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This semester, I’m taking a Representative Authors course on Toni Morrison. My professor is a white woman. There are two black students in the class, and the rest are white. One of the white students frequently comments in class and, though it’s usually in context, I’m beginning to suspect that he registered for this course because he wanted a safe place to say the word ‘nigger’. I’ll come back to that.

A course focused on an African-American author being taught by a white professor raises some interesting questions. Is this situation not simply a means of perpetuating long-standing cultural myths/stereotypes and imposed perceptions about race (perhaps gender, as well)? As a white professor (someone accidentally born sans melanin), is she ‘qualified’ to critically examine literary documents concerning a cultural experience she maybe didn’t have, let alone ‘qualified’ to teach it to others? Is gender the only thing she has in common with Toni Morrison? Has her experience been so far removed from that of a black female living in a white-dominated patriarchal society? Compared to my professor’s own singular subjugation of being female—though still white and therefore a member of the ‘dominant’ group—, has Toni Morrison not experienced the dual oppression of being both African-American and female? How could my professor possibly know what that’s like?

As a white female, does her method of teaching a course like this differ in any way from my own reading of Morrison’s novels, as a white male? I grew up in the projects on the lower west side of Buffalo, where we were pretty much the only white family, where I was one of only 3-4 other white kids in the public schools I attended from pre-K to 8th grade (before attending a more diverse magnet high school). I had the experience of not only being immersed in the cultural nuances and subtleties of people white patriarchs refer to as ‘minorities’ (African-Americans and Hispanics), but also the experience of actually being a minority myself in that environment, living in an area and attending schools whose lower-class constituency was the result of white-male capitalism, a system designed to disenfranchise people accidentally born with melanin clogging up their skin cells (as well as people accidentally born with vaginas). Growing up as a ‘minority’ (i.e., a white person), I got hassled, got called names, got jumped a lot, etc. But I eventually made friends, and I understood this no clearer than when those friends began calling me ‘nigga’.

This didn’t prove I was ‘down’ or that I ‘belonged’ in any real concrete way, other than our identical socio-economic situations and the fact that we were all alive and trying to ‘figure things out’ through the distorted lens of poverty. I’ve had two theories about this: Was it a sharing of one expression of culture (a word, a horrible word, though used regardless of origin or implication) with someone of another race to show solidarity between different peoples with basically the same lives, the same existential concerns, ultimately the same bodies, just with different colored skin—an external, socially constructed and, therefore, irrelevant classification—, or was it merely a learned, habitual designation of self-hatred not necessarily reserved exclusively for one’s own ‘race’, confessed in secret to anyone who’ll listen? I don’t think I can answer that. I wonder, though, if my professor had this or a similar experience. If so, how was it different being female?

I ask these questions because I wonder about a system of education that constantly places teachers/professors in positions they are not ‘culturally’ ‘qualified’ to teach—whatever that means. Several of my teachers in the schools I went to growing up were white. What could they possibly have had to teach us (a predominantly African-American and Hispanic student body) that didn’t pertain to or reinforce the system constructed by other white people like them? In pop-culture, this scenario crops up over and over again: Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank, The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock and, released at the same time as The Blind Side, Precious starring Gabourey Sidibe.

Here is an op-ed piece by Ishmael Reed (The Freelance Pallbearers, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down) published earlier this year in the New York Times online about Precious. Of the movie, Reed states that “[b]lack films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like Precious, white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans.” And Dangerous Minds, he says, is an “example of climbing out of the ghetto through assimilation […] where black and Latino students are rescued by a curriculum that doesn’t include a single black or Latino writer.”

Too, these movies exclusively present white women as “the merciful slave master,” simultaneously reinforcing how our culture perceives (or, how we’re being taught to perceive) women’s role in society while conveniently omitting the role of white males. I mention only movies here because a larger portion of the American public appears to prefer movies to books, so these are the representations we’re being given.

