I came to the U.S., not because I was wowed by the complexity of the discourse around race (I was too ignorant of its nuances for that), but because a discourse existed, or so I’d read. And just the idea that people would talk about it would mean that I could remove my very British gag order and maybe piece together enough of a lexicon to eventually say my piece.
I learned. And I rebelled - tamely. Mainly by writing impassioned response papers which diagnosed various scholars as blinkered. Either for sealing off African-American experience from a wider diasporic community or for using theory derived from Af-Am experience to understand black people everywhere. Called on in seminars I’d sometimes expound on class in Britain and Jamaica or ethnicity in Brazil. Mainly I lacked the language, waved my hands vaguely: “It’s just different”.
Part of a recent conversation with a history teacher at a NY public high school:
Me: But the U.S. is insular - it’s so big! But also insular in the way global powers think they can afford to be …
Her: It’s funny I have students writing about apartheid right now. More than half of them have turned in their papers with stuff like “African Americans were persecuted by the Apartheid government” or “the black minorities had to work in the mines”
I laugh and I’m horrified. But what did I know at that age? (actually, I did know that but only because two years of all-black church-based Saturday school will hammer it home). In their defense, these students are wrangling their way through a painful disciplinary system: mind-numbing standardized tests; teacher expectations which are too high, too low or (because the affective labour will wear you out) non-existent; endless valorisation of “hard-work” in place of critical thought, contemplation, going slow…
I tell her that many grown Americans are guilty of worse, recalling NPR’s recurring failure to recognise the limits of the term ‘minority’. Reporting on demographic change in the U.S one presenter said: “the projections show that by 2040 minorities will be in the majority” (wut). Back to her high schoolers, she tells me: “Of course, we don’t take marks off for that kind of thing”. I want to say but that is the thing, a big chunk of the whole entire point(!). But British training never fails: I cough, wave my hands, gag on the words.