June 6, 2003

From Gerald R. Lucas

Big Cards, Loaded Deck

Today, I had a student accuse me of disrespecting black women. My first reaction, silently to myself, was of humorous dismissal: I disrespect everyone. While this is certainly not true, at least most of the time consciously, I have been known to piss people off, but I consider that part of my job as an educator gadfly. I am certainly more intimidating and brusque the first week of class in order to get rid of those who really don't want to be there anyway; most students that remain will pass my class. I consider myself a pretty good educator; yes, there are things that I can improve about my approach, but most of the time I get the job done better than average.

Yet, when I am called a racist and one who -- I don't remember what canned phrase she used -- "discourages success in the classroom," I have to take it seriously. Do I think she overreacted? Yes. Do I think she's totally wrong? No.

I'm an anti-racist. Since I believe that anyone who is raised in this country is a/effected by its history of racism and hate, I think that for one to claim that s/he is not racist is naive. We are all racist. The best we can do is to understand that and work against it in every way we can. Like it or not, we are products of our culture, and a large part of our culture is exploitation, prejudice, and hate. The best way to battle these attitudes is to know how they influence us and work to lessen their impact. Eventually, racism might be a small footnote in the tome of our history, but unfortunately, that day is still well in our future.

The irony of this accusation is that it falls on a day when the students addressed the notion of objective perception in their journals. We discussed postmodern notions of relativity a la Stanley Fish, and I eventually got to the topic of language: certain ideas cause a lack of communication, more than they promote it. For example, Bush's insistence on playing the evil card: when one is evil, there's nothing left to say; close the door; end of story. Evil is not debatable; it's just an immovable force. Yet, when we peal away the rhetoric of fear, we begin to get to reasons and ideas, common ground on which we can dialogue. When the big cards are played, communication tends to stop in favor of bigger guns, sometimes literally.

I offered her my apology for misunderstanding me, but she was not interested. She stormed off to inform the dean that there's a racist working in the humanities division. Well, I do my best not to be, but I think her attitude will betray her motivation -- she is _one_ black woman speaking for _all_ black women? I, fortunately, have never received a complaint like this before. Ostensibly, I did not give her exactly what she wanted: that makes me bad and deserving of her contempt in whatever form it takes. Well, I will consider this matter further, and I can only say that I do my best to be a sensitive anti-racist. Maybe sometimes I slip.