Indra Angeli Dewan, Recasting Race, Women of Mixed Heritage in Further Education (Stoke-on-Trent, UK, and Sterling, USA: Trentham Books, 2008)

The gaps between policies and the realities of those to whom these policies are addressed remains a crucial issue in any critical policy analysis. Indra Angeli Dewan’s Recasting Race brings to the fore an analysis of the experientially-based identities of mixed race women and their entry into, as well as experiences within, the realm of higher education.

Anti-racist advocacy movements of the last three decades have highlighted the embedded nature of discrimination in the education policies, pedagogical approaches, and curricular materials used at different levels of schooling and higher education. They have emphasized the need for inclusive educational policies and practices. These social movements have spurred critical analyses of, and interventions in, education policy and praxis. Many of the existing studies have documented the paucity of representations of racialized groups and the erasure of their histories in traditional pedagogical approaches and standard curricula. [1] Indeed, some studies have gone further and  explored how racialized youth negotiate the school yard and their encounters within the structure of the school system. Issues of racism have been underscored as shaping the lived realities and constraining the life choices of racialized youth within mostly white schools. [2]

Dewan’s work takes this analysis further by first focusing on mixed race women and then exploring their encounters within higher education institutions and their response to educational policies. This allows her to refrain from essentializing race and racialized identities, thereby emphasizing the constructed nature of such identities. She argues that the trap of essentialism surfaces in terms of how popular discourses position mixed race people – as either belonging to one “race” – usually perceived as being inferior — or as celebratory embodiments of postmodern identity. In the latter respect, mixed race people are regarded as signs of the “end of racism” and the evolution of a whole new world marked by race-lessness. Canadian scholar Minelle Mahtani has described this as a “vacant celebration of hybridity” that “veils gendered and racialized power dynamics.” (p. 74) [3] While Dewan adopts a constructionist perspective, she argues that her findings suggest that “essentialist, postmodernist and individualist theories and discourses do not manifest themselves in mutually exclusive ways.” (p.10)

Recasting Race is organized into three sections. The first details mixed race identities as these are articulated by her interviewees: forty mixed-race women involved in further education. Through these interviews, Dewan interrogates the salience of race in how these women define themselves and how they are seen by others. What is most interesting about this section is the richness of her data. The complex and multilayered responses of her interviewees are filled with nuances that highlight the influence of situational and structural factors: from encounters and experiences in the home to the mis-categorization of their “race” affiliation by others, to their own sense of being different and on the margins in many of the worlds they frequent. Here, Dewan draws on Rocquemore and Brunsma’s concept of validated and invalidated identities to show the disjuncture between how these interviewees view themselves and how they are categorized by others. This disjuncture often results in a distinct sense of frustration and, in some instances, marginalization. However, rather than appearing helpless, these interviewees reveal the many strategies and tactics that mixed race women employ and deploy in recasting themselves. These interviews demonstrate not only how identities are understood and lived, but also how they shift and flow dynamically between what theorists have conceptualized as rather static and binary categories.

From a structural perspective, the women reveal the inferiorization of their identities as mixed race, usually with the ascription of heritage being accorded to their non-white heritage. Dewan terms this “hypodescent” meaning “that the mixed heritage person would take on the identity of the racial group that was designated lower status.” (p.66) This foregrounds the sociological import of race as   a form of categorization that is always   present but that is constantly regarded as an attribute only of people of colour. In this regard, Dewan’s findings echo those of Mahtani in her study of mixed race women and their relationship and identity making within the context of multicultural policies.

From the women’s perspective, Dewan observes that they conflate “race with culture, nationality and religion.” (p.73) She links this to their experiences of varying forms of discrimination. Hence, she distinguishes between types of discrimination depending on their basis in culture, religion, or nationalism. However, she does not explore this further. This is puzzling given that “culturalism,” or the notion of discrimination based and articulated in the language of cultural difference, is, according to Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, the defining feature of modern day racism. [4] In the Canadian context, the emphasis on culture as a way of talking about race has been underscored in the writings of critical race theorists such as Sherene Razack and Sunera Thobani. [5] In my research on girls and young women of colour, race discrimination was often talked about in the language of culture. I have found similar instances of such “culture talk” in examining representations of racialized groups in the mass media. [6]

Moreover, the women in Dewan’s study also pointed to the discrimination they face from the black side of their families. In other words, they were neither white enough for the white people they encountered, nor black enough for the black people they   interacted with. That aside, some of the women she interviewed reported feeling caught in the middle, having to defend the racialized group that was being devalued in a given situation. Dewan concludes this section of her book by emphasizing the fluidity of identity and drawing attention to the interweaving discourses of essentialism, postmodernism, and individualism in these interviews. She suggests that the preferential use of individualist and essentialist discourses may be rooted in the working class backgrounds of her interviewees, while their use of postmodernist discourses may be invoked by their categorization as mixed race within higher education institutions.

