Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

9 04 2010

So, I’m totally that guy. The guy who left an introductory core course for his major till the spring quarter of his senior year. It may be that the gods will have mercy and I’ll be fast-tracked out, but until that time, I figure I would post the interesting part of the course- weekly journal entries about race- for your enjoyment. Since their brief and uncomplicated, I’m sure they’ll prompt all kinds of thoughtful discussion. Here goes:

Thursday, April 9th

I was sitting in my friend’s room last night when I noticed the recent issue of Stanford Magazine sitting on her floor next to her roommate’s bed. On the cover was a (n admittedly adorable) small Chinese child, beneath the heading “Our Greatest Export: Knowledge and How it can make a Difference.” I cringed, as I always do when imperialism is veiled by the rhetoric of humanitarianism. I glanced over the article and it was more of the same- presumptuous efforts of humanitarianism, valiantly conquering the desperation of the developing third world, clad in the white face of postmodern globalizing hypercapital. Now, did the article talk about any of these seemingly histrionic descriptors? Of course not- no one wants to read that (…). Instead, it lightly glided over the economic needs of rural China and how “advanced Western technologies” can help overcome poverty. The details were more elaborate, but the basic assumptions were the same- the west has all the answers to cure the ills of the foreign destitute.

So, what does this have to do with race? Well, in the world of race as performed action- or race as praxis rather than biology (a la Hazel Markus and Paula Moya)- whiteness loves to perform itself by not naming itself. The seeming absence of race in an article like this or, rather, the lopsided discussion of race, the (unnamed white) “us” and the (named Chinese) “other,” is itself a study in imperialism. As Richard Dyer so aptly pointed out, whiteness rarely speaks its own name and in so doing maintains its position as racially normative. By locating the identification of others as racialized without identifying one’s own racial (or political, or economic) position, the white western body is made and kept central, and by default all other bodies are made marginal. In the so-called “post-racial” social and political sphere of the Americas, the absolute seamlessness with which whiteness  is able to keep its silence should be an indicator that we live in no such era, especially when quality of life metrics (themselves problematically rooted in western notions of “quality”) are all disproportionately skewed based on race.

That’s the redux version of why humanitarianism is often an imperial project. Where we move from, our position and all of its accompanying paradigms, especially the unconscious ones, are vitally more important than how we rationalize our movements as good or bad or necessary. The fact that so many members of the first-world ruling class immediately reject this kind of an analysis based on the “urgent needs” that must be met is further evidence of the amazing attachment to racially informed paradigms of progress and development, and the inability to distance oneself from our sense of what’s “normal” or “just,” which are all socially and often racially conditioned. I argue that this is based on the precedent of white denial, the function that allows whiteness to access unheard of privilege without any real culpability or account for the structures that marginalize and oppress in order to maintain such privilege.

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