Saturday, September 22, 2007

Supermodel Comments on Racialist Ideology; Dissents

One of the serious problems of institutional education is that students are often more capable of learning how to get by than they are of learning a principle. In most cases, this dynamic is illustrated in those moments where students say "the right thing" but without investing much thought in the principle that ought-to-have prompted the otherwise good answer.

A good example for my generation remains Hitler. Before I can remember, one of my teachers constructed a very tight association between Hitler and evil, and subsequent teachers tightened the association. Of course, they were right. But being the quick and pragmatic fellow that I am and always have been, I learned to repeat what I had heard -- like Pavlov's dogs, I heard "Hitler" and responded "evil." But this is a benign example; there is no harm in calling Hitler evil. Although it does seem remotely disappointing that I gave little conscious thought to the matter before I turned about 20.

On the other hand, what happens when cultural changes outstrip pedagogical theory's ability to update itself? For example, in the 1980s, when I was growing up, the catch word for matters relating to race was "tolerance." It was a wonderful term compared to the phrase it superceded: "Separate but Equal." But eventually "tolerance" seemed to imply something undesirable -- after all, we "tolerate" things we don't particularly like. "Diversity" became the replacement term, and it does indeed seem preferable. But is there something embedded within even that term that isn't working anymore? I asked my students the other day, prompted by their aggressive apathy concerning the matter of race in America -- I urged them to talk candidly, promised I would not point at any of them and declare, "Racist!"

A consensus grew around two problems: 1) They all knew what (they thought) I wanted to hear. They (thought they) had heard it all before. "Racism is bad; diversity is good," and one even got up the nerve to mutter "blahblahblah" ironically. And 2) Diversity implies difference, and they were not willing to accept fundamental distinctions between people based on skin color.

Of course, all of this sounded suspiciously like white-privilege and avoidance to me (even when two black students agreed) -- after all, I have received my own careful training at the hands of institutional educators. But as I walked back to my office after class, it occurred to me that their resistance may not be passive aggressive racism, but rather unsophisticated consensus about something-other-than-racism. What if they were actually dealing with the principle (for once!!!)? What if they have truly experienced race-in-America differently than I and my predecessors have? Possible? Unlikely?

I'm still suspicious, and I'll probably continue to be. But now to my point (and, I honestly never thought I'd be linking to anything like this): Adrianne Curry's recent personal blog post on race is generating massive amounts of response, and I thought it worth pointing out, if only because there are so many comments in support of what she says.

I suppose we, especially those of us in the academy, could ignore this kind of thing -- that's one option. But if we don't, there are about two ways of dealing: 1) either this outburst from Curry is evidence of a gigantic and apparently growing problem; racism is (still) gaining ground as an ideology, OR 2) we might suppose that, through poorly expressed 7th-grade caps-locked phrases there are no ill-intentions, and that, untactful as these sentiments are, her call for "unity" reflects a growing ideology of utopian hopefulness and what Paul Gilroy calls post-raciological thinking. I will say: it doesn't help that Curry gets all racist-cliche by saying, "I even had a black boyfriend once!"

Honestly, I would be fully comfortable supposing this to be an example of racist ideology except for the note of sincerity that Curry manages to strike in her very last line: "now, have fun burning me at the stake." It's as if she knows that she will be attacked, which makes it no fun attacking her... Hmm.

Meanwhile. So much for utopia.

(Weird Update: Apparently Hitler is a more interesting case for some folks.)

1 comment:

Terry Heath said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post, I enjoyed it, especially your comment on institutional education. I think you're right, we want to say the right answer. But what do we think when the teacher isn't listening?