Yaejoon Kwon is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies (CRES) here at Reed College. The Quest interviewed her in light of the controversies on race studies and other hot topics involving liberal colleges.
Matilde Guilbaud: Why is it important to study race in sociology?
Yaejoon Kwon: Race has been central to the very beginning of this country’s history, primarily through the practice of exclusion from citizenship, institutions, day-to-day rights… Race in the United States has primarily been categorized as phenotypes, skin colors, physical attributes, that have been socially constructed to mean very specific things. For a long time, in the social sciences and history, academics understood race as biological. Now we know that the definition of race and the meanings assigned to racial markers change throughout time. And the way people in the United States have been categorized has been centered on race and gender from the very beginning. And for that reason, I think it’s really difficult and disingenuous to try to understand where this country comes from without really understanding the evolution and the construction of this concept of race. Understanding race as a social and historical construct, how those concepts changed throughout time, and how it’s deployed or weaponized is really important. Not only to understand who we are as a society but also to think about ways to implement change.
MG: Why are race studies controversial in the United States?
YK: I think there has always been controversy on whether the study of race is divisive, if it’s even necessary, if it just perpetuates inequality, or if there’s reverse racism. Those questions and concerns have been brought up year after year. And I think that part of this controversy is because of a misunderstanding between the notion of equality versus equity. There is this misconception that equity means treating everybody the same way. And if we treat everyone equally then we should become a society where everybody is the same. That’s why we use the word equity to re-frame what we mean. Equality means giving everybody the same amount of time to run the race. Some runners have a two-hundred-year disadvantage, so giving the same amount of time to run the race doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. It doesn’t actually accomplish our goal towards everybody having the same likelihood to live a healthy, happy life with the opportunities that they want with the same safety nets.
Another topic of controversy is critical race theory that conservatives have been pointing to as the culprit of everything wrong in society. The use of the phrase critical race theory is actually being used incorrectly, which also signals a complete misunderstanding of what critical race theory actually is. It’s a very specific academic discipline, originating in legal studies, and like other disciplines, it has a very specific genealogy and people who are engaged in its realm. But it has become, in the larger national discourse, anything that has to do with race which is actually not accurate. That lack of understanding feeds into this misrepresentation of what it means to teach students about race and gender and critical race theory.
MG: Some scholars have emphasized that class should be the most important variable in sociology and race is therefore taking too much space in sociology. Is race more important?
YK: I think the answer depends on the person you ask. Personally, I don’t think race is more important because it is impossible to talk about race without talking about class and gender. And vice versa. We can’t take race as a variable as if we can isolate it and then have it interact in specific ways. This question of importance prevents us from thinking about the ways in which those variables are relational categories and relational social constructs. When I enter a room, I rarely enter solely based on my class as the way people perceive me. I do think that in certain spaces, there are certain identity markers that are more salient, whether because of a political necessity in that moment or of other people who are around us. There can be movement and flexibility along with those kinds of categories in which we decide to emphasize a little bit more. And all of those things work together in relational ways.
MG: Another very controversial topic is affirmative action. What do you think about that?
YK: Affirmative action is really controversial for a lot of people, including in Asian communities, because there is this notion that application processes should be fair in that they should be merit-based. And I understand the appeal of that. But there’s something wrong, when all things are being treated equally, we continue to have large underrepresentation of particular populations in higher education or in particular segments of the workforce. So, refusing affirmative action is to accept and embrace the status quo to me.
Affirmative action is a policy attempt to address inequality. So, like most policies, it’s not going to be perfect, but it is a step to address the historical exclusion of non-white students in high institutions of higher education. Another way to think about this is from the perspective of Cheryl Harris, a critical race theorist who wrote this very important piece about the properties of whiteness. One of the properties of whiteness is the right to use whiteness. In that way, for white people, the right to be part of institutions or programs is a right to deploy this privilege, whereas for populations of color it has never really been a right to assume. People have had to fight for inclusion. Therefore, affirmative action challenges this notion, this right to be included. And I think some of the tension on this topic comes from this change in how we think about privilege, who gets to deploy it, and to what degree as a society are going to accept and maintain the status quo through reproduction of institutional and generational privilege?
Moreover, affirmative action isn’t solely about race. Historically, low-income white students have also benefited from this system. It’s more broadly a policy about historically underrepresented or excluded people, so that’s pretty expansive. Overall, if we think about college admissions as a process in which we’re creating a learning environment, it is only more robust and enriched if we have a collective group of people from a various array of backgrounds and that we value life experiences as much as GPAs. It’s another way to think about what is important for us to learn as students and teachers.
MG: Cancel culture is also a very hot topic nowadays, and its relationship to liberal colleges. What do you think about canceling culture?
YK: I think it’s one strategy, a tactic that folks can use strategically. Is it a sustainable practice in the long run? I’m not sure. Because at the end of the day, what we want to do is to get everybody on our team. We don’t want to create more distinct boundaries around us and them. But if we think about social change in terms of a long process, we can have short-term strategies like the cancel culture. In the long term, I’m not sure if that can be the only strategy that we use. I don’t think it can be the only approach to enacting change, changing minds, or shifting ideologies.
So, I understand the fear of canceling culture because it would really suck to be canceled. But at the same time, we also see who can recover quickly with their careers intact from being canceled and who cannot. Being canceled doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. We see the kind of different levels of forgiveness that the public has for certain types of celebrity figures and certain people in their communities, depending on the kind of social markers that they carry.
MG: Does calling out necessarily mean canceling? Could another strategy be more about calling in?
YK: There’s a really interesting example of a combination of both calling in and calling out. It was a controversy about the movie Blue Bayou, directed by Justin Chon, about a Korean American adoptee of Louisiana who is deported, and it’s based on a true story. And the director and writer never got explicit permission from the person whose life story it was based off. So, the Korean American adoptee community had a lot to say about this in terms of using adoptee narratives and stories without permission. When after multiple attempts to call in, they got little to no response, they began to call out. They didn’t go full-on cancel culture, but enough so that it started a conversation, it made people wary to watch the film. And so, it put us, non-Korean adoptees, as witnesses to this harm. As witnesses, we had to make a choice. Do we support this film, or do we not? The cancel culture is then a way to get people to recognize the harm by trying to change us from passive observers to active witnesses. It puts us in a position of having to make a decision of whether we continue with the status quo and let things be or if we change our behavior and actions to enact change.
Overall, the cancel culture is really complicated. There’s no space in my classrooms for cancel culture. And I make that very clear, because in a learning environment like college, we’re here with the same objective, and that is to learn and to teach each other. But if you’re in a different setting like the media, the context matters.
MG: Anything you want to add?
YK: I will say that race is one of those things that everybody has an opinion about based on lived experiences and folk knowledge. And that’s completely legitimate, how people experience race on their own terms is really important for us to understand. On the other hand, race is also an institutionalized discipline of study in universities, with its own history, its own engagements in politics and development.