“Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining
Difference,” from Sister Outsider
I do promise up front that I will not blog with this much specificity about every lesson I plan. But I found this process fascinating, so I hope you will too!
When I am being the teacher I dream of being, I re-read everything I’m going to assign and take new notes, or flesh out old notes, with this upcoming class in mind. It’s been almost 2 years since I taught this essay of Audre Lorde’s, and I had it in mind to teach it both to my upcoming undergraduate class as well as to my graduate students, so I sat down the other day to give it a re-read. What follows are some excerpts from Lorde, along with some notes that I made preparing to teach the essay to Chinese students.
“MUCH OF WESTERN EUROPEAN history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior.”
Two ideas immediately occurred to me on reading this, the first sentence of the essay. First, while I am able to agree, at least more or less, that “Western European history conditions us” in this fashion, I wonder how much my students will know about Western European history. This in turn led me to wonder whether Lorde meant the “actual” scope of Western European history (as if the history itself might be doing the teaching), or Western European history as most of us will have learned it in school. The second idea I had was whether my students will agree (and I’ve certainly had American students who did not!) that these oppositions she lists are “simplistic.” My experience so far with at the very least the few people I’ve gotten to speak with in depth in China, is that at least words like “good” and “bad” are used, unmodified, a lot more than I’m used to. I don’t know yet whether this is a pervasive cultural attitude, but it’s something I’m keeping an eye on.
“Traditionally, in american society, it is the members of oppressed, objectified groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor.”
I have a marginal note to talk about Lorde’s capitalization practices. Chinese, of course, has no capital letters, and I think particularly my writing class will be interested in this. The history of capitalization in Germanic languages, capitalization as a sign of respect, or lack thereof. I think this may be a fruitful discussion in itself!
Educating the oppressor
“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity.”
However, the larger issue I thought of in this sentence is how, in China, Americans typically make it the responsibility of the Chinese to make things comprehensible to them. Already, I have had many people be surprised that I am interested in learning Chinese! Yet, of course, within China, the Chinese are the dominant group. Yet, still, on the world stage, they not the clearly dominant group. I think questions of oppressed and oppressors have the potential to go in directions I won’t necessarily be able to predict up front.
Those of you who read my last post might have caught my distress at the language I read on expatriate bulletin boards. Without quoting the terrible language I read there, I will say that many westerners in China seem to be requiring the Chinese not only to educate the westerners as to the humanity of the Chinese, but are starting from a default position that such humanity doesn’t exist. All the thinking I’ve ever done about these questions before, however, has been in positions where “Black and Third World people” are immersed within a local context of oppression. So I wonder whether this concept will seem as familiar, or as terrible, in a Chinese context as it does in an American, tied up as it is here in the context of hospitality.
“Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure.”
This is an idea that I’m very interested to talk about in an international context. I strongly doubt that this particular mythical norm is the one that dominates the Chinese imaginary, but I hope that I can bring the abstract concept into strong enough relief that my students will be able to draw a picture of what this mythical norm is in their lives. Is it still male? I’m guessing so. Is it still heterosexual? I’m guessing so. Thin? I’m guessing so. But young? I’m not sure. And Christian? I’m guessing not. I hope it’s a fascinating discussion!
“You” & “We”
“Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your
children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying.”
The last point I’ll draw out is this one of person. This essay was originally delivered orally, so the address to “you” makes perfect sense in that context. But what happens when the “you” Lorde imagined is mapped onto my Chinese undergraduates? Will they be able to identify with that you? Will they feel extra-alienated from her context by being addressed? Will they identify with the we, instead? How will this potentially complicated identificatory response affect their reading? And what of the male students, who, in America, are frequently alienated by this language because they have never had to confront head-on, and respect, the existence of a “we” to which they do not belong?
Onwards to teach!
Classes start in just over a week, so this is probably my last update until then. If you are interested in my complete marginal notes, send me a message with your email and I’m happy to send them. Perhaps needless to say, these are only a few of the thoughts I had. It’s clear to me that the more I learn about China and Chinese culture, the easier planning lessons will be. Stay tuned, also, for a post about how planning (and eventually, teaching!) these lessons is making me think about transnational academic cooperation and how we, as western academics, generally require non-western academics to perform these very tasks that Lorde describes: to educate us about their humanity, as well as the validity of their scholarship.
Any thoughts you have to contribute to my planning process are welcome!