Ecumenism/'Identity Politics'/'Single-Issue Movements'(Re:religion)

Kenneth Mostern kmostern at
Fri Jun 5 07:24:23 PDT 1998


These things are always radically contextual; teaching at Wayne State I am certain that the dynamics of your classroom are significantly different from mine, for the simple reason that when you teach African American lit you can probably expect half the class or more to be melanin enriched, while I can expect a quarter or less; and when I teach "multiculturalism", or "workng class lit", or anything else I'll generally have 0-2 black students, out of 35. Being in an 85% white city in a 97% white region (Knoxville is not Memphis) specifies classroom racial dynamics in particular ways.

So I read your claim that you have a relatively easy time legitimizing yourself as nonwhite through a race treacherous practice as being tied as much to the specifics of Detroit as anything. And let me add that while you may well be doing something right, I'm still skeptical: racial psychologies, and white supremacist institutional and economic structures, are such that I don't think white people can simply "act" nonwhite with the result that we will "be" or "be perceived as" nonwhite. (Have you seen Bulworth? What could be whiter that Warren Beatty writing the line "you'll always be my nigga" and having Halle Berry say it to him? Talk about white male fantasies!) This is way beyond the individual acts of individual subjects to overcome, though we may have genuinely "postracial" relationships to other specific individuals; in most situations, the racial structuration of the academy and the classroom continues. I don't know your age, but its clear that in my age group white people are a significant presence in African American literary studies, and while we may obviously be competent, serious, and good teachers (and we also may not be), we are absolutely responsible to not act like this is simply a good for the world. There is no comparable situation whereby blacks are a significant presence in Physics, or Chinese Studies, or decent and well-funded elementary schools, and as long as that's true our presence as teachers of African American literature really does get in the way of one of the few genuine spaces of affirmative action available at the moment.

So, in spite of your post, I will continue to say that unfortunately, and in spite of having spent a decade at least trying to undo the problem, and in spite of a genuinely anti-white supremacist ideology, my melanin deficiency makes me "white". And that affects the dynamics of my classroom in very specific ways that can't be eliminated through actions I, individually, take.

Kenneth Mostern Department of English University of Tennessee

"Talent is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage."

Theodor Adorno

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