Ghosts of Essentialism: Racial Memory as Epistemological Claim
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Duke University Press
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Su calls for a reexamination of essentialism in light of a resurging interest in identity and identity politics. Since the mid-1990s, poststructuralist dismissals of identity as “pernicious and metaphysically inaccurate” have increasingly been challenged by feminist philosophers and cultural critics, race theorists, and, most recently, “postpositivist realists.” Yet academic scholarship continues to read essentialism in ontological terms, as Walter Benn Michaels does. Ontological readings focus attention on the ways in which essentialism involves positing a presocial being who is defined by an essence that predetermines an individual's identity in racial terms. Su proposes to shift the way essentialism is analyzed, to consider it in epistemological rather than ontological terms. This would involve focusing on the extent to which racial memory in these texts enables, prohibits, or otherwise transforms cultural knowledge. Through a close analysis of works by Frank Chin and N. Scott Momaday, Su argues that essentialism does not necessarily imply the existence of static identities or common experiences that define a people; rather, it implies the possibility for certain personal experiences to yield reliable knowledge about broader social patterns of exploitation.