Religion in America: Willamette’s Premiere AES MOI

“Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incomparable frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision.” – Anzaldua (78)

Instead of holding class on Tuesday, February 12, the instructor of Willamette’s Religion in America class requested that the class attend the Joel Salatin lecture instead of going to Eaton for class as we usually do. Salatin, the United States’ premiere sustainable farmer and Willamette’s second highest paid speaker ever, began his presentation by saying that his presentation was more valuable and important than watching President Obama’s State  of the Union address. He continued by calling latin names for things “squiggly words” and “mumbo jumbo” all while his faithful audience yelled “Amen” and “Preach!” from the stands. He reaches his followers through semi-funny anecdotes and a call to action regarding changing their entire lives to accommodate local farming and organic food consumption all with zero analysis of the fact that capital is required not only to start a farm, but also to maintain one. At the very end of his lecture, a man in the crowd asked “What about the people who cannot afford it? Those who are working three jobs and can literally only afford Wonder Bread?” Joel Salatin responded that if he could go into the house of someone who “claims” they cannot afford to garden and farm and they have a cell phone, a television, name brand clothing, etc., then they are not doing their job to support local farming. This idea was shocking enough on its own; however, Salatin continued his rant by concluding with this gem of a final line “Why worry about that one percent [of people living in poverty] when we can focus on what we’re doing?” to which the crowd stood and applauded.

The same person that posted “So apparently the term “Illegal Immigrant” is racist? Ha. And I am a racist for supporting strong border security? Hmmm. I guess that’s the type of crap you have to deal with going to a school like Willamette!” as a Facebook status after Willamette’s Border Fence Project in November of 2011, in the reflection discussion that we had about Salatin’s lecture, first told me that he thought it was “absolutely ridiculous” that I would claim that Salatin’s lecture was “threaded with racist and classist ideologies” (my words exactly) and proceeded to tell me that I can’t be serious. Another classmate, a woman of color, addressed the class saying that she believed that some people (as the class all directs their glances in my direction) are just “trying to twist [Salatin’s] words to make him sound like a terrible person when he’s not.” This is where Anzaldua’s quote about the different versions of reality that we experience based on our surroundings. Perhaps it is being an American Ethnic Studies major that has given me the tools necessary to not only see racism and classism in various spaces, but to also talk about it and confront it head on; maybe it is the fact that I have lived my entire life as a queer woman of color that has allowed me to view the world with a lens that makes me question Salatin’s claim that anyone and everyone can farm. However, I cannot seem to reconcile the giant divide that exists between me and the rest of the classmates that chose to respond to me in our discussion about Salatin’s lecture. The “cultural clash” as Anzaldua writes about was tense and painful enough that I was brought to tears by the same Border Fence protester as mentioned above. In trying to explain how racism and classism are relevant to Salatin’s lecture, I tried to reach the class through saying that farming requires a great amount of sacrifice, both monetarily and in terms of time. Further, claiming that “anyone” can farm by going to the nearest vacant lot and starting up a food share program completely ignores all of the people that are living in areas with no vacant lots or garden space as well as people that have been intentionally placed in areas with unarable soil. People continued to be non-receptive of what I was saying, so I elaborated by talking about food deserts, housing projects, and Native American reservations. There are high concentrations of people of color in all of these places, and saying that local farming isn’t attached to issues of race and class is absolutely preposterous.

Attending a school that continues to talk about caring about diversity, and being in a class that is marked as an American Ethnic Studies credit all seems like a fallacy when I can talk about something that is, with zero doubt in my mind, racist and then be told that I am twisting around words to make good people sound like bad people. I may not have the same wild tongue that Anzaldua speaks of in her book, but I have a very vocal, antiracist, feminist, anti-heterosexist tongue that has steadily been asked to step back, sit down, and “move on from social justice or whatever” (as another woman of color told me to do.) Allowing people to leave this class believing that they have taken an American Ethnic Studies course is disheartening; especially knowing that the last question asked to me by one of my peers was “why don’t people just move out of the projects? It’s not like anyone is holding them there at gunpoint.” If Willamette cares so much about diversity or about retaining students of color, it might be valuable to stop cutting out the tongues of everyone who tries to resist.

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2 thoughts on “Religion in America: Willamette’s Premiere AES MOI

  1. As I am halfway through my thesis and less than two months away from graduating Willamette, I look back on the course load that I undertook and realized that the of all the MOIs that I had to take none of them had the lasting impact that Intro to AES had back in my first year.
    0 = The times I have had to reference moles (Chemistry) in my WU experience yet AES has consciously and unconsciously seeped into all of the academic work that I have had to complete in the last three and a half years. I agree with you that Willamette tries to recruit students of color yet fails to establish an MOI in order to teach about race and racism. From what I understand, the AES major is a fairly new major in the catalog and it was only added because of the work of several determined faculty and students. I part of me wants to say “well at least WU is trying, and having an AES major is a start” but then I check myself and again view where this comment is arising from and why it is phrased in that way. Upon further reflection I note that although WU offers a AES intro course, it often taken by POCs who in turn learn about their internalized racism and learn a lens in which to view the world. But wait! what is the percentage of POC on campus? compared to the rest of the population who continues on without knowing or wanting to know what racism is and how it affects them in life.
    I have heard white people say that AES is exclusive and that being around anti-racist people makes them nervous. If racism doesn’t make you nervous then we have an issue. Octaviano commented on someones post, and he noted that the blogger had never used the word race or racism once while talking about a topic that was obviously racist. I encountered the same issue when we have class discussion in Latin@ Countercultures class and as myself; would I get more out of this class if everyone had taken AES? Why is there so much tiptoeing around each other? Much like the tension in our class during discussions about racism, that same tension is found on campus when a classmate or even a professor says something racist and no one in class calls them out (I’m guilty of this).
    The AES MOI would help but the cynic in me always has something to say. Willamette University is the oldest and most fundamentally racist school in the West so how is an AES MOI ever going to work? Our institution is so fundamentally racist that I don’t see it going any further in the general curriculum requirements. I read your post and feel a useless frustration that our institution might be too liberal for our own good and that the road ahead is too long for me to see the light of such an MOI and only hope that AES continues to grow on WU’s campus.

  2. It’s true, the general ed program would benefit from an MOI that brings students into conversations about race and ethnicity. At least one of the problems that introducing a race MOI would present is staffing–there are few faculty who can teach it effectively while also meeting their home departments’ demands and getting to teach upper level classes in their specialty. So, in part, we need to hire more ethnic studies-conversant faculty. This might change someday.

    But, I wonder how much power such a requirement would have. While such requirements might help by legitimizing conversations about race at Willamette, there will always be knee-jerk recalcitrance and defensiveness against race consciousness. One of the burdens of being an ethnic studies scholar, activist, or AES major/minor is that you become laser sharp at identifying racist logic, but our tools and energy for dealing with it, especially as individuals, remain limited. It’s immensely frustrating and requires a lot of self-care and community.

    I think you all do amazing work bringing your AES knowledge to bear on other classes. It is not a lost cause, and your work is not defined by whether or not you reverse this or that one particular person’s mindset. Your voices influence more people than you think. And these interventions will be lifelong for you. So how do you manage the emotional effects of these encounters while continuing doing the work? How do you effectively conjugate AES with other areas of thought without burning out?

    So proud of you.

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