Essentialism is another way of saying "orientalism," only you can say it about all kinds of things, not just a particular area of the world. Essentialism is basically the Star Trek approach to the universe: the identity of any race, group, bunch of aliens (Vulcans, Klingons) comes down to x number of characteristics: all Vulcans are emotionless and thin and supercilious; all Klingons are hot-headed; all Cardassians are clones of Nazis in WWII movies. And so on.
Essentialism is very, very bad, except of course, when it isn't.
The term came up in connection with Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop with the class pretty much agreeing that it was a pretty rocking book for its time but that Cather did go in for a bit of essentialism: that is, the French priests are complex (like us Humans in Star Trek) but the Mexicans are simple and pious—that is, the Mexicans are reduced to certain fundamental attitudes and behaviors.
This is an interesting problem because it is likely that Cather was influenced by the regional hoop-la that began in the 1920s; this is when regionalists began digging up area folktales and customs and traditions, which was just great (according to academics) until *gasp* people starting making money out of it.
Anyway, part of this regional exploration of "the folk" was the insistence that "the folk" were, well, essential, basic, down to earth, etc. etc. And what is funny about this is the difficulty it poses to people who, for instance, want to show that they aren't so racist as to believe in essentialism but also want to show that they aren't so racist they believe that Native Americans really could have been as horrible to their environment as Anglos.
Interestingly enough, I think the people who have the hardest time with this are the women in our class who lived through the 60s. In a very odd discussion, in which one student pointed out that you can be a lesbian and still be racist, a woman informed us that lesbians who came out in the 60s would have been inculcated with non-racist attitudes because that was the whole point (of coming out in the 60s). Since I don't consider this latter woman particularly tolerate (outside of her political bias), I thought the question was kind of moot. But you see the problem. Essentialism is wrong—except when you agree with it.
I think essentialism is how people cope with the universe—and I think it's one way of being tolerate. Yes, if Star Trek was real, Vulcans and Klingons and Cardassians and Bejorians would be complaining about how reductionist it is and how not all Vulcans (Klingons, etc.) are the same; but Star Trek isn't real and yet provides a rather lovely, if naïve, image of futuristic getting-along-ness. In the Star Trek universe, warp drive is invented and voila, every single problem in the universe goes away (it has to, otherwise, nobody could excuse the enormous wastefulness of those starships). It is far more likely that an interplanetary future would be as messy and complicated as life is today. The point is, the motivation for Star Trek isn't racism but idealism. And boy, doesn't life get complicated when those two things intertwine.
I did not say this in class. Our professor tries very hard to not condescend to popular culture, but he really doesn't get it. He's got a rather old-fashioned dislike over mixing popular culture with academics; I prefer this dislike to the attitude that popular culture can be turned into some kind of radical Marxist message. (Still, as this blog shows, popular culture is my thing and it's out there, and I wish it could be discussed more easily.)
To return to essentialism: of course, when you are dealing with reality (rather than Star Trek), it gets a bit stale. In our class, one student doesn't appreciate generalizations about Native Americans, and another student doesn't appreciate generalizations about Hispanics, and I don't appreciate generalizations about Mormons (or Native Americans or Hispanics). Essentialism moves over from being sweet and cute to being annoying and stupid. But, then, I'm all in favor of the individualistic approach, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. (Watching a bunch of white, middleclass Anglos trying desperately not to offend any particular group can be quite amusing; it also explains academe's love of Marx--Marx turns all problems into class problems so white, middleclass Anglos can get upset at fiscal conservatives and not feel guilty about being white, middleclass and Anglo. The incipient racism is very odd.) After all, current academics is all about saying something big and profound about something small and individualistic, and it's very hard to say something big and profound about something small and individualistic when you don't believe in your heart of hearts that the big and profound something that is being said, about that small and individualistic something, is really meritorious, which is why I keep getting B's on my papers.
Just tell me, thoroughly, about the small and individualistic something, says I. Ha, how non-essentialistic is that!