Tokyo Damage Report

ethnic and gender studies courses at universities

BOTH the pro- and the anti- factions share this unspoken assumption that ethnic/gender studies is a kind of penance. (Which is funny because the pro- people generally shudder at the oppression of organized religion and etc. )

Here’s how the unspoken assumption works: the pro- people figure, “Hey I am one of the good people (gender or ethnic minorities) so why should I have to take studies courses in OTHER PEOPLES’ stuff? Why should I do penance when I am the victim?”  Meanwhile the anti- people (men or white women) say, “I don’t want to take any ethnic/gender courses because they’ll just yell at me and make me feel bad. Why should I do penance if I’m not required to?”

 

Both miss the point.

 

These courses should be advertised to students, and taught, not as penance, but as a set of practical tools and techniques to achieve success in adult life. Just like “corporate” majors such as MBAs or programming.

 

The fact that BOTH pro- and anti- people are UNITED in face-palming after reading that, just proves how fucked up our attitudes towards ethnic/gender studies are.

 

Let me explain what I mean:

 

After you graduate, your room-mates, your boss at work, your future in-laws, your landlords, your clients at work. . . pretty much all of them at one time or another are going to be DIFFERENT FROM YOU. And they will have THE POWER TO MAKE YOUR LIFE MISERABLE. Even if you’re a white male heterosexual. This is true whether you’re working in a hipster coffee shop or a high-powered law firm. It’s true whether you’re a pottery major or a finance major. It’s true whether you’re a straight white man or a Latina lesbian.  You have to learn how to get along with different people.  You don’t have to learn every little thing about their culture or that their culture is better than your culture or whatever, but you should know enough to make small talk with them without putting your foot in your fucking mouth and jeopardizing your marriage/job/rental apartment.

 

Even if you’re a white man, you can get way farther in business if you impress your boss and clients that way.  And just because you’re a Latina lesbian, you can still inadvertently offend your future Chinese boss or your future Nigerian mother-in-law or your whatever whatever.  If you’re ignorant, you can piss them off just as much as a white man can.

 

These are practical skills. And  unlike “corporate” or “technical” skills, (or Medieval English Lit / Postmodern Art theory majors too for that mater), the skills from gender/ethnic studies  are  transferable to ALL careers.  So therefore they should be required of all students.   Maybe it’s different but when I was in college in the late ’80s (?!?) ethnic/gender studies was something you majored in. So you had 90% of the students not giving a shit, and 10% that were garunteed to have no jobs after graduation, which is a distinctly weird idea of “empowerment.”

 

One of the OTHER things that both the pro-and anti- sides tend to overlook:  since these courses are a form of technical training, you’re SUPPOSED to make mistakes. Like say you were taking math, if you wanted to get good at it, every semester you’d take harder courses, courses that you could barely barely pass, and you’d probably get like 20% of the answers wrong, even more at the beginning of the semester.  That doesn’t mean you’re a shitty mathematician, it means that you’re pushing yourself to the limits of your ability. If you’re in your third semester and still doing long division just because you’re terrified of making any mistakes, you’re not a perfectionist, you’re a fuckup and no one will hire you to do their math.

 

This seems so obvious it doesn’t even bear writing down. . . except that in gender/ethnic studies the assumptions are the opposite!

 

If you make even one mistake, you can get a reputation for being a racist/sexist/homophobe and that reputation can follow you until you graduate or drop out.  That’s not the fucking way to teach people to push their intellectual limits.  Not only that, it gives students a huge incentive to not even talk to those in different groups, which is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what the programs should be doing!

 

In fact, at my school (University of California Santa Cruz), here is a thing that actually happened. The administration was faced with a problem: “Students of color have higher drop-out rates, which is probably because they are surrounded by whites and they don’t have a lot of role models/support from students of their same race, and subconsciously this makes them feel they don’t belong here.”

 

The administration’s solution?  “For their own good we’ll encourage them to sleep in racially segregated dormitories.” I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

 

Another example: at UCSC there were 12 different dorm areas (‘campuses’) each with their own theme. Our campus’s theme was “multi-culturalism”.  You’d think that ours would therefore of been the most popular party-campus at UCSC:  Cinco de Mayo, St. Paddy’s day, Chinese New Year,  Russian Get Drunk Day (M-Su),  . . . but in fact, nobody from other campuses ever came to party here. Even people living here didn’t want to party here.  Because multi-culturalism was taught as a form of penance!  It wasn’t like, “Here’s a place where you can get burritos, injira, chana masala, AND won tons! At the same cafeteria! Fuck eating at MY campus, I’m gonna go to Schultz’ multi-cultural cafeteria!” it was more like, “We have 20 different flavors of EAT YOUR BROCCOLI IT IS GOOD FOR YOU.”

 

So counterproductive.

 

The measure of success of ethnic/gender studies programs should be “are the students talking and interacting with students from other groups more than when they first arrived at university?”  But all too often the training just makes you want to avoid other groups lest you offend. The penance-based, study-only-your-own-group training is not just bad from a  racist-white-male perspective, it also hinders oppressed minorities from uniting against The Man.

