Racial Imperatives: Discipline, performativity, and struggles against subjection by Nadine Ehlers.

Author:Campbell, Matt
Position:Book review

Ehlers, Nadine. Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and Struggles against Subjection. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2012. x + 184 pages. Paper, $25.00.

Race theory is a discipline that has become increasingly useful in the social sciences in the past few decades. In Racial Imperatives, Nadine Ehlers, a scholar of women's and gender studies, provides a welcome view of the often forgotten question of how whiteness and blackness are formed and how individuals "pass" as one or the other. Her work is brimming with interdisciplinary content, including philosophy, critical theory, race and gender studies, and history. In contrast to earlier works that have taken only a historical approach or only a philosophical approach to race, Ehlers builds on a broad range of scholarship, including such well known titles as the historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Figure in Black (1987), the philosopher George Yancy's Black Bodies, White Gazes (2008), performance studies specialist E. Patrick Johnson's Appropriating Blackness (2003), as well as a host of other works from scholars of slavery, post-Civil War racism, and African American studies. Ehlers also blends the work of French theorist Michel Foucault and the gender studies of Judith Butler to exhibit the "discipline" that exists in race and how through performativity, race is ultimately a game of passing.

Racial Imperatives is roughly divided into three parts that discuss race as a discipline, its performativity, and its ability to subjugate. By investigating many different historical contexts, this book provides a fresh interpretation of how race has been historically and legally characterized in the United States and beyond. She argues that race is both disciplinary and performative and that the idea of race cannot be conveyed through the skin but instead must be "seen to be a discursively generated set of meanings that attach to the skin--meanings that, through various technologies and techniques, come to regulate, discipline, and form subjects as raced" (p. 14). If this is true, she contends, then the supposed "obviousness" of racial subjectivity falls away, and this could possibly change the way people distinguish race. Thus, she explains that by working with "discursive constraints" (p. 14), race becomes something that is debatable regardless of skin color, and provides the possibility for an individuals' race to command and control different performances.

The two most illuminating...

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