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College Quarterly
Fall 1994 - Volume 2 Number 1
Pedagogy, Racism, and ‘The Postmodern Turn’
by Ralph V. Barrett

In a recent article in The College Quarterly (Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring, 1994), Michael Whealen examines “the conceptual constraints imposed by modernist, hegemonic social scientific discourse” on the study of race and ethnicity. As he suggests, “the binary logic” of many sociological texts encourages an Eurocentric analysis that conceptually constructs an ahistorical, apolitical social science which avoids an analysis of the political and economic exploitation that is associated with racial and ethnic prejudice and discrimination. Textbooks, for example, can easily become filled with banal content which simply describes the multicultural diversity of the Canadian mosaic and identifies the contributions of various groups to Canadian culture and society. For Whealen, the “study of ethnicity … remains mired … in the problematic epistemology of modernity” and the solution for the social sciences is to take a “postmodern turn” in order “to expose students to the tremendous political salience of ethnicity, both now and in the immediate future.”

Whealen's account of the pedagogical limits of contemporary sociological studies of ethnicity is clearly and systematically presented. The issues he raises concerning established approaches to studying and teaching race and ethnicity are of crucial importance. On the other hand, the “postmodern turn” needs to be scrutinized. At the risk of being accused of “repressive clarity” (Jacoby, 1994, p. 169), do concepts such as “problematizing,” “hegemonic, ordering logic of identity,” and “hegemonic/racist subtexts” move the analysis of ethnicity beyond the abstract, Platonic approaches of traditional sociological inquiry?

While it is important for “‘others’ in the classroom to speak of their personal experiences with prejudice and exploitation,” this has to be linked to an understanding of the political and economic forces (vested interests) that reinforce and maintain racism. Any analysis of the “political salience” of race and ethnicity must provide an historical perspective in spite of the problem of “selective disengagement in the classroom.” Many of our students seem to be in agreement with Henry Ford and believe that “history is bunk” or, in the contemporary lexicon, “boring.” An historical perspective on racial and ethnic oppression can build upon, but has to invoke more than, the personal micro-experience of students and professors or we may end up in a poetic, dramaturgical - never mind ahistorical - cul-de-sac (subtext?). As Whealen's criticisms of traditional sociology texts suggests, it will be difficult to find a social history of the development of racial and ethnic oppression. Many of those who decry the time spent of non-vocational general education in the community colleges seem to prefer a quick-fix, human relations approach which emphasizes respect for diversity and good citizenship but remains indifferent to a genuine understanding of the sources of racism.

Unfortunately, racism was and is not simply a result of ignorance of other cultures and viewpoints; it was developed to explain and justify economic and political exploitation by claiming that African and other visible minorities were physically and morally inferior to Europeans. This belief was based on the pseudo-empiricism of social Darwinism, eugenics and intelligence testing; prejudice and discrimination were justified by “science.” The belief in bio-genetic inequality is at the core of modern racism; it has been used to sanctify slavery in the nineteenth century and “ethnic cleansing” in our own. Any attempt to understand and eliminate racial and ethnic oppression must include an account of how and why such oppression is historically constructed.

It is often assumed that racism has historically led to the development of slavery and that prejudice against those who are different (especially in skin pigmentation) is a universal fact of history, if not an essential part of human nature. Frank Snowden's book Before Color Prejudice (1983) challenges these facile assumptions. As he concludes, “nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world.” (p. 63) In antiquity, while slavery existed in, for example, the Roman Empire, it was not linked to African blacks and, in fact, “the vast majority of the thousands of slaves was white, not black.” (p. 70) There was no attempt to develop elaborate racist theories to prove blacks, for instance, were by nature more suited than other groups to be slaves or that those with white skins were inherently superior.

