(with Nils-Hennes Stear) Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?

Presented with Nils-Hennes Stear at the Race and Aesthetics Conference at the University of Leeds.

What is wrong with the practice of “blacking up” (“blackface”) or other comparable acts of imagining or fiction-making (AIFMs)? Setting aside extrinsic flaws such as bad causal effects, aestheticians have been concerned with whether such AIFMs can exhibit intrinsic ethical flaws. Many (e.g. A.W. Eaton, Berys Gaut, Noël Carroll, James Harold) have pointed to the pernicious attitudes such AIFMs invite participants to adopt. Recently, this view has been challenged; Brandon Cooke argues that only those AIFMs which invite participants to export these pernicious attitudes to the actual world—by making the fictional attitudes actual—exhibit any intrinsic ethical flaw.

In this paper, we carve a space between Eaton et al. and Cooke. We do not believe that any AIFM is morally objectionable merely on the basis of the attitudes it invites participants to adopt, no matter how pernicious those attitudes might be. However, we argue that certain AIFMs—even when they do not cause harm, and even if they do not prescribe “export” of the pernicious attitudes in question—still exhibit a lingering ethical flaw. We draw an analogy with J.L. Austin’s speech act theory to characterize this flaw as located not in the mere content of the imagining (the locution), or its causal upshot (the perlocution), but in the act that is constituted by the imagining itself (the illocution). Crucially, our claim is that the moral contours of the act are conditioned by the socio-political context in which the act is performed; while “blacking up” and similar AIFMs per se might be ethically neutral acts in genuine post-racial or non-racialized societies, they are ethically flawed in contexts of racial oppression. In particular, we argue that such AIFMs themselves constitute an instance of oppression because they express what Patricia Hill Collins calls “controlling images,” whose very existence serves to justify racist, sexist and other oppressive ideologies.

For a full draft, please email me at zhengr(at)umich.edu.

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