Wednesday, July 25, 2007

:: Uncomfortably Correct ::

Julie (not me), over at The Ravin' Picture Maven, initiates a weekly roundtable each Wednesday that she calls Hump Day Hmm. This week’s topic is political correctness. I’ve decided to try my hand at a response for a few reasons:

(1) Julie seems worried that no one will post. The part of me that responds to challenges feels the gauntlet has been thrown down and that I must pick it up and run.

(2) I realized that even after reading her own very thoughtful post on political correctness, I am somewhat unable to pin down the concept or even to formulate my own response to the term. In other words, I simply don’t know what I think about political correctness, in part because I’ve never really paused to think about what the term means.

(3) It seems to me that being a teacher at a university means that I should have both a definition of and an opinion about political correctness. Is it something I see in my students? Something I encourage? Something I try to move students past?

The first step in approaching the subject is defining the term. What is political correctness? A quick Wikipedia search gives me this:
Political correctness (often abbreviated to PC) is a term used to describe language or behavior that is intended, or said to be intended, to provide a minimum of offense, particularly to racial, cultural, or other identity groups. A text that conforms to the ideals of political correctness is said to be politically correct.

Wikipedia also notes that the term is often used in a pejorative sense, which is kind of interesting in itself. If everyone’s so turned off by the term, then why does the idea behind the term remain so pervasive? We teach our children not to use the word retard and ourselves avoid terms like wetback, spic, or chink. Typing these words, in fact, makes me feel uncomfortable. Like you’re going to think poorly of me for allowing the words to sit here on the screen in front of you. Or like someone’s going to do a Google search for “spic” and find my posting and leave some inappropriate comment. I am very tempted, in fact, to go back and alter the text, to write “sp*c” or something like that.

This discomfort is, I think, a healthy thing.

Whatever I feel about the term “political correctness” and whatever I think it does or does not accomplish (masking social or racial tensions, establishing a base level of civility), I think that the discomfort we feel when we use politically incorrect terms can be the starting point for healthy and useful reflection and for very good discussion.

Toni Morrison, she of Nobel Prize and Oprah Book Club fame, has an excellent little short story called “Recitatif.” I teach it in my American Lit Since 1865 course at OSU and find that none of my students has ever heard of nor read the story, which as a teacher I just love. Forty-five little blank slates in front of me with no preconceived notions about the story and no prefabricated answers provided by high school teachers or

“Recitatif” tells the story of two girls, one black and one white, who meet and become friends while living in an orphanage. The story shows us the girls’ close friendship at age 8, just as they are separated (one returns to her mother) and then shows us what has happened to that friendship when, years later, the two are reacquainted, this time separated by economic, political, and racial divides in a newly gentrified town in New York. The genius of the story is that while it is filled with racial stereotypes about each girl/woman, Morrison never reveals which character is white and which is black. Despite this fact, readers almost ubiquitously report “knowing” which is which. My students, time and time again in their close readings and plot summaries, refer to one of the characters as black and one as white. Which character they choose varies according to their own racial stereotypes; in this way, Morrison implicates the reader in the system of racial stereotyping and prejudice. It takes some work, usually, to convince my students that that have projected race onto the characters rather than reading it in Morrison’s words.

So how does this tie in? What has this to do with political correctness and what I’m calling the healthy reflection that can result from our discomfort in transgressing PC boundaries?

Well, there’s this moment when I point out to students that Morrison doesn’t say which character is black and white is white that something inside of them cracks. When they thought black and white were explicit character traits, it was OK to talk about them. But now that I’ve told them that their own stereotypes may have influenced their response to the story, they often react in silence.

My job is to get them talking about it, and the way I usually do that isn’t by talking about our own stereotypes but by talking about the text. The words on the page. Morrison’s words, her choices, her strategies. How does Morrison make it so that none of us noticed what she did? What stereotypes does she embed in the text itself to point readers to one or another conclusion. Can we make a list of stereotypes and details that might lead readers to racial conclusions, whether they did or not for us? Then, finally, what is the effect? How does reading the story make readers feel? What does the story make us think about?

In the end, what we’ve accomplished isn’t earth-shattering. None of my students comes to understand race in a new way. But each student leaves the classroom, I believe, with a new awareness of the unsaid and hidden ways in which we all understand race. We don’t need to call someone a nigger (oh, again I cringe) in order to imprint that person with a racial identity, complete with beliefs and values. And in turn, no one need call me a cracker for my whiteness to manifest.

Even more: racial clues can be ambiguous. Some students read Twyla (one of the two girls) as the black character, while others are convinced it’s Roberta (the other girl) who is black. This confusion, it means something. It means that race is at least as much a social construct as a physical trait. I, of course, would argue that it’s much more a social construct than a physical trait. But I’m not as invested in proving that as I am in helping my students recognize that they are players – both as constructors and as constructions – in the social game.

And so I guess I’d say this about political correctness: if being politically correct only means not calling someone a retard, then potentially it protects individuals from having their feelings hurt but probably little else. After all, there’s no PC rule about not calling someone an idiot, a term which cold potentially cause as much emotional distress. But does political correctness do harm in the meantime? I’m not convinced, like some people, that it does. Does it, for example, inhibit free speech? Maybe. But so do things like manners and politeness, neither of which I’d like to see abolished.

However, if being politically correct also means having an awareness about why a particular phrase is potentially offensive, and if, going even a step further, it means having an awareness about why a phrase makes the speaker and not just the receiver uncomfortable, then I think it can be a handy tool for reflection and discussion.


Julie Pippert July 25, 2007 at 7:19 AM  

Okay this is brilliant!

A. I don't know how I missed that short story. Must go find it now...

B. As you may or may not know I adore literature as a stage for concepts. You can take the girl out of the university and give her an English degree, but you can't take the English degree out of the girl LOL.

C. You open up the idea of dialoguing (call Webster's) about preconceived notions. Initially, I thought "wasn't PC intended to open up dialogues and help us reframe, cause us to stop and think before automatically buying into the status quo?"

Then I stopped and wondered, "Was it?"

Or was it intended as a new rule set?

Either way, I know where and how it has ended up and it isn't anything like your classroom, where students gain, "a new awareness of the unsaid and hidden ways in which we all understand race."

D. You illustrate beautifully the power of language.

This is important for two largely unrelated reasons:

1. Acknowledging the success of PC by admitting openly how you cringe to type racist words, even though contextually they were crucial.

2. Revealing the legacy and motivation of PC as a power because language is such a force...especially because it is indicative of thought, the most powerful element of all.

By controlling language, we create a situation of controlled thought, and create the culture I rail against in my posts.

*I think.* LOL

Like you I am still trying to collect my final thoughts and opinions here---which is one reason I really hoped for a lot of participation and interaction---but I will say your exploration has helped me pull together some ideas.

Awesome contribution, thanks!

Lawyer Mama July 25, 2007 at 7:53 AM  

GReat post. I've also missed this short story and now I must read it.

I don't know that I'm convinced that political correctness controls our thoughts or inhibits speech either. It may prohibit us from using certain words, yes. But it doesn't prohibit the relatively articulate person from still getting the same idea across, whether truly offensive or not.

thailandchani July 25, 2007 at 11:35 AM  

I don't recall that short story, either... but I do seem to recall that Toni Morrison did that in another book also. She avoided certain social markers that would easily slip into the stereotypes but gave other, more subtle, clues.

This reminds me of another book called "Blink" in which the author believes that we make snap decisions on visual appearance. (among other things)

I have a hard time connecting this concept into PC per se but can see where it would eventually become that.



Emily July 25, 2007 at 11:52 AM  

First off, no one else should feel as miserable about missing that story as I should. I have a Ph.D. in 20th century American lit. In my defense, I did focus on early 20th century...

I love the whole post, but my favorite part is your point about manners. They constrain us yet they give something back in return. Being a part of civilized society is a responsibility that involved taking into account certain rules and perhaps giving up some liberties for the greater good. As you point out, we should not give up liberties blindly, but we should not stand and holler about our rights without thinking about why rules are as they are.

You must be a fantastic teacher.

Julie July 26, 2007 at 11:07 AM  

For those of you upset that you somehow missed this story, rest assured that it's difficult to come by. Even the Nobel website, extensive enough to list the children's books she has written with her son, does not list this story. As far as I know, it is the only short story she's ever published.

Also as far as I know, "Recitatif" was originally published in 1983 in a book called Confirmation edited by Amiri and Amina Baraka. My library doesn't have this book, so I'm guessing it's out of print.

HOWEVER: You can find this story in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Concise Edition, edited by Paul Lauter. This is the book I use in class. You can also find it in African American Literature : A Brief Introduction and Anthology, compiled by Al Young.