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I Have Been Waiting: Race and U.S. Higher Educatio

Crucial to the contribution Jennifer Simpson makes to our understanding of race in American universities is a troubling paradox, one which feminism has not always managed to escape. The paradox goes like this: to the extent that the past four decades have seen pluralist ideologies expand in higher education, race has become a vital issue requiring faculty and student attention. When the time comes to develop the research and initiate the teaching appropriate to the way race shapes our lives and identities, however, resources are pulled back and time is reallocated. As a result, Simpson tells us, “the parameters for addressing race in higher education are still largely the same as they were a few decades ago: although professors in a few departments may question and disagree with basic approaches to race and cultural difference, administrators and teachers permit change only in certain instances and almost never at a fundamental or structural level” (159). And yet if our goal is the production and dissemination of cross-racial dialogue, fundamental structural changes are necessary, and for a start, this requires that white people integrate four components into our understanding and teaching. At a minimum, we must know ourselves as racial subjects; “we must know people of colour as subjects; we must learn how to listen, watch and share space; and, we must be prepared to work at change” (153). We must produce “sustained racial memory [that] settles in the skin-quality of our whiteness, surfaces the racism in our bodies [and] . complicates passage through simplified lives and scholarship” (61). And we must aim toward something more than “sympathy and yet distance.” Unfortunately, as Simpson makes clear, so much European-American scholarship around race continues to remain content with this paradox.

Driving Simpson’s argument as to why this compromise is not sufficient is a very clear sense that people of colour remain excluded from systems and traditions within higher education. To address this, I Have Been Waiting [1] asks that faculty and students work at conversations about race across racial groups. The text looks at how teachers might facilitate these conversations so that they deal with the complexity of issues while leaving students with deeper understandings that lead toward change. It examines personal experiences and also looks at the ways our “knowledge and understandings of race and racism differ among racial groups” (4). Throughout, Simpson suggests feminism remains vital but only with the acknowledgement that: “[t]he history of women does not emerge clean-cut and shiny, nor does it exist exclusively within a gender-based analysis” (32). Much work in the history of twentieth century feminism in fact has remained blind to race, and because of this, a “rhetoric of community” among women has often obscured the reality of conflict that continues to shape differences between women (32).

To chart these differences, Simpson suggests race memory gives us a way back to thinking about race agency. It makes clear the “frameworks people rely on to interpret racial pasts” and opens up possibilities whereby the structures of race in the US can be acknowledged and explored in relation to women’s own histories (fn 19, 223). What results is the basis from which white people might begin to produce anti-racist scholarship through “working relationships with people of colour” (35). Clearly, the notion of race memory employed here draws effect from the return of memory studies more generally in the social sciences and humanities over the past two decades (Klein 2000). As such, however, the idea is “intentional racial memory” brings the past into one’s work and reframes one’s identity in relation to this past (36). By this we are forced to move beyond feeling sympathy for and yet distance from the formative powers of race. Rather, race memory compels white feminists and scholars more generally to remember their own pasts as an entry point and necessary aspect of our current relationships with cultural difference. This move forces a break from the distance that has long defined more positivist conceptions of history, but Simpson tells us, “[o]nce I know that I make choices about race, it is difficult to deny the racial agency” I have (38). “Negotiating memory, history and agency is ethical and repels distance . Remembering race [thus] demands rigorous attention to the racial layer of [our] bodies, politics, and scholarship” (38).

As Simpson lays bare examples of how this method affects her own work it is clear that she sees the real possibilities for this method in a new emphasis and understanding of dialogue as the kind of respectful talk that allows time to pass and judgments to shift. “Dialogue is built on interactions in which people participate as agents, and not, from anyone’s perspective, as victims; where the participants have a stake in the outcomes; and where they come with the desire to confront injustice, . Dialogue requires attention to changed practice in local and broader locations” (119). The aim is critical transformation, which “is based on choices and practices, individual and institutional, that undo racist realities, that bring a wider variety of people to the locations of decision making, and that transfer power from the hands of a few to those who are most directly affected by the choices made in any given context” (120).

Of course there remain what Simpson calls epistemological barriers to cross-racial dialogue, including an over-emphasis on book learning as definitive of knowledge, a misunderstanding that universities can become cross-racial simply by having people “learn enough” (94), and a misconception that knowledge is neutral. Thus “in working toward a more shared endeavour of knowledge production, we must remember that knowledge is particular, emerging out of specific values, location, and experience. One person cannot know everything about a given topic, nor does he or she need to. [Rather], cross-racial knowledge will require a range of people at the table. Whites must stop acting as if our presence is enough. [Instead,] European Americans interested in cross-racial knowledge will do well to adopt a kind of epistemological humility” (112-113).

In the end, it is one’s historic/contemporary location and one’s relationship to power within that location that must determine the voices we hear and the ideas we respond to regarding race. When it comes to understanding how this work is to be done in the classroom, the book offers a nice appendix of discussion questions, exercises and assignments. Simpson also spends some time outlining two major directives. First, whiteness must be made visible in the classroom by breaking down the “assumption of whiteness as normal and as the standard by which all else should be judged” (174). Second, teachers and students must “construct classroom spaces in which experience and affective knowledge become necessary parts of the learning process, much in the same way that theories and book knowledge are now. Racism is far more than a theory . [and t]eachers need to open up the routes to knowledge so that messy and painful realities are welcome as a necessary part of learning” (175). This is to say that, “[t]o act against white supremacy in [oneself] and in institutions, and to talk about change with students” means knowing “white supremacy as a system that moves through all levels of our existence” (187).

Where shortcomings exist in Simpson’s work, they have to do with her reliance on a seemingly naïve sense of agency as regards the dynamics of race conflict. There is no question that voice, one’s own and others, particularly those marginalized in our time, is vital to the transcendence of injustice. But when Simpson writes, “I choose how I locate myself within the rhythms of race, how I tend to the lessons I never learned, how I confront my race and class assumptions” (46), an all-too-easy conception of historical transformation and change is implied. As Simpson knows well, race matters because it is formed in the
weight of history and the structures of institutional power. As such, if “[a]nti-racism requires a choice to work at knowing the inside of our race” (46) this is the beginning of a long process whereby the structural inequities surrounding cultural difference are confronted and undone within the systems (and not just the bodies) where they flourish.

Stuart Poyntz is Senior Education Consultant at the Pacific Cinématheque (Vancouver) and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Curriculum Studies at the University of British Columbia.

[1] The phrase comes from a statement Simpson heard offered by a fellow African American graduate student during a meeting. The full statement is: “I have been waiting for the day when white folks start to deal with their own racism” (quoted, 12).

Works Cited

Klein, K. L. “On the Emergence of Memory in Historical Discourse (Historiography, History, Jews, Holocaust, ‘After-Auschwitz’).” Representations 69 (2000): 127-150.

Simpson, J. S. (2003). I have been waiting: Race and Higher education. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

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