A Semester in Review: Exploring the Many Sides of Bias

surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar
poems about nature and landscape
surely     but whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
and…”     why
is there under that poem always
an other poem?

— Lucille Clifton

When I approached this assignment originally, I felt sure of my choice to use the Toni Morrison epigraph from her 1993 Nobel Lecture.  I’m actively surprising and challenging myself by using an epigraph that to be honest, did not stick out to me until the very morning that I sat down to start this reflective blog post.

I’d first like to define a concept coined by Donna Haraway, “the God-trick.”  In “Dueling Dualisms” an essay by Anne Fausto-Sterling, this concept is defined as the way in which “knowledge” is produced “from above, from a place that denies the individual scholar’s location in a real and troubled world” (9, emphasis added).  This position of false indifference allows scholars to presume a space impermeable to cultural biases.  Lucille Clifton references this sort of failure to be purely objective in this course epigraph.

What is most striking in her poem are the lines “why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?”  When I first read this epigraph I completely read over her intentional choice to include “an other” rather than what I read initially as “another.”  This distinction carries within it connotations of cultural othering of marginalized groups. When we consider the placement of the “other poem” under that which is termed “that poem” or what I see to be the presumed objective poem, we can see that Clifton is arguing that cultural biases always come through in art.  What I’m saying here is that there is a connection between what Clifton is saying about poetry in particular and art in general and “the God-trick.”  The way one might convince themselves that they are objective, is similar to the way that Clifton argues the presence of “always/ an other poem.” Fausto-Sterling explores the God-trick as it applies to research and mainly science, but I’d like to expand its range to all forms of art and academic work.  It is impossible to separate the work one does from their cultural biases.

I plan to show how this course epigraph and it’s meaning, as I’ve uncovered it, has a through line that intercepts both relevant course texts from this semester as well as meaningful truths I’ve discovered about myself. I think it is worth pointing out that I find myself reflecting on my growth this semester for a few of the courses that I’ve taken.  There is a sort of repetition and revision that accompanies an end of the semester self reflective assignment. I’m grateful for this. This is important because it will be nearly impossible for me to keep my reflections in each class wholly independent of each other. I think of my academic experience as one that is fractal; each seed shape (course) is influenced by “an other” seemingly independent seed shape, or course.  My experience this semester has not moved in a straight line, rather my classes have overlapped in ways that were truly enlightening. I constantly find myself making connections between all the different areas which I study. There is obvious overlap in all my Women’s and Gender Studies courses, and I was expecting some overlap in African American Literature.  I was happy to find myself connecting coursework from this semester, as well as past semesters.  For example, I was able to connect the Thomas Jefferson “Notes on Virginia” piece with a bell hooks reading for Feminism and Pornography (read: bell hooks in Conversation with Thomas Jefferson).  Instead of setting out and attempting to write a separate poem for each reflection, I’d rather openly acknowledge the fact that “under [each] poem [there] always / [lies] an other poem.”

Something that Professor McCoy referenced often in class was the danger of a faulty electrical socket.  What she means by this is, I think, is the way in which sometimes our mouths can do work without properly collaborating with our brains.  This seems like taking one’s biases too far and allowing them to take over. However, I feel the need to interject here. I want to make clear that one’s cultural biases are often not conscious biases.  These biases are cultural in nature due to the conditioning of Western society. I fell victim to the faulty electrical socket once in class while discussing “Bloodchild.” I let my own biases influence the way I referred to the T’Gatoi character in the story.  I called the T’Gatoi “creatures.” I know now to to be more careful with the words I use in certain situations. Though, I recognize that this freudian slip, was exactly that, a subconscious utterance largely based on my upbringing as an American citizen. On one end, we have “the God-trick,” the way we might convince ourselves that we have no bias, that we are being objective.  On the other end, we have a fault electrical socket, if we allow our biases to overpower our critical thinking processes we might hurt ourselves and others. A lot of navigating this class and life in general is about learning to steer clear of both ends of this spectrum.

