We all agreed that Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer was racist. At first, we hated her, but then, after I taught a lesson citing Gramsci and Memmi on cultural hegemony’s persistence in determining individual attitudes, we only pitied her. Poor well-meaning, white, liberal racist.
I opened up the class to include our discomforts in reading July’s People, a piece of speculative fiction written in 1980 about what the fall of Apartheid might look like. It’s a post-apocalyptic story where the apocalypse is Black Africans getting power. We read some sections where Gordimer describes the “descent” of her white protagonists as they adjust to life in a small, traditional Black village and shook our heads in appropriate discomfort. My French student said, “I’m not used to feeling white guilt, but this book, I definitely felt it while reading.” Maybe Gordimer was a white, liberal racist, but we could pity her.
I told my students that the discomfort we have reading Gordimer, it may be because we see so clearly her own hypocrisy within her hegemonic culture, but it also exposes to us the possibility that we, too, are trapped in our own cultural hegemony in the 21st century. There weren’t as many takers on that idea. We wrote on the board, “no easy answers,” but we clung to them. Gordimer was a racist and we could see it clearly from our perspective. It’s harder to see outside of our own perspective.
My class doesn’t include any Black students. We have two and a half ethnically Indian American students, one French and one Australian international student, one half-Argentine and a lot of white, native Texans. I didn’t anticipate this class make up when I was creating my course reading list, consciously adding a Vietnamese poet, a Persian graphic artist, a Salvadoran experimental novelist and, of course, a South African speculative fictionist. When I taught first-year composition I always had very racially diverse classes, but my literature class is mostly white. But they are smart and they are sensitive—didn’t they see straight through Nadine Gordimer’s protagonists? Didn’t we have a good discussion in class touching on District 9, Nelson Mandela and a Disney original movie called The Color of Friendship? My students are not racists, not like Gordimer.
When I got the close readings for July’s People, two of my star pupils had, inadvertently, I’m sure, betrayed how deeply entrenched a hegemonic system can be. One student wrote breezily, “In native culture, the men do not take orders from women, nor do they partake in preparing meals as cooking is a woman’s work.” I wrote in the margin, with a pencil, “Tread carefully—either get a source or textual evidence to avoid essentializing.” Another sensitive, excellent student, who had presented in class about July’s People being banned by both white and Black governments in South Africa, this thoughtful student wrote repeatedly about how the white family had “left civilization” when they came to the traditional village. My marginal notes were similarly discreet as before: I circled the word civilization and drew an arrow to “ooh, loaded term—how are you defining this?” In neither paper did I mention to my students that they were perhaps just as tied into their cultural perspectives as Gordimer had been thirty years ago.
Maybe I should. After all, doesn’t one of my favorite professors, Diane Davis often repeat that education is a violence? Especially in talking about race to a room of white Texans, aren’t I responsible to shake up their worldviews? I once heard a presentation from one of my rhetoric conference buddies, Meta Carstarphen, a Black rhetorician, where Meta described different activities she does in class to force her freshmen to confront their white supremacy, some of which result in students crying. Should I make my students cry? At that same conference, Sharon Crowley, who is white, received a standing ovation when she spoke about how all white people are white supremacists, no matter what they say. The irony was subtle, if it was intended at all. I looked across the room from my standing perspective. There were hundreds of us and I could count only four darker faces, including Meta’s. All of us white people were decrying white privilege while doing nothing to counteract its obvious impact in our own academic field. I wondered: does exposing the racism of others give us a pass on confronting our own?
Have my students only gone from rage to patronization of Nadine Gordimer because it lets them in the hero in the story of race? Although they benefit from white privileged and are subject to the strictures of their own hegemony, they can detach and insist on their (only relatively) more enlightened perspective. Isn’t this exactly what Nadine Gordimer has done in exposing her protagonists, Maureen and Bam Smales? And isn’t this what Maureen Smales have done in insisting that her husband be called “sir” instead of “master,” and allowing their Black servants greater privileges than the neighbors do?
In our culture being called a racist is one of the very worst things you can do. Unlike fifty years ago, even racists don’t call themselves racists. In fact, most racist comments preface with, “I’m not racist, but…” If I were to tell my students that some of their sentences came off as racist, I don’t know if they would ever recover their former relationship of trust with me. Almost certainly not. I would be almost insulting them personally, rather than correcting the elements for their argument that seem to me to be problematic. I prefer for education to be a little violence, like sore muscles after a workout rather than wrenching my students limb-from-limb for their long-held assumptions and cultural norms.
It’s hard to not get caught in the Mobius Strip of hegemony determination when I consider my restrained response to my students’ writing. Am I restrained because I’m racist myself? Or am I restrained because I’m trying not to overcompensate because I’m racist? Like Gordimer, like my students, I have limits to my agency because of my background and training. But I believe that intents do matter. Even though Gordimer or Crowley or my students or I may be racist, we know enough to be hurt by being called racist. We want to not be racists and we’re quick to condemn anyone that we perceive as being racist. At one point in our class discussion on Gordimer’s hypocrisy, a student spoke up, “Maybe it’s not as bad to be a hypocrite because at least you know you want to be something else.” Maybe being a hypocrite is just half-achieved idealism. My purpose as a teacher isn’t to destroy that idealism; it’s to nurture it, train it and develop it into something better so that in thirty years, those future generations can look back at us and call us racists. I hope they only pity us.