Intentional or not (moving now away from gender), a white professor teaching a course on an African-American author appears to reflect and perpetuate, if not strengthen, existing stereotypes at best, and at worst appears to be the pedagogical progeny of colonial educational power structures, i.e. white people teaching the ‘savages’ that they are ‘savages’ in a concerted effort to indoctrinate them into acting against their own political/economic self-interests. Is my professor not merely an extension of a typical colonial education? Is she aware that this appears to be a possibility? I’m sure she is, but I really don’t know how to answer that. I do like my professor. This essay isn’t at all a personal criticism. She really knows her stuff. Her role here doesn’t ‘bother’ me as much as it seems (certainly not as much as the fact that I have not had or even seen one African-American English professor in the two years I’ve been going here—a fact which should probably not be parenthesized). But it did get me thinking about all this, and so these questions have surfaced. Looking around the classroom, they haunt me.

That there are only two black students taking this course seems to speak to two issues, which may or may not contradict one another: 1) Black students are less interested in reading works that pertain to what may arguably be an authentic representation of their own social/economic/cultural experience, and 2) White students are more inclined to reading works by people they’ve been bred to consider ‘ethnic minorities’, and to somehow feel superior to as an inevitable (and often unconscious) result of belonging to a dominant group and absorbing its ideology (which relates to Althusser’s definition of ideology being a “recognition function,” by which we are interpellated by the state to participate in the dominant culture/society).

The first issue implies the typical colonial education has prevailed to this day, leaving African-American students without a sense of history or cultural awareness—assuming the representations of black people in pop culture (i.e. violent and misogynist rap music, [purchased mostly by whites in an attempt at emulation, or at least vicarious fulfillment of a stylized existence], movies, media coverage of the ominous and ever-looming ‘black male perp’, the ratio of blacks to other prisoners in federal corrections facilities) can accurately be termed a ‘culture’ when, for the most part, white patriarchs have forced it upon them to perpetuate society’s hierarchy by recycling images of blacks as ‘savage’, selling those images back to blacks, convincing (ideologically indoctrinating, then later interpellating) them that it’s a guaranteed method of achieving upward mobility by simply selling those same images and representations back to whites who seek at best to emulate them, and at worst to reinforce their own (often unconscious) prejudices.

The second issue brings me back to the white student I mentioned earlier who, I suspect, is taking the class for a safe place to say the word ‘nigger’. I wonder about his intentions. His comments are usually in context, as we are discussing Toni Morrison novels in which the word appears over and over. What shocks me is the frequency with which he’s used the word. The first time he said it, during the second class of the semester, his comment lasted ~30 sec. and within that span he said it ~8 times. This raises a whole new set of questions.

Did he register for this course to proactively learn something new about a culture he maybe wasn’t too familiar with outside of pop-culture representations? Did he register for this course to read books by an author whose work he’s heard conflicting critiques about? Was he simply required to take this course? Or, did he have an experience similar to mine, and felt he could maybe relate a little more than the average white student, or at least the other white students in the class? Did he register for this course as a way to seem ‘down’ in front of what he thought would be more black students in the class? Or, did he register for this course for a safe place to express his own ideology, his own prejudices, in a passive-aggressive attempt to prove his superiority over what he, again, thought would be more black students?

Listening to him speak is painful. I stare at the wall while he speaks. The wall is white, which means nothing. (I can’t see through it, but I know what’s on the other side.) I look at my arm, white. Nothing. I’ve looked at this student only once—during his first comment—and he is indeed white. If I look at him ever again, he’ll still be white. Am I any different? Why am I taking this course? This is my last semester for my B.A. in English, and this course fulfilled my last American Lit requirement. Is this the only reason I’m taking it? How have my formative experiences and education affected me beyond a cultivated distrust of authority figures in a white patriarchy? I wonder about the language that system has produced. Do words matter more than the context in which they are used, as meaning changes not only according to context but the ideologies of all who use them? Do words matter more when they’re used by certain groups, as contexts between them change? I’ve used the word in question three times in this essay—in context, and referring only to white people.

