Friday, February 24, 2012

Mar-tina Luther King?

Figgured I'd write about black history month, since it's almost over. I don't think I've ever written about it before, but like most things, I do have an opinion on it.

In a nutshell, I'm not really a fan. I mean, if it's the only option--I'll take it. And I certainly appreciate the sentiment behind it. I'm assuming that the person who thought it up was black, and I can get behind the idea that the accomplishments of black people need to be acknowledged and celebrated.

However, the problem with having a special month is that it accepts the idea that we can focus on black people (or Asian people, or women, et al.) during a certain time of the year, and not give them our attention during the 11 other months on the calender. A similar problem exists with the thinking behind departments like African-American studies. By segregating these works into their own disciplines, universities are basically saying, "Hey, if you want to learn about these non-white, non-male, non-straight people, come over here and take this special class." And guess what? Most people don't.

Let me share an example from my own life: as it says over in that sidebar, my focus in graduate school was multicultural counseling. Basically this meant that in addition to the coursework that was required for all students, I had to take a few extra classes that focused on various aspects of identity.

One of these classes was Advanced Multicultural Counseling (the beginning muliticultural counseling class was a requirement--good job, my school.) In this advanced multicultural class there were five students. Realize that most of my other classes had around 25 students enrolled. And the advanced multicultural class had been cancelled the year before, because not enough students signed up. This meant I couldn't graduate on time, because I had to take the class before I could move on (yes, I am still just a little bitter about that ;)

Contrast this experience with another class: Religion and Spirituality in Counseling. Again, this was a class that was an elective for most everyone in the program. The name is pretty self-explanatory. For some reason, this class was packed with people--so many people were interested that there was a waiting list. I remember on the first day being like, "WTF? Why are there so many people in this class? These people don't need this class to graduate!"

In my view, the short answer is that they were in the religion class because they were interested in the topic, and they weren't in my other class because they weren't interested in the other topic. Hey, people are allowed to have preferences.

And I am allowed to believe that this thinking is detrimental to clients, especially when so many people that use public mental health clinics (a popular starting point for recently graduated counselors,) are people of color.

Similarly, if you have a class called Women in Literature, that has a bunch of great works by women authors, it allows the class called simply British Literature to highlight only dudes, with maybe one woman thrown in as a token gesture.

I've got a better idea: Instead of ghettoizing certain disciplines, why not incorporate them more fully into the learning process? Get rid of the bottom tier of white male material, and replace it with the top tier of material from authors of different backgrounds. Then the class is not dominated by one group of people. And if students want to learn more about that particular subject, they can take another class which has the not as good works, again, from people of a variety of backgrounds.

[Sidenote: I can't decide if me equating the best work of marginalized authors with the worst work of white males is internalized racism, or just practicality at work. WDYT?]

And instead of just airing shows like Savoring Harlem in February, "in honor of black history month," show them year round. As I have said before on this blog, one of the major problems is that white people get the message that they are the center of the universe, the gold standard by which all other people should be judged. We have got to shift the focus to one that acknowledges the contributions of all of us, and not just during a certain time of the year.

So, what do you think? Feel free to leave me a comment.


  1. I wonder if the Regligion and Spirituality in Counseling class is a balanced intellectual study in that area. Does it deal with the problems that come up when religious dogma or prejudice interfere with good counseling practice? Does it deal with the problems of using dominant congregational assumptions about family and work and . . . to guide counseling decisions? What does it have to say about couples counseling? What does it say about sexual orientation adjustment counseling? What is it about anyway?

  2. Chunk Hotzumomo4:54 PM

    The comparison of marginal works by white males and great works by other authors is totally internalized racishism. Woody Allen does not attend the oscars because he thinks the idea of judging art is oxymoronic. I agree. This means one has to be VERY sceptical of anything held up as great, and I am sure many to most of the works studied in such a class are no more or less great than the ones in multicultural classes.

    This brings up a more interesting point though, and that is the description of white straight male culture. Really, a literature class is nothing more than a culture class. The students are trying to be educated on the cultural touchstones of a culture. A culture, in this case, happens to be European white males. So, maybe the best solution is to have the African American, Women, GLBT literature classes, and rename the other "standard" English courses as European American. Then either make them all required or all electives, depending on the major.

  3. I'm in favor of just one history, but tell it all. That goes for the idea of women's history, too, not just black history. Isn't there something demeaning about making them separate histories rather than just demanding that they be included in the study of history, period?