Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Spring 1994 - Volume 1 Number 3
The New Ethnicity
by Michael R. Whealen

I want to put forward some thoughts about ethnicity today and how it ties in with pedagogical strategies for teaching the subject to college students. Those readers who are expecting anything like a systematic sociological and/or pedagogical treatise will be disappointed, for I have found that thinking constructively about this subject is not especially facilitated by traditional disciplinary approaches. As Charles Taylor, Michel Foucault and a growing chorus of other “academic dissidents” (if the oxymoron may be allowed) have pointed out, the logic of mainstream social science is inextricably complicit in perpetuating a Eurocentric status quo that has long been characterized by structural inequity and the selective oppression of non-European peoples. Personally, I discovered-and not without difficulty-that as a white, Anglo-Canadian male, I was only able to begin to think openly about ethnicity once I moved beyond the conceptual constraints imposed by modernist, hegemonic, social scientific discourses. So what I am attempting here is the development of a personal, impressionistic, partial and-I hope-illuminating micronarrative of my own discovery of the problematicity of addressing ethnicity in our colleges today.

As a community college professor teaching sociology to first and second semester students, largely in a law enforcement program, I have for some time considered it important to devote a considerable portion of the curriculum to the topics of race and ethnicity. It is, however, worthwhile to mention that I approached this obligation with trepidation. The issue of appropriation of voice notwithstanding (who am I-a relatively privileged white, Anglo male-to speak for the oppressed?), I noticed that I invariably lost the engagement of Black students when I pointed out that there was no such a thing as a “Black race”-that this was a biologically ridiculous and socially derogatory category invented by Europeans and Euroamericans in the nineteenth century.

Presumably, I was taking away something that was important to these students-their justified sense of solidarity with their Black brothers and sisters who were, in fact, united in terms of their common history of almost universal exploitation. And, case in point, disengagement turned into downright hostility when-as often happened-some student raised the thorny issue of antisemitic remarks made from time to time by certain representatives of the Nation of Islam in the United States. Yet conversely, I was also obliged to point out that the process of identification with the members of an ethnic group could constitute the beginnings of an effective political empowerment for those who made such choices. Plainly, there was a contradiction here; for how could ethnicity be simultaneously an instrument of oppression (as a racist social category) and a choice that might lead to empowerment? This left both my students and me confused. Nor did the traditional scholastic way of resolving contradictions (when faced with one, make a distinction) help matters much: on the one hand, it's good; on the other, it's bad? What were my students-especially those who had an “investment” in their ethnicity-to make of this ambiguous take on the subject? Simply put, what I found out was that, in trying impartially or objectively to describe an aspect of contemporary social reality, I was running the risk of empowering nascent racists or, perhaps, further dispossessing the already disenfranchised. I began to suspect that something was amiss at the epistemological level.

Simultaneously, I was troubled by certain aspects of the chapters on race and ethnicity that are usually found in introductory sociological textbooks. They alternated, it seemed, between discussions of the complex structural theories of ethnicity (which students often found incomprehensible) and the presentation of mind-numbing masses of demographic data about ethnicity in Canada. When asked, my students almost invariably reported that they found the chapters in question to be the most difficult ones in their text(s). So, all in all, I was faced with selective disengagement in the classroom, (often on the part of those who could potentially make the most valuable contributions to discussions of what it means to belong to an ethnic group), and a growing conviction that something was wrong at the epistemological level when it came to the textual delivery and presentation of the subject.

The problem here, it seems to me, is that with a few notable exceptions (see, for instance, Laclau and Mouffe, 1987), the study of ethnicity has yet to come to terms with the problematicity of the (Eurocentric) modernist presuppositions that inform the logic of much academic discourse. Starting (arguably) with philosophy, a growing number of disciplines have been forced in the past few decades to engage in a rethinking of their epistemological foundations; they can be said to have taken a “postmodern turn” (Hassan, 1987) that has ultimately seen them emerge as more vibrant, diverse and multivocal for having done so. Not surprisingly, the study of ethnicity is a relatively new phenomenon, and my suspicion is that it remains mired-except perhaps at the highest levels-in the problematic epistemology of modernity. If this is the case, then what is to be done? Well, that's an interesting question, and I must admit that what I have to offer is little more than a few suggestions based on what I've learned from other disciplines that have taken the postmodern turn, in addition to my own classroom experiences. They will be presented in that order below.

