Equiano Seeing White People Doesn’t Necessarily Challenge Omi and Winant

I believe that in several ways Equiano’s narrative confirms Omi and Winant’s claims about racial formation.  One particular example that stands out to me from Equiano’s Intersting Narrative is when he first encounters white people, believing that he “had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill [him]” based on “[t]heir complexions … [which differed] so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke” (Equiano).  Although Equiano had never before known white people existed, when he first encounters them he instantly recognizes their difference.  A person who does not carefully read Omi and Winant and interprets their message to mean that race is socially constructed and therefore should not be visible in the absence of these constructs might believe that this passage actually challenges Omi and Winant’s conclusions, since Equiano clearly recognizes white people as being different from himself based on appearance and behavior despite having never known that white people existed.  A more careful reading, however, reveals that this passage is in line with Omi and Winant’s theory.  Although it might be easy to assume that because race is a social construct it is imaginary, Omi and Winant caution against this “temptation … to imagine race as a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate,” and argue that, in order to understand how race operates as a social construct, it is necessary to challenge this position (Omi and Winant, 54).  Equiano’s encounter with the whites seems to confirm Omi and Winant’s conclusion that even though racial lines are arbitrarily drawn by society, at the same time race is not something that is a mere illusion.

I do believe that race is a social construct, but like Omi and Winant, I also believe that it is unrealistic and not very useful to think of race as an illusion that we should be working toward eliminating.  As human beings, I think that to an extent we are always going to notice and be aware of our differences from other human beings as a way to situate ourselves within society.  I do not think this has to be a negative thing.  I believe that attempting to find a way to remove the essentialism that defines racism from our society while maintaining and celebrating our differences, preaching tolerance and working toward equality of opportunity is a more realistic and noble goal than simply attempting to pretend that all people are the same and ignoring differences, which can leave some people disadvantaged who were disadvantaged historically.  Although I’m not sure race is necessary to our society, I do not see anything to be gained from attempting to do without it.

One of the major social constructs that I come into contact with so often that I can barely even notice it (MATRIX!!) is the idea that gender identity necessarily derives from biological sex.  It’s hard to get out of the habit of assuming that men are supposed to act masculine and non-emotional for biological reasons while women are supposed to be caregivers and less worried about providing for the family, but once you start to think outside of that particular box it becomes obvious pretty quickly that no one truly lives up to the ideals of their gender and it can even be harmful to attempt to do so.  I believe this social construct is the result of a lot of factors.  In particular, I think patriarchal societal structures probably have a lot to do with maintaining these gender roles.  I also think these gender roles may have derived from the simple need humans might have had long ago to be able to easily differentiate who it would be possible to mate with.  It also might have also helped that the potential mate brought different things to the table than the person who was attempting to mate with them.  Over time, I assume these probably necessary but also probably more fluid patterns were solidified in order to maintain a social order that was beneficial to males, i.e. patriarchy.  Just a guess, though.

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One thought on “Equiano Seeing White People Doesn’t Necessarily Challenge Omi and Winant

  1. Good work. That last paragraph ties some of our recent discussions together in a very cool little knot. If you get a chance, bring some of this up in class today. Grade: S.

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