Sometimes it happens that the texts you read and the events you experience converge, such that each forms a lens for viewing the other.
Perhaps not sometimes
Perhaps always, once you start waking up to the conditions of your subjectivity.
Two friends, both dear to me, talking to me about race and power. One feels the weight of it – like I do – from intersecting positions of privilege and oppression. She wants to know – this man she is engaging with – is it okay that he constantly questions her judgement about situations where she perceives a problem of race. No, I agree with her, it is not okay that he does it. I am almost smug in my solidarity.
But another friend who questions my judgement about situations where I perceive a problem of race. Oh god. How can it be that someone I love does this to me? They are unaware…I must teach them… Not so easy when the problem is mine.
And that is when I remember a text. Sara Ahmed on The Problem of Perception:
When you expose a problem you pose a problem. I have been thinking more about the problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. When exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!). A rebuttal often follows that does not take the form of contradiction but rather explanation or justification: these are the speakers or writers who just happen to be there; they happen to be white men, but to describe the speakers as white men is the problem as it would make this about that; it would be to assume that they are here because of that. And so: by describing a gathering as ‘white men,’ you are then assumed to be imposing certain categories onto bodies, reducing or failing to grasp the heterogeneity of an event; solidifying through our own description something that is fluid.
How clear this is to me – when I say to my friend “This is a problem of race”, and the reply – couched in terms of “help me to understand this” is “But surely it is not about race”. No, I agree. Surely – to you – this is not about race. It is my perception that it is about race that is the problem for you. And so let it be. I sigh. This is too much for me to cope with.
But it keeps coming up. And I don’t know that I can bear the emotional burden of all the teaching that I have to do, when I know the role of pedagogue has been thrust upon me. It is my punishment for perceiving a problem. Teach me – she says – why you say it is a problem. But I don’t know that I have the energy, because what she is asking me to do is validate myself.
Again, I turn to Sara Ahmed’s writing.
Sometimes we lose confidence because others do not have confidence in us in the first place. We can lose confidence before we acquire confidence, as if confidence was never ours to have. This loss of confidence can be mistaken in the sense that: we might be able to do what we are not confident we can do. Or maybe there is a past tense here: maybe we could have done what we assumed we could not do. Maybe now, given that assumption, given we have lived by it, through it, we cannot do it. A history of underestimation can shape what bodies “do do” and thus what they “can do.” A body can acquire the shape of a loss of confidence; a loss can be reproduced by being inherited.
When you don’t have confidence in my worldview, when you don’t start out believing me, there is a tiredness that speaks to a history of underestimation. A history of not being taken seriously.
And then there is the matter of the evidence you demand each time you say “but surely…let me try to understand this…see my counter evidence…why do you say this is a problem of race/gender…explain…explain…explain…”
And again, Sara speaks for me.
No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll. My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.
So I come close to thinking that perhaps it is alright to refuse the role of pedagogue. To say – I will not teach. If what I say is not enough for you, you must do the work of looking for your evidence. If my testimony is not enough, then I am not enough. And I have been here before – standing before a person who claimed to love me, wanting desperately (and failing desperately) to be enough.
And then a third friend, who suggests that perhaps it is only within relationships that race privilege can ever be made visible, because of the desperate need to teach so that you don’t feel invalidated by the one who lies, bewildered, next to you every night. A pedagogy of discomfort, he recited.
But surely there is something about this pedagogy that exacts too high a price from the pedagogue when it takes place within an intimate relationship. Or even within a classroom. But that is another problem altogether – for another musing.