Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Sunday, July 25, 2010
I'm a graduate student at a small university in New Orleans. One of the first classes I had to take was an Anthropology course entitled, "Social and Cultural Theory." The class surveyed all the most notable anthropological theorists, what they contributed to the field, etc. Very early on, because of my comments on the readings, it became clear that my politics are VERY left-leaning. As a progressive student of color, the student demographic was probably the worst I had ever experienced in the classroom. Most of the white students were extremely resistant to anything I had to say, which wasn't entirely surprising. However, there were two other students of color who decided it would be beneficial for them to agree with our White peers...they felt it might get them in good with our professor (who wasn't always fond of what I had to say).
So, one class we had to read about Edward Tylor, the man who "defined" anthropology. The professor posed a question to us...was Tylor a racist?
I immediately said yes. The exerpts we had to read of him were filled with "savage," "barbarism"...all words he used to describe people of color. The white students erupted! They did not want to hear that Tylor was racist and basically tried to claim that "savage" was just a word. When I tried to discuss the the connotations of the word "savage" and its consequences, every single white student yelled at me AT THE SAME TIME. What made matters worse, one of the other students of color, an African American male who sat next to me, leans in and says to me, "It's just a connotation." In other words, he was supporting the idea that those words had no social consequences. The professor, who had been watching all this with a grin on his face, takes out a book written by his favorite theorist, Marvin Harris, who had written an essay that was titled something like, "Edward Tylor: Racist." He read the excerpt and Harris, a white male, basically said everything I was trying to say. Except, when he said it, there was nothing wrong. The students still didn't like it, but they kept their mouths shut.
A couple weeks later everyone was now willing to call Tylor a racist as if they had known it all along...and that was just one of many incidents in this class.
By: Abyssinian del Noroeste
Sunday, July 18, 2010
While in graduate school at Columbia, I sat in a classroom with about
40 of my peers during a "discussion section." There were only two
students of color in the classroom--me and one of my closest friends.
This class had been the source of mass discomfort for my friend and I
because our professor--a highly respected and lauded columnist whom
the majority of the class could not stand because he was also an
extremely insecure man--had a habit of making offensive comments to
everyone he possibly could. He once refered to a student as a "white
waste" because he did not answer a question quickly enough, which
shocked the hell out of me until he turned and referred to another
student as a "Pollack" (she was wearing a shirt that said that,
apparently unaware that it was an offensive term for those of Polish
descent.) He had a great time berating her to nearly the point of
We somehow got on the topic of diversity within the school itself
during one of these classes (during which my friend and I exchanged
knowing looks.) The professor said "Well, we've got two in the
classroom right now, and I think that's pretty good."
(Is anyone surprised to read he is a white male?)
Two? As in...eggs? Glasses? PEOPLE? God forbid we have names. Thirty
eight heads looked in the direction of my friend and me. We just
smiled that "Oh it's ok...no offense taken to your ridiculously
Also important to note that there were about 20 students of color in a
class of just under 500. Oh, Ivy League education...
Monday, July 12, 2010
I was like "what?!"
There is a bar in this city that every fool who is a somebody and all the nobodies who wanna become a somebody go to. I, a nobody who is much happier being a fool than a wanna-be, frequent the joint. Its about 2 blocks from the place I’m staying and good friends of mine, intellectuals sin pretenciones, go from time to time. About a week ago I had a conversation that has stayed with me since and is worth giving some thought to. A good friend brought some US Latino who is a free-lance writer. After the usual chitchat and the question of why and who we write for emerged the US Latino unapologetically and confidently proclaimed he writes about the African-American and Latino community for white people. When pressed he explained that he wants his work to be published and thus needs to write for white folk. Yet, the more we pushed, the more it seemed that the somebody really viewed himself as some sort of interlocutor between people of color and white folk.
Several of us tried to explain that there are few journalist of color and even fewer that present critical perspectives. We told the US Latino that we write for our primos, our friends from high school who never went to college, our tio/tias who don’t have BA but know as much if not more than many kids with degrees about Los Angles, race, discrimination, migration, etc. He wasn’t convinced. We continued to drink. We eventually left. Days have passed and I’m still thinking about the US Latino writer…and here is why:
While I would one day like to be a fool who is read by nobodies and a somebody or two I think we are all in the position of this US Latino, especially graduate students. We have no say in the language we use. Our language resembles middle-class educated Americans more than the subjects we write about. While most of us are no doubt far from Spivack’s move in “Can the Subaltern Speak,” I fear we are closer than we imagine: writing for professors and academics in language that would put to sleep the nobodies we claim to be inspired by and writing for. How do we shift the way knowledge is acquired and disseminated? Should we all become Carlos Monsivais?