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Whiteness Studies 106: Neutrality

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 12 years ago, in 2012, on the World Wide Web.

(Via @ami_angelwings, via Roderick.)

This is from a recent report from CBC News:

The Bank of Canada purged the image of an Asian-looking woman from its new $100 banknotes after focus groups raised questions about her ethnicity.

The original image intended for the reverse of the plastic polymer banknotes, which began circulating last November, showed an Asian-looking woman scientist peering into a microscope.

The image, alongside a bottle of insulin, was meant to celebrate Canada’s medical innovations.

But eight focus groups consulted about the proposed images for the new $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 banknote series were especially critical of the choice of an Asian for the largest denomination.

Some have concerns that the researcher appears to be Asian, says a 2009 report commissioned by the bank from The Strategic Counsel, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

. . . The bank immediately ordered the image redrawn, imposing what a spokesman called a “neutral ethnicity” for the woman scientist who, now stripped of her Asian features, appears on the circulating note. Her light features appear to be Caucasian.

The original image was not designed or intended to be a person of a particular ethnic origin, bank spokesman Jeremy Harrison said in an interview, citing policy that eschews depictions of ethnic groups on banknotes.

But obviously when we got into focus groups, there was some thought the image appeared to represent a particular ethnic group, so modifications were made.

Harrison declined to provide a copy of the original image, produced by a design team led by Jorge Peral of the Canadian Bank Note Co., which was a test design only and never made it into circulation.

Nor would he indicate what specific changes were made to the woman researcher’s image to give her a so-called neutral ethnicity. . . .

Because, you see, the way to give someone a neutral ethnicity is to make them look White. You might think that that’s not so neutral after all; you might even think that putting a white person on the bill does seem a bit like depicting a member of a particular ethnic group. But you’ve got to remember that an ethnicity is a social marker, and white people aren’t socially marked out from the background. Because as far as the Bank of Canada and its focus groups are concerned, white people are the social background. An East Asian scientist is part of a particular ethnic group, but a white scientist is not, because white Canadians don’t have ethnicities. Only colorful people do.


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  1. Gabriel

    This reminds me of watching certain foreign films and hearing remarks that seem overly ethnocentric, like aliens arriving to destroy “the world” only to find out “the world” is the country where the movie was made. But even if we identify this as wrong, what are the implications of it? There are all sorts of programs and organizations that study “asian studies”, “african studies”, etc. Should it then be acceptable to have “white studies”, a term usually used as a euphemism by neo-nazis?

    • Rad Geek

      Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, et al. do definitely use a lot of euphemisms to try and portray their white supremacism as a celebration of Whiteness rather than a denigration of the non-White; and to portray this uncritical celebration of Whiteness as on a par with, e.g., projects like Black Studies, Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, etc. departments in Universities, Black History Month, various Pride movements, and so on. And that’s something to look out for. But I don’t think Neo-Nazi posturing should stop us from studying whiteness seriously, any more than Creation Scientists should stop us from studying paleontology. Critical investigations of the notion of Whiteness, and an honest accounting of the ways that it has been formed as a social identity, defined by contrast with other, subjugated identities, enforced as a social norm, etc., may still be really important to understanding a lot of things (from ways that we talk about food and music to the rhetorical features of recurrent debates over immigration, war, prisons, etc.).

      And there’s a lot of scholarly work already done and already out there that seems to focus on that (which I’ve learned a lot from, or hope I have). I won’t put forward any particular view on the organizational question of what kind of disciplines of study or what kinds of departments you ought to have in a University, but a lot of this work has come from men and women of color, and a lot of it has come from people working within disciplines like Black Studies, Asian Studies, Postcolonial theory, Women’s Studies (e.g. when studying intersections between sexual politics and racial identity), etc. But for example there’s James Baldwin’s “On Being ‘White’ … And Other Lies,” Edward Said’s Orientalism, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Ruth Frankenberg’s White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, David Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, etc. etc.

  2. Gabriel

    Along similar lines, Cracked has an informative discussion of race and gender bias in movies. Two examples directly relevant to the perception of “whiteness” are the characters in the movie 300 as well as the ordinary depictions of Jesus as a white European.


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