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The Power Of Reading Diverse Authors

On the importance of classes that encourage difficult conversations and allow us to learn from diverse perspectives.

It’s four weeks into my senior year of high school. Homework is piling up, college applications beckon, and sleep feels like an impossible luxury. Yet as I trek across my high school campus to English class, I feel a frisson of excitement.

This statement may seem a bit strange. Sure, typical English classes featuring dusty classics and tried-and-true literary analysis can be interesting, but exciting? Not usually. But my English class, entitled “Hybrid Identities,” is different and better.

“Hybrid Identities” examines the many factors that compose our multifaceted identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality. In this class, our small but mighty group of 18 students is presented with contemporary literature from a range of authors with diverse perspectives — from women to members of the LGBTQ community to racially diverse authors. We are encouraged to question what it means to belong and how we can understand ourselves in relation to those who differ from us.

We have been moved by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s visceral presentation of the black experience in American society and puzzled through the poetic mixture of Spanish and English in Gloria Anzaldúa’s description of her experience as an outsider. We’ve considered the concept that “not all suffering is created equal,” presented in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and analyzed the memoirs of Sherman Alexie’s experience of transitioning from life on a Native American reservation to a white, middle-class community. We’ve looked at what the work of Amy Tan says about the divide between first- and second-generation immigrants.

The class begins typically: We sit around a table in the seminar-style room and start our conversation for the day. Today, we are having a student-led discussion on a piece written by Audre Lorde, a black, lesbian socialist. The piece, entitled “Sister Outsider,” offers a reflection on the modern feminist movement.

We start by defining key vocabulary from the text in small groups. My group wrestles with the word “intersectionality.” It seems that the word itself is an intersection — one person in my group thinks it has to do with race, another gender, another age. We ultimately decide it is a compilation of many factors, including those we identified. As we come back together in the large group, a student in the class highlights a point made consistently in the reading — that the experience of a white feminist and the oppression she faces is very different from that of a black feminist, who must deal with additional issues due to her race. An African-American student testifies with raw honesty and true vulnerability about the increased dangers black people in the U.S. regularly face, an allusion made frequently in the text. I am quick to agree, but note that although the oppression of the white feminist may be less severe, her oppression is not invalidated — it’s still real.

Although the conversation initially moved forward in fits and starts, it slowly gathers steam as we all begin to feel more comfortable sharing our ideas and perspectives. In many cases in this class, the worlds of academic analysis and personal sharing come together. We often don’t agree, yet we feel protected by the list of “community norms” we developed as a class: “speak from the ‘I’ perspective,” “assume positive intentions,” “do not act on judgment.”

This class has been a turning point for me. I love the humanities and have always enjoyed history and English classes. Yet high school classes in these subjects have been dominated by stories about and by white, upper- and middle-class males. The famous revolutionaries we learned about were all men. Our analysis of U.S. history was always through the eyes of white male property owners and intellectuals. In English class, we read the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare — white men. By and large, this literature and these stories painted an image of women and minorities as illiterate, inept, and subservient.

When teachers did make an effort to include diversity, it was generally nothing more than a lukewarm token. In history, we spent a single class period on the women’s rights movement. In English, we read one poem by Emily Dickinson. These texts were presented as second-class as compared to the works and stories of men — a brief side note in a larger narrative of patriarchy.

In my junior year U.S. history class, we made it through much of the first semester without hearing a single female voice. When we finally did read a women-centric text, it was one about female sexuality that depicted women as simultaneously cunning and incompetent, completely dependent on men and resorting to selling their bodies to gain a form of “independence.” When I asked my teacher when we would read about the feminist movement of the 1950s and 1960s, he responded that we were too short on time.

In my American literature class, we read the works of several female authors. Yet each piece of literature painted women as mentally ill and deranged: the poems of Emily Dickinson discussed death and depression, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” talked of madness and delusions, Sylvia Plath’s poetry foreshadowed her untimely end. I distinctly remember our teacher professing that the female style of the time was one of “drama and emotions,” while the male was one of “reason and intellect.” Our teacher would prompt us to scrutinize these women, their personal lives, and their struggles, de-emphasizing the literary brilliance that remained part of their legacy. We read almost no literature by individuals of color, and the discussions about the texts we did read centered almost exclusively on racial discrimination.

This lopsided approach has been the norm in American education for decades, and it reflects the reality that women and minorities are generally still oppressed in this society. But just because it is the norm does not make it OK.

I am a white woman from a middle-class family who lives in a city that lacks diversity. My school reflects the city it serves. I would never claim to understand the experiences of someone who is a racial minority or who is economically disadvantaged. But, as someone who also attended five different schools in two different states and one foreign country over the course of just six years, I also have some understanding of what it’s like to be considered “other,” to be the person who doesn’t fit in or whose narrative isn’t necessarily consistent with mainstream society’s. When I lived in the Netherlands for two years, I felt constantly out of place. I did not speak the language or enjoy the same food and sports. I was subjected to glares and reprimands at grocery stores, restaurants, and parks because I was foreign, because I was different. As a result, I developed a complex identity drawing from numerous cultures, multiple languages, and striking life experiences. With all of this in mind, I certainly don’t identify with the Anglo-male version of the humanities imposed on me.

I am looking for a change, and many of my friends from different races, cultures, and backgrounds have told me they crave the same. This is an imperative, not a mere desire. The face of America is changing. Many members of Gen Z don’t define themselves by the traditional gender binary, and this generation will be the last in which whites are the majority — complex racial identity is expected. In fact, according to Anna Fieler of PopSugar, Gen Z might better be called the “pluralist generation,” given our easy acceptance of diverse races and religions and our basic belief that “people can coexist in society.”

As these societal changes progress, more and more young people don’t and can’t identify with the white patriarchal narrative that currently dominates the study of the humanities. This is why classes like “Hybrid Identities” that encourage difficult conversations and allow us to learn from the works of authors from many different perspectives are so important. These classes challenge us to analyze disparate voices and to look at the world’s rich diversity and complexity as much more than the white, male norm. They allow us to both celebrate our ethnic, cultural, racial, and gender-based differences and connect with those identities. We are encouraged to appreciate the fact that we may never fully understand the experiences of people different from us, yet we learn that the best way to accept that reality is not by rejecting others, but by trying to find commonality or accepting the fundamental differences.

My experience with this new class is just the beginning: There are many more readings and discussions ahead. Honestly, I have no idea what to expect or what will come next. But for now, I am leaning into the discomfort, the uncertainty, and the emotions, and celebrating the opportunity to engage with the humanities in a new, exhilaratingly diverse way.

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