. Although her lyrics obviously don’t encapsulate the experience of all black people in America, her song still seems to have garnered huge support across the country and is sparking discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement. It also came at a very politically charged time, since February is Black History Month and also the month of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland’s birthdays.
I’m interested to see what our class will discuss tomorrow. Here is the video in question:
Dourish, Paul. 2008. “Points of Persuasion: Strateg Essentialism and Environmental Sustainability”. University of California.