“Oh My God, I think America’s Racist”
Manu Samriti Chander
June 5, 2018
So I was asked to speak about teaching 19th-century literature in the Age of Trump and, as I sat down to write the talk, I was reminded of that SNL skit where Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock are standing by as white liberals are shocked by the news of Trump’s election: “Oh my god,” says Cecily Strong’s character incredulously, “I think America’s racist.” “Oh my god,” says Chappelle, rolling his eyes.
I didn’t talk about the skit. Instead I made my best effort to answer the questions that guided the panel in the spirit in which they were asked.
I prefaced my talk by explaining that Rutgers-Newark is seriously diverse. Being at a commuter campus without a strong, centralized university culture means that, of the multiple subject positions my students inhabit, “student” isn’t necessarily the dominant one. Many of them are first and foremost children and parents, primary caregivers, members of their religious communities, employees—people with full lives who take classes largely for the sake of upward social mobility.
I explained that I teach Global Romanticism, choosing “representative” figures from different geographical regions, which has led me to throw away for the most part conventional periodizations, which only really make sense in a Eurocentric context. (The passing of the first reform act in 1832 means a good deal less in India, Guyana, and Australia than it does in England.)
I critiqued the common assumption that if you teach global literatures you teach for content. I pointed out that this is a hangover from the liberal models of sympathetic reading advocated during the last culture wars, the idea being that reading “other” cultural texts allows us to humanize far-distant peoples. I don’t think my students need that, not least because, well, they are the far-distant peoples. They or their families, for the most part, know what life on the ground is like in the Middle East, on the India-Pakistan border, in Mexico, in West Africa. They don’t need literature to teach them to imagine other people’s feelings. So I teach feeling of a different order, not pathos but aisthesis: I teach the texture of language, and I teach prosody—I encourage my students to embrace the partial knowledge that comes from sense experience. I teach “minor” literatures as “great,” insisting that the starting point is always to afford unfamiliar work the status of “art.”
And I concluded with a discussion of why I teach nineteenth-century literature, explaining that, in short, I teach in my field because I’m brown and because my students are brown (large South Asian population at RU-N). I teach to show them that the humanities, all parts of the humanities are for them. Because they’ve been told this isn’t the case. Not just by their parents, who prefer that they go into pre-professional programs; not just by the current president (or the last president, whose attitude toward my students was that they should go to vocational schools and focus on STEM fields); not just by a dysfunctional public education system, which is severely underfunded, my students therefore severely underserved.
We can’t pin the blame on any one thing here. My students live in an America that for decades has continually renewed its commitment to the idea that the humanities are for someone else, students up the road at Columbia or down the road at Princeton. If I’m being honest I spent the first part of my intellectual life tacitly supporting that commitment, too—at Wesleyan; at Michigan, where white students sued the university for its “racist” affirmative action policies; at Brown; at Harvard; at Trinity College. I spent the first part of my career teaching nineteenth century literature to students who took for granted that the nineteenth century was theirs to study. And now I’m doing something different, and it’s not because I’m deeply ethical or because I have some kind of missionary zeal to save brown kids—this is the job I got, so this is what I do. It has, though, afforded me an insight that I didn’t have before getting to RU-N; it has provided a space from which I have been compelled to critique racist structures of exclusion well before Trump was elected.
“Oh my god,” we nineteenth-centuryists now say in disbelief, “I think America’s racist.” “Oh my god,” I think, rolling my eyes, recalling all the ways in which I’ve seen this racism structure my students’ lives and limit their choices for years.
“Oh my god,” we nineteenth-centuryists now ask sincerely and with the best of intentions, “what can we possibly do for our field in this horribly racist, xenophobic world?”
“Oh my god,” I think, “the same thing you should have been doing all along: diversifying your objects of study and the methods you employ in approaching them; making postcolonialism and critical race theory more than niche fields or ‘preferred secondary areas of interest.’ The same thing you, that we should have been doing all along: supporting—with every tool and dollar we have available—scholars of color, whom we commit to training, hiring, and promoting
Though many of my students, as I mentioned, are primarily in college for the sake of upward mobility, some have gone on to get PhDs, and frankly if we are anxious about how we can make 19th-C studies matter in the age of Trump, I think this might be the most important path: train students of color, hire scholars of color, tenure them, change the color of the field. Decolonize nineteenth century studies so that students of color can claim it for themselves. Honestly, I can’t think of any better way for those of us in our position to push back against this president and the all other anti-diversity fascists lavishing in unearned privilege. Train, hire, tenure. That’s all I’ve got.
 This set of reflections arose from a talk presented at the 2018 meeting of the Northeast Victorian Studies Association in Philadelphia, PA. I’m grateful to Jason Rudy for inviting me to participate in this conversation and to Devin Griffiths, Nathan K. Hensley, and Anna Kornbluh for encouraging me to make these notes available on the V21 website.