Friday, October 5, 2012

Being a White Male Academic

(Apologies to what few non-white readers this site may attract: much of what follows will be stupefyingly obvious to you, but then again, you know just how oblivious white people are about issues of race – even after we think our consciousness has been raised. Also, to all readers, please take this post for what it is: personal reflections by someone trying to figure out his responsibility, and hoping perhaps to goad some others into making a similar inventory).

What does it mean to be a white male academic in 21st century America?

Retrospectively, it means that I have been socialized from childhood into patterns of speaking and analyzing that have dovetailed nicely with subsequent academic pursuits. This probably means I wasn’t as “precocious” as I thought. Gravity from a very longstanding academic tradition pulled me into a stable orbit, a standard (and privileged) mold of 21st century white human being.  

It means I have been able to regard much of what I have studied (e.g., [Euro-American] philosophy, theology, biblical criticism) as somehow “belonging to me,” “a natural fit,” without feelings of suspicion or alienation.

It means I have received feedback and encouragement from professors who usually looked like me – with all the consequent benefits of unencumbered confidence, close collaboration, and easy validation.

It means I have always been able to count on – and still can – that my opinion will be respected and heard (it can even be trumpeted on a blog!). I don’t have to prove in every engagement that I am not a mediocre, biased, or “emotional” thinker.  

It means I’ve been able to think about my achievements (“I built that!”) or lack of them in a comfortably meritocratic way without needing to suspect interfering prejudices, either of a patronizing or a marginalizing kind.

It means that I have always been able to see criticisms from “particular communities” as an interesting elective: I could think about what the feminists and critical race theorists have to say – or not! I have the similar luxury of undertaking politically ramified scholarly work – or not! The circles I run in will hardly criticize me for choosing “politically disengaged” (i.e., politically subterfuge) “theology/philosophy/biblical studies proper.”    

Prospectively, it means that I cannot be the kind of white male academic many of my professors are. They are middle-aged, and received an education from an even more completely white-male professorial cast. Scholarship by feminists and communities of color was only just dawning during their professional installation. If there is any excuse for their relative diffidence about issues of race, there is none for me: I can’t pretend to have come up in a time that was innocent of full-blown, developed critical reflection on these and similar realities of gender, race, and power.    

It means it is my responsibility to educate myself about multicultural education; to try as much as possible to make classrooms and office hours safe and comfortable for non-white/male students; to give equal encouragement and availability to non-white/male students; to pursue and assign readings from non-white/male perspectives.    

It means it is my responsibility to work actively against racism by my writings, lectures, committee participation, administrative duties, personal hospitality, and political decisions: against white obliviousness and for the representation of non-white persons and perspectives.

It means – not disowning everything I’ve learned from white and male thinkers and mentors, but recognizing it fully for what it is, and treating it with (at least) as much historical consciousness and ideological suspicion as anything I might find signed by an out-and-out feminist, womanist, mujerista, black liberationist, etc.

It means preparing to be a racial minority within my lifetime in America, to be one among many decentered, spirited voices that cannot count on the reinforcement of the political, religious, media, and economic establishment. This situation will require both humbler and more ingenious scholarly work: humbler in acknowledgment of its parochialism, and more ingenious because being white will no longer secure a de facto academic hearing. I’ll have to work for it like everybody else.

It means adjusting my ratio of listening :: pontificating.  

It means praying for discernment; and for willingness to admit prejudices and learn from missteps.

What else does it mean? I am still trying to figure out. And I am very open to suggestions.  

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