In the second section of her book, Dewan focuses on educational policies in the UK. She notes that current policies favour a continuous approach to learning and are underpinned by a liberal paradigm that emphasizes individual agency. Equality and social inclusion are similarly articulated as platforms for accessible educational opportunities which individuals can take advantage of should they choose to do. Within this framework, Dewan argues that the rationale for life-long learning and access to higher education rests   on the premise that education strengthens democracy. But, she notes, “[c]ritical thinking and political activity are fine as long as they remain inside the box.” (p. 105). In other words, any change that is initiated by individuals can only take place or only be validated if it occurs within a preset field of options and existing rules.

These observations resonate with the Canadian context in the sense that educational policies, as in the UK, also emphasize individual agency and are similarly predicated on the view that education is the panacea to all manner of social problems. Likewise, the “rules of the game” are preset in most educational policies and institutions. However, the materiality of the class system intrudes in Canada as well as in the UK. In many Canadian cities, there are educational policies that   mandate access to higher education for racialized students, but in reality the social system is stratified, enabling certain schools and institutions far more leverage in the kinds of educational programs they offer and the level of access they can afford to provide. Not all schools or educational institutions are equal, thus throwing into relief the hollowness of policies that speak to equality of access.

As in the UK, the issue of race equity has all but disappeared from Canadian institutions of higher learning. In effect, while gender equity has made great inroads, race equity remains an illusory goal, sometimes mouthed by the upper administration but rarely put into practice. My university, for instance, has a gender equity committee that vets the applications of all candidates selected for teaching posts. Despite the reality of a marked under-representation of racialized groups, there is no equivalent committee or office either advocating for the rights of faculty of colour or ensuring that criteria for adequate racial representation are fulfilled. All other groups besides women identified in   employment equity legislation are given scant attention, and, as was reported in a recent Canadian Association of University Teachers’ national conference on equity,   policies are not implemented in a way that would facilitate access and equity.

Yet, with regard to mixed race individuals, Dewan rightly points out that educational policies resort to either essentialist or individualist categories of identity. She argues that “the difficulty centres on how to reconcile an inclusive universal education system with identity specific needs.” (p.110) Perhaps part of the difficulty in resolving this discrepancy stems from the disjuncture between the fixed nature of institutionalized structures and the fluidity of identity at the micro-level. And here, I depart from Dewan’s analysis by privileging a structural analysis based on the economic realities of disadvantaged groups. Such disadvantage can be assessed in the form of numerical representations, as well as in symbolic terms as, for example, the absence of people of colour and their cultures, histories, and contributions in the curricula. As the women in Dewan’s study seem to suggest, having teachers and peers from similar backgrounds affords a sense of community and a collective identity that is perceived as validated. Inclusion can be fostered if there is a sense of community and collective representation.

In her final section, Dewan returns to the women she interviewed and focuses specifically on their response to education policies in terms of their successes and failures. Interestingly, the women she interviewed seemed to articulate the main ideological tenets embedded in the educational policies governing their access and participation in further education. Many echoed themes of individualism, which they defined as self-responsibility and personal motivation. Many also perceived educational opportunities as being available and accessible and posited that success depended on the individual. Moreover, they attributed success in education to an innate capacity and desire to learn on the part of the individual. As Dewan concedes, this effectively evacuates any notion of government responsibility while emphasizing individual impetus, responsibility, and innate capacity as the keys to success. Implicit in this attribution is the sentiment that those who remain educationally disadvantaged are blameworthy.

While I am not aware of a similar study in Canada focusing on educational policies and their impact on mixed race individuals, I would argue that Dewan’s findings are equally cogent here. The idea of success as being the result of individual initiative is commonplace and dovetails with the notion of race exceptionalism. The latter is “a process by which certain ‘successful’ members of minority groups (often sports stars, musicians, and intellectuals) escape from a generalized racial discourse and symbolize a possible harmonious future. These individuals are positioned as ideal-types giving rise to sentiments of comparison and implying the conditions of acceptance; in other words, ‘if they all could be like him.’” (Silverstein 2000: 42) [7]

The strategy of race exceptionalism has often been used to suggest to racialized minority groups that they, too, can succeed — if they try hard enough. This diverts attention away from structural inequalities and on to individual innate capacities and drive. As Dewan notes in her conclusion, “The omnipresence of the discourse of individualism in this study is significant. This hegemonic discourse speaks against the possibility of collective engagement in politics because power relations are created within individualist discourses which prevent the development of the political subject.” (p. 158). Thus, while educational policies may have a stated goal to strengthen democracy, in reality, the kind of democracy that is being nurtured is one that is individualistic and consonant with a neo-liberal paradigm.

