A Long Weekend

I have spent this past long weekend enfolded in blankets and comforters, drinking endless pots of tea, reading Alberto Ríos and Gregory Rodriguez and Hannah Arendt. I cobbled together a nest of pure warmth in an effort to soak up some of the tears of last week.

 

I e-mailed that instructor, understanding how e-mails can go awry, and all too aware that there was too much going on for me to be able to see her in person. I told her that I felt that the environment in the classroom was hostile. I wrote that I felt attacked and insulted. I tried to be very careful in not pointing fingers. It was my goal to convey how I felt without placing blame. Still, I asked two people to read the e-mail before I sent it, and waited a few hours after their approval for good measure.

I wish that I could express exactly what happened and how it made me feel. I was told that I needed to take responsibility for explaining my thoughts better, and that I should have tried to explain what I was thinking until the instructor understood. Her e-mail began, “I think you know me well enough to know that that was not my intent.” I could write books on “you know me.” I could fill pages upon pages with how deadening to empathy and respect, how presumptive and so full of privilege these words are. If I had $20 for every manifestation of this utterance I have heard performed just before the speaker says something cold and free of care for another’s experience and feelings, I would leave this twisted place free of any debt.

The instructor’s e-mail ended, “This has weighed heavily on my mind since Weds, and I was hoping that you would come in to discuss it. But you have regretfully taken another path . . . you will be missed.”

 

Perhaps stupidly, her response sent me reeling. I was not trying to quit the class. I know it is an imperfect approach, but I was attempting to salvage so much by being completely honest with someone who I had respected at some point.

Upon the advice of someone I hold in very high esteem, I spoke with another professor about this incident. It was no small relief when the professor I sought advice from admitted she did not know the instructor I was having problems with. This professor gave me a candid assessment of the situation and presented several options for moving ahead. She told me that I needed to speak to this instructor again.

I am not ashamed to admit that I was too afraid to speak to the instructor face-to-face. I was not afraid of what the instructor might have done. I was bone-weary. Humiliation, indignity, hedging, can all have a way of building up into complete exhaustion. I have been exhausted for too long, and I have learned that exhaustion can sow the fecund seeds of fear.

 

I made an appointment, and eventually spoke with the chair of the department the instructor belongs to. I am certain that it comes as no surprise to you that he appeared sympathetic, but told me that he would take the instructor’s word for everything that happened. I showed him the e-mail I sent her and the one she sent back. He told me that he thought she was apologizing (despite the absence of an apology the e-mail) and that I was the one who quit the class (even though I did not write that). He said that he would speak with her, and speak with her he did.

As I left his office, he asked me if I had heard from any graduate schools yet.

Half an hour later I had a new e-mail from the instructor. She said that she hoped I would go to her office and talk it out or return to class. Sadly, she also told me that she could “literally feel [my] frustration.” It made me think of Du Bois, to be told how I feel. I think about The Souls of Black Folk sometimes. I like to imagine the wooden schoolhouse surrounded by rolling green pastures conducive to footraces joyously attended by brilliant azure skies. In my imagination, there are no cruel people (children or adults) who reject Valentine’s Day cards because of some make-believe hierarchies. Just happy children getting a real, quality education.

 

Life goes on, as it does, and other more dire issues swiftly moved in to make my perceived problems seem negligibly small.

Today, a cold, bitter wind blew into town; one of winter’s last threatening hurrahs.

I have made other plans and will not be returning to that particular classroom. I have also realized that I honestly don’t care either way about graduate school. I am grateful for the luxury my life affords: people who love me, people whom I love, and the richness of spending a bone-chilling day burrowed in comforters, sipping endless cups of tea, experiencing all the sadness, joy, and possibility in the world through the words of some of the most talented thinkers I have ever read.

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The Last Time

It started with me, trying to answer a question posed by a classmate.

She asked something like, “Brodkin raises the question of whether it was the economic power of Jewish people or their ability to be adopted into whiteness because of their skin color that made it possible for Jews to become part of the middle-class in the post-World War II U.S. Do you think that Mexican immigrants will be able to become part of the U.S. middle-class if they gain enough capital?”

So, it might have started when we were assigned an article-length excerpt of Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks.

Still, I think that it must have started when I said something in response. I said that because we live in a fundamentally white supremacist society, and because the middle class largely adheres to the values, beliefs, and norms passed on from the U.S. American elite, while there may be a Black middle class, Asian middle class, Hispanic middle class, etc., they will never be part of the U.S. upper class (en masse) because of the legacy of institutional racism.

