Confronting the Global Colour Line

Race and Racism in IR

Our edited volume Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line has now been published. We asked some of the contributors to give us their thoughts on what has been (both deliberately and unwittingly) overlooked by the discipline of International Relations with regard to questions of race and racism; the challenges posed by (re)centring these vital questions; and how IR may atone for its implication in empire. At your service, Sankaran Krishna, Debra Thompson, Srdjan Vucetic and John Hobson.

What has been the least investigated aspect of race and racism in IR?

Sankaran Krishna

The question makes me want to laugh because to me mainstream IR is all about how not to talk about race and racism while constantly appearing to talk about the relations between different kinds of peoples and countries. I came to IR only at the PhD level. My masters in modern history had acquainted me with the history of colonialism, racism, genocide, man-made holocausts like the Great Bengal famine, the slave trade, and other such events, on a world-scale in the post-Columbian (ie; post-1492) era. In my first IR courses in the United States the focus seemed to be on how can we understand the social world through models that pretend humans are unthinking molecules or inanimate entities. Stuff like Bueno de Mesquita’s War Trap (I kept waiting for someone to tell me that was a joke, like they do on Candid Camera.) It was a few years later that I realized that the penchant for abstract theorization, distaste for historical specificity and woolly stuff like ideology, and fetish for numbers – all voiced in deep manly intonations about analytical rigor – were nothing but an assiduous refusal to face the world in all its racial violence and splendor. In other words it’s the absence of considerations of race and racism that coheres the discipline.

When you widen the frame beyond mainstream IR and include those at the margins – thinkers like DuBois immediately come to mind – and especially take into account writings over the last few decades, the picture is a lot better. From my point of view, there has been a tendency in self-proclaimed dissident literatures to be inadequately critical of the racial conditions of their own emergence: invocations of the Global South or postcoloniality or marginality or the colour line can themselves become fetishized and serve as screens preempting a closer inquiry into racial difference and the consequences of othering. Continually calling out the protean forms in which race and racism manifest themselves historically and contemporarily seems, to me at any rate, a worthwhile vocation.

What is the most important theoretical challenge to IR posed by an engagement with race and racism?

Debra Thompson

As one who engages more frequently with the literature in racial and ethnic politics (REP) and comparative politics, I’m not sure how qualified I am to speak of what challenges or confirms theoretical traditions in international relations. I can say that, at first glance, the grass looks plenty green in IR. Constructivism has a strong and enviable place in the mainstream literature. This paradigm takes norms, ideas, discourse, and identities seriously and as such should have much to say about the nature of race and racism. Race, after all, is one of the most important signifiers of identity and difference, encompassing deep and powerful feelings of belonging and recognition. It is one of the oldest, most powerful, most persistent, and most permeating ideas the world has ever known. Race and racism also have normative dimensions – nowhere is this clearer than the international events that contributed to the world’s collective reformulation of racial politics on the heels of the Holocaust, World War II, the civil rights movement, decolonization, shifting migration patterns, and the rise of diasporic consciousness. In just a few short decades, the world changed from being predicated on explicit racial hierarchy in domestic and international spheres to demanding that democratic legitimacy in Western societies include, for the first time, the principle of racial equality. In spite of the monumental changes (granted, more so in rhetoric than practice), many of which were transnational in both origin and effect, international relations has been suspiciously silent on the topics of race and racism. Perhaps, then, race and racism in and of themselves are challenging to international relations simply by virtue of being phenomena with clear transnational and international dimensions. If race was produced, as Barnor Hesse argues, in the discursive, material, and exploitative relationships between colony and metropole, then many of our preconceptions about the very substance of race and racism stand to be challenged. Moreover, this understanding of race and racism necessitate that we dissect the conceptual and political basis of the international order – as well as the discipline of international relations – as both producers and products of racial power.

