Friday, March 26, 2010

I'm a race woman

I suppose I should begin with an apology to my regular blog readers for the long gap in-between posts. I was fairly overwhelmed with work when I got back from the long roadtrip around the South. I'm also surprised that I haven't blogged more about the trip. I suppose I'm still processing parts of it. Not that anything dramatic really happened. Aside from the encounter with the veteran in the restaurant at the beginning of our trip, things were largely uneventful in the realm of distressing or unwanted or inappropriate conversations and comments. In general the people we met were friendly, largely because the people we spoke to were in the hospitality (hotel, restaurant, museum) industry. And even the random people we sometimes encountered and spoke with were friendly because most folks in the South are just like that.

Which makes me wonder about the degree to which race rules the South. And I suppose what I mean by that is the ways that it pops up whether people want it to or not. I was at dinner last night with a group of faculty from my department, and in speaking to one of our senior members, someone whose own family roots are deep within the South, he spoke frankly but at the same time entirely casually about the kind of racism that was so endemic here in the 1970s and 1980s that prevented certain political figures from gaining office (we were, as a table, having a larger conversation about politics). I was both surprised, and not, to have this older white male colleague speak so vehemently about the rabid racism that exists in parts of the South and how reprehensible it is. Some of the most ardent critics of white privilege and white supremacy I've found have been Southern whites who grew up in the South and have seen things with their own eyes and sometimes within their own families that they've had to grapple with.

And this makes me wonder about the reputation I've developed for myself within my department, because I'm definitely known, in the parlance of an older era, as a "race woman"--as someone who is "obsessed" with race and issues of social justice.

Recently there was a skit night that the graduate students in our department put on. It's an annual tradition, one that isn't unique to our department, and it's a tradition in which the graduate students write skits that mock and parody members of the English departments, both themselves but more importantly, their faculty mentors. This skit night is open to the entire department--in fact the students WANT faculty to attend, and in some years there is better turn out than in others. I didn't attend this year's performance because I had another obligation but I did hear from a grad student that there was a skit in which I was parodied. The scene was a comprehensive examination meeting in which I and other faculty members were sitting around the table. Apparently the person playing me (and I should note here that given the lack of Asian American grad students, it was a cross-racial performance by a white grad student) started on a rant about snow, saying things like "Why does snow have to be white? Why is whiteness so pervasive in snow? Can't we imagine other colors to describe snow? Isn't this another instance of white supremacy?"

It was apparently played for broad laughs, and the student who told me about it was worried I would be offended--that this is the second year that I've been parodied as the strident and righteous professor declaiming about injustice (the previous year they had me ranting about feminist issues), particularly around issues of race. He (the student) wondered why I had been pigeonholed into this "race obsessive" professor.

And I laughed, partly because I have a thick skin about these things--after all, I have seen these skits and scene the parodies. I think I got off fairly lightly as far as the send-up. But I also laughed because in some ways, it is true. I am obsessed with race. And it doesn't bother me to say that.

Because here's the thing: in my view, why wouldn't I be obsessed with race? I'm a professor--I'm a faculty member doing research. We all have intense relationships to the field of inquiry that we are immersed in. We all have our professional obsessions. No one would criticize or think twice about describing a geneticists's obsession with finding a gene for alzheimers. Or an art historian's obsession with Egyptian art if that was his specialty.

But to be obsessed with race? Somehow this is seen as pathological. Yet as my friend and colleague "JC" said to me over dinner the other night, how can you be living in the U.S. and NOT be obsessed about race? You are either obsessed about race because you realize the extent to which it has shaped and continues to shape our society OR you are in denial about the role of race in our lives. Either way, it's an obsession, of either omission or visibility.

So I'm a race woman. I suppose there's no better place to be one than in the South.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Laughing with you on this one, although admittedly it's a little bittersweet because part of the "deal" with being pigeonholed as The Adamant Anti-Racist is the distance that's grown between my (white) friends and I coupled with the perverse way in which I tend to attract everyone else's skanky race issues. The distance thing bothers me in that I'm aware that, in my social circles, holding strong opinions of any sort are typically frowned upon, but that this particular strong opinion is coupled with (white, male) privilege of not having to deal with race unless Someone Brings It Up - and that's usually me - so they get to whine about race fatigue without ever having to understand that I, too, experience race fatigue, but that unlike them, I don't get to opt out of dealing with it. It's part of my life. Which leads into the second half, the "dealing with everyone else's skanky race issues" half, in which the folks who know me as The Adamant Anti-Racist will bring their race issues to me for examination and argument. (And even the people who don't know me as That WOC seem to feel perfectly comfortable sharing their racist baggage with me. Thanks. Except not.) Example: I cringed when the Compton Cookout hit because I knew at least two white people who'd want to argue with my opinion about it.

There are times, definitely, when I embrace that role, and when I'm proud to be the person who can educate around these issues and take the time to give them due consideration and attention because it happens so infrequently in the circles in which I travel. At the same time, though, it's wearying - it really is - and it doesn't help that the validation of this "obsession" isn't exactly forthcoming from most of society.