Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ethnic Studies: Why Words Matter

One of the great things about being in an Ethnic Studies department is that when it comes to issues of understanding the functioning of power, people are generally (although definitely not always) on the same page. You don't often have to explain to your colleagues why something - an image, an act, a discourse, a policy - are "fucked up." People just tend to generally "get it." And that helps to create somewhat of a sense of community and solidarity.

This sense of community, however, is quite tenuous - tendentious and contingent. People do get caught up in their own little niches, their own compartmentalized battles, thereby losing sight of the bigger picture. And besides, people are ultimately vulnerable to their "human-ness," thus creating the situation for battles of wits and personalities. Consequently, as I was discussing with a friend today, the experience of being a scholar in the department can be quite violent. (Yes, violent. It is a running joke among some of friends now - my obsession with, and constant reference to, violence.) But though it is a rough, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking experience, most of us wouldn't exchange it for the world.

The times that my department comes together the most is a moments of social crisis. Thus, for instance, during events such as Katrina and the San Diego wildfires - incidents that were marked by the execution of racial power and racial violence - the department took public stands critiquing the action and rhetoric surrounding the event. It may appear to some that making a public statement is futile when it comes to the actual work of resistance and survival. However, as an academic department, it is imperative to seize these as moments of education so as to create the conditions of possibility for socio-structural change. (Those interested in the dynamics of "theory" and "practice" should read some of the works on hegemony by Antonio Gramsci.)

The most recent event that the department took a stand against, thereby causing a firestorm of criticism and controversy, was the recent Israeli war on Gaza. The statement, which was initially posted on the department's website, created an outrage among many students on campus. In response to their angry e-mails, the department decided to create a blog and post all its statements there, so as to enable a public debate regarding the merits and demerits of the statement. The statement and responses to it may be accessed here.

Besides the usual information/data war, and arguments about Israeli self-defense, one of the ideas most objected to was the use of the phrase "racial violence" in the statement. Here, the term "racial" was reduced to normative ideas of race, a reduction that produced the most disingenuous arguments. I have been following the responses to the statement on the blog for the past couple of weeks now, and was constantly disturbed by the way in which "racial violence" was being understood. I therefore decided last night to write a response that explained how I understood "racial violence" and thus, its pertinence to the statement. I am pasting my response below because I think that understanding what "racial power" and "racial violence" mean are so crucial to any social justice project.


This is a response to the objections raised as regards the use of the phrase “racial violence” in the statement above. Some commentators appear to reduce “racial violence” to the idea of racism; others find troubling the idea that the term “racial” is being applied to racially/ethnically diverse religious and national groups (i.e. Jewish, Israeli and Palestianian peoples). I would like to point out, therefore, that to read “racial violence” as such, is a complete misunderstanding of the phrase. Racial violence is a mode of power exercised – most often by a state, but often by other organized, militarized groups – in order to control, subjugate or exterminate a people due to the idea that the latter always already pose a threat to the civilization of the former. Thus, racial violence always follows the logic of self-defense and self-preservation against the always already threatening other.

Racial logic functions so that an entire people are made to signify deviance, irrationality, violence, etc. – in short, everything that runs counter to the presumed ideals of modernity, and the interests of “civilization” and “humanity.” I would therefore refer readers specifically to this excerpt from the statement: “…Israel’s military objectives, the destruction of Hamas, cannot justify the indiscriminate killing of men and women, young and old, just because they live in the Gaza Strip, because they are Palestinians. This generalized construction of the enemy is at the core of racial violence. It criminalizes a whole population. It aliments existing representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Brown people in general as ‘criminal/terrorists.’” Thus, every holocaust that history stands witness to – that of Native Americans in North America, of Armenians in Turkey, of Jews in Europe, of Muslims in Bosnia, of black Africans in the Sudan – are instances of racial violence. Slavery is an instance of racial violence. Colonialism is an instance of racial violence.

The argument about what constitutes a “race” here is impertinent and futile. Racial violence is not about “race” as is commonly understood – i.e. black, white, native, asian, latino, arab or whatever new racial groups the state decides to create – but about the process of racialization. Of casting an entire people as a deviant, threatening other. This is the project of Ethnic Studies. Ethnic Studies does not teach one about “different peoples,” “different cultures,” “different races,” “different nationalities.” It doesn’t merely teach about histories of oppression, struggle and resistance. It teaches how power operates in the production and execution of subjugation, violence, and death. The process of racialization, and the execution of racial violence, are thus integral to how Ethnic Studies views the execution of power. To consider the Ethnic Studies project as anything else, is to completely misunderstand the project. And this is the context that the statement above must be read in.

The statement condemns the use of racial power and racial violence (as defined above) by the state of Israel. It does not call Israelis or Jewish people racist. It recognizes the violent, death-dealing power executed by the state through its settler-colonialist status. The statement does not cast Israel alone as a state that executes racial violence – rather, it contextualizes the latest attacks on Gaza within the context of global/ized racial violence – whether it be the Iraq war, the criminalization and incarceration of people of color in the U.S., state-sponsored anti-Muslim violence in India, or state/legal violence against aboriginal peoples in Australia.

And finally, a note specifically to Ori. You wrote: “When September 11 happened in the US, airport security was insane, but as a US citizen, would anyone want anything less from their government?” To compare the lockdown on Gaza that Saif referred to in his poem, to the “insane” security at U.S. airports post-9/11 is a trivialization of the situation in Gaza that has me completely speechless. In my mind, it highlights the complete lack of understanding that generally haunts debates about Israeli self-defense against Palestinians. To compare an airport – a space generally marked by uncoerced, free movement – to Gaza, which is like being quite literally under house-arrest, with limited access to basic life-sustaining amenities, is quite shocking.

But you do point to one important thing about racial violence. Post 9/11 airports did in fact become a site for the exercise of racial power through the practice of state-sanctioned activities such as profiling, detention, and rendition.

1 comment: said...

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