Methodology and Epistemology

Power, as the axiom would have it, is the ability to define reality. One of the major ways power defines reality is through is cultural hegemony. A complex and much-defined concept, it can, perhaps, be best described as that process by which discourse and inquiry are shaped and directed in advance by the dominant beliefs, opinions, values and interests of a society's ?lite. In this instance, we are talking about those professional discourses on ethnicity that too often appear in basic sociology texts. How, one might ask, has ethnic reality, as it is represented in these texts, been shaped by power? For one thing, they are normally informed by this binary logic:

  • the same
  • the enfranchised
  • Eurocentricity
  • homogeneity
  • assimilation
  • the empowered
  • the other
  • the disenfranchised
  • ethnocentricity
  • difference
  • ethnic identification
  • the disempowered

The problem with such binary logic, when applied to social reality, is that it tends to obscure the existence of mediation and change. When such presuppositions are carried over into honest efforts to explore ethnic issues, the result is often the kind of contradiction that I described earlier. What would undoubtedly be better would be an epistemological view that approached ethnicity not from the perspective of “either/or” but “both/and”. Such a perspective allows the best look at the social reality of ethnicity, which can be both a powerful agent for social change and a forceful instrument of oppression.

In what other ways does power define the reality of some academic discourses on ethnicity, the best intentions of scholars and teachers notwithstanding? Many introductory texts have a tendency to essentialize ethnicity, for example by having discrete subsections on the “typical” traits and contributions of the different ethnic groups making up the Canadian mosaic. The Linnean logic at work in such presentations is that there is “a place for everyone” (and that, implicitly, everyone should “stay in one's place”). This kind of essentialism also shows up in discussions of ethnic organizations. Italian-Canadians, for example, are said to show strong support for networks within their communities. While this may be true for some, it is decidedly untrue for others. Such arguments-just one step removed from the more negative comment, “they stick to themselves”-polarize inquiry, ignoring, as they do, the complex, diachronic interplay between “Italian-Canadians” and other groups and individuals in Canadian society. In general, then, there is a hegemonic, ordering logic of identity at work here that, at the very least, badly misrepresents the reality of ethnicity as an overdetermined and emergent phenomenon in our society today.

A Pedagogical Praxis

As an educator sensitive to the difficulties posed by some of the hidden agendas mentioned above, I have tried out a number of strategies in the classroom that were meant to subvert the hegemonic infrastructure of many introductory texts and standard curricula on ethnicity.

I have attempted to move away from the logic of identity by heavily weighting the curriculum with literature that deals metaphorically with the experience of being “the other.” Such selections need not be long pieces; I have had especially encouraging results, for instance, with “ethnic” poetry. I also believe that it is important to expose students to the tremendous political salience of ethnicity, both now and in the immediate future. This can be done by encouraging written assignments that introduce students to radical social philosophers such as Frantz Fanon, V‡clev Havel or Malcolm X, to name but three. Or, this can be accomplished by discussing current events in places like Rwanda, South Africa, Iraq or Bosnia-Hercegovina. Exploring contemporary ethnopolitical conflicts also gives me the opportunity to encourage students to look for the hegemonic/racist subtexts underlying much mainstream media reportage (what derogatory presuppositions, for example, are implicit in referring to legitimate demands for ethnic autonomy and self-determination as a “new tribalism”?).

Dramaturgy has also been helpful. In a typical scenario, I will play devil's advocate by challenging a student with the kind of racist logic that has typically been voiced by white supremacists. It is amazing to see the passion and conviction that students frequently display in such situations; often, I must stop and remind them that we are only role-playing!

Above all, I have found that it is crucial to encourage the “others” in the classroom to speak of their personal experience with prejudice and exploitation. Not only is this a much needed (because empowering) experience for many of these students, but it also serves as an effective refutation of the opinion that racism, prejudice and discrimination really are not significant problems in Canadian society anymore.


Teachers are many things, but we are, importantly, authority figures who are given the important task of helping our students define reality. And this makes teaching a power game, whether we like it or not. I came gradually to see that, given my personal demographics, I had a vested interest in encouraging my students to continue to define reality in the way that my privileged ancestors and I have traditionally defined it. The only problem was that it was no longer working. The reason for this, I suspect, has to do with larger socio-political changes afoot today, where the torch is being passed not to a new generation, but to a future when power will finally reside with all the people, and the world will learn to celebrate human diversity just as we are now learning to celebrate biodiversity.


Hassan, Ihab. [1987] The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Bowling Green: Ohio State University Press.

Laclau, E. and C. Mouffe. [1987] Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. New York: Verso.

Michael Whealen (still an unregenerate anti-chiliast) has taught for many years in the C.A.A.T. system and is currently associated with the Centre for Academic Writing at York University in Toronto, Ontario.