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on color and trust

I showed them this image and we all laughed. How, indeed, could ursine traits be attributed to someone because they look like a bear?

How we laughed even more at this image. It’s a Hog and this guy is obviously hoggish. I mean, this is science! Well, it’s physiognomy and not science, but it passed for science.

The venerable art of physiognomy and its cousin phrenology are behind the Cesar commercials that produced this image. (Actually, these three images have much more than pseudoscience connecting them. The real connection is that the appearance lies in art. Undoubtedly the visual analogy can be established. But, it must be coaxed out by the hand of the artist or the hairstylist and photographer.)

They weren’t laughing, though, when I flashed this image up.. (The essay we were reading cites this very idea… European craniums, being more spacious allow for a more intelligent race.) They were laughing even less when we discussed casta painting and the taint of blackness. In fact, one girl began to cry. In retrospect, this tact was probably too bold. Especially since I was the substitute. In my class, we had discussed this, but we had been together for a semester. We knew each other and they knew me.

We had been reading an essay entitled “El Cholo,” a despective name for mestizo Peruvians, by Eugenio María de Hostos, a Puertorican essayist from the 19th century. (The term was also used in Mexico; today, in the US-Mexican Border regions this term has been taken as a word of Raza pride; it also is used to refer to Hispanic gang members and lowlifes.) María de Hostos proposes a good thing in this essay. He dreams of the day when “el cholo” will not be treated as a “choto” (literally a kid goat), when the son of a man (yes, he uses Christological langauge) will be treated better than cattle. His hope is intermarriage and education… America’s salvation is to become a literal melting pot of race and culture. (Or not quite).

His choice of the Cholo, as he makes abundantly clear, is because this “mixed-breed” possesses the moral fortitude of the Indian, a fortitude seen in his melancholic eyes, and the intelligence of the European, obvious in his spacious cranium. The Indian race is saved through the Cholo who melds the best of both races.

Well, not quite… now, we need to educate them; otherwise, they are wasting their God-given European intelligence.

I shouldn’t’ve brought in the casta paintings… I guess. By doing so, I made the already patent connection between the treatment of the Peruvian Indian and African American all the more unavoidable. Yet, at the same time, there are few essays whose contradictions allow for a closer examination of our culture and our own assumptions. María de Hostos, despite his dream to see all humans treated equally, still judges the worth of individuals and their teachability on the similarity of their physiognomy to European physical traits. As that class concluded, he is hypocritical, but his hypocrisy is a warning to us all. We shouldn’t simply ignore him (he dreams a good dream), but we shouldn’t simply overlook his bigotry to hold on to his dream. Instead, we should realize that despite his good intentions his cultural biases prove hard to erradicate… and, that if someone as eloquent as him, who dreams as good a dream as he, can perpetuate an unjust system of evaluating others… maybe we, too, might be found guilty of the same.

I mentioned the student’s reaction to my class. And, to a person, the whites wondered why she should’ve reacted in the manner she reacted… and, to a person, the African Americans understood the girl’s frustration. They, themselves, said they wouldn’t’ve reacted in this way. Yet, near the beginning of class, when I read to them an exerpt of Theodore Canot’s Adventures of an African Slave Trader , they all squirmed.

The problem, it seems to me, is one of trust… How can we talk about something like this without first establishing trust? The substitute class did not know me, my class did. The substitute class saw a white person talking about race… and oh, god what’s he gonna say? My class, the second time around, knew where I stood on a number of things and had seen how I treated persons in the class.

The question, given the fact that I teach literature, though in Spanish, at an urban university in a southern metropolis, is unavoidable. My question is one of address…



Two anecdotes:

I spent two years teaching a curriculum that begged us to talk about race, but at a Big Ten university in the semirural Midwest, where most of the students, and most of the teachers, were as white as I was. Most of us lacked enough imagination, or the sympathy at least, to think faithfully through the conflicts we were discussing. I remember one student who appealed constantly to her high school, in an affluent Chicago suburb, because it was multiethnic and multiracial and everyone was happy and daily sang arm in arm about harmony and happiness. Frequently, her comments would go like so: “I don’t know why this guy is so unhappy. In my high school I dated a black guy, an Indian, an aboriginal American, and an Arab, and look! I turned out just fine!” She was a stubborn one.

Another time, in an earlier class, somehow believing I was back in rural Arkansas, I asked, “Is anybody here Jewish?” I was visibly surprised when actual students raised their hands. It had been a question off-the-cuff, meant to illustrate some woefully obvious, asinine point about experience and religion or ethnicity or some such thing, and my entire point fell flat—as it should have.

yeah, i get the they’re all people to me reaction… and i get the birds of a feather should flock together… i mean it’s only natural. you don’t see cows and horses getting it on. yes, indeed, cows and horses. this was my first year at this school, i don’t have the wisdom i do now (a full year later). i didn’t call him out… but i should’ve, shouldn’t’ve i? (at least on the level of his rather sepcious argument.)

i should say, i don’t often buy the “they’re all people to me” reaction. i don’t buy it because most of the proponents of this end up saying… i just don’t know why they don’t get over it… and they should learn to speak the language properly… my great-great grandparents never owned slaves… and things of this nature.

re: “they’re all people to me,” I think it may arise from an honest desire to see the world non-racially. What it actually amounts to in the end unfortunately is seeing the world mono-racially, thus the “just get over it, it was 150 years ago,” “learn the language right” comments. At bottom it’s an inability to imagine what it’s like to have every tiny human interaction of your life determined (negatively) by your race. This may be why minorities generally can’t stand hearing white people talk about race, even when they’re saying the “right” things.

you’re right… i think at the heart of people are people and people need people (do i hear barbra streisand?) is an honest a good desire to not see race.

however, that ignores, as you rightly say, the centuries of mistreatment and oppression… that ignores the systemic racism of the nation.

and i will stop now before i continue ranting.

It looks like the two of us aren’t getting too much work done today. :) Fortunately I’m six hours ahead and got a decent amount in while the USA still slept, before things got so damn hot in the kitchen.

yeah, i should be reading exams or working on an article on a 17th mexican poet… but oh well. i much prefer to make an ass of myself. :)

To honor & acknowledge others’ writing in response:

L offers up in the ‘hood, JDB, Romans 13, and GKB, Color, Language, and Racism.