Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Best I Can Do

I'm teaching a multi-cultural literature class this quarter. It's a 200 level course and I have 26 students.  I didn't even think the class would fill up, but it has. It's overfilled! The students are an interesting group- many of them are white but seem to have this desire to learn about more than just the dominant culture they grew up in.  I asked what they wanted at the beginning and they answered (in so many words) that they crave history, real history, and truth.  They want to know more than what they see on television but don't know how to find it.  They suspect that there are cultures in the U.S. That have nothing to do with white culture and don't quite know how to begin.

I guess that's where I come in. I set a curriculum (lots of Native American literature), guide class discussion and check to make sure everyone has done their homework.  I talk about my experiences and try to augment the somewhat pathetic offerings that show up in the book.  I'm not a fan of Pearson, if you didn't notice. But that's the book the department wanted me to use. I just made photocopies of the other stuff for them.

One of my students the other day referred to me as an expert on Native American literature. We did begin with Native American Literature (also see: American Literature) and I admit that it is my favorite genre.  But an expert?

It made me acutely uncomfortable.  I am no expert on a particular type of literature and it feels like a white person appropriating someone elses culture to say that I am.  I can discuss characteristics of early Native American lit, talk about current authors and stereotypes and issues often discussed and warn about what is and is not appropriate to wear as a halloween costume. Hint: Bride of Frankenstein is ok. Wearing a headband, feathers and face paint doesn't make you a slutty Indian girl. It makes you an asshole. I can talk about blood quantam and ethnic versus cultural identity.
I can even tell you about the undercurrent (sometimes over-current) of anger at white people in general, and with good reason- both historically and currently. 
Yes, go ahead and appropriate this guy. It's ok; you have my permission.

What I cannot do is call myself an expert.  Yes, I have studied this literature quite a bit.  Lots of people do. I write about Sherman Alexie and attend cultural events from time to time.  But I am not a member of that community and there exists a separation between me and that culture.  Therefore, I am an outsider and not an expert. 

But that doesn't exactly translate in the classroom.  I think when my student said "expert", what he really meant was "you know more than we do, so it appears you know everything about this subject which you are so passionate about". 

I can dig that.

There is another aspect that comes up: white guilt.  I think many of my white students feel it; the weight of what our ancestors have done.  It's a normal part of becoming aware of white privilege. There are moments that sometimes happen when reading writing by people who did not experience the privilege of the dominant culture when one realizes that by dint of their birth they have had unfair advantage.  It's heavy.  It hangs around the neck and makes it difficult to look people in the eye.  It makes one feel outraged and a little bit fooled by the perpetuation of the myth that everyone is equal in the U.S. It's difficult- the sneaking realization, the denial, and probably the embrasure of truth.  Or more often, the discarding of these ideas simply because it's too uncomfortable to deal with effectively. 

So that's really what I'm an expert on.  I'm an expert on trying not to be a jerk.  And helping others to not be jerks too.  Can't we all just get along?

Sometimes I am very good; sometimes I fail miserably.  Just like most humans.

I prepared for this class years ago. I wrote about my discomfort at teaching multicultural literature, since I am a white person.  I talked to others in the field.  My academic credentials are fine; I am completely qualified.  And I do love literature.  And I can teach it.  That's the synthesis of the thing.


Every time I step to that podium, I am aware that I am white. I am aware that this gives me an advantage with my white students and that it can also be a turn off for students who identify as someone other than white.  I am doing my best to step out of the way, to highlight text, to ask questions but not necessarily to answer them.  To point out voices but let students wrestle with meaning.  To provide framework but not fill in the blanks.  In other words, I'm having the time of my life.

That really is the best I can do. 

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