Judith Butler, Race & Education
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018
Hardcover. x+ 208 p. ISBN 978-3319733647. £79
Reviewed by Margaret Sönser Breen
University of Connecticut
In reading Judith Butler, Race & Education, I have been struck by the timeliness of this nine-chapter overview of Butler’s work and its relevance to issues of race, particularly with regard to the field of education. At a time when nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment have spread across the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, Chadderton’s accessible discussion, which considers how pedagogical theory and practices could be enriched by a general understanding of key Butlerian concepts such as performativity, parody, and intelligibility as they regard race, proves a useful resource for practitioners, scholars, and students.
A number of studies in education have focused on Butler’s work on gender. Chadderton contributes to the field both by arguing for the application of that work (particularly from the 1990s and especially Gender Trouble) to understandings of race (race, too, is a performative) and by underscoring the sustained relevance of Butler’s explicit engagement with race (for example, not only “Endangered / Endangering” from 1993 but also Precarious Life from 2004). Chapter 3, “The Work of Judith Butler and the Study of Race,” is Chadderton’s most substantial chapter. Here, in brief but lucid prose, she reflects on how performativity, intelligibility, hegemonic norms, and (de)subjectivation prove important to the study of race. In so doing she lays the foundation for the more focused attention to Butlerian concepts in subsequent chapters, such as Chapter 5, “Making Whiteness and Acting White: The Performativity of Race and Race as a Performative,” and Chapter 6, “Aspirations and Intelligible Subjects.” Here and elsewhere in the book, Chadderton mixes her discussion of Butler’s ideas with excerpts from her own qualitative field research conducted in British schools, followed in turn by brief Butlerian-informed analyses of those recorded interactions and interviews. Whether reading the words of school staff or those of students, one comes away convinced in the need for intervention; educators in particular are in need of education. As Chadderton concludes in Chapter 5, “Notions of Butlerian performativity can potentially open up new spaces for considering the ways in which discourses with a racist subtext shape the subjectivities, perceptions, interaction and realities of students and teachers, without the analysis essentialising or fixing identity or culture.”
Chadderton concludes her study by taking up the question so central to Butler’s work in the post-9/11 age: Whose lives matter? The obvious answer—all—together with the less obvious one—even those whose lives are so often discounted and de-subjectified—in turn necessitates that researchers understand their own role in the production of race. Researchers, Chadderton underscores, need to “write about [race] differently.” They need to learn to disrupt “the “continual performative constitution of [whiteness] as hegemonic…by constituting it differently.” In so doing, we can recognize that race is an “unstable categor[y] open to change and resignification.”
Judith Butler, Race & Education is a general study. It does not offer nuanced or detailed analyses of Butler’s work, nor does it intend to do so. Nor (somewhat surprisingly) does it take up the critique leveled against Butler’s explorations of gender that seemingly ignore the interplay of race and gender. (One thinks, for example, of “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” in which Butler’s discussion of an imagined case of the significance of Aretha Franklin singing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” to a drag queen or to Butler herself fails to take race into account.) At times when reading the book, I wanted more: more sustained engagement with Butler; more intersectional analysis in the application of Butler; more critical, substantive response to the qualitative research; and, to use a Butlerian term, more authorial “troubling” of Chadderton’s own subject position when conducting her field research.
Still, such critique has its limits. This book is perhaps best understood as an invitation. It calls on administrators, teachers, students, and researchers alike to adopt a Butlerian lens in order to recognize and advocate for a more expansive understanding of viable subject positions, where such understanding includes the disruption of the construction of some students as unviable, because of their (perceived) racial, ethnic, or religious position or citizenship status. Chadderton’s argument is provocative and well worth pursuing. By attending to Butler’s ideas on performativity, intelligibility, and subject formation and applying them not only to the classroom but also to larger cultural and political settings (that is to say, life), we work to re-think race and, in so doing, to vitalize learning environments and educational opportunities for all.
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