Sunday, December 06, 2009

Ten impressions of PoCC, and one thought

I returned last night from the People of Color Conference with a mixed bag of impressions and one main thought. The impressions first:

1. I do not like the term "People of Color." It implies White is not a color. It assumes too much similarity or solidarity between different ethnicities. It emphasizes racial and ethnic diversity over other kinds of diversity such as gender, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. It is also not a term with which I can imaginatively identify.

2. John Quinones, an award-winning TV journalist, told the compelling story of his rise from immigrant poverty to mainstream success. The story highlighted the personal qualities of ambition, perseverance and talent. It described racist discrimination but also the advantages afforded by his ethnicity. My impression is that the crucial difference in Quinones lies, not in his circumstances, but in his response to his circumstances. The difference is the mystery of character.

3. It is easier to talk about validating others than to practice it. For my first affinity group session, I attended the International, Non U. S. Citizen group. Three African men spoke about how they used to judge African Americans unfairly until they understood better the injustices of the African American past. The same men dominated the group discussion, pointing to various people to speak. They gave flirtatious and extended attention to a very beautiful African woman, and considerably less attention, and talk time, to the other women in the group. When a young African American administrator talked about the poor academic behavior of his African American students, one of the older African men "corrected" him by again referring to the need to understand the students' background. The same ageism appeared when an older Latin woman from Mexico felt the need to correct the understanding of a younger Chinese Canadian, although she misunderstood the Canadian's point. The African men and the Mexican woman are veterans of the PoCC. The behaviors I witnessed suggest that the Conference needs to understand better sexism and ageism.

4. Sexist language was deployed by two speakers at the opening ceremony. One, a white man, advised conference participants to moisturize their hands regularly because the air in Mile-High City is dry. Even manly men like lumberjacks do that, he said, oblivious to the gender implications of his words. The second speaker, a black man, spoke in another context of the need to "man up."

5. We see what touches us most nearly, and don't see what doesn't. The woman workshop presenter referred to those two examples of sexist language in passing, and obtained nods of recognition from women in the audience. She was making a very good presentation of a school course called "Freshman Foundations," which teaches health and diversity topics. One of the activities on this course is to get students to form a circle which another student has to try to get in. The activity illustrates insider privilege and outsider deprivation. The presenter, who does not look Asian, referred to the ethnicity of a student only once, when she described how an Asian student tried to get into the circle by threatening to tell the school the circle was racist if it refused to let him or her in. Why, I asked myself, did the presenter refer to the student's ethnicity when the example did not require that information? What assumptions about Asian students did the presenter unconsciously call upon? Why did I, one of the few Asian-looking people in the room, notice that, and not those members of the audience who nodded knowingly to what the presenter said?

6. I was very impressed by Kenji Yoshino, one of the general sessions speakers. I have heard him speak before, at the LGBT Center, in NYC. But this time, I admired not only his obvious intelligence and eloquence (he has to be as an NYU law professor) but also how his language embodied his ethics. He referred to himself as a gay person, instead of a gay man. When he referred to a general person, he used the pronoun she. This was not mere political correctness. Political correctness implies some form of social coercion, in this case, to use the "right" language. Yoshino's language was free of such social coercion; it was the natural result of an examined life and an examination of the world.

7. An AP English course that deals with race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. That sounded like something right up my alley, I thought. The course, however, was poorly conceived and superficial. The course reader, put together by its instructor, was a mishmash of extracts from Edward Said's Orientalism, Cornel West's Race Matters, the Bible, CNN online, some MD whose name I do not recognize, a poem by Langston Hughes, etc. The extracts, all photocopied, were not contextualized in the reader.

Each week the class met to discuss a different diversity topic, a format that does not seem to me to lend itself to deep or extended reflection. The instructor said he tried to present both sides of a topical argument, and not impose his view on the class. Someone in the audience pointed out that care must be taken even in the framing of the questions. For example, homosexuality was discussed as an issue of right and wrong, the students reading Leviticus as an indictment of it, and reading that MD for an explanation of its "naturalness." But racism would, and should, never be discussed in that way. The instructor would never invite a Klansman to speak to the class, though he invited an Evangelical minister to speak against homosexuality. Responding to this audience comment, the presenter repeated that it was not his purpose to impose his view on the class. The answer was a cop-out, with regard not only to the concern raised, but also to a teacher's responsibility for what he teaches.

The instructor's presentation and responses gave me little confidence that class discussion would be sufficiently thoughtful to deal with the wide (dis)array of materials and ideas. As if to confirm that conclusion, he showed an example of the summative project of the class, a video documenting their new understanding of a diversity topic. The supposedly exemplary video asked a large number of people to rate the level of racism in America on a scale of one to ten. One by one the interviewees gave a number but were not asked for how they arrived at their rating. After watching five minutes of this inanity, I left the room.