The revival of slavery in the western hemisphere during the development of capitalism was not initially accompanied by racist ideas. As Eric Williams reminds us: “Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labour in the New World was brown, white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan.” (Williams, 1961, p. 6) The massive shift to African slavery beginning in the latter part of the 17th century was primarily to tap an almost unlimited supply of cheap, controllable unfree labour. The tobacco plantations of colonial Virginia until the 1680s “rested primarily on the backs of English indentured servants,” who could be bought and sold, physically abused, and “killed with impunity,” not on African slaves. (Fields, 1990, p. 102) Moreover, African slavery existed for approximately 100 years in the Americas before the development of racist ideas that tried to justify its existence.

At the same time, a form of slavery was instituted for specific groups in Scotland as early as 1597 when Scotland's Poor Law was amended to allow “vagrants and their children,” approximately 10% of the population, to be legally sentenced “to lifetime servitude to private employers”. In 1605, an employer could take vagrants to court and have them legally declared lifetime servants and “set his burning iron upon them and retain them as slaves”. The Scottish Parliament in 1606 passed a law that permitted the owners of coal mines and salt works to seize unemployed men and “force them to work for the owners as slaves”; the slavery of coal miners was both perpetual and hereditary. (Allen, 1994, p. 218) The last slaves in Scottish coal mines were released in 1799 after this form of forced labour ceased to be economically viable and in the mid-1860s, Moss Nook, who in his youth had been a coal slave, recalled being sold to another owner in exchange for a pit pony. (White, 1994, p. 257)

In England, Sir William Petty argued forcefully for the introduction of slavery for “insolvent thieves.” He pointed out that: “as slaves, they may be forced to as much labour and as cheap fare as nature will endure.” (White, 1994, p. 72) The year was 1662. Obviously, among British ruling classes, slavery for the destitute lower orders was a matter of economic calculation, not racial ideology. Similarly, for the European as well as the British ruling classes, large land holdings in the Americas which produced a crop that could be exported for profit required a permanent labour force that could, itself, be imported and bought and sold for profit. Selective slavery in Britain and the massive importation of African slaves was simply economical.

While resorting to African slavery may have made economic sense, the eventual emergence of racist ideas to justify African slavery and, after emancipation, discrimination against black wage-labourers and their families, did not. Bacon's Rebellion, a successful, although temporary, overthrow of the plantation and colonial ruling class in Virginia by European bond servants and African slaves in 1676, resulted in a conscious and deliberate policy of separating groups of unfree labourers on the basis of skin colour. White skin privileges were the alternative to black skin oppression and required almost one hundred years to become fully institutionalized in colonial America. After the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 - a document affirming revolutionary doctrines of liberty and natural rights - the ideology of racism was developed to explain and justify why some and not “all men are created equal”; the distinction was to be based on the colour of their skin. “It was not Afro-Americans, furthermore, who needed a racial explanation; it was not they who invented themselves as a race.” (Fields, 1990, p. 114) In fact, as Allen (1994) points out, the white race invented itself at the same time to justify its power and privileges. The covert and overt consequences of the invention of “races” persist since “race is neither biology nor an idea absorbed in biology ... It is an ideology and ideologies do not have a life of their own.” (Fields, 1990, p. 117) Race and racism survive in our own society because they are constantly created and recreated in our personal, political, economic and cultural relations.

Pedagogically, any attempt at a “postmodern turn” away from conventional social science concepts of race and ethnicity will have to involve a systematic effort to historically deconstruct these concepts themselves. Teachers will have to risk the possible selective disengagement of their students because only by examining the historical construction of race and ethnicity can we realize the historical possibilities of eliminating the destructive ideologies that promote prejudice and discrimination and justify political and economic inequality in our society.


Allen, T. (1994). The Invention of the White Race: Racial Oppression and Social Control. New York: Verso.

Fields, B. (1990). Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America, New Left Review. No, 181.

Jacoby, R. (1994). Dogmatic Wisdom. New York: Doubleday.

Snowden, F. (1983). Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Whealen, M. (1994). The New Ethnicity, The College Quarterly (Vol. 1, No. 3).

Williams, E. (1966). Capitalism and Slavery. New York: Capricorn Books

Ralph V. Barrett teaches Canadian Studies and Sociology at Seneca College in Toronto, Ontario.