UNESCO and Research Agendas Concerning Race

Antigua was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty – a European disease … Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master … you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

Jamaica Kincaid suggests that abolition and emancipation are bitter-sweet affairs. For the enslaved, freedom furnishes them with a human being that nevertheless awaits a meaningful personhood. Out of slavery the master fares better, redeeming his human being from being human rubbish. Kincaid’s suggestion is insightful. After all, abolition had a vibrant nineteenth century afterlife. White abolitionists enthusiastically allowed their humanitarianism to colonize Africa so that God’s chosen could sanctify themselves through the act of saving the natives from their selves. Meanwhile, William Wilberforce et al, convinced that slaves were human biologically yet lacked the social and cultural competencies of humanity, looked on fascinated at the experiment of self-government in Haiti. From this point onwards all future failings would be attributed to the epidermis, not the colonial relation. Presently, argues Kincaid, the landscapes of the old Caribbean plantations have been consumed by a white tourist gaze that has once again disavowed the living legacies of enslavement and colonization and denied meaningful personhood to its peoples. What remains of these places and peoples is only an “unreal”, picture-book beauty.

What are our narratives of race and racism? Whom do we follow in order to tell the tale: the masters or the enslaved – the humanitarians or the “sufferers”? Which tale confesses the episteme –the scientifically valid study – of race?

The 1950-51 UNESCO “statements on race” answered such questions in favour of the master’s narrative. Announcing a new era in human understanding after the terrors of war and irrationalities of genocide, the main purpose of the statements was to separate the “biological fact” of race from its “social myth”. The biological fact in and of itself was rendered harmless, pertaining only to “physical and physiological” classifications. Thus genetic inheritance, it was affirmed, could have no bearing on mental or cultural competencies and capabilities. Conversely, the social myth of race was considered extremely dangerous in that it rendered cultural difference as biological thus sundering the “unity of mankind”. This myth had to be dispensed with; hence ethnicity – as a social/cultural classifier – was proposed as a preferable classificatory regime to that of race. Ethnicity, after all, had not been tainted with supremacist hierarchy and could signify instead non-hierarchical diversity.

Although the scientists who collectively produced the statements on race were by no means all white, the majority hailed from Western academies. And the particular kind of anti-racism evident in UNESCO’s statements had already been formulated by famous Western anthropologists such as Franz Boas. They had sought to undermine scientific racism on its own grounds, i.e. by proving the un-scientific nature of the social myth of race. And this endeavour required debunking racialized identity – that which confessed their legal and natural inequality – as myth not fact. However, as part of this manoeuvre these identities had to be subsumed under a harmless social science of ethnic categorization. While this move redeemed white identities, it de-politicized the meanings of the sufferers’ cultural complexes and complexions, extricated them from inherited hierarchies of power, and thus segregated them from the inherited and living struggles against (post-/neo-)masters. In short, as Alana Lentin puts it, the effect of the statements was to separate race from politics.

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In Praise of Question Marks: Reflections on ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Jennifer RigganThe sixth post on critical methodologies and narrative, by Jennifer Riggan. Jennifer is an Assistant Professor of International Studies in the Department of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University, where she began teaching in 2007.  She holds a Ph.D. from the Education, Culture and Society program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received training in political and educational anthropology and African Studies. Her ethnographic research addresses a variety of issues including nationalism, citizenship, state formation, militarism, development, and education. She has published on the changing relationship between citizenship and nationalism and on the de-coupling of the nation and the state. She is currently working on a project entitled The Teacher State: Militarization and the Reeducation of the Nation in Eritrea which explores the role of teachers in state-making in the east African nation of EritreaThis research has been funded by a Fulbright research fellowship, a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship and a Spencer/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship. Dr. Riggan earned a B.A. in English from Trinity College in 1992 and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995 to 1997.


Alienation

I show up at the workshop on October 26th, not quite sure what to expect. I have gone through the ritual preparations for a conference. I have crafted a carefully cultivated appearance—professional, but not formal attire. Light makeup, hair blown dry, hopefully neat but not overly coifed. Glancing around the room, I’d say many of us have made the same preparations. This is a conference. We all know how to perform ourselves for this venue. The ritual is familiar to us. Notebooks at the ready. Cups of coffee in our grips. A firm handshake of greeting when we meet someone. A socially acceptable hug or kiss if we know someone well. Small talk about our institutions, our research, our teaching. Occasionally our children make a brief appearance in the conversation. When we sit down to introduce ourselves, my voice emerges from my mouth, confident and assertive. I hear myself speak and I don’t recognise the sound, even less the tone. How certain this person sounds, I think, I could be convinced by this person.

For me, the ritual is essential to make me believe in the performance. After all, I have no idea why I’m here and I assume, as usual, that some mistake was made when they invited me. Do they really know who I am? The preparatory rituals, the carefully calibrated appearance, the performance of being academic acts as a talisman against someone pointing the finger at you and crying, “imposter!” I say it to myself all the time. But in an odd form of ritual alchemy, I become what I perform. I fake it until I make it and then I actually believe in this ‘I’ that I barely recognized a moment before. I have become the performance. But when I get lost in my performance, where have I actually gone?

Question Marks

We are here to talk about stories. Some of us tell stories. Some of us make arguments about stories. Stories, like academic rituals, are performances. Are they any less alienating than the ritualization of self? The most honest of us raise questions about stories or tell stories that ask questions. Himadeep Muppidi’s poignant and simple assertion, “empire tells amazing stories,” has stayed with me since that day like a song whose words you can’t get out of your head. We are all penetrated by the empire’s stories. They make us cry and fill us with pride or righteous indignation. They have answers. But how do we tell stories that perform less and question more? This is hard to do in a world, and a profession, that prefers periods or exclamation points to question marks. Our language limits us. What is the point of a question without an answer? What do we become in the absence of our performances of certainty?

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