When I first moved to the U.S.A, I found a serious disconnect between the philosophy “Give me your poor”, and the actual attitudes I was encountering working in Delaware. I wanted to discover if this had always been the case in American History.
The book I latched onto as my guide was “We the People and Others: Duality and America’s Treatment of Its Racial Minorities” by Benjamin Ringer. In the book, Ringer “examines the history of discrimination in the U.S., and looks at the treatment received by Blacks [sic], American Indians [sic], Chinese, Japanese, and Puerto Ricans”. They are all Americans but have different stories. The description does not do justice to the thoroughness of the book, as it also addresses other minorities: Jews and Italians. Each cultural story is unique and at times, the groups oppose each other and oddly at times themselves.
What I learnt from the book was the concept of “we” and “others”, although it was not the main theme of the book but one I continue to notice.
When a group of people are together and share some commonality (race, religion, ethnic background, prejudice), they form a “we”; everyone else is “others”. When the others leave, realignment is required. The ‘we’ group splits into a new “we” and a new set of others.
Groups not only define themselves by what they are, the “we”. They also define themselves by what they are not, the”others”.
On the first day of the class, because I was only student who was not an English major, I looked at everyone else in the class as “others. There were other times when I felt a part of a “we”, the three people of my own age. When I made a point that the teacher agreed with, he was part of my “we” (or vice versa) and the other students were the “others”.
By the end of second class, I felt like part of the larger “we”. I was no longer a part of the “we” differentiated by age, and I was no longer a part of a singular “we” of one non-English major student. As a result, I ws also no longer a part of the “others” that was their complements.
On day 2, I rarely felt a part of the teacher-student “we” of two. I now felt like a part of the “we” of students each trying to solve a problem and helping each other.
What had changed?
I suppose the simple answer is that the anonymity of the others had disappeared. Stating name, background and topic was interesting, but superficial. It established a connection, but not an association. Given that most people can’t remember people’s names, it was a tenuous connection.
Only when students started to discuss their research topic in detail did we see that we all shared a similar passion for our own subjects; an empathy. It was like a window into the soul. Even though we had very diverse topics, we shared a common goal and mutual respect for each other’s path. We felt that openly talking about our topic would not leave us open to ridicule because others were doing the same.
We all expressed doubts about our topics. Some were concerned about being able to get the information needed, some were concerned about the scope of the work and some felt that the topic under discussion was too personal to reveal.
This mutual trust (by sharing what we wanted to do and our personal fears) reminds me of a concept in creative nonfiction writing which I have discovered. It is called the contract between the writer and the reader. The writer presents information to the reader and states that it is true. If it is not true, the reader feels cheated and violated. This trust creates a bond; the writer and the reader become a sort of “we”.
Oddly, I don’t feel this same association with my professor. The association with other students was a process of discovery. If I wanted to discover my professor, I could just read his book “Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD”. His ‘inner self’ was not hidden. Nor did it need to be discovered. It is available on any bookshelf. It is not a mutual journey.
So, we have a real diversity of topics, and I only share those from my table (a table of 4 with each student presenting three possible topics). The one disappointed at my non-existent baby wants to discover if cloning a person also clones their soul. A student, who I suspect is the daughter of a surgeon based on the knowledge she had, wants to examine the treatment of the dead in different cultures, our attitudes towards crime, or an in-depth study of tea. My writing buddy to my left wants to examine why Japan still continues to have three alphabets, and why the Japanese Samurai used to test the sharpness of a blade by cutting some poor unsuspecting soul in half and why this practice survived for so long. And me; my topics are related to my personal interests. My topics are the collaboration of the Renaissance architect Palladio and the humanist Barbaro, Jackson Pollock’s painting “Mural” and its relationship to Renaissance painting, and a historical perspective on the press’s reporting of the Tet Offensive. The student to whom I spoke before class, although an American by birth lived in England for a substantial period of her life and wants to street gangs of the 1920’s in Birmingham England.
We each presented our topics and as a group we discussed the advantages and possible pitfalls of each.
For someone who considers that they have diverse interests, my topics were very narrow. Their topics were really board.
This is surprising since in our first meeting, they all l seemed to have the same interests since they all read fiction. However, for me, fiction is one amorphous blob. Maybe fiction has a diversity that I never considered. My diversity of interest in reading non-fiction has blinded me to a richness of variety in fiction; I am now reading H. G. Well’s “War of the Worlds”.
So, now I am part of a larger “we”; it is a “we” of “others’. It will be class of ever changing connections and common interests and problems. It will be interesting to see how ”we” and “others” fluctuate as we find similarities in our topics, and face similar problems presenting our research.