Watering the Communication Desert

I hope, dear reader, that you have been having a good holiday. I hope that you have had a holiday at all.

I have been applying to graduate school. This last semester was a whirlwind of activity that never ceased. Just now it’s beginning to slow so that I have time to finally understand what’s been going on.

The other day I couldn’t even remember what schools I had already applied to.

This whole process of applying for graduate studies is tiring and degrading in the most privileged way possible. It has seemed that as my personal life began to shred until I only held tatters in my hands, I had to sell myself hard for the first time and pay for the indignity of doing so. I know that you cannot see me, but I smile every time I tell someone that I’ve paid approximately $200 for the ETS to tell my prospective mentors and employers that I am almost completely average. And, I worry. I worry that I am shooting too high. I have not been liberal in telling people that my small dreams were never small. I have only told one person the true intent behind my aspiration, because I worry that it is my real destiny to be runner-up in my own life.

 

Next semester will be different. For one, I will be working under a professor, helping her develop a class on race. I cannot describe how meaningful an opportunity this will be. That I might meet regularly to speak with someone about racial identity and all that entails fills me with relief so sweet it brings tears.

Because, I live in a communication desert.

It is not that we don’t communicate, but rather that white students here seem unable to communicate about nonwhite experience in such a way that it silences the students of color. After a particularly challenging class this semester (see Living Othered), I spoke to the professor about (what she and another student termed) the “defensiveness” of the white students who argued that if  a specific author “included race” it would have weakened the overall text. I was struck dumb by the obviousness of what that professor said to me: “Look at who was speaking.

Now, I always look at who is speaking, because I have realized that who is speaking dictates what they say. I have looked at myself, middle-class, Christian, married, nonwhite, and by looking at myself have been able to see the fissures I create when I have thought, “it’s us versus them.”

So, here is a petty, offensive confession: I used to be jealous of the way heterosexually-identifying people would advocate for gay rights or the way non-Jews would argue for Jewish rights and then would tell me that, as white people, they could not talk about race. To me, this still is an issue of color—that whites can identity other whites as Jewish or gay or trans, and can have empathy for these groups, but then have the nerve to argue that nonwhites ought to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps like my Irish great-grandpa did” or that whites shouldn’t talk about race to avoid neocolonization tells me that this is about color and guilt. But now I am beginning to see how much I didn’t see. That my disdain was wholly misplaced. That it is now sexual identity and religion that are the new en vouge, lip service causes for middle-class whites who fancy themselves liberals. That these groups, too, are part of that pained group I belong to: the model minority.

 

Throughout the day, well into the night, fractions of conversations swirl through my mind. The confusion of white guilt. The silence of nonwhite students. The way that class becomes divorced from other aspects of identity in the comments of my white peers. The insistence of that one thoughtful student when she said that we cannot talk about race without talking about imperialism and history. The need of white students to talk about race. The way these same students get angry when they decide that they can’t.

I wonder if this is part of the price of privilege—that so many things are so easy, but you know it’s so tenuous and when something is hard, you give up, because you can.

I’ve been thinking more and more about Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. It’s finally making sense to me in a way it never did:

Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

What if we are all just human beings? What does that mean for whites who say that they cannot talk about race? What does it say about nonwhite silence? What if we can see other minority groups, not as minority groups, but as part of us? What if we are all just human beings?

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