Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Disconnect in Teaching / Random Rants About Race

Here is a long post that has no real relevance to anything and jumps from point to point with no transition, but I have no intention of reading through this again and writing anything more formal or fixing any errors, since it is unlikely anyone is reading this anyway:

All this talk about race reminded me of an experience I had back in early college. I was in an English class and we were discussing a non-fiction book about many of the difficulties that homosexuals face in society. The book was published in the early 90's and gave many specific references to issues affecting homosexuals, particularly gay men.

I apologize for not remembering what the issues were (I've tried hard to block most of that year from my memory), but these were not broad issues like stigma or homophobia - these were very specific issues that "affected gay men" like that gay men do not show any pride in their sexuality and are ashamed of it, and that gay men are rarely outgoing in non-gay circles and are too afraid to try hard to succeed, often turning to drugs or sex, etc.

The purpose of the book was to show us how difficult it was to live as a homosexual, but what it really did is stereotype gay men again by suggesting that they all act a certain way - albeit due to a homophobic society, but a certain way nonetheless. It did not suggest that this was something that might happen to gay men in this culture, it was telling us that this was what gay men are like now, thanks to the culture.

At that point in my life I had several gay friends, and approximately ~zero of them acted anything like what the book implied. Eventually, even though the book was meant to advocate gay rights, I was getting offended simply by studying it. I would think of my friends Bill, Bobby, Jack or John (names fake) and wonder why I was being told what they're like, when I know them and that's not what they're like.

The class was taught by a black female - a feminist and active member of African American community outreach programs. She was trying to drive home all of the points in this book. So after a whole week of "discussion" about the topics of this book, I finally raised my hand and said "Listen, I have gay friends and they act nothing like this." She immediately got pissed (you could see it on her face) and asked me "Well, how many gay friends DO you have?"

I thought that was a strange question. Why does it matter? I could only have 1 gay friend - in fact, I could only know 1 gay person in the world, but if they did not fit the mold that this book was trying to tell me he would, then it's wrong.

So I answered - I tried to be sarcastic but I don't know if I succeeded, and I said "um... I don't know... 6?"

The class laughed, but my teacher just nodded her head and said "see?" and moved on to the rest of the book.

Ever since then I've tried to understand both the question and the answer. I understood what my teacher was trying to say - she was trying to say that just because I know some gay men doesn't mean I can discount the points of this book. But at the same time, my whole point was this book was pointing out what gay men "are" when I could bring up several acquaintances that showed her that is not how they "are.' What I realized is that we were both right, and both wrong.

I was wrong for thinking that saying I had a few gay friends that acted differently than the book suggested would prove my point. I could have easily presented my case differently, since what I was trying to show was that the book generalized too much, but I didn't really get that point across in a coherent argument. To her, it probably seemed like I was trying to disprove science with a random example. Like "gravity doesn't exist because this balloon floats upwards."

She was wrong, however, for several reasons. First, she was using a book that clearly generalized people in ways that she, as a black, feminist activist, would never stand for. Had the book said "black people are now all discouraged workers thanks to white oppression" or "Due to women making less than men, women no long attempt to succeed in the workplace knowing it is a lost cause" she not only would vehemently disagree, she'd probably use herself as an example of why those are false.

Which brings me to point number 2: Asking the question "How many gay friends do you have?" has no right answer. There is absolutely no answer I can give that would reinforce my point - and it doesn't need to, since my point was that this book says "all" and when you can disprove "all" then the book is no longer correct. I could have answered "one" and I would still be right. Answering "6" may be a smart ass comment, but it did not prove her point as she apparently thought it did.

This type of discussion, whether it be about sexuality or race or whatever, may do a lot of good - and I'm glad that we have dialog about race and sexuality in colleges, but these classes need to be very careful about what exactly they're teaching.

Related - What I noticed throughout college was that, especially in English classes, professors are constantly talking about race. In some ways, this is good. It creates a dialog, it helps people learn more about different cultures and what people go through in America, etc. But I was only in college for 4 years and I had approximately 7 classes that discussed race for the entire quarter. 7. That's too many. Why is that too many? Because after a while all you're doing is reinforcing the fact that other people are different than you. Unless you have a way to bring up new discussion and new information, rehashing the same discussions is only going to put other people's race to the forefront. But this is key - IF you can come up with new discussions, then this is great. If you can't, though, and all you are doing is bringing up something that was already brought up in a previous class, then you're doing more harm than good. I don't want to be constantly reminded that a friend of mine is African-American, unless there is good reason to bring that up again. Otherwise I want him/her to be my friend, and I'll let the fact that their African American just be something that makes them who they are. The moral is: Unless you have something new to add to the discussion, it's not helpful to bring it up again. (This whole paragraph is poorly written, but hopefully you understand my point).

More related: There is research that shows that the more racial stereotypes you know, the more likely you're racist or hold subconscious racist views. I knew maybe 4 or 5 entering college. My college classes taught me literally dozens of new ones in the context of explaining to me why I shouldn't believe them. There is some in incongruity there.

Also, food for thought: I've brought this up several times before, but under absolutely ZERO circumstances is it okay to make any kind of racist/homophobic joke and follow up that joke with "It's okay, I have black/gay friends." It's not okay, and no you don't. They do not like you. If you want to make an inappropriate joke, that's okay. I do it all the time. But you live with the consequences. You don't get to justify the appearance of bigotry just because you may or may not have a friend (you don't) who may or may not like you (he/she doesn't).

Finally, if you would like to discuss anything I wrote about above, please feel free and comment below, but please don't attack me for anything because I'm tired and don't feel like re-reading this and most likely you are angry at me for something that was simply a misunderstanding from my poor wording and lack of editing. If you think I wrote something incorrectly, list it in the comment and I will clarify.


William said...

I don't know where you get the impression that no one reads this. :)

Librocrat said...

Awesome people are excluded. Obviously all the awesome people read this.