Structural Change

I still have thoughts after last week’s post, and after previous posts related to Critical Race Theory, so the discussion continues. As you may notice, I have commented on the need for a change that is greater than lip service or genuine good will. I have written of the need for inclusivity in education from a paradigm based on international education, rather than our current paradigms which can sometimes be politicized and alienating rather than constructive and informative. Why do we not have structural change yet? I believe there are a few reasons.

-We have an emphasis on language and image. For example, we can instruct kids and students and people about what words to use to address someone or a particular group. Of course, it is crucial to set certain boundaries and rules about respect (such as never using the N-word with Blacks, or the F- epithet with the LGBTQ community). But this emphasis on language often remains superficial. A white woman may love listening to “Chicano and Latino” singers but vote in ways that don’t stop discriminatory gerrymandering. A college freshman may refer to an 18-year-old as a “woman” rather than a “girl” in the classroom but use her as a booty call on a Friday night after a few drinks. It’s very easy for people to tweet and retweet things like “Black Lives Matter” or post a “Stop Asian Hate” image on Instagram, but are they taking action to help lower SES black kids, or informing themselves about Asian geography and immigration? 

            I am not saying language and image are not important; however, I believe that these things have become a rallying cry and superficial solutions to what are structural problems. People can feel like they have accomplished something by using a politically correct vocabulary. The sad result is that there has been a backlash against political correctness, as we have seen from the rise of the right wing in politics as well as the media. There is a sad reason why Trump got elected. And there are many liberals or generally open-minded people who are also tired of having their speech policed. The Atlantic featured an article in 2018 about this, with the clincher that (from polls and data) those in favor of political correctness tend to be “Rich, highly educated – and white… and make more than $100,000 a year.”

-America is a country founded on individualism, which can create ignorance. So, is it any wonder that people may like minorities they know personally or elements of minority culture such as food or music, but not understand the greater challenges various minority groups face? We need to be informed about history, domestic and global, to understand our demographics. We also need to be aware of the economic structures of this country, and how they have favored certain groups. The right wants to blame the immigrants (who are supported by the left) for economic problems; what they don’t realize is that both right and the left are being manipulated by the 1% who have all the power and resources. Class stratification is a huge problem in developing countries as well as the United States, where there are a few government regulations or social support to mitigate the problems. It’s not only our personal individualism that is destroying us as a country, but also the economic individualism.

-A lack of knowledge of history. We scarcely know our own history, let alone the history of other countries who were also powerful and global empires. The late historian Chalmers Johnson mentioned in a lecture I attended that the United States was going the way of the Roman Empire, which fell nearly 2000 years ago. Rome controlled so much of the world, and yet we do not heed any warning signs or choose to learn what brought the downfall of the mighty. We should not repeat past mistakes that were made.

-A lack of knowledge of science and the application of science to public policy. In America, science has largely been ignored or politicized. The number of politicians who truly understand science, the scientific method and rationality, or preventative medicine are few and far between. In popular culture, stereotypes abound about the “nerdiness” of scientists and those who work in STEM fields. There is inadequate explanation by the medical establishment about procedures, wellness, preventative care, and the limits of what medicine can treat. Granted, this has improved in the past few decades. However, not enough attention has been paid to underserved communities and communities that have been manipulated in the name of science and “experiments.” And therefore, we have paid a price, as we have seen during this pandemic, with many communities being suspicious of the Covid vaccine, or not even getting access to it easily, resulting in sickness and death. The individualistic mentality has also led to a questioning of the medical establishment (which is not necessarily a bad thing when done carefully), and so we have anti-vaxxers and quack medicine movements. 

            Medicine has been treated as something very individual. The extreme privatization of our healthcare system is immoral, disgusting, and criminal. Public health has not existed as a visible entity until recently, because we do not think about community and health as a collective issue. Hillary Clinton was bullied for trying to institute universal healthcare; Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”) has met with many challenges as well as opposition from the public and politicians.

-Transportation. Outside of a few urban areas, public transit is poor. This is a country built on the automobile, and even many urban areas require a car. Owning a car also involves maintenance, paying for gasoline, and insurance, all of which can be very expensive depending on where one lives. For many people, this is a huge expense and leaves people in debt. For others, they are dependent on public transportation, at this adds hours of commutes to their days. Families pay a price for this. In addition, there are millions of people who live in extreme climates where it is severely cold or wet, so walking, cycling, or taking public transportation is not always an option. In these cases, eco-friendly vehicles are a key solution, but the economies of scale and availability and technology are not yet affordable for the majority, and so we continue to use polluting vehicles. 

