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Saturday, November 14, 2009

An Ongoing Obstacle

I devoted a class recently to discussing the social construction of race. We had watched a terrific film (Race: The Power of an Illusion) that convincingly demonstrates that “race” has no basis in biology. It recounts the historical creation of the concept in America as a rationalization to justify the hereditary enslavement of Africans and the taking of land from indigenous people. It highlights the Cherokees, who, though they had learned English, converted to Christianity, and adopted modern agriculture, in an effort to be judged “civilized,” were still robbed of their property and sent on the Trail of Tears.

During the discussion, one of my students, a young woman in the front row divulged that she was part Cherokee. She said that although she had grown up confused and embarrassed by the backward state of her Cherokee relatives, she was beginning to appreciate the role of prejudice, history, and accumulated disadvantage in making sense of this. I was very gratified to hear this.

As we continued, a student wondered whether the movie was correct that race “began” in America. It’s an interesting issue: clearly there have been geographically-based divisions throughout history that have correlated with variations in the physical appearance of those populations. And certainly people noticed and labeled each other by such differences. But what of this was “race”? I tried to make the case that previously and elsewhere, peoples might be termed Moor, Greek, Ethiopian, Englishman, or Turk with some sense of the physical typicalities of the people from those places, but that these labels did not make “race” the way we think of it now. It was in the American South that humans first grouped populations into a handful of essential, categorical “racial” groups, each of which were understood to be fundamentally distinct from the others in origin, capacity, and status. Prior to this moment in history, people would have been categorized as Christian vs. Heathen or Civilized vs. Savage, but not as separate races.

As I made this case, I noticed the part-Cherokee student shaking her head with a look of incredulity. The idea is a subtle one, so after class I made a remark to her in order to allow her to ask whatever question she had, privately. Her response shocked me. She could not see how it was possible that race was created here in America because… as a Mormon, she knew that God had created race (by darkening the skin of the ancestors of Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans) as a mark of shame to curse those who had disobeyed him. This, she reasoned, must have happened long before the beginning of slavery in America.

I shit you not.

She said this in all seriousness and confidence, without any hint of considering alternative possibilities to this religious dogma. I was flabbergasted. I asked her if this included the Cherokee, and she answered – without pause – that it did. I was immediately filled with sadness. My mind cycled around for some response that would educate but not alienate this student – and I came up empty. I thought of a dozen ways I could produce information that would contradict her received version of reality or call into question its ability to explain things. But I stood certain that any such arguments would simply be dismissed or interpreted through her current paradigm. I think my only statement was something like “There’s no way for me to argue with someone’s religion”. Lame.

I left the class with mounting anger! Not at the student, but at Joseph fucking Smith and Brigham fucking Young and all the other conspirators who wrote this evil racist elitist shit down and convinced her community to adopt it without reservation … for their own goddam selfish purposes. So now, an era later, here’s an intelligent young woman believing that she was cursed by her god, and obstructed from accepting the historical accuracy of facts that would potentially release her from this “shame”.

But as mad as it made me, I don’t fault the Latter Day Saints any more than any other egotistical power brokers of any age. Smith and Young were likely no more biased or racist than the average American of their day. They wrote and taught what they knew and were products of their time and culture. I have to fault religion itself, because without the blind acceptance of received wisdom that it demands, reasonable people would eventually recognize and compensate for the historical and cultural biases of the past, like we do with any other source. As is so often the case, committed religious “faith” stands in the way of knowledge, understanding, acceptance, and progress.

4 Comments:

Blogger Jay Livingston said...

There's no way to disprove her assertion. But I'd be curious as to how her beliefs affect how she thinks about and acts towards those who are accurst. I'd also be curious as to how these beliefs affec the way she thinks about herself.

Sunday, November 15, 2009 7:03:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

A reader known as "amadeupfakename" attempted to post the following comment. Said comment was unfortunately eaten by a glitch in the comment moderation system, but I was able to recover the text of the comment:

Not sure if this will help with the student but "Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality: Revised Edition" by Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen does a good job dealing with how the concept of modern racial stereotyping in America came into being.

I find the fact that people believe in bronze age myths fascinating in ever the worst sort of way. It all seems so silly to me.

Monday, November 16, 2009 7:19:00 AM  
Blogger Practicing Idealist said...

Wow! I am currently teaching Race and Ethnicity, and showed all three parts of "Race: the Power of an Illusion" in my class this semester. My students seemed to all be on board with the social construction of race from the very beginning of class (this doesn't shock me much, since the majority of my students are members of minority groups in the U.S.), but I honestly have no idea how I would have responded to your student (especially since she's part Cherokee!). It reminds me of a time when one of my students scored among the highest on the "stratification race" exercise that many of us do. I was shocked because there are statements in the "race" that tell students to take a step back if people of their gender or sexuality have been discriminated against. This student was female and had written in a paper that she was a lesbian, so by my reckoning, it was quite odd that she scored as highly as the rich, white male student sitting next to her. As educators, how can we reach such students without alienating them?

Monday, November 16, 2009 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger Warbler said...

Idealist --

You know, I came to an insight at some point a few years back that I think bears on both our frustrations. When confronted with a clearly illogical or uninformed stance, I used to try to argue people into the corner and try to PROVE to them I was right. If I cut off enough escape exits with sound reason, they would eventually have to concede their position was untenable, right? But regularly, I was met at the point of clarity with pure obstinacy or even anger.

I found this repeated experience frustrating and dispiriting, and I began to wonder if "teaching" others was even possible. But over time it dawned on me that these people's initial reactions during our conversation were more about the social and identity ramifications of the contest than the actual topic we were discussing. They didn't want to give me the 'win', true, but that didn't mean I hadn't made an impression. I can think of several times people who I thought had dismissed me had later -- when there was less "on the line" -- mulled the ideas over privately and let them sink in, only to realize they agreed with me. So I try to keep that in mind. We may not always see the real effects of our teaching. In fact, it's probably rare that we do. Perhaps you and I are planting seeds that will sprout and take root after we've moved on.

I certainly hope so.

Monday, November 16, 2009 9:57:00 PM  

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