Talking about Race in the Classroom with Carlos Gallego
As a part of the Diversity and Inequality's brown bag series, English Literature Professor Carlos Gallego agreed to speak in a roundtable style discussion. Carlos Gallego is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arizona. His interests include twentieth century American literature, Chicano/a studies, philosophy, and critical theory. He has contributed work to journals such as Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quartelry, Aztlán, and Western Humanities Review, and is currently working on a book manuscript examining the transcendence of identity thinking in Chicano/a literature. Inspired by the work of Richard Rodriguez's Brown and Zeta Acosta's Brown Buffalo, I suggested the subtitle to the event: 'Putting Brown back into a brown-bag.' discussion
Using this as a point of departure, Professor Gallego says, "The ability to laugh at arbitrary labels is useful, for example, Dave Chappelle sketch in which he's a the blind KKK member. It raises questions about discomfort. 'Brown' is good title because it turns the question back on audience: why am I the 'brown?' I consider myself more of a latte, or mocha.
"I like to explore ethnic texts of the 60's & 70's, lesser known texts that aren't understood [Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway] and apply philosophy and critical theory. A lot of people say heavy theory doesn't apply to those texts, but I disagree.
"Readers like to consume otherness, but don't put in their own experience as a part of the interpretation. I come from a structuralist background, so I like to explore the structural phenomenon, to see beyond difference and look at the framework of culture."
BB: How do you confront the response from an undergrad who doesn't see the connections, and might be resistant?
CG: "I think those students can be more interested because not used to thinking in those structural connections. They say,'how am I like those I've viewed as distant?' And you have to be open to both sides, something like affirmative action, during economic crisis--present this point of view of affirmative action as a form of historical reporation. I believe that there are white Americans who are in economic & cultural dead ends that have to do with employment practices, and those grants could be more rewarding to them, and not necessarily based on the student being African American or Chicano, and not in economic need.
"The less receptive student, that's the student you need to speak to--those are people you have to be patient with. Instead of only dealing with race, shifting conversations to talk about things like language--ask them questions like: 'when did you choose to learn English?' When they respond that they didn't decide to learn English, you say, 'Oh, you didn't. Have you tried to learn a foreign language?' You want to present them with other perspectives and get them to think--and they might not make the connections until they're out of your class. It might happen in two courses down the line or in working world."
BB: What do you do to contextualize society with texts?
"I go back to the origins of this country--how did that begin? Where do you get your Americanness from? Puritans were trying to escape--nation oppress to religious faith vs. how we view Islam.
"Nationalism is very important; talk about race, but start with genocide of native Americans. Ask your students, 'How would you like it if you're having a BBQ and someone comes into your living room with a flag and says, 'I discover this.' You'd say, 'what are you doing? This is my home.'
"Look at the rhetoric of 'all men are created equal' & who did that exclude? There's a historical trajectory of marginalization and classicism within hegemonic culture. Still, the south represents a backward place. Call attention to structuring of stereotyping and the fact that we don't think of on their own."
BB: Do you select texts that have particular pop culture pairings?
"You teach texts according to your research--pick text that speak to more than one lived experience. Invisible Man--class, sexism, speak to larger human condition, Kafka deals with alienation, disconnectedness, & it's not about being Jewish in Europe.
"Too hard core [literature like Fanon] might alienate students--keep it entertaining, don't get boring, don't limit discussions to a specific kind of experience."
BB: Are there any tips you have for helping students pick research interests?
"You have to essentially lie to them, intellectual freedom, but touch base with me--topic picked, but then direct with questions to what they're going to be talking about. A student says Golden Girls and you address elderly care, certain kind of race--they think they know what they want to write about, but they end up narrowing their topic and writing about the questions that you have them thinking about, helps them articulate it.
"Trick 'em--tell them to touch base--think about these kinds of issues--you determine the trajectory.
"Make it sound generic, even if you're dealing with social justice, but particularize it--not all dealing with 'social justice.' Have your themes hidden in questions so they don't feel forced."
BB: What about students who question texts, like 'why are we only reading white, male writers?'
"You have to ask questions like: 'Is Faulkner, a white male only talking about white, male experience?' You have to let them know that there are issues beyond ethnic/identity techniques, less interested in politics and this regard. Invite research: how does Ralph Ellison compare to Faulkner? The Harlem Renaissance not divorced from rest of the literary tradition."
BB: Are there expectations for instructors of color, especially when teaching Chicano Literature?
"People sometimes expect militant, Chicano perspective, but there's a lot going on within some of those movements that I might not agree with. There's misogynist treatment of women, and you get a lot of these answers like, 'You don't know--that's just how it is.' But I know that's not a good explanation.
"You can't attach yourself because it's supposed to represent lived experiences because there's always contradictions. And a lot of these movements say that they can't be wrong even when there are these sexist contradictions. And you can't defend a text to a student because they can see through to the truth and know that you're having to justify these contradictions."
BB: What are you thoughts on the Chicano Literature situation in TUSD (Tucson Unified School District)?
CG: "I haven't kept up on what's been happening recently, but Arizona is an interesting place. What it seems like is that Chicanos have been made out to be terrorists--but you have to ask, 'What do you think John Adams was considered by the King of England? When any group fights against the powers that be, they're labeled even though they have to do with terrorism.
"You have to make people aware of 1848 and what the government did to take land and redistribute it based on inability to read language. Ask students if they've had to read something in English that was so full of jargon that they were confused into doing things they weren't aware of?"
BB:What kind of impact do you believe Barrack Obama will have?
"I ask why should it matter? A lot of people think racism is over. He never used black power rhetoric--he didn't want to be seen as the first black president; he wanted to change things. If you're excited about him because of his color and that he brings diversity, you can look back at Bush's cabinet which had the most diverse group. You might not like them, but that's because of their policy."
With regard to my pedagogical practices, I feel like Dr. Gallego helped validate some of my practices, while supplying me with new approaches that I haven't been able to articulate with the same clarity.