Srdjan Vucetic

I believe “theory” is the main challenge here. If we go back to Robert Cox’s two theories, problem-solving and critical or, even earlier, to discussions of positive vs. normative theory among English School scholars (in my chapter I mention R.J. Vincent, for example), we find an observation that the dominant intellectual and social structure of IR favours status quo theorizing. This is not to say that positive theory cannot be normative or that problem-solvers are somehow uncritical, but it is it to say that IR has in long separated the “empirical” from the “ethical” in practice, even while offering ample philosophical recognition that such separation can only be false. Like with anthropology, geography or sociology, race and racism have been a particular problem for IR because any normative/critical reflection on these two subjects must come face-to-face with an uncomfortable possibility that the discipline’s knowledge production still functions to obscure problems of racialized domination and subordination. What, for example, if racialization is so deeply rooted in our individual and collective Eurocentric minds as to perpetuate inequalities in opportunity within the discipline itself? This question is not radically different from a similar question asked by successive generations of feminist scholars – that about the “malestream” IR and a glaring lack of shift in extant power relations within our community. It is also the question that leads to knowledge production that re-evaluates what “we” should study, for what purposes, and with what means and therefore re-positions “theory” vis-à-vis both old and new debates in ontology, politics, ethics, epistemology, and methodology. This doubtless hugely challenging, but doing nothing means that IR continues to ignore, temporize, minimize, put aside, overlook, and sidestep race and racism as important categories of modern political experience and specific forms of power that intersect with “traditional” inter-state politics as well as with actors and processes at global, transnational, and regional “levels.”

What does IR need to do in order to attend to/atone for its complicity in the racial science of imperial administration?

John M. Hobson

There are three generic moves that IR-as-a-discipline needs to do in order “to ‘attend to’ or ‘atone’ for its complicity in the racial science of imperial administration”. The first is to recognize the discipline’s complicity in this racial science the first place. For I believe that there is one thing worse than the Nazi holocaust, or equally of the various explicit or implicit genocides that occurred during the era of European colonialism; and that is to turn around much later on only to deny their existence in the first place. Not only does this do a grave injustice to the millions of victims who died needlessly “in the name of progress and civilization” but, equally, it means that no genuine progress can be achieved here in the present. However, many IR scholars reading this might reply by saying that the racial science of imperial administration was indeed offensive to humankind, but that was then and things have changed now. But the point is that IR continues to belabour the very mentality that promotes empire and which propels us back to the very future of the Eurocentric and racial ideological base of Western and white supremacy upon which the superstructure of empire was founded. So no, the racial and Eurocentric science of empire is not confined to the happily forgotten distant past but remains with us in the here and now.

The second thing that IR needs to confront is the charge that its theoretical arsenal is predominantly based on Eurocentrism. Hiding behind the wilting fig-leaf of positivism is insufficient. For if IR theory is for the most part founded on Eurocentrism then its Western-bias renders null and void its positivist credentials or reveals them for the pretences that they are. So if the discipline chooses not to accept this intellectual and discursive-cleansing mission then this means that it will continue to reproduce the politics of Western power and prejudice in its allegedly value-free analyses of world politics. And if so, then it will remain to this day inherently complicit in the very racial and Eurocentric science of imperial administration that it dismisses as but a mere residual historical practice that no longer exists.

Last, but not least, the discipline needs to develop non-Eurocentric analyses of world politics that are free of the distortions of Western bias that have for so long corrupted the discipline on the one hand and have done so much damage to global humanity at large on the other hand. Is it really the case that somewhere around 90 per cent of the world’s population, which resides in the non-Western world, is irrelevant to the making of world politics, global political economy and, not least, the development of the West itself? Only when we recognize the damage that Western empire has inflicted, and indeed continues to do, alongside the need to bring in the agency of non-Western actors, can we begin sincerely to atone for the past and present racial and Eurocentric practices that go by the phony-positivist name of ‘the (racial) science of imperial administration.


6 thoughts on “Confronting the Global Colour Line

  1. Pingback: Reblogged from “The Disorder of things”. Confronting the Global Colour Line « The Turning Spiral

  2. Pingback: The Global Transformation: The Making of the Modern World | The Disorder Of Things

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