On Red Stars, White Guys, and Trailer Trash; Non-random Musings on Owning our Symbols

May
2005
Gary Holton, Incoming Exec Member

Random: These are not random musings. They may be disorganized, and perhaps incoherent, but they are not random. They are subject to whatever forces and patterns govern anything else I say or do. I suspect my microwave.

The word "random" seems to be evolving. I notice my students using it more often, and less accurately. One student described her roommate, saying she was dating "some random guy." She seemed to be suggesting that perhaps her friend could have selected her date more carefully. Still, despite his faults, the date was not random.

If dating were truly random, I would have had a social life in High School. But no.evolution displays an insidious bias against males who request briefcases for their sixteenth birthday. Consequently, I had free evenings in which to prepare for speech competitions. This led to a degree in Rhetoric, a career teaching Speech1, and, eventually, a beautiful wife and two gorgeous children. Take that evolution.

These non-random musings, then, will focus on our need to own honest language that can provoke pride even when intended not to. Red Stars: Recently some of our colleagues at Santa Rosa Junior College2 had flyers with large red stars pinned to their office doors. The flyers also helpfully provided the Education Code language declaring that no teacher "shall advocate or teach communism with the intent to indoctrinate or to inculcate in the mind of any pupil a preference for communism."

Some of the recipients of the stars felt duly threatened. While people's feelings are their own, I'd have hoped that they might also have felt honored. The red stars were testaments that these teachers had reached their students-or someone's students, who heard from a friend of a friend that something was going on in those classes. The red stars accused these teachers of offering their students a perspective beyond their own narrow experience. These students had then been aroused to action. Misguided and poorly considered action, to be sure, but action none-the-less. Imagine these students in the years to come. I see embarrassment and grudging fondness for those teachers who professed, who had something to say. Where is my red star? Perhaps I haven't earned it yet.

In the interest of full disclosure and a cheap joke to be revealed shortly, I must confess that I am a bit of a red. I am a dues paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Barbara Ehrenreich, Dolores Huerta, Gloria Steinem and Cornel West are also members.3 I paid my Democratic Socialist dues just last month on the DSA web site. I paid with a credit card. Who knew that when reactionary voices spoke of "card carrying" members of subversive groups, that the card would be a Master-Card? Priceless.

And now for White guys: At the recent spring plenary session of the Academic Senate, Wanda Morris of Compton College and the Senate's Equity and Diversity Action Committee introduced a resolution on hiring and diversity. It began, "Whereas, The majority of faculty in California community colleges are white and the majority of students are not."

No less than four amendments to the resolution were introduced. None of the amendments questioned the accuracy of Wanda's original statement. The resolution as amended reads, "Whereas, The composition of the faculty in California community colleges does not reflect the diversity of the students." This statement is true. And yes, diversity is more than just ethnicity.

Still, was part of our discomfort with the original language a discomfort with the fact that it made a clear statement? It recognized that the melanin challenged4 are over-represented. Don't get me wrong. Some of my best friends are white guys5. My wife even married one. Still, having a relative surplus of white folks-and white guys in particular -in the faculty is a part of the problem.

I'm not suggesting that come the revolution, we put white guys in line right behind the lawyers. The white guy faculty members I know-and I have met a few-have dedicated their careers to being a part of the solution. I am, however, suggesting that the more clearly we talk about difficult topics, the more likely we are to find solutions. This is one reason why Wanda's clear, strong and kind voice will be missed in the Executive Committee of the Academic Senate. I hope to see her back very soon.

And finally, trailer trash: So far, I've been arguing for owning our language, for using honest language and for finding pride in labels others try to use to hurt us. Having said that, language is our most powerful tool, and must be used with caution, with care and with the recognition that our responses to language are not always rational.

I'm the token white guy in my family. My wife is Japanese-American. Our two boys6 are a beautiful mixture of their mother's finest qualities and their father's ability to subsist and thrive on a diet composed entirely of pizza.

I like being our family's white guy. I can see the humor and hear the love when Diane says, "You're so white," sometimes when I'm not even trying to dance. And yet, several years ago I was reminded of the power of even unintended language to hurt.

In order to support the boys and me in the manner to which we have become accustomed, Diane works in the private sector. In her office, they're always looking for an excuse to have a potluck. For a while, they were having one nearly once a week. Once it was Aloha Monday, and all the entrees had to feature Spam. The next week, Diane told me she was organizing a Trailer Trash Tuesday.

I was appalled. How dare she call my people trash? She hadn't earned the right. She had never lived in a trailer park. Oh sure, her parents had been confined to tar paper barracks behind barbed wire fences during World War II.but no trailers. It didn't take too long to recognize the absurdity of my reaction. Still, I try to remind myself of that reaction when I'm tempted to criticize someone else's use of language.

And with that in mind, let me extend my apologies to Santa Rosa and Modesto Junior Colleges, to white guys worldwide, and to those who chose the language of diversity over the language of ethnicity because they wanted to reflect the complexity of the issue. And finally, my apologies to real socialists both historical and contemporary. Most had neither tenure, a loving patron amongst the bourgeois, nor their own 401k plan.

1 Thanks to a Senate-initiated change to the Disciplines List, I am now a Professor of Communication Studies. Apparently my students now have to study.

2 One of two colleges in our system who have retained "junior" in their appellation.

3 Althuogh we don't hang out as much as I'd like, I'm hoping Cornel can get me a part in the next Matrix sequel.

4 We prefer the term "you people."

5 Not that there's anything wrong with that.

6 Pictures are available on request, or on the slightest flicker of feigned interest.

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