“Position Yourself,” He Said

(This blog has a glossary. Or it will, someday.)

When I was in grad school the second time, I signed up for a course taught by a radical queer theorist/anthropologist. Because that’s what all physics teachers need, you know?

My very first assignment in this course was to summarize the readings (three full length academic papers) on a single page and then ask three questions that had been sparked by reading them. The questions I asked were about why people are so inclined to categorize one another, whether there is some underlying biological drive to separate ourselves based on physical characteristics. His response was the most useful, if not the most traditional, that I’ve ever gotten. What he said was, “Frankly, I don’t really care.”

“Look,” he continued. “The point of this course is to explore the discourse around race. How does race work as a category? How is it constructed as a valid way of thinking about the world? I need you to pay attention to your reading practices. Don’t write response papers, I’m not interested in your responses. I want to know whether you understand, whether you have grappled with the material. Don’t rush to apply before you really know what it is that the author is saying.”

This, to a room full of graduate students, some of whom were several years into writing response papers for nearly every course. You could hear the panic building. What do you mean, don’t react? What do you mean, don’t respond? Don’t apply? I thought that was the “highest” point of development on Bloom’s taxonomy?

“Look,” he said again (he said, “look” a lot), “Your reaction, your initial response, it’s coming from somewhere, from your position in the world. If you find yourself resistant, that’s important. You need to look at what is going on inside your head, what identity you are coming with that is triggering that reaction.” I wrinkled my brow. He had been kind enough not to share whose paper he was dissecting, but I knew. Specifically, I knew that I had been reading a lot of evolutionary biology recently, and that the questions I asked came directly from that school of thought. I also knew (was able to hear) that it was the wrong knowledge tradition to bring to this classroom.

Over the course of that term, I discovered that I was white, middle class, educated. White, I tell you! Yes, I knew I was white. But I never really thought about it. I didn’t have to. This is the essence of privilege, not to have to be aware of categories, as long as you belong to the default. It grants you unearned power. We don’t have to cover privilege right now; it will be a recurring theme.

He asked us to leave our identities at the door, to enter the classroom with open minds, willing to hear the stories of The Other, willing to accept subjective realities that we had no language to encounter. He had us read Frantz Fanon’s work, and I didn’t understand it, but I mulled it, turned it around in my mind, let it sit, until one day I did understand, and I had to stop the car because I was crying too hard to drive.

Who are you?

Position yourself. How do others see you? How do you identify yourself?

Well, I’m a white, middle class, educated, English-speaking, North American. I am also a feminist, and a socialist, and a bleeding-heart liberal, and a queer-identified, male-partnered mother of three. I have a science education and can read math and source code. (This has its own form of privilege in a culture which so values the rational.) I have a tremendous amount of power and opportunity, and a lived experience of constraints just severe enough to remind me that maybe not everything is possible, that we don’t make it on our own, and that resources are not equitably divided.

But who am I? I am more than the sum of my labels, even if I could pull them all into one place. I am (you are) a time-evolving pattern in the universe, a conscious accumulation of particles, capable of feeling desire, anger, and empathy. I am (you are) the stuff of stars. I am (we are) the universe making sense of itself. One. Human. Interaction. At a time.

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