The Internet also makes it easy to do research on an author. You can immediately find out their personal story, as well as demographic information. Not that it should matter--but if we are being honest it most certainly does--but there have been many moments when I looked up someone's info and found out that he or she was not who I had thought them to be. Those "damn, I thought they were black," or the "all these years I assumed she was white" moments still occur.
We all work from a particular set of life experiences and social locations. Even for empiricists who ostensibly believe in positivism, the personal does find its way into one's research, scholarship, and writing. For my buck, it is better to know such things beforehand as they are a value added that appears between the lines of a given text, offering context, color, and influencing a text's unstated assumptions.
To point, Tim Wise is a friend of WARN. Whenever I get a chance to shill for one of his essays (the newest on Derrick Bell and Obama is great by the way) I do so. He is also a great speaker, one who is generous and patient with his audience and hosts. The above interview offers a narrative for his life's work, views on social justice, and shares some great insights on critical pedagogy.
Leon Litwak is an amazing historian. There is a denseness and rigor to his work that is awe inspiring. In considering the role of voice in scholarly writing, Litwak's command of the language is intensely personal and intimate. His speech is no less so. Take note of Litwak's observations about white racism and their fear of "uppity blacks." Sounds familiar does it not, as we work through white conservative hostility to the country's first black President?
Both Dr. Litwak and Time Wise are white. This fact is coincidental while also being deeply relevant to how audiences, peers, students, and the general public respond to their work. An anecdote proves instructive here.
I teach courses on race, American politics, political culture, and popular culture/cultural studies. The students in these classes include those who are deeply invested in the material, indifferent, find it intellectually interesting (and thus a "puzzle" to work through), and some who are highly resistant to even considering how American society is structured in social inequalities. Across these categories, there is one unifying moment that speaks to how race remains significant even for a generation that was taught to be "post-racial."
When the students in my classes discover that we are reading "white scholars" in a seminar on "black" or "minority" issues there is a moment of pause. Part of this is a function of their own intellectual development, where many undergraduates have not figured out that research and academia are professional vocations which consist of disciplinary fields that influence how we go about organizing knowledge. The professional need not always be the personal or the political--to play on a phrase--for many academics their research is an interesting puzzle that they have decided to focus their work on.
[I would even go so far as to suggest that for those working in identity politics, that some of the most provocative and incisive work comes from those who are not personally invested in the game. Yes, that is an impolitic thought; it may also be quite accurate.]
Students of color have been mixed in their response. Some are excited to find out that there are white scholars doing rigorous and interesting work on issues of race, power, politics, history and society. Many are especially positive in their response to folks like Tim Wise, because he echoes and validates all of the things that black and brown folks have been saying about white racism for years. Other students of color are annoyed that in their eyes, even in discussing "their" history, white folks are at located at the center of the narrative.
They ask, "why does a white person have to recycle what black and brown people in this country have been saying for centuries for it to be taken seriously?"
By comparison, socially engaged and intellectually curious white students appear validated. A white scholar working on these issues gives them currency and license to participate in the conversation. Other white students are made to feel defensive, and are upset that they are forced to confront the fact that yes, there are white people who are critical of white supremacy.
Moreover, this "race stuff" is no longer just a "black thing." It becomes a matter of critical importance which they now have ownership and responsibility over. Folks like Wise and Litwak neutralize the deflections offered by Whiteness even as they simultaneously arouse them. Such moments of defiance, upset, cognitive dissonance, and fear are wonderful things to behold. From said disruption, there is a chance for real learning.
What have been your experiences on this matter? Can you teach "black" while using "white" authors? For those who have had to organize a class, do you perform a personal inventory of the types of voices included on the syllabus?
Do those outside of a social or demographic group have a particular insight that those within it do not possess? How do we do this calculus? Whose voices do we privilege?