Privilege

Reading Privilege and the Privilege of Reading

[7-10 minute read]

As a child, I was a voracious reader. Scholastic Book Fairs were the best part of the elementary school fall season; no questions asked. J.K. Rowling was still publishing book after book in the Harry Potter series, The Reading Rainbow featured heavily as parent-approved public broadcast television, and I distinctly remember the pride I felt after making my way through my dad’s airport paperback copy of John Grisham’s The Client. Did I understand the novel? Not entirely, but I did read every single word, which seemed like accomplishment enough.

Every time our elementary class visited the library, my teacher would remind me – not without a touch of frustration – that I was only allowed to check out a certain number of books, and to try reading at my own grade level. I may have been drastically reducing the quality of my eyesight, but at least I was tearing through the Encyclopedia Brown and Cam Jansen mystery series, reading all about Laura Ingalls in her family’s house on the prairie, and sneaking Goosebumps chapter books home under my mother’s disapproving eye.

Although my early years were filled with reading logs, literacy tests, and all the early standardized testing expected of a public magnet school, not once did I consider sitting down to count how many books I had read (and then probably reread) for the sake of enjoyment.

bookfair

Truly, nothing will ever compare to the exhilaration.

In the summer of 2016, I took a moment to sit back and marvel over the amount of textual material I had encountered throughout my graduate school career. I was nearing the end of reading my way through my Qualifying Exam lists, having read an acceptable amount of Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, Barrett Browning, and Rossetti, to name just a few. As opposed to a number of other universities, Syracuse’s English department allows its graduate students to create their own exam lists, with the guidance of several advisors. The aim of this is to read widely in their field, and in order to demonstrate sufficient competence and mastery.

The departmental Graduate Student handbook called for two reading lists, with a maximum of one hundred twenty titles spread out across novels, selections of poetry and nonfiction essays, dramatic manuscripts, and critical monographs. With some creative rearranging and grouping together of texts with similar topics, each of my lists came in just under the limit, at fifty-seven and fifty-six distinct titles.

Many of these texts, I could access for free online, via Project Gutenberg or Google Books; others, I borrowed straight off the shelves in my advisor’s office. Having taken many a nineteenth-century British literature course during my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I already owned a good number of the more canonical novels, and as a last resort, I could always turn to Amazon, or the University library system.

bird

Bird Library doesn’t look like much from the outside, but judge not a book by its cover, and all.

One semester earlier, while trying to teach my students about the concept of privilege, I was prepared to challenge a lot of ideological assumptions about race, gender, and class. A quick perusal of Youtube resources led to the following video, which I showed at the beginning of class, hoping to prompt discussion:

The process is fairly self-explanatory: a group of people stand on a single horizontal line, side-by-side, while a speaker reads aloud a list of statements. Depending on whether the statement applies to an individual’s life experience, they were to take a step forward, or backwards. As an Asian-American woman, a second-generation immigrant, and the first person in my family to pursue graduate education, I anticipated several, if not many of the statements read aloud in the video. When I teach, I am highly aware of my identity, how I attempt to construct and maintain my teaching persona, and that my students – or their parents – have the means of paying one of the most expensive undergraduate tuitions in the nation.

However, one statement made me pause: “If there were more than fifty books in your house growing up, take a step forward.”

Growing up, Mandarin was the initial language of my household, but as my parents struggled to acclimate to life in the United States, the number of children’s and young adult literature in English began to overtake our bookshelves. Books were routinely gifted and received, and as of last Christmas, that family tradition still exists. It wasn’t as if I was completely unaware of our status as a “middle-class” family, but for the longest time, to me, books were just books. They weren’t Nintendo gaming systems or desktop computers; reading couldn’t really compare to seasonal passes to the closest amusement park, or annual trips to Disney World. Compared to other material goods, books seemed ubiquitous: the bread-and-butter of my daily life.

Accessibility to reading materials is still a topic of public concern, although by all means, it shouldn’t be. Lately, once-trendy e-readers have ostensibly “lost their shine,” but that doesn’t mean libraries are receiving better funding, or that bookstores are seeing better sales. In the fall of 2016, a public outcry against the closure of the last bookstore in the Bronx was enough to delay, but not halt its replacement by a luxury department store. At the present, several locals are hoping to rejuvenate the “book desert” that the borough has become, but capitalism proves to be only one of the major obstacles to ensuring free and open literacy for readers everywhere.

bkfestival

As of April 2018, Bronx native and book publicist Sareciea Fennell had successfully fulfilled her Kickstarter goal to fund the first Bronx Book Festival. The festival is set for May 19, located at Fordham Plaza.

