Find the Bigotry
By Gint Aras
I attended my first semester of college in 1991. One of the initial differences I noticed between the courses I took at a public, open access university and my private Catholic high school was in the way they expected us to read. Barring expectations in a few classes (taught by, I realize now, radical outliers and gifted dissenters), we played a game called “find the bigotry, racism and sexism” in whatever we were reading.
No other angle had the same value. It didn’t matter if the texts were centuries old or published in that day’s newspaper; the strategy remained the same. A handful of instructors came with preconceived expectations that removed all but the most crude critical thought from the assignment.
They’d have finite “lists of moments” we were expected to find in readings. These assignments, infantile in their design, asked us to guess what the instructor was thinking, or to perceive things the way the instructor perceived them, so it wasn’t all that different from Catechism. If you saw things as you “should have,” you got rewarded for being correct. If you failed – if you missed the moment – you got taught how you should have correctly perceived the text.
Correct perception was a very important theme in my youth. I grew up in a family of war refugees, and while I would end up majoring in English, I did not speak English at home. My grandfather had started teaching me to read Lithuanian when I was four, and while I entered kindergarten without knowing more than a handful of English words, I ended up in the top reading group in only a few months. This was correct and good, as was – at least according to my grandfather, whose opinion meant everything to me – my independent reading habit, which took up the bulk of my free time in childhood.
My grandfather was my first and greatest teacher. We discussed stories, books, histories and newspaper articles at every opportunity. From his point of view, correct perception meant learning to see two things: how was someone’s life and way of thinking different from mine, and how was someone’s life and way of thinking similar. All texts, even articles about last night’s Sox game, contained examples of both, subtle or flagrant. If you couldn’t find both, you probably misunderstood the reading.
He taught me how to think, never what to think. By default, the lesson taught me to notice when someone was telling me what to think, and that’s what some of these college instructors were doing.
While I was a perceptive young man, I was also practical; college was expensive, and I was paying tuition myself, so I did what was asked to get grades. While the whole thing could get tedious and predictable, I didn’t protest.
Of course, some peers did protest. I realized their protests often boiled down to them being bigoted themselves, at least in one way: they didn’t like being asked to understand how the racist social assumptions built into communities could influence writers and thinkers, even those well ahead of their times, to remain blind to their own bigotry. Even if the protesting students didn’t admit it, they had enough marbles to figure out these classes were asking us to apply the process to ourselves. Playing “find the bigotry” is the same as asking “Am I a bigot?” Most protesters just wanted relief from discomforting introspection.
I certainly had my criticisms of “find the bigotry,” and I’ll get to them in a moment. I didn’t share them with professors because I feared getting lumped in with people averse to introspection. Some of those exercises, admittedly, woke me up to my own bigotry, so I couldn’t say they didn’t have value.
While this sounds self-congratulatory, let me cut myself down to size. I also blew off criticizing the game, at least publicly, out of cut-rate laziness. When you read this way, you discover the relentless presence of bigotry and xenophobia in virtually every level of society, every culture and nation, no matter if their traditions were oral or written, over the entire span of human history. It’s in everything from the Bible to Hollywood films and comic books. When you’re searching for something that’s pervasive, the assignment turns out to be easy, like looking for illness in a hospital. They’re rewarding me for this? Why complain?
Of course, some professors – and I encountered more and more of them as I progressed toward my degree – didn’t teach this way. Their reading lessons demanded knowledge of historical context, cultural norms and traditional customs. Some of these courses were enormously challenging, requiring all sorts of supplemental reading and comparison of texts written in syntax and style hundreds of years old. Instead of criticizing a text’s blind spots, we’d ask how it critiqued institutions like the Catholic Church, The Parliament of Scotland or a movement like The Enlightenment. We’d look to see how thinkers afraid of getting burned at the stake ended up provoking ideas among their peers, everything from new perceptions of the heavens to…yes…the possiblity that slaves could be freed.
What struck me in some of these classes were the complaints. Some students, speaking with intense, sincere indignation, demanded to know why we weren’t playing “find the bigotry.” Instead of looking to see how texts critiqued the powerful in their own time periods – and most of the texts that survived over the centuries tended to do this – these students wondered why we weren’t condemning 17th and 18th century authors as bigots. Why wasn’t the professor apologizing for some neoclassical poem’s sexism?
Many of the lessons I gained in college left me feeling smug about my new points of view. Education, when done right, changes not only a host of your perceptions but also your identity. In a sense, you wake up to see that portions of everything you had learned up until this moment were just parts of a greater story. Some of what you had learned as truth was merely myth. These lessons can isolate you, especially if you return for Thanksgiving to a family that spews racist and anti-Semitic nonsense while watching NBA games, slurring out loud and shamelessly.
One response to isolation, especially for a young person, is to make smug noise. I offered my “educated” point of view on more than several occasions, and it was met exactly as you’d expect. When you tell family they’re unable to perceive their own racism because it’s embedded in the fabric of their language and custom, they don’t take to sudden introspection or thank you for your help. They just see a smug asshole. Your ideas will change, they think, once you leave the cubby hole of college to make a buck in the “real world.”
This is one problem with playing “find the bigotry.” Its lesson isn’t wrong: it teaches that bigotry is interwoven into the fabric of our social dealings, that it always has been; its antidote is a consciousness that’s woken up to the process. Of course, this antidote it has its side effects.
