Racism

On Teaching “White” Literature in a “White” Classroom as a Person of Color

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Every single time that I have taught the work of an early European or Euro-American writer whose characters or texts express racist beliefs or use racist words (Twain or Conrad for example), at least one pale-skinned student will speak up to defend the author’s racism on the grounds that racism “back then” was just part of the culture. We can’t blame Thomas Jefferson for his racist assessment of African people because “everyone was racist back then.” Some students have actually argued that the n-word cannot be considered a racist term in the context of texts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Heart of Darkness because “back then” that was just the word everyone used to describe black people. To call Marlow’s (in HOD) use of the n-word “racist,” these students argue, is to unfairly impose upon that character a contemporary, “politically-correct” morality. I have to remind them that the n-word has always been a negative term and was never ever neutral. I also inform that that at no point in human history have all “white” people or all indigenous Europeans been racist. In places and times when oppression of others (any kind of Other) was the dominant ideology, there have always been dissenters.

The fact that these supporters and defenders of racism use the falsehood that all white people are or were racist in a particular time period or location to try to defend against the accusation of racism seems to be in direct conflict with the fact that often the same people will froth at the mouth in fury as they accuse antiracists of assuming that all white people are racist. Of course, a true antiracist would never assume that all “white” people share the same set of thoughts or behaviors, but this fact is apparently irrelevant in the face of the paranoia of the Euro-American student sitting in my class who assumes that any unfavorable representation of any European (even if it is of that European’s own construction) is an indictment by me of all people of European descent and especially of any people of European descent who happen to be in my classroom.

What I find exceptionally odd about this phenomenon is that so many people of color are overtly and covertly accused of paranoia on a regular basis whenever they discuss their experiences of racism with their “white” acquaintances. Shortly after I moved to Auburn to start my PhD program, one of the professors in my department decided to welcome me by telling me where I could find “soul food restaurants” in town. He concluded his list of restaurants and locations by saying, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Well, we eat that kind of food too.” A few years later I told a pale-skinned redhead this story, and she was quick to let me know that it was in fact not a story about racism but a story about a kind man who was just trying to be helpful. Now, this kind man did not ask me what type of food I liked to eat so that he could point me toward the best burger joints or sushi restaurants in town. Nope. He made the assumption that I would be on the lookout for “soul food” because that’s what people like me eat. His final statement, using the plural first person rather than the singular, only served to prove that he was thinking in terms of group behavior, group identity and had failed to see me as an individual, a person. It also demonstrates that he was not assuming that I would need to try soul food because I was new to the South or that he assumed anyone living in the south would need to know where to find soul food. If he viewed soul food as linked with Southern identity rather than “black” identity, he would not have needed to say “We” eat it “too.” He was from the South.

I had assumed that anyone with a functioning brain could see why what he said was racist, but apparently that is not a fair assumption. I have so many stories like this: I present a narrative of racism, and a pale-skinned person tells me that I’m being “paranoid,” “hypersensitive,” or just “determined to find racism everywhere.” Or they provide a narrative of the events that But now, interpreting course content about racism as an attack on “white” people is definitely not paranoia. My brown-skinned, female instructor is talking about what King Leopold of Belgium did to the people of the Congo in the nineteenth-century? Clearly, she is attacking me, a person in her class in the 21st century, and clearly she hates all white people in the 21st century. Again, this is definitely not paranoia. This is Fox News logic. If I feel that I am being attacked, then I am being attacked even if the instructor has not indicated any connection between the characters in the text and the people sitting in her class at the present moment. What she actually says is not important, because I know what she really means.

An odd thing about the way that Euro-American students glean evidence of my alleged racial hatred from the texts I teach is that this same process never seems to work for the positive or non-racist representations of people of European origin. In one semester for an early literature class my students discuss the works of several authors representing a variety of perspectives and issues. I will teach, for example, William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ralph Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Lydia Sigourney along with, of course several writers of color.  But when students complain that I am “bashing white males,” representing “white” men as evil, or attempting to make “white” people feel guilty, they are only talking about some (and not all) of our discussions about Bradford and Jefferson. For these writers I choose selections from their large texts that deal with the historical significance of these writers—Bradford’s explanation of why the “pilgrims” left England or Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence—along with some of the excerpts that represent their racist attitudes. Of all the authors I teach in a semester, two authors who express racist notions are viewed as my attempt to color all “white” people as racist and make my students feel guilty for being “white.” Students take my teaching of Bradford’s classism, racism, and homophobia as an affront to white identity. They take my acknowledgement of Jefferson’s racist attitudes about Native and African Americans as an affront to “white” identity. But they do not take my teaching about the feminism of Bradstreet or the poetic innovation of Whitman as compliments paid to “white” identity. They do not take personally my enthusiasm for Dickinson, nor do they assume that I am secretly trying to convince them that all “white” people write great poetry.

It is clear to me that the way some of my European-American students respond to my curriculum is determined by their own expectations rather than by what actually goes on in my classroom.

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