The Racism of Being Told to Keep Your Audience in Mind

When I was an undergrad about a year and a half ago, I had a professor whose class was such a frustrating experience that even the memory of it is discomforting. Aside from the horrifying discussion she entertained in the classroom about whether a student in a novel we were reading had actually been raped by her professor or whether the student in fact was the one taking advantage of him, I found myself tirelessly called over and over to explain the simplest things.

One of the assigned weekly readings happened to be about conservation. I can’t remember the author now—it might have been Aldo Leopold. The article, I recall clearly, cites Native American philosophies pertaining to the land and to land ethic, with specific mention of the Pueblo Indians. And yet, although the author cites indigenous approaches to land throughout the piece, he makes bizarre claims like “we have no land ethic yet.” The excerpt was published, I noted then, after the formation of the United States; it might have been as late as the 1950s. By then citizenship of marginalized races had been recognized, and Native Americans had certainly been forcibly assimilated.

To say that “we” have no land ethic while citing the very land ethic of a people who are forced to become “us” does a number of things: (1) it remarks on the lethal dynamics of a dual identity in which Native Americans are either assimilated or Othered depending on the convenience of what befits the author’s argument (2) it erases the contributions of indigenous tribes to ethics by implying that what the writer explains is unprecedented since “we” don’t have it yet and (3) it addresses one audience, a white audience, in a nation under the pretense that Native Americans are now seen as one of us and all has been made right, when the claim “we don’t have this yet” demonstrably excludes them from “us.”

Responding to the article, I wrote that it was clear who Leopold’s—or whoever this was—audience is. To my amazement, the professor returned the response with a comment along the lines of, “You mean he shouldn’t have been addressing people? He can’t talk to the environment.”

Really? She thought I wanted him to talk to plants? She needed me to explain this to her? How did this woman ever—

No. I mean his audience was white people during a time when the United States was supposed to include Native Americans, and he’s pretending his audience isn’t just white people. He’s pretending—like you—that it’s just “people.” I mean why the hell should I care what white people say to each other, especially when they’re just regurgitating things that’ve already been invented? Why aren’t we reading about land ethics from the Pueblos, whom he even admits were the source? This is so second-hand—and second rate. Don’t even try to tell me we can’t read land ethics from the Pueblos because the work isn’t in English ‘cause ya’ll went out of your way to translate the Greeks and feed me the bullshit that is the Odyssey.

This guy even had the audacity to write something like, “Their civilization ended, but it wasn’t because their land expired.” No shit, it’s because you killed them. Did he go on to expand on this bizarre way of clarifying-but-not-really-clarifying how their civilization expired? Of course not. He just left it at that.

Perhaps white people should concern themselves with preserving people. I don’t think they’re quite advanced enough for land ethics yet.

This is one example of an aggravating phenomenon I’ve noticed throughout my entire academic career. Every professor is quick to say that a good writer is aware of her audience, and if her audience doesn’t understand her writing, it’s probably because she’s explained it poorly, or needs to explain further. But sometimes it’s because your audience is composed entirely of idiots. Or of white people. Who are also idiots. One of my classmates submitted an excerpt of her thesis for workshop once, and despite the fact that she referred to her cousin with the feminine pronoun about 50 times in the piece, people in the class (guess which race of people) were still confused as to whether the cousin was male or female, because the name was too ethnic for them to discern a gender. Consequently, this writer received terrible advice, like “All your names start with B, and that’s confusing in foreign names. I can’t tell who’s who so you need to change the names.”

No she doesn’t. You read the feminine pronoun over and over. You wouldn’t be confused if you actually knew how to read English. Your own language.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to explain what “hijab” means and its cultural and religious context. I can’t stop and do this every time. It distracts from the larger point of what I’m actually writing. I don’t have time to explain things to those who refuse to crawl outside the rocks they’re living under. If you don’t know what a word means, put down the book and look it up.

At this extent, “keep your audience in mind” becomes nothing short of racist advice. When directed at people of color, it means they should always remember the majority of their audience is white, and should therefore not only explain simple, “foreign” concepts until the writer is blue in the face, but cater to that whiteness with a tone it finds acceptable.

5 thoughts on “The Racism of Being Told to Keep Your Audience in Mind

  1. Shybiker

    I agree. And share your rage. I’ve stopped giving free lectures on subjects like gender-diversity because it’s a reader/listener’s obligation to educate themselves, not mine. I say what I say; if you can’t understand it, learn more.

    Like

    1. People ask you to give lectures on gender-diversity for free?

      You see, lecturing non-marginalized people isn’t just work; it’s uncompensated work. The kind of work we give women and anyone else who isn’t white, male, straight…

      Like

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the 2014 CAIR Banquet in San Diego | Freedom from the Forbidden

  3. Absolutely in love with this post! I never saw the whole “keep your audience in mind” BS in academia as being sensitive to white people’s ignorance, but now that I think of it, it’s so effing true! It’s certainly true when that comment is being addressed to non-white people. I remember in a creative writing class one day, I was describing the transportation system in Swat, Pakistan, and I was writing about people sitting on top of automobiles like buses and other vehicles common to much of the non-western world. And because my teacher, a white French lady who clearly had never traveled anywhere outside the west, absolutely could not imagine how anyone could sit on top of a bus and so she insisted I needed to write more clearly. I described the damn scene in as clear words as humanly possible, and the teacher was like, “This makes no sense. I cannot imagine it. If the reader cannot imagine it, you’re not writing it clearly.” That last part, I totally disagreed with – and I ended up getting a B in that fucking class because she couldn’t “imagine” much of what my writings were about because all I ever wrote about was Muslims and my childhood in a small village in Pakistan and being an immigrant and other things she couldn’t relate to. BUT!! A (white) classmate of mine had lived in Malaysia and she whispered to me while the teacher was complaining about my lack of clarity, “Actually, I know exactly what you’re describing. I’ve seen it, and I don’t know how else you can be more clear.”

    Damn … writing classes suck!

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