Editor’s note: EthicsDaily.com asked Miguel de la Torre, editor of the new Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Religion, to offer readers his perspective on why the journal is necessary.
Religion scholars of color have an epistemological privilege concerning reality unavailable to those who have no need to know what is occurring within disenfranchised communities. Not only must those residing on the underside of the dominant culture learn how to function in a world where they lack power and privilege, but they must also know how to survive within the confines of their own world.
This double consciousness, and at times triple or quadruple consciousness, provides an insight to the prevailing religious discourse that is usually missed by those whom society customarily privileges. We should not forget that scholarship in the field of religion is a constructed discourse, legitimized and normalized by those who have the ways and means to make their subjectivity objective.
Those who have been born within or assimilated into a Euro-American culture are products of a society where white supremacy and class privilege have historically been interwoven with how Americans have been conditioned to see and organize the religious world around them. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the racist and classist underpinning of the dominant culture influences how they develop and participate in the prevailing academic discourse on religion.
The view of the academic landscape from the pedestal of privilege is radically different than the view from the depths of disenfranchisement. Voices from communities of color may be needed to show diversity and political correctness, but must be kept at bay lest they actually influence the discourse. Even though our postmodern conversations may have convinced us to reject Eurocentric meta-narratives, they are still enforced by the academy because they determine who is “in” (academically rigorous) and who is “out” (interesting perspective, but lacking academic excellence).
The quest for “academic excellence” operates as code language for fluency in Eurocentric meta-narratives. Perspectives arising from marginalized communities might be interesting, but they always fall short of “academic excellence.” Failure to operate from the Eurocentric canon is viewed with suspicion. Excellence continues to mean Eurocentrism, thus explaining why many scholars of color find it difficult to get their articles and manuscripts published or gain tenured employment, regardless of the establishment’s cry for a need to diversify. For many, the hope of diversification is more for the sake of political correctness than intellectual prowess; for after all, if publishing and hiring from communities of color is done for the sake of academic excellence, it would then mean that most publishing houses and schools that lack this presence also lack scholastic rigor.
Ironically, scholars of color, in their particularity, have their analysis reduced to subjectivity – to interesting perspectives that fall short of rigorous scholarship, regardless of how meticulous said scholarship may actually be. Because whiteness is understood and defined as being universal, anything said by scholars of color is institutionally relegated to a realm lacking any gravitas. The subjectivity of Eurocentric religious thought can be lifted by the academy to universal objectivity because the academy retains the power to define a reality that secures and protects its scholastic privilege. Reduced to a phenotype-based expertise, scholars of color are expected to dwell exclusively in the areas of study bordered by their race or ethnicity.
Still Euro-American scholars of religion, like the rest of us, read their biases and presuppositions into their academic disciplines. At times, what is defined as prevailing religious norms by the dominant culture are indistinguishable from middle-class Euro-American respectability and conformity as well as complicit with the prevailing empire that provides us with the current Pax Americana. Thus, we should not be surprised when the analyses presented by Euro-American religion scholars are inherently detrimental to the character and survival of marginalized communities.
Unfortunately for many scholars of color, since childhood they have been taught to see and interpret reality through the eyes of the dominant culture. For those within the community who pursue scholastic endeavors, success rewarded with a doctorate is determined by mastery of the predominant Eurocentric academic canon. Historically, contributions made by communities of color to the overall discourse have been dismissed as nonessential in demonstrating academic excellence. This is evident by the numerous Euro-American academicians who have little or no knowledge of the research taking place among scholars of color.
When reading scholarship produced by the dominant culture, it becomes obvious that such scholarship ignores and makes invisible the scholarship that takes place among scholars of color. This absence is not usually due to any racist or ethnic discrimination harbored by the Euro-American scholar. Euro-American scholars simply are not familiar with what is occurring at the margins of their power and privilege.
If and when they do find a “token” quote to use in their analysis, it usually comes from a senior established scholar of color. Such token quotes serve the purpose of representing all thought from that particular community. By falling into the trap of essentialism, Euro-American scholars miss newer emerging voices that both advance and nuance the discourse occurring within the discipline. It is bad enough that scholars of color are physically invisible from scholarly production, as evidenced whenever one peruses most academic syllabi, but the situation is further exacerbated by their absence in most religion departments and schools of religion.
According to most demographic studies, Euro-Americans will represent less than 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, although some studies predict it could occur as soon as the 2030s. In many of our metropolitan cities today, and in several states, Euro-Americans already represent the minority population. This means that in most urban and industrial centers, where communities of color are predominant, the essential religious perspective is of color.
But as our American society changes, the whiteness of thought within our academic society is being fortified. Any academic society or academic institute of higher education that continues to ignore the changing demographics does so at its own peril. Why? Because the religious dilemmas, questions and concerns faced by communities of color are the dilemmas, questions and concerns that will be faced by the majority of Americans.
To continue to ignore the voices that emerge from these communities is to ensure the loss of any cutting-edge work in the analysis of religion.
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice and Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.