*Written during the first 2 weeks of the fall ’10 semester. The student mentioned above hasn’t been to class in some time.

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Eric Beeny ERIC BEENY is the author of The Dying Bloom (Pangur Ban Party, 2009), Snowing Fireflies (Folded Word Press, 2010), Of Creatures (Gold Wake Press, 2011), Pseudo-Masochism (Medulla Publishing, 2011), Milk Like a Melted Ghost (Thumbscrews Press, 2011), and some other things. His writing has appeared in many journals, both in print and online. He blogs at Dead End on Progressive Ave.

13 responses to “On the Other Side of the White Wall: A Post-Colonial Reading of Real Life*…”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    First of all, I’ll apologize for my length. This is a subject of major interest to me. Thanks so much for bearing with me, if you can.

    I once took a course…Modernism in Art & Literature: Berlin & New York…or something like that. My professor for that class was a real live bonafide German, thick accent and all. The director of the Uni’s Center for German and European Studies.

    And she had insights into Gunter Grass and Bertholdt Brecht that I don’t think I could have expected to get from an American teacher.

    But never once did I think that her German origins made her somehow unqualified to speak about Walt Whitman and Edith Wharton. Rather, I found that she had unique perspectives on those American authors as well. Furthermore, she was a straight female and taught “Angels in America,” a play written by a gay American male and centered heavily on the gay experience. (I feel safe saying “gay experience,” since the book calls itself a “gay fantasia on national themes.”) I mean, had she any business teaching that? Does anyone besides Tony Kushner (the author) have any business teaching it?

    It’s a rabbit hole. It’s not just a race or culture issue. It can be temporal. How can we teach Shakespeare, having only 3rd or 5th or 8th-hand accounts and our own interpretations of them as indicators of his (and as a result, our own) cultural reality?

    At the end of the day, if this logic is followed far enough, it’s possible to arrive at the conclusion that no one is qualified to teach or talk about any book other than the authors themselves. And once you get there, a whole other field of literary theory awaits to muck things up: The theory that says what the author meant and what the author thought is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the reader’s experience.

    Compound theories of difference/disadvantage (which I call them for lack of remembering the technical term)–in which a woman can be “doubly” or “triply” oppressed on the basis of race, gender, class, etc.–fell out of favor, at least in feminism, approximately with the inception of postmodernism. This is, in part, because the experience of being black and female or black and poor or black and female and poor, is not the same as being white or hispanic or asian and any of those other things. It’s not the same as being black and female and middle class or rich. Even where all these social variables match up, experiences will not be the same. There is no universal scale, no ledger. Every experience, right down to the individual, is unique. That’s the theory, anyway. That there is no such thing as a “black female experience” or the “black experience.” And indeed, the sentiment involves heavy input from the African-American scholarly community. The general sentiment being that declaring such a thing (“black female experience”) is pigeonholing, stereotyping, to some degree, permissive of racist misconceptions about races and race relations and–at the very least–impedes genuine understanding of the diversity of experiences even within the same gender, race, or social stratum.

    I mean, in a lot of ways, it’s impossible to “solve” (I speak of the academic situation…the notion of white teachers teaching black authors to mixed-race classrooms). Individual tilt/bias in academia is an utterly intractable problem on every level, including and well beyond race and gender. So I think Universities have done the only thing they can do and, in light of above issues, the most defensible stance: They don’t discriminate in these matters. Doing so is dangerously close to segregation. I’m not sure if one can defend putting the black people over here to learn about black stuff from black people and the white people over there to learn from white people about white stuff.

    We just have to give scholars the benefit of the doubt and trust that a) If there had been an African-American female professor who was very interested in teaching your class, she would be teaching it and b) That your instructor has done what any instructor teaching any work of literature ought to do, which is read up on a healthy sampling of the scholarly and critical literature available to her on the author and the book–which would hopefully include input from a variety of perspectives.

    Last, but not least, one has to assume that if there were more African-American students interested in the class, they would have taken it. Or if they didn’t take it because it was taught by a white instructor, that they would express their discontent to someone and/or find a similar class taught by an African-American instructor.

