Sunday, April 27, 2008

Legitimizing Credentials

I know it's taking me a long time to get to the point I want to make. But the anecdote or question or conundrum (not sure what to call it) that I want to get to has multiple layers to it. So I'm taking my time laying out all the parameters, so to speak. Or at least throwing out various tidbidts, little "appetizers" if you will (in the "food for thought" mode).

In the last post I wrote about the expectations of faculty of color when they are "one" with their research--and questions about "authenticity" in the classroom (click here for link).

Today I want to talk about credentials--which credentials one uses to "legitimize" one's ability to write and research on certain topics.

I've already mentioned that I did a PhD in English with a dissertation written on Asian American literature. I'm currently researching a new project on mixed-race Asian American issues (which means I'm immersed in reading books, articles, blogs on this topic as well as attending lectures and conferences on this subject, and watching film/television/documentaries, as well as speaking to people who identify as multiracial Asian American). And I teach classes in contemporary American literature, generally classes that focus on race and ethnicity and gender, and classes specifically about Asian American issues.

But I think there are other ways I become "legitimized" as a professor of Asian American studies, ones that are not discernible on my c.v.

For one, I identify as Asian American. And not only Asian American, but a mixed-heritage Chinese American woman, with cultural roots in Jamaica and relatives in China, Canada, England, and the U.S. I grew up in the SF Bay Area, did my undergraduate degree at a U.C. college, and grew up with many Asian American friends, neighbors, and acquaintances--in other words, I grew up with a type of "Asian American" community and consciousness, one that would not be available to someone of my age-group who had lived, for example, in the rural Midwest of the 1980s (or rural anywhere actually).

In other words, one could make the argument (as was done in my previous post's comments) that my personal experiences contribute to my expertise in Asian American studies, and matches my own self-identification as well.

But what happens when all of the above is true, but the person's identity is not Asian American?

I know we've all heard of the person who claims authority by invoking personal or intimate connections. For example, the person who says, "But my best friend is [fill in the blank] or the guy with the Chinese American girlfriend who claims to "know" what it's like to be Chinese American based on his intimate relationship. Or the gal who "knows" what it's like to be black because she grew up in an African American neighborhood. Or the person who studied abroad in Mexico who identifies with Chicano people.

I'm guessing that a lot of people may disclaim the above type of authority--the credentialing through either friendship or travel abroad. But I also wonder about this scenario: the Japanese national who is hired to teach Asian American literature, whose work is on Hemingway but who is nonetheless hired to teach Asian American literature classes because to the hiring committee his exterior identity as "Asian" is enough to grant him authority in the classroom, even though his training is in early 20th century American literature and his personal experiences are based in Tokyo and his syllabus contains novels by Pearl Buck and Amy Tan. Should we hire this candidate or the white American candidate who wrote a dissertation on John Okada's No No Boy (a classic text of Asian American literature--part of the "canon" I'd say) and who grew up in a suburb with many Asian American friends?

I absolutely believe that we need more ethnic studies classes. And we need to hire more people of color. But I don't want the two to be the same--that more ethnic studies classes means that you automatically hire people of color or that people of color should only be hired in ethnic studies classes. Whenever I've complained to colleagues about the lack of Asian American faculty at Southern U., many point to the science departments (biology, chemistry, physics) and the number of Asian surnames there, to which I also point out that it's a bit unclear whether these faculty members identify as Asian American or Asian, and more importantly, there is a dearth of Asian American faculty in the social sciences and the humanities, to which my colleagues point out that there aren't any faculty lines to teach Asian American studies currently.

But my point is, why don't we hire the guy who specializes in Russian literature who is also Korean American? Or why can't the 20th century African historian be Chinese American? I know it happens--I have Asian American colleagues who teach in subjects that are not related to their personal identities. My only point is that too often we are pigeonholing people into teaching or researching a subject based solely on what they "look" like rather than how they identify, what they are trained in, or what their personal experiences are.

[Aside: By the way, I haven't even delved into politics. I mean, I would rather gouge my eyeballs out than have Michelle Malkin or Dinesh D'Souza be a university colleague of mine--they are NOT the kind of Asian American faculty I want to see hired because their right-wing conservative jingoistic and nearly fascist politics make me want to call them all sorts of crazy-nasty names. So clearly, there is also a political subtext to all of this as well, for me, the lefty-liberal-progressive democrat, and yet I'm aware of the dangerous nature of bringing politics into hiring committees (sigh). It's all so complicated!]

But here's the rub: I do take more seriously a discussion about racism from a person of color than a white person. In other words, if I know a book on Asian American studies has an "Asian" surname I grant an automatic authority to it, and then I read it to determine if that authority is deserved. But if there is a white surname and I don't know the person's scholarship already, then there is a little voice in my head that wonders what perspective this person is coming from. Why? My assumption is that a person of color has experiences that shape his/her understanding of race and racism that a white person does not. I think it's unfair, my assumption--because I have many white allies who are able to make powerful claims in their research and classrooms about racism from the point-of-view of white privilege and supremacy, and I have white colleagues who are wonderful Asian American scholars.

So why am I fixated on seeking legitimation of issues of people of color by people of color? Is it just about representation? Do I mistrust the white person who claims to be an ally by pointing to personal experiences with anti-racism? Why aren't my professional beliefs matching up with my visceral reaction? Can I overcome my visceral reactions and let logic triumph over them? Am I, as I sometimes fear, an essentialist at heart? And yet, don't I want to work against this type of essentialism--because I want to work against racism and the continuing reification of racial identities and believing that you can only be legitimated through your racial identity?