“Isn’t That All in the Past?”: History and the Privilege of Cultural Amnesia

As I’ve been stressing throughout this month’s series of posts, privilege works in a number of pernicious and insidious ways in our everyday lives. Much as we might collectively like to believe that it doesn’t exist, it is only by dragging it kicking and screaming into the piercing light of day and scholarly/critical inquiry that we can begin to undo the pernicious ways in which it renders itself invisible. Indeed, it is precisely through rendering it visible that we can both deconstruct privilege and the systematic inequalities that it renders possible.

This week, I want to talk about the ways in which history can also be a locus of different types of privilege. Though this might appear counterintuitive to some (how can history be a site of privilege?), I would argue that history is always saturated with various types of privilege and raises significant questions about the function that history serves and in whose interests it is often purveyed. For example, who has the privilege of having a history in the first place? On the flip side, who has the privilege of forgetting (or at least selectively choosing) moments of historical importance?

This has become a particularly pressing question in light of the recent attention being paid to the long history of police violence and brutality against people of color, as well as the deeper, far more insidious racist histories of which said violence is but the most recent manifestation. The protests of Colin Kaepernick and others expose these histories, forcing all Americans to take a piercing look at the ways in which racism and the exploitation of bodies of color has structured and undergirded the entire expanse of American history.

Those who strenuously condemn Kaepernick continue to insist that those who are protesting lack an awareness or a proper appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who have served. Embedded within this criticism is an assumption that somehow those who kneel for the National Anthem are either ignorant or dismissive of a history that should make them proud and willing to uncritically accept American society as it is, rather than dare to raise the specter of criticism.

Naturally, those who make those claims conveniently overlook and ignore the deep roots that make systemic racism and exploitation possible  Just as importantly, these also critiques also overlook the fact that, as Jason Johnson has observed, the song in question (unsurprisingly) contains racist lyrics (that are, it has to be said, frequently not sung during performances). History, in this instance, troubles the very stability that it purportedly supports.

All of which leads me to ask again:  who has the privilege of ignoring history? Who has the ability to pretend that somehow the unpleasant realities of the past several hundred years have not taken place? Who benefits from the ability to pretend that the past is safely buried and has no bearing on the present and the structures that currently impact the daily lives of people everywhere? Who gets to pretend, who is able to pretend, that we somehow live in a perpetual present?

The easy answer, of course, is those who benefit the most from forgetting about the past so that they can go on about their everyday lives as if they do not and have never participated in the racist legacies that remain baked into the collective social, cultural, legal, and political DNA of the United States of America. For them, this colossal act of forgetting is in some sense necessary in order for them to continue going on about their daily lives. Confronting these realities in any meaningful way would, in most cases, simply be too painful, too complex (or so the argument goes) to be adequately addressed.

It is much harder for those who continue to live with the legacies of slavery and genocide that have so profoundly influenced America’s sense of itself to ignore those histories or to pretend that they don’t exist. America’s institutions, its structures, its ways of being are so reliant upon and indebted to a racist and colonialist past that it is hard to imagine an America without them. It is this vast, almost incomprehensible scope and depth that, I suspect, lead to inability of many to even begin to acknowledge, let alone accept, their complicity and their benefit from these histories.

Thus, when I ask my friends and family back home in Appalachia (West Virginia, in particular), about how they think about race and the fact that so many people of color remain systematically cut out of the benefits that American life seemingly offers all of its citizens, they really struggle to understand how the actions and structures of the past continue to exert a smothering pressure on the present. For them, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to think outside of the twinned epistemologies of presentism and individualism that structure their way of understanding and being in the world. For them, they cannot understand how it is that their present position near the bottom of the economic latter constitutes a privilege, nor can they see beyond the fact that their ancestors did not own slaves.

If, as I have repeatedly asserted throughout this month, we are truly invested in making the world a better, more just place for all of its citizens, we must continue to press against and challenge this kind of inherently privileged thinking. We have to recognize and come to terms with the conflicted and painful histories of which we are a part. Continuing to turn a blind eye to the injustices of history and pretending that it hasn’t happened is itself a form of violence, a violence all the more pernicious in that it masks itself as innocence rather than complicity.

As Vann R. Newkirk II remarks in The Atlantic, the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC offers a rare opportunity for America as a whole to meaningfully contend with the painful legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the other aspects of American history that have proven so intractable in our attempts to make sense of contemporary race relations. While I agree that there is something deeply and powerfully symbolic about erecting a museum devoted to African American history in a city founded upon and built by slave labor, I also think that it will take a great deal more on the part of each and every American citizen to make progress.

It will require frank and uncomfortable conversations within and among our various communities, both in person and in digital spaces. It will require frank and unambiguous acknowledgment and acceptance of the darker parts of history. Going to a museum devoted to the experiences of people of color is definitely an important first step, but it must be followed by an actual change in the way(s) that we collectively think about our past. It will require actual changes in our everyday lived experience and ways of being in the world, actual changes in what we think and how we do it.

