Saturday, March 20, 2010

On the Question of "Race"

I was planning to take a couple of days off from writing during Spring Break, when a discussion in the Modern Greek Studies Association list-serve (see under the thread “2010 Census”) landed me firmly back to my chair. The exchange developed along two directions: a) The politics of racial and ethnic identity in the U.S. census; and b) the racialization of Greek Americans. Below is my contribution to the latter.

Writing about the early 1900s classification of southeastern European immigrants as "inbetween peoples," historian David Roediger insists on the messiness (his word) of the racial landscape at the time. Roediger emphasizes the need to take into account the vast complexity of the ways in which racial identities were experienced and spoken about, throwing the gauntlet to the academics: "Scholars are no friends of such messiness," he writes.

Similarly, one of the most sophisticated anthropologists currently writing about the construction of white racial identities, John Hartigan Jr., calls scholars of whiteness to move beyond neat models and convenient generalizations to probe instead the ways in which identities are racialized contextually; to pay attention to their fluidity, ambivalence, and situational politics without losing sight of larger social discourses; to examine how cultural factors and regions (even neighborhoods) shape the way we talk and experience race.

Finely tuned ethnography appears to be one of the best tools we have at our disposal to chart this complexity.

I cannot frankly see how we can have a meaningful discussion on the racialization of Greek Americans without taking into account the racialization of European immigrants and their descendants in the U.S.; without, that is, examining the history of the politics of ethnicity and race in American society. And we cannot advance this discussion without knowledge of the latest developments in whiteness studies.

Risking oversimplification, but for the sake of establishing an explicit framework, here is the premises guiding my engagement with the question of "race":

1) I side with the constructivists who view race as a social construction, to only add what is commonly accepted these days: although races are social constructions, they may carry real-and sometimes devastating-effects on individual lives and groups (think of Jim Crow, the Chinese exclusion act, affirmative action, etc). To further complicate things, many individuals experience their identities as real. 

2) We live in a racially hierarchical society where approximations to a racial and cultural national ideal carry a number of privileges (lack of discrimination, high potential to marry within the dominant group, inclusion into "true" national belonging, etc).

3) We need to make a firm distinction between dominant racial categories (the ethnoracial order) and the ways in which individuals negotiate their place in that order. In other words we can speak of racial location as a) a widely shared social fact/construction (identities for example are racially ascribed in the U.S., the offspring of a WASP and an African American is most likely to be classified as "black") and b) a subjective experience of identity. 

In the situation where individuals challenge official racial categories is useful to remember that personal identity can be profoundly political. How individuals view their identities vis-a-vis their assignment into dominant racial classifications varies, of course, requiring ethnographic research to untangle this question in all its complexity. Conversely, how and why the dominant society assigns an ethnoracial location to a specific group may vary along a number of variables, needing careful contextualization. There are too many examples in American history about the whitening of the immigrant working class to convince me that class does not necessarily determine racial status, though class may factor-in in ethnoracial assignments, including the prospect of being included in whiteness (see Fairchild).

4) White ethnics (including Greek Americans) have been elevated as the poster ethnics of multiculturalism by conservative commentators and academics (among others); their narrative of bootstrap mobility (what Sylvia R. Lazos calls "the white ethnic immigrant narrative"), in particular, is utilized for all sorts of explicit and implicit undermining of racial minorities, particularly African Americans (think of who is prefacing William Spanos's story of becoming a multimillionaire; think of constructions of "good immigrant families" vs. "pathological black families"). 

I have an interest in whiteness because it represents an ideology (re)producing racial hierarchies. As such I maintain that it must be relentlessly critiqued; hence I insist on the analytical utility of examining racialization. 

I am not interested on framing the question as "who is" or "who is not–white," a question that invariably leads to reductive positions, dangerous biologisms, etc. I prefer to examine how whiteness is constructed, who does the defining, why, and for what purpose (though the privileges associated with appearing white is an important issue). It is of outmost importance to me to examine how individuals or groups reproduce or challenge whiteness. And I am also vested in the question of what kind of cultural and political work do claims to a white status or disavowal from it accomplish.

In this context it is worth keeping in mind that whiteness is continuously morphing into something else; it is modified in response to political and social developments, even through a language that lacks explicit references to race (hence its particular power). 

Matthew Frye Jacobson identifies, for instance, cases where disavowals of a white identity among European ethnics in the U.S. ("I am not a white," "I am an ethnic") may be far from innocent. When ethnics who are perceived as white by the wider population disassociate themselves from their white racial location they implicitly deny the privileges associated with this racial classification. In this manner, they render all these structures that perpetuate the (hierarchical) racial order invisible with all the political implications that this position implies.

Color-blindness is a lauded ideal, but the difficult question is how to bring about racial justice in a society already structured around racial hierarchies.

1 comment:

  1. I thought of you, Yiorgo, when reading about this new book. Would be curious to hear what you thought and whether you'd recommend it: