To the editor:
I am writing in response to Spectator's recent article, "Do trigger warnings belong in the Core?" I am less concerned here with trigger warnings per se, than with the extraordinary opening statement, or, more specifically, the second sentence of the article: "[Song of Solomon], added last June, will be the first on the syllabus written by a person of color."
The term "person of color" is a term of very recent coinage, based in a very particular historical moment and country with its own ways of taxonomizing people. The term would have been utterly incomprehensible to Augustine of Hippo in the 380s, the first scribes of Genesis, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (born around 485 BCE), or Miguel de Cervantes in 16th-century Iberia. Beyond simply pointing out that few of these writers were "white" in any meaningful way (certainly not in any way that accords with present definitions), it's important to emphasize that different historical epochs, regions, and cultures had, and have, their own ways of categorizing and taxonomizing human variety. Sometimes color was a deeply meaningful category, sometimes less so, but nonetheless, the term's meaning has varied over time.
In the article, "diversity" seems to be understood in a very presentist, American-centric mode, in which categorizations of people, including gender, sexual orientation, and racial and ethnic minorities, are particular to, and particularly meaningful in, this moment of American political discourse. Seeing how other cultures in other historical epochs understood and parsed human variety exposes us to a diversity of human experiences, in a range of ways neither translatable to the present nor necessary precursors to it. Our identities and our categories are not transhistorical, nor—and this is a more complicated idea—are they transparent to reality.
We haven't yet figured out categories of human variety. And so, I defer to Jack Halberstam's take on queer history as the "application of what we do not know in the present to what we cannot know about the past." It is a good caution on our overconfident use of identity categories.
October 18, 2015
The author is an English professor and the chair of Literature Humanities.
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