Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Communitized minorities

"The gay community." "The Black community." "The Muslim community."

What on earth are people talking about? A community, by any standard definition, is a group of individuals living in the same area who interact and share a sense of collectivity. A community association, in my neighbourhood, is elected at an open meeting, speaks to some extent for the community and is accountable to the community. The group, again to some extent, is an organic whole. We unite over such things as putting an expressway through our park. There is a keen sense of common purpose on such matters.

But the use of the term for minorities, as above, carries with it significant dangers. As a more-than-analogy, consider the term "racial minorities." Now, we know that the concept of race is a shady one, based on little or no evidence but a lot of prejudicial assumptions. It's by and large a social construct, and never mind that new pharmaceutical that's been tailored especially for African-Americans. The latter is a matter of averages: but "African-American" carries with it a huge amount of social meaning, much of it in the minds of whites.

It is for this reason that people today are starting to talk about "racialized minorities," referring to a social process in which people are actively put in a box, classified, and their properties catalogued. The implications are important, because it confronts the assumption that a "racial minority" is something objective. It's not. It's a definition, imposed by others. But a vicious spiral develops, as members of that defined minority internalize that definition--a colonization of the mind that further perpetuates their racializing.

We build "community" boxes too. Gays are communitized these days, for example, and so are Muslims. The underlying assumptions here give rise to unreal and unfair expectations which, when left unfulfilled, unleash torrents of negative criticism that lead to even more communitizing.

So we hear about the "gay community" taking a stand on this or that issue, and we don't pause for a moment to think that gay people have their own active debates about the issues, that no process exists for building a consensus, that no leadership is directly accountable to gay people as a whole, and that the latter, like straight people, have a wide variety of differing opinions on every subject under the sun. There is no "gay community." There is, however, a common oppression, most recently manifested under the cloak of religion during the same-sex marriage brouhaha and, less noticed for some reason, in the debates over inclusion of sexual orientation in hate crime legislation. And that helps to build, at least, a sense of camaraderie under fire, which is what Gay Pride is all about. But it's not what a community is all about.

With Muslims, the consequences of communitizing are perilous indeed these days. Some people who happen to profess Muslim beliefs set off bombs: the "Muslim community" is called upon to apologize, to speak out, to do something about these terrorists, as though your average workaday Muslim has either the responsibility or even just the ability to make every other member of the "community" accountable. But the use of the word "community" confers upon each of its "members" precisely that. It conjures up a false image of a cohesive whole, complete with internal regulatory dynamics, where no such whole exists.

I am not here issuing a sentimental call for a "human community," although there are good arguments to do so, not the least of which is that it might explode the notion of community as it is presently used. Perhaps it would be enough at this point simply to stop using the word to define, in effect, our own prejudices and mistaken ideas. Otherwise, we"ll continue to build and reinforce these mental ghettoes, with the historically inevitable consequences.

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