    Have you considered going to your College’s Afro-Am Studies Dept. (or whatever comparable program your college might have), and asking some of the students and instructors their perspective on the issue? I mean, I’d be curious to hear that side of it.

    • Eric Beeny says:

      Thank you for your comment, Becky. I agree, there is no universal scale on which to weigh these issues in general, and I think that’s good. That’s why this essay mostly asks questions: I don’t know how to respond to most of this because there are no clear answers. Being in that class reminds me of my own youth, as well as my interest in theory and other things I mention.

      I’m not at all speaking in terms of segregation—certainly not defending/advocating black people and white people being placed in different rooms or schools to learn cultural material appropriate to them. I grew up being integrated, and I wouldn’t ever want to change that. I was only imagining a teacher who culturally understands the viewpoint from which a book is written who could better interpret the author’s intent to students who aren’t culturally familiar with what that intent seeks to profess. The New Criticism concept of the ‘intentional fallacy’ is I think what you’re referring to with regard to authorial intent. New Critics felt the author’s intentions are irrelevant, which I don’t subscribe to.

      I agree that, if there were an African-American teacher who wanted to teach the course, he or she would be doing so. And I do say that my teacher knows her stuff, and I’ve learned a great deal from her. My questions were more so directed at the ubiquity of white teachers in our educational system, as their ideological and socio-political/economic positions will inevitably influence their students (as well as the teachers’ interpretation of the works being taught, their interpretation of the criticism of said works, etc.). As I said, my teachers growing up were white, teaching almost an all-‘minority’ student body, which led me to wonder why that is.

      Whether or not this is indicative of just who the school board was willing to hire in those days, or whether it was a matter of who was willing to work in those schools, I can’t say. But in retrospect, it ‘appears’ to result from or at least reflect the British colonial education the inhabitants of the West Indies, Africa, India, etc. received, i.e. the colonial subjects being taught by white people to hate themselves and idolize the empire.

      I don’t think oppression based on race, class or gender has fallen out of favor with postmodernism, it’s just been somewhat obscured by existential concerns (which makes postmodernism—and modernism before it—seem rather privileged in its rendering of existence, in that it has time to consider itself and not worry about having to do the laundry or farming or being a migrant worker or making Nikes in a sweatshop in Indonesia, China, Taiwan or Mexico).

      This essay takes more of a post-colonial (and often Marxist) look at these issues, which also questions the demographics of the class itself—the teacher’s race may not’ve been known prior, so the factor I wanted to focus on was how African-American students perceive themselves as a result of first being perceived as ‘black’ or ‘minority’ by white society. The results of British colonial education, I feel, still exist today, in that whites are still the dominant group and maintain control over practically all aspects of our society, and to do that they must indoctrinate the lower classes and ‘minorities’ to hate themselves and idolize the empire—or at least its ideals.

      Good point about Shakespeare. I agree that, if literature can be understood by people of any culture (and ‘appears’ to be, in that sense, universal, as it examines/confronts issues everyone deals with on some level), then anyone could, theoretically, ‘teach’ it to anyone else, despite their own ideological perspective. I wonder, though, given your assertion that your teacher’s German origins didn’t preclude her from being ‘qualified’ to interpret Whitman and Wharton, why you feel you wouldn’t’ve received as insightful a perspective on Grass and Brecht from an American teacher.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Well, I don’t think I said I wouldn’t have received as insightful a perspective. I said only that she was able to offer insights that an American teacher couldn’t.

        The flip side is apparent: An American professor may have had insights and noticed things that would pass right by a person from Germany–who may simply accept them as a matter of fact, business as usual, etc.

        I am aware of New Critics, and they are indeed the school I was referring to. They are an extreme example, but the point stands. Author intent is often shady, at some level, even to authors themselves. It is only one small part of the net effect of any given piece of literature. And arguably, not an effect at all, because intent occurs on the front end of interpretation. Certainly, should Toni Morrison have wanted to erase all–or at least most–question about meaning and intent, non fiction was an option.

