Religion & Philosophy Department

Lebanon Valley College

Diversity at Lebanon Valley College

I put a lot of thought into the various reactions to the recent “bias incidents” here at LVC and that led me to thinking about the institutional aspects of intolerance and all those -isms, racism, sexism, etc. (My son, who is struggling being the only Jew and the only atheist at his elementary school, wanted an easy label for attitudes of religious intolerance, so we decided to call them all -ism and came up with religionism, sexualityism, ageism, sizeism). In my Introduction to Religion class we spent a few days talking about scholars of religion who discuss Power–Gramsci, Althusser, Weber, and Foucault–so my mind was swimming with analyzing the situation in terms of power. What was the discourse on race and sexuality on campus? How did the administration, our curriculum, and the college’s response to these events advance hegemonic notions of culture at LVC and speak to or ignore subaltern identities? In what ways did Foucault’s notion of the internalization of power and subjugation help us understand the communities response? How does his notion of surveillance impact how we perform our gender, and other, identities on campus?

But these discussions weren’t going to stick beyond the end of the semester, if they lasted past the end of class. I wanted to come up with something that spoke to the subtle ways in which race, gender, religion, and sexuality are defined by the dominant culture and oppress the subaltern, the minority. In the Sustained Inter-faith Dialogues we talked about the responsibility the Religious majority in a democracy has towards the religious minorities, but these dialogues, while very helpful, often merely focus on what we agree about, what we all deplore. So too do discussions of race and gender. So I wanted to come up with some way to help students, and faculty, see how subtle expressions of power could be more dangerous, not only because they are more subtle, but also because they are more pervasive. Often these unspoken assumptions about identity shape the way we think in ways so subtle we are unaware. When we discuss religion in class and try to define it, students efforts to define often reveal unexamined default assumptions, that turn out to be a product of their own religious experience. That is, the definition begins to look like Protestant Christianity, because it is the default, the assumed norm, the model with which most students, even if not Protestant Christians themselves, are familiar. But to use this as a model for all religions is a problem. Like the margins or spacing in our word processors, we only examine them when someone, usually our professors telling us what they want, point them out to us. But how many know what kerning is? The spacing between each individual character has a huge impact on how we see the written word, but we don’t think about it, we trust Microsoft or Apple to set those for us. We don’t even need to think about it. They are the default settings. They are normal.

What a seemingly comfortable and wonderful word, normal. The other bias incident that prompted the Unity March involved someone writing “Be normal” on a homosexual student’s dorm write-and-wipe board. Normal means fit in, don’t rock the boat. Like Buddhists in America in the 1900s, who changed many aspects of their religious practice to look for Protestant, America expects people to be normal. I understand the discomfort with difference, its only natural, but when it comes to forcing others to fit our mold things get bad. How boring would it be if we all looked the same? acted the same? Timmy Turner found this out in a very gray episode of Fairly Odd-Parents, and the creators realized even we were all the same there would be folks who thought they were more the same than everyone else.

So I wanted to point out some aspect of our culture, LVC culture, that imposed normal on its students. Couple this with my recent feeling that only shock gets through to the average General-Education-class-taking student and you get a provocative pedagogical attempt to reveal one of these defaults, one of these hidden perceptual proclivities, one of the ways that race and gender maintain their hegemonic hold on us.

Here is what I came up with.

African-American Dutchman

If I were a better artist I would have created a female Dutchman (Dutchwoman?), but I decided other Dutchman would quickly devolve into caricatures, and that would be no use pedagogically. So, let’s get past the awkward reaction… No, wait! Why is there an awkward reaction to this image. If it makes you uncomfortable, maybe you should ask why. We ask African-American students, Asian students, Hispanic students, and others to identify with a white Dutchman. We ask women to identify with a male Dutchman. Why would we be uncomfortable with our mascot being different than us when we ask a significant minority of our students to identify as a white male to belong?

That the image is of an outdated notion of the American norm should disturb us, but it doesn’t. The white man has been the default American for so long, we no longer even notice it, much less question it. Americans must identify with the male perspective, and the white perspective, in order to fit in. Why do we say Muslim terrorist, but not Christian terrorist? Why do we say Denzel Washington is a successful black man, but Tom Hanks is a successful man? Why is it the NBA and the WNBA, as if women is some qualifier, but men’s basketball doesn’t need the same qualifier? When we discuss gender in class, some authors ask what Christians think about women, but never ask what Christians think about men. Why is that? Does it imply a distinction between Christians and women, as if they are two different categories?

I suggest the lesson to be learned from the discomfort this image may bring is that we need to be aware of the subtle ways the the dominant, hegemonic, culture imposes conformity, to recognize the subtle ways that loyalty to a mascot may cover up power structures that continue to oppress despite the majority’s (be it based on race, gender, sexuality, or religion) inability to see the oppression. Part of a liberal arts education is understanding difference, learning to appreciate difference. Understanding the ways in which culture shapes us and is shaped by us helps us see how the world works, how we become the people we are. Just as the the words in this post are organized by hidden protocols that make organize them in a way that facilitates comprehension, protocols about which I am largely unaware, so cultural protocols organize the way we see the world and the way we are seen. And if you don’t want the world to tell you what and how to see, or how you should be seen, you should work at understanding these protocols.

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