That ‘America is the home of freedom’
or that Jamaica is ‘the most homophobic country in the world’
or that ‘black people are the sons and daughters of kings and queens’
or that ‘white people are generally racist’
These are the kinds of statements to which most sensible people will roll their eyes. The problem of course is nuance – or rather the lack of it – the refusal to acknowledge complexity. Almost nothing sounds so reasonable, so fair-minded, so un-contestable, as this demand (often by the academic) for nuance. I demand it from my students all the time. In the marked-up essays that I hand back to them, the word screams from the margin, and each time with more exclamation marks behind so that by the end I am virtually hysteric, NUANCE!!!!!!!!
But nuance can become a dangerous thing. Sometimes nuance ought to be avoided.
In one of my last classes this semester at Glasgow, I taught Chinua Achebe’s collection of essays, Hopes and Impediments. It was a class of fairly bright postgraduate students. They were generally bright, and also they were generally white. Sometimes this situation worries me – teaching a book by a black writer who at times accuses a white audience. I fear that the ‘author versus reader’ dynamic will be transubstantiated into a ‘teacher versus class’ dynamic. I fear that the class might see me as completely complicit with the politics of the writer (in the case of Achebe’s essays, I was), and so I fear that honesty will be compromised – that the class might possibly feel less than free to share their misgivings, and that perhaps I might feel less than free to share my misgivings of their misgivings.
When it came to it, things were of course more nuanced than that. (Again, this word ‘nuance’). The class did not operate as a whole. They were divided, some more sympathetic to Achebe’s positions than others. (It is, however, generally true that the North Americans of the class were less sympathetic to Achebe’s politics than the British students – make of that what you will.)
For those who were not convinced by Achebe’s rants against a racist world, they accused him of lacking nuance. They said that he used too many generalizations and that though he did occasionally acknowledge that obviously not all white people were like this or like that, it was still not enough – he ought to have expanded on these points.
Now it seems to me a rather curious thing that if a black man walks into a room where (let’s just say…) ten white people are sitting, and one of these white people rises from a seat and screams the word ‘NIGGER’ at him, that some people will demand of this black man that in recounting this incident he acknowledge that 90% of the room did not in fact rise from their seats and call him ‘nigger’; that it was only a 10% minority that was being racist.
But you see — the man’s experience would obviously not be felt or divided by such statistics. It would be total and profound and experienced in a place beyond the kind of statistics that try to nuance away the horribleness and the stark specificity of what happened.
In the class, I veer away from Achebe’s text and decide to tell the class of some of my own experiences which I am almost sure will not be theirs. I decide to tell them how much I hate and fear having to ask for directions in the city centre of Glasgow. I have done it a few times and no matter how well-dressed I am, the response I get usually makes me feel humiliated. At best, the response is a wide-eyed nervousness while the person looks up and down the road for an escape – but at least this quietness allows me space to ask my unthreatening question for directions and then they usually relax. Most other times, however, I’m not allowed any space to speak. Sometimes I get the immediate response: ‘I’m sorry, I just don’t have time for this! I’m rushing!’ and then they will walk away – slowly, shaking their heads, not in a rush at all. An even worse response I get: ‘I don’t have any money! Sorry!’
I hardly tell such stories because when I do it seems I have to become a contortionist of sorts – I have to twist the narrative in so many ways to acknowledge that yes, yes, yes – I know not everyone is like this, and yes, yes, yes, I know *you* would never do this yourself, and yes yes yes I know it is only a minority of very stupid people. After a time all the effort is not about relating my experience, but about trying to make my mostly white audience not feel accused. So I spare myself the effort, and I spare them the accusation, and I just don’t mention it at all. It is obviously a sad thing that many people cannot speak about their experiences honestly because the audience might be too defensive to hear them.
In all of this I feel I hold dual or even multiple citizenship – for I belong to both an oppressed race, and to a privileged class. It is hard to think of my life as it has been these last few years – so much of it lived on planes going to this country or that, and not think about the responsibility of my ‘privilege’. So I like to believe I understand something of both worlds, and here is a truth I now believe: that whenever we belong to a privileged or oppressing class or race or group of any kind — and whenever such a group is accused of their oppressive behaviours — then they will begin to demand ‘nuance’ or else, the avoidance of ‘easy generalizations’. They will believe that this demand is fair-minded, academic, and rigorous. But it usually isn’t. It usually is an emotional demand. In such moments we are not seeking nuance at all; rather, we are seeking an absolution, a forgiveness, a way out, a clause offered that allows us not to belong to the category of wicked people being accused.
