Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Importance of Ethnic Studies

Whenever I read about some new development in Arizona, it constantly reminds me why Ethnic Studies is important as an academic discipline.

Since graduating from Ethnic Studies UCSD, I've been trying to get a job at the University of Guam. I haven't been successful yet, and sadly I don't have much hope for the future either, lao sinembatgo bai hu konsigi. One of the reasons why I don't have alot of hope, is because while you could say that all academic departments or schools have their conservative or archaic elements, UOG, as a mixture of a colonial and a "isolated" institution is tough to beat. Most of the faculty, in all departments at UOG have never heard of Ethnic Studies (or many other similar critical disciplines which have come into being over the past 40 years), and have no clue as to what it could be. I'm used to non-academics not knowing and assuming that the degree has something to do with anthropology or "mere" culture, but its strange for me to be around 200 or so academics, all of whom have never even heard of such a program. I might be able to understand people in the "hard" Sciences not knowing, but for those in Humanities and Social Sciences? Ai na'ma'ase.

Guam may be geographically isolated in the minds of most of these faculty, but so much of the intellectual isolationism is literally in their heads. Being here on Guam, is a very easy excuse to not keep up, to not take seriously general pursuits of knowledge and how the academy itself might be changing. Some discussions with faculty about what I know about their fields end up being completely disjointed, because all that I know about their fields, they know nothing about (happened too recently), and they know nothing about my fields.

So naturally, a degree in Ethnic Studies at UOG is about as useful as high-priced merchandise at the Chamorro Village. Taibali. Even though I have a doctorate, and an inter-disciplinary one at that, which means I can potentially teach in any number of Social Science or Humanities fields, it is very likely that I will end up teaching nowhere at UOG. Or rather, nowhere permanently. UOG always needs adjunct and emergency faculty, so there will always be a place for me in that regard.

In recent months, because of this climate I've come to doubt sometimes my degree. Not the intellectual growth or the theories or the critical lenses which I learned there, but simply the formal shell of it. Even though I would never trade my degree for any other, I've sometimes wished I went into something more "traditional" so at least then I wouldn't have to endure clueless or disbelieving looks when I describe how yes my degree is real, and its really inter-disciplinary and so it does qualify me to teach _blank subject______.

But one thing about Ethnic Studies as a set of critical tools, is that the more screwed up and violent the world gets, the more you realize how important it can be. Chumachalek yu' mientras hu tytype este, I'm laughing as I'm typing this, because as I said before, whenever I think about what is going on in Arizona right now, I think of the importance of Ethnic Studies, but in Arizona, state legislators are trying to ban Ethnic Studies programs. So ironic...

Although a black man is President of the United States for the first time, and now there has been possibly for the first time ever an Arab American Miss America winner, this in no way means that issues of race and ethnicity have become devalued. Racism doesn't end or isn't eradicated because of the tokenistic elevation of individuals or even the resolutions or recognition of the importance of culture. It goes much deeper than that, and so Ethnic Studies at its very foundation is about ensuring that the discussion of race goes beyond the surface and that we see how it operates in both silence and invisibility.

One of the importance of discourse analysis as a theoretical tool is that it insists on meaning lying deeper than what is said, or the surface of speech. That we don't speak in facts or simply reflect reality, but we actively try to shape it through what we say and how we say it. The relationship between race and speech changes, so for instance the use of certain racially charged words might have very different social meanings and implications compared to one hundred or two hundred years ago. But we should never reduce racism to solely that which is said or that which is intended. Racism is not only the acts of racists, but it is systems of privilege and oppression, which most of the participants may not even be aware of. It is a system which marks, depending on the context some as being deviant, some as being universal, some as being immoral, some as being angokuyon, some as being violent, and some as capable of feeling trauma. It is never absolute, just just some subtle and some obvious tendencies in the discursive map of a society.

I recall speaking to one of my classes once about how divisions in societies work, and how often times we accept and reify their divisions but don't even realize it. I asked my students what they thought about it, and if they felt like Guam was a divided island, and amongst those who responded, they all stated that it was definitely not. Each spoke to their own experiences and how they had friends of all cultures and races, never ever use racist words, and how some of them were so mixed anyways that they couldn't be racist, since they already are all races! One of the reasons why something like Ethnic Studies hasn't become more prominent on Guam is because of the pervasive belief that Guam doesn't have racism, and that racism is something white people used to do to non-white people. Because I don't get to teach classes where I can really draw these issues out, I try my best, in a Guam History context, but I look forward to some day working in either the community or in the classroom to expand ideas of race and ethnicity in Guam. Ti mamparehu guini yan gi lagu (maseha manu), lao ni' unu na lugat sahnge. Buente diferentes na estoria siha, diferentes na rasa siha, lao gi todu i lugat, guaha some sort of violence of exclusion pat difference.

My intervention in my class, was clumsy to say the least, but I did my best to try to talk to them about how thinking about racism and thinking about issues of power and division in a society means going beyond the surface. We each all have missions in our lives, to create a shiny, happy, not bad, not evil exterior. We all do our best to keep ourselves from bearing certain stains of social inappropriateness, which is why the mantra of having friends or family of a certain types is so crucial in terms of deflecting any potential critique. That is why we should never use ourselves and our own experiences as the gauges for very much in this world. Our ego exists for a reason, and that reason has nothing to do with the truth or reality. It exists gi fino' Chamoru, i u puno' i annok na ti puniyon.

