Content Warning: Racism, Transphobia, and Acephobia
Several months before I mentally closed my eyes and pointed at Bates as the school I wanted to attend, I had decided an English, Math, double major was my jam. I did not realize at the time that the simultaneity of my direction and profound apathy towards specificity was something like a marker of gender dysphoria. I say “something like” to indicate the lack of a certainty associated with the revisionary restorative nature of memory. As someone who survives and resists queerphobia, memory protects my health. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the atmosphere of most Bates College English classes regularly delegitimize and gaslight “non-normative” ontological perspectives.
I think this issue is emblematic of broader norms at Bates rather than unique issue to the English. In fact, Bates English professors, of any department I have taken classes in, have done the best job at questioning and deconstructing “normative” assumptions of existence. But regardless of how many times a professor can critique the supposed need for literature to have “universal” appeal, it fails to have significant impact when the broader Bates culture preserves the status quo.
The Bates College English major requires two English classes labelled as “diaspora.” Though requiring this of the predominantly white English majors, more so by percentage than the predominantly white school, forces students to grapple with canons they would likely otherwise not engage with, it’s ultimately a compensatory view of knowledge. Simply having white students take classes about the works of people of color does not require a serious amount of self-awareness. And even when many students do seriously engage with literary material that directly challenges their privileges, this investigation often remains fleeting and relegated to the classroom.
Though I think this requirement is probably for the best, there are a myriad of unfortunate consequences from this policy. Classes that were once small and mostly students of color, now grapple with an influx of white students. Although many students of color deal with their own internalized white supremacy, this pales in comparison to that of white folks. Despite not personally experiencing it in direct a way, I can easily notice that classes like these usually refuse to move with any seriousness from white-centric perspectives. I do not think it is productive to recreate these scenes as the person who did not live them.
However, I describe this paradigm because situations like these matter, as much of the world is read through race and racism.
I can, however, briefly describe my experience as a genderqueer, neuro-atypical, ace in the Bates English Department. For the most part, queer relationships are relegated to the periphery of the English curriculum. In the eleven-book curriculum for the Bates English major’s mandatory methods class, not one featured an explicitly homosexual relationship. The only discussion was about the implied relationship between Billy Budd and Claggart in Melville’s a Billy Budd a Sailor. Claggart’s homoromantic advances on Budd symbolically lead to his “fall” and death (depending on which ending is read). Each character basically epitomisizes the binaristic portrayal of gay/bi/pan people’s literary portrayal, by cishet people, as either a victim or a cackling and creepy/cool/strange villain. Outside of being a bad cliche, it’s usually almost nauseating to, by necessity of the narrowness of the English department’s class offerings, be pigeonholed into reading queer theory into dead straight white men’s fairly narrow view of exclusively white gay men. It’s a compensatory tradition that I do not even begin to fit into as not only my queer identities intersect my ability, they also intersect one another. As a product of my neuro-atypical mind, I cannot organize my ideas quickly enough to explain precisely why I am frustrated with Billy Budd a Sailor’s depiction of hyper masculine gay men.
But that’s the expectation when schools take the add and stir approach of “diversity,” as opposed to equity. I, like many others, am expected to engage in conversations and bring my experience into the “transformative power of our differences,” regardless of how emotionally taxing it may be. The presence of an optional English department Queer Studies class, not applying to any significant requirements of the major, does do not nearly enough to undermine heteronormativity, let alone cis-centrism. It’s a first step, one not worthy of self congratulation.
“Inclusivity” (parallel to diversity) and “equity” are not synonymous terms.