And I get it. When you are accused again and again and again of the same old, same old – you grow wary of it. You begin to roll your eyes and demand – for godsake! – another story, a different story. You begin to ask for some sort of nuance. But the thing is, depending on how great the oppression is, we really ought not to give or receive the relief of such nuance. When nuance becomes a way to sweep emotional and physical bruisings, maiming, unnecessary hostilities, beatings, tortures, suicides, murders, burnt houses, forced exiles, and the whole lot of it all under the carpet — when nuance is co-opted into the systemic denial of wrongs – then we really ought to say to ‘nuance’ thanks, but no thanks.
Get out clauses are not helpful when they allow us to not bother face ourselves – when we begin to believe that if we are not the man beating the woman, or if we are not the white person shouting nigger at the black man, or if we are not part of the mob beating those two gay men, then we are somehow innocent and that there is nothing in our behaviour or our beliefs that both contribute to and fortify this wider system of oppression.
A year or so ago on an online forum, a Ms Manley who I’ve never met but who in every regard seems to be quite a sensible person, still managed to make an astoundingly stupid point. She suggested that if gay men in Jamaica were *really* being viciously beaten then all of them would have obviously died by now. In her curious logic, oppression and annihilation are the same things. If you had not been annihilated then you obviously hadn’t been seriously oppressed.
The lessons that women, black people, Jewish people (amongst so many other categories of oppressed people) have taught us throughout history somehow missed Ms Manley – the simple truth that oppression very often leads to creativity, to subterfuge, to marronage, to various strategies of masking and passing, and also to the most amazing narratives of survival. Under the weight of oppression many people have been broken, but many others have survived. Survival in no way excuses or negates the fact of oppression. As we say in Jamaica – ‘what don’t kill yu, mek yu stronger’ but that is no reason to glory in or to excuse the things that tried to kill us. Because of historic oppressions we have inherited all manner of beautiful things: recipes, rituals, songs, dances, art, language — but none of this excuses the original oppression.
Now Ms Manley was understandably annoyed by the picture the international media have decided to paint of Jamaica’s homophobia. The Ms Manleys of Jamaica have begun to roll their eyes in wariness and to demand nuance/complexity/another kind of story for godsake! Friends like Annie Paul have pointed to the phenomenon of Shebada in Jamaican Theatre, or to the obvious queer aesthetic in the supposedly hyper-masculine world of Jamaican dancehall. But it seems to me now that all of this is to be expected! Whatever is oppressed, whatever is submerged, will find ways to bubble up and over. If you have eyes intelligent enough to see it, you will see it. What you must not do however – the mistake you must not make – is to say that because of this bubbling over, things are not so bad after all, or that the oppression isn’t as much as people make it out to be. What we must not do with ‘nuance’ (if we are responsible people) is to let it turn the dial down on things and issues that need to make as loud a sound as possible.
A month ago in Jamaica two boys from UTECH were set upon by a crowd of tertiary level students who had decided to teach them a lesson in ‘morality’. One boy managed to escape; the other to the security guards for protection. Unfortunately the security guards decided not to protect this boy but to teach him the same violent lesson in morality that the crowd outside were intent on.
Now it must be quite obvious that no one was acting sensibly. But can we admit that they were acting culturally? In the horrible moment of that beating everyone seemed to be united into thinking the action appropriate. What exactly has wired their brains to think this way? And you can bring all the nuance in the world to show that there are other stories (yes, there certainly are) or that you know other examples of people who weren’t beaten (yes, sure, not everyone is beaten; this is true), or that the man who sells you red peas in Coronation Market in downtown Jamaica is obviously both gay and popular in his community (yes, yes, he probably is). But nuance of this kind is ultimately dishonest, not because it isn’t true, but rather because it tries to suppress a much more urgent truth.
It was the same with some in my class. They wanted another truth – for Chinua Achebe to expand on the point of not all white people being racist. And if he had expanded on that, it most certainly would have been true. But not all truths are equal, and it is a sad thing when nuance is co-opted so that some of us might get away with only facing the less important ones.
