Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Whiteness and masculinity are NOT default settings

Years ago, while I was in graduate school, I taught an introduction to fiction class and received my very favorite *anonymous* student evaluation at the end of the semester. It began by saying I was hands-down the worst teacher this student had ever had, and then went on to enumerate all my teaching sins, among which was that I concentrated too much on issues of feminism and ethnicity, taught only women and minority writers, and moreover (and here's my favorite part) that I

"taught from a female centered perspective"*

*These are the ACTUAL words the student used in the evaluation--I memorized them because I liked them so much.

Why did I love this evaluation? Because for one brief and shining moment, I got under the skin of this student--I challenged, even in a subconscious way, what an authority figure looked like in the classroom, by virtue of my gender and ethnicity. I was a woman of color teaching fiction and because of my identity, the student's reaction to the literature became colored through the prism of my body. The syllabus contained exactly 7 novels/short stories written by women and 7 novels/short stories written by men, and, incredibly enough, 7 novels/short stories written by people of color and 7 novels/short stories written by white people. I did not plan this; I chose works by writers I like who had interesting tales to tell. I put Austen together with Ondaatje with Achebe and Atwood. For this student, true parity looked like partiality--actual equality appeared to be majority rules, with the voices of women and people of color dominating, in his mind, the discourse.

But to get back to his actual language, what seemed to disturb him most was my "female centered perspective"--but just HOW ELSE should a woman professor teach? Was I supposed to somehow mimic a MALE perspective? And furthermore, what is the problem with teaching from a perspective that organically came from my identity as a woman? Clearly, for this student, a woman teaching from a female centered perspective was not teaching from a legitimate or authoritative position. Yet for one semester, I did precisely this. I taught this student and he was so twisted up by this change to his worldview, that he had to vent his frustration at me at the end of the semester.

And I am reminded of this evaluation after reading about Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings and, specifically, the relentless line of questioning she kept getting from Republicans over some of her biased (and in the Republican pundit world "racist") language and words she used in various speeches in which she claimed that her identity--her Puerto Rican background, her female gender--has an impact on her experiences, the way she sees the world, and hence her decision making.

[Note: I'm assuming that if you are here, we are on the same page about the accurate definition of racism--one borne out of decades of scholarship on this subject--but in case you need a refresher, let me direct you to the sidebar where my post "Defining Racism" should help explain some things about this term--and there are of course several other posts in which I talk about racism and what it means in our society]

OK, so I don't think I have to get into how ridiculous it is to charge Judge Sotomayor for being a racist because she once said that

"a “wise Latina woman” might reach better conclusions than white males without the same experiences"*

*taken from a New York Times article

And here's the thing, she's right. Experience matters--being able to understand the nuances of a situation matters. Knowing what it feels like to be a person of color subject to oppressive forms of discrimination based on race matters. And if you parse her quote, she didn't say that a Latina woman is absolutely better equipped to judge--she said that this person *might* reach better conclusions. And she didn't talk about making rulings or judgments--she said conclusions.

Why did no one question John Roberts about his worldview coloring his experiences and his conclusions? Why do we assume that fairness, being unbiased, being a reliable authority comes from being male and white? For my student, my gender (and implicitly my race/ethnicity) rendered my ability to be objective null and void. And it would seem that for those questioning Judge Sotomayor's previous speeches about her identity as a Latina woman raised in a working-class environment, they also felt that she could not be trusted with handing down unbiased judgments--that her very capacity as an authority figure was rendered suspect by her race and gender.


The only thing I feel encouraged about is that everyone feels her nomination will be a fairly open and shut case. Which means that very soon we'll once again have two women on the bench and, for the first time, two people of color and our first Latina female Supreme Court Justice. And maybe, just maybe, Judge Sotomayor will help people to realize that wise Latina women DO come to excellent conclusions based on their life experiences.


Valerie M. Russo Evans said...

I can see that as a total compliment. I pity the student who didn't take the opportunity to learn from your class.

Mamabelle said...

You wrote:
Why did no one question John Roberts about his worldview coloring his experiences and his conclusions? Why do we assume that fairness, being unbiased, being a reliable authority comes from being male and white?

It's as if being white is being "colorless." I saw this a bit back on Philosophy Talk. It's part of a hypothetical conversation between a white guy WG and black guy BG on the biracial identity.

"I mean black people experience the reality of race everyday. White guys, like me, tend to think of ourselves as non-racialized, as if we don't have a race. That's a form of white privilege that you black guys don't enjoy in our racialized society. Of course, I'm not saying that white people are right to think of themselves as non-racialized. It's, in fact, part of our racial consciousness to think of ourselves as non-racialized, if that makes any sense."

Jennifer said...

Thank you so much for your kind words--I'm sorry it has taken me this long to respond to my wonderful commenters (such as yourself), but I appreciate you leaving a comment and hope to hear from you again.

As usual, good to hear from you! I completely agree with your sentiment that it seems as if, in the larger world, "being white is 'colorless.'" It's so completely frustrating! The Colbert Report covered this pretty well, I thought, when they did their daily "THE WORD" and the word/phrase was "Neutral Man's Burden"--satire at its best. Sad thing is, I don't think that some people got that Colbert was being satirical. Anyway, I put a link to the Colbert Report on the post I did about Pat Buchanan and his OUTRAGEOUS comment about America being built by "white folks." UGH. SO much to say, so little time to attack old racist right wing nutjobs.