Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Dropping the Race Bomb

Race is such a tricky subject; talking about it can veer so quickly from tension to blatant offensiveness to sanctimonious platitudes in the course of an instant. It's so slippery, it makes the most of us wary, distrustful, only willing to touch on it in the most gingerly of ways. Race can't be disciplined, can't be defused, it erupts into the classroom, always, when you least expect it --- never on the day you have specially set aside for it on the syllabus, where there are readings to support you and you know to metaphorically gird your loins and eat an extra hearty breakfast beforehand.

No, it knows to enter a couple weeks before, when there is nothing overtly race-related on the table and everyone is innocently behaving like their usual selves. In fact, at times that is the problem. The usual behavior, I mean. And so, when one student says something and another student takes offense, you know --- if you've had this situation happen enough times before --- that there is nothing to do but sweep the day's lesson plan clean off the desk and to stop and unpack some discourse, right there, right now. If you wait until whatever your "designated discuss race day" is, you send the message to students that it is only relevant, only for talking about, at designated places and times. And that makes them even more likely to believe that most of "ordinary time," as it were, is a race-free time, which makes their reactions to sudden intrusions of race-related discussions even more startled and violent and just generally exacerbates the problem.

Sigh. Suffice it to say that I got blindsided in class today and have been feeling unsettled ever since. It was a very tense, uncomfortable class period --- and I know there's all this pedagogy about how a classroom does not have to be comfortable to be safe and Theory about living on the margins and embracing the painful states of liminality and talk about how the real power of Art is its power to disturb --- but really, people, how comfortable are you really with discomfort? Deep down, really, don't you want the smooth and easy class experience of everyone loving and reverencing you as the center of attention, rather than the prickly negotiations of student anger, hostility, or even boredom and disengagement?

In a tense class situation, suddenly you're the one stepping back and reading everybody's body language, trying to read them without intervening too much. And I think I did pretty well this time in not letting anybody get shut down or shouted over, but also not intervening to lessen the tension or smooth everything over. That is so hard. I'm pretty conflict-averse, more on the passive-aggressive than the outright aggressive side, and while I've gotten pretty good at waiting out the uncomfortable silence that means students haven't done the reading or won't do the thinking, I find it really hard to just stand there and let the tension ride when one student calls another out and waits for justification. Reactions like that from those groups are too extreme, one says. No, no they aren't. They are real and they are how we feel, is the response of the other student. Who are you to tell us how to feel?

In the silence that stretches out as we all stare at the pair, in the excruciatingly uncomfortable moment when they proceed to repeat, almost verbatim, the same short dialogue back at each other, twice, I so want to fill that moment with words, with analysis, with theory, explain away all the discomfort by tying this encounter to any one of many moments in history or even psychologize it by relating it to some sort of social interaction theory even though I don't know any, but I let it hang there, because they are talking, and because they both seem to be wary and tense and upset, but not so upset that either one seems incapable of self defense.

And I want to say "who am I, I am someone who has been conditioned almost all her life not to talk about this, to politely ignore the existence of race as you might someone's fly when it is open, I am someone who has been taught that it is rude to directly confront anyone about anything, who has been taught that allowing open tension or open hostility to persist in a room is a sign of my failure as a hostess and Good Girl, someone who desperately wants to fill the discomfort with words and to rescue someone who is being called out because I have been called out before and I know exactly how wrenching that is," but I don't. The conversation does not resolve; their differences are not patched up, and they do not ease all the tensions and become, or pretend to become, happy best friends. It was unclear to me even when the confrontation ended; when exactly is the right moment to break in on the repetition? --- or into the tense silence? --- and to guide the class back out of this labyrinth to the outer levels, to the first digression which involved terms and who gets to use certain words.

Oh yes, people. This was not a simple single discussion of a single racially-charged detail. This digression spawned all the other digressions you have ever seen and ran us through the entire class period and over by twenty minutes. It was as if this group of students is not having this discussion anywhere else on campus and so they had to cram into a single class session every single issue, stereotype, angry realization and disavowal that they have ever trained you on in student government sleep-away camp, minus the trust fall exercises. Poor author who I like! Swept from the syllabus. I have a feeling we're going to use our other class period this week to go over, less heatedly, a lot of what erupted in class today. At least that means we'll have some practice for later on when we get to some of the texts that have to do with race and empire; we might be able to actually tie our reactions to the text and find interesting things to say about it rather than be wrapped up in knee-jerk reactions. At least I'll know to eat an extra fortifying breakfast.


kermitthefrog said...

Whoa boy. It sounds like you did something right, at least, if the students felt like they can discuss these issues in (and beyond the scheduled limits of) your class. Did the giant digression take over to the extent that you weren't actually talking? Or were you mediating between sub-digressions?

A training for TA's that I worked at for a while actually used a similar situation as a discussion prompt (although theirs was the more dramatic, but perhaps less difficult situation where a student begins to walk out of the room in response to another student's comment).

Belle said...

Poor Cog! I'll be Pollyanna here, and say that at least they found your classroom a safe enough place to bring it all out. Isn't there an author you don't like down the pike that you can dump to reintroduce your liked one?

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting this. I had a moment like this last spring - same side of the desk, another side of the racial divide, I think. This was in one of my graduate classes, but very early on in the semester - the second week, I think. The race bomb was dropped 5 minutes before class was scheduled to end. I asked those that could stay to please do so. Most people did and we "got through" whatever we needed to get through for that moment. Not the most fun I've ever had in my life... and no, they did not become happy best friends either.