Taxonomical Metaphors and the Language of Race in Canada

  • Wayde Compton (Author)
    After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region. Arsenal Pulp Press
Reviewed by Lily Cho

Neologisms are freighted with risk. Given the potential misunderstandings and slippages attendant upon the use of a received linguistic term—consider: race, difference, origins—the risks of developing ideas out of new terms—consider: phenetics, cladisticizing, halfrican—seem even more palpable. In After Canaan, Wayde Compton embraces these risks. The opening chapter of the book, Pheneticizing vs. Passing, maps out many of the key themes of this book.

Dissatisfied with a language of racial passing that implies deception on the part of the individual being viewed, Compton seeks instead to inject the verb pheneticize and the noun phenetics into the existing vocabulary for race and identification. Drawing from biological taxonomy, Compton revives the notion of phenetic classification. Long since replaced by cladistics which classifies organisms based on ancestry, phenetic classification relies upon visible characteristics as the basis for classification. Foreseeing the potential for confusion, he offers a very short glossary of racial transgression that clarifies his use of this terminology. Some of the terms glossed: cladisticizing: Racially perceiving someone by inquiring into his or her family history; and pheneticizing: Racially perceiving someone based on a subjective examination of his outward appearance. Arguing that phenetics allows for a more precise description for the ways in which mixed race people can be confused for members of racial and ethnic groups to which they have no affiliation, Compton applies the concept of phenetics to four case studies.

Compton follows the racially mixed histories of four people: Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, Rhonda Larrabee, Fred Wah, and Anthony Ekundayo Lennon. In each of these cases, Compton shows how they have been pheneticized, and how some of them chose to pass (which, according to Compton’s glossary, means that they deliberately mispresented their racial origins) at different moments in their history for specific ends.

While Compton’s differentiation between active and passive forms of racial perception is crucial, I have two concerns with the concept of phenetics. First, his case for new language rests upon a claim that passing is the only term available to describe the instances of mixed race people being misrecognized as members of racial or ethnic groups to which they do not identify. Opening the book with the story of Shane Book, a brown man who is alternately mistaken for an Indigenous person, a Peruvian, Hispanic, Samoan, Mexican, or an Arabic person, Compton suggests that the English language has only one word to specifically describe the phenomenon Book experiences—we call it passing. Compton is absolutely right to note that the language of passing suggests an active intent to deceive even though many mixed race people have these alternate racial identities foisted upon them. There is a crucial difference between an active intent to be perceived as belonging to a particular race, and being arbitrarily subjected to membership in a group because of the idiosyncratic, and often racist, presumptions of a particular viewer. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if one might also describe Book’s experience as one in which he was mistaken, or misrecognized as, and not just passed for Indian, Peruvian, Hispanic, Samoan, Mexican, or Arab, as Compton claims. While mistakes and acts of misrecognition are not specific to race, I’m not sure that passing is the only way to describe Book’s experience.

Second, I worry that borrowing these classificatory metaphors from taxonomy reifies and valorizes cladistics as a way to talk about racial mixture. The case studies that Compton shares do not simply follow the story of the ways in which their subjects were pheneticized, they also outline the racial identities in their family histories. In that sense, Compton engages in cladistic narratives even as he shows how the people in these case studies have been pheneticized. In a footnote to his terminology, Compton situates phenetics as a natural antonym for cladistics which he repurpose[s] to mean reference to actual ancestry rather than an account of visual cues. This emphasis upon ancestry potentially reinscribes blood and origins as a basis of racial classification. While Compton makes clear that he does not subscribe to the idea of race as a science, the language of these metaphors opens up the possibility of re-entrenching some of the pseudo-science of racist classification. As the history of the one-drop rule, a history that Compton recognizes as intimately tied to the emergence of the very language of passing, attests, focusing on blood and origins can be deeply problematic.

However, as the essays in this book reveal, Compton is alive to the risks and dangers of his ideas. In the final chapter of the book, Post-race, he tracks the usage of the term halfrican. Compton astutely follows the ways in which a term he used in a semi-autobiographical poem, Declaration of the Halfrican Nation, had become part of a strange trail of blogger rants and flame wars where commentators debated the validity and relative offensiveness of the term with reference to Barack Obama. The term had entered mainstream media and had been used by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh. In his discussion of the multiple ways in which this term has been invoked, Compton usefully reveals the ways in which a term that he coined when he was twenty-four and aiming for satire and irony could be twisted out of its context.

Bookended by two chapters that point to the problem of finding an adequate language for mixed race subjectivity, After Canaan also offers an extensive and illuminating engagement with the history, geographical and linguistic, of black Canada. In chapters that range in content from a re-mapping of Hogan’s Alley, to contemplations on Fred Booker, Alexis Mazurin, Isaac Dickson, and Mifflin Gibbs, to a discussion of turntables and poetry, Compton’s book offers a series of powerful and vibrant insights into race and writing in Western Canada.

This review “Taxonomical Metaphors and the Language of Race in Canada” originally appeared in New Work on Early Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 213 (Summer 2012): 164-166.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.