Reflections on Victor Villanueva’s “On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism,” “‘Memoria’ is a Friend of Ours: On the Discourse of Color,” and “Colonial Memory, Colonial Research: A Preamble to a Case Study.”
I will note, I broadly consider myself a person of progressive thinking—progressive in the contemporary rather than 20th Century context, I note—who attempts enlightened approaches to the world and aspires to critical awareness. I emphasize “attempts” and “aspires,” because when I encounter writers (like Villanueva) whose topic centers on what I might broadly and reductively call “race issues,” I am frequently struck with a kind of frustrated helplessness. Consider the “On the Rhetoric” piece; it opens with a vivid scene, rendered in striking prose, that gives context to a cultural resistance to colonial influence. Then, as the piece unfolds, it becomes a litany of accusations—white America beat Rodney King, made San Franciscan children cover themselves in flour, killed a frustrated Chinese engineer—that the text asserts are ubiquitous. In point of fact, I don’t disagree that such incidents are more common—horrifically more common—than they should be in anything approaching a civilized society. (I used to live in Rohnert Park, and I admit freely that the story of the Chinese engineer gave me a jolt.) So, let me be clear: I do not contend that race issues are not still a huge problem in contemporary American society. I believe they are absolutely at issue; all one must do is consider the recent Trayvon Martin shooting case (not to mention so many others) to see how embroiled the US still is in questions of race and racism. I want to make it very clear that my desire is not to pretend that racism does not exist, nor to silence discourse on the subject.
Instead, the problem is much more complex. How do we discuss the white student trying to defend against his perceived assault by the “multicultural” faculty at his school? It seems that for years—certainly all through my high school years and into my college experience—the solution was always to throw (as above) a litany of race-based atrocities at the white student, to tell him (I arbitrarily choose “him” because I have been, mainly in more ignorant years, that student) that he has no room to speak on the subject. We foist responsibility for the failings of the world on new generation upon new generation—white, black, brown, or any color at all—and assume that they are victims of this world that is not of their making, or else responsible for it, or else complicit with it, or else some other blame-centered identity that can never rise above the ugliness of the path our culture(s) have walked. We hear percentages of racial identities in school, hear anecdotes of mainstream white power oppressing minorities, of the oppressive nature of mainstream/white/male/not-really-human-because-of-an-excess-of-power privilege/access to power/cultural pervasiveness. I’m not convinced that this agenda really has much to do with “multiculturalism” or of anything truly shared; instead, it’s still trading—in guilt, anger, shame—the bloody currencies of the past. I cannot speak to whether this practice empowers black, brown, or otherwise non-white students; it is neither my experience nor my place to do it. I have not had those experiences. However, I have been the white student who despaired of understanding how to cross the gap of power/privilege/anger/guilt/shame in order to make human connections with those the culture treated less kindly. While the web of privilege and prejudice may surround and encapsulate us all, ensuring that even those of us with the best of intentions may have been bound up in it, internalized it in ways we do not even realize, the method of attack—attack—attack only says “this cannot be understood, so the only recourse is shame.” I have spent my whole life grappling with shame for various flaws, some inherited and some my own, but so does each person—I look instead to my role in the classroom.
On this subject, bell hooks writes of her respect for the pain of the white student first encountering the reality of privilege and prejudice and where she or he falls within the whole mess. When I first read them, the words of hooks became for me a beacon in a place of blindness, a sudden interruption of circular and confused discourse. The difference, if I may assert, is the division between anger/blame/shame/guilt and compassion—indeed, the very magnanimous compassion that hooks is willing to show for even students who are not like her. In so doing, she shows the model I can aspire to, the model where the different, the outsider, may not be the “same” as me, but she or he is still of equal value and humanity to me. If hooks can show this compassion for ignorant white students who have not yet learned respect for the very ills that Villanueava wants us to understand, then how can I fail to do the same? The point, of course, is that compassion is so very much stronger than anger, than guilt, than shame. Now, this could easily be read as a dodge, a dismissal of the problem, or even an open critique of the issues that Villanueva raises—but it is not offered as such. Rather, I believe that Villanueva comes in a tradition of writers who critique a social ill, and indeed I believe that this critique is of vital importance and very real social value. The only “but” I have to offer is this: it must come with compassion for both the oppressed and the inheritor of the privileged side of oppression, else the privileged student will never see any cause to experience anything but confused guilt and shame foisted upon himself/herself/themselves, and the greatest danger is not that they will be harmed by it. The greatest danger is that they will shrug it off without feeling it, for it failed to do anything but make them feel cast as an irredeemable villain. Do any of us ever truly embrace the role of villain in our own stories?