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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity - [Archived] GLB Queer liberalism and the racialization of intimacy

Queer liberalism and the racialization of intimacy

Queer_diasporaThe empowerment of certain gay and lesbian American citizens economically has resulted in a political rhetoric of colorblindness that legitimates a system of capitalist exploitation and accumulation largely favoring the industrialized North over the global South, writes David L. Eng.

The election of Barack Obama as the first African American President on November 4, 2008, was the same day that legalized marriage for gays and lesbians in the state of California, authorized by the State Supreme Court only six months earlier, were taken away through popular referendum.  

The combination of Obama’s historic win with the passage of California’s Proposition 8 by a narrow 2.3 percent margin initiated many rounds of recriminations--especially so, given the oft-cited fact that 7 in 10 African Americans who came out to vote in the Presidential election also favored the ballot initiative. 

 Yet, African Americans constituted only 10 percent of the California electorate who voted.  Given the narrow margin of victory for Proposition 8, it would be a mistake to blame any one particular group for its success: African Americans; other minorities; mainstream gay organizers who failed to provide effective outreach to communities of color; liberals who did not bother to vote; staunch moral-majority Republicans; or even the Mormon Church in Utah, which reputedly provided over 40 percent of the funding for the initiative. 

The key issue is not that there is plenty of blame to spread around; there is. Rather, the important point is that the promise of coalitional politics failed--a failure exacerbated by repeated contentions that African American communities (as well as other communities of color) are especially homophobic, coupled with the simultaneous insistence that “Gay is the New Black,” as the December 2008 cover of The Advocate proclaimed after the November elections.  

Equating gay and lesbian struggles for civil rights in the present to black civil rights movements in the past not only consigns racism to the dustbin of history--as a historical project “completed”--but also suggests that all gays are white while all blacks are heterosexual.  

Such an equation authorizes a political rhetoric of colorblindness that refuses to recognize the ways in which race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation continue to be articulated and constituted only in relation to one another in the ongoing struggles for equality and social belonging in the U.S.  

In short, by analogizing Proposition 8 to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the state of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, mainstream gay and lesbian advocates deny the coevalness of sexual and racial discrimination, subjecting them to a type of historical violence by casting them as radically discontinuous. 

Today, under the shadows of neoliberalism, a politics of colorblindness helps to instrumentalize the hyper-extraction of surplus value from racialized bodies.  

It helps to legitimate a system of capitalist exploitation and accumulation largely favoring the industrialized North over the global South, a history tracing itself to the emergence of European colonialism in the fifteenth century and the establishment of the Enlightenment project in the eighteenth century that marks the rise and expansion of European modernity in the West and elsewhere.  

As the uncontested superpower on the world stage today, the U.S. is not just the custodian of empire but indeed the guardian of a European tradition of modern liberal humanism, one now mobilized to declare that the project of human freedom has been accomplished within the domestic borders of the nation-state.  

Our putatively colorblind moment is marked by the assertion that racial difference has give way to an abstract and universal U.S community of individualism and merit.  This is so even as it demands the inexorable growth of the prison industrial complex and ever-increasing militarization and unfreedom in global locales such as the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, continued racialized violence and racialized labor exploitation and domination, and a vast redistribution of wealth to the already richest few as the just entitlements of multicultural world citizens--recent upheavals in the global economy not withstanding.  

In this ostensibly colorblind new world order of privilege and stigma, it is not surprising that the historic election of President Obama--who has not explicitly supported gay marriage rights (or single-payer health care, for that matter)--was accompanied by the passage of Proposition 8.  

To the contrary, it might be expected insofar as the affirmation of freedom for African Americans, embodied in the extraordinary rise of this singular figure of racial unity, now leads to the final chapter of U.S. liberalism and progress.  

From this perspective, multiculturalism, as the key to a contemporary post-racial new world order of freedom, opportunity, and choice, might be seen not as the culmination but the continuing legacy of the long history of the world division of freedom and labor in New World modernity, with gay and lesbian marriage now constituting, as the subtitle of The Advocate cover also declares, “The Last Great Civil Rights Struggle.”  

In recent years, there has been a lot of debate in both queer and critical race studies about the value of intersectional and comparative approaches to the analysis of identity and difference.  

