Why Race Matters

By Sean L. Yom, Temple University

* This memo was prepared as part of the “Ethics and Research in the Middle East” symposium

Political scientists of the Middle East frequently engage in critical reflections about what they are doing in the field, perhaps more so than most other subfields. We constantly interrogate from where our discipline originates, whether our research matters, and how we exercise power. Reflexivity comes by raising awkward, even if painful, issues. To this end, I want to engage a frontier of discomfit that ethical dialogues in our subfield almost never broach: race.

Race matters. When I say some truism like this to colleagues at the Middle East Studies Association and other conferences, they typically agree with vigor. Of course race matters. We, as political scientists, are studying Middle Eastern societies in which the predominant religion and ethnicities are misunderstood and vilified. We articulate outrage when our friends and colleagues from the region come to the United States and face racial profiling. We preach the need to exercise self-awareness given the legacy of Western imperialism we carry, and how we behave accordingly in the field.

But that is not what I mean at all. I mean, rather, that my race has mattered to me ­– because unlike most of my colleagues, I am neither white nor Middle Eastern. And this has enormous implications. Most other Western academics studying Middle East politics have skin tones that pass as Caucasian or have regional ethnic heritage. To be clear, I am a Westerner, but my Korean ancestors just two generations removed were victimized by colonial occupation. They had no part of Orientalism (other than being, actually, Orientals.) Still, my Korean ethnicity means I do not fit this bimodal distribution. This is not peculiar: Asians and Asian-Americans have always been underrepresented in political science. In our subfield, however, it does present unique problems of behavior and ethics in the field and at home.

Perception matters in fieldwork, which at the end of the day can boil down to positive social interactions. However, in many countries (and not just the Gulf), if I dress very casually as other academics do, many locals – including the very “data points,” “subjects,” or “voices” we seek – refuse to interact with me by virtue of ethnicity. Either they think I am a driver, a waiter, or some other stereotypical image of an Asian worker, or else they think I am lying because Arabic-speaking American researchers are, well, white – and so I must instead work for the CIA. This is no laughing matter. The ethical obligations that we learn regarding the “Other” mean little if that “Other” refuses to open the door in the first place. No matter how sharp my Arabic sounds, I cannot change the shape of my eyes. I do not blame anyone for prejudice; ethnic bias reflects as much the environment as the person, and like any learned behavior can be unlearned. However, it also means I must work harder to have the same kind of fieldwork experiences that many scholars take for granted, to even have the right to ask higher questions about academic ethics.

Thus, this means sometimes that when in the field I must dress in a suit even when I am not interviewing government elites, which requires purchasing, carrying, and cleaning heavy woolen clothes everywhere during the summer – real logistical and financial headaches. Yet we are taught to exercise humility about privilege and class in the field. Sometimes, it means I share painful memories with those I meet to help earn their trust and friendship, for instance by comparing experiences of racist exclusion in the United States. Yet we are advised to cause no pain to others, which surely includes the invocation of humiliating experiences. And sometimes, this means I simply cannot access certain individuals and institutions despite my best efforts, truncating my research. Yet we often assume that the quality of data reflects only the competence and grit of the scholar.

Race also matters at home. I am fortunate to live in a plural society that elected, twice, a person of color to become the world’s most powerful person. However progressive other countries may claim to be, I am not betting that any other outside Africa will soon elect anyone of African descent as president or prime minister. Unfortunately, the social sciences lag behind in racial diversity, with a battery of studies pointing to hidden institutional barriers as the culprit. The comparative political study of a non-Western region, when the scholar is neither white nor from the region, brings some of these to light.

Academic conferences and the mainstream media have one thing in common: They have perpetuated the image of the authoritative region expert as someone with either white skin, or else with Middle Eastern heritage. These are the faces that carry knowledge, insider knowledge, which offers instant credibility. By contrast, many assume that I have too little knowledge. In my first years as a scholar, I lost count of the number of times in which some bemused academic at a major conference would ask me why I chose to study the Arab world rather than Korea, China, or Japan. I recall thinly veiled “academic” criticism that questioned my ability to “get” regional history due to my status as an outsider. Never mind that all else being equal, a Caucasian born and raised in California versus a Korean born and raised in Texas have equally nonexistent cultural ties to the region. Never mind that perhaps more than most, I know too well the tragedy of having an arbitrary boundary forged in near-genocidal war split a country in two and separate families from each other and their homes. At least the Israelis and Palestinians attempted to negotiate a settlement; the Koreas haven’t bothered to try since 1953.

The flipside is that when I finally do convince others of my identity as a Middle East scholar, that outsider status can give me more credibility than colleagues of other ethnicities, who are supposed to take a certain position due to their primordialist links to the region. However, this also means any position I adopt will be interpreted in a very different, and perhaps more serious, way. For any controversial issue worthy of advocacy or speech – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Islamism and democracy, intervening within Syria – speaking truth to power becomes a bit more difficult in practice than how others do it. I do not have the luxury of evoking a passing opinion and getting away with it. I must justify everything, partly because again I am the outsider and partly because others often tokenize me as the most neutral and objective person – again, on basis of appearance, not the merit of the argument or quality of evidence.

How we discharge our ethical duties reflects our many positions and statuses. We share a singular one, namely as members of a profession that cherishes knowledge. Yet how we deal with each other, and how we come across to those we study, requires engaging other identities like race. The questions are never comfortable, but answering them makes us better scholars.

Sean L. Yom is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University.

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