When I was reading up on the University of Missouri protests, I noticed that their list of demands included mandatory ethnic studies classes for everyone. This is a mind-bogglingly bad idea and I can’t imagine why anyone would support it on the grounds of making the campus more welcoming for people of color.
I mean, there is the obvious fact that many people of color already know that racism exists, and don’t want to sit through an entire class in Did You Know That Everyone Hates You? It’s True! Perhaps they would rather study physics so that they don’t have to think about the structural racism that shapes every aspect of their daily lives.
But it gets worse.
When I was a gender studies student, I had several classes that debated whether nonbinary trans people existed, or whether we only thought we were trans because of internalized misogyny.
And this isn’t an isolated thing that only affects trans people. My classes also debated whether men being forced into PIV intercourse or being hit by their partners counted as rape or abuse. My classes debated whether mental illness is a real thing or just society pathologizing deviants. And we had a Maoist, which I can’t imagine would have been a great experience for people whose families had fled China during the Chinese Civil War.
I’m not talking here about abstract debates like “does male privilege exist?” or “are black women structurally oppressed?” I’m talking about things that would genuinely be hurtful for everyone: “am I really the gender I say I am?” “is the person who beat me actually the real victim?” “am I faking my problems?” “was the man who killed my relatives actually a great guy if you think about it?”
I don’t know what those debates specifically are in ethnic studies, because due to budget cuts my school didn’t have an ethnic studies professor until the year I graduated. But I promise you that there are debates like that. Any time you talk about oppression there are debates like that.
There are civility requirements in a classroom. In most environments, my response to the idea that nonbinary trans people have just internalized misogyny is “fuck off”. But in a classroom, you must be calm, you must be civil, you must carefully lay out evidence for the viewpoint that you are worthy of basic respect and human dignity, you must treat the opposing idea respectfully as a valid alternate opinion.
And the thing is… if you’re a student who’s generally privileged, you are in general not going to have this experience. Classrooms do not discuss whether cis men only feel that they’re men because of their internalized misogyny. If your family never had to flee a mass murdering dictator, the mass murdering dictator’s supporters are mostly funny.
To be clear, I’m not saying that this is something that should be changed. There is debate in the field of gender studies about whether nonbinary trans people actually exist, and one of the purposes of my classes was to familiarize me with active debates in the field. This is something I signed up for when I decided to major in gender studies.
And even if you tried to change it, how would it work? The whole reason those topics are up for debate is because people don’t agree which positions cause harm; if there was already an academic consensus on it, they would just teach that instead of hosting a debate about the subject. You certainly agree with me that forcing men into PIV is rape; but many of the professors are people who will say “well, obviously forcing men into PIV isn’t rape, and we shan’t debate it because of the tremendous harm it would cause to real rape survivors.”
Furthermore, debating issues is a lot of x studies education’s pedagogical method. None of my teachers were Maoists, but Maoist Student would still have made the classroom tremendously hurtful for many people, and it is unclear how to prevent this without simply stopping Maoist Student from talking (which is probably bad precedent, as much as I would have appreciated it at the time). Even worse, transphobic people voicing their transphobia is a necessary step to them having their transphobia challenged; if they aren’t allowed to speak it up, you’re not even accomplishing your goal of making people less bigoted.
So for multiple reasons gender studies classrooms have to be this way, and it is probably good that they are this way. What I am saying is that participating in this should be optional. It is inhumane to require trans people to civilly debate whether they should be misgendered as a condition of graduating college. And therefore no one should require gender studies courses.
X Studies classrooms are, of course, far from the only classrooms that have this problem. The personality disordered student taking abnormal psych may very well find herself debating whether she is inherently abusive; the developmentally disabled student in a philosophy class may have to write a paper about whether he should have been murdered at birth. However, as far as I am aware, no one is trying to make those classes required– and they’re definitely not trying to make them required in order to make schools more welcoming to disabled people. So I wish to express my fervent disapproval of this strategy.