How Much Does Race Matter? (Documenting My Confusion)
Generally, I write when I have answers. This time, I am writing because I have questions.
I am a PhD student in education, but also a classical liberal. As an education student, I am often confronted with research on ethnic identity as it relates to pedagogy and scholastic achievement. It is not uncommon to hear folks talk about why teachers should take ‘multiculturalism’ classes to learn how to be responsive to students of different ethnic backgrounds. As a classical liberal, on the other hand, I firmly believe that ethnicity, while existent, is an irrelevant category for deciding how to treat others.
So, I hope by now one can understand my confusion. I have political and social beliefs that prohibit me from seeing ethnicity (and sometimes “culture”) as relevant grounds for differential treatment, but also hear so many colleagues devoting research to showing the large extent that ethnicity does differentiate. I am hesitant to say that my colleagues are wrong in their conclusions, as they are the ones who have studied the matter. But I am also hesitant to let go of a large conviction that I have that all people are people first, individuals second, and ethnicities at a distant third.
There have been, of course, many critics of liberalism (John Gray, for instance) who criticize exactly this trend amongst liberals to “decontextualize” people and ignore things like cultural practices and ethnicity as trivial differences. John Rawls work is a great illustration of this tendency: for him, liberal policies are best arrived at by groups of people who decide behind a “veil of ignorance” where they are not a member of an ethnicity, culture, religion, social or economic class, etc. This is to ensure that, true to liberal form, people decide on policies without any regard to how they will affect themselves or any other particular people. If we decide from behind this “veil of ignorance,” we can be neutral in our creation of policies.
Rawls, though, has rightly been critizied for writing as if people actually could decontextualize themselves this much: that we actually could look at things from a, if you will, viewpoint neutral way. As the postmodernists are always fond of saying, everything is done within a context and to attempt neutrality is simply to attempt the kind of decontextualization that is, literally, an impossibility.
But on the other hand, how wrong is it to take someone’s race into account when making decisions about how to treat them? Isn’t this exactly what we’ve worked so hard against? And to complicate matters, those who talk about the importance of ethnicity and culture are generally members of the same academic left that decries studies purporting a link between ethnicity and IQ. So, how does ethnicity matter enough to warrant teachers learning, via multiculturalism classes, how to teach black students as opposed to white students, but become taboo when we bring up ethnicity as a possible correlate of IQ?
So, I am writing out of extreme frustration. On one hand, I am angry about all of those I think are making too much ado about ethnicity. But on the other hand, I cannot simply dismiss the qualitative research done by colleagues that purport to show how big a piece of identity construction ethnicity is and that often advocate differentiated approaches to educating different ethnicities (which the liberal in me twinges at).
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