July 18, 2008

My Participation in Racial Formation

Race continues to constitute much of our understandings of ourselves and others. This essay will argue that race still informs our perceptions of how different individuals should act, which beliefs they should hold and to which cultures and classes they should belong as a part of preserving the white supremacist culture that has dominated the West for centuries. I will discuss this thesis in relation to Omi and Winant’s concept of racial formation, and how this theory relates to my experience as someone of a mixed racial background. I will discuss the relation I have identified in my life between class privilege and white privilege. I believe my class privilege informs people’s perceptions of me, allowing me to pass for white. I will first outline Winant’s basic theory and then provide a case-study, illustrating how it can apply to a childhood experience of mine.
Winant argues there is a process of “racial formation,” whereby race is constructed and reformed by society based on how we treat people with certain bodies (Omi and Winant 54). Winant tells us “race is an unstable and ‘decentred’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle.” The definition of race he arrives at is “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of bodies” (Omi 55). Winant argues we all help construct social perceptions of race through the undertaking of “racial projects” conducted at the macro and micro levels (Omi 56). Macro-level racial projects are embedded in broader social structures in our white-dominated society, like the conservative discourse that opposes affirmative action (Omi 57), whereas micro level racial projects operate on the level of individual interactions that serve to enforce or deconstruct the white “racial dictatorship” (Omi 66) that has been North America’s default political position for centuries: “To see projects operating at the level of every day life, we have only to examine the ways in which we, often unconsciously, ‘notice’ race” (Omi 59). Thus our own assumptions of who people are based on physical evidence of their ethnicity is a key aspect of racial formation. This proves we are all complicit in racism and therefore are all responsible for ending it. This is particularly true for me.
I am half Armenian. Though my skin is quite pale, my face has what I have always thought of as many Armenian features. I look distinctly less Anglo-Saxon than my white Anglo-Saxon mother, with her blue eyes and dainty English nose; however, despite the proof of the ethnic differences written on my body and embedded in my Armenian last name, I am often assumed by others to be a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The individual interactions with others that form the micro level of racial formation in my life constitute me as an upper class white girl with a great amount of privilege.
My father grew up teased about his “ethnic” last name and non-white heritage by students in his Hamilton classroom. His peers thought whatever his culture was, though they knew nothing about it, must be weird in comparison with their predominately Scottish heritage. I, however, was never teased about my ethnicity. My differences went unnoticed. This could be because I was born years later and perhaps things have changed somewhat for the better, or perhaps that I am somewhat lighter-skinned than my father; however, I believe the fundament difference as to why I am not just allowed to pass as, but am assumed to be, white, is because I have class privilege and my father was raised working-class. My class privilege was born when my father grew up to be a financially successful lawyer. He bought a house in an expensive Toronto neighbourhood and sent his children to exclusive private schools rooted in the very White Anglo-Saxon traditions and privilege that had made him such an object of discrimination in elementary school.
Winant describes the process of hegemony whereby racial minorities begin to consent and sometimes participate in their own oppression by buying into “socially constructed” expectations concerning race (Omi and Winant 68). I myself have consented to my own racial oppression and perpetuated it. I vividly remember one incident in grade 7 when my music teacher remarked while taking attendance, “Sahagian? That is an interesting last name, Sarah. That’s as in “haggis”, is it not?” I understood the implication immediately. No matter how obviously un-Scottish my name was, my teacher could not fathom I was not WASP because so few girls at my school were not. Instead, she ascribed my name’s origins to an imaginary Scottish clan devoted to a dish made of sheep guts. The message was if my family had the class privilege to send me there, I must be completely white. My teacher, subconsciously or not, asserted white dominance by assuming racial minorities were incapable of entering the upper classes. Winant claims, “Our ability to interpret racial meanings depends on our preconceived nations of a racialized social structure” (Omi and Winant 59). She did not notice my race because she noticed the privileged class position that contradicted her assumptions about where raced bodies should be located. I defied the socialized structure that economically disadvantages people of colour.
After my teacher commented ignorantly about my last name in front of my entire class, I began to be afraid that I would not fit in if I admitted my true identity, so I replied, “Yes, it is Scottish. My name is Sahagian as in haggis.” Her assumption that I had to be white if I was at a school like Branksome made me think it was absolutely essential to pretend. What if people found out I was wearing a kilt as a uniform and reciting Anglican prayers with the rest of them but that I was lying the entire time? These traditions did not represent my heritage like it did the other girls’. This was the moment when my passing for white became a conscious decision. I never considered that maybe racism and the existence of a class hierarchy altogether were wrong. Instead, I bought into the idea that the white people I was surrounded by at school were superior. I believed whites were the only ones who could have real influence in a hegemonic system, and decided that in order not to grow up powerless, I had to adopt the race my class privilege dictated I should have. I began a racial project at the micro-level; making myself white and denying my roots helped perpetuate white supremacist idea that white people are the only ones with the talent or ability to succeed economically. By denying myself, I was denying my father’s relatively rare but powerful triumph over a system that had sought to scar and oppress him since childhood because of his otherness. I was erasing his ability to serve as proof raced people can be just as valuable to white-dominated institutions as the whites themselves if only we let them into them in the first place.
Winant’s concept of racial formation applies to my life. Even as society changes and non-white people are allowed slightly more economic freedom and room to succeed, my personal example illustrates how there is still room for others to police us and for us to police ourselves in racial hegemony. I did not realize that disowning my own race to conform to white ideas of who should succeed or could succeed in society was so problematic until I came to university and learned about feminists’ critiques of internalized racism. As soon as I was exposed to this idea, however, I realized it described me. I have undeserved class privileges that bought my amazing opportunities in schooling, travel, exposure to high culture and much more. No one has ever identified me as other or raced, unlike my father; however, the price is that until recently, I was too afraid to consider that what others might consider “other” within me could be an crucial part of my identity. I perceived white Anglo Saxon Protestants as the norm to which I should aspire, but this aping of white culture came at a price. It was 90 years ago that millions Armenians died in a horrific genocide. The Turkish forces wanted our culture erased. My family survived, but almost a century later, I too began to participate in this erasure. I must now own my identity and help bring my culture back to life.

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