Interracial sexualities: images, imaginaries, legacies

Dominic Thomas, professeur en littérature comparée, directeur du département d’études françaises et francophones à l’Université de Californie à Los Angeles (UCLA), nous présente le colloque Interracial sexualities: images, imaginaries, legacies qui se tiendra à Los Angeles (États-Unis) le 16 mai 2019. Plusieurs intervenants et spécialistes échangeront sur les questions d’inégalité liées au sexe, au genre et à la race afin de produire une réflexion sur les approches que sont l’interdisciplinarité, l’intersectionnalité et l’intermédialité. Ce texte présente les principales thématiques de cette rencontre initiée par la publication de l’ouvrage Sexe, race & colonies. La domination des corps du XVe siècle à nos jours (La Découverte, 2018) dont Dominic Thomas est l’un des co-directeurs, dans la perspective de l’édition de l’ouvrage aux États-Unis début 2020.

The international conference “Interracial sexualities: images, imaginaries, legacies” will be held at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on May 16, 2019, sponsored by the Department of French and Francophone Studies and the Center for the Study of Global France, a Network of the French Embassy Centers of Excellence. Participants will include Nicolas Bancel (University of Lausanne and Achac Research Group), Pascal Blanchard (LCP CNRS and Achac Research Group), Julin Everett (Professor, Ursinius College), Alain Mabanckou (Professor, UCLA), Laure Murat (Professor, UCLA), Rebecca Peabody (Head of Research Projects & Programs at the Getty Research Institute), SA Smythe (Professor, UCLA), Jean-François Staszak (Professor, University of Geneva), and Dominic Thomas (Professor & Chair of French and Francophone Studies, UCLA).

The focus of the conference will be provided by questions of “interdisciplinarity” and “intersectionality”, terms that have a very special significance given that Kimberlé W. Crenshaw is Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA. Indeed, the writings of Angela Davis (Women, Race and Class, 1982) and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (on “intersectionality” in the late 1980s and early 1990s) proved influential in emphasizing how gender, race, sex, and sexuality were incontrovertible elements in discussing the cultural, social, and political status of Black women in (American) society. Participants will explore the ways in which a range of disciplines and fields – history, geography, gender, postcolonial studies, race studies, LGTBQ studies, diaspora studies, political science – have engaged with questions of race and sexuality. In the complex history of slavery, colonization, imperialism, post-colonialism, and immigration, sexuality stands as the core issue, defining power relations and modes of domination. Through the study of images and objects produced by artists or in the domain of popular culture, our goal is to consider this long history of colonial and post-colonial “encounters” and relationships of domination around the world, and how, often, the most compelling forms of this domination were structured according to race and sexuality.

The critical apparatus associated with these fields has made it possible for us to address a broad range of critical issues: how do we begin to look at these images, examine them, contextualize and analyze them? The massive visual production that accompanied colonial expansion reveals the omnipresence the bodies, of sexuality, of desire and, ultimately, of the central role that eroticism/pornography played in colonial and postcolonial relationships. The conference will allow us to shed light on present day issues by identifying the historical foundations of a whole set of stereotypes that have contributed to the process of shaping discriminating behaviors. These will include consideration of the main images produced by the major colonial empires – French, British, Japanese, Ottoman, German, Belgian, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese empires – and by the other imperialist powers – such as the United States, South Africa and Australia.

In the United States, and more generally-speaking in the Anglo-Saxon world, institutions began, often as early as the 1960s, to establish departments and programs concentrating on the “ethnic realities” of the country: African American Studies, Latina/o Studies, Hispanic Studies, Chicana/o Studies, Asian American Studies, and Native American Studies. These measures can only be interpreted as concerted attempts to address the historical inequalities that were the logical outcome of uneven power relations pertaining to sex, gender, and of course race. Discussing these and related questions in French universities, especially given the “universalist “, color-blind, and “indivisible” nature of the constitution has proven incredibly challenging, to such a degree that the word “race” was struck from the French constitution in 2018.

Likewise, programs in gender studies, race studies, cultural studies, ethnicity studies, postcolonial studies, women’s studies, LGBTQ studies, and so on – have provided a space in which to discuss these issues while simultaneously providing a space for under-represented populations who may share a common experience of discrimination. As Achille Mbembe once argued, “The perverse effect of this indifference to differences is thus a relative indifference to discrimination" (Sortir de la grande nuit. Essai sur l’Afrique décolonisée, Ed. La Découverte, 2010, p. 136). These have played an important role in “decolonizing” the university and academic programs. This has not always been an easy disciplinary exercise, but progress has been made and there is an awareness of the importance of diversity in institutions.

Theorists, such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Paul Gilroy, among others, have played important roles in this regard; although in some instances have taken a very long time to be translated into French. To this day, “postcolonial studies” continues to be denigrated in France, a situation that is of paradoxical given that “French” and “francophone” thinkers have, and continue to play significant roles in shaping the theoretical and critical apparatus that can help us interpret twenty-first century existence: Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire, Valentin Y. Mudimbe, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, but also more recently Elsa Dorlin, Achille Mbembe, Felwine Sarr, Françoise Vergès, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and Nadia Yala Kisukidi. And it is also worth noting that, over the years, American universities have opened their doors to a range of “francophone” writers, most notably Assia Djebar, Maryse Condé, Édouard Glissant, Alain Mabanckou, Abdourahman Waberi, and Fabienne Kanor. This “presence” has contributed to a transformation of the academic landscape, to rethinking and reversing asymmetries, while also challenging existing power structures.

The postcolonial context – characterized by immigration and globalization – will feature prominently in our discussions, underscoring the process of gradual liberation and the emergence of new, often unanticipated asymmetrical relationships between individuals and groups. Nowadays, conversations about globalization, immigration, and miscegenation owe much to this history, although it is often absent, as confirmed by the absence of contextualization. The concern with a return to the past in order to better understand the challenges of the twenty-first century are a key component of this conference, and this historical connection provides the basis for an improved understanding of the current relationships between women and men, between dominant and dominated groups, and among populations embracing distinct cultures within multicultural societies. This cultural history of sexual domination has to be further explored; it helps us to better understand racialized and sexualized discourse in our contemporary societies. Furthermore, this history also improves our capacity to identify what are the legacies of this past, how practices elaborated centuries ago continue to shape relations between immigrants and host nations, sexual identity and practices in developing countries, new forms of sexuality and expression, as well as questions of equality and parity in globalized societies.

The book, Sexe, race & colonies, provides the contextual framework for the conference. Published in France in 2018, the book is a visual history of global domination, covering all regions of the world. The aim has been to try and show how sexuality is an omnipresent facet of colonial and postcolonial relations, to be found at the heart of encounters, exchanges, and power dynamics, including in attitudes to the body and in desire. These relations and representations of sex and race have been constituent parts of a prevailing imaginary, a visual culture that in turn has produced and reconfigured sexualities, while of course yielding asymmetries in interpersonal relationships between the dominant and the dominated.