Saturday, March 06, 2010

Failing Utopia / Feeling Utopia

by J J Cohen

Yesterday GW MEMSI sponsored its spring symposium "Race?". I'd put the event together rather quickly, mainly because I'd realized that the Institute had inadvertently been dwelling in a temporal ghetto (I use that word deliberately): while the topics we examine are of wide interest, we hadn't made a sufficient effort to include our colleagues and students who specialize in later periods in our conversations. Because my own work on race bears the tangible impress of the time I've spent at GW, I figured that this most vexed of categories -- the contradiction laden nexus of culture and nature -- would provide an entry into a wide-ranging, transhistorical discussion. Fellow GW faculty members Jennifer James, Tony López, Andrew Zimmerman, and Tom Guglielmo joined special guest Ayanna Thompson (about whose excellent work I could fill several blog posts).

I opened the event by projecting one of my favorite images of a racialized other, the Saracens I examined in Medieval Identity Machines who impersonate their own race via masks (you can access the image from the Grandes Chroniques on my personal home page). I wanted to foreground the "thickness" of race-in-motion from the start. Each panelist then gave a brief presentation. Topics ranged from Phyllis Wheatley's poetry of resistance to the early modern stage to Cuba and the "post-racial" to World War II military racial classification schemes and the problems they created. Even though no one had conferred ahead of time, every presentation had much in common: the protean nature of race, conjoined to its ability resist historical change; the violence that race has enacted; the perplexity it has engendered; the centrality of performance to race; its multiple category overlap. Although we spoke briefly about the pleasures racial affiliation can offer, for the most part we focused upon the social injustices that seem, eternally, to go hand in hand with racialization.

The audience of about seventy was engaged, offering excellent questions and guiding us into contemporary debates over what "colorblind" and "post-racial" might signify (especially when right-leaning pundits opine that we are "post-racial" because our current president was actually elected), and how such a declaration might serve to render invisible lasting economic and social disparities. Many who came that afternoon were students in my "Myths of Britain" course, who have a sweet way of following me from place to place like that. About eight of these young men and women are seniors in the nearby School Without Walls, who are allowed to take several college-level courses at GW in a system I helped arrange while I was department chair. Because it's a DC public school, SWW is racially quite diverse. The students are typically very good, and speak up regularly in my class. Yesterday it was one of these students who reminded me of the power of utopia.

This student -- let's call him R. -- has never volunteered in class and isn't doing as well in the course as I would like. I could see that he was becoming agitated during the discussion of the falsity of "post-racial." After I suggested that since we have never been pre-racial, we are never likely to move to that "post," his hand shot up. "When I look around my school," R. said, "I see people who date across the race. I see people who don't think about race. Race doesn't matter." His fellow students nodded their heads; a few then spoke with reverence about the world they inhabit, where everyone has a chance to be the person they desire.

At that moment I knew that I and the panel were being rebuked. I guessed that what R. and classmates were saying was: don't tell me that the world is and always has been so fallen. Don't tell me that my skin color is my unhappy destiny. Don't ruin my utopia. I thought for a long time before I answered. I remembered my student A., who at GW had never felt marked by complexion, but returned from her study in Paris achingly aware that the darkness of her skin declared her an Arab and ineligible for the same treatment that her friends enjoyed. I thought about other stories of hurt I'd collected; I've been a teacher for a long time.

I didn't want to tell these stories to R. I said: "First, I don't think you should ever believe an old person when he tells you how the world works. But now I will, and I hope you'll be skeptical. I've taught at GW long enough to have seen that many young people in their high schools and then at college are able to find a place where the color of their skin is not an everyday problem, and they say things like Race is a nonissue or Young people don't care about race any more. Some come back later in life and say the world has a way of making race matter, of telling them who they are in ways they shouldn't ever have to hear. My hope for you -- my fervent hope -- is that this never happens. I hope you hold on to your utopia, I hope you make your utopia endure."

I don't think he will. There is too much history that suggests otherwise. Utopia is nowhere. But to find a group of young men and women, some with dark skin, some with light , who for a year or two are not feeling the divisions that race imposes ... well, I'm not one to take that away, I'm not going to insist that they are naive, I'm not going to ruin the fragile thing they hold. I fear some day their hearts will be broken; I can guess too easily the hurt to come. For me, though, there is something refreshing, life-giving, and affirmative in the certainty of these 17 year olds that the scholars who were speaking to them about history and hurt are wrong.


Lara Farina said...

sigh. I find myself in this situation (or a similar one) regularly, since one of the undergrad courses I teach is "Sexual Diversity in Lit and Film" (really an LBGT intro, but differently titled to avoid outing students via their transcripts). There, the "utopic" comments generally have to do with social class and are along the lines of: class doesn't matter anymore, we're all free to marry (or be with) whoever we want. I don't think I need to point out the irony of this being said at a State University in West Virginia, but like you, I don't feel that the best response is to harp on all the social inequalities going on around them. It's just depressing and kind of sanctimonious as well. Because of course I do want them to be free--and creative, generous, and empowered--in their choice of who to be with and how.
My main problem is with the way that the comment "we're all fine now" closes down attempts to imagine different possibilities, whether those be presented in texts from the past or in truly utopic speculation about the future. In my experience, just letting students be moved by what they read is usually best for opening that imagination again.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for that comment, Lara, and for offering your own classroom experience. It's tough, isn't it? On the one hand such young optimism is precious; on the other, as educators we want our students to be critical. The best result would be educated utopianism, in my own opinion (and yes you can tell from this post and from this comment how deeply José Muñoz's recent book has lodged itself in my consciousness).

