Posted by: HAT | October 28, 2008

“What Would Our Community Look Like If . . .”

I went to the “Race Matters” seminar sponsored by Women at the Well, our campus group for racial-ethnic minority women.  It was great; well-attended, which was an encouraging thing, and a lot of thoughtful commentary from the faculty panelists, as well as perspicacious questions from the audience (including mine . . .)

But one thing that got me thinking — and that I thought made sense to mention here — was a comment by our Dean about the process that has led the seminary to be where it is with respect to racial diversity, with a small faculty (22, 21 who teach) with 5 African-American members, and some institutional mandates to diversity curricula, and a Cultural Diversity committee that is responsible for augmenting the activities of the seminary community in the direction of sensitizing the student body to diversity issues . . . in other words, a small community that is trying, or at least, has tried intentionally in the past, to get where it would be right to be with respect to the matter of racial diversity.

The comment was, “we began asking ourselves, ‘what would this place look like, what would our community be like, if we were a multi-cultural, anti-racist community?'”  And the answer was:  we didn’t know for sure.  The faculty, who I think took the lead on this, knew some of the things that would have to happen.  But what that would mean concretely, how things would change, what would change, what it would mean on a day-to-day basis, that was something that people didn’t know the answer to.  And really, still don’t know the answer to, since the changes that might ensue from the collaboration of a multi-cultural faculty, the effect that will have on the student body and on policies, the effect that will have on worship practices and extra-curricular activities, on specific calls for mission initiatives, all of that, is all still in the future.

What made me sit up and take notice of this is that the structure of this very specific question, aim, desire, and its working-out through taking specific actions, and then having to see what the impact of those specific actions will be, is paradigmatic.  It’s the structure of all utopian change — maybe of all change, but certainly of all pro-utopian change. 

Not that a multi-cultural, anti-racist community is all it takes for a community to be utopian, but certainly, articulating a multi-cultural, anti-racist ideal for community is in the direction of utopia, and some would even say, it’s hopelessly utopian.  Racism is too embedded in the structures of our society, our socialization, and so on for any institutionalized entity to become, itself, anti-racist, and really live out a multi-cultural reality.  Perhaps that objection is even accurate, but to that we could respond, well, then we want to be as anti-racist as it’s possible for us to be, as multi-cultural as it’s possible for us to be, and we want to keep pushing ourselves to really become this reality that we are wishing and wanting ourselves to be.

So the problem is precisely — as it is with all change of this sort — that we are not the people we want to be, we don’t accommodate the practices that we understand we will probably need to accommodate, but we don’t even really know what those practices are, we don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t know how difficult it is going to be to give up the famliar practices and ideas that we participate in now, and take up the new and unfamiliar ones that we will need to participate in — all that is an adventure into the unknown.  That, it seems to me, is precisely, always, the character of the utopian adventure.  It’s the adventure into the unknown, albeit in a particular direction, with some particular criteria — we have a little bit of an idea of what we are looking for.  “Well, whatever it is, it will be not racist, but rather anti-racist.”  So we’ll keep checking — “would you call this racist?”  “would you call this anti-racist?” 

I almost feel a little like a Habermasian now, because I’m going to say — the key to making something like this work is probably keeping a lot of different voices at the table, pointing things out, calling things to our collective attention, not letting situations that some of us will be complacent about continue unchallenged, and so on.  (“Hey, I think we are not doing all that well yet, because . . .”)  So, even though we will not be in an ideal speech situation any time soon, and even though some voices still are a lot more difficult to hear than others, and even though there are rhetorical distortions aplenty, having these different voices and perspectives coming to bear on the collective situation has got to help in the struggle to become something new.

Anyway, I thought to myself — I often feel that what I am working on is so abstract and removed from anyone’s daily concerns.  Who cares what Adorno or Irigaray or Agamben say about utopia???  What earthly good do you think it does to know about it???  But then, last night, I thought — well, the problem they are working on is THIS problem.  The problem — of wanting to change, and not being able to see the destination from here, of not having the right eyes — this is not an abstract problem at all, it is the problem we are working on right now, at least in some places.  So the topic is probably not as irrelevant as I sometimes feel it is.

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