Ove the past week, I have spent far more time reading up about the Paula Deen debacle than I have addressing anything related to my teaching or my research. At least, anything directly related. This is because one of my areas of teaching and research is ethnic American literature. Some of the classes I teach focus exclusively on such literature; other classes I teach address issues of race and ethnicity to greater or lesser degrees (depending on the course). And without exception, every class engages with race in predictable ways, varying only in degree. In every class I teach, addressing race always brings out the most passionate discussion among the students. It should then come as no surprise that, at least in my own experience, race is the issue guaranteed to spark the most intense reaction by students.
There are several reasons for this phenomenon, though I do not plan on addressing them all here. Rather, I’d like to focus on one narrative that has become increasingly dominant over the past six years. The short version of the narrative runs as follows: Because the United States elected a black President, we can no longer say that there is a problem with race in America. At its extreme, those who tell this narrative will claim that racism is dead (or that we are “post-race”); at it’s mildest, those who tell this narrative will claim that the election is a sign that, while we are not there yet, we are clearly getting there, and if everyone just stopped paying attention to race, everything will be OK. The rest of this post will attempt to work through an experience with someone on the extreme end of that spectrum.
This past June, I taught a 12-day summer course on the short story. I teach this course every summer. And every summer, I spend one day on representations of race in short fiction. I always include work by Zora Neale Hurston, including her essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.” This essay always – without fail – prompts passionate discussion. Many students look to it as a call for everyone to ignore race; others use it as a means to argue that Hurston was not “black enough.” But everyone responds to it. And this past summer, one student used it as a launching pad to complain about how he has felt the sting of racism…as a white student.
This student claimed that he suffered racism because, in part, he was denied financial aid because of his race. He claimed that, because it’s easier to get financial aid if you are non-white, white students are suffering due to a policy of racial discrimination. There is no evidence that this is true; in fact, there is compelling evidence that – despite the rising numbers of non-white students attending college – such students are still receiving a disproportionately low amount of financial aid.* He was immune to the suggestion that class plays any role in the difficulties he faced in securing financial aid, a not-uncommon position. Because America likes to imagine itself as a “classless society,” many Americans refuse to consider class as a contributing factor to any of our social ills.** This student was one such person, and insisted that being born below the poverty line played no part in his difficulties in securing loans for his college education. He did not understand why banks might refuse to offer loans to someone who had no collateral, and whose parent did not own a home.
By this point, the class discussion had moved far from the literary material. However, I will allow such tangets, in part because one of the reasons why we read literature is so that we can engage the issues that literature raises. Why else do we discuss race in American literature if not to participate in the larger conversation of race in America? Also, this student clearly wanted to make his point; he was very agitated, and very quickly began shouting his points. (This is not uncommon. As one of my colleagues often notes, discussing race in the classroom is the easiest way to start an argument.) One such point was the claim that, because every race had been enslaved at some point, we should stop talking about American slavery, because if we were all slaves, then we are all equal. This, too, is not an uncommon talking point. Such an argument, of course, ignores American history, and as such ignores the impact of that history on contemporary America. The effects of plantation slavery on the US economy are still felt today; the housing patterns in urban areas still owe a great deal of their make-up to the legacy of ghettoization that followed the Great Migration. And I don’t even want to discuss the recent Supreme Court ruling.***
This student then turned to an increasingly popular argument: that “reverse racism” – that is, racism against whites – is the real problem. The world is too politically correct, and we now live in a country where non-whites (but especially blacks) are allowed to say and do whatever they want, but whites must walk on eggshells and are treated unfairly simply because they are white.^ In our class, we read ZZ Packer’s story “Brownies” which, like Hurston’s work, uses the word “nigger.” (Yes, I’m typing it out in full. Yes, I know that it’s a terrible word. If you want to know why I dislike using the phrase “the ‘n’ word,” see the following: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dF1NUposXVQ) Yes, we say the word out loud in my class. I want my students to feel it in their mouths, to be offended by it, to confront it head-on so that we can discuss it’s history, it’s usage, and why it has come to be used by black artists in the way that it has. The classroom, I believe, needs to be the space where we can discuss issues freely, with the intention of coming to a greater understanding. This is why I allow such discussions as the one I’m documenting here. The classroom is not the place to shut down conversation; it’s the place where we allow conversation to develop as a means of inquiry and – ideally – enlightenment.