In our MEMSI discussion Friday, persisting inequality of access to resources (ie class) was easier to get some of the students to think about as mattering than race, even if race is so frequently and so literally the very matter of class ... though eventually many came to see (I think) that class and race are often the same thing -- or, better, that you can't think critically about race without also considering class, gender, sexuality. One of the more intense conversations I had afterwards was with a young man from my course who served for a few years in the Navy before coming to GW (mostly to earn some money). He comes from a very poor background. His experience in the Navy taught him (he told me) that he wasn't white like other white people (class was a constant barrier in his life, in which he kept finding himself pushed away as poor), and yet he kept seeking that bonding, without thinking critically about race and how different groups self-affiliate. He was at the end of the conversation filled with shame, regret, resolve, optimism for a different future. It was quite a thing to be part of.

You know, I feel vulnerable sharing this vignettes, because I know people who declare things like "I'm not here to give other people epiphanies" or who find the patent emotional content of such interactions uncomfortable or unprofessional. I don't know, I can't help thinking that these are the moments that stay with students for a very long time, and potentially alter lives.

Holly Crocker said...

Hi, Lara--

You might find this discussion on class and the academy (here philosophy) interesting:

The energy and range of comments, many from academics whose class identities have been challenging for their intellectual pursuits/careers, is pretty amazing (albeit pretty depressing, too). People certainly seem to want to talk about their specific, personal struggles with class in the academy. This accumulation of shared details is uncapturable, it seems to me, by a more abstract narrative, no matter how powerfully rendered or sincerely offered.

So Jeffrey, I think your sharing such a story about a student is totally great, but I also think you probably should acknowledge that what you are now telling is a story about yourself, and your reactions to an extremely moving story that one of your students trusted *you* enough to share. That care--i.e., caring for the shared narratives of others--is equally important, and is a crucial element of teaching (and friendship and love, I would say). Wouldn't we all wish that the stories we share (or once shared) would continue to be handled with such sensitivity? I certainly do, and I appreciate your willingness to share a story, even if you feel kinda vulnerable/unsure about doing so.

cheers, h

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Jonathan Hsy said...

This was a great event, and there's a lot I take from it. Thanks for this thoughtful, sensitive writeup Jeffrey (and of course thank you to all the GW colleagues and Ayanna for their contributions). I suppose I'm being Captain Obvious here but it seems the major lesson this: we need to provide venues for these conversations to continue. Even in a "university" we can get so atomized and (feel as if we) have little opportunity to speak with our own colleagues across our "particular" temporal/historical periods, cultural contexts, disciplines. I could tell that some students appreciated actually having a forum to speak openly - among peers as well as faculty - about race and how it actually does matter. It's not easy for a student to stand in a room full of peers and professors and speak up about things they've never openly expressed before. When we examine historically "distant" material (of any period) it can be easier for students to think "it doesn't matter" (or it's variant "it only mattered back then") and acknowledging the ramifications of race, inequality, etc. *in the present* can cause real discomfort.

A little anecdote here: I just taught "The Prioress's Tale" (in Medieval Lit), and I find my instinctive reaction to the discomfort it creates (for me and the students) is to pivot our discussion to collectively "saving" Chaucer from anti-Semitism - e.g, he simply didn't know better (there were no Jews in England in his time anyway); it's only the Prioress speaking, not him; he's only transmitting what people "at the time" thought, etc. But this time around, I wanted us to focus less on "explaining away" the discomfort but thinking about how literature actually offers many possibilities for imagining the world. We concluded the discussion by looking at snippets from the "Travels" of Benjamin of Tudela - which includes an exuberant portrayal of Paris as a cosmopolitan university town where Jews and Gentiles are like brothers. Some students found this "happy ending" a false utopia (some even laughed as I read it aloud). Not sure what that laughter meant - e.g. this medieval writer is simply too "naive"? Is post-racial utopianism is just as "laughable" back then as it is now? In any case, I do think that being able to provide multiple ways of envisioning the world is one of the very best things that literature - and our engagement with the past - can do.

Unknown said...

A good friend and colleague was French, and his thinking about Arabs was truly racial in the worst way-- he was entirely unaware of it: he held,when confronted,that his opposition to Arab culture in France was simply drawn from fact, and that he aimed at helping the Arabs by making them behave like the native French, and therefore he couldn't possibly be prejudiced.

Lara Farina said...

Thanks for the suggested link, Holly. I'll check it out! And, Jeffrey, I'm putting Munoz (can't figure out how to get the tilde on there) on my reading list.