Similar to Paul Willis’ work in Learning to Labour, [8] Dewan found that mixed race women often hold the view that by resisting education, they are resisting the dominant, white, hegemonic power structure. On the one hand, it can be argued that in light of the individualizing influence of education and the emphasis on agency and initiative, such a move could be construed as resistance. On the other, like the cohort of lads that Willis studied, such a position can lead to working class occupations and thus reproduce dominant class structures in society. Resonances of this kind of resistance are also apparent in Canada; marginalized youth enact resistance by opting out of schools and educational programs. But, in so doing, these youth are further marginalized and end up eking out a living in the growing sector of McJobs – those part-time, sometimes seasonal jobs without benefits. For racialized youth, as for example Somali youth interviewed by Maryse Potvin, a consequence of such marginalization is increased criminalization. [9]

In her conclusion, Dewan argues that mixed race identities are fluid and very often based on multiple racial heritages. This makes it possible for mixed race women to articulate their identities in both essentialist and postmodernist terms – as sometimes fixed and sometimes shifting, in response to the situational factors and structural constraints in the environment. However, she notes that the postmodernist tendencies used in the construction and naming of mixed race identities is specific. It is a discourse of postmodern particularism, which she defines as one in “which identities and categories are broken down into smaller and smaller parts and become progressively specific and individualized.” (p.151) Within this framework, race is irrelevant and yet all is race – as experiences, location, and identities are framed within a racialized existence.

From a pedagogical perspective and a political one at that, the challenge, as Dewan puts it, is to identify interventions that can be utilized among those who are “politically disengaged” and “unaware of how they are positioned by the discourse.” (p.158) As an educator, this problem is not confined to mixed race individuals. Rather, it is common across the spectrum, and it   continually poses a challenge. Dewan suggests critical pedagogy as an approach that can rupture this state of unconsciousness (in Frierean terms). Drawing from Foucault, she argues that discourses are never complete, but rather contingent, contradictory, and overlapping. In keeping with Foucault’s famous notion of resistance as always being embedded in power, Dewan argues that even dominant discourses have the seeds of counter-hegemonic discourses inherent within them. The task of the educator would then seem to be one of nurturing the counter-hegemonic, oppositional, and subversive discourses. This is a formidable challenge given the seepage of market and profit-based logic into the very formation of subjectivities and identities, both within and outside of the educational system, not to mention the corporatization of the university. Yet, Dewan is optimistic, reasoning that through critical debate, we can achieve a level of politicized and collective engagement that contests the alienating and individualistic discourses of the dominant society. For mixed race women and men, the task is one of politicizing the very category of mixed race and working collectively to challenge and contest both the individualistic, post-modernist discourses, as well as essentialist ones that tend to fix identity into rigid categories.

Recasting Race succeeds in complicating the existing analysis of mixed race identities and drawing attention to how such identities are articulated at the level of daily reality while simultaneously obscured and erased in official policies. At the same time, the book provides a critical analysis of where the realms of policy and lived reality come together and where they diverge. Thus, at the level of lived reality, identities are clearly articulated and defined, but, when it comes to assessing policy implications, such complex articulations all but disappear, with the   focus shifting to an individualist discourse that evacuates any reference to the structured discrimination inherent in societal power relations and sedimented in social institutions.

Yasmin Jiwani is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University.

[1] Henry, Frances, Carol Tator, Winston Mattis, and Tim Rees. The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society. Toronto, ON: Harcourt Brace Canada, 1995.

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[2] Jiwani, Yasmin. “Walking a Tightrope: The Many Faces of Violence in the Lives of Racialized Immigrant Girls and Young Women.” Violence Against Women, An International and Interdisciplinary Journal 11, no. 7 (2005c): 846-75.

Tonks, Randal G., and Anand C. Paranjpe. “Am I a Canadian, an Ethnic, or an Ethnic-Canadian?: Dilemmas of Second Generation Immigrant Youth.” RIIM, Research Centre on Immigration and Integration in the Metropolis, Working Paper Series #99-16 (1999).

[3] Mahtani, Minelle (2002) Interrogating the Hyphen-Nation: Canadian Multicultural Policy and ‘Mixed Race’ Identities. Social Identities, Vol. 8, No. 1, 67-90.

[4] Gilroy, Paul. There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Hall, Stuart. “The Whites of Their Eyes, Racist Ideologies and the Media.” In The Media Reader, edited by Manuel Alvarado and John O. Thompson, 9-23. London: British Film Institute, 1990.

[5] Razack, Sherene. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms . Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Thobani, Sunera. “Nationalizing Canadians: Bordering Immigrant Women in the Late Twentieth Century.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 12, no. 2 (2000): 279-312.

[6] Jiwani, Yasmin. Discourses of Denial: Mediations of Race, Gender and Violence. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006.

[7] Silverstein, Paul A. “Sporting Faith: Islam, Soccer, and the French Nation-State.” Social Text 18, no. 4 (2000): 25-53 .

[8] Willis, Paul, E. Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Franborough, England: Saxon House, 1977.

[9] Potvin, Maryse. “Second-Generation Haitian Youth in Quebec: Between the ‘Real’ Community and the ‘Represented’.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 31, no. 1 (1999): 43-73.