At American University, the effects of race, class, dis/ability, gender, and sexual identities are certainly taught in classrooms. But at a basic level, these forms of identity are part of our everyday life experiences. A recent event, “The You That You Create,” featured six College of Arts and Sciences professors reflecting on their struggles against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
While AU faculty members possess an astonishing volume of academic knowledge, it’s easy to forget that they are also people. And at last week’s panel in the Katzen Arts Center, they all grappled with their own place in society. In a fascinating discussion, they were both vulnerable and brilliantly introspective.
Celine-Marie Pascale, who organized the event, first asked the group to describe their formative moments in relation to identity and power.
Caleen Jennings, a professor in the Department of Performing Arts, talked about growing up in a predominately African-American neighborhood in Queens. When her parents took her to visit a private school in a mostly white neighborhood, she discovered that she couldn’t enroll.
“I said, ‘Mommy, am I going to go to this school?’ And she said, ‘No, dear.’ And I said, ‘Why not? It was such fun.’ She said, ‘Well, they said that you needed to be younger so that the children could have gotten used to you,’” Jennings recalled. “And I didn’t quite understand what that meant, but I knew it was something bad because she and my father were on fire in the front seat.”
As he prepared for college, Marc Medwin sought technology that could help him learn. But while meeting with an organization that was supposed to assist blind people, he was discouraged from pursuing college altogether.
“Maybe it was at that moment that I realized: Not only was I different, but the people who were supposed to help me to understand and work with that difference hadn’t a damn clue about what I needed,” explained Medwin, an assistant professor of performing arts.
Kyle Dargan, an associate professor of literature, talked about going to an all-boys catholic school. It was a homophobic environment, and he wasn’t necessarily open to learning more about gay people. But when he was earning his MFA at Indiana University, he befriended and roomed with a lesbian.
“It was sort of this odd spectacle in the program. It was like, ‘Oh, the black guy is living with the lesbian. I wonder what they do in the house,’” he recalled. This helps him now, he said, as he tries to be an ally to the LGBT community. “Those three years were extremely valuable to me.”
Theresa Runstedtler’s father was German-Canadian and her mother emigrated from the Philippines. Growing up in Ontario, she distinctly remembers frequent trips with her mother to a bakery.
“Every time we went there, everybody else would get served. And then my mom would have to basically place herself in front of the cashier, and request the kind of bread that she wanted,” said Runstedtler, now an associate history professor. “I remember I asked her, ‘Why do we keep going back here?’ And she said, ‘Because they have good bread.’ So I think this was sort of her way of saying, ‘I’m here, and you have to reckon with me.’”
Later, Kathryn Walters-Conte of the Biology Department told a story about someone recommending her to babysit. At the house, she heard the mother and father arguing. The young boy she was babysitting then approached her. “He says, ‘Oh, my mommy didn’t know you were black,’” she recounted. “And I realized that that’s what they were arguing about.”
Walters-Conte drew some conclusions about how racism is passed down from generation to generation. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe these people are teaching their child this way,’” she said. “It just didn’t occur to me that it would be that blatant.”
Navigating and Negotiating Identity
Panel members also discussed more recent challenges. They’re often forced to negotiate with, and confront, ignorant assumptions and outright discrimination.
As a blind man, Medwin said people are condescendingly surprised that he’s able to ride the metro on his own. Walters-Conte, who is married to a white man, has had people openly wonder why her daughter looks different from her. “I’ve been asked if I was her au pair,” she said.
The professors also described the process of straddling multiple identities. Pascale has a white working class background, and she’s the only person in her family to attend college. She’s now a sociology professor and the associate dean for undergraduate studies at CAS. During a recent conversation with her brother, he mentioned his plan to watch a beach sunset with his wife. “I said, ‘Oh, that sounds so restorative.’ And he went, ‘Honey, get the dictionary. She’s doing it again!’”
After moving from Toronto to New Haven, Connecticut for graduate school at Yale, Runstedtler was surprised by American conceptions of diversity. “Everybody told me, ‘Oh, this is such a diverse city,’” she said. “I didn’t realize that what they meant was that the white people live over here, the Latinos live over here, black people live over here…I had never quite experienced that level of residential segregation.”
Yet in seeking a robust discussion about race and colonialism, Runstedtler was drawn to African-American studies in the U.S. “I’m this weird person who studies this, and has a deep commitment to it, but then also sort of sits on the outside of every single community,” she explained.
In navigating these waters, Dargan commented on how others might perceive a person’s identity. “I’ve always had issues with the concept of double-consciousness,” he said. “It puts the onus on the other to think about the two ways in which you exist in the world. I don’t exist in the world in two ways. I exist in the world as myself.”
The event was definitely stimulating, as evidenced by the number of students who posed questions. The first query generated some powerful responses. “Was there a moment that pushed you to feel self-hatred?” a student asked. “Or, that you felt that your race was lower than what it was supposed to be?”
Walters-Conte talked about “two black Americas,” one being a Good Times family living in the projects, and the other an upper middle class Cosby Show family. “My life was always more of The Cosby Show, but I always had to kind of hear about the other side…It made me feel, in a way, like maybe I’m not black,” she said. “For a long time in my life, I had very, very few African-American friends.”
Jennings got choked up while responding to the question. “Were there times when I hated myself? And times when I felt I was less than the people around me? Absolutely,” she said. “And that’s one of the reasons I became a teacher—because I didn’t want anybody to feel that.”
Commenting on these emotional insights, Pascale relayed an observation from the Dalai Lama. “He was always struck by how people in the U.S., in particular, had these deep wounds where they felt inadequate in some profound way,” she said, agreeing with the sentiment. “We’re situated in these hierarchies that kind of reinforce that for us.”
Pascale added, “I thank everybody for how beautifully you’ve expressed very moving truths of being human.”