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They Ain't Us: Identity as an Anti-Norm

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: September 11, 1999
Faculty on the Site.

Rejecting the Image They Made of Us
Link added June 26, 1999.
White Boy Shuffle
Link added June 26, 1999.
Hockenberry and Codes of SilenceResponse to Outsider Status

Narratives from Literature: "They ain't us."
Gaines: "They ain't us." Students ain't us, slipping through the cracks
"They ain't us" in Virtual Communities Either
Mauriac: Genitrix

Sources Searches and Sitters

Who Are We? Included by Law? Or Excluded by Power?
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Narratives from Literature: "They ain't us."

Narrative found in the literature offers us many advantages. If the story has been told, it has at least been imagined. We are then within the range of behaviors and attitudes that might happen. When the narrative has been told as story, our affect is left freer to respond, for we do not have to consider with sensitivity the plight of those involved. After all, it's only a story. When the stories can be shown to have appeared in different literatures, in different time periods, then we can see the broader applications of our stories to many people over time, helping us to see that not only are we not alone as individuals imagining the human condition, but we are not alone as cultures or as actors in human history. All of this helps to provide us with the critical distance needed to gain the global and postmdern perspective so much more essential to understanding the next millennium.

Ernest Gaines' "Three Men"

In Ernest Gaines' story "Three Men," he describes a jail scene. In the cell are three Black men, Munford Bazille, in and out of jails for "forty, fifty years." Hattie, whom Munford and the young narrator, thrown in jail for killing (albeit the killing was self defense). Here is a scene in which a Black author describes the perspective of the criminal justice system to Black men, poor Black men, who would not believe that they had stories to tell.

Note that Gaines observes, translates through the culture, the lifeworld in which they exist, and then tells the story for them. Through telling their story, Gaines is breaking the culture of silence. This is the role of the revolutionary as seen by Paolo Freire. Freire teaches those who have been silenced to recognize and tell their own stories. That is also the goal of those who work with Women's Ways of Knowing (WWK) - to teach those who have been silenced to break that silence, to discover knowledge, authority, and narrative on their own. And so is it the aim of Catharine MacKinnon when she demands that we recognize as valid women's stories told in "consciousness raising."

Here is Munford's story, as Gaines tells it:

"Been going in and out of these jails here, I don't know how long,"Munford said. "Forty, fifty years. Started out just like you--kilt a boy just like you did last night. Kilt him and got off--got off scot-ree. My pappy worked for a white man who got me off. At first I didn't know why he had done it--I didn't think; all I knowed was I was free and free is how I wanted to be. Then I got in trouble again, and again they got me off. I kept on getting in tyrouble, and they kept on getting me off. Didn't wake up till I got to be nearly old as I'm is now. Then I realized they kept getting me off because they need us. Because without us, they don't know what they is--they don't know what they is out there. With us around, they can see us and they know what they ain't. They ain't us. . . . But I got news for them. They us. I never tell them that, but inside I know it. They us, just like we is ourselves. Cur any of them open and you see if you don't find Munford Bazille or Hattie Brown, there."
Gaines, Bloodline, at pp. 139-40.

Students ain't us, slipping through the cracks

E-mail brought today a story. A story of what happens to real people when institutions operate without narrative, when the rules determine the outcome. Martha Minow says that's the problem with the law, just a long series of questions, each dependent on the earlier question, to each of which a yes/no categorization will do. And lives cannot be categorized that way. We suffer agonies over wondering if "man" is passive or active, whether reality exists out there, or whether reality is totally constructed of our interactions with whatever is out there and with each other. Esoteric stuff, hmm? But the stories of which that stuff is woven are the vicissitudes of our days.

Here's the story e-mail brought Dear Habermas today:

"We aren't listening, nevermind good faith. A student was denied an appeal to restore her financial aid, based on severe hardship. She received a letter from an "Accounts Receivable Supervisor" marked "URGENT". The letter indicated that she must pay, out of pocket, her fees for the fall of 1998 or she will be "DISENROLLED". She also must pay, in addition, a $20.00 late fee. The last paragraph welcomed her to apply for financial aid for Fall, 1998. The supervisor who sent the letter saying the fees must be paid urgently and suggested financial aid sits next to the financial aid supervisor."

There is no perpetrator in this story. No one meant to hurt this student. Rules is rules. And the financial aid rules draw a bright line cut off point beyond a specific limit of classes, and a variety of other factors. But imagine the pain of hearing at roughly the same time that you must produce funds immediately, the suggestion that financial aid would help, and the denial of that financial aid. Of course, the financial aid rules are ever-changing as societal support for education lessens and state and federal governments consistently cut financial aid. Today even the middle class has difficulty "affording" college to their children. Since many of the state college students take far longer than the traditional four years to complete the degree, growing into their lives and education as it were, they change their minds, follow different majors, different paths, in this longer trek through school. Then they are caught in the limit to the number of units financial aid rule.

