The Common Good
June 1994

Filling the Margins

by Dwight Hopkins | June 1994

"Postmodernism" is a weird term.

"Postmodernism" is a weird term. Despite its slippery meaning, most people agree it includes a challenge to the absolute authority of reason and hierarchy as they arose with the birth of European capitalism and the European Enlightenment. Thus, most postmodernist talk includes a decentering of the exclusive power of white privileged males. Consequently, only today do we see the eruption of marginal communities-blacks, Asian-Pacific Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, American Indians, gays and lesbians, and others.What is disturbing to me is how those who utilize postmodernist discourse are usually not from those communities that are supposed to be emerging to challenge the center. This fact (that those who do the talking are too often part of some aspect of what is being decentered-whiteness, maleness, or privileged status) causes my antenna of suspicion to rise. What specifically is being decentered? Why is the margin now being recognized and named as initiating critiques? Resistance on the part of the margin to the center is not new-specifically, Africans and African Americans have struggled since Europeans forcefully brought them to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.

I think postmodernist talk is in the foreground now because the power of the center has concluded that the margin can be more effectively (1) commodified and (2) scapegoated. The commodification of the margin can be seen in the overabundance of black people in the news and popular perception-both in negative (criminal) activities and positive (comedian, news reporter, politician, sport, singing/musical) roles.

People will "buy" a particular newspaper or television channel if they see a lot of black men and women caught by police officers. It's no accident that the major television networks have documentary cop shows whose major "actors" are black criminals. Similarly, on the positive side, black non-criminals have resuscitated entertainment, sports, and political industries.

Since Jesse Jackson stopped running for president, national elections have lost their exotic and substantive bite. In the same vein, can any white sport (such as golf or synchronized swimming) really sell like Michael Jordan's basketball or Bo Jackson's football? And rattle off the mega-entertainers and different genres: Michael and Janet Jackson, Prince, the rap artists, Oprah, Bill Cosby, jazz, blues, etc.

On the scapegoating side, the power of the center still benefits with all this talk about postmodernism. How? Because poor, working-class, and middle-class whites can begin to believe that the growing visibility of the margin means the further decentering of white privilege.

I remember various television interviews conducted with poor and working-class whites during the period when Bill Clinton was making appointments to his cabinet and other political posts. One of the common themes expressed by the white interviewees was that Clinton was giving the country to "the blacks." ("The blacks" was the exact phrase used.) Apparently for those interviewed, the appointment of black people to federal positions challenged the notion that the USA is a white country, creating the feeling that power was being shared with a race of foreigners.

Asian and Japan bashing are more obviously tied to scapegoating. Remember when members of Congress held a photo-op outside of Congress where they took hammers and smashed electronic equipment made in Japan? And part of the debate over trade with Mexico hinges on whether or not Mexicans will steal American jobs.

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