A few names come to mind: Professor Lois Brown, Dean Renee Johnston-Thornton, and Hailey Broughton-Jones ’18. Without a doubt, these women could be easily joined by so many others; they’re simply the ones I’m relatively close to.
It is no secret that black women have been made to carry the West’s epistemological baggage, which is to say that black women in particular, and women of color in general, are usually the targets of the West’s dietary staples: sexism, racism, homophobia, among others. The women I referenced at the beginning of this article are, to my mind, representative examples of all the work that women of color do to help many of us get through the day. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Professor Brown has helped me manage the load of draining nonsense that going to school here entails. I’m sure she does the same for many others and I know for a fact that while what she does is exemplary it is by no means exceptional, uncommon.
That work is definitely not easy and, usually, that work is performed at a great cost to those doing it. Saying this does not make me special or absolved. I’m still trying to unlearn masculinity and heterosexuality, which is to recognize that I’ve also dealt my share of pain and neglect. This article, then, is the least I can do.
What I find particularly unsettling is just how quick so many of us are to thank women of color for their work, even as we poise to deliver the next blow. We laud women of color for being strong, resilient, when what we are really implying is that they can take, perhaps were made to take, the abuse that calls for such resilience. This allegation could apply to a variety of people, but usually it’s indicative of a performative whiteness. Right now, though, I’m not going to explicitly privilege whiteness. It already takes up way too much space.
Instead, let me share an anecdote related to my senior thesis.
My research project has to do with the notion of black motherhood, reading it as a site of fundamental instability because black women have historically been denied the right to their children. I take up this study by way of Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and read it alongside the work of Angela Davis, Robert Reid-Pharr, Hortense Spillers, among others.
My mind wasn’t always there, however. Even though I’ve been engaging black, feminist, and queer epistemologies for about two years, my initial readings of the book reproduced an unwavering hostility to the figure of the black mother. Even as I claimed to be engaged in critical inquiry I reproduced the same epistemic violence routinely leveled at black women. Thankfully, my readerly and writerly practice has seen some welcome developments and, since then, I revisited the text and arrived at a more generous, which is to say generative, reading.
The summary of my thesis project is a relatively common example of how we are conditioned to overdetermine the category of black woman (consider, for example, everything you presume to know and describe when you use the expression “black woman”).
Moreover, the summary of my initial failures is probably representative of the kinds of reading and the kinds of work we refuse to do. Many of us probably believe we are the exceptions to the rule. Perhaps we are blinded by the neoliberal investment in “critical thinking” and, thus, lose sight of everything that is marginal, which is to say critical, to public discourse. Is it really that outrageous to suggest that those who write, speak, and scream from the margins know exactly what informs the center? (And, no, I’m not talking about the binary between a conservative Right and slightly less conservative Left.)
The mantra of “critical thinking” may be a good strategy to, say, market liberal arts universities in a moment when education is becoming increasingly specialized, but it really isn’t good for much else.
I think it is pretty safe to say that Wesleyan students in general are not routinely engaging black, feminist, and queer thought. The challenge here, I suppose, is to consider the extent to which the classroom and everything you do, and don’t, talk about in presumably intellectual spaces informs how you move in the so-called “real” world. Simply put, I do not believe that the classroom is, or should be, fundamentally divorced from the other spheres we try to inhabit. Moreover, I really do not think that the overwhelming majority of Wesleyan students are actually doing the critical-thinking routinely championed by our resident postmodern scholar, President Michael Roth. He, too, is not exempt from this critique.
At Wesleyan, we latch onto our intentions as if they outweighed the consequences of our speech and our actions. We use racist, sexist, and homophobic discourses and claim not to be racists, sexists, or homophobes. Then, we get defensive and indignant when the targets of our abuse suggest otherwise and demand that our fragility be accommodated. In so doing, we make more work for the people who cannot get away from this nonsense, despite their best efforts. We expect women of color in particular, and students of color in general, to meet us more than halfway and to do it with a smile.
I encourage you to keep this in mind always, but especially with the end of the semester coming. Retreating into whiteness may be easier, but that doesn’t mean your life will be better for it. I’ll leave it at that. These days I’m trying to be a better listener, a better ally, which entails knowing when to shut up.
Gallardo is a member of the Class of 2016.