Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Whiteness of a Different Color by Matthew Frye Jacobson (Book Review)

Jacobson contends that the concept of race is a product of politics and culture and is in fact “a modem superstition”.

The perception of race is a matter of power relationships. The Irish were considered part of a Celtic “race”, inferior to Anglo in the nineteenth century largely because they were outsiders. What made them outsiders? Certainly the long history of English occupation and Irish subjugation was a starting point, but the sticking point was probably religion. As late as 1960, with the election of John F. Kennedy, Catholics (and the ethnic groups that made up their congregations) were not considered quite American. Catholics were considered “ethnic”. In Jacobson’s terms, “not quite white”. Kennedy was attacked for being susceptible to taking orders from the Pope contrary to the good of the American people. Kennedy’s election marked the final passage of Catholics into the main stream of American life.

There appears to be a tremendous need within human society for people to “belong” to some identifiable group. Outsiders are almost by definition inferior to one’s own group in some way. Perhaps this is a reflection of identity formation. Once identified as part of what Benedict Anderson would call “an imagined community” (gang, nation, race), the cohesion of the group becomes of paramount importance to the individual. Group identity becomes the discursive boundary (“ I am an American therefore....”, “I am a Muslim therefore....”). Groups can become more inclusive if the cohesion of the group is maintained. Fear and conflict appear to be catalysts for making groups more inclusive while maintaining cohesion. Thus the Nazi threat of the 1 940s made America more tolerant of ethnic and cultural differences (“expanding the borders of whiteness”). Similarly the rise of a more militant black consciousness succeeded in papering over earlier white ethnic European differences in the face of a common “enemy”.

Inclusion in the dominant group is about assimilation and cohesion. Assimilation is the badge of acceptability. In the early days of the Saudi Naval Expansion Program (SNEP), for example, Saudis were not accustomed to dealing with professional women in the workplace. Business required women to travel to Saudi Arabia, which was unacceptable to the Saudis. Not sending them was unacceptable to the Americans. Ultimately, the Saudis declared the women, “honorary men” so that they could travel and work in the Kingdom. Because of their work status, American women had been assimilated into the Saudi world view as “men”. Jacobson correctly indicates that a similar process breaks down the barriers between different ethnic and racial groups.

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