a moment of race eclipsing gender…

academica

A few weeks ago there was a ‘race incident’ where I teach. It ballooned into a campus-wide conversation, with a few panels and lots and lots of questions. The thumbnail sketch of it is that a student and her boyfriend showed up to a ‘Celebrity  Rehab’ costume party in blackface, as Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown. (Bobby wasn’t in rehab, though. Just Whitney. FYI.) From what I’ve heard, the Black Student Association mobilized quickly and approached the student in as respectful and non-confrontational way as could be expected, and the woman went to the bathroom to take off the make-up.

I went to one of the campus-wide conversations and it was a tense but polite affair. Many of the students were thoughtful and I learned a lot. One thing that bothered me is that students wanted for-credit courses on race, but a student in my class stood up to stay what I was thinking: “There are classes like that, they’re called ‘Sociology.'” Overall, there has been a lot of talk about the history of  minstrelism, and I am really happy there has been a campus-wide conversation about this. We had a few of my best class discussions about it in my theory course–particularly when we were talking about Du Bois a week afterwards. Naturally. (The affects of the ‘small’ movements at the dawn of freedom for African-Americans that W.E.B. discusses are truly chilling in their implications. The entire class was floored as we read it all.) I have thought about it a lot, and re-oriented my classes a bit around it, but didn’t tackle something…

Here’s one thing that I have not noticed: much of any discussion about the boyfriend.  From what students told me, the woman was crying as she came to find out that the Philip Rothian human stain wouldn’t be wash away so easily. There is very little mention of the boyfriend, save for the fact that he didn’t seem to think that it was such a big deal, and resolutely refused to make the symbolic gesture of attempting to take off the make up, and just stood there as his girlfriend was in the loo. Such defiance makes me wonder about what his role was in the decision-making. Why has she been so assailed in the discussion, and why has he been ignored as a silent partner? Yes, he’s not a student, but still. I’m not saying that all men are racist or that there are no women who are racist (but here’s an interesting article about how the lack of racist women is undermining the KKK). (Nor am I attempting to further the binary oppositions of gender and sexuality.) However, it is within the realm of possibility that this student was a reluctant accomplice in her boyfriend’s boneheaded scheme. It’s not to absolve her role (or the role of her friends who let her leave her dorm), but I wonder if there is an unwillingness to address the issue of gender politics here. I’m not suggesting that the race-issues are unimportant but that they have, perhaps, eclipsed something else in the mix. I feel that it is a rare occasion when a gender issue of male dominance isn’t tackled on this campus. (And didn’t Bobby Brown have a whole power thing too? Arrested for battery?)

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