I’m four classes away from my bachelor’s degree in creative writing, and one of my last classes is a 400-level Interdisciplinary Studies course called “Diversity.” For the last four weeks, I’ve dealt with textbook essays, and fellow students, that assert the ubiquitous existence of racism, sexism, and so forth in America, especially as displayed, as if it were innate to their nature, by—you guessed it—white heterosexual males. Racism and sexism exist, of course, but they are not ubiquitous traits, and they are certainly not innate. Yet, despite textbook and student claims agreeing with that, the subtext is clear: “privileged” white heterosexual males and females are racist, sexist, and uncompassionate “oppressors” to everyone else. I have done, and will continue to do, my best to reasonably argue against these broad strokes and call out the textbook authors and some of my fellow students as the racists they are, who support white guilt and all that other nonsense. (I can do this because I’m Costa Rican. Right? Oh, wait, never mind…I guess it actually makes me a “white-washed traitor.” #whatevs.) Recently, though, I felt cornered. The guidelines for our third short paper were as follows:
Trace some of the major contributions of an ethnic or “minority” group to U.S. culture, for example, to music, the arts, dance, or theater. There are many other possibilities! Develop your composition based on an area of interest to you in the arts.
I decided to rebel, a little. I considered kowtowing and completing the assignment as required, but I couldn’t. My mind doesn’t work under compulsion. But I want a decent grade. So I did what I could to be true to my convictions yet fulfill—in some way—the requirements of the assignment. Below is the introduction and conclusion only to my essay (the middle stuff isn’t too relevant to this discussion, but you can read the essay in its entirety here if you want). What do you think? Will I get an A, B, or C on this paper? What grade would you give me if you were the professor? Here we go!
[Intro.] It is inappropriate to require students to focus on artistic achievements based primarily on racial or ethnic considerations. Were I inclined to meet the requirement, further, I would find it difficult. My area of interest is literature, and as I scan my bookshelf, I see that most of the authors whose works I have read and enjoyed are American white males. However, because they are American white males and do not constitute a minority, I cannot mention their excellent contributions to literature. Since my bookshelf contains few writers of other ethnic or racial origins, and since the assignment guidelines encourage me to focus on an area of art that is of interest to me, I will discuss the contributions of the non-white writers and works with which I am familiar; however, I am not familiar with a large enough corpus of any particular race’s or ethnicity’s writers to trace contributions of one group (nor is it necessary for me, or anyone, to be in order to “appreciate diversity”). Therefore, I will briefly discuss a single contribution from three groups with which I am familiar: Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony; and Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.
[I go one to discuss each author’s work and analyze it as a positive contribution to US culture, though I spanked Silko’s work a little because it promotes, rather than condemns, cultural divisiveness…but that’s another topic.]
[Conclusion.] Artistic “contributions” should not be judged based on their creators’ races or ethnicities, nor should colleges require students to “trace some of the major contributions of an ethnic or ‘minority’ group to U.S. culture.” Such assignments necessarily instill two subtle assertions: race and ethnicity are important distinctions (which reinforces racism); and majorities should not receive attention (which reinforces antagonism). However, we should recognize the skill and grace of authors who consider questions of race and ethnicity in ways that encourage us to break down these barriers, rather than reinforce them in pseudo-intellectual exercises.
That’s it. I considered adding *drops mic* after the last line, but figured that might not be academically appropriate. So, honestly, what do you think of my response to the essay guidelines? Should we focus on art because of the race of the person who created it, or because of the artist’s skill? What grade would you give me? Thanks for reading!
Update, 8/14/15: The professor, Dr. Underwood, gave the paper 100% credit, saying, “A superb essay that takes Diversity paper assignments to task. Excellent critical acumen and fascinating examples. A joy to read!” I smiled, took a deep breath, and thought, Good. Maybe there is hope for college curricula. =)