I see these posts as one part of the larger cultural conversation. Hopefully, they will resonate with those who, like myself, desire to make the world a better, more just, more peaceful place for everyone.

“Of Course You Know…”: Deconstructing the Privilege of Knowledge

Some time ago, a colleague of mine was leading discussion in class, and he offhandedly remarked that, of course, we all knew that Aristotle had spoken of the same issue we were discussing in his Nichomachean Ethics. The way in which he made the utterance made it clear that, if we did not, in fact, know this reference, we were somehow lacking, that we had clearly missed out on some key part of being a truly educated person and that, equally clearly, graduate students in an English department should certainly be conversant with these sorts of (seemingly offhand) references.

Now, as a Classics major in undergrad, I was passingly familiar with Aristotle’s works (though I will admit that I had not read Nichomachean Ethics in approximately 10 years, so obviously my recollection of it would have been rusty to say the least). However, even I felt that this was somehow a thinly-veiled attack on those in the classroom who, for whatever combination of socio-economic and educational reasons, might not have had access to that same store of shared knowledge that my colleague was referencing. Whether or not the attack was malicious is impossible to say, but there was no question that there were many in the classroom who felt alienated by this comment–and, just as importantly, by its delivery–and that a valuable moment of shared learning was therefore compromised.

What distressed me the most, however, was how built into that moment of not-so-subtle shaming was a profound sort of privilege of which my colleague seemed to be utterly unaware. It no doubt never occurred to him that some of us may have come from high schools or undergraduate institutions that did not place such an emphasis on the Western canon, or that emphasized other important works of western philosophy that were not dominated by dead white men. So embedded was my colleague in both his class and knowledge privilege that any alternative to his ways of knowing seemed to exist beyond the pale of acceptability.

Nor is this sort of privileged posturing and knowledge shaming limited to graduate students (who, it must be said, often face their own challenge. The pressure to perform one’s expertise is particularly acute in the graduate classroom). I have, on numerous occasions, heard faculty from departments from various universities and departments dismiss the level of “basic knowledge” that today’s undergraduate students possess, implying that they have somehow fallen down on the job in terms of preparing themselves for their college education. This is not to say that the faculty actually think this, mind you, only that it is often heavily implied in the way in which these critiques of students are delivered.

This is not to say that there aren’t real deficiencies in the preparation that many high school students undergo as they prepare for their academic futures in college. What troubles me is the implication that somehow the students are to blame and, relatedly, that our privilege as learners and knowers is somehow natural and that this renders us somehow superior to the students we teach. Rather than attempting to understand the unique perspectives that students bring to the classroom–including and especially their socioeconomic status–these assumptions presume that there is a standard to which everyone should be held, regardless of their background.Periodically, I will catch myself making assumptions about the body of knowledge that my students bring into the classroom. I have become so entrenched in the world of academia–in particular, I have become accustomed to being around my graduate school colleagues in a private, well-funded institution–that it sometimes doesn’t occur to me that not everyone has had the same privilege that I do. When I lose track of that privilege, when I assume that my students have a knowledge and then shame then when they don’t, I lose a valuable sharing opportunity.

As a result, I have begun making a conscious effort to meet my students where they are and to help them access and share the same love of knowledge and learning that I have always possessed. I encourage them to ask me if they do not understand something or if I make a reference (or even a word) that they do not grasp, because only by doing so can I ensure that we are all learning and engaging with knowledge together. Rather than ensconcing myself in my privilege, I actively work to deconstruct it.

This more nuanced understanding of socio-economic and knowledge privilege allows me, I believe, to be a more compassionate and effective educator. I can use my knowledge, accrued and developed through years of undergraduate and graduate training, to meet students on their own terms and show them new ways of thinking and engaging, even as they also educate me. Rather than viewing their lack of knowledge as a problem to be corrected, I see it instead as an opportunity.

And that, I think, benefits both myself and my students.

 

“Are You Gay?”: Public Space, the Closet, and the Exercise of Privilege

For my month of posts for this blog, I want to talk about privilege and the way in which it operates in everyday interactions and spaces. We all hear people talk about privilege–and in particular about how it operates as part of and within systems of oppression–but rarely do we actually think about how it affects and manifests in our everyday lives. I intend these four posts to jumpstart a continuing dialogue about both identifying privilege and using that knowledge to help undo it.

During a recent outing to a local restaurant, a couple of friends and I were seated at our table finishing our drinks before heading home for the night. While we were sitting there, chatting amiably amongst ourselves, a highly intoxicated young woman sprawled across our table to procure the menu, then asked us to read said menu since she was too drunk to do so.

