November 04, 2010
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?
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.