Saturday, January 1, 2011

Symbolic Ethnicity is a White Privilege

A Reflection on Mary C. Water’s Article, Optional Ethnicities: for whites only?

“Symbolic ethnicity is a term coined by Herbert Gans (1979) to refer to ethnicity that is individualistic in nature and without real social cost for the individual”(Waters, 199): According to Waters, in America, it is only possible for whites to experience symbolic ethnicity, as “discrimination and social distance attached to specific European backgrounds has diminished over time.”(Waters, 199). Thus, this can lead white people (people from European decent) to the assumption that “all identities are equal and all identities in some sense are interchangeable”(Waters, 201). Furthermore, that the systemic racism, white-hegemony and white-privilege that exists, continues to perpetuate eurocentrism, stereotypes and xenophobia.

It is natural for anyone to have questions about what they cannot understand: it is clear that white-americans cannot understand what is it to be a non-white American. Yet, I see it as deeper issue of ignorance and indifference to the non-normative. When discussing white privilege, Flares remarked that, “Whiteness is everything yet nothing: everything because whiteness is the normative but unmarked standard by which reality is judged or interpreted without much awareness of the process; nothing because it is perceived by whites as inconsequential in defining who gets what” (Flares, 34). Flares and Waters both agree that to be non-white embodies a dichotomy or ‘anti-thesis of whiteness’, and when white is normal everything else is not.

Waters states that State regulation regarding racism is always needed, and I argue this is true; however, Water’s comparison to capitalism fell short of an inspiring metaphor and she neglected to suggest favorable regulation. Still, as many of current State regulations themselves perpetuate systemic racism, it is the responsibility of the State to question and amend these regulations.

Despite agreement with large concepts of Water’s article, the strength of conviction is questionable. It is important to question the statistics and essentializing statements made by Waters in her article as they are made without citation; for example in the first paragraph on page 203, she discusses a typical Black students experience with racism without reference to where this knowledge was ascertained from.

As educational officer of the African Caribbean Students Association (ASCA) it continues to be a major goal of the executive to end ACSA’s racialized identity as a black club. As Waters states, “much of what happens among students on campuses involves a low level of tension and awkwardness in social interactions” (Waters, 202), and this statement speaks true to what the club struggles with. When planning events it is always a question of how to encourage non-ACSA members to participate: especially with events like Black History Month and Culture Show. As educational officer my primary responsibilities are soul food sundays (our general meetings) and Black History Month; it is ACSA’s challenge to have the Queen’s community take ownership of Black History Month, recognizing the importance of black history as Canada’s history and the world’s history (don't forget that history in the making!). Furthermore, through my time at Queen’s there have been reported actions of racism: like the islamaphobic comment made my ASUS president Jacob Mantle, or when a Professor was shoved off the sidewalk followed by racist taunting from the pack of three engineering students. However, as a white student, it is rare for me to experience forms of racism at Queen’s.

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