Would narrative help? Yes. Only when we do not know their stories can we say with aplomb, "They should have followed the rules." Maybe if we knew the story, we would know whether the rule was there when they started, whether the rule was in response to their not working diligently toward a goal, or whether the rule marched on in an auto-poietic non-learning institution to the detriment of the humans in the community it serves.

This story also brings to mind the liberal position that situatedness must be taken into account and collaboration that will permit each to reach his/her potential. The conservative position is that stories don't matter, all that matters is production, and let those that produce best enjoy the greater benefits. A threaded discussion will go up on our Web Board this Fall, on the range of collaboration-competition, individual-community perceptions that make up the educational world that is producing the levels of competence that will determine our future.

Duh . . . Auto-Poietic Non-Learning Tool Hammering People Through Cracks

Auto-Poietic Non-Learning Sub-System Hammering People Through Cracks

Sources: Will go up by end of August. But consider, Kohn, Alfie, Covaleskie, John, Minow, Martha, and many more we will share with you.

"They aint' us" in Virtual Communities Either

One would hope that the battles of prejudice, of the privileging of subjectivity with little caring for the damage that inflicts on others, that hate in all its naked simplicity would have disappeared from the human stage by now. Not.

Stacy Horn's book on Echo, the virtual community based in New York City, shows us up close and personal that the foibles of humans follow them in all their glorious banality onto the Web. We have considered "they ain't us" as it illustrates the defining of one's identity as against another, as "who I am not," rather than "who I am." Horn's story is not of rural uneducated southerners, using "not them" to define themselves, but of New York intellectuals caught in the same trap.

Stacy describes a writer whose work appears in the New Yorker, who was offended that Echo, the New York virtual community, took little notice of his article mentioning them, while the WELL, in San Francisco, courted and praised him. He explained in a WELL interview that New Yorkers considered their community attacks more entertainment, whereas the Wellbeings were more emotional in their attacks.

Stacy begs to differ with him. "Um, uh-huh. Seabrook [the writer] wasn't invested in our community, so it was more like entertainment for him. It's not like that for us." It's about subtext and intertextuality. "Look at what Seabrook has said: They don't feel things the way we do. Our emotions aren't real. We are them to him, because we are not Wellbeings. The WELL is a place, very separate from our place, I agree, but the differences are cultural. He has taken those cultural differences and used them to construct borders which are chilling: they don't feel as deeply as we do. Us vs. them."

Ohmygoodness. Those of us who have been so concerned about the dilemma of intersectionality had never even thought that our new frontiers were creating new allegiances that would complicate even further the interdependence of our many selves. Horn's book was recommended because of insights such as this. But please note that she uses the "f" word, doesn't apologize for it, rather likes it, and she occasionally mentions sex in specific detail. If you are offended by that, be forewarned. There are many other books that will give you a sense of virtual community, such as Howard Rheingold's Virtual Community.

Francois Mauriac's Treatment of Identities
Defined Against Others in Genitrix

This is a powerful story of "loving against" someone. We have all experienced that reaction is simpler than proactive response. Less effort, ress reason, less discipline are required to react to what is done to us, than to think through our choices, weigh them, and then make and defend a choice.

The hero in this story has been very close to his mother, with whom he lives, but always disagrees. He marries a young woman and brings her home to mother, where both he and mother find nothing but fault with the poor bride. She becomes pregnant. Our hero has no time for her. When she claims illness, the hero and his mother claim she is merely lazy and whiny. Neither of them has any time or attention for this bumpkin of a wife.

In childbirth she dies. Our hero buries her. Then visits her every day in the cemetery, to the outrage of his mother for whom he now has no time. I still recall the class discussions on this story, some forty years after they occurred. And I recall my teacher pointing out that our hero and his mother could only love "against" someone. No one mentioned then reactive and proactive modes of response. But the story then was tragedy enough for those of us who were so young. Today, many of our frustrations, many of the barriers we encounter in careers and relationships follow these same reactive, proactive patterns. There are many more such stories today.

Recall The Death of a Child, in which it was easier for the whole juvenile camp to believe that a juvenile was shirking responsiblity than that he was suffereing life-threatening illness. Reactive responses are satisfying at least in the immediacy of the struggle. They are like one-sided arguments; they stress symbols and sound bites, not detailed argument and evidence. When they become the exclusive basis for a relationship, they can culminate in tragedy, as these stories show.

Book Store Source:
Visit for more information on Ernest Gaines'

Book Store Source:
Visit for more information on Francois Mauriac's

On the extent to which a reactive stance is destructive to our very motivation, see Punished by Rewards.

On the extent to which a reactive stance permeates our systems, institutions, and relationships, see Gordon's Fat and Mean.

This topic intersects with racism, classism, sexism, and the arrogance of an auto-poietic non-learning sub-system. Follow all such links on the site.