A New York Times reporter found what he considered a strange and praiseworthy phenomenon in New Orleans and described what he saw for the paper’s Sunday readers. Freedia, a black, gay, rap artist was performing at a sports bar. Just minutes into Freedia’s set women rushed to the dance ﬂoor, bent over at the waist, and bounced their hips ‘as fast as humanly possible, if not slightly faster’ (Dee, 2010). The reporter closed the scene with a comment from Freedia’s manager, who accompanied the visitor back to his hotel. ‘I’ve lived in New Orleans a long time, and I know a lot of people, but you’ve just seen something that about 95 percent of my white friends will never see’. What exactly did the manager believe his white friends would never see: a black gay rapper, a crowd of women dancing, or the speed with which they moved? And why was his remark given so prominent a place in the reporter’s account? The scene brings into view key elements of the contemporary racialization of bodies. It has unmarked
whiteness, which calls no attention to itself and remains invisible until it is placed amid black bodies. It shows that race circulates in the popular imagination not just as skin color but also as racially categorized and embodied capacities, in this case an aptitude for sensuality and extraordinary physical action. It shows that in a historical moment that is celebrated as post-racial and color blind, race and color are seen and marked all the time. The reporter’s account is what I have come to recognize as a genre of domestic travel narrative, the ‘I
was the only white there’ boast. These boasts are a white person’s description of a visit to a majority black setting to be the thrilled witness of expressive and sensual movement. New York Times readers were given the excitement of a vicarious glimpse into a socially distant world. In this particular ‘I was the only white there boast’ race is marked in a way that seems to celebrate the diﬀerence. A black queer rap performance invites women’s physical release. Black women respond with a display of superhuman physical abilities. However, celebrations of this kind naturalize broader structures of inequality. The associations between blackness and sensuality, which are presented in the article in the harmless context of dance, anchor chains of signiﬁers between racialized bodies and moral, emotional and intellectual capacities. Given that an ‘I was the only white there’ boast opens the article, very likely the reporter assumed a white readership. The white reporter did not identify himself as white. He perhaps assumed that that would be assumed. Named and unnamed whiteness is everywhere in this article about black people performing. It is called out from its usual invisibility by black dancing. I open with this example to make the case for why sociologists who write about race must think about
bodies and why sociologists who write about bodies must think about race. Bodies are the site of the
naturalization of the concept of race, yet for a good reason, bodies are absent from some of the most important contemporary attempts to theorize race. In many ways the ﬁrst task of critically writing about race has been the necessity of replacing bodily explanations with social and political ones. Scientiﬁc racism has long explained racial inequality in biologically based essentialist terms whose evidential grounds rested variously on purported racial diﬀerences in skull shape and size, the presence or absence of beards (Schiebinger, 1993: 120-125), blood type (Robertson, 2001: 3), skin color, and genetics (Duster, 2003: 11). Racial taxonomists often, but not always linked such physical characteristics to moral and intellectual differences between the races, or, in what may on the surface seem benign, to diﬀerences in talents (Szwed, 1975: 24). Descriptions of purported racial diﬀerence relied on descriptions of similarly imagined gender and sexual diﬀerence. Popular conceptions of race, which circulate with or without the legitimating support of science, also tend to conceive of racial diﬀerence as natural, timeless, and inherent in bodies. Sociologists and others have countered essentialism with explanations of race as a product of social
structure, as an historical outcome of political conﬂicts, and as a discursive formation. According to Michael Omi and Howard Winant ‘there is no biological basis for distinguishing among human groups along the lines of race’ (Omi and Winant, 1994: 55). Anthropologists (Lieberman, Kirk and Littleﬁeld, 2003: 110) and population geneticists (Cavalli-Sforza, Menozzi and Piazza, 1994: 19) have come to the same conclusion. The genetic variation within any race is greater than the variation between races. Despite the consensus among sociologists, anthropologists, and population geneticists that race is a political and social rather than biological phenomenon, the need to argue against biologistic conceptions of race remains. Biologistic conceptions of race endure because they provide an easy answer to the complex question of racial inequality. The de-essentializing work is never done.