8. Twice conference organizers referred to the overwhelming experience of minority students who found themselves for the first time in the majority at the conference, and to the experience of majority students who found themselves for the first time in the minority. The speakers were thinking in terms of black and white. What about the minority students who found themselves in the minority even at the conference? I am not just thinking Asian or Middle Eastern; I am also thinking gay and transgendered.

9. The Chinese Canadian referred to earlier is my colleague. On the second day of the conference, she decided to attend the Asian/Asian American affinity group instead of the International group, after her husband, who is white, encouraged her to embrace her Asian identity. She told me she felt at home in the group, meaning they understood her without needless explanation.

10. My student, feeling maternal, said she wished I had found my group at the conference. I told her I was too much a student of Auden to regret not finding a group. Having studied Auden together this year, she knew immediately what I meant.

One thought:

Who am I? I am a poet. All other aspects of me--Chinese, Singaporean, gay, male, middle-class, middle-aged, and so on--are adjectival; the only noun is poet.  I hope I do not distance myself from my adjectives because I am ashamed of them in some obscure way. Where I am ashamed, I have to work on not being ashamed. However I consider them adjectival because I did not choose them. I chose instead to be a poet. I choose self-determination over all social determinants. I choose to exert my will over all that would overcome my will. I choose the ordering intelligence over the pieces that need ordering. I choose creation over obedience.

A matter of choice, my identity is also a matter of work. It is work in the sense of a vocation. It is work also in the sense of requiring effort, to write good poems, and to receive and understand fully my poetic heritage. And what a heritage. Wherever and whenever human beings have put words in some beautiful order. Homer is my forebear, as is the poet of Gilgamash. Tagore is as close to me as Su Tungpo. I am related to Keats far more intimately than to any cousin. To paraphrase Nietzsche, poets are kindred spirits who strive to overcome what is accident, chance and fragment in themselves, in order to create themselves as destinies.


Anonymous said...

Jee - I really enjoyed your thoughts about the conference, especially the last part about how you identify yourself.

I've been thinking about identity a lot... and what I've decided to choose to make most important (how Italian-American traditions wind themselves into my life but not other cultures that are historically a part of my family, why I chose an all women's college, how poetry defines me, etc.) While I haven't come to any conclusions - I do like how you defined yourself culturally as a poet and where your heritage lies - I haven't exactly come to any conclusions. I do feel lucky to be in a place to be able to freely ponder such things.

Miss you!

Tory said...

Wow Jee, this is a fascinating report. I too have an issue with the term people of color, for many of the same reasons you do. As a third-generation Jewish-American who is also a quarter Mexican, I sometimes find it hard to convey to people just what the significance of that ethnic difference is for me when color is all most people get hung up about.

I am a little surprised at some of the casual sexism you mention, but then again I feel like conferences as seemingly insular as these tend to be populated by individuals who grow accustom to certain behaviors, behaviors which are never questioned in the way that they should. The idea of discussing an issue as sensitive as racism without allowing for a depth or range (beyond black and white) of such a discussion seems more than just counterproductive, it seems rather dangerous.

As for that AP course...well, I am glad I didn't have to be subjected to that when I was in school. I think the thinly-veiled slights against queer people under the mask of provoking discourse would have sent me running for the hills. Intriguing as always! Thanks for this :-D

Jee Leong Koh said...

Hi Mrs. Chlo,
I guess we are making it up as we go along, so damn conclusions.

Thanks, Tory, for your thoughts. Good to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure that "poet" as a noun has much meaning. Then, that, Maker, suggests we are what we make, not what we are-- this I think is true.

Patricia Markert said...


Your writing about this conference so cogent and clear headed. But what is most moving to me is your conclusion:

I chose instead to be a poet. I choose self-determination over all social determinants. I choose to exert my will over all that would overcome my will. I choose the ordering intelligence over the pieces that need ordering. I choose creation over obedience.

Thank you for your engagement with the world, and your insistence on your own standards in it.

Nicholas said...

My student, feeling maternal

I liked the post, but this? Really?

I wonder, too, what your closing statement, moving though it may be, implies about people who do see their "social determinants" as having constituted, with or without their consent, an integral part of their subject positions, rather than something they need to (or indeed can) get beyond. It is a little discomfiting.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I don't think any of us needs to accept that social determinants constitute an integral part of our subject position. We may begin that way, but we don't have to remain that way.