These are just some signs that those in power need to rethink the underpinnings of our society. What are the key institutions that support us? How have we been misinterpreting the Constitution and principles set by our founding fathers to a degree that there is absolutely no collective well-being or consciousness as a society? Why have the obsessions with individual rights going to such extremes that they jeopardize basic well-being for everybody (think: school shootings)? Let’s hope that the recent Black Lives Matter protests, incidents of violence, elections, and pandemic will get people thinking and most importantly, effecting structural change.

Perceptions of Blackness from an Indian-American

This week’s post was supposed to be for last week, to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have written on various black writers and artists as well as mentors. But there is one other area I can comment on, and that is on perceptions of blackness by someone who is not white. I am the daughter of South Indian immigrants whose father did a PhD in the pre-civil rights deep South and encouraged black students in his career as a chemistry professor in the Midwest. I wish to make my points sensitively and with great consideration, but also with honesty, as I can only speak from my experience. 

I have no vested interest in taking sides, or reason to take sides, and perhaps have a more neutral perspective. Like most black people, I have brown skin and know all too well how difficult it is to be a different-looking minority and have suffered discrimination. But like many people in the white elite, I have a prestigious education and move in very cultured, educated, well-read, and well-traveled circles. And my own ethnic group is considered the most successful in America, my sub-ethnic group even more so (the second most powerful person in the country has maternal heritage that is the same as mine.)

First, I must say that I don’t always understand the polarization of black and white. Some people may call me naïve or stupid for saying this. In the Metro Detroit area, for example, there is intermixing, and many white people have grown up with blacks and black culture (it is the seat of Motown, after all). I grew up in a small town in the Midwest where many people found black culture “cool,” and in general, my perception of race in the Midwest has been that black and white are considered more “real American,” with immigrants of all colors being considered the “outsiders.” Both cultures have the common bond of language and Christianity, and many blacks and whites identify as “Americans” who lack connections to- or knowledge of their roots overseas. This is not to say that there isn’t racism in the Midwest: we cannot forget the Detroit riots and white flight. Milwaukee is notoriously segregated. Tensions still exist with South Side Chicago and whites. Gentrification threatens black neighborhoods in Rust Belt cities. There were certainly many people in my hometown who had antiquated, racist ideas, who wouldn’t want to sit next to someone with dark skin. However, all of this is meant to point out that there has been a long history of black people in the Midwest, starting with the Underground Railroad and then the Great Migration, as well as educational institutions that were integrated from the beginning.

In the West Coast, one generally feels there are few blacks. Proportionally, this is true as per census figures, though metropolitan areas such as Oakland, California have significant numbers of blacks. On a recent visit to San Diego, I saw only one sign in support of the Black Lives Matter movement on the car of an Asian driver. But given that so many California suburbs are full of immigrants from different countries, especially from South and East Asia and Latin America, I believe there is a good deal of ignorance of the suffering of many black people and of the civil rights movement that ensured rights for all people. Sometimes I am furious at members of the Indian community who stay only in their narrow little prosperous suburbs with only people of their own kind, taking everything for granted and assuming all blacks are criminals. 

Having lived in New York City and spent a lot of time in the East, I can say that race relations there are very complex. There are notorious ghettos, and yet there is tremendous knowledge and activism and effort made by people of all backgrounds to support black people. Given the presence of mass transit, a democratizing factor, and densely-populated cities, one feels that society is very diverse and more integrated than in other parts of the country. I have heard some black people say that the racism up North is worse, because it is covert, compared to the South. The intersection of class and race is so visible in big cities, and yet, there are black communities that have been there for decades and even for centuries, prosperous black neighborhoods and professionals and the black elite. I have often encountered a certain kind of self-righteous white liberalism in the East in which people are good and supporting causes in an organized way and spout rhetoric, but in their day-to-day lives, might not even say hello to a black doorman or worker. At other times, this type of liberalism becomes like a quota, with people feeling they need to have black friends or be activists to check off a box that says they are Diverse with a D.

I did my MFA in the South outside Asheville, and while I only spent brief periods of time there for my residencies, I got a strong sense of the deep roots of history in a way that one does not in the agrarian/20th century industrial Midwest. North Carolina’s political history is quite ugly and frightening in the way black people were treated, and there are other states and even more frightening histories. The South was indeed the bastion of slavery, and though black people form a significant percentage of states in the south, there are still examples of everyday racism as well as institutional and historical racism. A friend who taught in Alabama spoke of microaggressions that seemed right out of the 1950s rather than the 2010s. Poverty cuts across all races in the south, to be sure, and just because someone white is from the South does not mean that they will be racist. It is important to distinguish history versus the actions of current citizens. Many Southerners are offended when the finger is pointed at them alone for racism and will give numerous examples of the KKK and other hate groups all over the country (in the recent past, we have seen this in Oregon). A significant percentage of white Southerners have black blood, and vice versa. Many blacks distinguish between Northern and Southern blacks, which makes sense when we think about the socioeconomic waves of migration up north during different time periods. I believe that many of our institutionalized, racist policies stem from plantation culture and the history of the South and became codified up North. One can still feel the palpable presence and reminders of the Civil War down South. However, it is imperative for Northerners (liberal and otherwise) not to approach the South with a condescending, holier-than-thou mentality. 

