I’m an English major. It is a language of conquest.
What does it say that I’m mastering the same language that was used to make my mother feel inferior? Growing up, I had a white friend who used to laugh whenever my mother spoke English, amused by the way she rolled her r’s. My sister and I tease Mami about her accent too, but it’s different when we do it, or is it? The echoes of colonization linger in my voice. The weapons of the death squads that pushed my mother out of El Salvador were U.S.-funded. When Nixon promised, “We’re going to smash him!” it was said in his native tongue, and when the Chilean president he smashed used his last words to promise, “Long live Chile!” it was said in his. And when my family told me the story of my grandfather’s arrest by the dictatorship that followed, my grandfather stayed silent, and meeting his eyes, I cried, understanding that there were no words big enough for loss.
English is a language of conquest. I benefit from its richness, but I’m not exempt from its limitations. I am ‘that girl’ in your English classes, the one who is tired of talking about dead white dudes. But I’m still complicit with the system, reading nineteenth-century British literature to graduate.
Diversity in my high school and college English literature courses is too often reduced to a month, week, or day where the author of the book is seen as the narrator of the novel. The multiplicity of U.S. minority voices is palatably packaged into a singular representation for our consumption. I read Junot Díaz and now I understand not only the Dominican-American experience, but what it means to be Latina/o in America. Jhumpa Lahiri inspired me to study abroad in India. Sherman Alexie calls himself an Indian, so now it’s ok for me to call all Indians that, too. We will read Toni Morrison’s Beloved to understand the horrors of slavery, but we won’t watch her takedowns on white supremacy.
Even the English courses that analyze race and diasporas in meaningful ways are still limited by the time constraints of the semester. Reading Shakespeare is required, but reading Paolo Javier and Mónica de la Torre is extra credit. My Experimental Minority Writing class is cross-listed at the most difficult level, as a 400-level course in the Africana Studies, Latina/o Studies, and American Studies departments, but in my English department, it is listed as a 300-level. I am reminded of Orwellian democracy: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
"That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice. So yeah, it is a fact, I think, that I was a bit off-putting in my Jeopardy! appearance—hyper-focused on the game, had an intense stare, clicked madly on the buzzer, spat out answers super-fast, wasn’t too charming in the interviews, etc. But this may have taken root in people’s heads because I’m an Asian and the “Asian mastermind” is a meme in people’s heads that it wouldn’t have otherwise.Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view—and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X. So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel”—look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis. So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah. Okay, here’s one more comment from the Internet that kind of encapsulates it. The kind of un-self-awareness of what someone is saying when they say they’d prefer I not win because I try too hard at the game, work too hard at it, care too much about it, and that they’d prefer that a “likable average Joe” win. This is disturbing because it amounts to basically an attack on competence, a desire to bust people who work very hard and have very strong natural gifts down in favor of “likable average Joes”—and it’s disturbing because the subtext is frequently that to be “likable” and “average” you have to have other traits that are comforting and appealing to an “average Joe” audience, like white skin and an American accent."
Clear-headed. Something is wrong. Dead tired. Forgetting. Thoughts brittle as sand. A vicious cycle. The pressure of simple tasks. Useless. Alone. Aware of it all.
i envy the trees;
them, healthy dendrites,
smooth sparks along the glass arch
of a spotless sky.
i, shivery, cold,
clenching tremors in my jaw,
nerves. teeth thick with cortisol.
heart’s tongue pressing on heaven’s shore.
burglars in the night
covet today’s memories—
a star’s yawning light
"She watched the little dreams of smoke as they spiraled about his hand, and she thought about happenings. She was afraid to suggest to him that, to most people, nothing at all “happens.” That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all."
Gwendolyn Brooks, from Maud Martha
When I was in elementary school, I remember one of my report cards said, “Too sensitive—tears come easily”. I don’t remember why I might have been upset in school, but I do remember being criticized for being too quiet; if one wasn’t a boisterous outgoing hellion; apparently one had already failed at life at such an early age.
I used to irritate my first-grade teacher because I would draw at my desk or read another book while he was trying to teach the class phonics. Phonics was boring; as I could already read. Why should I have to sit through learning to spell out “C-A-T”? If he called on me, I knew the answer, so he was defeated and finally he decided just to leave me alone, because after all, I wasn’t bothering anyone, except him.
A person asked me for a quarter at the bus stop yesterday, phrasing it in such a way, that he might be a distracted genius that he just needed one simple quarter and his day would be made. I gave him a handful of change from my pocket and he was so happy; it made me feel absurd and everyone else at the bus stop stared at me, like how dare I give money to a bum. He was mentally off anyway, but once he was a baby and I’m sure somebody loved him. “God bless you, ma’am,” he said before vanishing into the Saturday crowds and I didn’t need the kind words because I am already blessed to have a pocket full of change I can give away. I felt tiny pinpricks of tears in my eyes and I remembered the old teacher’s scribblings on my report card.
I can’t get through life being emotionally flayed by every sad scene, but if I am instead distant and hardened, I don’t see the point of life. The faces of everyone just seem wreathed in misery to me, even if their owners don’t feel that way themselves.
And what’s wrong with being “sensitive”? Especially as a child, it would simply mean I was holding out against the cruel realities of life; why would you wish someone to be a sad grey shell of a human being? I don’t have any answers for this, but part of me is at least somewhat pleased with the fact that I haven’t entirely given up to the world at large.
"But little Clement looked alert, he looked happy, he was always spirited. He was in second grade. He did his work, and had always been promoted. At home he sang. He recited little poems. He told his mother little stories wound out of the air by himself. His mother glanced at him once in a while. She would have been proud of him if she had had the time."
Gwendolyn Brooks, from Maud Martha
Why is care not our first philosophy? Why do we insist that class participation be measured in terms of perkiness? Why are we shocked at how pretty she was, implying that something like suicidal ideation can be read on the body? Why are we not starting every semester with the commitment, that to stand at the front of this classroom automatically signifies “I want to know you, watch you think, worry about how far you can take ideas into the world”? Are we missing the essential point, that care is in fact at the heart of whether our pedagogies succeed?
After spending about seven hours in the airport and having my flight get canceled only to do it again the following morning, I wasn’t exactly in the best place going back to campus for my six hours of seminars. Of course, this is a day when I’m set to do a co-presentation with a cohortmate of mine, and I’m practically a lump of misplaced words as I get to the table. I fling off my coat and scarf, and I’m just heavy breathing for a second. The room watches, and I feel so intensely for a moment what it means to perform in these academic spaces. What it means to have to be in this space each day and be “ready” to “contribute,” “to dialogue,” “to participate.” So many assumptions, expectations made about what I should be able to do in a graduate program.
I think about my students from last semester. He had to tell me about his struggle with narcolepsy. He had to tell me about the two other jobs he was holding alongside full-time study. He had to tell me he had torn his achilles. She had to tell me that the grandfather who raised her passed away while she was thousands of miles away. I think about these moments of disclosure, how they might be forced or strategic (or both), how they are relegated to other “places” and “spaces” that can “better address these needs.” I think about my own constant state of pain, my own brain fog that prevents me from making sense of a few sentences, let alone paragraphs and pages. All this behind faces, behind a clever close-reading delivered into the ether of the seminar room. A room of “colleagues,” we like to call it.
Why is care not at the heart of study? What is a pedagogy of care?