Apertura: Race in International Relations

By Persaud, Randolph B.; Walker, R. B. J. | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, October-December 2001 | Go to article overview
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Apertura: Race in International Relations


Persaud, Randolph B., Walker, R. B. J., Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


R. B. J. Walker (*)

Colonialism without a civilizational mission is no colonialism at all.

Ashis Nandy

Race is a complex and multiply contested concept, pulled this way and that by the opposing demands of culture and biology, knowledge and power. It animates antagonisms in the academy, in homes, and on the streets. Few conversations about race manage to avoid either the engaged anger of the conversationalists or the sense that the conversation has to move in many directions at once--not least toward claims about gender and class, toward the overlapping frames of otherness, alterity, or orientalism through which we seek to comprehend contemporary exclusions and the legitimation of oppressive powers.

The theory of international relations has shown a famous aversion to complex and multiply contested concepts. It has been especially silent about race, as about many other practices that cannot be quickly reduced to claims about the necessities of states in a modern states-system. Like culture, economy, or gender, it does not fit into the prevailing division of the world into "levels" above (the international) and below (the individual) the state. Unlike culture, economy, and gender, there has been very little attempt to insist that claims about race do indeed deserve serious discussion in the context of a changing international or global order.

From time to time, of course, the discipline does open up to problems hitherto deemed outside its epistemological boundaries. "Opening up" has historically resulted from sustained wars of position between the forces that represent a broadening of the proper subjects of the discipline and those who insist that international relations (IR) is about "war and peace" among states. It may be time for one more apertura; namely, for race to be systematically incorporated into the analysis of global politics. Consider the following:

The first global attempt to speak of equality focused upon race. The first human rights provisions in the United Nations Charter were placed there because of race. The first international challenge to a country's claim of domestic jurisdiction and exclusive treatment of its own citizens centered upon race. The international convention with the greatest number of signatories is that on race. Within the United Nations, more resolutions deal with race than any other subject. And certainly one of the most long-standing and frustrating problems in the United Nations is that of race. Nearly one hundred eighty governments, for example, recently went as far as to conclude that racial discrimination and racism still represent the most serious problems for the world today. (1)

Extensive as it is, the above synopsis provided by Paul G. Lauren must be viewed as very limited indeed. The significance of race goes much beyond various multilateral and other diplomatic achievements. Race has been a fundamental force in the very making of the modern world system and in the representations and explanations of how that system emerged and how it works. This can only be understood, however, if we look at race as an interrelated set of material, ideological, and epistemological practices. The articulation of these latter into full-fledged racialized discourses have produced, over time, social formations and even world orders that were macrostructural systems of inclusion and exclusion.

The primary problem that must be addressed is not that race has been ignored in IR (there is, in fact, a fairly significant literature on racial factors in world politics), but that race has been given the epistemological status of silence. Silence, Michel-Ralph Trouillot tells us, has four moments; namely, "the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).

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