미국에 살다보면 한국과 가장 다른점이라면 다양한 인종이 아닌가 싶어요. 특히나 뉴욕같은 곳은 워낙에 다양한 사람들이 섞여사는 곳이래서, 미국이지만 미국이 아니라고들 하네요. 어째든 미국에 와서 뉴욕에 정착해서 살면서 개인적으로는 좀 조용하게 살고 있어요. 하지만 한참 교육을 받는 아이들은 아무래도 다양한 인종들 그리고 집에서의 문화와 학교에서의 문화 혹은 도시에서의 문화가 다르다보니, 정체성에 대해서 많은 생각을 하는 아이들도 많고, 학교의 커리큘럼에 대해서도 다양한 생각을 하곤 하는듯 싶어요.
아래글은 저희 아이가 15살때 학교 영어과 커리큘럼에 대해서 비판을 한 글이예요. 이 글을 자신이 친구들과 만들어서 편집장으로 있던 교내 문예지에 실었고, 나중에 학교의 다른 아이가 이 글에 대한 비판을 교내 신문에 상당히 길게 썼고, 애는 또 그 글에 대한 반박글을 쓰곤 했어요. 개인적으로 미국 교육에 만족하는 것중에 하나는, 아이들이 다양한 사고를 할 수 있도록 해주고, 그것이 자연스러운 분위기로 자리잡을 수 있도록 해준다는 느낌을 받을때인데, 이 글에 나타난 아이의 불만과는 별개로 이런 글을 쓸 수 있고 이런 글을 자유롭게 쓸 수 있는 학교의 분위기에 만족을 많이했네요.
“You know that game? Chinese telephone?”
My ninth-grade English teacher stands before the chalkboard, awaiting a response. Nobody responds. Finally, a student speaks up: “I think it’s just called telephone.”
Our teacher tries to explain himself, saying, “Well it’s telephone, but it’s called Chinese telephone because Chinese is gibberish.”
This time, nobody corrects him.
*** To this day, that moment haunts me. It had never before occurred to me that a teacher could stand in a classroom that is 50% Asian-American and yet still say something so obscenely self-centered and racist. It had also never occurred to me before how thoroughly those students whose stories do not fit the dominant culture’s narrative of the heterosexual white boy have been shut out of English class. Every single book we were taught that year was written by a dead white man: Romeo and Juliet, Catcher in the Rye, 1984, Great Expectations, and All Quiet on the Western Front.
Kids learn fast. Students of color don’t need to be sat down daily and told explicitly Your story is worthless Your heritage is worthless You are worthless in order for them to internalize this message. We just need to go to class, where we are told that the only stories that matter are ones about straight white men. Because ultimately, that is what the English department is telling students who have been marginalized by the curriculum—that the stories of your people do not exist, and you do not exist, either. The only stories that matter are those written by heterosexual white men. By establishing the normative narrative as that of the heterosexual white male and the white body as pure and generic, unmarked by the weight of a racial identity, the English curriculum pathologizes the bodies, stories, and lives of students of color as Other.
Junot Diaz compares this phenomenon to that of being a vampire: "You guys know about vampires?" He asks. "You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There's this idea that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. And what I've always thought isn't that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. It's that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
Diaz goes on to say that “part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it." Denying contemporary writers of color like Junot Diaz and Maxine Hong-Kingston a substantial place in the English curriculum because they are not “classics” denies students whose lives have been impacted by racism the tools they need to develop frameworks through which to understand their own lived experiences. The writing of these contemporary authors is particularly valuable because they have studied canonical texts, but have then adapted the tools of the writers who came before them to tell stories that truly reflect the diversity of the lives and cultural histories of students sitting in the classroom today. After all, while Toni Morrison may have borrowed from Virginia Woolf in crafting the experimental prose and stream-of-consciousness techniques of Beloved, Morrison told stories that no white person could ever have written.