In class following a Big Machine reading, we were informed of an overlap between fictional events in the book and real life American tragedy: 9/11.  “It was a cobalt blue morning, which looked as though it would turn into another warm afternoon” (Lavalle, 353). I had no idea of the connection at the time of reading.  In our smaller group discussions the line was brought into question, no one was sure how they felt about that line, ascribed to real tragedy, being attached to fictional tragedy.  I had other concerns and I felt myself get anxious. 9/11 has always been a touchy subject because of my own cultural biases. I have an uncle on my moms side, who volunteered and searched for victims in the aftermath, but on the other side of my family, my father is a Muslim immigrant from Algeria.  Whenever 9/11 is brought up, I worry about the language others might use, I worry about whether or not to reveal my own identity as a product of a Muslim immigrant.

In the past I would have chosen to stay silent, listening to others speak of their connections and opinions, for fear of being ostracized or unfairly othered.  Instead, I spoke frankly about the tragedy and the lives lost, while also recognizing and pointing to the detrimental and long lasting effects on the Muslim community.  I voiced and made my own heritage clear. I told the story of my uncle. When he was living in Boston as an undocumented Algerian immigrant, shortly after the attacks he received a call from the United States government, a call that didn’t come in good faith.  Most people don’t know that I’m Muslim, but this isn’t purely due to shame, it is largely due to the fact that I don’t practice any religion, but I recognize I’m more likely to speak about my Jewish roots, than my Muslim roots. I worry more about the way this heritage is likely to be perceived by the average person.

It was hard for me to come to that discussion and leave my culture, no matter how strongly I feel a connection to it, at the door.  Though it was hard for my classmates to leave their biases at the door as well. Another student spoke about growing up in New York City and despite not being old enough at the time of the attack, she felt incredibly deeply about it.  I’m happy I reacted the way that I did in that moment. I feel that I was able to provide a different interpretation and view that without acknowledging my “other” identity would not have been possible. By revealing myself, I was hopefully able to enhance the experience of those around me as well as to enhance my own experience by way of self acceptance.  Clifton argues that under a primary poem lies a subtext which reveals the truth. It was in this moment in class that I was able to reveal my own truth, rather than to fight or cover it. Furthermore, my actions in that discussion showed growth. Where I am outspoken and strong about other aspects of my identity, I’m an adamant queer feminist and very liberal, my Muslim identity has always existed at a crossroads.  

I recognize the space I’ve allotted to this short interaction in class, but this seems right to me.  I’ve thought at length about this interaction and other interactions where I’ve failed to recognize this aspect of my identity.  It feels that I’m finally doing my Muslim heritage justice by allowing it to take up space where I haven’t in the past. I hope to continue this trend of acceptance in the future.

I’d like to point to my use of the word crossroads, at the time it was an arbitrary choice, but while typing I realized a connection between this crossroads, where conflicting identities meet, and what Bernice Johnson Reagon had to say about the “twoness… three and fourness of things” (Reagon, 112).  At the time of reading “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” at the very start of this semester, my training in Women’s and Gender Studies lead me understand this “twoness” as intersectionality. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in the early 90s, refers to the ways in which identities can overlap and lead to increased marginalization.  If we further unpack this crossroad, this twoness, this intersectionality, we can see a connection to Clifton’s poem.   We can see this as not just one “other poem,” but rather many “other” poems which are either being covered or simply not being noticed.

This all harkens back to something I learned last semester about passing and covering.  In Covering Kenji Yoshino recounts Erving Goffman’s definition of covering as being the “effort to keep” certain identities which hold stigmas “from looming large,” whereas “passing pertains to the visibility of a particular trait” (Yoshino, 18).  I understand that I’m introducing a lot of new terms here so let me offer an example.  I identify as bisexual, but up until recently I was in a relationship with a straight man.  People who don’t know me will look at my relationship and see a heterosexual woman, this shows that I can pass at heterosexual.  The assumption of heterosexuality also comes from the fact that heterosexual is the dominant norm, anything else is “other.” However, if I were to keep my bisexual identity latent, I would be covering that identity, not allowing it to take up space.  This is what I’ve been doing with my Muslim identity, because my faith is not external it is easy for me to pass as someone with no connection to Islam. It has been something that I strategically cover in certain social groups. Covering is a conscious internal choice, passing is an external way in which you are perceived by others.  

Again if we refer back to the epigraph and read “an other poem” as “an other” identity we can negotiate whether or not Clifton is trying to say if this other poem simply isn’t read, or if it is actively being covered.  This is up for debate, as I think both interpretations are logical. I went to a D’Aguiar reading midway through the semester, something he as a poet, author, and artist said remains important.  To paraphrase: ‘Don’t ask me what the poem means, you tell me what it means to you.’ He said this in response to questions about the meaning of his stories multiple times throughout the question section of the reading, he relayed that this choice to remain objective was an attempt to create new meaning in his work.  With each iteration new meaning is secured. Here we see that strategic objectivity is beneficial, by placing oneself in an objective position, it allows for more meanings and interpretations. However, this is purely contextual. It also is a different type of objectivity which allows for the increased subjectivities of others to show.  When a writer allows their reader to make their own meanings, more cultural biases are being seen. Every person brings something different to the table. By allowing each person in a given room to experience and relay their experience differently, the conversation is enriched with a plethora of new ideas and biases. Bias is not always bad, there is a both/and.  Sometimes ones bias can leave them in danger of a faulty electrical socket, but other times our biases can inform and enrich our analysis. I can offer an example of a time my own biases enriched a reading.

I’ll be paraphrasing because I’ve already explored this idea in a blog post.  Instead of offering the same analysis again, I’d instead like to break down the ways in which I came to offer the analysis.  For my final blog post of the semester I chose to take issue with Big Machine and the ways in which Adele Henry was characterized as a prostitute and almost nothing more.  In what ended up being my longest blog post, aside from the collaborative piece, I argued that the way Lavalle characterized Adele Henry was lazy and offensive.  I think I wouldn’t have been able to come to this point of view and argument without my own unique background as a Women’s and Gender Studies Major. Because of the nature of my academic work, I was able to see the way that Adele was characterized and find fault in it.  I think this analysis added to my reading of the book. I noted in my post that Lavalle could have been attempting “to show the ways in which the general population responds to sex work and how they subsequently treat sex workers.” I used my analytic skills to consider the other side, yet I found no merit in that argument.  I countered my own thinking with a statement about how “it isn’t enough to depict a stereotype or poor treatment” unless “commentary in support of the marginalized group” is offered as a counterpoint. Lavalle didn’t support Henry in the text. In this instance my experience and my bias was able to enhance the way I read and responded to a text.  

We could also look at this epigraph through a different lens.  What D’Aguiar spoke of was increasing the interpretations of a single piece of work, by allowing others to create their own interpretations.  If we interrogate The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass through the lens that Clifton provides we can see a very different interpretation of “the other poem.”  One which I didn’t explore in my initial analysis. Consider “the other poem,” or the other meaning, or the other message, as other to the narrator Frederick Douglass.  Douglass is going further to address the cultural biases of the white reader. He purposely crafts his narrative to address the white reader. He understands the subjectivity of those who will be receiving his work and plans accordingly.  In class we spoke at length about the skill of Frederick Douglass in the way that he crafted his narrative. Douglass made certain choices which indicate that he was writing for someone other than himself. He was writing for a white audience.  Under his narrative, the main narrative, there was an embedded “other” narrative which was crafted specifically in attempt to sway white Americans on the fence about slavery.

I’m reminded of these multiple subjectivities coming from multiple people as I reflect on the blogging exercise and experience this semester.  Reading the blog posts of my classmates revealed a lot about the ways in which our individual experiences color our work in different ways. It was especially interesting to read blog posts from students who wrote about the same topics as me, but through a different contextual lens.  For example in my blog post about the film Us (Jordan Peele, 2018), I explored the thematic similarities between the film and Big Machine, I looked at the ways in which class intersects with both Us and Big Machine.  Analiese made a blog post also exploring Us and Big Machine.  She made a connection between the place where the tethered lived before the rebellion, and Ricky and Adele Henry’s ascent into the sewers.  It was interesting to see the setting of the film and the book compared on a micro level.

These types of analysis make me wonder about the ways we were taught to analyse literature as high schoolers.  I think the problem with the type of analysis taught in high school can be found in the way that we are trained to find the “right” answer.  The truth is there are so many right answers when you’re analysing art. I think this is a fundamental truth I’ve been working towards, unknowingly, in this blog post.  Because we all have biases which are imbedded within ourselves, our art, our work, our analysis, there are multitudes when it comes to analysing art. Under the initial poem there will always be an other poem.

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