Contra Arizona: in defense of ethnic and gender studies, and in defense of resentment

I’m in San Jose Airport, waiting for a flight back down to Southern California. It’s been a whirlwind three days with family and friends in Carmel, San Francisco, Yountville and several places in between.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of Arizona’s recently passed law banning the teaching of ethnic studies courses in public schools. The wording of the bill, signed by Governor Jan Brewer, barred the teaching of courses that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals”.

The second of those three points is a valid one, but it’s a straw person. In my quarter century in academia, I’ve never seen an Ethnic Studies course that wasn’t welcoming of all students — including those whose ethnicity was not the subject matter. I took a number of Ethnic Studies classes at Cal in the 1980s (particularly in Chicano Studies, where I took courses with Cherrie Moraga, Norma Alarcon, and Gary Soto); in at least one of those, I remember being the only white feller in the class. And I was never made to feel unwelcome, nor did I ever get the sense that the courses were filled with “insider information”. I loved my Chicana Feminism class (taught by Alarcon), and appreciated that I was neither ostracized nor patronized by the professor or my fellow students. The work I did in those classes began with my willingness to suspend my own suspicion, to avoid the temptation to be defensive, and to recognize the multipliciities of privilege that had shaped my worldview. I bring the insights I learned in those courses into my own teaching every damn semester. Teaching a student body that is close to 80% non-white, I can say with certainty that I would be a much poorer and less imaginative professor had I never taken those courses.

I’m concerned that the Arizona law represents a serious threat to Women’s Studies as well. It’s obviously impossible to teach my primary gender course, Women in American Society, without talking about the ways in which women — as a class, and not merely as individuals — have been oppressed. What many consider the founding document of First Wave feminism, 1848’s Declaration of Sentiments opens its third paragraph with words that might cause trouble under the Arizona diktat’s first requirement, that resentment ought not to be promoted against any particular group of people:

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

The use of the singular is a rhetorical device, modeled on the Declaration of Independence. But it drives home the point that sexism has been both institutional and highly personal: it has been taught in the schools and in the home; it is promoted and defended in public, and lived out cruelly in private. Men as a class — and men as individuals — have oppressed, exploited and marginalized women for centuries. This is as much a fact as two plus two equalling four; no rational person, confronted with the evidence, could deny that fact. The degree to which that sexism remains a problem in the Western industrialized world is a subject for debate, but that it existed at all, and existed for a very long time, certainly isn’t. And no one, perhaps particularly a woman, can absorb the history of how women of all classes and backgrounds were brutalized and silenced by systems and by loved ones without being filled with something very much like resentment.

The very word resentment is important: it comes from the Latin sentire, “to feel”, and from re, meaning “again”. Resentment means to feel again — or, more loosely, to be reminded of old injuries. To teach history well, we who serve Clio must be agents of resentment, stirring up anger and grief as we demand that the wounds inflicted in the past be remembered, and even felt, again. To be a woman or to be black has historically meant a particular vulnerability to injustice. Those students who have no sense of the past (which is to say, almost everyone before they study history) need to connect themselves to the experiences of their ancestors, feeling their pain as well as their joy. That is what it means to “resent.”

Conservatives ask that students take pride in the accomplishments of the Americans who came before; the authorities in Texas have done all that they can to rewrite our history to encourage uncritical adulation of manifest destiny and the American project. To encourage pride is to encourage an emotional response to history; to encourage resentment is the same thing. Whoever we are, we can find much in the history of our forebears to give us pride. But an honest account of the American experience will make clear that for most of our history, those who weren’t white men generally suffered far more than those who were. To ask that the less-pleasant aspects of the past be expunged for fear of stirring up negative emotion is profoundly irresponsible and profoundly at odds with the job of the historian, which is to invite both intellectual and emotional responses to the narrative of what was.

If we Americans are who we say we are, we are surely secure enough to lay open the books and tell the darker aspects of the national story with the same rousing passion with which we tell of our triumphs. And if we do that, there will be a great deal of resentment on the part of those who identify with the abused, the victimized, and the ignored. That is exactly as it should be.

I’m a history and gender studies professor. I stir up resentment. The day that stops happening is the day I’ve begun to fail at my job.

13 thoughts on “Contra Arizona: in defense of ethnic and gender studies, and in defense of resentment

  1. Thank you! I couldn’t agree more! Teaching is about challenging your students to consider perspectives other than their own and for most of your average white kids, Ethnic and Women’s studies classes are their first exposure to a version of history that includes the experiences of people of color.

    As someone who has both a BA and an MA in Women’s Studies as well as a native of the Arizona border region, I am horrified and disgusted by the recent developments there. But I am thrilled to see essays like this one, as well as myriad other passionate forms of resistance.

  2. Thank you, Hugo! I teach Hispanic Sudies, and if my students leave the classroom without feeling anger and resentment over what was done and is still being done to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, then I will know I have failed in my goal.

  3. This is almost offensive to read.

    You spout some self-righteous thing (“The day that stops happening is the day I’ve begun to fail at my job.”), but what you want – also in the area of women’s studies – is to put across YOUR POLITICAL OPINION on taxpayer money.

    You are so immersed in your own world view that you can’t fathom that others could see the world differently. You are not teaching facts or methods or critical reasoning (the opposite, in fact, in pushing a one-sided view of the world on students and coercing them into following it).