More on Monday.


dance said...

I think your scenario of Japanese national Hemingway expert vs. white Asian-American lit expert is too much a straw man. There's no legitimacy to hiring the Japanese national--neither the scholarship or the experience is there. That's just ignorance masquerading as liberalism.

More difficult situations, that force one to measure whether experience or scholarship weighs more:

Job: Full load in Asian-American lit. Asian-American who studies Hemingway but did an outside field in As-Am lit (e.g., took two classes, no teaching experience) vs. a white candidate wholly trained in As-Am.

(Add a layer: the white candidate's wife is As-Am, and they have a daughter.)

Job: full load in Af-Am history. Latino candidate with better pedigree, more pubs, better dissertation, more intriguing research agenda vs. black candidate trained in Af-Am, acceptable but not as stellar as Latino candidate.

Job: full load in African history or lit. African candidate (maybe trained in Africa), not as good by standards of US academy, vs. white candidate with typically good US pedigree/training.

I also think there is a difference between a claim to having grown up habituated to observing race and thinking about race because all your friends were black, and a claim to "knowing" what the black experience is like. That's a straw man too---merely to make that claim of "knowing" undermines one's credibility on race. But I think the habit of knowing race exists offers a lot of authority---but how would I read a book introduction that began with that factoid? Does that person start teaching each Af-Am class with that claim to credibility? Wouldn't that be a little sad?

Jennifer said...

Hi Dance,
Yeah, it is sort've a straw man argument--although it has happened before, this type of scenario. So it's what immediately leapt to mind. Although I agree that it's easy to debunk and yet shocking how often it happens with unthoughtful hiring committees.

You're also right that the person who says they "know" what it's like to be another race is actually undermining their own transcultural authority. But you're also right, all the long caveats can be a bit tiring, and yet I suppose I appreciate the caveat making at the beginning--the subject positioning that scholars who work transculturally do in order to make sure they are being respectful. A mentor of mine here at Southern U.--an older white man who works on issues of race and ethnicity--claims that any white scholar who doesn't do this is someone you must be suspicious of.

Still, as you note, it does all seem to leave one feeling a bit sad/disheartened, especially if that's how you start to begin your classes each semester. But it does seem like maybe that's the only honest way to approach it if you are doing transracial/transcultural work because won't the students be thinking it anyway?

CVT said...

After my ridiculous babbling on the last post, I bring more.

I repeat here my previous comment: (insert ethnicity here) Lit is a different beast than (insert same ethnicity) Studies, in my eyes. Lit is about reading about someone talking about their experience. There is no true need for the person doing the reading to HAVE that experience to be able to read it and be knowledgeable about the canon.

Studies is a little bit more about the actual EXPERIENCE. Not entirely, mind - but to some extent. And when you're talking about the actual experience, BEING of that background has some more weight. But again - see my last comment of the previous post - about how that falls out in "Academia."

As for the introductory caveat specifying a lack of "KNOWING" a different experience: THAT is huge. I agree that anybody who does not make clear that they do not claim to KNOW an experience that is not theirs is playing with fire. I won't go into this one too far, but I feel as strongly as I can about this one.

Case in point: I am teaching a Race/Ethnicity class at my middle school. The first day, I was mentioning some of the things we would cover, and one of my African-American students asked me: "How can you be teaching us about being Black!?"

My response: "I can't. And I'm not. I can teach you some historical and social background FACTS, but it's YOUR job to teach us about BEING Black." And the look of surprise on his face was priceless - a teacher actually ADMITTING that they didn't know something. He's been one of my most active students in the class since (taking HIS role of teacher quite seriously).

Now imagine if he had not asked the question, and I had not clarified that issue - what are the chances he would be actively participating in the class, thinking that I was claiming to teach about "BEING Black"?

Now imagine how seldom a student has the guts to ask their teacher (or professor) that question at the beginning of a semester. Imagine a reader not being able to ask that question of an author. Imagine every other situation that parallels that moment, and how often the question is not (or cannot be) asked.

NOW tell me that it's not necessary to clarify EVERY TIME.

dance said...

CVT, thanks again---when I wrote "wouldn't that be a little sad?" I was thinking in terms of a teacher or author starting off with a defensive attitude, and frankly, I suspect that I would sneer upon reading an introduction from someone claiming he grew up in a black neighborhood. Your example of making "who knows what?" the *first* teaching moment, and extending it to what students offer as well as what teachers offer, is a much more palatable (and productive) vision.

I'm not 100% certain that I would interpret Af-Am Studies as teaching about *being* black, but I've actually never thought about it in that way.

Jennifer said...

Hi CVT & Dance,
Thanks for both your comments--and really, for even reading through these lengthy posts! I appreciate just the time you took to read them let alone make comments.

I don't have much to add--since I've elaborated more in the last post on this thread. But I will say that, like Dance, I'm not sure I'd say that African American studies or any ethnic studies requires more of an insider's perspective than not, although I can understand why, CVT, you would believe that it does (or should) and I also know that I would have a knee-jerk reaction to taking an Intro to Asian American studies course from a non-Asian American person, and more so from a white American. And while I can rationalize, in my mind, why my visceral reaction is wrong/problematic, I do think that there is something about the way we expect teachers to embody and legitimize their subject when the subject is related to race (and hence racism) and perhaps underlying all of this is a belief that if you aren't a person of color who has experienced racism, then it's harder to be an authority figure on this topic, inside or outside the classroom.