Whiteness, Property, and Alien Difference

Vacationing with a one year doesn’t give you much time for reading but there is still a little. I read a few pages of Alys Eve Weinbaum’s Wayward Reproductions and more in Adulthood Rites, the 2nd novel in Octavia Butler sci-fi trilogy, Lilith’s Brood.

In Wayward Reproduction, Weinbaum argues that whiteness functions as property. Whiteness she says, quoting Cheryl Harris, “shares the critical characteristics of property…the right to exclude.” Whiteness, “a concept initially used to differentiate the citizen from the slave, became the basis of racial citizenship, such that ownership of personal whiteness enabled one to claim membership in the white nation…as blacks entered the national population as citizens, property instead came to reside in the body in the form of whiteness” (20-21).

In Adulthood Rites, Lilith, one of the main characters, explains to her partially human and partially alien son, Akin, the difference between Humans and Oankali.

Human beings fear difference…Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies in your own behavior…When there is a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.

This call to embrace difference is well worth heeding, especially when difference is taken out of a kind of neutralized “multi-cultural” difference and entails embracing a deeper miscegenation of the national, cultural, racial, social body. The difference Lilith wants Akin to embrace is the difference of alien life forms that cannot be assimilated or subjugated to “the Human.” Lilith, a human, asks Akin to embrace one aspect of his “wayward reproduction,” his becoming un-human.

To switch to the political register–with Weinbaum in mind–Butler is not interested in extending the property of whiteness/citizenship to others (multiculturalism) but in prioritizing and cultivating difference at the cost of property, that is, when it costs us our power to exclude. The political ramifications of these insights at a time when the U.S. is struggling over issues of immigration, remembering 9/11, fearing Muslim law, fighting terror, and letting darker skinned folks bear the brunt of an economic crisis are profound. What does it mean when our politics opt to pursue differentiation–to embrace having been constituted as partially alien?

I should note the passive voice is essential here, as this book is not Avatar, and Weinbaum is pushing us to give up our ability to control when, where, why and with whom we will mix. The question, then, is, how can we shift our imaginations so that the desire for property–the right to exclude–is subordinated to the desire for an encounter with another, with the alien?

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