    What would you think of a course that drums into white people that it is UNFAIR that they can’t go to the black part of a major US city without being intimidated or harassed by black people? You want to hep up the white people into really being pissed. Do you think something like that belongs in a university? Can’t you see that it is just as one-sided as the crap you people are “teaching”.

    I think the problem for Hugo, Clarissa and others is that people are waking up to reality.

  4. “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group;”

    Given that it is practically impossible to construct almost any class without even a hint of ethnic, let alone gender, bias (and that has included even pure science classes in the past), it will be interesting to see what comes of the court challenges that are destined to be filed both against, and in support of, this law. Even the wording has several notable omissions: Age, disabled, gender, religeous, for example if the assumption is that the law was constructed to address a current problem in education. It would appear to be a prima facie racist attempt at legislating.

  5. Agreed. Your women’s history class made me so angry, in such a good way. And the work I did there helped me turn that anger into something productive, like a willingness to change myself and to become more politically active.

  6. When you teach, and when you envision teaching, do you imagine the conveyance of information or the conveyance of a particular perspective?

    There is obviously a fine line between facts and opinion. The line becomes even finer and more unclear, as the issues become more controversial. That also makes it harder to separate out professorial opinion (and bias) from facts.

    This particular phrase gives me pause:
    “Men as a class — and men as individuals — have oppressed, exploited and marginalized women for centuries. This is as much a fact as two plus two equalling [sic] four; no rational person, confronted with the evidence, could deny that fact.

    While this may be true in the particular instance you cite, many people do dispute a variety of the conclusions (and premises) taught in a variety of college courses–including ethnic studies. And they should, because such dispute is important and, often, at least somewhat correct. If you think that no rational person could disagree with your conclusions, I’m frankly glad you’re not teaching anywhere near me, and I wonder whether you’re really doing a good job with your own students.

  7. Sailorman, everyone is, as the adage goes, entitled to his or her own opinion — but not their own facts. Debate and disagreement flourish in my classes. But just as “young earth” creationists are not invited to hijack a course in evolutionary biology, those who question the very premises of ethnic studies are discouraged from derailing those very interesting and helpful discussions.

    And my heavens, is there anyone in this enlightened age who believes that information about the past can be conveyed in the absence of perspective?

  8. Hugo,

    There is a world of difference between historians – many of whom really do try to be objective, and I guess the others cancel each other out – and “angry studies” people who only present one side of things. All the time and without fail.

    My impression is that women’s studies “teaches” other traditional areas with the particular political slant that it has.

    There are misstatements and exaggerations about law (coverture is a big one), misstatements about history, misstatements about politics and even misstatements about biology (“the blank slate” is almost a religion).

    I talked to a female biology professor I know. She even had a leaning towards feminism. She couldn’t believe what was being stated as cold, hard biological fact by the women’s studies people.

    If your goal is to rile women up and get them angry, you aren’t going to be objective and factual all the time. I have no idea why these “studies” courses are allowed to exist at a university, particularly on the taxpayers’ dime.

  9. If you have college girls running around saying things like “Men owned women as property up until around 1970 or, like, something”, then there is an education problem no matter how angry and frothed up they are.

  10. Taylor, the influence of biology on human behavior is one that is open to debate, and open to politicization and misuse. The two extremes to be avoided are 1) “biology is destiny” and 2)”biology has no impact whatsoever, not even a smidgen, on sexual identity”. Every feminist scholar I know falls in the middle, right where the responsible scientists do as well. One thing I do remember from bio class: the cerebral cortex can trump the reptilian and mammalian brains. We can redirect and rewire our instincts. I learned that more than twenty years ago in a lecture on neurospsych — not in gender studies.

    I hold a Ph.D. in history from what was once (no longer) a top five program. I’m always anguished that the fact I chose history rather than women’s studies for my doctoral program grants me an unmerited legitimacy in the eyes of those who refuse to accept the scholarly bona fides of the latter.

    And Taylor your reference to “college girls running around” tells me most of what I need to know of your views on women.

  11. Hugo,

    I guess a summary of my point is that a Ph.D in history who is teaching women’s studies should NOT be giving ANY opinion on biology or medicine, even if you have attended a “lecture on neuropsych”.

    I find it unreal that you can’t understand that. And what difference does it make WHAT feminist “scholars” have to say about biology? They aren’t trained in it.

    Really the height of arrogance. You can’t see that you are merely working with opinions in “gender studies”, and you can’t fathom that people in real subjects (hard sciences, medicine, law, engineering, physics) actually LEARN something.

  12. Taylor, does the word “interdisciplinary” mean anything to you? The very heart of academia beats around the breaking down of arbitrary categories and divisions.

    But I’m not going to convince you. Your mind is made up that gender and ethnic studies are frivolous exercises in collective grievance, parasitical departments pulling precious resources from serious subjects and polluting young minds with ideologically-driven half-truths. (I wonder how many of your colleagues on the far right would agree that “law” belongs in your litany of real subjects like medicine and physics. Most think law schools in America have become hopelessly enslaved to political correctness. Kudos to you for not falling prey to that.)

  13. I think the lie people tell themselves that social sciences aren’t real majors like math or engineering, or that someone majoring in social science isn’t well rounded is my second least favorite line after the “those who can’t do teach.”

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