Beth Coleman’s “Race as Technology:” Rethinking Race

“Blackness for such men was not a thing to root yourself in but something to evade and escape. Barack Obama found a third way…”

We Were Eight Years In Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates, 8

 

Official_portrait_of_Barack_ObamaBarack Obama is, and will forever be, the subject of much critical scholarship. His rhetoric, his multi-ethnic and multi-national heritage, and his love of hip-hop and Michelle Robinson have been inspiration for all kinds of writers, from journalists such as Ta-Nehisi Coates to academics like Beth Coleman. In fact, Beth Coleman’s article, “Race as Technology,” an essay which uses Barack Obama as a key example, explores the doors which might open if we begin to reconsider the ways in which we have always thought about race, and viewing it instead as a tool, or a technology. Coleman’s attempt to break into a new world of possibility drew me in as I thought about women and people of color’s contributions to media studies.

Dr. Coleman was an assistant professor of writing and new media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Writing and Humanities Studies and Comparative Media Studies, but currently is an assistant professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Her research interests include new media, aesthetics, electronic music, critical theory and literature, and race theory. She was a 2003/2004 Rockefeller New Media fellow and a 2004 Ford Fellow. In addition to her scholarly work, Coleman is also a widely regarded electronic music composer.

Her article “Race as Technology,” offers innovative ways to consider race’s relationship to technology. She argues mainly that by considering race as a technology, it can lead to greater subject agency. “Technology’s embedded function of self-extension,” she writes, “may be exploited to liberate race from an inherited position of abjection toward a greater expression of agency.” (Coleman, 177) In order to do this, Coleman posits that our first move is to denature and reframe race from its historical roots to be able to use it as a tool. We need to understand racial identity as constructed in order to maximize its potential as such.

Strengths of her argument include the compelling examples of Barack Obama’s rhetoric and an interesting scene of passing in “The Battle of Algiers.” Her essay borrows from the classic philosophy of Kant and Rousseau, as well as theory which we have been exposed to in this class, particularly Marshall McLuhan, in her assessment of technology as prosthesis. (Coleman, 184) While her argument is convincing and insightful, there are moments in the text which offer points for departure in her future work or else for another scholar to work through. One such section was Coleman’s use of Nella Larsen’s Passing. She begins a discussion, in which the reader is supposed to think of how Larsen’s characters, Irene and Clare, use race as a technology. This section struck me as fruitful but, unfortunately, underdeveloped. It would have been an excellent to theorize queer Black femininity as a technology. How do we understand the female Black body as a technology? Is it the same or different? On this note, it is worth asking another question: can you divorce race from historization as Coleman asks us to do? She herself recognizes the danger of such a suggestion but it still a question worth considering moving forward.

Moving forward, Coleman’s ideas offer me much to think about. She offers ideas about how to theorize constructions of race, but also how this could lead to theorizing other constructions of race. And while she convinces me that race as a technology is a useful tool, I question if, and how, race might be a medium. After all, Barack Obama, as she points out, uses rhetorical devices and quotations from the Founding Fathers in a rhythm belonging to a Baptist preacher. His rhetorical style communicates an allure to white citizens, without alienating Black citizens. The same set of words, spoken in the same way, are decoded differently by separate groups. As Coates aptly writes about Obama, he has “found a third way,” a way which Coleman might argue is constructed by using race as a technology.

Coleman ask us to consider that thinking of race as a technology could potentially be a trap or a trap door. I believe in the trap door. Coleman’s theory can be used as an entry way into the unknown.

 

Works Cited

 

Beth Coleman, “Race as Technology,” Camera Obscura 24, no. 1 (2009): 176-207.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World, (2017)

 

Nella Larsen, Passing. New York: Norton, (1929)

 

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press (1964)

3 thoughts on “Beth Coleman’s “Race as Technology:” Rethinking Race

  1. I really enjoyed your synopsis of Beth Coleman’s “Race as Technology” and the way in which you used Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power to frame your essay. The questions you asked after reading Coleman, and Coates, are provocative and I would be interested in seeing your answer to them. Being familiar with your work, where do you plan on going from here? Where do authors like Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey fit? I look forward to seeing you build on this.

  2. You do a nice job encapsulating Coleman’s important critical work understanding how race serves as a technology much as other systems, standards, and forms of classification derived from the Enlightenment and colonialism that collapse in the Battle of Algiers also promote visions of technoculture. You engage with how Coleman also sees some liberatory power in approaching race as technology and question how the problematic nature of “passing” might not be adequately interrogated in Coleman’s text. In your clear lucid prose I particularly like how you raise the importance of intersectional perspectives, particularly given how many might also view gender or sexuality as technologies.

  3. I read your summary of Beth Coleman’s article on “Race as Technology” with interest. By giving Coleman’s background up front, you helped establish her credibility as an expert on race as a construct and on women’s contributions to new media. Based on the title of her article, I wondered what comparing race to technology meant, and also how the comparison was to be done. How is race like a technology? I appreciated your explaining this meant to denature and reframe the way race is studied from the way it has been represented through history. I did wonder what “denature” meant. It also seemed an important point to suggest there is a danger in separating the meaning of race from its meaning according to history. What would be lost in doing so?  What would be gained? I admired your discussion about how to think of race as a medium going forward and the need for decoding among different groups.  It was inspiring to read that President Obama had found a third way beyond rootedness or escaping as suggested in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ quote from We Were Eight Years in Power.

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