Wednesday, April 12, 2006

She Agrees With Me, She Agrees With Me Not...

Or: "Is There a Moral To This Story?"

At Carleton, we operate on a trimester system, so I only take 3 classes a term (not including any PE or music lesson type classes, like Fencing). This term, those classes are Post-Modern Political Thought, The Speaking Voice, and Foundations of Black Political Thought. Two out of those three are taught by Black professors; ironically, the one that isn't is the Black Political Thought class (whose professor is one of my favorites at the college). Two out of three professors of color is not bad, but on the flip side amidst these 3 classes there are only 4 Black students. That's a pretty awful ratio. Admidst the whole political science faculty, there are only 3 scholars of color, two of whom are temporary (I've heard our latest tenure-track hire is a scholar of color, though). And while I haven't verified this personally, rumor has it that the entire college has only one female scholar of color on the faculty. That's abysmal. But the meta-situation--too few Black professors at a college that claims to value diversity--is nothing that hasn't been said before. My odd set-up this term--two Black professors in three classes with four Black students--was what seemed rather unique.

One of those Black students is in my Foundations of Black Political Thought class (that class is actually only 4 people). She's a very nice and intelligent girl. She's also a cheerleader for the Minnesota Vikings (so much for the "cheerleader as mindless waif" stereotype!). Anyway, we were talking after class today, and she had mentioned how someone at cheerleading practice had asked her "do you prefer to be called Black or African-American?" And her response (paraphrased, obviously) was interesting to me:
I wanted to make sure my response didn't scare her off from ever asking such questions again, because I know that it's hard for a White girl to really engage in these topics, and that it took courage to ask. And I didn't want to give a 30 minute lecture of race theory based on the stuff we've been learning in this class. So I emphasized that I couldn't speak for every Black/African-American/Nigerian-American/Person of Color she'll meet, but Black is fine, although if you're going to refer to me in the third-person I'd really prefer Jill [name changed]

I like that answer. It's not a lecture, it's not scary, it deals with requisite complexities and gives the appropriate disclaimer, and ends with a reminder that she can just be Jill.

But the part about not speaking on behalf of every person of color is particularly meaningful to me, because of something I catch myself doing in the class. As I said, there are only four students, and amongst there is a slight, but noticable (to me at least) ideological split. I don't want to call it "sides," because that would wildly over-state what's going on, but Jill and I seem to agree a bit more often with each other than either of us do with the rest of the class [she's the only Black student of the four of us]. And whenever I make a comment and she says "yeah, I agree with what David said," or vice versa, she makes a comment that I find myself nodding with, I feel a little burst of pride. And I'm ambivalent about that proud sentiment. On the one hand, it feels like a vindication of the CRT reading I do, and my geniuine effort to become more educated on race issues, read and listen to minority stories, and all the other projects I've adopted over the past year or so that have greatly expanded my personal and philosophical horizons. In a certain respect, it feels like validation, that the transfer process from books and articles to personal beliefs didn't corrupt the message--I really am "getting it." On the other hand, it feels really shallow to me also. On a basic level, "hooray! The Black girl agrees with me" seems quite degrading and dehumanizing to her. And more importantly, it places way too much pressure on her--I'm generalizing a whole personal philosophical validation based on just her perspective; precisely what she told her cheerleader friend not to do. It's not that I'm forgetting that she's not the only Black person in the world (although she is the only one taking a Black Political Thought class with me right now), it's that I don't know if this personal pride feeling I'm getting can be justified based on just one person validating me. And of course, this whole thing could be entirely overwrought, and it all might just be my ego puffing up on agreement (by anyone!).

The personalization of "storytelling" and perspective-based scholarship has its advantages, but this is a major drawback. One never knows whether what you're getting is representative. In fact, it seems like a considerable portion of such work is dedicated to warning us not to treat any particular perspective as representative of a larger truth. As a result, it's near-impossible to pin down anything concrete these stories can tell else, besides perhaps increasing our empathy (which is definitely important!). There's really no way to mediate between conflicting narratives either--if one Black person tells me that Affirmative Action is critical to her personal and collective liberation, and another tells me it makes her feel like a token, how do I evaluate the two? I could just keep asking until I find a reasonable consensus, but this seems trite (and besides, a framework of evaluating the truth-value of narratives via body count is a game minorities are going to lose, simply because there are less of them). There's a vertigo here--I never know if I am getting a benefit, if there even is a benefit to be had, or if I'm even allowed to claim a benefit I think I have. This is dizzying.

Anyway, I'm not sure of that was really deep, or really meaningless, but it was really nagging on me, and now it's out there to the world. Comments appreciated.

1 comment:

Piscean Princess said...

I think that you benefit from interaction with anyone that you approach / listen to with an open mind. When you're trying to soak up all that you can about any group, it's easy to forget that everyone's journey & story is different. So it is impossible for ANY person to speak on behalf of the entire group on any subject. Each individual has their own voice and each voice is valid and true.

I'm not sure at this point how I found you (I've been on a roll today), but I'm going to keep reading. You may hear from me again.