by Sanjana Sankaran, April 14, 2021
Vilna Bashi-Treitler, The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions
Bashi-Treitler begins chapter three by answering the question, “How are ethnic groups racialized in the United States?” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 44). She begins by discussing the three major racial paradigms that came about, starting in Europe and later in North America. The first racial paradigm started in England with the Irish. The first English colonization occurred in Ireland. The English despised their pastoral culture, viewed them as heathens, and instilled several discriminatory laws such as marriage bans, and enslavement. This racialized thinking was built on preexisting ideas of hierarchy and classism based on the feudal system of medieval times (Bashi-Treitler 2013). After the English began settlements in America, the second racial paradigm was developed: Native Americans. The odious views of the Irish were then reflected onto Native Americans. What started as Native Americans helping English settlers survive eventually led to the ill-treatment of indigenous people, stealing of lands, and genocide by the English due to racialized thinking. After the development of colonies, African Americans became the third racial paradigm (Bashi-Treitler 2013).
Up until this point, race was a mere social experiment, but it was only when American colonists brought African American slaves to the New World did this experiment transform into a reality. African Americans now became the new basis, and still are to this day, of the racial hierarchy. Bashi-Trietler states that slaves were not slaves because they were black, but rather they became black after they became slaves. Elite white colonizers used racialized thinking to rationalize their desire for land, riches, and cheap labor. In the late 1600s to 1700s elite whites colonizers, in an attempt to subdue claims to power and land from Native Americans, ethnic whites such as Italians and Irish were now considered white in the racial hierarchy. With their status changed, the Irish and Italians would no longer try to protest against British colonizers with natives. While these groups may have still been discriminated against, in the context of the racial hierarchy, being closer to the top is always better than being on the bottom. In the past, religious conversions could move ethnic people up in the hierarchy, but this could no longer be used to stop racial inequality and the mechanisms of racial politiculture (Bashi-Treitler 2013). From now on, one was either born white or was considered not white at all. Bashi-Treitlet then states that “When ‘white’ is fully formed as the category at the hierarchy’s topmost position, race is systematic, paradigmatic, and unmistakably North American” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 52).
At this point, Bashi-Treitler has established that Race and the rules that come with this construct are completely fictional, but they are still able to persist. She states the reason for this is due to the “systematic and societal support for the structure (or paradigm) of racial/racist thought” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 59). One of the roots for the persistence of racism was internalized shame for those who accepted their higher status and shame associated with those who went against this racial thinking. There were not enough white allies who chose to stand up against this racial hegemony. As other ethnic groups began to assimilate into white culture, they still faced racial slurs and racial bias. She ends by saying that systemic racism persists not only because of the white group, but also due to the competition amongst all groups in this racial hierarchy. Any BIPOC group aims to stay away from the bottom of the racial hierarchy and be higher than other groups. In order to do this, groups that are not literally white have to find methods to assimilate such as ignoring key cultural aspects of their lives and adopting aspects of white culture, thus acknowledging white dominance. Bashi-Treitler states that all ethnic groups have feelings of superiority, differences from other groups, privilege, and fear of loss of their position in the hierarchy (Bashi-Treitler 2013). If this is recognized amongst all groups the problems of systemic racism can begin to get addressed.
Many parts of this reading stood out to me, for instance, when Bashi-Treitler states that blackness was developed as a result of slavery. In my history classes, I have always been taught that that Americans and Western Europeans brought African Americans as slaves due to their black skin. However, we had never discussed the true motivations for slavery and how that brand of slavery evolved into anti-black rhetoric. At first, I found it a bit confusing due to my preexisting knowledge of slavery, but now I agree with Bashi-Treitler and understand that blackness was an idea that was created for labor and land. The racialized thinking of how we view blacks now came from the idea that we view them as the bottom of the hierarchy, expendable, and unworthy.
Another aspect that I found interesting is when Bashi-Treitler states that all groups take part in the racialized hierarchy and each group vyes to be at the top. Before taking Racism and Ethnic Relations, I had naively believed that only white people can be racist and that the problems of systemic racism are rooted in the racialized mindset of white lawmakers. I now see that it is much larger than that. Not only can anyone have racist thinking, but anyone can feel this way to avoid the severe discrimination and societal disapproval that people at the bottom of the hierarchy face. When thinking about my own life, I know several Indians who are pro-Trump and anti-BLM because they feel that the social standing of black people is black people’s fault, In the process, Indians fall prey to the ideas of racial hegemony to avoid discrimination. However, what they do not realize is that Bashi-Treitler was right when she said that “Whiteness is a club you cannot marry into or join through naturalization; whiteness can only be bestowed. In the racialized United States of America, whiteness is the only attribute that really counts” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 54).
When trying to understand the racist ideologies of white supremacists and those of other cultures, I can now understand what Bashi-Treitler meant when she stated that whiteness is kept up because of shame. Whenever we hear the arguments of Trump supporters, for instance, they always say that society has become too politically correct. These people grew up believing that associating with BIPOC people and believing in ideas of equality brought about shame to them and their community. They may have also felt internalized shame because a majority of the population are not white supremacists. When Trump rose to power, this man, normalized open acts of racism, exposing the racialized mindset that was already present.
Bashi, Treitler, Vilna. The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, Stanford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sunysb-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1324242.