A phenomenology of cultural racism: Veils, bodies and the nature of culture

Alia Al-Saji (Department of Philosophy, McGill University (Montreal))

21 de junho de 2011, 17h00

Sala de seminários (2º piso), CES-Coimbra

There has been debate in recent years regarding whether the stereotyping of Muslims in several Western settings, e.g. France, the United States, or Canada, can properly be called “racism.” A compromise has been to employ other terms, such as “neo-racism” or “cultural racism”, to indicate the “newness” of the prejudice concerned.  My purpose in this essay is twofold.  First, to examine the phenomenology of “cultural racism”, arguing that it is indeed a form of racism.  Second, however, I want to ask after the politics that frames this phenomenon as not really “racism”.  My aim is, at once, to try to understand the process that undergirds cultural racism and to ask why it misrecognizes itself, how it involves an elision of itself as racism.  This has to do with the way in which bodies are perceived in cultural racism: a form of racialization that relies on a strict nature-culture division with respect to the body.  This division enables a mode of self-justification by which the cause of intolerance or prejudice can be attributed to cultural material practices (clothing, food, behavior) rather than biological bodies (skin color, phenotype), hiding the racism at stake.  My focus, in analyzing this phenomenon, will be Western attitudes towards, and perceptions of, veiled Muslim women, attitudes evidenced in the contexts named above.

Nota biográfica
Alia Al-Saji (PhD, Emory University, 2002) is Professor of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her research explores questions of embodiment, memory and intersubjectivity in terms both of affectivity and perception. Her work follows two trajectories.
(1) She is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Body Memories: Merleau-Ponty, Bergson and the time of intersubjectivity. The aim of this book is to think intersubjectivity in temporal terms. Crucial to her account is an elaboration of the time of embodiment, in its perceptual, affective and memorial dimensions. In developing this theory of embodied time, she bases herself on the philosophies of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Henri Bergson. At stake in this book is both a transformation of how intersubjectivity is conceived and a rethinking of time itself as not simply internal to consciousness or to the subject, but as the time of intercorporeity.
(2) Al-Saji has been engaged in offering a feminist analysis of representations of Muslim women in contemporary Western imaginaries by questioning the ways in which race and gender are at play in representations of the Muslim headscarf or “veil”. She has published articles on “the French headscarf affair” and on the use of a rhetoric of freedom to justify the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript on this topic entitled Veiling, Feminism, and Cultural Racism.
These two trajectories of Al Saji's research come together in terms of a project to theoretically elaborate the critical and ethical potential of vision. This project draws on phenomenological, feminist and critical-race analyses of objectifying—specifically racializing—ways of seeing. She is carrying out this project by means of a grant on Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenology of race from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2009-2012).More information about Professor Al-Saji:

Comentador: Júlia Garraio (CES)

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Nota: Evento ligado ao Núcleo de Estudos sobre Democracia, Cidadania e Direito  e ao Núcleo de Humanidades, Migrações e Estudos para a Paz.