Ethnicity and the New Racism in the Basic Interpersonal Communication Course

By Peterson, Eric E. | Women and Language, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Ethnicity and the New Racism in the Basic Interpersonal Communication Course


Peterson, Eric E., Women and Language


Basic interpersonal communication courses in the United States reflect a society shaped by civil rights and feminist movements to the extent that they raise issues of race, gender, and culture. For the most part, however, these issues are raised as peripheral concerns within the "larger" tradition of communication pedagogy. Basic course textbooks, for example, add sections on race and ethnicity or perhaps an entire chapter on gender. Unlike the racism and sexism which operates through opposition and exclusion, most basic interpersonal communication courses now openly acknowledge racial and ethnic diversity, and on rare occasions, diversity in sexual orientation. Such diversity, however, is carefully contained in special units and readings so as not to disrupt the current ordering of power and privilege. In this essay, I describe the operation of the new racism in basic interpersonal communication courses, identify two difficulties in how we conceptualize interpersonal communication in the basic course, and suggest an alternative approach to race and ethnicity which attempts to engage rather than suppress difference.

Old and New Racism in Interpersonal Communication

The old racism defines group differences according to "nature" or "biology" whereas the new racism defines group differences according to "culture" and especially "national culture." As Stuart Hall (1992) reminds us, however, the shift to a new phase should not be interpreted as the substitution of one set of relations for another. Instead, new forms "displace, reorganize and reposition" old forms of representing race (p. 253). In the new racism, references to race are displaced with terms that evoke but do not name it: for example, discussions of "welfare queens," "quotas," or immigration. Crudely stated concerns over biological and racial "purity" are reorganized into questions of patriotism and nationalism in what Paul Gilroy (1992) calls "an imaginary definition of the nation as a unified cultural community" (p. 53). Culture and ethnic identity are repositioned to exclude politics and history in essentialized definitions of culture and ethnicity as "cultural insiderism" and "ethnic absolutism."

At the University of Maine, for example, interpersonal communication classes do not exhibit obvious forms of racism such as the explicit denigration characteristic of the old racism. While explicit denigration undoubtedly persists in interaction on campus, students recognize that the polite and everyday interaction required for the classroom excludes such forms of racism. Comments such as "members of group x are naturally gifted athletes" or "members of group y are naturally better at speaking" are rare or non-existent in textbooks and classes. In fact, the most common reference to race (and often the only one) in basic textbooks are admonitions to avoid "racist language" and descriptions of the problems of stereotyping and prejudice. Rather than explicit denigration, the forms of racism found in interpersonal communication courses tend to exemplify what Philomena Essed (1991) describes as marginalization and containment.

Marginalization can be seen in the extent to which white, European American male interaction patterns are assumed unreflectively as normative or universal. For example, most textbooks describe only one (European American male) pattern of eye contact in conversation wherein listeners look at speakers more than speakers look at listeners. Textbooks suggest that this pattern is "normative" and should be used to guide prescriptions regarding skill development for "good" or "competent" communication. Little or no attention is given to non-European American patterns. Nor do textbooks attend to differences generated in the intersection and interaction of gender, sexual orientation, class, and age.

On rare occasions, a textbook may identify more than one racial or ethnic pattern or describe misunderstandings that occur when different patterns intersect.

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