Privilege in Phoenix

May 14, 2010

The Arizona “ethnic studies” bill recently signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer prevents the teaching of any class “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.”  Doesn’t this mean we can no longer teach European History?  After all, that class is designed primarily for students of European descent; students of Latin-American, African-American, Arab-American, Asian-American, or Quebecois (I kid, I kid) origination aren’t the ones those classes are designed for, right? They can’t possibly be expected to want to learn about the influence of European countries on their own home regions, on the world, on culture in general.

That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  Now replace “European” in that paragraph with “Latin American” and try it out again.  Isn’t that exactly what the Arizona Legislature is saying with this bill?

This is a perfect example of the acceptance of a majority or dominant viewpoint as neutral, an assumption that underlies a number of legal issues.  By implicitly designating the status quo as neutrality, even well-meaning attempts (and I am by no means implying that the Arizona bill is well-intended) to reduce the disparity between a hierarchically subordinated group and the hypothetically neutral majority operate to reinforce that hierarchy.

Take affirmative action.  Affirmative action operates to reduce the disadvantage, the distance from neutral, that black students operate under from historical oppression, right?  Wrong.  It operates to reduce the gap between white and black students.  Affirmative action’s goal, though not intended by its defenders, is to bring the disadvantaged onto a playing field that is level with the (white) majority culture. Of course, by doing so, they implicitly assume that that is where they ought to be.  They assume whiteness as normal and desirable.

Take pregnancy.  We treat it as a medical disability in many ways, because it represents a departure from the neutral state (non-pregnancy).  That neutral state is the majority (male) state, and by treating it as, effectively, a negative, a disability, we again operate to reinforce the notion that the non-pregnant state is the neutral playing field we seek to return everyone to.  For men, that is obviously quite easy – for women, it then gives rise to the choice between motherhood and career, a choice that is often seen as being at the root of issues for women in the workplace.

And these are often well-meant attempts to try to help the subordinated class achieve equality.  When used, even in ignorance of the idea, to try to reinforce hierarchy actively the effect is doubly powerful.  There’s the obvious active denigration of the subordinate idea (in this case, the idea that ethnic studies are a worthwhile item of study in and of themselves – and let’s even note that the term ethnic studies when used to refer to the class of studies dealing with non-white cultures is itself an example of this neutrality of the majority concept – as well as the simple denigration of the subordinated class as not as valuable as whites) and the more passive implicit reinforcement of the dominant hierarchy by treating it as the neutral item of value.

It’s possible the Arizona legislators responsible for this bill believe, in good faith, that it will prevent giving some kind of “special treatment” to Mexican-Americans and Mexican-American topics.  But if they really believe that avoiding special treatment of a discrete class is a worthwhile goal, what’s their justification for studying European history, or for that matter, American history?  The assumed neutrality of the majority masks the contradiction between their stated goal and their desired outcome.

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