Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why Talk About Race?

I was recently involved in a discussion about how we should talk to our children about race, and someone mentioned that she never did, that race is not relevant in her daily conversations with her children.

I don't know, but it is relevant in a lot of the kinds of conversations that I have. Perhaps that's a geographical thing, but I think that even if I lived in an area that was not overtly or constantly affected by race relations and whatnot, I'd still consider it a relevant issue. I know that it's fashionable to say that it's a non-issue because that's supposed to signal that we aren't racist, that we do not exercise prejudice in regards to the color of people's skin. But the "we" here is generally comprised by those who are historically advantaged with the LACK of concern about how their race is going to be used against them economically, socially, etc. "We" can call it a non-issue because we aren't burdened by it personally. I think that, until there is real and consistent equality of opportunity (and by opportunity, I do not mean the mythical "idea" that we can all access the "American Dream" or the "Pull-Yourself-Up-By-Your-Bootstraps" myth) in our society, then conversations about race, down to the naming issue, ARE extremely relevant.

And I talk to my daughter about it, not because I want/need to point out difference for difference sake, but because I want her to be the type of person who is aware both of the privilege that society has historically bestowed on one race at the expense of others, and the fact that she has the power to move, not past, but fully into these issues. Hopefully, she will become a person who acknowledges the differences between people and does not easily dismiss other people's very real issues as "non-issues."

Talking About Race AND Racism

We talk about race (not just racism) as a positive, as an exploration of IDENTITY, of which race is a component. We talk about it as a teaching tool about history and culture, economics and politics. Women's rights and racism are not correlatives. Sexism and Racism, however, are. Can we agree that there is a difference between talking about an a set of ideas (like racism and sexism) and about the nature of things (race and gender)? I think these discussions are critical, and do not have to be negative, as it seems the "never comes up" idea would suggest.

To me, it's an emperor's new clothes kind of thing, a matter of truth telling. Pretending that there is no difference, that the emperor is clothed, simply causes problems to continue. If we can't/won't/don't talk about race, we don't have the right or wherewithal to talk about racism.

Perhaps putting it in a less socially charged example might help. If I see a child in a wheelchair at the playground, is it okay to ONLY tell my daughter not to make fun of that child? To IGNORE the fact that she has a disability? Nope, it's not. Because that does not respect the fullness of that child's identity, of which disability is a part. DD is much less likely to make fun of the child in the wheelchair when she understands why she's there. She knows that child has a disability, I'm the one who looks like an idiot if I pretend that's not the case. Just like the people watching the emperor's parade.

If talking about race, and not just racism, is taboo, then we've really gotten nowhere, no matter how progressive we like to think we are.

You Say African American, I Say Black

Where I live, a city that is, last time I heard, 60-70% Black, most people say "Black," unless it's in a very formal situation. My students definitely call themselves Black (and make fun of their "Crazy White Professor" ). And, btw, we talk about race A LOT (not just racism) in my classes, and would even if I never brought it up. I DO bring it up, though, and my students are generally very surprised and VERY relieved that I break the taboo. I know (from reading my evaluations) that this is something my students value about my classes. I talk about race because I find it to be one of the MOST productive teaching tools that I have.

I also LOVE LOVE LOVE to talk about stereotypes, too. I can tell you that my students REALLY sit up and take notice when I make a statement that calls them on the carpet about their stereotypes, about things that are wrong or misguided, but, because they're never talked about elsewhere, my students hold as truth. I also make lots of fun of the stereotypes, using them to teach how and what language does for/against us.

Further, I teach my students that who they are, what they think, and where they came from are really really important parts of their scholarly endeavors. To pretend otherwise, that there's some objective story about the world that everyone has access to and buys into, is just dumb. When a young Black man in my class is writing about literature, he is writing from his experience AS A YOUNG BLACK MAN. For me to say that that is an invalid thing (by saying that there's not some defining something about being Black that informs his reading of any particular text) is extremely disrespectful, in my opinion, dehumanizing even. Further, I'm really honest with my students (from the very first day of class) that I'm looking at things as a short, Southern, liberal, White woman, who was raised in a relatively wealthy family, who believes such and such about the world, etc. etc. It's the truth, and to pretend otherwise is also dumb. I can/will never know what it's like to have their experience. And I'm not into getting all "White Guilt" about it - it's just the facts, ma'am.