I wish I could say that this story has a positive conclusion, but it does not. The student never returned to class. I don’t know if this conversation was the reason (there was a paper due the next class, and he emailed me that he had not done the work), but it certainly can’t have helped. By the end of this conversation, we were arguing. He accused me of holding several beliefs that I did not hold and making several arguments I did not make, and I refused to allow him to make me the straw man for his arguments. It was clear to me that he was not arguing with me, even if he directed his arguments to me.^
When I first told this story to some of my colleagues and friends, many of them responded that I should post about this. Some of them called it a “teachable moment.” And while I appreciate the thought, I hate that phrase: all moments in the classroom are “teachable moments”; the classroom is where we create the space for such moments to occur. But that’s another post for another time. Instead, at this point, I’d like to mention an analogy that I wish I had remembered at the time: if we imagine our lives as a video game, being a white, christian, able-bodied, straight male, you’re playing he game on the easiest setting.^^ Life is hard, and for some it’s unnecessarily harder than it should ever be. But there is no systemic racism against whites in the US; it simply isn’t the case (despite what many may claim) that our society exists for the benefit of non-white people. And pointing to a black President, or black athletes, or black actors, doesn’t change that fact.^^^
Following this episode, one of my colleagues asked if I would stop spending so much time on race in the classroom. This colleague noted that our job is hard enough; why not work to make it easier? And I know this colleague meant well. But for several reasons, I won’t change. For one, this is what I was (in part) hired to do. My job ad was for “20th Century and Under-represented Literatures,” and I specifically made ethnic American literature one of the “Under-represented Literatures” I would teach. (The other was the literature of the Beat Movement, which also directly tackles issues of race in American culture.) Another reason is that I want my courses to reflect my research interests; I have a forthcoming article that addresses cosmopolitan ethics and narrative form, and I’m working on three different book projects that address race in American literature. But most importantly, I don’t want my classroom to be a space where I avoid such discussions. Because these discussions need to happen. And not just on the internet, where far too often people talk past each other and/or spew undiluted and misdirected rage.^ And because the classroom is where I can help inform students, which of course is part of my job. I don’t get angry, upset, or frustrated when students don’t know about the Great Migration, or the history of plantation slavery, or the cultural history of disturbing words, or any of the various aspects of our cultural history that informs our literature, our discourse, and our lives. Exploring this background is one reason for receiving a liberal arts education.
However, I will spend more time preparing for these kinds of arguments. Although few and far between, these arguments often become unproductive very quickly. Other students may refuse to engage, and subsequent class meetings often begin with a cloud hanging over them (which can be dispelled, but it takes time). Knowing that they could crop up at any time, I can be better at handling such discussions, at pointing to necessary resources, and at helping students work through the passion in order to get to the important work of engaging in productive inquiry and study.
And if anyone has suggestions, I’d be happy to read them.
*For a relatively recent study, see: http://www.finaid.org/scholarships/20110902racescholarships.pdf.
See also: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/09/06/merit_based_and_private_scholarships_disproportionately_favor_white_students, esp. the following: “At public colleges, white students made up 62.7 percent of the student population but were 73.1 percent of the recipients of merit-based grants and received 68.2 percent of the merit-based funds; at private nonprofit colleges, white students made up 66.8 percent of the collective student bodies but received nearly 80 percent of the merit-based grants. Over all, white students were nearly twice as likely as minority students with SAT scores of at least 1400 (on a 1600 scale) to receive institutional merit-based scholarships, Kantrowitz says.”
**Or, more disturbing, is the belief that class is not inherited but chosen. This includes the belief that the poor are poor because of their own choices, lifestyles, or as a reflection of their moral character.
***But I will link to it: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/us/supreme-court-ruling.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. Specifically note the narrative I alluded to above: “President Obama, whose election as the nation’s first black president was cited by critics of the law as evidence that it was no longer needed, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling.” See? We have a black President. No more racism!
^For an interesting insight into this phenomenon, see the following Tumblr: http://whitepeoplemadatfoodnetwork.tumblr.com/ (There was a reason I opened with Paula Deen!)
^^This is not my analogy: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/. But if you prefer, here’s more Louis CK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG4f9zR5yzY.
^^^For an interesting way to think about systemic racism in terms of what white privilege looks like, play with this checklist: http://crc-global.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/white-privilege.pdf. For a more academic approach, check out Paula Rothenberg’s collection White Privilege.