Colouring Lessons: Reflections On The Self-Regulation Of Racism

A guest post, following Srdjan’s and Robbie’s contributions on the meaning and structure of contemporary racism, by Elizabeth Dauphinee. Elizabeth is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto. She is the author of The Ethics of Researching War: Looking for Bosnia and co-editor of The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror: Living, Dying, Surviving. Her work has appeared in Security Dialogue, Dialectical Anthropology, Review of International Studies and Millennium. Her current research interests involve autoethnographic and narrative approaches to international relations, Levinasian ethics and international relations theory, and the philosophy of religion.

The idea promulgated by Bet 115 that racism can and will meet its demise in a few short decades is based on the assumption that humans are self-regulating creatures, capable of recognizing and assessing their beliefs in an objective way and making appropriate corrections as needed. In order to explore this assumption, we need to inquire into the relationship between the self as an individual entity, capable of navigating and responding to the external world in an objective, disinterested way, and the social sphere, which may so entirely constitute us that we are incapable of thinking beyond the ‘texts’ (or scripts) of our socio-cultural milieus. In simpler terms, the question is: do we create the world, or does the world create us? 

In order to rightly consider this question, it is important to understand the implications of the answers one might be tempted to choose. It is also important to realise that each of us has a personal investment in the answer we might make. If we are individuals capable of willfully altering the world, then it makes sense to say that we can overcome racism (yet one is left with a lingering sense of bewilderment over why we have not done so). If we are fundamentally shaped and inextricably bound by the social sphere in which our ideas are formed, then we might lack the agency to escape the racism that seems to form a cornerstone of the institutions of our historico-political condition. Of course, there are few who would accept that our ability to self-regulate is an either/or proposition.  Rather, it is probably better to understand it as a ‘both/and’ state of affairs. In short, we shape and are shaped by the worlds we occupy. How, exactly, this is so is difficult to pick apart and navigate despite all of social science’s failed attempts to sharpen the distinction between the self and the worlds the self occupies. It inevitably flattens the complexity of social relations, and often ignores the tensions and contradictions that animate people’s views and beliefs. By way of example, let us consider the question with which we began: are we, or are we not, self-regulating creatures? The very structure of the question assumes that one will make answer either one way or the other. It leaves little room to suggest that both propositions are true, but in different ways and with different implications.

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Colouring Lessons: Bet 115 and the End of Racism

…(fireworks)… Please welcome, in our now well-established way, another new contributor to The Disorder Of Things. Srdjan Vucetic is currently Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is most recently the author of The Anglosphere: A Genealogy of a Racialized Identity in International Relations (on which he may blog soon), as well as of a number of articles on the ‘special relationship’, ‘Anglo’ coalitions of the willing and genealogy as a research tool in IR. Images by Pablo.

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ lucid remark, published in The Atlantic in 1901 (and elsewhere), continues to unify and motivate thinking on race and racism in International Relations. ‘Colouring Lessons: Race, Colour, Nation and Colony in Contemporary IR Theory’, an upcoming BISA-ISA conference panel featuring Meera, Omar, Pablo, Robbie, and myself, will consider how the “problem of the color line” might lead us to think differently about the structure and processes of world politics today. There are many good questions to cover; so many, in fact, that we best start our discussions early. Here’s one: when will racism end?

Let us begin by locating the question in the wonderful world of popular online betting. Thanks to the internet it is now possible to make and take wagers on almost anything, including on the future of phenomena such as racism. Recorded in May 2003 by a certain Bill Moore under the title ‘Bet 115’, one such wager can be found on the Long Bets website (Long Bets is run by a California-based non-profit foundation specializing in public education, including “enjoyably competitive predictions, of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake”). It goes like this: “By 2100 racism will no longer be a significant phenomenon in most countries of the world”. The author qualified his thinking thus:

This prediction simply puts a date to a trend that is well underway. Racism is a set of learned attitudes and behaviour, and as such it can be eliminated. There has been a great deal of movement toward the elimination of racism in the past century. Racism plays a much less significant role in access to employment, housing, education, in distribution of wealth, etc., than it did 100 years ago. Racist attitudes are no longer acceptable in any mainstream, political, social, religious, corporate, or other public figure.

At the time of this writing, Bet 115 goes unchallenged, but thirty or so comments posted by assorted visitors to the site provide us with an interesting repository of ordinary and extraordinary language definitions of race and racism. (A discussion of the boundary conditions of the prediction follows one on human nature, which in turns follows an exchange regarding the “semantics and scope”). Also interesting is that 68% of the registered users of Long Bets (N=249) have voted “against” the prediction, suggesting that the majority expects the global colour line to outlast the end of the twentieth first century, two hundred years after Du Bois wrote (voting has been “temporarily disabled” this fall).

So what would the recent philosophical and socio-historical research on the subject say about Bet 115?

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