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.