Thursday, 8 November 2018

Should I Be Talking to BME People About Race?

I've just come out of one of the most intense classes I've ever been involved with and thought it might be worth mentioning, even though I'll have to skirt around some aspects to preserve students' confidences and identities.

I run a module which looks at literary and cultural responses to a number of liberation movements: mostly literature but occasionally other media. It has flaws: like all modules, there's too little time to do too much and I made the decision – perhaps erroneously – to cover several movements rather than devote the module to, for example, African-American civil rights, or gay liberation. It feels, therefore, a touch if-it's-Thursday-it-must-be-feminism about it, really just skimming the surface and it obviously reflects my interests. Not ideal, but I wanted students to get their hands on as many texts as possible that they might never otherwise see. We look at two proletarian/socialist novels, Gwyn Thomas's The Alone to the Alone and Lewis Jones's Cwmardy, Virginia Woolf's 'Three Guineas' and Valerie Solanas's Manifesto of the Society for Cutting Up Men, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and Reni Eddo-Lodge's Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Ginsberg's Howl, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Tony Harrison's poem 'V', Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight Club.

It's a small second-year class - 19 when everyone turns up, and I know all the regular attenders well from first-year, except for the Erasmus students. Only one student is male, virtually everyone is the first person in their family to attend university, there's a fair age range, and the students' ethnic origins are very diverse – much more so than you'd get in an Oxford college for instance. Basically, they reflect the local community and this institution's stated intention of making HE available to all.

Each week, I expect the students to have read the week's text(s) and we start with a sub-group presenting their perspectives. They're asked to build in opportunities for discussion, and part of the overall grade depends on participation in other groups' presentations. That means everyone has to read all the books and contribute in the way they'd expect others to contribute to their own week. Nobody can hide at the back or ride freely.

Some weeks the texts seem impossibly distanced from the students' lives. Cwmardy and The Alone to the Alone aroused considerable debate, but the days of autonomous, organised mass working-class politics sounded fantastic to them, depending as it does on mass employment, industrial economies and less atomised communities. All of the students have jobs, but unionisation is either a mystery to them or a privilege of middle-class, securely-employed people like me. A lot of students liked 'Three Guineas' but found Woolf's (self-admitted) concern for upper bourgeois women limiting: Manifesto led to a huge discussion about men and sexism in their own lives, but the rhetorical aspects of Solanas's work, especially the humour, was missed. Last week we looked at Invisible Man, the 1950s classic of one man's attempt to be himself when neither his black community, the Communist Party nor white society would ever see him as anything other than a type or a representative. All the discussions were lively, sometimes going on for 90 minutes without me having to say much at all, and the students' engagement was serious, passionate and thoughtful (even though at least one person initially read The Invisible Man before realising her mistake!). It's also an education for me, intellectually and emotionally. I'm essentially Privilege personified: every week I teach people who don't look, act or sound like me about texts in which the people who do look, sound and behave like me are justifiably the enemy. All the things I'm reading about in the abstract are being experienced by my students in their daily lives.

This week was Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory and Reni Eddo-Lodge's book, starting with a presentation by three white continental European students from different countries about the latter text. All the terms that have swirled around in current debates came to a head, particularly 'white privilege'. Even requiring students to read a book with this title, and talk about the word in class, is an act of white, gendered, class privilege: while I've been the target of local media ire in the past, I can't help thinking that a black colleague – if we had any – would face accusations of indoctrination by the forces of reaction.We talked about discourse and representation, about media coverage and about 'black racism'. Students discussed their personal lives, the murders of close friends, their experiences in schools and relationships and tried to fit them into the racialised structures identified by Eddo-Lodge and Scott-Heron. We talked about why I and my colleagues don't look like the student body in terms of sex, gender, class and race, and we looked at the notorious White Saviour advert the university deployed in the summer (which I ridiculed in an earlier blog post). The discussion quite often became an argument and I tried hard, not completely successfully, to encourage students to express themselves honestly while thinking about the impact of their language choices and assumptions.

One of the things that came out is the huge amount of emotional and intellectual labour needed to discuss these things. When we discussed representations of BME characters in fiction, we talked about the way their plots always relate to their ethnic identity, or they're always bad guys: the BME students made it very clear how utterly exhausting it is to live – like the nameless protagonist of Invisible Man – as a type or an issue rather than a person. Conversely, my white students had to work hard too: Lodge's book in particular demands that white people examine their lives and fortunes as the product of structural racism rather than individual good or bad luck or effort. One student needed a break to calm down after some ill-chosen words struck home, while we all struggled to relate anecdote to systemic issues. Voices were raised and I frequently had to consider the tensions between free speech, full exchanges of views and the nature of offence. 'Safe space' is a much-abused concept these days, but we all had to think about it, and I had to consider the ways in which the power I wielded in that classroom is a product of my own multiple privileges, and whether I was wielding it responsibly (I did encourage revolt though). One of my slides simply asked 'should I be in the room?'.

I've never left a three hour class before so sure that we could have carried on literally all day, but I'm also left with doubts and concerns, particularly about my duty of care towards them. I'm thrilled that my students felt able to say what they think to each other; I'm not sure that all the wounds will heal, and the hard labour involved falls disproportionately on those from subaltern positions. There are wounds, and many of the students were clearly reassessing their own perspectives and others' as the class went on. I genuinely don't know whether the pain involved justified requiring them to read and consider these texts. One student very much felt that the opportunity to talk about these things in the open was exactly what a university should be doing, but I'm sure that others felt that either their own lives were post-racial, or that they might be expected to speak as representatives of their own ethnicities. All lives are texts, I suggested, but a classroom shouldn't become a psychologist's couch with the students and teachers as the psychologist. I'm not from a culture that shares much (ugh), but that means that if I weren't a perpetually-worried academic, I probably wouldn't interrogate my behaviours and their contexts much either: while my students have a very full range of personal and political perspectives, they're much happier to discuss them without filter as the kids say.

It comes down to power. I have it, they largely don't. I used it to make them confront themselves and others through the medium of these texts. If I hadn't, would they have had the opportunity to consider these issues? Is it OK to invite BME students to publicly address their experience in the interest of educating those from the dominant group, or is it empowering to given them and the others the opportunity to locate their personal experiences within structures and systems? At the very least, we can't just 'do' this subject in one class and move on: it's got to be part of a long, serious conversation.

Any thoughts?


thefilthycomma said...

Thank you for talking about this. My students and I are currently wrestling with my/their own positionality and while I don't think there are any easy answers, it's wonderful to know others are having the same discussions.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. I teach on democracy, especially divided democracies. It is amazing what you have done with this course. I am looking from the outside at the minority experience. So lately I have come upon film clips as a way of discussing race without having everyone look to Student X or Y for an opinion. Literature seems a good vehicle as well. There are not easy answers. We need more BME people employed as teachers.

Anonymous said...

Well and passionately put. Like I suppose many of has who just lecture on things to do with sensitive issues, I just wouldn't know what to do to get a discussion going, let alone now to handle it, so in a cowardly way just funk it.