Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

On Schematic Racism and White Paranoia

Judith Butler alludes to Althusserian ideology through her reference to Frantz Fanon in this essay.  In so doing, Butler shows a literal propagation of Althusser’s well-known illustration of interpellation.[1]

Louis Althusser (famous for contribution to Marxist theory and infamous for uxoricide) employed the term interpellation to denote the mechanism by which subjects recognize their place in dominant ideology.  He employs this scenario: a police officer hails, “Hey, you there!” in the street; the hailed individual responds and becomes the subject of the hail. [2]  In the Fanon excerpt in Butler’s essay, he describes a “third-person consciousness” of himself as he responds to the hail, “Look, a Negro!”  Fanon tries to laugh, but cannot.  He acknowledges the schema in which he as a black male is bound (p. 207).

Althusser explains the reason for this phenomenon as follows:

Ideology has always-already interpellated individuals as subjects.  Individuals are always-already interpellated by ideology as subjects.  Individuals are always-already subjects.[3] 

LAPD officers “hailed” Rodney King the moment they spotted his car on the freeway.  His response (or lack of response) to the hail is circumscribed in the racist ideology.  His very presence during the police brutality transforms him into a danger to the law.  As Judith Butler writes, “a circuit is phantasmatically produced whereby King is the origin, the intention, and the object of the selfsame brutality” (p. 210).  White paranoia always-already interpellated the black man as a criminal.

Butler’s discussion of racial interpellation makes me think of a question often raised in my Diversity class.  Can people of color be racist?  Many would argue no—people of color are always bound by the hegemonic racial schema, thus any “racism” they exhibit is a shadow of the dominant discourse.  So how should we read the videos of Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez being beaten during the LA riots?  How should we read the videos of the Korean shopkeepers shooting at black crowds during the LA riots?  Are these circumstances projections of white paranoia?  I don’t know.  Perhaps this is what is most impenetrable about schematic racism—it prevents us from ever truly “reading.”


[1] Louis Althusser.  Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation (1970).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading Sara Ahmed’s “Strange Encounters,” in which she specifically draws on Althusser’s model of interpellation to examine the ways in which strangers are produced through encounters that are always-already structured by historically determined inequalities. Ahmed’s desire to refocus the discussion on encounters through which bodies are produced as other, rather than on the bodies themselves, is interesting, and I’m hoping to get the chance to raise this distinction in conversations with or surrounding the Most Honorable Butler.

    As for the question of whether people of color can be racist, I think you’re assuming a rather narrow horizon for your discussion. You’re giving horrible white Europeans a little too much credit if you try to read racism against Uyghurs or other minorities in China as a consequence of European hegemonic racial schema. Sadly, there’s room in the world for more than one origin or model of racism, more than one rich tradition of xenophobia and hate. In the age of global capital, however, we’re beginning to see new intersections of these traditions.

  2. I will have to look into Ahmed’s book!

    I should have been clearer– the question “Can people of color be racist?” was always delimited to the United States when raised in my Diversity class (though it is relevant in other countries). Certainly there exists great ethnic strife and civil war in many parts of the world not attributed to white paranoia.