Writers like Toni Morrison and Amy Tan have fought to be heard, and they hold an invaluable place in English curricula because they show students the potential for change. The Joy Luck Club was not my favorite eighth-grade English book, but it was by far the most important to me—not because I related to the narrative itself, or even because I enjoyed the story, but because my teacher described Amy Tan’s writing as “beautiful.” I had never studied a book by an Asian-American writer before. It had never occurred to me that the lives of Asian-American women—that the life of someone like me—could be worth reading or writing about. And it had never before occurred to me that the writing of an Asian-American woman, of a daughter of two immigrants, could ever be considered “beautiful.”
Since then, many of my friends have stated that they would rather my school’s English curriculum not feature any books written by Asian-American writers than that it feature one single book that is as exotifying, orientalist, and white-saviorist as The Joy Luck Club is. After all, teaching just one book that is supposed to represent of all Asian-American students homogenizes the experiences of Asian-American people and leads white students to believe that the reason why there is only one book by an Asian-American writer in the entire curriculum is because a) Asian-American students do not belong in literary spaces, b) The Joy Luck Club is reflective of all Asian-American immigrant experiences, and c) the lives of Asian-American students do not matter. Asian-American students are also led to many of these same beliefs: that a) Asian-American students do not belong in literary spaces, b) The Joy Luck Club is reflective of all Asian-American immigrant experiences and that if one’s own experiences as an Asian-American student does not follow the trajectory of this one, tokenized book by an Asian-American writer, then one’s own experiences are not “authentically” Asian-American, and c) the lives of Asian-American students do not matter.
While in an ideal world, perhaps, English classes could study works written solely by dead white men without there being negative repercussions on the student body, the reality of the world that we live in is that the vast majority of the students’ lives are affected by racism, sexism, homophobia, and/or other systems of oppression on a daily basis. When English classes fail to discuss the ways in which these systems of oppression are acted out in the books we read, they invalidate the struggles of the students whose lives are affected by these systems of oppression; it is only by reading and discussing work that deals with these issues that students can find validation of their own experiences and imagine a place for themselves within the world of literature—an act that in itself becomes a form of resistance against the white cultural hegemony of Western academia. The only reason the heterosexual white male experience is considered “universal” is that heterosexual white men have never had to struggle against disenfranchisement due to their race, gender, or sexuality, and that as a result they have never been forced to see the world through any perspective other than their own. That is to say, Korean-American students are constantly expected to be able to understand the world through a white gaze, whereas white students have never been asked to see the world from a Korean-American perspective.
There is a fundamental difference between a student reading the work of Milton and feeling empowered because they think I can understand this great white male poet just as well as any white/heterosexual/Christian man, and therefore I can be as good as a white/heterosexual/Christian man, and that same student reading the work of somebody with whom they identify and thinking, I do not need to look up only to white/heterosexual/Christian men because people like me have created great art, and I have literary heroes that are like me. Whereas in the first scenario the student is assimilating the values of the dominant culture, in the second scenario, the student is able to escape the white literary gaze, the male literary gaze, the heterosexual literary gaze, the Christian literary gaze, etc. and instead conceive of a future in which studying literature no longer means turning their back on their own identities and communities but rather becomes a way of reaffirming the identities and lived experiences of all human beings, including themselves.
If there is one thing I hope all students learn in English class and that I hope all teachers hope their students learn in English class, it is that books are for everyone, regardless of factors like race, gender, class, sexuality, or education. But by continuing to marginalize the stories of people of color, of women, of LGBTQ+ writers, and of those whose identities occur at the intersectionalities of multiple systems of oppression, English classes alienate a huge portion of the student population and tell them that their stories and their lives do not matter. Asian-American students in particular—students who often come from families where they do not speak English at home and have been told their entire lives to go into STEM careers—then go on to decide that books and English classes are not for them and grow up to reinforce stereotypes about Asian-Americans being inherently bad at reading and writing. By diversifying the English curriculum, English teachers enable more students to allow themselves to engage with great works of literature
Donohue, Brian. "Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz tells students his story." NJ.Com.
<New Jersey On-Line LLC, 21 October 2009. Web. 18 January 2015.>