Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The fantasy of "objective" distance and White privilege

This is an often repeated scenario: A White male professor asks a graduate student from China "Aren't you biased, given that you are doing this study on Chinese netizens?" "Tell me why should this be generalizable."

This stance is reflective of the power of Whiteness to erase its own location and specificity as a universal, while simultaneously turning the "other" as the subject of investigation. Objective distance is therefore something that needs to be performed when studying the exotic "other" located elsewhere.

The fact is that most of our journals are inundated with White American scholars making a large number of grandiose claims about human behavior on the basis of studies conducted on White subjects in the classroom. In the sense of these claim made by the White man then, almost all of communication scholarship is fundamentally flawed (or at least large parts are).

The scripted retort voiced by the Chinese student to the White powerful male professor in my world of fantasy is this "Prof., my study of Chinese netizens is nearly not as biased as your entire body of work on public deliberation based on American populations of college students from the mostly White Midwest. Moreover, you build your entire body of work from other similar White scholars running other similar studies on other White convenient samples. So no Prof, at least I am beginning with a more diverse framework by attempting to work with theories developed in the White context and applying in the context of China. I have exposure to other ways of knowing and thinking, which you in your hubris and arrogance, don't. So actually no, I am much less biased than you are."

Yet, the power of Whiteness lies in precisely erasing the locational specificity of these studies and the inherent biases that come with White scholars making claims about human behavior from studying White subjects. The power of Whiteness lies in turning articulations grounded in White American realities into articulations about human behavior.

The power of Whiteness lies in the sheer power of colonial knowledge production processes that leave the sites of power unquestioned. In most instances, scholars from India, China, or Singapore are all too eager to please these White scholars and play by their standards.

This is perhaps one of the most prevalent scams of communication research.

As our discipline becomes more global in scope, let's have the foresight and the courage for calling out on this scam. This is essential to equalizing spaces of knowledge production.

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