Wednesday, July 19, 2006

IBAR, You BAR, Everybody BAR BAR

So, it's officially "International Blog Against Racism Week." Wheeeee! I suppose this is not exactly something we celebrate, right? No beads to throw, no kazoos, no girls gone wild action. This is a somber writing task, and I would imagine, also a somber reading experience.

Which leads me to the question of the day: what "counts" as blogging, or speaking, or [verb]ing against racism? Because it seems to me that once you make the announcement [said in the echoing tones of the Almighty}: "Today, we talk about racism...racism...racism" you've lost more than half of your audience. The other half is there in large measure to be dutiful to something they believe in, or else to watch the fireworks go off. As someone who often teaches texts that explicitly ask students to talk about, and hopefully against racism, the challenge is twofold: first, choosing something that will get them interested, and second, getting them to engage--to check their own ideas and experiences against those of the people in the text.

Here's a concrete example. I often show Spike Lee's Bamboozled in class. If you haven't seen the film, suffice to say that Lee uses some pretty acidic images to ground a critique of contemporary media and the personal and structural consequences of commodifying blackness. I find that the film often bewilders students, particularly because of it looks at the personal and at the structural. They are quick to identify and harshly judge a racist comment or action applied to an individual, but they have no language to address the ways in which the structure (in the film, it's the interconnected, reciprocal forces of the audience and the network higher-ups) affects people. On an individual level, they can identify racism, but have a difficult time making the jump to the larger forces at play.

As a teacher and as an Asian chick, this can be an incredibly frustrating experience, and when I first started talking about these things, I wanted to abandon the personal altogether. "Let's just talk about structure, people!! Wheel Karl Marx right in here!" Now, however, I think I'm revising that vision. When last I taught Asian American texts, I found myself using the personal as a way of getting at the structural--because they're just not as separate as I'd made them out to be. The class had just finished reading an essay on the history of Chinese exclusion, which included many of the local and national laws that were enacted to drastically limit the scope of experiences that Chinese immigrants could have (female immigrants were banned and interracial marriage illegal; Chinese businesses could only operate out of brick buildings in certain states--because brick was more expensive; etc., etc.). The students, to their credit, were hard at work imagining what it would mean for an individual to live under these conditions, particularly as they tended to increase and tacitly encourage acts of violence by the majority. After several rounds of "I just can't imagine what it would mean to come all that way and then be subject to this" and "so that's where those epithets and stereotypes came from," I burst out with: "hell, call me whatever you want, just give me some representation in government!" And then a few lightbulbs went on.

Certainly this is no tried-and-true answer (just look at Clarence Thomas, for instance), but for the students and for myself, it worked as an important example of the need to trace the effect from the structure to the individual and back again; to wit, I'm not enthused about being called names or being stereotyped, but on a day to day basis, I'm more concerned with the ways that I'm allowed to live my life: who I'm allowed to consort with, where I'm allowed to live, how I'm able to support myself, etc. In essence, if the students are at the point of recognizing the individual effects of racism on daily existence, that becomes the ground from which you build, tracing the ways in which specific effects come from larger cultural systems. And since these are systems that affect them as well, it may (and here I'm getting all hopeful and crap) serve to show the ways in which racism has individual effects on everyone within those same systems.

To wrap it up with my favorite course eval comment yet: "racism--in history, literature and popular culture--just sucks." Couldn't have said it better myself.

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