Was Gandhi a Racist?

A group of students in Ottawa have demanded the removal of a statue of Gandhi on the campus of Carleton University because he expressed “anti-black” ideas when he worked in South Africa. Others defend memorializing Gandhi because of his legacy of opposing British rule of India, promoting non-violent resistance, and inspiring other movements of civil disobedience, including the American civil rights movement. Within this debate, both sides generally concede the historical details. They disagree, however, about what those details signify, disagreements that center on present concerns, not specifically the past. Continue reading “Was Gandhi a Racist?”

Naming Things

Screenshot of NPR article on Unification Sanctuary ceremony

Words matter. Which words we use to describe a person or a group can have a significant impact on the image that our description and analysis constructs. In the aftermath of the Parkland School shooting a few weeks ago, a Pennsylvania ceremony that involved the blessing of AR-15s drew considerable response in the traditional media (as in the screenshot above) and across social media. It is easy to see the ways that the narrative about the ceremony became a pawn within the renewed gun control debate, illustrating how narratives are more about the interests of narrators than the specifics of the event. But more than that point (which my colleagues have made before in posts on topics such as sex workers or charges of Satanism) is the significance of the names that different commentators used for this group and ceremony. Continue reading “Naming Things”

Racism Creates Race

White Trade Only sign in Ohio restaurant 1938

As Black History Month draws to a close, the question of dividing humanity according to race remains an active issue in contemporary discourse, as the arbitrary creation of racial differences (out of all the possible differences between people) tells us that race is not a natural construct. Some in the US decry the racial divisions that they associate with racial identifications and events like Black History Month. The National Review denounced such “tribalism” and “identity politics” in the days before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, holiday last month. These assertions blame continual racial division on this tribalism within minority groups, but the broader history suggests that these racial identifications and community formations are a consequence of racism, a response to the discrimination and marginalization that racism generates, not the other way around.  Continue reading “Racism Creates Race”

Olympic-sized Imaginations

gold medal of 2018 Winter Olympics

The modern Olympic Games have always had an internal tension between uniting the peoples of the world in one global competition and promoting national pride. The ideal of the Olympics can be seen in the shift between the opening ceremony’s parade of nations, with athletes entering according to the country they represent, to the closing ceremony, during which athletes enter as a single, united body. The local media emphasis, though, continually highlights the medal count by nation and the success of athletes on the nation’s team. The formation of the national team, though, raises questions about who counts as part of the nation and demonstrates the ways the national identification is something constructed, not just a natural occurrence.

In the 2018 Winter Olympics, the challenge to the nation-state is apparent in the joint Korean team, both in the opening ceremony and in the women’s hockey team. Despite significant geo-political tensions between the two Koreas (and perhaps because of those tensions), the leaders decided to emphasize a different notion of Korean nationality that ignores the two states on the peninsula and thus highlights the arbitrary, constructed nature of the contemporary nation-state. Yet, the contradictions extend further. The Korean women’s hockey team scored the first hockey goal ever by Korea in the Winter Olympics last Wednesday, but the woman who scored it is an American citizen. Randi Griffin grew up in North Carolina, attended Harvard (where she also played hockey), and has pursued a Ph.D. at Duke University. Because her mom emigrated from South Korea to the United States, the South Korean team invited her to play for South Korea, which then became the united Korean team. Perhaps this represents the Olympic spirit, but it also illustrates the complexity of maintaining a national identity despite the diversity and complicated associations of the citizens of any nation. Continue reading “Olympic-sized Imaginations”

Who Won the Civil War?

Confederate memorial carving on Stone Mountain

“The winners write the history” is an easy way to highlight that those who have power are the ones who control how history is told. But this adage needs a bit more nuance, as sometimes those who lose end up on the winning side anyway. In the case of the American Civil War, the accounts that we tell in the United States too often legitimize the Confederacy. While some descriptions receive significant critique, such as Secretary Ben Carson describing slaves as “immigrants”, typical accounts are more subtle, hardly noticed by many. For example, narratives seldom refer to the actions of the Confederacy as treasonous, even though Andrew Johnson’s 1868 pardon given to those who fought for the Confederacy describes the rebellion as an act of treason. Continue reading “Who Won the Civil War?”

