Rei Terada’s concept metaracial emerges from her 2023 book, Metaracial: Hegel, Antiblackness, and Political Identity, the result of a sustained engagement with Hegel’s enduring influence on how we think about race — or rather, how race structures our thinking. In this respect, Terada’s work can be placed closely alongside Denise Ferreira da Silva’s, particularly the latter’s book Toward a Global Idea of Race (2007). An important contribution to the catalogue of critical race studies and black studies, Metaracial helps clarify the racial trajectories inhibiting the radical imagination, and the violent promise of collectivity when it is met with antiblackness.
While metaracial posits the racial, rather than racism, as its primary object of concern, Terada finds the distinction between the two terms ‘difficult to maintain’ (2023, 4). If only because, engaged by both liberal and radical thinking, both terms—the racial and racism—position race as extraneous to a Subject encompassed by a fully modern political grammar. By identifying where and how the borders between racialism (meaning any positive use of race) and racism ‘break down,’ Terada is able to identify instances of what she calls metaracial logic. This zone of non-distinction takes us her central claim: that political identity hosts an irreconcilable ‘overlap between antiracism and antiblackness in and through its preparation for collectivity’ (20). This overlap does not reflect the social and political work these respective camps seek to accomplish, but rather the fact that, at a metaphysical level, they are mediated by ‘blackness as an excess of political identity’ (16). Blackness here does not stand in for an identity category as such, but rather constitutes an incommensurability—exemplified by the rac(ial)ist’s slippage—that cannot be sustained by or incorporated into any referent, racial or otherwise. Much like afropessimism, a school of thought that takes up the incapacity and fungibility of the Atlantic slave as an ongoing condition that is structured by anti-blackness, metaracial calls attention to blackness as a problem for thought that demands the reorientation of existing critical strategies for racial subjugation.
There are two key and interrelated formulations of metaracial logic in liberal and radical enlightenment thinking. The first is where the antiracist ‘no longer attributes a racial trait, but attributes “racialism” in place of a racial trait’ (10). Racial subjugation is explained as the result of a ‘feedback loop’ with racialism, and consequently, we can see radicals enacting ‘the substitution of [racialist] stance for identity and its transposition of racial hierarchy’ (18). Politically exemplary identity is not at fault here to the extent that ‘reality [is] relational’ and, therefore, ‘nonracial’ (3). Metaracial logic, then, typifies a demand that antiracism act upon racism as ‘someone’s inadequately historico-political grasp,’ rather than the question of political identity informing both subject positions. As long as the political remains relational and open, it holds out the hope of delimiting race and racism’s ideological potential for violence, which is to say it does the work of rendering the racial non-political, irrelevant. This demand is not strictly ‘postracial’: race is given discursive credence, it needs only to be positioned outside political identity; and nor is it scientific, for it does not require a biological account of race or ethnicity. Rather, following Hegel, the metaracial(ist) sees essentialization as an obstruction to a reality in which political identity can be claimed by and for all. Or, as Terada puts it, ‘for anyone and no one’ (177).
Hegel is the central figure here because negativity—freedom attained through self-negation, the refusal to be determined by what one is—paves the way toward open relation. For this reason, there is a certain cross-pollination between contemporary anti-identitarian politics and what Terada calls Hegel’s ‘racism for radicals’ (2019). Relational theories of reality, while not explicitly recognizable as racial(ist), are what Terada is trying to capture here, if only because ‘what’s at stake in “coexistence” and “relation” is as much access as communicability and reciprocity’ (2023, 102). Another instance of this in the contemporary moment might be political inclusivity, which is founded on ‘the participation in principle of a certain slave,’ the politically exemplary one, all the while ‘splitting off’ another (non-political) slave condemned to primitivism (7). Relationality, we might say, insofar as it facilitates this moment of sublation, can surely be as violent as any politics founded on self-interested sovereignty. Much of the conceptual work metaracial performs, then, does not so much broaden the descriptive capture of race, but rather explains why a shift in vocabulary from racism to antiblackness is necessary. While racism remains conceptually constrained by the negativity of radicals—the hopes of its expungement from a relational political sphere—anti-blackness allows us to pose questions of how and why slavery survives and continues to structure the negative moment of emancipation. And, by extension, we can ‘expand the methodology of the study of race beyond attention to instances that already assume that the reader can recognize what counts as race and racism (and therefore what counts as a reference to it), or attention that limits itself to what a period text thinks race is’ (2017, 268).
In this respect, metaracial is a fitting descriptor for antiracism’s self-referential capacity to host ‘a formation of antiracism around antiblackness, that can’t be discussed if it is defined out of existence’ (11). For any attempt to make blackness commensurable with a relational political imaginary, whether part of a multicultural coalition or a non-racial collective, only ‘debilitates critical purchase on slavery’ and splits ‘good from bad’ actor (11). Terada argues that an antiracist expression such as complicity, for example, ‘as a signature of collectivity […] serves more to separate the radical self from the racialist errors of others than to turn it toward the implications of slavery’ (47). Attention to these implications takes the problem of incorporating post-slavery subjects into the realm of political identity and flips it on its head: for Terada, it is ‘the borders of slavery [that] call the grounds of homo politicus into play,’ not the other way around (187). Unmitigated relation, precipitated by if not modeled on Hegel’s idea of history, renders ‘any other principle and practice impossible, including future ones’ (36). For liberal and radical abolitionists, these limitations are as much conceptual as they are imaginary.
Rei Terada. Metaracial: Hegel, Antiblackness, and Political Identity. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2023.
___. ‘Hegel’s Racism for Radicals.’ Radical Philosophy 2, no. 5 (2019): 11– 22.
___. ‘The Racial Grammar of Kantian Time.’ European Romantic Review 28, no. 3 (2017): 267– 278.