Today's episode: W.E.B. Du Bois on "The Conservation of Races"
Context in which I teach this figure/text: I usually teach "The Conservation of Races" in my Philosophy of Race course, somewhere around the fourth or fifth week of class. Since the first half of that course is structured historically--beginning with François Bernier and working up to the 20th C. Nègritude movement and Frantz Fanon-- Du Bois' essay ends up immediately following Alain Locke and Ashley Montagu. To wit, students are fully primed to be not only skeptical about the value of the concept of race, but also inclined to do away with it altogether. The Montagu/Du Bois sequence allows me to introduce the "eliminativist"/"conservationist" distinction vis-á-vis race theory. I follow Du Bois' "The Conservation of Races" with Anthony Appiah's "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race" in order to further complicate the conservationist position and also to demonstrate-by-example for students how a close, critical, philosophical "reading" is done.
In sum, this is HIWG:
First: Some students will insist on pronouncing Du Bois' name in the French-y way as "doo-BWHAA" despite the fact they have only ever heard me pronounce it "doo-BOYSS" (as Du Bois himself confirmed is the correct pronunciation of his name). I will try very hard to overlook this faux pas, which is really not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, I suppose, but then I will remind myself that I am teaching a Philosophy of Race course and if any of my students leave my classroom pronouncing Du Bois' name incorrectly, then I could legitimately be held liable for that offense. I might as well bring the hammer down on that ish while I still have a chance. Which I will do, repeatedly and without remorse, in the first class.
Second: Students will immediately latch onto Du Bois' oblique reference to "double consciousness," not fully articulated in this essay but which is nevertheless succinctly characterized in his questions posed near the beginning: "Am I American or am I a Negro? Can I be both?" Inevitably, White students will (correctly) recognize the fundamentally existentialist nature of Du Bois' insight, but in their enthusiasm to appropriate it will dilute and grossly misunderstand Du Bois' race-specific point. This will cause an argument in which I will try to delicately intervene, but only sparingly, because sometimes you really just need to let them fight it out..
Third: Students will, for the most part, unreflectively endorse Du Bois' re-definition of "race" (with the rare exception of those already committed to an eliminitivist position) and subsequently argue for its conservation. The reasons for their default acquiescence to Du Bois will fall into one or more of the following categories:
- It's basically the best attempt at defining "race" they've read so far. Nobody in the class was willing to endorse the definitions of "race" offered up by Bernier, Hegel, Kant, Gobineau or Galton. Those who might have been willing to endorse Locke's definition are still wary of (or confused by) a term like "culture-type." Herder and Montagu are of no help for the conservationist's position. So, okay whatevs, Du Bois wins by default.
- Du Bois' definition involves too many reasonable parts to reject whole cloth. This is basically the race-defining position of those students who are like "order whatever pizza you want, I'll just pick off what I don't like when it gets here." These are, coincidentally, the very same students who will suddenly grow a backbone and find a voice in the next class when we read Appiah.
- Du Bois is a major African-American figure, it's Black History Month, so I'm just going to punt. In my experience, this accounts for most of students' agreement, both white students and students of color. At least in the Spring term, when I most frequently teach this course, Du Bois comes up during Black History Month, an entirely accidental fact that nevertheless explains much of students' responses to his work, I think.
Fifth: Today, while discussing Du Bois' "The Conservation of Races," will be the day that students "peg" each other. I used to denote this day in class, to myself and no one else, as the WUAU Day ("With Us or Against Us"). We're five weeks into the course now, so students have had ample time to explicitly (or, more often, inadvertently) articulate both their considered views and their unreflective assumptions. At this point, everyone in the room more or less has a bead on everyone else in the room. This is where things start getting interesting.
And so it goes.