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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