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The Racism Dialectic

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“In the contemporary political landscape, racism seems to be an indefatigable issue. I have noticed that those who advocate anti-racism, ironically, have a tendency to fight fire with fire—that is, racism with racism.”

Let us begin with Hegel. Hegel is a famous German philosopher who wrote most of his works during the early part of the 19th century. You might recall his name in relation to a triadic formula that runs like this: thesis —> antithesis —> synthesis. Yet, this formula was not Hegel’s. It was developed by a contemporaneous philosopher named Johann Fichte. Hegel’s conception of dialectic is similar, to be sure, but important differences remain. 

Hegel’s dialectic is a logic of concepts. In that way, it is distinct from the Platonic dialectic; whereas Plato’s dialectic is contingent on discovering intuitions via dialogue, Hegel’s dialectic is necessitated by an internal conceptual process. Heuristically, you might think of Hegel’s dialectic like a mathematical or logical equation. The conclusion follows from the premises. But, instead, it deals with the process of conceptual formation.

The process of Hegel’s dialectic has three moments: (1) Moment of Stability, (2) Moment of Instability, and (3) Moment of Unity.

Take, for instance, Hegel’s famous example: the concept of Being. First, there is the moment where Being is established as a stable concept. Once this occurs, the first moment passes into its opposite: the concept of Nothing.

What happens here is perhaps the most important aspect: the process of sublation. Hegel’s technical German variant of sublation is aufheben; it means two things—(a) to cancel, and (b) to preserve. It is an aptly paradoxical definition, to say the least. Thus, Nothing cancels out Being, but it does so while preserving Being in its conceptual constitution; for to know Nothing is simultaneously to know Being. To attempt it more clearly: once Being is determined as a concept in a moment of understanding, its one-sidedness leads it to push itself into its opposite.

Finally: the third moment, where the opposition between Being and Nothing is negated while, at the same, unified. The emergent concept is Becoming. Becoming is neither Being nor Nothing—it is both the negation of the opposition between the parent concepts and the unification of them. An entity conceptualized as Becoming is both Being and Nothing and yet neither. Suppose, for instance, that you are observing plant growth on a film reel. In each frame, there is a plant that is in a state of Being, and yet, in each frame, that plant is not the same Being as it was in the previous frame; it has been annihilated into Nothing.

That’s the basics of Hegel’s dialectic. It gets a lot more complicated, even unnecessarily obscure, but those are the major pieces required to set the stage.

First, I should add a disclamatory note: while applying the Hegelian dialectic to the social sphere has lead to disastrous consequences (namely, Marx’s dialectical materialism, a doctrine that informed many brutal communist movements), we should not simply discard the dialectic as an instrument of torture; rather, we should reacquire it for purely theoretical purposes. It may provide a helpful framework for understanding social movements. We need not fall into the trap of seeing the world only through this particular framework, however.

In the contemporary political landscape, racism seems to be an indefatigable issue. I have noticed that those who advocate anti-racism, ironically, have a tendency to fight fire with fire—that is, racism with racism. But there is something more to it. It is not just a tactic used within political skirmishes. There appears to be a deeper motivation intrinsic to the process of social change, a natural and inevitable inversion of former cultural ideology.

Let us call this process the Racism Dialectic:

The first moment—Race determines who you are (Collectivism/Particularism: each person is determined by birth status), and you should be treated accordingly (Hierarchically). Example: slavery.

The second moment—Race does not determine who you are (Individualism/Universalism), and you should be treated accordingly (Equally). Example: the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

The third moment—Race determines who you are (Intersectionality = Individualism/ Universalism (each person is a matrix) and Collectivism/Particularism (each person is determined by birth status)) and you should be treated accordingly (Hierarchically with respect to matrix + Equally with respect to determination by birth status).

The conclusion: people, according to intersectionality, should be treated hierarchically based on their individual characteristics but equally in terms of their birth status. In other words, we treat people as individuals with a matrix of identities, but those identities are all treated equally.

For instance: an individual white male will be treated equally because of his race and gender (he is the same as all other white men), but hierarchically based on his individual characteristics (intersectional hierarchy).

In this way, intersectionality cancels out both racism and universalism, but, in fact, preserves them both in its new form. That is why intersectional theory is redolent of racism and universalism; in its new socio-conceptual form, however, the racist and universalist elements are concealed. In the same way as Becoming doesn’t immediately call to mind Being and Nothing, Intersectionality doesn’t immediately call Racism and Universalism to mind. Nevertheless, they are implicitly preserved in the theory.

Universalism per se, on the other hand, is the pure negation of racism: it treats people as a whole and as individuals. We are all human and individuals. Humanity is what unites us; individuality is what makes us different. Even though we are different as individuals, we are united by our individuality. Even though we are the same as humans, we are distinguished by our humanity. What is this, if not the ideal? Sadly, pure negation cannot stay that way, for it pushes toward the third moment.

Now, for Hegel, his dialectic was considered logical because of its inevitability and necessity. Everything in the concept of Being entails the eventual emergence of the concept of Becoming. The dialectic merely has to play out, a conceptual algorithmic process that cannot be stopped, it rolls on and on come what may. For the Racism Dialectic, Intersectionality is the inevitable outcome of Racism and Universalism. Hegelian logic could have predicted its arrival thousands of years ago.

To divine our own future then, putting our trust in the application of Hegelian logic beyond its proper limits, we might ask: what is the dialectical opposite of Intersectionality? And how do we expedite the process of sublation to arrive at the second moment so we can be free of the racism implicit in its determination? Or if the preservation of conceptual history is inevitable, is racism here to stay in increasingly mongrelized forms?.

Paul Poitier the pen name of a PhD candidate in the Humanities at York University.

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Robert D Jones
Robert D Jones

Paul Poitier does a fine job of dissecting the dialectic into its fundamental elements but misses the mark on plugging in the component theories to the respective elements. The thesis and antithesis options that match ‘Being’ vs. ‘Nothing’ are ‘Race’ vs. No [such] thing.” The predictive capabilities of the Hegelian Dialectic aside, concepts of skin color as race didn’t exist until the late 1600s. The world bit down hard it. We may well be hooked and reeled in, but until the dialectic centers on the right “Race” vs. “No [such] thing,” then the limits of our progress toward unity will… Read more »