        This being the case, it is safe to assume, at least to some degree, that part of her intent was to encourage others to form their own impressions.

        Author intent, historical and socio-political context, these are all perfectly worthy of examination, but my point is that it is not the end of the story. So to speak. It’s one tiny keyhole through which to look at a piece of literature.

        I didn’t mean to suggest that race/gender/class concerns had fallen out of favor with postmodernism. Only the notion that one could collect differences like trading cards and that people who have the same trading cards could automatically be thought of as having the same experience, automatically being able to relate to one another, understand each other etc. That’s what I meant to say has fallen out of favor. And I speak from a position of feminist theory. I can only imagine other disciplines have some parallel-running school of thought, but I could say with any certainty.

        You raise an interesting thought (though maybe not the one you intended) with regard to the sweatshops and having the time to contemplate existence–though in defense of intellectualism I should point out that I do my own laundry.

        Part of me wonders if there is less interest in the liberal arts among African American students for this very reason. Liberal arts are necessarily contemplative, for the most part. A whole lot of sitting around and beard-scratching. Maybe that is not something that is of as much interest for people from who come from demographics in which daily needs are foremost concerns. I know in my family–blue collar, at best–intellectuals are considered bombastic eggheads with no common sense. Which I find to be true, to large degree, even as I continue to head down an academic path.

        Though I have to admit a certain amount of confusion about your concern regarding the ideological bias of teachers, since my experience has been that they are–at least in the liberal arts–overwhelmingly liberal, and certainly much more liberal on average than the general liberal population, any number of them even Marxist, at least in their scholarly approach.

        • Eric Beeny says:

          Thanks again, Becky. Props for calling out a point I perhaps hadn’t intended to raise. I think I did make the point I intended to with regards to privilege, though. I agree with you that liberal arts are necessarily contemplative, but I don’t think people of lesser means are ‘not interested’ in such intellectual pursuits. Had they the chance, if they weren’t socially suppressed, I feel the results would be obvious.

          Again, my problem is with a political/economic/educational system which is designed by a dominant group which is not interested in allowing the lower class to achieve social mobility (resulting in that dominant group experiencing a sense of ‘relative deprivation’ in which they’d feel they would be losing ground socially/politically/economically), but to ‘keep them in their place’. The keyhole through which I’m looking is post-colonialism, which, to me, doesn’t seem ‘tiny’, as so many other schools of thought, from modernism to postmodernism to feminism, can be attributed to the issues post-colonialism explores.

          Toni Morrison has also written nonfiction and criticism, so she has approached these subjects directly, as well as the ambiguous representations in her novels. Surely, her novels are ambiguous to encourage ‘reader response’, but there’s no doubt that so much of each novel is precisely calculated to not only impose (or, as you rightly point out, ‘cause’) aesthetic and emotional effects on the reader but directly refer to certain concepts about race, gender and class, as well as particular historical events.

          I’m not anti-intellectual, just anti- anything which prevents certain groups from becoming intellectual themselves. I, too, do my own laundry. I agree with you on the majority of professors being very liberal. And as I said, I wasn’t necessarily questioning my professor’s own ‘possible’ political views, or her motives, merely contemplating the system from which all white teachers’ authority arises, particularly as it effects ‘minorities’.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, granted. My point wasn’t that folks of lesser means wouldn’t or couldn’t be interested in more navel-gazing intellectual pursuits. The point was, things being as they are, it being the case that they likely grew up with greater focus on attaining basic needs, perhaps such existential pursuits don’t hold as great an appeal.

          It’s an obviation to say that were their backgrounds different, their interests and their feelings about the usefulness of such pursuits would likely be different as well.

          Then again, liberal arts majors rarely find themselves upwardly mobile in the traditional sense. And there’s a question to be asked, in a time when arts, literature, etc. are treated with increasingly less respect, whether or not intellectualism–at least without a marked applied component–is such a boon at all.

          But that’s speculation.

