Black and white and read all over

One graduate student discovers that skin color sometimes matters more than cogent argument.

Published June 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"I'd never date an Asian. I just don't like my own people," Joy said, smirking mischievously.

"Well, I would never date a white person," Regan responded in dead earnest. It was before our graduate seminar on English Renaissance literature that Joy and Regan, both Korean-American classmates of mine, began chatting about race and relationships.

"Just to make sure no accidents happen," I put in sarcastically. "You could each administer blood tests to your prospective partners to ensure racial purity."

There's no reason I should have known better, but now of course I wish I had.
It was the beginning of my first year of graduate school at UC-Berkeley's English Department, a program known for pumping out scholars who are as well-versed in the litany of anti-colonial political correctness as the rhyme schemes of Chaucer. As green and eager graduate students, we all took (and, yes, still take) the finer points of racially tinged rhetoric very seriously. So I was surprised to hear such racial essentialism uttered by two of the department's young disciples, and I took it upon myself to point out their mistake. Now, with more irrational discussions about race under my belt than I care to admit, it's obvious that I was stepping into the trap that I've since tried mightily to avoid. Because even though people in graduate humanities programs seem to be thinking very subtly about gender and race, too often identities are dressed up as ideas. Even when people assiduously think through their positions, their skin color or sexual proclivity sometimes trumps their intellect.

"You should think about what you said about blood tests," Regan chided me
after class. "Race isn't about genes, it's socially constructed, it's about
power relations."

"Of course it is!" I exclaimed. "But you made the categorical statement about whites!"

"And it's the white power relation that I don't want to be a part of," she

I didn't ask her how she, who had gone to Harvard, was engaged to a medical
student and seemed to carry a different handbag every day, imagined herself
to be on the innocent end of the "hegemony." In some ways, she seemed to be a smart, fiercely intellectual young scholar, who, like all of us there toiling with nary a job prospect, had decided to devote her life to thinking about meaning, virtue and the grave implications that language can take on. I wanted to give her the benefit of my doubt and simply pursue the argument without dismissing her. "But if this power relation co-varies so exactly with white genes that you can call it the 'white power relation,'" I protested, "then it sounds like you're assuming that genes are almost the blueprint for social construction, which is the opposite of what you're asserting."

She berated me and all white people for regarding race merely academically,
for thinking that it can be accessed and debated just like any other
subject. I confessed I had never taken a course on race and that I found
academic writings on race as repugnant as academic writings on literature.

"So you presume to talk about race when you haven't even deigned to study
it -- you probably haven't even read one book by Cornell West!"

Her argument that it was typical of white people either to study or not to
study race seemed to have all the bases covered. I got a little defensive. "If being racist has anything to do with how one feels about, thinks about and treats others," I replied hotly, "then I am not racist and nothing I have said suggests that I am."

"Clearly," she said, her eyes flashing with impatience, "your conceptions of race are very outdated, and this conversation is pointless because it would take too long even to get to the point at which you could understand the necessary terms. And I didn't even have to say as much as I have to you -- I could just have written you off like the other students in the department."

This stopped me in my tracks.

Regan informed me that various comments I had made inside and outside of classes had given me a reputation as being "reactionary" and "complacent on the
subject of race."

So there it was. Behind all the arguments we perennially engage in -- about racial iniquity or poverty or sexual orientation -- this possibility always looms. Through the hurled abstractions, we learn that we're unpopular. Ivory towers disintegrate to sandboxes in an instant. But for me this only tautens my determination to make the conversation about our ideas, not our identities.

What had I done to alienate my classmates -- to make many people think, as
she told me, that I didn't belong in the department -- when for so many
years I had worked so hard to arrive? In a class, I had suggested that even in
"Othello," not every line is about race, and that to think so is as
monomaniacal as it would be to think that the play is not about race at
all. On another, even more infamous occasion, I had complained about
something my Chinese housemate was always cooking, which I was never able
to identify, not because I disdained to ask but because we can't speak each
other's languages. Whatever it was stunk terribly to me -- to me, not to
the objective nose or to the radical nose, just my nose. Is a nose subject to
ideology? If so, what's behind my loathing of my stepfather's sauerkraut?

"They're not going to actually do anything," she reassured me about my classmates, "but let me put it this way: They won't go out of their way to make you feel comfortable."

There were no African-Americans in the class on "Othello," nor were there any
Chinese present to hear me slander their cuisine, if indeed that is what I had
done. So it must have been on the behalf of these groups that my mostly
white classmates who were listening were so scandalized. At my "Othello"
comment, a student gasped. To the Chinese cooking complaint, a student,
while rolling his head back, said slowly and deliberately, "Ouch!"

"You are participating in an ideology that makes Western European-ness the
model for what it means to be American," Regan said about my Chinese cooking comment. Trying to avoid a no I'm not-yes you are trap and curious to know what she really believed, I ventured. "But don't all cultures believe to some extent that they are superior to others?"

"No, not like whites."

"What about earlier this century when Japan invaded Korea and occupied it for 30 years?"

"The Japanese didn't think they were superior, they just needed the
resources. You obviously know very little about history."

"This is why I haven't taken a class about race," I fumed. "I have heard
too many statements like yours which employ double standards in interpreting

"Did it ever occur to you," she asked, "that such discourse against whites might be so prevalent because it is true?"

"Sure, to the extent to which the mere fact of a thing's happening
legitimizes it." My most obvious fault in these arguments is my tendency to
assume a position of absolute critique, and at moments like these I realize
that no matter how sharply I seem to myself to be thinking, beneath is a
juvenile impulse to prove people wrong. In this instance, I lapsed into full satire. "Is slavery right? Well, let's see, is it happening? I guess you'd be pleased to see history come to a complacent halt, since whatever is, is right!"

"How much more deeply do I have to watch you dig yourself in?" she asked.

She grimaced.

Suddenly, there was nothing more important than showing her that I wasn't the schoolyard bully she'd painted me to be. "If there's something I'm ignorant of about race," I pleaded earnestly, "whether a fact or a way of thinking, and if you're genuinely committed to promoting greater understanding, then please try to explain it to me."

"It's not my responsibility to educate you, and I can see that our classmates are right about you," she said. I could have tried to explain myself again -- that my comments about race were in fact anti-racist if anything and my comments about food, were well, about food, but I didn't. Instead, I surrendered to my fear of being excluded. I played my identity trump card. I told her about my sister who is half African-American, half Vietnamese, and my half-Latino, half Native-American brother. I told her how my parents adopted them before I was born. I told her that I was born into a family where racial difference is just an everyday fact of life, not something to be afraid of. But more importantly, I cried -- so that she could see my multicultural, albeit invisible, identity shining through me.

"I'm glad we had this conversation," Regan said, at last relaxing. "I'm very

My Oprah-esque confessional meant something to her, and she responded with something like forgiveness for my seeming like an average, white, middle-class, neo-liberal bigot. But I felt as though I had just failed an exam more important than any Ph.D. orals, and I couldn't forgive myself.

By Steven Pyrrho

Steven Pyrrho is a first year graduate student at UC Berkeley.

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