The upshot is, in the end, that, because I set an example for my students that it's okay for all of us to be exactly who we are and that who we are is deeply informed by things like race, gender, economics, though not the full story. of my students have told me that they've never had an educational experience like what I create in the classroom. I'm totally not trying to toot my own horn, and there are DEFINITELY students that can't stand me, I'm just saying that, in my experiences of dealing with lots and lots of the "next generation" of Blacks and Whites in my area, acknowledging race, racism and other things has made for a very fruitful environment from which, both I and my students, can learn.

"Race Is An Externally Imposed Idea, There is Nothing Essential About It"

I think that this is a benighted -and perhaps sinister- idea and, though I understand it is fashionable in some misguided academic circles, should be eradicated. Post haste. To dismiss the experience of "being Black" because it is a socially constructed abstraction is, IMO, academic mumbo jumbo . I seriously doubt that it FEELS like an abstraction to anyone whose experience it is. I will claim forever and ever that my body (it's color, shape, gender, age, disabilities, assets, etc.) is an INTEGRAL PART of how I interpret texts, relationships, politics, etc. etc. etc. I imagine that the underlying assumption that your statement is trying to address is that there is no value to be assessed because of someone's race, gender, etc. And we can hope that we eventually reach that place. But, we're not there yet.

Yeah, But What About The Irish?

I hear this stuff a lot. White people, whose family history is one of poverty and displacement and other such things that are terrible, chafing at any sort of philosophical/linguistic reparations toward Blacks on the "well what about us" premise. I think it's weak. Weak weak weak.

Let's take Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as examples. Now, NO ONE was going to NOT vote for Clinton because he was raised by a single mother of very humble means. There were plenty of reasons that people might not vote for him, but those were NOT two of them. As a matter of fact, MUCH was made of these "humble" beginnings. It's classic Americana, right?

But for Obama, there were PLENTY of people who would never vote for him because of his race (and he's not even descended from slaves!). And even though he won, he had to answer - over and over and over - questions about that identity. About what allegiances could/should be presumed because of his race. Was he Black enough? Was he White enough? Would he be assassinated because of his race? And we were CONSTANTLY aware that this was a BLACK man that we'd nominated. He worked really hard to downplay that in some ways, but I'm glad that he did not shoo it completely away from his rhetoric - BECAUSE IT'S IMPORTANT.

Now, we've had ten presidents who've been of Irish descent. TEN. The Irish-American population in America is estimated to be about 40,000,00 - pretty much the same number as Blacks. So, clearly, there is a disproportionate balance of power here. Equal numbers of people and a 10-1 ratio of representation in the highest office in America. Now, of course, not every Black person voted for Obama, and not every person of Irish descent voted for the ten presidents of Irish descent. But that actually furthers the point: people of Irish descent either are acceptable enough to the "general public" OR they've assimilated so much that they can "pass."

A Whole Month of Black History, and The Kids Don't Know Nuthin'

My theory about why their NOT retaining the information is that it's so "neatly" compartmentalized into one month. And the kids eyes start glazing over because they assume that they're going to be presented with redundant information. And I'm thinking they probably are. I'd really love to see our curriculum integrated so that the accomplishments of Americans are studied as a body of history. I'm not suggesting that we ignore, or stop noting, "firsts" from Blacks, women, etc., just that we do not treat it as if it were such a revolutionary idea that anything could be achieved by one of these groups.

I think we should quit marginalizing and compartmentalizing Black history as if it were something entirely separate from, and only the interest/province of Blacks. We have ALL benefited from George Washington Carver's inventions (but do you know who Lewis Latimer is?), we don't have to be Black to enjoy reading James Baldwin (at least I hope not, because he's one of my very favorite authors), we don't have to be Black to feel moved by Miles Davis's music (even though he didn't like White people so much). I am NOT saying that we forget that these people were Black, but that we are proud of them as an integrated part of American history - not just some "one month curriculum."

I guess my point, in the end, is that we do have to talk about race, not just racism. And the more we talk about it the more we are able to sweep away the fears and misunderstandings that the conversation initially brings to surface.

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