Saturday, February 19, 2005

Race and sex--in one post!

This may be what the internet does better than anywhere else: Andrew Meier's piece on the all but forgotten Tulsa race riots of 1921. This is the kind of thing my students (one of whom told me he didn't want to read Harriet Jacobs's gripping slave narrative because he thought it was time to move past the "whitey is evil" discourse) either don't believe, under-imagine, or just plain can't grasp. The students at my nice semi-liberal small college (as in, politically liberal as long as they don't see liberal politics making any possible infringement on their privileged lives...which they believe, of course, are due solely to their parents' moral values and hard work--not to any vaguely communistic-sounding systemic advantages) can't really see the point in talking about anything unpleasant from "back in the day"—hence their aversion to things like feminism, which has the taint of bitchiness, or discussions of race relations, which, again, they want to reduce to a natural and understandable sympathy among people of the same race. "It's only natural," they tell me intensely, "to want to hang around with people who understand you." "But why," I ask pointedly, "is it natural to assume that someone white naturally has more important things in common with another white person than with a black person?"

This is the point where they roll their eyes at my naive obtuseness and my refusal to move beyond my antiquated politics: "It just is," they insist. The most thoughtful of my students generally trot out the one black student they knew in their youth (almost always a childhood friend—very few of them have had any genuine interracial contact since puberty, if at all) who they feel ditched them by choosing to sit with other African Americans in the middle-school cafeteria. My white students can't see that their hurt feelings are the hurt feelings of privilege.

Oddly enough, it's generally my white, male student athletes (the most conservative group on our campus, anedotal evidence suggests) that have the most real-world contact with students of different races—especially with black students, who are a minuscule percentage of our students. Although they're pretty inarticulate about the differences that may be attributable to race and class, these boys (maybe it's my geometrically advancing age, but I see fewer and fewer of my college-age male students as anything more than pre-men*) seem pretty savvy about the gaps between them and their mostly-black teammates, and much less discomfited by actually bridging that gap.

*Maybe this is a subject for a different post, but I'm becoming increasingly aware of, and irked by, my male colleagues' (aged from 35-60) proprietary sexual attitudes toward their female students. Maybe it's an accident of biology and evolutionary sexual attraction, but few of the women professors I know admit to, joke about, or share with colleagues their ribald fantasies about their male students. [And here I realize that the heteronormative society of even liberal academia means that I am apparently discounting the possibility of same-sex attraction and/or harrassment, since harrassment is what I'm really talking about. But I'm not; I just don't think most out gay colleagues are willing to risk being thought about by their fellow faculty in terms of their sexual appetites any more than absolutely necessary. Or maybe they're smarter and more mature about their sexual adventuring than my male, heterosexual colleagues. No, wait—maybe it's that I don't have any out gay colleagues. Rarer than hen's teeth in our department.

Anyway, even accounting for the culture's obsessive sexualization of younger and younger girls, and the prevalence of pubic-baring jeans, I'm disgusted by both the politics and the biology of my male colleagues leering openly at their students. I know it's stupid to be disgusted by male biology, but still. Frankly, maybe I'm just pissed off that I can't manage a hot dream about even my good-looking male students—they all look as though they would smell of warm-ish milk and sweaty socks, which just doesn't get me going. On the other hand, I confess that even my pretty confirmedly hetero self has noticed that more than a few of my female students are hot, hot, hot. I have yet to manage a change in sexual orientation, dreamwise, but perhaps should keep working at it.

Note to clueless colleagues: No, it's still not okay to tell me how hot one of your students is, and how distracted you are to have her in class. Especially not if she's nineteen. Nor is it appropriate to mention the sexual attractiveness of prospective faculty members who visit the campus. N-E-V-E-R. I'm not denying you the enjoyment of your sexuality. But please, keep Li'l Dr. Willy on his leash around campus.

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