Monday, November 30, 2009

The White Man on the Left

This kid in my Black Intellectualism class has been giving me problems since the course started. Today he decided that his "post-modern dialectic" enabled him to dismiss not only feminism but gender, race, and class as things that are "non-real." I asked him whether the rubric of post-structuralism might better apply to his opinions, to which he retorted, "That's part of post-modernism." Perhaps, but that's debatable even when limited to temporal consideration. That is, the historicity of modernism is debated, so how can post-modernism - as a response to modernism - lend itself so easily to such delineation?

But what really gets me about this kid even more than his half-baked interpretations of major intellectual movements is his White Male Privilege. It is mighty convenient for him to dismiss race and gender as mere and meaningless social constructs, seeing as he is a white male and thus the recipient of major social privilege. This is, of course, the same kid who told me I was rude to interrupt him during a speech he was making about bell hooks, a speech that was self-indulgent and betrayed a lack of basic information acquisition (ie: he didn't read the book) as well as a misguided and wholly inappropriate analysis. I pointed out that hooks advises men that the most important thing they can do in combating sexist oppression is realizing their own male privilege and how it exploits others, namely women. Moreover, I explained, whiteness is always privileged in our social reality, so the acknowledgment of one's white privilege is the crucial first step in deconstructing and eradicating it. "Well, hooks is saying we overcome these privileges with compassion," he retorted. But actally she isn't. Compassion is one of those tricky emotions that, based on perceived empathy, lends a moralizing quality to a relationship. That is, to feel compassion for someone or something is to pity it.

My dear Bessarabian princess, you may say, that is indeed exceedingly annoying. But what did this man do today? Well, it was a bit more benign than what his class friend said last week, which was that Haitian people are uncivilized. When asked how he defined "civilized," he said, "you know, like when people can behave without killing each other." Aha! So by that logic, our great nation of the USA is not civilized. Inroads, mayhaps?

I've noticed before that this student and his friend like to talk between themselves while others are speaking. I saw today that their private conversations happened exclusively while females were addressing the class. For an individual so committed to his own transcendence of sexism and racism, this student was being exceptionally rude. At one point I told him very quietly that I found his side comments distracting. I said exactly, "I find your side comments distracting. " He looked at me and said, "Are you fucking kidding me?"

To dismiss an objection to one's transgression of classroom etiquette is, I think, a tall expression of one's privilege. The fact that this individual values his personal conversation over another's ability to listen to and thereby participate in classroom discussion exemplifies the individual's internalization of self-importance based on his whiteness and his maleness. This self-importance is validated by the media, by political structures, and pretty much everything else in our societies. That in itself should not produce surprise at this student's actions and attitudes. However this particular individual fashions himself to be somewhat of a Leftist radical. He therefore should be attuned to the realities of privilege and discursive power. I have encountered many men like him on the Left (like the guy at the Brecht who was shocked at my being "so smart, also so pretty" - like, thanks, douchetard, for realizing that girls have brains, and also for reminding me that my worth as a human being is entirely dependent on his and other men's judgments of the aesthetic value of my body), and each time I feel more and more disenchanted by the purported radicalism of the movement. Men seem to think that if their surface politics are lined up, they can still take advantage of the male privilege afforded to them by mainstream society. But how can we resist hegemonic structures of oppression when we ourselves recreate and thus legitimize them?

What bothers me most about this episode is that this young man - if he even retains a memory of the incident - will remember me as a nag, a scold, someone to be dismissed as a mild annoyance, when in reality, I was calling him out on something much more profound and referential to the macrostructure. We women of the Left really have to get our acts together on this because it seems that some men aren't willing to question the role they themselves play in our suffering.

It's too bad this reflection won't happen in the Gallatin(TM) classroom. The end of this particular class witnessed a casual mention of "jungle fever" and the merits of the World Music section at Barnes and Noble, topics which deserve, but unsurprisingly did not receive, thoughtful discussion.


  1. Your blog is awesome!

  2. You are so very welcome. I try never to let the Man get me down. He's only a paper man after all.