          I guess, to me, speculation is a problem, too, with the post-colonialism issue. What is the real break down? Of kids that come from “lesser means” backgrounds, how many are in liberal arts? Of those, are they predominantly of one race or another? What about IT or pre-med or prelaw (liberal arts would include pre-law, in most cases). What about the hard sciences? To what degree do your suspicions seem accurate to people who actually face such challenges?

          I mean, the theoretical bit is important, and often the most fun, but it can’t stand on its own. This is basically a socio-political/sociological question you’re asking, not really a literary one. You’ve sort of made that clear. At the very least, it has a profound sociological component. But then the problem becomes that, unlike literature, sociology is very rarely a purely rhetorical pursuit, and eventually people will start asking for some kind of statistical, tangible, or cohesive case-study evidence (broadly, I mean, beyond your own) of this phenomenon.

          If you won’t, at the very least, approach African-American students and ask about their impressions, or approach professors and ask about your theories, or vice versa or both each, you don’t leave much to chew on. For yourself or for conversation.

          I’m not saying you’re wrong. I suspect there is, to some degree, truth to what you’re saying. But I do feel that we may have arrived at a dead end in the pursuit of finding any actual answers (or approximations thereof) to the questions you’re asking.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Ah. And yes. I caught that bit. About how African-American students perceive themselves in such an environment.

        That was what I meant to address when I offered that you should pay a visit to the Afro-Am studies department. Of course, not everyone is guaranteed to be African American there, but I can only assume you’d find a fair number of people with both the life experience and scholarly background to address your questions in an satisfying way.

    • I don’t often get to say I agree very much with Becky, so I thought I would here. Whereas she extends the logic toward specificity and the author, I’d mention the counter: if the argument goes that only a black woman is qualified to teach a black, female author (or however one might word it, as that seems to be what the position boils down to, what with phrases like “culturally qualified” and such), does that mean that only white American guys are qualified to teach Hemingway and Faulkner, but not Shakespeare (English) and Joyce (Irish)?

      I addressed race in the seminar in prose fiction course I taught. It was for upper-level students, and I chose a short story anthology with a wide scope, and which included stories by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. “Sonny’s Blues” and “A Party Down the Square” were among the best stories we read, and I supplemented the classes by showing YouTube videos of Def Poetry Jam to add greater perspective.

      My students seemed well engaged.

      “That there are only two black students taking this course seems to speak to two issues,”

      I always find statements like this problematic. Because that “seems to” is a pretty big phrase, there. There are lots of factors, but really, I find it difficult to extrapolate motivations and broader situational conclusions based solely on that one statistic. The college where I taught the literature course in question has a small, urban campus and an ethnically diverse student population, and my class had a pretty good mix of backgrounds, orientation, and creed.

      I just find it difficult to draw such conclusions from that one fact.

      One method I used to address and discuss race was to specifically comment on the term “African American” as used here (African American author, which I’m taking to mean in reference to Morrison). I mean, I’m familiar with such usage, but there my note would be: Morrison is from Ohio. Isn’t that a bit like calling Kurt Vonnegut a German American author? I mean, I guess one could, but it seems . . . I don’t know. When I address the issue, I tend to point out that when I think of African American artists, I think of Dave Matthews (born in Johannesburg) before I think of Snoop Dogg (born in Long Beach).

      Finally, I can’t figure out what you mean by referencing The Blind Side. Have you seen the film?

      • Eric Beeny says:

        Thanks for your comment, Will. It’s interesting that you raise the issue of English and Irish authors, what with the English having dominated the Irish for centuries. From that perspective, so many authors within the United Kingdom have written against the English in protest of their own oppression. Being white themselves, it’s an interestingly inverted model. Hemingway wrote a lot about white people with money and privilege, and Faulkner wrote a lot about black people from his own privileged white perspective, one which often seems contaminated by preference for racial hierarchies. Morrison actually wrote a section of her master’s thesis on Faulkner.

