A few weeks ago I wrote about what I payed attention to in class other than class. I’m still grappling what I was writing about then (more on this below) but the other day I gained some insight that helped me adjust my perspective. I’m taking a great elective course (outside my program) called Gender, Liberalism, and Postcolonial Theory. Almost always the course content and discussions each week feel over my head and leave me asking more and more questions. Recently the text Cruel Optimism by L. Berlant came up in conversation (confession: I haven’t read this piece). A common critique of this piece is that this white, female, western author did not do much to address and attend to race or African American scholarship in the context of her work. My professor’s response to this comment seemed just so correct. She asked, “how could we expect her to? Those authors and experiences are not what informed her subjectivity and influenced her world view. And in fact, I bet if she did cite African American scholarship she would have been criticized for “trying too hard””. This left me distraught thinking “there’s no way to win!” Basically, someone’s always going to have a critique. That realization was both unbelievably frustrating and reassuring. However, it felt like it could only be reassuring if you had a certain threshold of self-confidence already.
I understood my professor’s question to mean two things. First, was she saying that eventually we will encounter a time when white people can’t participate in conversations about race? Second, is she suggesting we give a bit of leeway based on her life experiences yet also recognize she still has something to offer to the conversation? So here can we privilege the intentional action of meeting people where they’re at and understanding them based on who they are rather than who they are not? This might look like, “you’re right she can’t speak for the Black experience but her perspective is still valuable for the conversation because of these other reasons” rather than quickly dismissing their opinions because they are void of “lived experience”.
In a way, I am finding myself situated directly between these two extremes as if they were a continuum. Whatever my conclusion is (I’ll keep you posted) this helped me think critically about this internal struggle I’ve been having about my position in academia and specifically in the urban education reform movement. In some ways, I’m inclined to “excuse” my classmates’ aggravating, dismissive behaviors because I am able to contrast these conflicting viewpoints and reconcile that my peers, too, are in a place of privilege and may be blinded by their privilege in terms of recognizing the experiences of others. So, because of their positionality and lived experience they feel justified to speak loudly about certain topics. We should make space for their voices but we should also directly acknowledge that the nature of them being at Brown University in some ways makes them too no longer genuinely representative of the minority groups they are so pressed to speak on behalf of. Further, they too are simply individuals who are a compilation of the experiences they have been subjected to. Therefore, we cannot contend that their word view or experience is representative either because each person’s subjectivity is different. THEN if we trouble this a bit further and ask ourselves “what/who is representative” and “who is being represented” and ask “are they simply (or not so simply) “re-presenting” what they perceive to be their minority role in this space/field/conversation/world/etc.?” then how really do we interpret their contributions? I’m getting a bit lost here… #Overthinking 😛
Just for fun, I want to offer another perspective too that makes me want to swallow up and take back everything I just suggested in terms of searching for understanding and collaborative learning spaces. Here’s a scenario from today:
The professor asks our class how they would build relationships and trust in a district where they are called upon as Brown University education policy “experts” to consult on a project. A male in the class immediately offers “I’d assert myself and explain my educational background and my credentials and essentially say WHY they should listen to me”. Four men speak after him and then the conversation quickly dissipates. After a few moments of silence, I share my observation that only men spoke up to answer this question and I ask how gender might play into this scenario. I suggest that asserting my “power” or “credentials” may make me seem like a “bossy” woman and an inamicable colleague. Same action. Very different response. Later (outside of class), my classmate counters my contribution. He explains that since he used a woman in his example my critique was unwarranted and I had no place to undermine him. Basically, “[I] could have made my point without challenging him or calling him out”.
What did I do in the heat of this moment as I’m being told that humility is a characteristic of the privileged and the elite and that I know nothing of his life or perspectives [imagine a whack-a-mole being hit repeatedly, made to appear smaller and smaller until it disappears into the hole]? I did what any socialized female would do… I APOLOGIZED! I AM SO MAD! I CAN’T BELIEVE I DID THAT. I LET HIM MAKE ME FEEL LIKE I WAS WRONG. I LET HIM WIN. I APOLOGIZED EVEN THOUGH I KNEW I WASN’T WRONG. And then I felt small again.
What’s challenging me about all of this, is the cyclical nature of my experiences. I start out feeling great and usually (after I talk myself into it) I’m confident about what I’m going to say in class. BUT the minute I speak and especially the instant I’m met with hostile, seemingly unwarranted, opposition I feel absolutely crushed. [side note: this is different from me not wanting to be corrected and this is different from me not appreciating a challenging conversation across differences] I feel inadequate. I want to take it back. I wish I’d never said it. I apologize often (like before and after I participate) and it’s come to my attention that maybe I’m apologizing to myself for YET AGAIN putting myself in this difficult place. Impostor syndrome overwhelms me daily and I the rhetoric of “I’m not deserving, qualified, or intelligent enough for this opportunity” screams in my head. I can’t silence it.
I am tired of feeling small. I’m tired of second guessing myself. I’m tired of concluding every day by definitively stating “I want to quit.”
And I’m just so confused and defeated trying relentlessly to reconcile these new insights and keep an open mind when I’m bombarded with these constant, upsetting experiences.
*deep breath* – I’m exhausted by this. I don’t have words or energy to keep writing…