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.