These observations may sound simplistic due to space limitations here. There are still non-geographical reflections that I also wish to note. I believe that some white people have an irrational, visceral hatred of black people that I cannot understand, a violent impulse that is inexplicable. (These people often also have a gut-level hatred toward Jews.) For many immigrants and traditional communities, including those from Africa, we are puzzled by the family structure of many African-Americans and lack of the nuclear family/two-parent households (which is a statistical fact). A friend in Fort Wayne mentioned that African immigrants will tell their children not to associate with African-American children, due to the differences in values. Many Asians feel that blacks do not place the same emphasis on education as they do. And yet, there is often much solidarity between minority groups and (an expression I personally dislike) People of Color. A South Asian or Latina woman writer may feel more of an affinity with Alice Walker or Toni Morrison than with David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen.

In sum, I want to point out the complexities of perceptions of blackness, especially by people who are not white. Often it is the white liberals who feel there should be one way of seeing and interacting with black people, when there is really a great diversity. I get tired of “white vs. non-white” or “white vs. black,” as if whiteness and blackness are monolithic.

There are no easy answers; all we can do is continue to work together, really listen to each other, allow people to say what they believe and have constructive dialogue, and most importantly, take action to create a more just society for a group of people who is as old as America, but who have not been treated equally and still live under the daily threat of horrifying violence.

Thoughts on Critical Race Theory

I am not African-American/Black. I am not white. I am Indian-American, the daughter of Indian immigrants, so I feel this gives me a unique perspective on race in America. People like me owe a great debt to the civil rights movement, as it led to greater diversity in American society, and laws being created to treat people equally. My generation is the first generation to be equal by law in terms of race and gender. I am also an educator with a strong commitment to inclusivity, have taught in diverse settings and have deep roots in international education. I have tried, especially with international students, to show black people in a positive light, as endless stereotypes abound overseas, and have included texts by black authors such as James Baldwin. My MFA analytical thesis was on a novel each by Toni Morrison and Jane Austen. I have been mentored by black people at each stage of my education, in my different fields. I myself suffered discrimination by a white-majority, country town population.

So why do I have certain questions and concerns about teaching students Critical Race Theory? 

One of my concerns is that, pedagogically, race theory needs to be taught in an appropriate manner for each age. Teaching a kindergartener that they are privileged and discriminating simply because they are white (or any non-black race) could only lead to misunderstanding and self-hatred at a fragile age. What would be more useful would be to teach younger children the importance of loving one another and playing with one another regardless of one’s appearance. Naturally, young children are going to have questions as to why black people are being killed by policeman, or why some people hate black people for no reason. These should not be overlooked, and honest answers should be given about how America has a history of treating black people badly. The personalization should be left out of it for children.  A friend of mine who is a second-grade teacher in the South had her students write a letter to a well-known civil rights activist. Constructive activities and appealing to (most) children’s natural sense of injustice is key here. Nipping racist attitudes in the bud is best done sooner than later, because sometimes there is no turning back once these things are ingrained. Get kids to be actively anti-racist from the time they are little.

Questions are going to come up that can come across as racist, such as the physical appearance of others, questions of what is beautiful or ugly, skin color etc. Colorism is a sad fact in MANY communities, such as Indian, Filipino, Latino, black, etc. A sense of moral correctness is, I think, a better approach at a younger age than political correctness. This is not to say that children should not be instructed not to use certain words. Ultimately, the socioeconomic and demographic factors of the classroom will have to determine how race is taught. Telling Appalachian kids or Colombian refugees in Miami they have white privilege is not going to be the best approach. We must be honest with children, because they have the best BS detectors and are naturally empathetic.

As children get older, in later elementary and junior high school, naturally, there is more discussion and understanding of history, discussing certain milestones and civil rights, and talking about the institution of slavery becomes critical. As kids get older, they increasingly parrot what their parents say without thinking–if a child has a racist father, then it is important for the child to understand what the origins of racism are. Through the early teen and later teen years, then students are developmentally and intellectually capable of understanding a lot more about history, culture, class, and race. Through these tween and early teen years is when students need to understand about structural racism and what it means. Students may protest that they or their families individually are not racist at all and not discriminatory. While this is true, they need to understand history as well as what happens even today. This is a good place to introduce statistics. 