        I don’t think only white American males are the only people ‘culturally qualified’ to teach white American males authors, because the white American male perspective is already so ubiquitous. I think we’ve seen the reaction, though, of white American males to Obama’s election, a traditionally white American male position of authority. This ‘seems to’ be a theoretical macrocosm of the classroom’s demographics.

        I think ‘seems to’ is a feasible term, as I already stated I don’t have the answers to any of the questions I raise here. I only sought to raise the questions for myself, as I’ve come from a background in which I was both a member of the dominant group (white) and a ‘minority’ (one of 3-4 other whites in a school which was predominantly ‘minority’). Sometimes ‘seems to’ is all that exists. My intention here is not to seek out absolutes, but merely to question what we as a society accept as absolutes without question, as we’ve been indoctrinated to do so.

        Vonnegut is a German-American author. Morrison is an African-American author. That we don’t refer to Vonnegut as a German-American author ‘seems to’ speak to his being already a member of the dominant group. This is what white people think when they think ‘American’: White. This is why we classify other races/nationalities as they are. I’m not saying I advocate such classifications, just that this is how our society views and engages them.

        The reason I brought up The Blind Side was to illustrate another pop culture representation of white people coming to the rescue of ‘minorities’, implying white people are the only people capable of helping them. Yes, I did see the movie.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, this seems to be a situation where you’ve painted yourself into a corner.

          How can white people be responsible for the opression–both historical and ongoing–of other races and “non-dominant” groups and NOT be the ones responsible for elevating or “helping” them?

          I mean, everything you’re saying seems to suggest that the upward mobility of these groups is in fact dependent on white people (or “dominant groups”) doing something, even if what they do is cease doing something else.

  2. dwoz says:

    Reading this, I found myself wondering what prerogative the author has, placing the professor in the untenable position of being unqualified essentially through genetics: Non-equipped to discuss Toni Morrison?

    What right, indeed? Does a white kid from the projects possess the octane to don the veil of tears and preach from that place? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

    My reading of this is that the author makes a serious, perhaps fatal (to his argument) mistake…conflating urban culture with race culture. Certainly, there are profound crossover aspects between urban culture and black culture, and it would be easy to make the mistake of confusing one for the other.

    But I wonder if “the urban upbringing” bestows bona fides, to make the kind of sweeping condemnations made here?

    I think the author summarily dismisses the existence of human empathy.

    What is the goal of a college course discussing Toni Morrison in a black studies perspective? It’s to try to wrap some cultural context around the works, to view them through that lens. The author’s argument can definitely be extruded very slightly, to declare that a student not-from-the-culture CANNOT bring personal immersive experience to the work, and thus the result will always be arms-length, vicarious, and therefore ersatz. i.e. the author’s apparent lack of a vagina precludes the ability to EVER “get it” when discussing a female author.

    But ultimately that’s a condemnation of Toni Morrison. If she cannot imbue her work with a taste of that certain milieu, if she cannot give enough clues and hooks for someone white and male like me, who’s making a sincere effort to “get it”, to hang my hat on, then she’s failed, no?

    And to a certain small extent, I think the premise does have some validity. I recall seeing a youtube video recently (actually, a series of them) “professionally” produced by a perky, upbeat middle-age woman who apparently has a dance studio somewhere. By all evidence, the actual location of that studio is in some early ’80s time-vortex in central Mennonite Pennsylvania. The videos are instruction in the methods and techniques of “hip hop dancing.” They are, of course, screamingly funny, due to the massively discordant cultural perspective (and the complete obliviousness to the discordance).

    So your point does have credence, that such attempts can quickly devolve into caricatures or worse, perpetuation of entrenched cultural misalignment. But I think the issue is painted too broadly, and the protest is too generic. In doing that, is the message blunted?

