Friday, July 13, 2007

Discouraging Words

I am someone who believes, fervently, in the power of words. And yet, there are times (like today) when I wonder what difference my own words will make in the world. Whether it wouldn't be better to "do" rather than "write" or "talk." Or perhaps I am returning to a misgiving I have about academia--specifically the work of my particular field, English Literature and literary criticism: what difference will another work of literary or cultural analysis make?

I know the answer, of course. So it's not necessary to rehearse why words matter. But I am struck, today, by two stories, one emailed to me by a friend, the other I stumbled upon in the NY Times that are also reflective of discouraging words.

The first, about a Montgomery County (VA) school district who are pulling a lesson plan that was supposed to precede discussion of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, returns to the debate in schools about how to handle the "n" word, "nigger." I should make a note here, that ala Randall Kennedy, I'm choosing to actually print, albeit in quotations, the actual epithet rather than refer to it as the "n" word. To use a pop culture analogy, it's sort've like the way JK Rowling has her characters refer to Lord Voldemort as "he who shall not be named" with another character (I think it's Dumbledore) commenting that there is a power to not-naming as much as naming. And, personally, I also think it's true--that there is a way in which we can give too much power to certain names--as well as create a hierarchy of slurs. For example, most people have no problem saying or printing the word "bitch" but "cunt" seems reserved for all but the most venemous of attacks, and "chink," "gook," "spick," and "kike," don't seem to have the same taboo-like qualities as "nigger," and yet in the right context, they can elicit just as much hatred and vitriol. Of course, I also understand that like it or not, there has been a racial hierarchy in this country, so perhaps it does make sense that not all racist slurs are equal.

But I digress. There is a larger story behind the decision to stop using this lesson plan, one based on an essay by African American author Gloria Naylor and her own musings with the word "nigger." Suffice it to say, it's a thorny subject, and feelings and issues of self-esteem as well as historical oppression are all involved. But perhaps at its very basic form, what is most telling about this story was a recounting of why one of the student's complained about the lesson plan: her white teacher's performance of African American stereotypes, adding a layer of discomfort and a signaling of difference that was not in the classroom before (apparently on the day of this lesson plan the teacher re-arranged the desks into a semi-circle and actually read the essay aloud, performing it for her students in exaggerated, some may say minstrel like gestures).

The second instance of discouraging words from the NY Times article is about the revival of Lacrosse among American Indian communities in upstate New York. After a discussion of its cultural significance among various Native communities, there is a segment that talks about how many of these new leagues do not allow girls to play and that, in fact, if a girl or woman has even touched a lacrosse stick, then that stick must be placed in quarantine for a week to banish the contaminating female essence, and in some instances, boys/men give away these polluted sticks once girls/women have touched them.

I don't know if I need to analyze any of these stories further--lets just say that I definitely categorize them as discouraging words.


Anonymous said...

What I found really "discouraging" abotu the MD case (I read about it in the Post) was that the reaction to pull the lesson and consider pulling the book seemed to totally jump the gun, bypassing what appeared to be the actual substance of the student's complaint--that she was uncomfortable with the way the lesson was presented (with the unnecessary theatrics by the teacher), not necessarily with the lesson itself. That seems to have gotten lost in the reaction.

I left the article with the distinct impression that they were just assuming that because the young lady in question was African American, she was just automatically offended at ANY use of the term "nigger", despite the context, and therefore it becomes The Word Which Shall Not Be Named. And how is that useful?

Jennifer said...

Yes, you said it so wonderfully--I wanted to make this observation in more detail but felt my blog entry was running a bit long. I do think the real heart of the matter was this student's discomfort with her teacher's lesson plan--and that the teacher's inappropriate (if well intentioned) idea of how to present this essay as a precursor to a discussion of Huck Finn was the real issue--I mean, you can only imagine the horror of this poor student (and others) at thinking that if this was day 1 of talking about the word "nigger" what would it be like when they actually got to Twayne's novel--would the teacher continue to act like a buffoon and continue to do a black dialect? And although the student is black, I can't imagine that non-black students were also feeling comfortable--on the whole, it seems like the real issue was the teacher and while I don't have a solution with dealing with how to teach Huck Finn in high school, it does seem that pointing things out can often backfire.

Actually, it reminds me of an incident that happened last year when I was teaching a mixed-race memoir by Paisley Rekdal and recounted a racist incident I had just experienced where a colleague's wife told me that she thought mixed-race Asian-white people looked "awkward."

I shared the story with my students, thinking that it would be a way for them to understand that it's hard to speak truth to power or to even know how to confront a racist incident like this in the year 2006. I thought it would be a way into talking about some issues of racism that Asian Americans, esp. mixed-race Asian Americans experience, but what happened was that I got an email message from a student, who was herself mixed Asian-white, who felt targeted by that story and was so uncomfortable she didn't want to come to class.

Certainly, I hadn't thought of her when I told the story--to be honest, I wasn't sure what her background was until she self-disclosed it at that moment, and I felt initially really ruffled because I take great pride (pride being the operative word here) on being race sensitive.

But then I realized that maybe I wasn't. I clearly wasn't for that student, so I apologized, invited her to come talk to me in office hours to clear the air if my email message wasn't enough, and told her that my intent was quite the opposite to her reaction.

I don't know if it really helped or not--this was a student who had other issues going on, so perhaps this was just another thing that overwhelmed her, but it was an instructive episode that made me realize that well intentioned or not, teachers sometimes hurt their students and dealing with the aftermath, and getting over one's sense of "pride" is just as important as figuring out a way to deal pro-actively and sensitively with controversial racial issues.