Elevate Difference

Un/common Cultures: Racism and the Rearticulation of Cultural Difference

In a book about race, class and cultural differences, the author argues that a global common culture focused on human rights may be emerging. Proving an excellent example of the gulf between academics and activists, research and experience, the book’s reader strains through reams of multi-syllable words, only to confront a mass of contradictions and confusions, statements unsupported by facts or logic, and conclusions that are unfair or just plain wrong.

The author analyzes race and caste and claims that we are reminded daily that we live in a post-racial world. That’s not the world I live in. The election of President Obama has increased, not decreased, expressions of racism. The author claims violence against women is invisible in the United States. It’s everywhere I look. She compares race, caste and class and questions whether race is biological, social, or even exists as science proves.

Her critique of what she calls feminist universalism focuses on refugee/asylum law. But she fails to acknowledge that in a patriarchal state no law, no matter how well written or intended, will remain untainted. She also fails to take into account the ever present tension for activist lawyers–making a political point or representing your client. The client always comes first.

While true that human rights standards are often not applied to the United States, especially under the criminal administration of George Bush, much has changed since that time. Two cases about family violence are at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Gonzales v. U.S. and Dombrowski v. U.S.) and four countries have now protected American women from the failures of the United States under the Hague Convention. Hillary Clinton recently announced that the U.S. will hold itself to the same standards it holds other countries in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. This is a major and important shift in policy.

When talking about Gender Based Violence (GBV), the author misses the fundamental analysis of GBV as about power and control. She says, “It is thus important to understand domestic violence as part of the structural violence wrought by liberalization and structural adjustment policies.” Domestic violence is no more caused by structural adjustment policies than it is caused by poverty or unemployment, alcoholism or anger. The fundamental cause, known for decades, is imbalance of power-also the backbone of structural adjustment policies. They both spring from the same well–abuse of power–the operating system of patriarchy.

Repeatedly the author fails to acknowledge the shoulders upon which she stands. She claims that feminists don’t understand that GBV is about state policy as much as about culture. On the contrary, the history of the battered women’s movement shows that it originally focused on the failure of state policy by suing the police for not enforcing the law, forcing prosecutors to charge abusers, and changing laws to hold the government accountable. T-shirt politics confirms how aware feminists are that domestic violence is intertwined with world peace—If you can’t have peace in the home, how can you have peace in the world?

Visweswaran wonders what it would mean to speak of a culture of violence against women in the United States and to understand domestic violence in the United States as a human rights issue. Advocates working in the battered women’s movement have spoken of it and understood it for decades.

The last chapter in Un/common Cultures contradicts earlier ones by showing that there is, in fact, a growing global human rights movement. But she fails to do her homework and thinks that university students urging divestment in countries that violate human rights is a new tactic. That was a common practice against apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s. What’s new is technology that tells the world in minutes if a coup or revolution is occurring, so that actions can be supported from half a globe away. Her final conclusion seems a simple truism about social movements and left this reader wondering why she slogged through 225 pages for that.

Written by: Dianne Post, October 11th 2010