I teach American Studies at an urban university in south Texas. The other day, after our last class for the semester, a student came to my office to talk. He's a bright young man, raised in New Mexico, with a Hispanic surname, but one who identifies with Anglo culture. Our course had touched on many issues of ethnicity, class, and gender, and he had some strong opinions on these matters.
"I'm a business major," he told me, "and I'm going into human resources. So these discussions we had about ethnicity and gender and history were good for me to hear.
"Even though I didn't agree with a lot of what was said," he added.
I nodded, and he continued. "I mean, it was pretty clear what your agenda was, particularly on gender."
I must have looked puzzled, because he elaborated. "Well, it's obvious you're a raging feminist."
This surprised me greatly. I am, actually, a feminist, but I'm rarely accused of it. Women, particularly women in academia, chide me because I don't teach women's studies and my research has focused exclusively on men. He continued:
"A lot of the discussions were really hard, because there were so many women in the class and I felt like I couldn't say what I wanted to. I mean, I was surrounded." He paused. "You know, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was the outcast. I was the one in the minority. It was weird."
"The race stuff, too, was hard," he said. "I'm not used to having so many black people in class. I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings, so I couldn't always say what I was thinking."
What was he thinking? I wondered.
"Slavery was a long time ago," he said. "We've got to move beyond that."
This, too, puzzled me. We had studied slavery, and I often insisted that history affects the present, but I didn't remember any of the four African-Americans in our class of more than 30 bringing up the past. In the face of some fairly hostile and prejudicial comments, these students had maintained good humor, had referred only obliquely to their own experiences with racism, and had, whenever possible, tried to establish good will and affinity with the rest of the class. What was eating this guy?
"In a year and a half, I'm going to be working in human relations," he explained. "And I'm going to be hiring people. I'll tell you one thing: I'll hire the best person for the job, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or skin color."
I reminded this student that Colin Powell got where he was because President Carter sent back a list of names for promotion and asked the person creating the list to add a few women and people of color. Few people would argue that Colin Powell wasn't the best person for his job, but for some reason, the first time around, the guy in charge of that decision didn't seem to notice him. Colin Powell was invisible - until someone made a point of it.
I reassured my student that his opinion seemed to be in ascendance, and he probably wouldn't have to fight many battles on this front.
But I also challenged him to think again about what glasses he would wear so that he would recognize the best person for the job. Would they be glasses with clear lenses, or would they be of a tint that screens out some people? People who make him uncomfortable, for instance. Or people who make him feel, in his words, "outcast." People whose people have a troublesome past. People around whom he can't say what he really thinks.
When he left, I spent some time thinking about how, for this student, a woman in position of authority was a raging feminist and four black people constituted a crowd. I wondered how many would seem too many when he was in charge of hiring.
* Gena Dagel Caponi is assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio.