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Pedagogy 2.1 (2001) 79-108
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Encountering "Third World Women":
Rac(e)ing the Global in a U.S. Classroom
I am actually projecting my own body forward through my words. I am in/scribing rather than erasing it. First, I must draw attention to it, focus this gaze, let it develop me into a construct. Then I take this construct, this "South Asian woman," and break it up piece by piece. In every sense, they are learning on my body. I am the teacher, my body is offered up to them to learn from, the room is an arena, a stage, an amphitheatre. I am an actor in a theatre of cruelty.
--Himani Bannerji (1995: 102)
In January 1995 I presented my first lecture in cultural anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, a midsize campus in the state university system. Of the 170 students who were shopping around for their quarter courses, I knew that most would use this freshman-level class as a general-education requirement for their bachelor's degrees. I began my lecture by emphasizing that the anthropology to which they would be introduced would not encourage cheerful consumption of colorful difference elsewhere: National Geographic-style exposure to the titillating delights of exotic veils and exposed eyes; naked breasts; or unnatural, elongated, braceletted necks. I noted immediately that these gendered bodies were implicated in the historicized frames of "our" gaze. [End Page 79]
I introduced my approach to anthropology by presenting my background as an Indian woman who had spent an early childhood in Nigeria and teenage years in northern India before coming to the United States. So my approach to anthropology was mediated by an education afforded by a tricontinental diaspora and its post/colonial histories. 1 Thus the course material would explore the histories of imperialism, colonialism, and power as it examined cultural and social practices both within and outside the United States. I also emphasized that the syllabus made clear what kinds of material we were reading and, now that they had heard my own stance toward the class, that they should be well informed about what the rest of the quarter would entail. I also assured them that the class would be taught every quarter by other colleagues in case they did not want to learn from my set of narratives. Satisfied that my introductory lecture had been well presented and organized, I ended the class and began to meet with individual students. Before I left the lecture hall, I saw a small piece of paper folded on the lectern. In neat block letters, it said: "Dear Professor: There are ten of us in this class who hate you. We are not interested in anything you say. You are racist and you should realize that. Change the way you teach or you will have no one left in your class. We are telling you this for your own good as a teacher." The note was unsigned.
The shock to my earlier complacency about my lecture performance was sudden. Being called a racist, criticized for the way I teach, and threatened offered me an important object lesson about how quickly some student perceptions of professorial subject positioning, and the kind of material to be taught--transnational and cross-cultural issues within a critical, anti-imperial frame--would construct the pedagogical arena as a minefield. I was aware also that naming my own subject position, to the extent that I did, was enough to elicit a sense of defensiveness.
Though I had not clearly articulated to myself what teaching philosophy to follow, I understood immediately that what, how, and who we are as instructors and students deeply inflects the apprehension and comprehension of our engagement with difference. That engagement contains, by the very nature of the pedagogical critique, conflict and resistance in ways that can be profoundly problematic not only for students but also for teachers whose speaking authority may be mediated by race, ethnicity, national origin, class, and sexual orientation. 2
This episode also taught me...