The Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness

By Elizaveta Gaufman

Elizaveta Gaufman reflects on our recent Early Career Researcher Master Class with Éric Fassin

The Sociological Review Foundation and Goldsmiths University hosted a wonderful event for early career researchers – master class with Professor Éric Fassin (Université Paris-8). The master class united a group of researchers who dealt with the topic of gender and race in their dissertations and post-doc projects. Professor Fassin started off by discussing the topic of gender in France and how it was actually linked to the topic of Anti-Americanism. Despite the rich tradition of French post-structuralist school, on the French media and governmental level the topic of gender was rejected in the name of French identity: talking about gender and race was perceived as “too American” before 9/11. The assumption that the conversation about gender is superimposed on countries by some other entity is a trope familiar to most countries that have an “anti-gender” movement: in many conservative circles the topic of gender is dismissed as alien to their “traditional” culture. Nevertheless, some far-right politicians are striving to play the so-called “Dutch card” when they use homophobia in their anti-migrant rhetoric thus conflating the topics of race and gender in political campaigns.

Participants of the master class presented their projects as well. Sadia Habib discussed the problem of teaching ‘Britishness’ in an immigrant community: how do local place identity, social class, social inequality, racism and transnational identity come together? Moreover, by talking about national identity one is at risk of employing nationalist methodologies and master narratives. Britishness in Sadia’s research is a vehicle to talk about other topics. Sadia used art in order to spark the conversation and her students prepared self-portraits where a fascinating interplay of identity perception was visible, with students creating interesting palimpsests of their Britishness and migrant background.

Two presentations dealt specifically with the topic of masculinity. Hannah Wilkinson is studying the effects of the British War on Terror on former soldiers. She asks whether leaving this kind of war is different than leaving a ‘regular’ war? How do former soldiers integrate in civilian life? How does army impact their views on race and gender and even personal relationships? An interesting point of contention was related to the display of masculinity. What is the line between “real man” and “really gay”? Professor Fassin noted that there is a certain hierarchy of masculinities, while the norm is about not being too feminine and too masculine, as ultimate displays of masculinity actually look gay. The Russian case had a more geopolitical aspect. The notion of “Gayropa” is used among Russian pundits not only to denigrate Europe as “too tolerant” with its “deviant values”, but also to establish Russian superiority over Western countries. In this gender hierarchy a “male” geopolitical actor is superior to a “female” one. Thus, gender is not only the way of organizing relations between sexes, it is also a signifier for power relations.

One notable example was given by Jen Higgins. She is studying hate speech legislation and it turns out there is a certain stratification based on race, sexuality, religion, where different level of protection is awarded to different levels. Due to the British colonial past, more protection is awarded to race, while the issue of gender is absent. Jen thinks that the legislation is about preserving public order and not about preserving dignity. In this respect, Professor Fassin noted that gender equality in the US worked by appropriating the language of civil rights movement and this experience might be helpful in other countries that are struggling with gender-based discrimination.

Another thought-provoking statement that Professor Fassin made was related to public sphere. Public sphere is something inside of us. Before people start thinking about what they are, they already know what other people think of them. There is a range of public expectations of what you are supposed to do. Hence, as several participants noted, there are different expectations from a ‘white’ and a ‘brown’ body, from ‘female’ and ‘male’ body and the way they are supposed to perform their identity. For instance, if a woman works in hospitality business, she is often sexualized and gendered: she is supposed to “feed men” and be comfortable with unwanted sexual advances.

Perceptions of Blackness and Whiteness matter too and this dichotomy illustrates the fluidity and constructed nature of race in particular. Master class participants noted a wide range of cases when people who would normally be considered stereotypically white nowadays, were once considered black. The Irish in the the turn of the century United States, Swedes in Medieval France or even people from the North Caucasus in Russia – the latter factoid utterly amazed a fellow sociologist from the United States at the Sociological Review Annual Lecture.

One of the main conclusions of the master class was the advice to de-nationalize the research on gender. Even despite the fact that most conservative and far-right parties that use the “anti-gender” rhetoric want to seem unique in protecting their supposedly “traditional” values, their discourse is virtually the same, be it in France, Hungary, Poland, or Russia. They seem to employ exactly the same tropes, fear-mongering tactics and even posters, making it clear that the language of prejudice is universal.

Originally published 26th June 2016.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: