Besides his obvious victimization as a slave, Equiano and his biography also serve as participants and perpetuators of the racial social structure that Omi and Winant describe in their historical narrative. Equiano’s biography is one of the many that make up this collective memory of race and its effects. In their account of this development, Racial Formation in the United States, Omi and Winant describe how “it was only when European explorers reached the Western Hemisphere…that the distinctions and categorizations fundamental to a racialized social structure, and to a discourse of race, began to appear,” (61). On the surface, it’s clear that Equiano was a direct victim of European imperialism and ethnocentrism since he was captured and forced into slavery.
Although there are many factors that led to this imperialism, we can see the effects of European ethnocentrism through the treatment Equiano receives from the white Europeans. He describes how “the eagerness visible in the countenances of the buyers, serve not a little to increase the apprehension of terrified Africans…in this manner…are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again” (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano). Africans are seen by the white buyers as “others” instead of fellow humans. Therefore, they’re considered incapable of human ability to form relationships with each other. According to Omi and Winant’s narrative, these white Europeans were inclined to view Africans, or any person from a different ethnicity, this way because it enhanced their own understanding of themselves. This frame of understanding classified anyone outside of his or her own kind as alien, or an “other.” According to Omi and Winant, this coping mechanism—which was unconsciously used to satisfy one’s desire to understand oneself as a coherent identity—allowed for the development of both the essentialist form of racism and then the habit of “scientific legitimization.”
As much as Equiano is a victim of this racial social structure, it’s also important to notice how he participates in it and consequently, perpetuates its development. Equiano describes his astonishment and reveals his own, slight inclination to ethnocentrism:
“All the nations and people I had hitherto passed through, resembled our own in their manners, customs, and language; but I came at length to a country, the inhabitants of which differed from us in all those particulars. I was very much struck with this difference, especially when I came among a people who did not circumcise, and ate without washing their hands,” (Equiano).
He’s comforted by the cultural similarities that he often shared with those he met. But when it comes to the heathens who “did not circumcise and ate without washing their hands,” he’s uncomfortable. He participates in the social structure by classifying these others as “heathens” and imposing his own understandings on the reader’s perceptions of them. He perpetuates this social construct and causes the reader to understand these “others” in his terms—which have been borrowed from the language of the racial structure. Perhaps he doesn’t have a choice when it comes to his participation and perpetuation? This construct and seemingly natural inclination to identify the “other” is a dominant framework. The idea that the racial construct is comprised of both individual actions and collective beliefs is supported by Equiano’s autobiography.
When it comes to race as a social construct, I agree with Omi and Winant’s theory that the idea of race is a fluid framework that we use to understand not only ourselves, but also our relationships with others. If we classify someone as an “other”, we can identify ourselves as the “same”. In that case, we put ourselves in the dominant position of “knowing”: we have the ability to impose our ideas of how the “other” should be onto him or her. Thus, the power of a collective identity depends on the group that holds it. We, as individuals, are socialized into this collective identity and since it’s a narrative, the meanings we derive from the present are based on our understandings of the past and vice versa. We interpret the past from point of the present.
Therefore, this causes a problem in the theory of society “doing without” the idea of race. Because people have an inherent desire to impose meaning and order through identification of the self and others, it’s almost impossible to do without the idea of race. If we threw out this idea of race, we’d have to throw out the implications that the idea had in the past. If we threw out our conceptions of the past, we’d no longer have a foundation for understanding the present. In other words, the idea of race may be necessary in our understanding and participation as a society. Ultimately, my answer to this question is simply a result of the framework I’m using to think about it. It’s nearly impossible to think of a society without racial structure since our past and present frameworks for understanding depend on the presence of it.
Omi and Winant argue that race “has no fixed meaning” (71) and I agree that it shouldn’t. In other words, it’s important to distinguish between race and racism. We should be aware and appreciative of the differences between others and ourselves as much as we should be aware of the social frameworks from within which we view these differences.
Based on this idea of social construction, one specific social structure that’s been a major influence in my life has been that of academic classification. I’ve been both a victim and participant in the current social structure, which calls for the classification of students, especially those in college, into specific areas of study. Throughout my academic career, I’ve been continually expected to answer the question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Perhaps it’s just the art of conversation that keeps allowing this question to arise, but as we grow older we are expected to follow through on the expectations that have been established by ourselves and others, based on our answer to that question. For instance, I’ve been socialized into a structure that forces me, and others, to identify my academic and professional being in relation to my fields of study: I am an English and Film Studies double-major and therefore, I am going to do something that pertains to this.
We are all involved in a multitude of collective structures that create specific expectations for not only individuals, but cultural or structural groups of people as well. At the same moment we’re affected by this, we perpetuate it through following these expectations and using them to identify others—just like Equiano.