Yesterday I attended Robert Jensen's talk titled "The Academy and Activism: Neutralizing Neutrality and Moving Past Polemics" and this afternoon he joined the graduate students in my cohort for a class and a dinner. Jensen is probably best known (I'm guessing) for his article U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts, which was published in the Houston Chronicle three days after 9/11 and invited a number death threats and poorly articulated diatribes about being callous and unAmerican. Here is a quote from that article:
... this act was no more despicable as the massive acts of terrorism -- the
deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes -- that the U.S.
government has committed during my lifetime. For more than five decades
throughout the Third World, the United States has deliberately targeted
civilians or engaged in violence so indiscriminate that there is no other way to
understand it except as terrorism. And it has supported similar acts of
terrorism by client states. If that statement seems outrageous, ask the people
of Vietnam. Or Cambodia and Laos. Or Indonesia and East Timor. Or Chile. Or
Central America. Or Iraq, or Palestine. The list of countries and peoples who
have felt the violence of this country is long. Vietnamese civilians bombed by
the United States. Timorese civilians killed by a U.S. ally with U.S.-supplied
You can probably see why that article ruffled a few feathers.

Tonight I spoke with him one on one and I cannot describe how exciting it was to have this opportunity. I thanked him for writing that article because it voiced a very unpopular opinion, one that I held but did not dare to discuss with anyone but my closest Canadian friends. I thanked him because when "my people," and I mean this in a collective sense meaning anyone of Asian, South Asian or SE Asian descent, make claims like this we're immediately dismissed and often told to "go home" if we "don't like America and all it stands for." Opinions like this are, after all, used as "proof" of our unassimilability in this country. In Asian American studies classes we talk about the millions of lives lost in SE Asia at the hands of the United States all the time, but this sort of thing doesn't enter into the wider discourse unless someone like him -- a white male professor -- initiates that dialog and he did and I couldn't imagine if he hadn't.

I also thanked him for writing The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege. I confessed that one of my most terrifying teaching moments was introducing the idea of whiteness and white privilege to a racially diverse class that included many white students. I told him that I made a very conscious and deliberate decision to front end the lesson with articles written by white men about white privilege because I felt that being an Asian woman simply wouldn't give me the credibility to get the message across. I admitted that at the end of the class I felt guilty and disappointed that I would not feel comfortable giving that lesson in my own words in my own skin. It's not fair that I feel that I have to direct students to articles written by white men in order to teach about a topic that I can articulate myself, but I feel like I have to and I hate it. We joked about our differences: white - Asian, male - female, older - younger (looking), tall - short. "Well you're screwed," he concluded with a laugh. But in all seriousness, Bob reminded me of what's really important. It's teaching and helping people to understand these things. It's about being strategic and doing what works for you. You can try to overthrow the system and I think we (as in people of color) are taking baby steps to at least shift the so-called system, but sometimes in the here and now you need to just work within it and do little things to make a difference. I forgot to thank him for this conversation. So, Bob, thanks for this (and for being a privileged white man who gets it).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i can see why you hate feeling this way v. it shocks me that this is the unpopular opinion.