Sep. 19th, 2010

deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
My students all appear great this semester: thoughtful, provocative, and engaged with what one another say. I've had some good teachable moments in class so far, including a moment when a student responded to a critical article's claim that ethnic Americans have seemingly no mythology inherently their own, by saying "well, there was a mythology, but we came here and we wiped out everyone, so then it was gone". (I paraphrase what the student said, and the critical article was Celestine Woo, "Toward a Poetics of Asian American Fantasy: Laurence Yep's Construction of a Bicultural Mythology", Lion and the Unicorn 30:2, April 2006. To be fair to Woo, though the quotation is provocative both in and out of context, she is using "ethnic American" to mean... well, I'm not entirely sure, but I think she is talking about non-immigrant WASP culture. And I should emphasize that the student is one of the smart, thoughtful types who occasionally provides teachable moments because high levels of student engagement sometimes mean that such things get said if we are operating at the pace of a discussion class. Moreover, the student responded thoughtfully to the follow-up discussion.)

I thought I did okay in engaging the students with thinking about that one (apart from some teaching/race fail on my part where I said "Anansi" and meant "Coyote", and what does that say about my brain?), and then came home and read [personal profile] sanguinity's essay "...the native peoples had the most troubles with the immigrants...". And... I know I am absolutely guilty about what she is discussing, and I'd never thought about it in those terms before. I shall have to think back about the conversation in class and see if that conversation carry the same connotations.

Class was loaded in all kinds of ways, actually. We were discussing a book by a PoC which was based loosely on non-Western myths, and one student in the class came from a similar but hardly identical background as the author. She did volunteer that she knew a version of the myths. I haven't yet had enough experience navigating the minefield of not wanting to ask that student to Represent On Behalf Of Her Culture, but also not wanting to speak as an expert about something for which one of my students might have substantially more in-depth knowledge that I do. (It wasn't a set of myths for which I am a subject expert, not even an outsider subject expert.)

It makes me think, though, that whenever I am teaching and talking about some culture which is not my own, I should always act as if one of my students might be from that culture. For all I know it's true, anyway. (It's related to how I started to confront a lot of my own internalized racism; always assume that somebody standing behind me in any conversation is a member of a group I'm discussing. When I realized how much I was self-censoring, that made me realize how much I was saying that needed reeducation.)
deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
It's been years now since I've learned to put down the "I don't consider myself white" I used to use in discussions of race, and back away slowly. I own my white privilege, and I am slowly learning about how and when (white, German and Eastern European) Jews became white in America, and the demographic explanation of why I was raised believing I'm not white even though the dominant paradigm treats me as white. (I haven't had time to read The History of White People yet, although I've seen some interesting clips of Nell Painter speaking.)

And yet when discussing fantasy in a classroom, it becomes very weird when talking about how the generic fantasy tropes tend to be not just European but Northwestern European. My students talk about "our history" and "our mythology" in reference to the generic fantasy tropes, and it's always this odd moment when I say "I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't have any Northwestern European ancestry." (Well, not unless you count a couple of generations in the 20th and probably late 19th centuries as "ancestry".) I suppose my ancestors spent long enough in the Pale of Settlement that I could lay some claim to the rare modern fantasies that use Baba Yaga as a source, except, just, NO. My ancestral mythology is either shtetl myth (e.g. Chelm, golem stories, or the kind of folklore that later got turned into literary fairy tales by the likes of Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, or Cynthia Ozick) or Mishna-type tales of Lilith and the demons, or of Judea and the Babylnian captivity.

I grew up around enough immigrants that I tend to assume an first- or second-generation background when in crowds of white people, even though my adult experience should have taught me by now that first instinct is just wrong. So when I look at a classroom of my students (more students of color than I've ever had before, hooray, but that's still not many), and I say "I can't speak for the rest of you, but King Arthur is not my ancestral myth," I think I have a false perception that more of the students will want to say "No! Nor Mine!"

And once again, I absolutely don't want to call out any students in particular and ask them to Represent for Their Culture. If a student wants to volunteer that he or she does or doesn't come from a particular background, I'll certainly encourage that as long as it enriches the discussion, but I don't want to point to any students and ask them to talk about their personal background.

So in any case, whenever I say "I can't speak for the rest of you, but King Arthur is not my ancestral myth," when I face up to the sudden barrage of startled, somewhat disbelieving looks, it's this odd moment of choosing not to pass, which is a weird thing to say in a blog post I began "I own my white privilege."

Many years ago, I got in an argument with my high school biology teacher when he insisted that everyone in the classroom had some particular northwestern European genetic code. I don't even remember what it was. When I said that none of my ancestors had lived in northwestern Europe (again, disregarding the last couple of generations), he casually informed me that I was wrong. In retrospect, I can't have been the only student in the class about whom that statement was nonsense. There must have been at least a couple of Russians in the class, although I assume he wouldn't have said it if any of the few PoC in my freshman class had been in the room. But it comes back to this same issue, this idea that all whiteness is the same, that all whiteness comes back to King Arthur.

I don't know how to challenge this without falling back into that festering sinkhole which is people from other whitenesses (including white Jews) refusing to acknowledge white privilege where we have it. I want to be able to have this conversation about assumptions of whiteness -- what I'm starting to call in my mind the Camelot problem -- while knowing that it isn't going to degenerate into a conversation about the horrific oppression of having your biology teacher in high school assume that your ancestors include northwestern Europeans, Oh Noes.

Clearly I need to read Painter's book, don't I?
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