Because the game is easy, has a finite list of answers, clear perpetrators and scapegoats (colonization, Europe, white men and capitalism) versus clear victims (everyone else, and every other economic philosophy), its critics perceive it as an oversimplification of reality.
By accident, the game’s outcomes stumble backward into a contradiction, as one faux pas of contemporary thought is to use binary systems – either/or, black and white, or us vs them – to pass judgement. Tribalism and sectarianism are flawed, sophomoric perceptions of reality, the game says, responsible for all sorts of suffering and toil. Yet the seductive ease of “find the bigotry” leads exactly to this.
Because the game is to find the bigotry, we look for it constantly. Because it’s all-pervasive, we find it quickly. Then the critique can explode: we can wag our finger at the guilty, the same finger that can drop to the sand to draw a line. We stand on one side as the woke. On the other stand the bigots. We’re the bearers of truth. They’re the bearers of false perceptions. When they accept our position and change their ways, society will head toward solutions. They have everything to learn from us. We have nothing to learn from them.
Even as we draw this line in the sand, we also stand right up to say the appropriate model for perceiving nuance and subtlety is a spectrum. Even evil and racism are on a spectrum, the lesson says, joined by such things as intelligence and sexual identity. And yet, when it comes to the woke versus the slumbering, the line is clear. One group is good and right. The other is not.
Why does this happen?
Let us recall the students who protested against “find the bigotry” because the game made them uncomfortable. Their discomfort reveals a lot. The game left them looking inward, as it should, and they found that their conceptions of themselves were being challenged.
They were led to a frightening conclusion: maybe I didn’t know what bigotry was, and maybe I’m, at least subtly, a bigot myself. They had never seen themselves this way. It naturally frightens, even infuriates them. That’s because they’ve heard everybody, including the instructor, blame the bigots for every possible ill, as they also arrange themselves in opposition to the bigots. The woke are not bigots for one simple reason: they are able to identify bigots. They’re woke and see the world with clarity. They also have no reason to reward someone’s introspection when it finds bigotry on the inside. Bigotry is not supposed to be there in the first place.
Let us also recall the students who protested in the courses that did not play “find the bigotry.” The course was asking them to do something they weren’t used to. It suggested, just by virtue of the search it demanded, that the texts on the syllabus had value alongside whatever they revealed about oppression. Well…this won’t do! The goal of the class should be to set ourselves apart from the bigots. It should be to help us feel we’re right while some old dead writer is wrong.
I now teach Rhetoric and Film at a community college that primarily serves Hispanic students. I’ll occasionally lecture or lead a workshop in some writers’ seminar, and also teach meditation, usually to upper middle-class people. I’ve taught ESL in New York and Europe and have had students from most every walk of life. I’ve noticed plenty of similarities between them, and also between those people who run institutions of learning.
We like the paths of least resistance. We like systems that make us right as they set up someone else as wrong.
It’s unsustainable. If our goal is to be right while someone else is wrong, we’re not going to solve the problem at hand, which is that people have lost the ability to communicate. They’re terrified of being cancelled by online gangs, just as they fear oppression will never end. They also like to elevate their own fear and suffering over someone else’s, even to dismiss the suffering on the other side of the street as fake, unaware of its privilege, unappreciative of society’s handouts, unwilling to do the necessary work for the necessary prize. It’s essentially the same argument, and the same contradiction: we’re often guilty of the very thing we’re criticizing, though we remain unaware.
For an example of hypocrisy, consider a man like my grandfather, who died only six months before his 100th birthday, had survived a world war, raised three children, seven grandchildren (who provided him with seven great-grandchildren), and spent almost as much time retired as he did working for an engineering firm. Yes, he taught me that correct reading occurred when we measured how someone’s life and way of thinking were different from ours, just as we measured how their life and way of thinking were similar. That lesson was valuable, and it prepared me for all sorts of study.
At the same time, he had been profoundly racist. He once joked that black people would no longer be able to find a bus stop in town because a tower on that street corner had been razed. Another time, he started dropping n-bombs at a black fisherman who was catching more fish at a dam than he was. If I considered his life, these are only two examples among hundreds I could use in a game of “find the bigotry.”
Yet this is the same man who taught me how to read and how to fish. He taught me to consider the feelings of others, to respect nature, to pick mushrooms, plant tomatoes and prune plants. He taught me to clean up after myself, to listen actively to elders and to care for my own health. He also offered me refuge when, at a time of crisis, I had no other elder to turn to. He believed in God and confessed his sins, donated weekly to his church. He also voted for Obama. Twice. Though he only ever admitted it to me.
That admission came during a conversation at his kitchen table, when he asked me, as he often did, what I was teaching my students – the Mexicans, as he called them – and if my job was getting more difficult or easier. I was teaching them to read, I said, to compare their lives and ideas to those of others. It was getting harder. They came in with low levels of skill, and their high schools had taught them to expect problems with obvious answers.
Yes, my grandfather said. It would be really easy if the answers were obvious, and if everybody were simple. If nobody was a hypocrite. Then we wouldn’t need education, would we? We could just get rid of the wrong and keep the right. It would be really easy. We wouldn’t need churches. We wouldn’t need leaders. We wouldn’t need books or journalists. We’d be perfect, wouldn’t we, so we wouldn’t even need prayer. If the answers were obvious, we could eliminate all that harms us, and so we’d never need to find the humility to forgive.
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