specificity

A cousin of mine once decried the habit of scholars she’d encountered of getting bogged down in academic minutia. Those thinkers, she argued, had lost the ‘big picture’ or the major objective of inquiry in their attention to little things. But when details are deleted from a story for the sake of expedience or rhetorical impact or an assumed ‘theory’, people and whole histories and possible futures are erased. Specifically, I am seriously disturbed when whiteness and white ‘history’ and white narratives are normalized, universalized in ‘thinking’ spaces – even when people of color are present and prominent in these so-called ‘enlightened’ (oh, the absurd insidiousness of light/white imagery) places.

For example, over the last five or so years, I’ve noted – several times – a strange thing in separate conversations that touched on (American) feminism and the GI Bill. At a writing workshop for educators, in a gender studies course, in an MFA theory course, and on the thinking making living food panel, white women made general pronouncements about ‘women’s’ move into the workplace during and after WWII. Which women, exactly? In each instance, I had to remind the speaker that for the vast (vast) majority of Black women in the Americas, there was no ‘move from home to the workplace’; by definition, Black women in this place have had to (been made to, are expected to) work. In each instance, my reminder was met with what I interpreted as embarrassed reflection.

Similarly, at a panel discussion about Black women in higher education, in a college level education course, and at an artist talk, white men made general pronouncements about the efficacy of the GI Bill at changing the lives of returning WW II soldiers through post-secondary education. Which WWII soldiers? In each instance, I had to remind the speaker that for a majority of returning Black soldiers, neither college education nor social/economic gains materialized as a result of the GI Bill. And, in each instance, my reminder was met with what I interpreted as frustrated silence.

I’ve heard a lot in passing about open and accepting Millennial attitudes toward differences in gender and race when compared to dispositions of previous generations. But my experience in the classroom gives me pause for thought on what these attitudes really indicate. What I’ve seen is a passivity toward these ‘issues’ when they come up, a spirit of laissez-faire toward the contested territory of the past, a desire to live-and-let-live rather than interest in or curiosity about difference that leads to true engagement with history and policy and their social, economic, and political outcomes. I worry that Millennial non-nonchalance isn’t proof of previous generations’ success at beating back bigotry, and, when coupled with the white-washing that permeates general ‘community’ narratives and media projections about gender and race, I take it rather is evidence of something more pernicious.

Perhaps I make more of a fight out of these things than I ought. There was a lot of eye-rolling in the mostly undergraduate audience at the U of M during that food panel discussion when I made my call for specificity in community-based art practices, a feeling of ‘yeah yeah, food production, yeah yeah, brown bodies, now get to the part about how we can make art and food fun!’ In that group of about 80, I counted maybe three other people of color and I wondered how compatible notions of ‘food’ and ‘fun’ might be with our histories and experiences purposefully brought into the mix.