After finding myself fatigued towards the end of the semester by all the British domestic drama of Austen’s oeuvre, I zone out during a class period and think, “These novels are some big-time white people problems.” I want to say this out loud in good fun, but then I take a good look around me. Everyone is white besides me.
Once a week I enter this room, and feel that whiteness, as professor and students run around the fact that Austen and her protagonists are women. As they rally around this shared understanding, I sit and ask myself: Does anyone else in this room know Jane Austen is… white? Do they even know they are all white?
They know what blackness is. They know what indigeneity is. They know Asianness. Unmarked, and universal, whiteness structures this classroom, this university, this world. It structures the topics they bring up, how they engage with one another, the ability for them to get along so well, and why I am on the outside of it all.
But they don’t know what whiteness is because they have never had to see it before. To them, white students and white professors discussing white literature feels like nothing out of the ordinary; it’s just the way things are, the way things are meant to be.
Informed by critic Edward Said’s reading of Austen’s novel in his book, Culture and Imperialism, I write one of my first seminar papers as a doctoral student in English Language and Literature on how Lady Bertram’s pug symbolizes a kind of indolence and excess the Bertram family can have due to Sir Tomas Bertram’s slave estates in Antigua. These are the only comments on the paper justifying why I receive a B letter grade: “The connection between Lady Bertram’s pug, the luxury of their home, and colonialism in your reading of Mansfield Park, isn’t a very strong one.” The conclusion of my first semester in graduate school, like in undergraduate and high school, is a tale as old as time.
I want to read Austen. I want to read as many dead white writers as I can. But I must read them from this body.
I should have anticipated the professor’s comments given that during class, when I bring up the ties between the transatlantic slave trade and the Bertram’s wealth, she responds by telling me it’s “merely a passing detail.” My other classmates, all white, mainly women, say nothing to add onto the reading I am trying to bring into the classroom. All brush it aside to talk about topics they have deemed more pertinent like “feminist readings of Austen’s novels” and “women’s issues.”
“That’s bullshit,” a peer tells me I after I inquire about the grade I receive. “No one gets B’s in grad school unless you don’t do the work. We’re all colleagues here.”
After she tells me this, I rip the paper into little shreds and flush it down the toilet.
Read on for the full article Recognizing the Enduring Whiteness of Jane Austen: Marcos Gonsalez on Diversifying Our Readings of the Canon on Literary Hub.