Tuesday, 28 July 2009

there were people of colour in the past, too!

Thinking about Benjamin and writing the introduction to Now & Rome, which currently closes with the quote from Carolyn Dinshaw about the past as a site of identification and cultural connection, with unpredictable but powerful effects on the future, has brought something into focus for me which is really interesting. (I mean, really interesting to me, not really interesting as a kind of cutting-edge expansion of thinking about race, or anything.) Anyway, this post has been brewing for a while, but I notice it's International Blog Against Racism Week this week, so it seemed like a good time to post it.

So over the last few years I've noticed some things about talking/thinking about race and racism in the UK, and particularly in relation to teaching post-colonial theory and literature. I should probably contextualize by saying that post-colonialism is not the focus of my teaching, but something that gets touched on in most of the units I teach: I specialize in reception/appropriation, and I work mainly with Latin and English literature, so the history of imperialism and resistance is a crucial part of the way I think about literature and our relationships to it as authors and readers. For example, in the Critical Issues unit I teach to first-year English students, we have a week or two on Jane Eyre, talking about how the politics and metaphorics of imperial racism actually underpin the plot and the emotional drive of the narrative, even though this is not ostensibly a novel 'about' race and indeed, arguably, has no non-white characters. Then I teach a unit on Contemporary Literature, in which we read Derek Walcott's Omeros and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and I also teach Omeros in my unit on the Legacy of Classical Literature.

So one of the things I've noticed in both my teaching and my observation of the culture in the UK more widely is a tendency in white British people to behave as if accusations of racism were more serious than, well, racist behaviour. So it's okay for white people to say pretty much anything we like about race and/or people of other ethnicities: we might, like Martin Amis, be 'experimenting with the limits of permissible thought' when we say we think perhaps all British Muslims should be rounded up; or we might, like Sacha Baron-Cohen, be doing edgy comedy by perpetuating racism (in order to laugh at it); or we might be performing any number of intelligent, thoughtful, experimental, unserious, free speech acts. But when someone calls a white person (or their behaviour, or the things they say/write) racist, that's a terrible, and terribly serious, accusation, and we have to jump through an impossible series of hoops to prove that they really are racist before we say such a terrible thing.

And there's such a huge disconnect here - I don't want to call it a failure of empathy, because I don't really think that's what's going on, and because of the excellent work by people like, I think, Sara Ahmed* on empathy as disabling critical responses to racism by white students ('I cried when I read Beloved and that means I am totally able to understand the life experience of poor black women in the UK, and if they say I can't they're wrong!'). But it's a huge double standard, and its invisibility to my students (and to me, before I struggled to figure out what was going on) is extraordinary.

One of the ways I notice this is in a persistent motif in student essays on Jane Eyre, which is that we can't, mustn't, or shouldn't say that the book or the author 'is racist', because Bronte lived in 'the past', where 'they didn't know' that it was bad to be racist. So again, it's much more important to be fair to Charlotte Bronte than it is to engage with the ways in which her text constructs race and power, and vice versa (the ways in which race and power construct Jane Eyre, beyond or outside Bronte's ability to control the language she uses). Part of this is about the way the figure of 'the author' still persists in our thinking about texts (who cares whether Bronte was racist, as a person, or not? She's been dead like a hundred years!), and I think also that perhaps students are trained at school to think that 'critical judgement' is not about analysis but about evaluation (this is a Great Book, this is Populist Trash). But part of it is straightforward racism, of a kind that's so entrenched in (my) white consciousness that it's taken me a long time to see how simple it really is:

There were people of colour in the past too. To say that a book is 'not racist' because it was written in the past and 'they didn't know any better' is to do history from the point of view of the oppressor to a really startling degree. Because, you know, who didn't know any better? White people who dehumanized black people, and profited from the dehumanization. The African slaves working on the sugar plantation which provides the basis for Jane's financial independence and therefore her successful/model marriage? They knew better.

Getting people to think of racism solely as a diagnostic tool for ranking the goodness, rightness, and therefore authority/prestige, of white people, rather than as a system of violent oppression of people of colour: that must count as one of the biggest victories for the anti-civil-rights backlash.

Another thing that's interesting is the way my students have learned somewhere that racism is always in the past, so that one of them wrote of Derek Walcott's Omeros that at first the critical response was a straightforwardly racist one, that the poem was bad and didn't count as an epic, but later, when we had all made a bit more progress towards equality, everyone realized that it was a great poem and totally did count as an epic. Now this is just simply not true: Omeros came out in 1990, and Walcott won the Nobel in 1992; and US/UKian public/critical culture has not really become noticeably less racist since 1990. I think the student was referring to an essay in a special edition of South Atlantic Quarterly - in 1997, incidentally - about the politics of calling Omeros an 'epic', and whether 'epic' is essentially a European genre or whether that in itself is a racist appropriation of a genre shared by, say, Yoruba narrative/mythological poetry. But that essay was very clear that this debate is ongoing - two simultaneous positions - while this student had obviously been under very great cultural pressure - great enough to mean they had not been able to hear what I had said about Omeros, or read what David Farrell Krell had written - to translate this into a diachronic narrative: there was racism, and now there is colour-blind appreciation of great poetry.