I have a great appreciation for the way that what I said could be seen as extremist in many different contexts. I also did not think it was a finitely answerable question posed, so I thought that I had plenty of room to be wrong and right simultaneously.

I would also like to point out that what I said was a synthesis of several very similar arguments I’ve read over the years. [Specifically, I was calling on Patricia Hill-Collins’ past-in-present racism from Black Sexual Politics, William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub’s There Goes the Neighborhood, David Roediger’s Working Towards Whiteness, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists, the excerpt we were actually reading by Brodkin, and every Tim Wise book I have ever read.] Within the context of a sociology class (which we were in), I did not think that what I was saying was radical or controversial (simply, it is not a new argument), but I hedged because it is what I was socialized to do as a young, Korean-American woman.

 

I honestly cannot remember most of what followed. This seems to be the strongest testament, the best proof, of why I now feel panicked, insecure, and as if I were back in all those classrooms being told by all those white students that my ideas about race are wrong. Except this time it was the instructor.

I do remember that the instructor, who I had felt some fondness for, completely and totally disagreed with me in a very bizarre way. I remember that she seemed to get hostile and spoke at length to me about why I was wrong. She told me that I could not say there was no Black middle class. (Something I did not say.) She then asked me to explain what I meant when I said that. I did not know what was happening, but I argued that U.S. Black people (en masse) could not become part of the U.S. hegemonic middle class, because the hegemonic middle class acts as a conduit for the U.S. white elite’s values, norms, and beliefs, which, historically, are exclusionary. [I know that I have read this argument in a few places, but I can’t remember exactly where. I tend to think that the best argument for this type of dynamic can be found in Foucault, specifically in the first volume of The History of Sexuality. I also have various personal anecdotes that fall in line with this reasoning, but sociology is generally not about the idiosyncratic so I did not include them. Plus, when face-to-face you have to earn my trust to hear my personal experiences. It now seems telling that trust felt lacking.]

The instructor seemed to get upset, although I admit that especially in times of grave confusion, I can tend towards unreliability in reproducing events. She went off on Marx’s definition of class [in case you’re interested: consisting of wealth, occupational status, and education according to this instructor] and said that was not what I was saying, and, over the course of minutes, told me that my definition of class was wrong to include culture and that I should have only stuck to economics. She also told me that many theorists would disagree with me. I feel that this is undeniable, at least partly because of human diversity and the wonderful way that diversity can start a conversation where there was none in the academy as in life.

What I did not understand, what I still do not understand, is, if class is solely defined by economics, what does the “socio-“ prefix in “socioeconomic status” mean? I said that I thought we were splitting hairs. I really did think that, because what is “occupational status” and “education” if not markers of indoctrination?

This was not the right thing to say.

The instructor explained Marxist and neo-Marxist class structure, then seemed to void it by saying anyone who does own the means of production is a member of the working class. She seemed to get upset at the class that we had not read Max Weber (even though she had not assigned it and was well aware that I was the only sociology major in the class). She then said that Weber’s class structure was not as good as Marx’s and attempted to playfully (?) chastise me for insinuating that there were no Black Republicans. She then seemed to get upset at me again, and spoke at length to me about how Black people are not different from white people and it was reductive (my word, again, the fault of bizarre memory loss on my part) to say that members of the Black middle class would have more in common with members of the Black working class than members of the white middle class. For good measure she told me that many theorists would disagree with me again. She then told the class that I was “fuming” and asked me to explain myself more.

This is the absolute truth: I was not angry. I was shocked and trying not to cry. Someone I thought I could trust had just spoken to me for quite a while in a fairly nonsensical way, which culminated in the insinuation that I believed that racial/ethnic minorities are so different from one another as to be biological. To be completely clear, I believe that race and ethnicity are social constructs, meaning there are no real differences between these groups. Rather, these differences are constructed through complex displays, ideology, and social structure.

 

In this last semester, I have been dismissed, invalidated, for the last time in this university. This is the first time it’s been the instructor who was invalidating what I said, though. This is the first time my argument has been twisted so that it is not even something that would come from me, but then forced back upon me.

 

Now that I think of it, I feel that this all must have started long ago. My bones, my body, a gift from my Korean biological mother in a country across the sea, plopped down in this messy legacy of men and women long dead.