 

When teachers are creating ethnic/gender studies classes, Instead of thinking of “prejudice and unfairness are outrageous, so therefore how much outrage can we pack into one hour’s class?”, why not start with the goal:  “let’s combat prejudice by making the students feel comfortable and respectful talking to people in other groups EVEN OUTSIDE OF CLASS, FOR FUN.”  And then proceed to work backwards from that goal,  designing the curriculum by asking “what can we do an hour a day in class to achieve that?”

 

Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, he’s a straight white man, so naturally he wants to de-emphasize the “teach the worst atrocities of history and then assign blame” aspect of ethnic/gender studies”. “  But according to Political Correctness, in a society where straight white male is the norm, the oppressed minorities pretty much HAVE to learn to talk to people like me just as a part of growing up, but people like me don’t have to learn to talk to others (it is part of our privilege).  So when I am proposing a small-talk and discussion-with-strangers-based curicculum (however you spell it), I am  actually proposing something that will be more difficult for people like me, something where non-white-males would have a built-in advantage. And as a socially awkward nerd who can’t even get along with the white middle-class kids in my high school, I’m sure I would have been terrified of this curriculum, but I’m also pretty sure I would have emerged a better person.

 

Teachers should say, “Look, you’re going to spend fully half of class time making small talk with people you’d never talk to ordinarily. you’re going to irritate people without meaning to. You’re going to have some awkward silences. If you’re not putting your foot in your mouth once a week, then you’re still doing long division when everyone else is doing calculus. If you’re not a white male, you don’t have to practice talking to white males more than you already have to, instead you should talk to folks in groups you have never interacted with before, where you can be the insensitive one.”

 

It should be OK to fuck up provided that you learn from it.  Just like, I don’t know, every other area of education?!?  There would have to be some mechanism for kids to judge whether an “offense” was based on racial/gender ignorance/bias, or whether the “offense” was purely personal.  Actually even adults have no way to do this so maybe never mind.

 

Of course other  steps can be taken to minimize the hurt feelings before they start. Like at the beginning of the semester all the students can write down the top 10 cliché things people outside of their group say that pisses them off or patronizes them, and those can be aggregated, and the aggregated lists can simply be passed out to the students, or used as fodder for simple role-playing skits done in front of the class, etc.

 

Also probably a good idea:  role-playing skits where you pretend to be an adult in the real world, making small talk with your boss or in-law, or going out to a business dinner with a potential client, applying for a bank loan, chattering with your next-door neighbor, who is from a different group but who also has power over you.  The problem is where would you find the people to play the adult roles? You couldn’t really have your Chicano teacher play all the minority roles, and you couldn’t have the students convincingly play adult roles.  They should hire the fucking townies. Oh my god that would be traumatic!  Let’s do it!

 

While we’re at it,  let’s make “working class” one of the official groups.  Let’s get upper middle class white girls and Asians to be able to comfortably communicate with droopy-stached mechanics.  Let’s get upper-middle class theory-driven communist students to comfortably communicate with droopy-stached mechanics too.  See how that goes!  I mean if the point is to make you a well-rounded adult who can get along with all the people you have to get along with in the future, to cut down on awkwardness and unintentional patronizing/offense, of course laborers and mechanics would qualify as a group alongside the established groups.

 

Like I said before, the goal should be a sort of shallow knowledge of a dozen cultures, trying to cover the basics of small talk with future neighbors/housemates/spouses/in-laws/bosses/co-workers/landlords/work clients.  What to say, what not to say, top 10 typical awkward moments, etc. It’s also important to learn people’s culture, not just the atrocities. Not just their holidays or favorite food, but just  the WAY different groups talk, the different rhythms of conversation.

 

Most ethnic/gender conversations at my university all had to do with really heavy shit and blame for same. Again with the idea that “these courses are penance for sins.”  Of course the conversations degenerated into petty arguments that went nowhere.

 

I’m not saying we should avoid teaching the truth about horrible things white men have done/are doing. Just, have some fucking common sense. If students aren’t comfortable even making small talk with different types of people, you want to plunge them straight into the Tuskegee experiment and gang-rape?!?  Of course they’re going to wind up more divided than ever.

 

First of all, teach kids how to talk about non-controversial stuff. Let the white kids know that their future boss is going to be non-white, and what that feels like . . . and let the oppressed minority students know how easy it is to offend OTHER minorities, and what it feels like to be on that end of the equation . . . . and once everyone understands each others’ basic humanity, once you can talk about normal stuff without offending, THEN shift to the heavy stuff.  Just writing this now it seems so fucking obvious. Why is this not the way it’s done?

 

2 comments

2 Comments so far

  1. SteveS September 14th, 2013 9:57 am

    They actually offer this course everywhere in the US, and it’s free. Actually, they PAY you to take it! It’s called getting a min. wage retail job in a mall on the border between the city and suburbs.

  2. kate September 19th, 2013 11:57 am

    i was always curious, what was your major schultz ?

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