Critical Race Theory and the Limits of Auto/biography: Reading Patricia Williams's the Alchemy of Race and Rights Through/against Postcolonial Theory

By Schur, Richard | Biography, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Critical Race Theory and the Limits of Auto/biography: Reading Patricia Williams's the Alchemy of Race and Rights Through/against Postcolonial Theory


Schur, Richard, Biography


My words are my only valuables.

Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights

Critical race theory has differentiated itself from traditional legal criticism in part by insisting on the importance of auto/biography in shaping legal doctrine and practice.(1) Many critical race theorists have deployed biography and autobiography as literary devices in their criticism to demonstrate the relationship between form and content in legal thinking. (2) Drawing on the work of critical legal studies, critical race theory has demonstrated that who makes a legal decision shapes legal doctrine and its application. (3) As Girardeau Spann argues, the racism of law is structural, not conspiratorial. While legal decision makers may not consciously endorse white supremacy, legal discourse itself masks how biography shapes their acts of judgment and their application of legal ideals. Critical race theorists have relied on auto/biography to make visible the missing racial subjectivities that structure legal discourse. Disciples of a "neutral" and color-blind practice of law see such auto/biographical pract ices as a corruption of legal discourse (see Farber and Sherry). This desire to banish the auto/biographical from law and legal criticism is an attempt to distance the law from the very social relations it mediates. Objections to auto/biography in legal writing often mask an unwillingness to examine how the very structure of the law abets racial and gender hierarchies within mainstream United States culture.

As a key critical race theorist, Patricia Williams has frequently explored how auto/biography shapes her position within legal discourse. The Alchemy of Race and Rights, her first book, performs a critique of legal subjectivity by first creating and then deconstructing a series of auto/biographical moments. (4) By combining and blending autobiography with legal criticism, Williams seeks to blur this border between law and social relations. Through her performance of auto/biography, Williams explores how both literary knowledge--in the sense of autobiography as a literary genre--and legal knowledge are produced to make possible a postcolonial mimicry of these dominant discourses. For Williams and other critical race theorists, this form of interrogation is the continuing legacy of the Civil Rights movements. (5) Her textual innovations seek to reinvigorate the social and cultural reconstruction which, begun during the 1950s and 1960s, has suffered during the period of retrenchment commonly known as the Reagan /Bush years. (6)

Most scholars and critics know Patricia Williams as a critical race theorist who examines how law unconsciously reflects and creates racial difference. (7) Through a close reading of The Alchemy of Race and Rights, I hope to place this work on the small but expanding list of experimental autobiographies by women of color engaging in cultural criticism. More specifically, I will show how her use of auto/biography within her legal criticism also links her to postcolonial theory, particularly to the work of Gayatri Spivak. By illustrating the homologies, affinities, and similarities between Williams's work and postcolonial theory, I hope to provide a new framework in which to understand critical race theory. (8) Though both critical race theory and postcolonial theory explore shared problems--how Eurocentric, liberal legal models of political and social theory have only offered partial liberation to formerly colonized and legally disadvantaged peoples--few theorists in either group have recognized the connection . (9) Using the postcolonial concepts of the subaltern and catachresis, I will read Williams and critical race theory through/against postcolonial theory and show how now the continued fight for civil rights requires a reinvigoration and a reradicalization of life writing. (10)

THE (POSTCOLONIAL?) LEGAL SUBJECT

To compose herself as competent to testify in matters of law, Williams must negotiate the founding tropes, figures, and metaphors of legal discourse. …

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