Comprehensive Exam 2.1

This is the sample response that I wrote in preparation for my second comprehensive exam. Maybe it will give you an idea of one way you can organize your thoughts for your own doctoral exam. Or it can serve as example of what not to do. Or it can tell you what I’m up to all the time (Hi, Mom!). Choose your own adventure option.

Practice Question

How is whiteness at play in the definition of power and identity?

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

whiteness, n.

a. The quality or condition of being white; white colour or appearance.

b. Of the human skin or face: (a) Lightness or fairness of complexion;  (b) Paleness, pallor.

d. fig. Purity, stainless character or quality.

power, n.

I. As a quality or property.

1) a. Ability to act or affect something strongly; strength; might; vigour, energy; effectiveness.

b. Political or national strength.

2) a. Control or authority over others; dominion, rule; government, command, sway.

b. Authority given or committed. Also: liberty or permission to act.

c. Capacity to direct or influence the behaviour of others; personal or social influence.

d. Political ascendancy or influence in the government of a country or state.

e. With distinguishing word: a movement to promote the interests or enhance the status or influence of a specified group.

identity, n.

1) a. The quality or condition of being the same in substance, composition, nature, properties, or in particular qualities under consideration; absolute or essential sameness; oneness.

c. Recurrence of the same; repetition. Also: an instance of this.

d. The selfsame thing.

f. Absence of distinction between people of different ethnic groups. S. Afr.

2) personal identity

a. The sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition of being a single individual; the fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else; individuality, personality.

b. Who or what a person or thing is; a distinct impression of a single person or thing presented to or perceived by others; a set of characteristics or a description that distinguishes a person or thing from others.

3) Personal or individual existence.

Because white people are “unseen… unmarked, unspecific, universal” (Dyer 45), it is necessary to unpack the “structural privilege of whiteness” (Dhamoon 72). Richard Dyer unpacks the racial imagery of so-called white people as de-racialized, citing cultural examples such as supposedly ‘flesh-colored’ band aids (41), job application categories (44), and film lighting that favors white people by default. Much of the power of whiteness comes from its fluidity as a category. Since “[t]he 1933 Oxford English Dictionary and the 1992 Collins English Dictionary both give ‘colourless’ as one of the meanings of white” (46), the category of whiteness is literally a blank slate for various agendas and power relations. Since difference is often measured against the supposed normativity of whiteness, the category retains its immense (and invisible) power.

Rita Dhamoon interrogates the power structures of whiteness and identity. For her, “identity is difference” (11, emphasis in original) and “because differences both circumscribe various norms and are variedly produced by them, they are infinitely constructed and reconstructed” (59). Likewise, Paul Gilroy views “identity-formation as a process” (128). However, Roger Brubaker and Frederick Cooper argue that “[i]f identity is everywhere, it is nowhere,” leaving theorists ill-equipped to address the realities of identity politics (1). They consider the term cliché and point to the tensions in a uses for and definitions of ‘identity’ (7-8), contradictions that are mirrored in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘identity’ as both sameness and individuality. Gilroy admits that there are a “dizzying variety of ideas condensed into the concept of identity” (101), but also that “considering identity requires a confrontation with the specific ideas of ethnic, racialized, and national identity and their civic counterparts” (110).

Dhamoon confronts those specific ideas, “focus[ing] not on culture but on how difference is constituted by, and generative of, vehicles of power” (9). Like whiteness, identity has the limitless capacity to accommodate ‘difference’ and to exclude those who do not maintain the status quo of normative whiteness, ability, and heterosexuality (70). By analyzing how immigration restrictions and the federal policy of multiculturalism in Canada allows violent (xi), exclusionary action against groups and the “management of culturally different subjects” (7), Dhamoon challenges the state regulation of difference in Canada and interrogates the complex, interactive politics and processes of meaning-making (11, 69, 72).

Following Foucault, Dhamoon argues that “power produces” (10) and “power generates meanings of subjectivity as well as subjugation and is enacted through meaning-making practices” (154). These practices include power structures that produce, organize, and regulate meanings of difference. She emphasizes how “Whiteness… haunts multiculturalism” (71) and “images of a multicultural mosaic tend to mask over histories of white privilege” (Bannerji, 2000: 92-3; qtd Dhamoon 6). Her analysis goes beyond the preoccupation with culture in discussion of identity and difference politics dominated by the liberal multiculturalism of Canadian theorists Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor. She notes that Canadian immigration laws are exclusive and designed to keep most of the world out of Canada, and “all non-white women fall short of the preference for the citizen-subject who is white and male” (126, emphasis in original). She calls for political change to systems of “privileging and penalizing” rather than recognition or “reductive representations of the immigrant” and other groups (69).

Interrogating how categories of whiteness (Dyer), power (Dhamoon), and identity (Gilroy) are constructed and reproduce themselves enables a critical assessment of power structures, including cultural artifacts (Dyer), immigration and deportation strictures (Dhamoon), and “the relationship between place, community, and what we are now able to call ‘identity’” (Gilroy 55).

Works Cited

Brubaker, Roger & Frederick Cooper. “Beyond ‘identity.’” Theory and Society, 29(1), 2000: 1-47.

Dhamoon, Rita. Identity/difference Politics: How Difference is Produced, and Why it Matters. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009.

Dyer, Richard. White. London; New York: Routledge, 1997.

Gilroy, Paul. “Identity, belonging, and the critique of sameness” in Between Camps: Race, Identity and Nationalism At The End of the Colour Line. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2000: 97-134.

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