Christiana Collison’s last few articles were, to say the least, bemusing, but this last one is an outright offence to common sense and decency. It rests on foundations that are simply false. First, it assumes that only white people dress up in “racist” costumes. Second, it makes its claims about actually existing phenomena without the support of actually existing research, statistics, or even personal anecdote. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is badly-written.
Collison’s first assumption is easy enough to do away with: obviously it’s not the case that only white people can be racist, or dress up in racist costumes. If it were, then we might as well do away with the term ‘racist’ entirely, since there would be no difference between ‘racist’ and ‘white’ significant enough to warrant two terms anyway. Besides, does Collison really want to make claims about white society without talking about what white society consists of? Is white society the set of all people who are white? Who counts as white? Collison doesn’t take a position on this, and instead leaves it up to the reader’s imagination to determine what white society might be. I left her article thinking the term might not mean anything.
Collison writes that Halloween has “become a consumerist holiday in which white society’s desire to be, embody, and commodify Otherness is not only accepted, but also popularized.” I wonder when exactly that took place. Have either Collison or bell hooks consulted any historians of popular culture to determine what Halloween used to be like, compared to what it is now? When and how did white society’s desire to embody and commodify “Otherness” become accepted and popularized? By whom was it accepted? With whom was it popularized? Where are the statistics and research to back up indignant and unqualified claims like this one, which Collison quotes from hooks’ work: “The commodification of Otherness has been so successful […] because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling.” How can anyone possibly claim to have knowledge about something as nebulous as “normal ways of doing and feeling”? What exactly does it mean to “commodify Otherness”? Why does “Otherness” start with a capital letter? The column is too jargony for the uninitiated reader to understand, let alone a student of Philosophy like myself. A reader might be left with an obscure sense of unease, and a vague aversion to Halloween chocolate, but certainly not any information about how Halloween consists of an eating of “Otherness” on her part.
It is very easy to write seriously about something you feel passionately about, and I share in Collision’s passion for combating racism and sexism. Unfortunately Collison’s columns tend to contain troubling proportions of Judith Butler-esque nonsense, decipherable only to the elite. Is it too much to ask that she write in her own voice? It is difficult to imagine anyone expounding at length in the way Collison does, for instance, in her most recent column, about how “black women, while historically hypersexualized and hypervisibled, are dualistically rendered hyperinvisible.” What could this possibly mean? How can something be “visibled,” let alone “hypervisibled”? I for one have never seen a “dualistic rendering” in my life. I admit I quote her here out of context. I would love to quote the whole sentence, but it is a staggering 52 words long. It is difficult to imagine what the thought behind the sentence was, or why Collison felt the need to invent the awkward “un-wife-able” in order to express it when a perfectly good word, “unmarriageable,” already existed.
My contention with Collison’s articles, pretty much, is the following: they are crudely-drawn, under- or outright un-informed, and unconvincing about a very important subject. Critical feminist and anti-racist theory (as these fields refer to themselves) consist of a body of texts not typically studied in undergraduate curricula, and written in a heavily idiomatic style. These texts are rarely written clearly, and rely on particular usages of common words to express their material. It is much more difficult to express complicated ideas with simple words than with big ones. I cannot fault Collison for failing to achieve the difficult, but I must fault her for failing to achieve the easy: her big words don’t seem to express anything in particular. Her writing makes no appeal to what the reader might have in common with her, and instead focuses intensely on what she takes to be the differences. That her writing makes little sense seems to matter little, since, even after labouring to understand it, I find it makes few falsifiable claims and appeals to no evidence. To critique her claims is to critique a position that does not admit to being wrong.
Racism has been and remains a persistent and pernicious ideological trend in all societies and the fight against it is pressing. I doubt whether Collison makes any headway in that fight though. If she can’t be understood to be making any persuasive claims about black feminism, it is hard to see how her column helps the cause. She would do well to buttress her generalizations in actual research and, in doing so, show a little tender loving care for the English language.
Cole Powers is a U2 Philosophy student. You can reach him at email@example.com.