'You Know Nothing of My Work'

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The most educational thing about coming to MIT has been this--my first real, long-term exposure to  a large community of Asians and Asian-Americans. It hasn't so much changed anything about my thinking, so much as it's reinforced that which already thought. I was already skeptical of  broad statements about groups which comprise a relatively large share of the human population. 

But having members of that group regularly in your face makes this more than theory. It moves it from "intellectual truth" to "core truth"--so much so that you stop even considering them as a "group."  This is not about color-blindness. It's not an assertion of who "they" are, but a statement about who "you" are. You may well know that humans are the same. But this truth often lives in brain. It is a beautiful thing when it migrates to the bone. 

Last Monday we discussed David Brooks' column "The Learning Virtues" in my class. The column purports to contrast "Asian" approaches to education with "Western" approaches. At various points "Chinese" is traded in for "Asian" and "American" for "Western." My essay classes have all been majority Asian and Asian-American. This made for a Marshall Mcluhan-like spectacle. The idea that "there is no such concept" for "nerd" in Chinese language and culture made me suspicious. But now I was faced with Chinese (and Taiwanese-American) students in the class who literally laughed at the idea. 

I think this is argument for "diversity" at our education institutions. Humanism in theory isn't enough. You need to be confronted with actual humans to really feel it. It has become increasingly clear to me that I am not a member of any "black race." That there is no such thing. I am, very much, a black person. This describes my history, my culture, my dialect, my community, my family, my collective experience with America. But there is nothing in my bones that makes me more like other "black persons" than like anyone else. 

Perhaps this seems basic and elementary. But somehow in seeing more of the world--in being around people of another "race"--I've begun to really feel the absurdity of it all. 


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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