    One interesting question I ask myself, is why, in the course of the couple short years I’ve been a thinking adult, I can see with shocking, stark clarity, the utter insanity of things…things that have been just exactly that “insane” for more than a thousand years? Why? It’s SO EASY to see it! The answer is that there must be an error somewhere in the equation.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      See, dwoz, if you were always this cogent, we’d get along just fine. 🙂

      The notion of the author’s prerogative to “preach from this place,” as you put it, is what I was driving at, however more gently, with the suggestion that he ask black people, people with considerable scholarly background in post-colonial and race theory specifically as it pertains to the group in question and considerable personal experience in mixed-race classroom power dynamics, what they think.

      I mean, it’s true. The paradox is apparent. In speaking from this place, Eric does put himself, however tentatively or abstractly, in the role of the “savior white guy.”

      The only reason I could think of that one would not defer to the assertions of someone who had actually lived the experience is if one believed that individual was essentially brainwashed, which is hinted at, but never directly expressed in the piece. And if that is the feeling…that a black person’s self-reporting of his/her own experience cannot be trusted to give an accurate representation of his/her experience and that someone outside of that experience must discern the reality of it, the bullying role of the white savior is that much more apparent. Is it possible he proves his own theory in expressing it?

      Or does he only show the fault in it?

      At any rate, my head is certainly swimming. Props to Eric for a thought-provoking piece.

      At this point, I’m just going to go back to my first answer: Intractable.

      • Eric Beeny says:

        Thanks again for your comment, Becky. You’re right—I do place myself in the position of ‘white savior’ somewhat, though I’m not trying to convert or indoctrinate anyone into white society, as the characters in the movies I listed do. They seek to help ‘minorities’ exist or ‘succeed’ in white society according to white society’s standards. I’m trying to point out the flaws in white society’s perception of not only ‘minorities’ but of itself.

        I think it might be dangerous to say that a black person’s ‘self-reporting’ can’t be trusted as an accurate representation. If people are not given a chance to identify with their own culture or their origins (rather than an imposed culture [imposed by whites], a culture reinforced through white society’s media, as I mentioned about movies and music), then it’s the dominant culture that can’t be trusted to allow that perspective to flourish either internally (to the culture itself) or externally (as represented to non-members). Saying blacks can’t be trusted to accurately ‘self-report’ ‘seems to’ blame the victim.

        I do have black friends with whom I’ve had long conversations about these issues, and I’ve also had conversations with white friends about it. The differences are often apparent, as I notice instantly where my views part with my white friends and merge with my black friends. I would approach a black professor in the English department, if there were any. I’ll definitely look into the African-American studies department. Thank you for that suggestion, and again for your comments here.

    • Eric Beeny says:

      Thanks for your comment, dwoz. I think that, after centuries of oppression from whites, oppression based on genetics, that if, according to whites, over the centuries, blacks are genetically ‘unqualified’ to do anything whites can (i.e., intellectualize, civilize, etc.), or in fact to even be considered ‘human’, then yes, my asking these questions is fair. As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not holding my professor accountable. I state in the essay that her role here doesn’t bother me as much as it seems, that it simply got me thinking about these things. What right do I have? I question that as well in the concluding paragraph. My motives, even with my urban upbringing, are as mysterious to me as my professor’s. I’m not confusing urban culture with black culture, but pointing out that the two are confused by dominant white society on purpose to bolster white society’s fear of the ‘urban black’ or ‘black male perp’, thus maintaining white society’s perception of itself as more civilized than the ‘minorities’ it oppresses.

      I don’t dismiss empathy, but I’m not sure what empathy has to do with anything here. Empathy doesn’t imply action. Empathy is useless when one can empathize with another without feeling obligated to do anything about the conditions or situations of others with which one empathizes. For one to empathize implies to a certain degree that one does not exist under said conditions or situations, and the conditions/situations I’m discussing here are created by the dominant group which, of course, may be ‘capable’ of empathy, but the conditions/situations in which those who empathize live, the far-removed comforts they cherish, are in no small part a result of their own group’s oppression of those they empathize with. This is what Ishmael Reed alluded to in his NY Times article. It’s these soft violences I’m at odds with. If my protest seems generic, it is because I don’t have answers to these questions. I merely sought to ask them.

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