“Queer” was once understood as the name for a political movement and extensive critique of a wide range of social normalizations and exclusions. However, in our putatively post-identity age, the term has been increasingly unmoored from its theoretical potentials and possibilities.  Instead, it has come to demarcate more narrowly gay and lesbian identity and identity politics, the economic interests of neoliberalism and whiteness, and liberal political norms of inclusion--including access to marriage, custody, inheritance, and service in the military.  

Today, “queer” and “marriage” no longer strike us as paradoxical terms or antithetical propositions. 

I describe this remarkable consolidation as “queer liberalism”--the empowerment of certain gay and lesbian U.S. citizens economically through an increasingly visible and mass-mediated consumer lifestyle, and politically through the legal protection of rights to privacy and intimacy.  

It is the purpose of my new book, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy, not only to explore the historical emergence of queer liberalism but also to rethink the significant cleavings of sexuality from race, and race from sexuality, that organize contemporary structures of family and kinship as well as the privatized space of the intimate in our colorblind age of global capitalism.  

I contend that the emergence of queer liberalism is a particular incarnation of liberal freedom and progress, one constituted by both the racialization of intimacy and the forgetting of race.  

Charting the multiple tensions between queer liberalism and what I describe as “queer diasporas,” the unpredictable and unsettled migrations of queer Asian bodies in the global system, this project also seeks to retheorize conventional notions of family and kinship outside the geographical boundaries of the nation-state and beyond the ideological boundaries of U.S. exceptionalism.  

A focus on “queer diasporas” demonstrates how queer Asian migrant labor, transnational adoption from Asia, and the political and psychic legacies of Japanese American internment underwrite narratives of racial forgetting and queer freedom in the present. 

I began this project in the classroom.  For more than a decade now, I have been teaching on a regular basis an introduction to Asian American literature and culture.  Although initially I could not have predicted that I would come to write a book about queer liberalism, the racialization of intimacy, Asian diaspora and migration, and the politics of family and kinship, I became increasingly interested in these issues for a simple reason. 

Over the years, a growing number of students in my Asian American literature and culture classes have come out to me--not as gay or lesbian but as transnational adoptees. 

In recounting their experiences, my students would often employ the language of the closet and the vocabulary of shame. They stressed how they felt invisible as transnational adoptees and how they felt compelled to come out of the closet time and again.  

They also admitted how such personal disclosures exacerbated their anxieties of being stigmatized and of feeling neither adequately Asian American nor sufficiently white.  Finally, they emphasized how such ambivalent impulses provoked fears that they were being disloyal or ungrateful toward their adoptive parents.  

The complexity of these various issues sparked a series of extended classroom discussions: Is the transnational adoptee an immigrant?  Is she Asian American?  In turn, are her white adoptive parents Asian American?  

Even more, such issues emerging at the intersection of queer studies and the contemporary politics of race made me start to think about transnational adoption as a new form of passing in our so-called “colorblind” age.  

Unlike prior histories of sexual or racial passing, however, the inscription of the closet in transnational adoption seemed to be less about the problem of detecting a hidden sexual or racial trait than about our collective refusal to see difference in the face of it.  

This refusal to see difference--to acknowledge race--marks the politics of colorblindness in our “post-identity” U.S. nation-state, one characterized by the persistent disavowal and forgetting of race in the name of freedom and progress. 

Feeling_of_KinshipThis is an excerpt from The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy by David L. Eng. Published by Duke University Press  

David L. Eng is Professor of English, comparative literature, and Asian American studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (Duke, 2001).  He is also co-editor with David Kazanjian of Loss: The Politics of Mourning (California, 2003), with Alice Y. Hom of Q & A: Queer in Asian America (Temple, 1998), and with Judith Halberstam and Jose Muñoz of a special issue of the journal Social Text (2005), "What's Queer about Queer Studies Now?"

 

Comments   

0 #1 Michelle 2012-04-20 21:03
when was this post written? the paragraph at the beginning is false, "The election of Barack Obama as the first African American President on November 4, 2008, was the same day that legalized marriage for gays and lesbians in the state of California, authorized by the State Supreme Court only six months earlier, were taken away through popular referendum." -- In fact, Obama got voted in at the same time that Proposition 8 passed, thus making marriage for LGBTQ couples ILLEGAL. Starting the essay on the premise that Obama and Marriage happened at the same time casts a strange premise to this argument and undoes it. I enjoyed this excerpt and think it's spot on, except for that early error.
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