And so much of my teaching - because it's about cultural change and appropriation and time and reading - seems to engage with students right at the intersection of these two cultural pressures: to translate and flatten currents of thinking and power and reading into a simple diachronic narrative of progress ('we used to be racist but we're all right now'), and to think of racism as a bad character trait. (I actually saw an anti-racist white friend on the internet describe racism in precisely those words recently.)

I think there's another move that needs to be made here, about quite what that intersection does to history: I think it whitens it, along the lines of Benjamin's vision of history as a long procession of the victors. So that the lines of transmission of history, of the past, are themselves white, and so that the transformative power of the past, and in particular the possibility for identification with people of colour across time, is denied. I need to think about this more, perhaps.

One thing I do have to say before I finish is that I was helped so much in my thinking here by a post I can't now find again, very annoyingly - if anyone knows what I'm referring to, could you link me? It was about how one of the key differences between privileged and unprivileged positions is that people in privileged positions aren't used to being told they're wrong. So people of colour live in cultures which tell them all the time, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that the way they understand the world is wrong, but white people (qua white people - obviously gender, ability/disability, sexuality, etc have huge impacts on the way we experience privilege/unprivilege) have a constant little flow of reassuring messages that whiteness is normal, attractive, empowering, and, crucially, not-to-be-remarked-on. So it feels, maybe, to a white person, and particularly to a white person who's used to being told they're intelligent, perceptive, and sensitive (like most of the students I teach), really bad to be called a racist, because we all 'know' that racists are the opposite: ignorant, wilfully blind to reality, and insensitive. So that's where some of that giant disconnect that I talked about above comes from, I think.

*Sarah Ahmed, 'The Politics of Bad Feeling', Australasian Journal of Critical Race and Whiteness Studies 1 (2005): 72-85.


Katheryn McLaughlin said...

Thank you for this post -- I found it through the IBARW Delicious account. I find this very fascinating, as someone who also is very invested in literary analysis in a historical and social context, and who has quite frequently been amazed at the people who jump uncomfortably to defend a pillar of the Sacred Canon against arguments of their racism -- how many people are truly uncomfortable with Heart of Darkness being called racist, still? Too many.

The most insidious offender here is the implication that you're somehow not being rational by bringing up racism in historical texts, being emotional, being an activist -- rather than simply making a truthful, responsible, and hard-to-hear analysis. That it's somehow not relevant.

I'm curious to hear how you deal with it as a professor. So, thank you. :)

We Go There said...

Thanks - this is something I'm going to have to think about a lot, as it's likely I will be dealing with students' (and my) responses to racism too.

I am pretty sure the post you refer to was one of Deepad's - I had it in my delicious recs, but going back to it, she seems to have locked down all her posts. Damn, I wish I'd saved it.

Tony Keen said...

Thanks. Your post inspired me to write this.

Effex said...

I'm not sure if Deepad is actually the author of the post you're looking for but, @We Go There, most of her locked LJ posts are not-locked over at her Dreamwidth account (deepad.dreamwidth.org).

And thank you for this post, Ika! I'll be reading it a couple of times tonight, I think.

Una McCormack said...

Getting people to think of racism solely as a diagnostic tool for ranking the goodness, rightness, and therefore authority/prestige, of white people, rather than as a system of violent oppression of people of colour: that must count as one of the biggest victories for the anti-civil-rights backlash.

Very well put. Just come across this story:

The Boston police officer who sent a mass e-mail in which he compared Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to a "banana-eating jungle monkey" has apologized, saying he's not a racist.

Ika said...

Hello Katheryn, nice to meet you! And thanks for your comment, which calls for a much more thoughtful response from me than I have time for right now. But you mentioned Heart of Darkness and I remembered walking home from work a few months ago and being hit (almost literally) by the realization that yes, Heart of Darkness really is saying that the only narrative to be told about the colonization of Africa is about its moral effects on white people. It sort of feels like, well, surely nobody would be taking it seriously if it were as simple as that? But of course they would! And they do!

Which I think is part of the problem for my students (and me, as I keep struggling with this!) - the idea that RACISM is a huge-deal, completely taboo, Outside Over There thing, and because they want to keep reading Jane Eyre and they like Jane Eyre and they identify with Jane Eyre, it can't be RACIST.

WeGoThere and Effex, thanks for your comments too! And yes, I think the post was one of Deepad's, and I'll go search for it on Dreamwidth, so that was some pretty good teamwork there.

Thanks, Tony! I will comment on your post later tonight, when I get some decent Internet time...

And Una, OMG.

I am not a racist. I did not intend any racial bigotry, harm or prejudice in my words. I sincerely apologize that these words have been received as such.

It's all about reception! And what a classic non-apology: it really is 'I'm sorry you feel that way', isn't it? RRRRRRGH.