Are Divisions a Problem?

Emphasizing differences can generate ill-will and even violence, as we have seen (again) with the events in Charlottesville and the responses to it. But constructing differences is a central component of forming identifications and is not necessarily negative. The 1940’s US propaganda film Don’t Be a Sucker rejects discrimination against minorities in America and compares that position to Nazi ideology. While the film presents the creation of divisions as a problem, it also illustrates the positive side of division in a less direct fashion. If you haven’t seen it, it is worth viewing, particularly the first half of the film. Continue reading “Are Divisions a Problem?”

Long-Haired History

My department has a new website, with updated faculty photos. If you have known me for awhile, you might notice that my hair is a bit longer, now past my shoulders. By comparing photos of me as a faculty member, or even as a teenager, anyone can demonstrate that my hair is longer now than it has ever been in my life. That is a demonstrable fact about the past.

Of course, the length of my hair is not particularly interesting. As with most narratives (which is what histories present), the more intriguing issue is the explanation why. Why, at this point in my life, have I allowed my hair to grow? A friend who had not seen me for over a year commented on my hair last week, giving me the opportunity to create a narrative about my hair. My explanation was that I have not gotten my hair cut since becoming a full professor this past August. But, my own explanation is not necessarily complete. In fact, any of us tell stories, like our identifications, strategically. Perhaps (to create a narrative about my narrative), my response was a way to emphasize my recent promotion. The length of the hair was just the opportune time to insert that personal tidbit into the conversation, or perhaps that explanation was said in jest. Continue reading “Long-Haired History”

Who Has Been Radicalized?

People commonly use the term “radicalization” to explain how individuals could commit certain horrific acts of violence. News reports about the person believed to have carried out the Manchester bombing have focused on when he (and possibly his brother) became radicalized, and both the Trump and Obama administrations have discussed how to combat radicalization. In these examples, radicalization refers to a process in which people develop “extreme” commitments to a particular viewpoint and sacrifice many things, even their own lives, to further that viewpoint, often using violence against others. Continue reading “Who Has Been Radicalized?”

Is the Media Free?

Much public discussion today includes concerns about the freedom of the press. People fear that some politicians and businesses exert pressure to cover them favorably, especially as some have denounced the mainstream media. We can consider, however, whether the media of any form is really free.

Pierre Bourdieu in a 1996 series of essays entitled On Television (English translation by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson published in 1998) wrote: Continue reading “Is the Media Free?”

Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary

When we go to a new doctor’s office or meet someone new, most people identify my younger son as female. He has let his straight, black hair grow longer, reaching a bit past his shoulders now. He is also small for his age, quiet (in public), and generally shy, and his name (being Chinese) does not suggest a gender for most people in the United States. These markers, it seems, lead people to mislabel him.

While he seems unfazed by this, others are not. When people discover their error, they suddenly become extremely apologetic and embarrassed. But why? It is an understandable mistake, and neither he nor my wife or I take offense at the mistake. Of course, they do not know that it is not a big deal to him, so the common assumption/fear may be that someone will be hurt or angry over the error, but that does not seem to be the whole situation.

We all assume that we can identify a person’s gender. The 1990’s Saturday Night Live skit “It’s Pat” (see one example here) featured a gender ambiguous, nerdy character and highlighted how uncomfortable others are if they cannot identify someone’s gender. Ambiguity about such an “obvious” binary is unsettling for many. While we assume that the difference of gender is naturally significant and readily identifiable, the assumption that everyone easily falls into one of two genders is inaccurate, as the recent posts on social media about the different chromosomal combinations of X and Y highlights. We have similar issues about ethnicity and race, assuming that we should be able to visually identify someone’s heritage, which creates problems for multi-ethnic people and makes the discovery that someone is “passing” as a member of a race/ethnic group when their ancestry does not conform to the social construction of that group into a newsworthy event. Continue reading “Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary”