Tuesday, August 11, 2020


Article Index

David Keiser: This question of marking out differences in whiteness and masculinity is really important to me. As far as whiteness goes, unlike Matt and Tony, I grew up in one of the most urban areas in this country, New York City. My experience in dealing with surrounding people and surrounding culture was very different, because the people and the cultures were so very different. My grade school, PS 166, was approximately 1/3 Blacks, 1/3 Puertoriqueños, and 1/3 white. Since then, my experience in schools has really changed. As I've progressed through college and now grad school, my surroundings have become much whiter -- I feel a dearth of perspective.

In terms of teacher training, course offerings, and faculty diversity, I see a corresponding absence of women and people of color. Issues of race and gender become invisible. That is, the cream of the crop -- as a PhD. program at Berkeley might be considered -- in still white as milk. But I came to my white male awareness via gender, not race. I want now, by way of a story, to turn to the question of masculinity.

When I was an undergraduate, I took an introductory course in women's studies. We talked mostly about our day to day experiences -- it wasn't too theoretical, or even very historical -- it was more like "how do you feel when this happens to you?" Consequently, I had to deal with who I was as a male. I couldn't just take this course "objectively" and go about my business because every time I would speak, I would be interrogated as a male voice -- not just David's voice. I was heard as part of malespeak. This was very painful.

The following semester, I had the privilege of facilitating the class with another woman. I did a whole lot of crying that semester because strong feminist women would directly confront me. Dealing with questions face to face regarding issues about my masculinity, who I was both internally and externally, and how I was relating in the world (especially to women)-- that was tough!! It was my baptism of fire and, I think it has made me a better "feminist" now. And now, I find myself engaged in activities that are largely considered "feminine;" i.e. helping and sharing activities. As an educator I help people, I dance with people. This is fun for me. But the way we've constructed it in this society, it is seen as soft, or weak, or feminine.

I see this all the time. For example, I'm teaching a writing workshop in downtown Oakland and there is a lot of everyday, vernacular speech floating around the room. Last week, I learned a new term -- "bitch-made." It was used in a poem one of my students wrote. Now generally, I have a problem with that word "bitch" when it is applied to women...but I thought I understood the meaning. I thought it meant a guy with a pretty girlfriend, or a rich girlfriend, someone who is making their lives better. That made sense to me. But students laughed at me, because what it meant for them was that a guy was weak or soft. These gender attitudes are still very much with young people growing up now -- internalized and taken for granted. But I think classrooms can be a privileged space for discussing these attitudes. As educators, we ought to use these spaces to challenge and critique isms and phobias.

Now to get back to the race question: I'm Jewish and Italian, and I'm a little bit darker skinned than the rest of you guys. I can go into many places in South Berkeley or Oakland, and be treated OK -- people don't trip that there's a white person coming in to drink. I don't catch too much shit for this -- people treat me as a participant. People of color and women don't often have that same privilege!

I'm engaged in a Brazilian martial art called capoeira that has a reputation of being extremely male. I work with a group that is run by a woman -- it's the only group in the Bay Area that is taught by a woman. Many of the women in this class came from another teacher who teaches with a masculine style. My point is that I seek out spaces that are nurturing, but that are also labeled, alternately, "feminist," or "ethnic," or even "soft." And I do this as a way of crossing borders. At the same time, I acknowledge that it is a privilege to be able to go back and forth as I do. I see it as a way of struggling to embrace my "browness" in a way that doesn't put off anyone who is darker than me. How do I cross borders and still "own" my Jewish/Italian identity?


Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law