Now, there wasn’t anything particularly unusual about this incident at first blush. People frequently intrude into other people’s space when they have had a bit too much to drink. It wasn’t even than unusual for her to note that I had an unmistakable look of disgust on my face.

What happened next, however was, as we academics like to say, problematic.

This young woman, whom I had never met, abruptly inquired, “Can I ask you a personal question” (always cringe-inducing), and having procured my assent proceeded to ask, “Are you gay?”

Yes. You read that right. She asked me if I am gay.

To be clear, I have no problem telling people in public spaces that I’m gay. I have no investment in “straightness,” and I certainly do not have a (conscious) investment in traditional hegemonic masculinity nor in a performance of it. In fact, I actually take a lot of pleasure in performing my queerness and will, in most cases, tell people I’m gay within a few minutes of meeting them. For me, proclaiming my sexuality on my own terms can be a profoundly liberating and empowering act. However, that is a choice that make. It is not one that is forced upon me by someone else.

While I was not upset on my own behalf, I couldn’t help thinking about all of the other people who might have been in my position. What if I was someone who wasn’t even close to coming out, or someone who was struggling with their sexuality or, heaven forbid, what if I were just a man who doesn’t perform masculinity in the way expected of straight men? Had I been one of those people, this moment would have been even worse.

If ever there was a time when Eve Sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet–the idea that the closet remains a structure with which all queer people must contend, either implicitly or explicitly, in their daily lives–was made material, this was it. As Sedgwick explains: “every encounter with a new classfull of students, to say nothing of a new boss, social worker, loan officer, landlord, doctor, erects new closets whose fraught and characteristic laws of optics and physics exact from at least gay people new surveys, new calculations, new draughts and requisitions of secrecy or disclosure. Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocutors about whom she doesn’t know whether they know or not.” In other words, every encounter with a new person demands that the queer person decide:  will I tell this person who I truly am? And what will the consequences be? Do I keep this part of my identity secret, or do I live openly?

This exchange also revealed much about the way in which sexuality and gender remain wedded together in the vernacular imagination, since I’m speculating that it was my failure to adequately perform masculinity that prompted her to ask her question. What was it about me, I wonder(ed) that allowed her to read me as gay? Was it my ever-so-slightly “effeminate” affect and behavior? Was it my voice? My mannerisms? Some combination of the above? Some other affect that cannot be quantified but only felt by those that I come into contact with, something that triggers the proverbial “gaydar” in my fellow human beings? I don’t know the answer, and that in itself troubles me.

What’s more, this incident revealed to me, in a shockingly visceral sort of way, how privilege works in everyday life. This person asked me an incredibly invasive question, and without any sort of self-awareness that what she was doing was in any way intrusive. To her, it seemed perfectly natural and acceptable to ask this sort of question, and it probably never even occurred to her, in this Modern Family, post-Obergefell v. Hodges world, that such a question is itself a form of violence. She just assumed that I would be perfectly comfortable answering her question, and that it wasn’t a form of violation to ask me this in a public space (keep in mind that we had never met each other before this evening). To her, it no doubt seems that all gay men (and probably all queer people) feel comfortable confessing their orientations to complete strangers, regardless of the social setting.

Furthermore, it also forced me to consider:  why did I even feel compelled to answer this question? What was it about the power relations that she established with that question that put me in the position where I felt compelled to answer? After all, I could have just told her, in a matter-of-fact way, that it wasn’t any of her business (which it wasn’t). Part of it, of course, stems from my own avowed investment in owning and displaying my queerness, but part of it also stems from the fact that I was expected to be willing to answer that question without feeling put upon or violated. For that matter, so were my friends, who were also asked the same perplexing question, in a similarly nonchalant manner. Her privilege, unassuming as it was, enabled her to ask this question without a trace of chagrin or discomfort.

Some time ago, my brilliant colleague Melissa posted a brilliant piece on this blog about the power of gay male privilege, and what strikes me about my own encounter is how it is the inverse of her experience. Rather than being the recipient of said privilege, I was now being subjected to someone else’s. It was one of those increasingly common moments when I recognized that privilege works in all sorts of ways, not all of them immediately obvious. If we are truly invested in making this world a more just and equitable one for all citizens, we need to start by calling out these moments of privilege for what they are. If I could go back and redo that night, I would have informed her that it was none of her business, reclaiming my agency from her privileged grasp.

But I didn’t, precisely because it never occurred to me to do so.

And that truly disturbs me.


T.J. West III is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English. His dissertation, tentatively titled History’s Perilous Pleasures:  Experiencing Antiquity in Post-War Hollywood Film, explores the historico-biblical epic and the ways in which it attempts to mitigate the terrifying nature of modern history through an appeal to the ancient world. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.