Race Matters in the Classroom

I am successful when my students and conversation partners begin enclosing and confining these colonial categories in quotation marks, recognizing their construction and significance, historicizing them, disrupting them, and depriving them of their power.
12/15/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

All taxonomies are humanly constructed. Taxonomies concerning "race" are especially contrived and infuriating, and especially germane. Of these constructions, "Religion(s)" and "Theology" are among the most notorious. Their birth was certainly neither miraculous, virginal, nor evidence of divinely ordained parthenogenesis, nor even evidence or products of an emergent or evolving "modern" and "rational" society. Rather, their members, their sub-categories (namely particular and so-called religions) were always intended to be arranged hierarchically, to be part of an essential (and essentialist) foundation, and to be used to exploit and to justify inequality. These terms were born to exploit, to invent racial difference, and to vindicate imperialism.

In this connection, every class that is taught today in the confines and context of "Religious Studies" is dependent upon, and a manifestation of, these contrived colonial constructions. Unless and until these constructions are challenged, problematized, and deconstructed by faculty and students alike, enclosed in scare quotes like prehistoric insects entombed in amber, religious studies classes will merely confirm and perpetuate them.

Race matters in my classrooms. The prime directive for all of my classes is for students to confront and to question their own presuppositions. As a "South Asian" scholar of "South Asian" "religions" every class I teach is an opportunity to dismantle and disabuse. The vast majority of my students, (and colleagues), are "white," "privileged," and, "white privileged." When they enroll in a class on Hinduism or Indian Philosophy they come with many pre-conceptions, stereotypes (both positive and negative), about religion(s), about South Asian religions, and, of course, about me. It is my job to deconstruct and demolish these.

I am successful when my students and conversation partners begin enclosing and confining these colonial categories in quotation marks, recognizing their construction and significance, historicizing them, disrupting them, and depriving them of their power.

Frantz Fanon offers a final prayer in his Black Skin, White Masks:

"O my body, always make me a man who questions!"

In this way, we will all be successful when our students and conversation partners learn and believe that raising their arms, displaying air quotes, offering and embodying skepticism and a grammatical surrender, is raising their arms in the "hand-up, don't shoot" pose, and acknowledges events in, and shows solidarity with Ferguson.

Race matters every day, inside and outside of the classroom. Race, exploitation, colonialism, and inequality are integral parts of the construction, implementation, and perpetuation of "religion," "religions," "religious studies" and "theology." Scholars and teachers who affiliate, reluctantly or otherwise, with these provisional categories ought to address this and problematize it in their classrooms. They ought to teach their students to question any and all of their presuppositions, to make them, in Fanon's language, humans who question. They ought to expose the sordid past of the terms essential to religious studies, namely that they were and are used to exploit, in colonial, post-colonial, and neo-colonial contexts.

In Fanon's final words in his The Wretched of the Earth, "...for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must make a new start, develop a new way of thinking, and endeavor to create a new man."