I didn’t know it going in. Who am I to consider the demographics of a classroom before I enter? I’d taken classes like Black Leadership and Civil Rights and Critical Race Theory, so I had at least a taste of being a part of a minority in a classroom space. There were always several white kids in the class, which was encouraging, right? That’s who should be taking these classes, anyway. But this? Well…
I walked into my Ethnic Literature class, the first legitimate Honors English course I’d taken to that point. There were three female students and a female professor. I wasn’t uncomfortable – why would I be? Yet, as the rest of the class filed in, I became aware of my newfound status: black sheep.
14 humans; 13 females, one male. There I was, in the center (or, more specifically, the back-left) of the world turning. The cannon, once written and decided by white men – my people – would be completely ignored in favor of the dissection of radical migrant, minority and feminist literature. I was conspicuous in that setting, but, inside, I was looking forward to it.
Raised by my mother, I grew up with my sister, my only sibling, and I’ve been a feminist since I knew what the word meant. I’ve had plenty of platonic friendships with the opposite sex (it’s really not that hard, people), but I was unprepared for this experience.
As a white man I’ve lived my entire life in the numerical majority, went to a high school with the preponderance of students bearing my skin color, and rarely have I been in situations where my physical presence wasn’t the norm. Each time I was, whether because of writing programs, sports camps, classes or family parties, I’ve welcomed it, because even a modicum of understanding for the world(s) outside of yourself, outside of the one you’re used to, is a blessing.
Walking into this class as a junior, when it began, I felt like I knew everything. At its conclusion, I overstood that I, in fact, do not know all of the things, meaning this was one of the best situations I could’ve been involved in at that time in my life. My professor, endlessly analytical, pushed everyone in the class to places one must go when discussing quality literature, dark places, not for everyday talk, full of rape, regret, misogyny, microcosms, hunger and hatred. It was me, and these 13 highly-intelligent women, and I did what I came to Storrs to do: I learned.
What I learned were things I thought I already knew, but had not commonly seen – discussions about issues directly affecting women, led by women. You know the old story about Senate and Congressional committees debating abortion policy and lacking a single woman in the room? This was the opposite of that. This was a progressive dialogue on domestic violence, sexual assault, ownership, agency and relationships that prominently favored the perspectives of women on the topics, and I was the better for it.
At first I was nervous, and would be tepid in my addressing of the text. I’d focus on technique, narrative structure, characterization, et cetera, without delving into the overarching themes of the book. Then, my minority status became a small sort of celebrity. It would be playfully alluded to maybe once every couple classes, but I was expected to have a forceful voice during our conversations as that one guy in the room. It was clear no progress could be made unless each person contributed to the exchange of ideas.
This is not a parable for society writ large. Efforts at silencing or distorting the voices of minorities are facts of life in these United States, and have been since its conception. What being in this class showed me, though, is it doesn’t have to be that way.
Us white men are afraid of loosening our grip on the history, literature and politics we’ve invented and held on to for so long because we are terrified that when we are no longer the majority, a truth fast approaching, we will be treated as grotesquely as we’ve treated those without our numbers. I can’t predict the future, but perhaps this fantastical idea of vengeance is true. If so, it’ll be a comeuppance long in the making. Except I don’t think that’ll be the case.
How far could we advance our common humanity if we focused on inclusion rather than maintaining power?
This semester, I’m in a class – Congressional Elections – where I am one of fourteen humans; 13 males, one female. The professor, a kind-hearted man, just can’t seem to get around this fact. There are two to three comments per class on her femaleness: “Guys, I mean, folks,” or “Lady and gentlemen,” or “We’re so lucky to have you with us,” are the kind of well-meaning but awkward things she deals with. I wonder what she’s getting out of her singularity.
A positive trend in literature is the newfound wealth of queer, feminine and minority wordsmiths, students and teachers. This is modern literature, and it’s all I’ve ever known. That doesn’t mean I don’t relish the Hemingways, Twains and Kerouacs of the world, but I’m so much better off having been exposed to, and appreciating, the Morrisons, Baldwins and Lessings, too.