By the end of high school and into college is where discussions of privilege are very key. College admissions is fraught with inequality (our whole education system, frankly, but it is exacerbated in post-secondary education). I think we need to couch discussions of privilege not simply in terms of whiteness, but in terms of economics, which indeed intersects with race and privilege (with whites and Asians, most often.) People’s racial attitudes are becoming more solidified during this period; it often takes a huge shift in geography when a student goes to college to truly understand what race means. Seeing that everyone north of Columbia University was brown and a minority made a deep impression on me during my first graduate program and made me reevaluate my opinions on K-12 curriculum.

It is also important to provide social support for children who hold different opinions than their parents or community. The students may be supporting critical race theory, but the adults they know may not. Children need allies in teachers. They need safe spaces and safe people to talk to when they are being discriminated against, and when they are seeing people being bullied.

Throughout all of this, there is one key element that must not by any means be ignored: what black people themselves think. Often, well-meaning white liberals want to hit people over the head with a particular set of beliefs, ignoring what people feel and think. Showing all points of view on critical race theory is key, that there may be some black people who support or disagree with it, or certain elements of it. Also key is not allowing any sort of “my way or the highway” approach to teaching critical race theory, as this is what happens all too often. This is what creates a political correctness backlash. A student may disagree with one aspect of critical race theory, while supporting other aspects. All too often, multiculturalism and political correctness has been applied with a single brush, with educators who lack a complexity of thought repeating simplistic notions of what they have heard like a slogan.My long-held belief has been that we need more than one paradigm when talking about race or gender in this country. That may be what alienates a lot of otherwise well-meaning people who are appalled by any sort of discrimination and systemic or institutionalized injustice. There is always the danger that the lone black kid in a class, say, bears all the responsibility for speaking up for their entire community. This happens to anyone from a minority group.  Also, I have long asserted that white people are not all the same and that the white experience is not monolithic.  In one classroom experience, a very shy, awkward daughter of Russian immigrants (who possibly had a personality disorder) confessed to me that she felt that she was wrong by being straight and white. When I expressed this to the director of my institution, she said we needed to talk to this student about white privilege. I felt this was absolutely wrong. 

My (admittedly controversial) position is that if we take away the political correctness and cultural politics charge away from educating students, we could make much more progress than we have. I don’t want to be naïve and dismissive of the importance of these issues in education. We need to show young people that these are important issues, get them engaged in a fight for justice, and make them understand that discrimination has been entrenched in our social structures for centuries. Educators and school boards need to understand the complexity of race and culture as well. It is a shame that they are often being targeted by angry, narrow-minded parents, often afraid for their lives, by the right wing or conservatives who are afraid to discuss the ugly underbelly of America. Education has the obligation to get children and young people to learn and question their world around them. In the still-relevant, immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”

In Defense of the Canon

Why the disturbing trend over the past couple of decades toward secondary sources and a dislike of, or sometimes, hatred of the Canon?  Yes, virtually all of it is by Dead White Men, a cohort of individuals whose life experiences were indeed limited and shaped by their particular geography and Judeo-Christian values.  But what is ironic is that even the greatest post-colonial writers or ethnic minority writers, such as Nobel laureates Derek Wolcott and Toni Morrison, are themselves extremely well read in the classics and the Canon, and it informs and influences their works.  Without the Canon, one’s scope is limited, as is one’s understanding of history, classic literary themes, tropes, motifs, allusions, et cetera.  There is a certain “flatness” to the work of many scholars and writers of recent times, for it smacks of excessive self-absorbed individuality or literary disconnect.  In my opinion, this reflects the underlying problem of a general lack of historicity in many people’s perspectives in American academia.  American culture places such a high value on individualism and the now that context—-and along, historical context of hundreds if not thousands of years—-seems to have no importance in shaping one’s mind.  I find literary scholarship and criticism often very guilty of this, with reading into earlier works from a current perspective:  really, shouldn’t Elizabeth Bennet have earned her own living as an investment banker and just hooked up with Darcy on weekends?   Shouldn’t Madame Bovary have just gotten some therapy and a divorce?  But seriously, scholarship based purely on feeling or an individual’s psychological needs reads as somewhat juvenile.  (There are those who maintain that Americans are the teenagers of the world.)  Needless to say, those scholars who have no exposure to non-white, non-Western, colonial and post-colonial works or ideas are just as bad—-they come across as living in some bizarre sort of time warp, dinosaurs of an academic age that is long past.  (I myself suffered through a couple of these professors during my graduate studies).  Aren’t they missing out on Rushdie’s pastiches of literary genius?  Pamuk’s tremendous insight into Turkey’s position between East and West?   Scholars who come from cultures and civilizations that are 10 times as old as their American one?  But for any writer, my feeling is that the Canon is a must.