Kei, precisely because i had made the argument you mention, citing Shebada et al, to suggest that attitudes might be slowly changing in Jamaica, not enough, but changing yes (and also that ironically roots theatre seemed to be a good stage to wage war on stereotypes ), that i devoted 3 posts to the UTECH beating; because i didn’t want to be complicit in suggesting that everything’s hunky dory and fine on the homophobic front when it obviously isn’t…
As if this were facebook *like* to the comment above. 🙂
In all seriousness though, it’s just something that struck me recently after that class – what we sometimes mean by nuance. Thought it worth it to put the idea out there.
absolutely…it IS a useful point you’re making about the negative side of nuance. btw did you notice that Associated Press has banned the use of the word homophobia?! http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/11/the_ap_bans_homophobia_is_the_word_really_inaccurate.html
It’s really interesting to see the class’s reactions from your point of view, given what you know that we don’t and what experiences you have had/seen/been aware of that we haven’t.
As I tried to say in the essay, I tried to make a conscious effort not to take Chinua Achebe’s argument personally (which maybe contributes to the emotional ‘you’re overgeneralising’ response you mention) – whilst at the same time take the things he was actually cautioning incredibly personally. I think that’s important because I think we white (British) make generalisations and assumptions without thinking – all the time – and in ways I think we genuinely don’t even realise because they’re so ingrained, even when we try and escape from them. Perhaps that’s becuase such things are passed down from generation to generation without the previous generation knowing where they originate, so not having a way to break the cycle. But you read all that guff anyway in the essay response…
I wonder how Achebe would construct such an argument without being general? I suppose he could have more specifically attacked Conrad’s attitude and decisions in ‘Heart of Darkness’ without bringing other white, ‘European’ people in, but then what would be the point? If it was completely specific, what would other people gain from such a study? And wouldn’t tearing strips out of the arguments of each person he considered racist on an individual level appear even more petty?
One question I would plant is whether it’s always something culture/race-related that you’re encountering when you try and ask for directions and people brush you off. Something happened about two weeks after that seminar. I was walking to Buchanan Street subway from the bus station, alone at night, down the alley that connects Buchanan Street to the taxi rank and the back subway entrance (the little narrow street with the pub on it), a man was going “excuse me Sir, excuse me madam” to people and trying to stop them. I automatically went “Sorry, no” and carried on. Then as soon as I passed I felt incredibly guilty because of your anecdote and I’d automatically done the same thing as people had done to you! However, the reason I did it is that I’m a young female alone at night, and I’ve always been taught that such situations have the possibility of either turning either flirtatious or fatally nasty or both, so I wouldn’t have stopped for any man, for that reason. Furthermore, he was standing outside a pub. I know that’s a huge generalisation on my part, and based on a huge amount of prejudice, but it genuinely is quite scary when it happens, and it genuinely is part of female street-wisdom that has been passed on to me. I imagine a lot of females here travelling alone at night have a similar internal alarm that goes off when a man attempts to stop them, simply because they are a man.
The other thing is, you say you worry about coming in, a black teacher, teaching a mostly white class about an author who tackles racism in white people. You worry about creating a black vs. white, teacher vs. pupil situation, if I understand correctly. That may be the case, but (I wrote this in my notebook as you were talking about it in class) I think it works the other way around too. If a white teacher was teaching the class, I think a lot of people would not take them seriously – they’d think ‘What authority does he have on this subject? He’s not black – he can’t know what that perspective is like’. So you can’t win!
Thanks so much for this blog post Kei. I read it while gazing at Jamaica’s north coast, pondering my own uncomfortable journey, being part of a privileged race and class, history and present. Not all truths are equal as you say, and although as I think through how Jamaica was populated, it is true we are all displaced, some displacements were infinitely worse than others.
Superb piece. Helps me see the defenses we use to not see inconvenient truths.
No, you’re right. Now I’m on the receiving end of it (if not in terms of race then of Aspergers) and it IS pretty illogical…
Thanks for this essay. I find that in Bermuda there is a tendency to, firstly, not acknowledge the grievous past regarding slavery, nor to see the implications and the remnants still at work there in present day life. The first is a blatant disregard for truth, and the second is an unwillingness to see the complexities (nuance) of its wake.