Monday, June 10, 2013

Contours of White Ethnicity – Roundtable Review


The Italian American Review featured this Spring a roundtable discussion of Contours of White Ethnicity: Making Usable Pasts in Greek America (Ohio University Press, 2009). The contributors were Donald Tricarico, Robert Viscusi, Phylis Cancilla Martinelli, and Yiorgos Anagnostou 

Here is excerpts of my reply to the reviews:

"It is particularly gratifying to participate in this discussion, an exchange that cuts across disciplinary specializations. If the principal aim of Contours is to open up new ways of thinking about ethnicity, this peer review enhances it, illuminating further angles of inquiry and expanding conceptual boundaries. Both generous and reflective, the reviews raise questions about aims, scope, methodology, rhetoric, and ideology in scholarship. I appreciate the recognition that Contours has the “potential to reignite the debate over white ethnics” as a timely call to examine the kind of cultural work that this category performs and reimagine “white ethnicity,” a collective project currently under way. 

In order to anchor the exchange let me retrace the book’s principal claims and identify the stakes of the book in the scholarship of ethnicity. This is to respond particularly to Robert Viscusi’s somewhat ambivalent reception. The work leaves him “both pleased and a little puzzled.” What does this book ask scholars to do? he asks. It seems to be “exhorting us to political action.” The metaphor of contours indeed aims to evoke, in his words, “the richness of the ethnic territories.” The purpose is to reclaim heterodox, noncanonical, silenced, and emergent cultural forms within white ethnicity, a field whose heterogeneous and invisible topographies the metaphor seeks to bring to the center of inquiry. 

Contours sets itself numerous tasks: It situates ethnicity vis-à-vis power relations, notably racialization, in order to subsequently recognize and interrogate narratives that reproduce racial hierarchies; it works at the borders of disciplines to trouble canonical paradigms; and it analyzes the poetics and politics of popular ethnographies by raising public consciousness about the political implications of identity narratives. Ultimately, it makes a plea for a particular critical practice: to interrogate ethnic whiteness (i.e., narratives reproducing racial hierarchies) and recover identity locations construed around reinvention and an ethic of inclusion. It is primarily in this capacity that it stakes a claim to the scholarship of white ethnicity, arguing for the analytical value of charting ethnicity from a multitude of vantage points.

In this respect, Contours undoubtedly represents ideologically driven scholarship, an attribute that Donald Tricarico sees as a liability. His caveat is that the ideological texturing of the book may compromise its “relevance to the scientific studies that it criticizes.” This claim draws a wedge between ideological and “nonideological” scholarship, to subsequently attach higher value to the latter. I have taken exception to the position of an ideology-free social science elsewhere, in a debate — tellingly — with the very practitioners of the scientific studies to which the reviewer points (Anagnostou 2009). The explicit recognition of the ideological dimensions of one’s works stands, in my view, as one of the most enduring legacies of the interpretive turn in the humanities and social sciences.
…"

The Italian American Review, Vol. 3(1): 52-61. 2013. 


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