I asked my students to stop thinking about racism in terms of people who admit to hating a certain group and think about it in much quieter and subtle terms. I asked them to think about it as if it were a ghost, or a cloud which follows you around. Something which holds in it all the negativity and hate, so you don't have to say it out loud, but it can still be there for you to draw from. It is this cloud which helps dictate so much, whether you admit to it or not: where you hang out, who you consider to be your friends, whose houses you go over to, how you respond to suspected criminals on the news, or what comes into your mind when you drive through a certain area. To understand racism, I can listen to what comes out of your mouth, but what would be far more helpful in understanding the society we are studying, is to look to that mass, which is an amalgamation of everything that we do or don't know about the society we come from and what it produces, that follows each of us around.

What Ethnic Studies at its best is about, is reminding people about the hidden dimensions of racism, and that you can't dismiss them by repeating platitudes about how much progress we've made. It is about making the structures of violence, power and privilege through which race operates, visible for all to see (ko'lo'lo'na yanggen ti manmalago lumi'e').

I remember when I first started in Ethnic Studies at UCSD, an older student and a friend of mine Theo, said something to me about his masters thesis which really helped me clarify what we were doing in that department. For his masters thesis, he did a comparative analysis of Japanese internment during World War II in the US, and the treatment/detainment of Muslims in the United States after 9/11. When he was discussing it with me, he said that if you read the entire Patriot Act (which he apparently had), you will not find any mention anywhere about race or ethnicity. But, when you look at who was rounded up and who quickly became the objects of that law, it was overwhelmingly people who were identified in the American racial imaginary as being of the same stock, Muslims, Arabs, Middle Eastern peoples, etc. Despite race not being written into the Patriotic Act, its effect was clearly racist, and there was some connection between how the law was written and who it was written with a mind towards.
In the theory of race which celebrates America fundamentally changing since a black man has become President of it, this is consistent. It is after all, not the law which is racist, but merely those who carry it out. So, the intent of the Patriot Act, might be raceless, and its problems are the implementation. This logic is anti-racism or fighting against racism (or another other system of oppression) by eradicating its explicit dimensions. It is about getting rid of the public face of racism, making sure that no one makes any overtly racist remarks, or that there are no laws which explicitly make subordinate one group beneath another based on their races. This is understanding racism through the lens of politics, it is about simple solutions to racism, and not addressing anything too deep seated or less tangible.

In one of my Guam History classes, we were discussing the chances of Guam becoming a state of the United States. I said that it was unlikely, and in my opinion, it would be more difficult for Guam to become a state, than to become an independent country. I gave some examples of racism and resistance because of Guam's "background" and its size. My remarks were met with a chorus of statements on how things are different now. A black man is now President, people don't have to drink at separate water fountains. Things are different.

I agreed that things are indeed different, but I also asked my class to conduct a simple mental experiment. I told them to imagine being a slave in the United States, two hundred or three hundred years ago. Imagine if one day your master came up to you and told you that a new law had been passed, saying that white people could not longer refer to their slaves by the N-word since it was an offensive term. You might feel elated at this, but once you get past that elation of this new world being promoted, you would hopefully see that while the surface of things had changed, not much else had. I reminded my students that, in the Constitution of the United States it does much slaves, but it never mentions them in terms of race. It doesn't say black slaves, it just says slaves. So in a sense, you could claim that the Constitution wasn't racist since it didn't explicitly use any racial categories, but simply mentioned an economic relationship between a man who owns another man. That means, that when the surface of racism disappears, the fight is far from over. Gi minagahet, fihu lumamappot i mimu, it generally becomes more difficult.

A similar argument is being made in support of Arizona's SB1070. Nowhere in the law does it target any particular race, and even when people who drafted the law are asked very obvious questions about what the law is meant to target or who is it meant to be about, lawmakers plead ignorance, and act as if they have no idea what was intended in the law, other than to protect America from raceless, colorless illegal immigrant bogeymen!

But this is why Ethnic Studies is so important, is to make the connections and help show how race is present in these laws, even when it doesn't appear to be. To help make connections between power, violence, race, which are rarely open and obvious anymore, but now take much more circuitous routes. It is about depriving the position of those who claim that laws such as the Patriotic Act or SB 1070 of the innocence of claiming, that simply because I never said "I hate Mexicans" or "Arabs scare me," race is not an issue here.


Natchee said...

Wow, citing Theo is awesome! Hope you are well, brother Miget. I am in a similar situation in terms of jobs, although not for the same reasons. My best to you and the family. Thanks for the narration about your class discussion. This is our everlasting challenge, no?! Weweni go. blu.

Natchee said...

Wow, citing Theo is awesome! Hope you are well, brother Miget. I am in a similar situation in terms of jobs, although not for the same reasons. My best to you and the family. Thanks for the narration about your class discussion. This is our everlasting challenge, no?! Weweni go. blu.

Michael Lujan Bevacqua said...

Hafa Adai Blu, its good to hear from you. I'll email you so we can catch up, I wanna see how you're doing.

BTW: Theo is actually the person who I think I end up citing the most from my time at UCSD Ethnic Studies. I think Yen might be a close second though.

Infinity said...

This is written beautifully. It really shows how while on the front of a law things may seem "colorblind" but really it is targeting a specific group of people.


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