This morning, one of my students, John Brewer, said, “I have something to add to your list of discussion topics. It’s about racism, and it just happened.” It couldn’t be about the Trayvon Martin Case, I thought, because we talked about that several days ago. “It’s about the former D.C. mayor–” John started to say, but here he butchered the name. He meant Marion Barry and his recent comments about Asian business owners. Here’s what the Ward 8 council member actually said: “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops…. They ought to go. I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”
John couldn’t believe a politician would say something like that, because “they’re always being recorded.” John is right, politicians are always being recorded, but their real human biases sometimes come out. Biases are so rooted in an individual’s identity (and/or vice versa) that blatant discriminatory comments are sometimes made without a second thought, that is until the media demand a retraction. (Barry later apologized for his anti-Asian comment.) Another quick example of a politician’s discriminatory biases spilling out in public can be heard in Vice President Biden’s mock use of an Indian accent when giving a speech on outsourcing.
I was pleased that John has been paying attention to the media-world around him. That’s exactly the point of EN 102, a course that focuses on argument theory. We want students to be critical of the many messages that influence their thinking and decision-making. To do this, I employ a lot of tools and techniques that explore the theme of identity. My class focuses on how identity categories (age, race, class, sex, sexuality, and religion) affect our lives and roles in society. My students have read poems about race struggle, articles on class abandonment, stories about coming out, and essays on arranged marriage; they have watched a documentary on the science of and cultural responses to sexuality. They have studied the very complex issues that came out of the Hurricane Katrina event, and each one of them has given a presentation on real life situations where identity categories complicated some aspect of a person’s life. An example of how race and racism complicate a student’s academic life can be found in the Arizona ban on Mexican American studies. An example of gender bias and misogyny can be heard in the recent story of high school basketball player Nerlens Noel who was offered a fan’s wife if he chose to play for the University of Kentucky Wildcats instead of any of the other schools recruiting him (Georgetown is among them). Noel wrote in his journal for ESPN: “One man asked me if I wanted to take his wife home with me, ha ha. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘Nah, I’m good,’ but that’s just how insane the fans were down there.” The man probably meant the statement as a joke, but beneath it are traces of a male mentality that women are commodities, something up for trade, or in Noel’s case, something to sweeten the deal.
I chose my course’s theme precisely because it can be seen everywhere. Everyone has an identity, and everyone fits into certain identity categories, and at some point, we have each confronted how the identity categories we fit into have challenged who we think we are and revised how we regard ourselves. My students most likely haven’t been paying much attention to discrimination based on identity or perhaps they did not have a language for understanding and communicating these experiences. But now they do. They are paying attention, as John’s comment indicates, and in their research papers they will have an opportunity to practice the language they now have.
Today, they submitted their research proposals, which must in some way relate to our theme of identity or extend the topics discussed in class. Here are some proposals I’m looking forward to reading:
Language in an Online and Mobile World: A Research Proposal on How the Use of Cell Phones affect Individuals
Aren’t You a Teen Mom?: The Influences of Popular Media on Teenage Sexuality
#StopCyberBullying: How Do Words Hurt Online? (The use of the hashtag in this title is very cool.)
It’s What’s on the Outside that Counts: The Taboo of Being Plus Sized
Talking with our Hands: The Rise of Handheld Technology
Locked Up: Racism and Violence in the U.S. Prison System