Sitting in a classroom listening to a European professor talk about colonialism and literary texts analyzed in a post-colonial manner was more than a strange experience for me.
(slight Jane Eyre spoilers)
I live in southeast Asia and have lived here my whole life. Having been colonized by the West two times in the past, my country has definitive ties with these countries even until today. We learn these things growing up, listening to our Asian teachers talk about how our ancestors were treated cruelly by these Western people–these white people.
It didn’t really come across my mind that I would have to be forced to confront this deep-seated hatred I hold in my identity as someone part of a culture that has been taken advantage of a significant number of times.
And then I went to university. The particular university I went to had professors and students with different ethnicities, despite being situated in Asia. A friend took Western history under a professor from the Netherlands (my thoughts on Western history being required in an Asian university will be for another time, but it’s safe to say it is not a good series of thoughts) and my roommate was from Thailand, spending a year of studying here. These were strange at first but I didn’t really mind them as they were–in my mind–‘appropriate’ places for their identity. I was fine with a European professor teaching European-centered history.
And then I met a European professor who was not teaching European-centered concepts. The whole class wasn’t centered on a certain culture, but most of it was discussing certain texts examined using a post-colonial lens.
Let’s call her June. I had learned later on that June had been living in this country longer than I have. That is, she lived here before I was even born.
However, I did not know that when I was listening to her talk as if it was her people who were called “savages.” In hindsight, I guess it is not that hard to believe that a literary professor would be well-versed in a topical literary genre, post-colonialism. It sat wrong with me when she began comparing the treatment of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s wfe, to how colonizers treated the colonized countrymen.
It was true, but it felt wrong to hear it from her because of her identity.
Word such as “savagery” and “dehumanize” were used in her discussion, simply repeating concepts I already knew from living in a colonized country. I wasn’t really sure how to approach the discomfort I encountered during this class, so my friend and I approached her during a ten minute break (the class was three hours).
I was a little shy, so my friend instead asked, “What’s it like to be a white person teaching a predominantly Asian class about post-colonialism?”
June didn’t look uncomfortable at all, as I had imagined would happen. Her answer wasn’t impressive, merely saying that it was humbling and that she learns along us.
I was confused. How could she be okay with talking to us as if she was teaching us something? How could she be okay with having a history with the culture she was teaching?
It took me a few months and another class with hers to fully come to terms with it. In the end, I realized that this happens. It isn’t entirely fair but it isn’t something to be against to.
Sure, she grew up in a culture that has benefited from discriminating my culture. Sure, she doesn’t have to go through the unspoken unnoticed remnants of colonialism like I had. Sure, she may not have had to work as hard as, say, an Asian professor to be in that position.
However, her identity was not all her culture. She was not just some representative of European culture that had come from the high ivory towers to teach us about ourselves. She was a professor that loved literature and studied it and had the courage to talk about a subject that was difficult for her. She may not completely be rid of the privilege provided to her by her white identity, but she knew what she was talking about, more than me obviously.
She may not get it wholly, but she has studied it and was qualified. I wasn’t and that was why I was listening to her.
Perhaps one day I’ll learn to be comfortable with this setup.