Sunday, July 17, 2005

A safe place?

It's always been my intention to create a classroom that is a "safe place" for my students: a place free of judgments of people's race, gender, culture, sexuality, wardrobe, body piercings, haircolor, class, etc. As someone who has been teaching in the college system for almost eight years now, it's been a challenge at times. I remember seeing Charles Bernstein talk at CU Boulder and he said, "We're all racist. We need to stop trying to hide it because denying our racism only makes things worse." (paraphrased) I suppose on some level, he's right ( though I wouldn't compare myself to KKK member for example). I have a hard time defining my generation's relationship with racism because the conversation has been squelched for so long. . .it's just something we don't talk about. Or we talk about "how bad it used to be" while giving ourselves huge pats on the back for our advances. But to say we don't still struggle with it is bullshit, I'm afraid, myself included. When I think about the "safest place" I've ever workshopped my poems, I think of my present writing group- a collection of well educated, mostly white women within 15 years of my age. Is this wrong? I don't know. But I suppose in many ways, creating a "safe place" means creating a place where everyone can discuss their prejudices, stereotypes, and preferences without being judged on a scale of 1-10 but instead to look at the issues in a light of greater complexity. It's not black or white- it's a three dimensional diagram of relationships and until we realize that, and even until I realize that completely, we're going to have a rough time. Or we're going to stay trapped in this binary which is obviously hurting people on a daily basis.

A recent interaction with a fellow blogger has raised a lot of these issues for me, in the context of poetry and the bigger picture of the world. A new irony becomes apparent to me even as I write this- my post about Geof Huth was originally longer and criticized fellow bloggers for being racist and sexist (mostly because I assumed that both people were white male of privilege, which was a false assumption). Just as I was grateful for the interview with Huff for opening my eyes to a different way of thinking about poetry, I was unable to unlock my paradigms of gender and race classifications, jumping to conclusions when I probably should have thought more critically about the situation. I don't condone racism or sexism, but I need to open up my black-and-white perception to include a deeper consciousness about these issues. This won't be easy, but I suspect for others who have a lot further to go, it will be a lot more difficult. It's about personal responsibility in the Dr. Phil sense of the word, I suppose, but with more of a poetic spin on it, if you will.

Am I allowed, as a white woman, to make statements like this when I haven't experienced racism? I grew up in a pretty ghettoized part of Connecticut and there were only 3-4 white kids in my class. My brother was the only white kid in his 2nd grade class. I know what it's like to be different. I grew up thinking the whole world must be like this- that I must be the minority. I sang in my best friend, Nakia's, gospel choir and loved every minute of it. I miss the ignorant bliss of those days. Now it is assumed at every corner that because I am white, I am racist. Following Bernstein, I think it's time to say because I am human, I am racist and assume the responsibilities that go along with that. Easy for me to say? No way. To this day, one of my best friends is black. Another close friend full Mexican. My favorite poet, Korean. My favorite teacher, Chicana. My husband, 1/4 Mexican, 1/4 Italian. My son, 1/8 Mexican, 1/8 Italian. It's a three-dimensional issue, not to be solved by name calling or conclusion jumping or finger pointing. I’m in the middle of it all, enmeshed as much as anyone.

I remember being so annoyed in a pedagogy class I took at CU years ago because we were talking about "cultural responsibility" in the context of teaching "enough black authors" etc. etc. I was pissed that Toni Morrison would be taught in this context because in my mind, she is not a "black author". She is an amazing author. She is one of the best fiction writers in the last half of the century as far as I'm concerned and should be taught because she's amazing. Yes, there are acknowledgements that will need to be made to her culture- you can't avoid them if you actually READ HER BOOKS, so can't she exist in the world of literature as just worthy of being taught? This goes for SO many authors as well that I don't have space to name them. Each piece of literature can be taught within a context, but a context should not necessarily necessitate the reading of a book, per say.

And, of course, ten months ago, I entered the most important teaching position I will have in my life- the position of mother. With the risk of being overly sentimental about the whole thing, I will say that I hope Eliot’s generation does a better job than we are doing. It is clear that we don’t really know how to talk to each other like civilized human beings (myself implicated) because our view of reality is skewed and defensive. We are all “more subjugated” than the other, all “more victimized” than average, so we’re missing the mark when it comes to communicating with each other. We’re uncomfortable. Because there’s always an elephant in the room that we don’t know how to describe. I hope Eliot’s generation can come to better terms with this problem, but how do you teach someone to talk about something that you’ve never been taught how to talk about? I’m working on it, and that’s a good first step, no?

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