“White Ethnicity” in Language and Culture Programs
Like any scholar, I write from a specific institutional place, in this case a Modern Greek program that was launched, I should add, through seed money from the local Greek American community. From this position I wish to raise a set of issues associated with the writing and teaching of ethnicity. This resonates, I believe, with cultural and language program offering ethnic-specific courses (Irish-, Polish-, Jewish-, Italian-, Russophone Americans); such units historically represent educational centers committed, in principle, to their respective U.S. ethnicities and diaspora research. These are also places that directly interface with diverse publics – “ethnic communities”, cultural gatekeepers, and heritage societies – beyond the academy.
The intersection of whiteness with ethnic studies is bound to create an uneasy if not antagonistic relationship between such Programs, ethnic leaders, and heritage students. Whiteness deconstructs ethnicity at a time when students disavow whiteness (for its association with privilege and past wrongdoings), and may turn to “ethnic courses” for empowerment. Ethnic history and heritage is seen as a public good of positive affirmation not self-condemnation. Introducing race into the analysis of ethnicity expands the scope of our Programs and produces alignments with historically marginalized groups. But it also risks alienation from our immediate publics. All this, let us note, takes place in an academic environment where European language and culture programs find themselves in a fragile position within the university. Thus one of the challenges is this: How can we strengthen our institutional position, critique whiteness, and work toward empowerment without compromising our critical perspective? How do we translate this position to students and non-academic publics?
We must anticipate greater public opposition to critical ethnic studies due to a wider denial regarding the importance of race in contemporary U.S. Does race matter? Does it shape one’s life chances? Is socioeconomic inequality a function of race? These questions are increasingly answered in the negative, and whiteness studies is demonized in certain media conglomerates and political headquarters.
At least two developments drive this questioning. The first is associated with the increasing density of crossing racial boundaries in the American society. Interracial marriages, now on the rise, adoption of non-white children, and reclamation of heritage and roots via native American and biracial ancestries foster the conviction, even among people of racialized collectives, that race is (or should become) a personal choice, not a constrain of ascribed identity.
High rates of professionalization among peoples of color contribute to this optimism. These racial reconfigurations produce, in the words of David Roediger, “newly imagined worlds of race and race-lessness” (213), a zeitgeist for a post-racial society shared across the racial spectrum. This structure of feeling co-exists with the contrasting conviction among sectors of the population that race still matters, structurally, in housing and employment practices, as well as the routines of everyday. Anxiety over racism surfaces when certain incidents bring it to the fore of national attention. While the 2008 presidential election fuels momentum that “race does not matter,” the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, or for that matter the 2012 post-Presidential election avalanche of twitter racism, generate unease regarding the enduring potency of race in the nation.
The ideology of color-blindness presents additional complications. In post-Civil rights dominant discourse, race no longer matters in American society. Any position advancing the interests of historically oppressed groups is seen as inconsistent with the principle of the neutral state and the ideal of meritocracy. Affirmative action is construed as reverse discrimination, and the insistence on white privileges is seen as unfair victimization.
We enter race then when the field of whiteness becomes increasingly unstable, and the significance of race is questioned; how to raise the implications of racialization when race is considered a non-social fact? We enter race when it is becoming impossible, according to Roediger, to speak out “in mainstream politics against the existence, persistence, and continued reproduction of racial hierarchies” (219). The political spaces are shrinking where race is explicitly discussed as constitutive of inequality, and racism as a systemic phenomenon. This obviously heightens the importance of the classroom as a place to engage students with race-related issues. But how do we teach heritage students students, particularly those who are entrenched in dominant views of a racially egalitarian society? How do we empower them without sugarcoating ethnic history in the limited time we have allotted for our subject matter?