Group Identity (Part Ten)

Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

I cannot believe I am on the tenth installment in this series of essays on the focus of group identity on college campuses. I knew I had some things to say, but I didn’t expect it to be this long. But I continue here with probably the most devastating effect of focusing on group identity: the impact on a student’s self-image. For those who worry about what is happening on campuses today, and who are concerned about the direction of our society, the roots were planted long ago. And much longer ago than my personal experience. 

Perhaps the most disheartening result of the emphasis on group identity is the self-image that students have upon leaving college. 

Many students end up leaving college with a chip on their shoulder. White males are left feeling the guilt of generations of evil perpetrated by their race and gender. They leave school crippled, scared to speak to women lest their chat be construed as sexual harassment. They are afraid to speak to people from other ethnic groups or races or religions for fear of being misunderstood or for being accused of not understanding. Or they become so angry that they end up bent on destruction.

Speech

I wrote this speech about my experiences in the early 2000s. That means, the students of whom I am speaking in the previous paragraph are now anywhere from thirty to forty years old. These are the people in decision-making positions in the government bureaucracy, in middle and upper management at influential corporations, in administration at k-12 schools. They are holding partnerships at prestigious law firms, running human resource departments across the country, and not only teaching the next generation of students, but serving as department chairs. 

Understanding that, is it any surprise that our country is as divided as it is? Or that young students are now being taught that America is fundamentally and irredeemably racist? Or that these same people suddenly cannot define the word “woman”?

Even I could not have imagined what our society would look like today. But I unquestioningly knew this focus on oppressed group identity was a problem. 

I didn’t realize that there would be so many of them that they would find solace in each other, band together, and work to dismantle our institutions, our culture, and, plainly, white people (particularly men). Instead, I think I imagined that those students who were taught that they were victims would end up isolated, lost, and floundering, unwilling to work for something or to have hope in their own future. What would be the point?

But what is worse is what this does to women and “minorities.” They learn that they cannot take credit for their own individual accomplishments or, perhaps more importantly, their individual failures. 

Every roadblock, every difficulty, every challenge, every failure is due not to their own actions but due to our racist, sexist society. Since there is nothing they can do about the rampant racism and sexism, there is no point in trying. They will not be motivated to achieve through hard work or through production – only through pull and political maneuvering. This just further solidifies the group and causes increased alienation from everyone else, which does not solve anything.

And this allows people who cry racism to not engage in any self-reflection.

I once had a black student tell me that her brother’s teacher was racist against blacks because he kept getting bad grades. I could have accepted this explanation and acted requisitely horrified and embarrassed that a fellow teacher would act so. But instead, I pried. Turns out, there were three other black students in the same class who, she claimed, were getting good grades. But I could not convince her that this fact instead shows that the teacher is not racist but that her brother earned poor grades all by himself, as an individual.

I once had a black student tell me that her brother’s teacher was racist against blacks because he kept getting bad grades. I could have accepted this explanation and acted requisitely horrified and embarrassed that a fellow teacher would act so. But instead, I pried. Turns out, there were three other black students in the same class who, she claimed, were getting good grades. But I could not convince her that this fact instead shows that the teacher is not racist but that her brother earned poor grades all by himself, as an individual.

And what does that student learn from that experience? It isn’t your fault you have bad grades. It is the racist teacher’s fault. The message is, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t try to develop better, more effective study habits. Don’t bother spending more time on homework. Don’t join a study group or get a tutor. And certainly, don’t listen to the teacher.”

An incident at California State University, Northridge clearly illustrates how far afield we have gone.

About ten years ago [mid-1990s], a white teacher was hired to teach a freshman composition class in the Pan-African Studies Department. 

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You may recall from previous installments (six and seven) that many colleges and universities had taken the typical English 101 class which was taught through the English Department and split it up into all the “studies” departments: Asian American English 101, Gay and Lesbian Studies English 101, Pan-African Studies English 101.

Both students and faculty protested the hiring, holding a rally outside the controversial woman’s classroom as she taught. 

In a world where qualifications are defined by skin color rather than individualism, protesting a white woman teaching freshman comp. to black students is logical. An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (Sept 11, 1994) by an African American author explained the problem this way: “This is not a race issue. The issue is whether she [the white teacher] has the cultural background.”

That a black spokesperson can invoke a special “black cultural background” shows how sadly the original civil rights movement has gone off the rails, for at one time only the most blatant white racists would have asserted that there was a special black way of thinking, living, knowing, talking, or learning. Skin color, an accident of birth, was to have become as insignificant in daily life as eye color.

On the same issue, an English teacher at a neighboring college wrote the following to the Los Angeles Times (Sept 25, 1994): “I now teach at Antelope Valley Community College, where all writing classes are the responsibility of the language arts department. My classes are now filled with a racial and cultural mix. This is how I thought our society was supposed to be. Silly me. I now realize I am probably damaging my black and Hispanic students because, as a white woman, I don’t provide a role model for them. I mean they will probably be permanently damaged from having to learn about organization, detail and grammar from me, since I am not of their culture. In fact, who knows what psychic wounds I’m inflicting on my male students, regardless of color?”

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This idea definitely took root. And today we see safe spaces for people of color or safe spaces for the LGBTQ community. They have to be physically separated from those not like them, from the dangerous white and/or straight people.

Does this mean that an employee of one color can only work with a boss of the same color? That any boss would simply not understand the cultural background an employee from a different race? And what exactly does that mean anyway? 

Just recently in the news, the infamous Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright promoted this same concern. In a speech to NAACP in Detroit, Rev. Wright said African Americans have a different way of learning. Black brains are different from white brains. 

So the student who does not share the same race as the teacher, or even his boss, now has a ready excuse for failure. He doesn’t even need to consider his own study habits, attitude, or ability. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t need to change anything about himself.

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I think about this fact and my heart breaks. If we want our young people to flourish, and to flourish in all of the possible permeations of that word, they have to understand the power they themselves have over creating their own lives. They have the power to improve themselves. We have the power to alter the way we interact with the world and as a result the way the world interacts with us.

Instead, we so often teach them that everything is out of their control and that everything is stacked up against them. 

With such thinking, what kind of an attitude does the black student have upon entering a classroom with a white teacher? If he has been taught that whites just do not understand blacks and cannot possibly teach them, does he have a feeling of optimism or defeatism?

This flawed reasoning is truly detrimental. Students are taught that all judgments are based on their identity with a particular group, rendering them slaves to the group and unable to define their individuality.

Can you think of a more debilitating attitude? An attitude more designed to set someone up for failure?

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I’m going to leave it here. I am still in shock that our society has deemed it appropriate to teach our children to be victims. The conclusion of the speech comes in the next installment, and I will also give some closing thoughts regarding this entire project! See you then.

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