What Randa Jarrar Teaches

The following piece is by my colleague, Craig Bernthal.

Since Randa Jarrar fired off her disgusting tweet about “the witch,” Barbara Bush, being a racist, I, like other members of the Fresno State English Department, have received about a dozen emails asking, alternatively, how we could have participated in hiring her, and then, what we would do to get her fired. For the record, I had no part in the former and am impotent with regard to the later. This is now President Castro’s baby, and all I can say is, good luck, sir. I suspect she will be the albatross around Fresno State’s neck for as long as she wants to stay.

The Barbara Bush tweet, which is clearly protected political speech under the First Amendment, and for which Jarrar should not and cannot be fired, doesn’t really get at the problem she poses, which is how the university deals with racial hatred aimed at whites?  To fully understand why Jarrar poses this question, you have to look beyond the Barbara Bush tweet to her other declarations on twitter and Youtube.

Here are a few:

“I can’t wait for the old white guard of literary writers and ‘critics’ to die. Their time is fucking up too.”

She refers to “fucking white women” in one tweet and in another says “fuck outta here with your white feminism. I said don’t at me bitch. I’m a professor.”

“I’m buying guns, I’m an American. I’m buying guns. You know the other side is doing some stupid shit, I’m going to do some stupid shit. I’m tired of like being the bigger person. I literally am usually, but like, I’m also just tired of the left being fucking stupid, and like, we have to be gentle. No, don’t be fucking gentle. OK, you know resistance fighters in the 60 and 70s didn’t kill anyone but they scared the shit out of people, you know, they would hijack a plane and be like, they wouldn’t hurt anyone on this plane, but like, we’re going to hijack this plane. Like why is censor’s [?] house still standing? Like it needs to be fucking broken into, people need to throw fucking grenades into it. I don’t give a fuck.” (I have transcribed this to the best of my ability: see the speech as she gives it on Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVGk7Ar6tfA.

Consonant with this are her pieces for Salon, “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers,” and “Why I still can’t stand white belly dancers,” which take a normal instance of cultural exchange and blow it into an egregious act of cultural “appropriation,” and exploitation. How dare people (white people—apparently African Americans and Latinas get a pass) admire something so much they want to do it themselves? How horrid! How imperialistic!

As others have pointed out, substitute “black” for “white” in Jarrar’s speech and writing, and there’d be no doubt about her racism. So Jarrar flatly poses the question: is it OK to be a racist in the university, so long as it is whites you hate? Can someone who hates white people even be recognized as a racist in the university?  Does Randa Jarrar get a moral pass because she hates the right people?

I hope the answer to that question is no, because hate simply produces more hate in response. Ethnic hatred is the curse of many places on this planet, not least of all the Middle East, where Jarrar was born and grew up. But it is especially out of place among artists of all kinds. Richard Wright admired Albert Camus; Toni Morrison was hugely influenced by Virginia Woolf, Ralph Waldo Ellison by T. S. Eliott and James Joyce. How many white jazz musicians got started because of their admiration for African-American musicians? There is so much in the humanities that is positive to build on, and nothing can be built on the basis of hatred and rage but more hatred and rage. Art, one of the great endeavors where racial difference is bridged, becomes for Jarrar, in her evil white belly-dancer pieces, the wall that shall not be breached.

My experience at Fresno State, after thirty years, is that the students are among the most decent and racially unprejudiced people I have ever met. I taught Shakespeare, the old dead white guy, and people from all ethnic groups, Chicano, Hmong, African-American, Jewish, among others, found something there of value. Our students seem to get along just fine. They listen to each other with respect, no matter who is speaking. They are charitable. It seems to me that the constant propaganda barrage about diversity, which the administration aims at faculty and students, is something our students don’t really need. They have moved into the future while the faculty is mired in a past defined by the sixties and seventies—the same past that Randa Jarrar never experienced, but out of which she romanticizes her desire to throw grenades into people’s houses.

Maybe there is a reason to fire Jarrar. She did give the number of an Arizona State University mental health crisis line as her personal number after she started receiving calls about her Bush tweet, and these apparently jammed the lines of that health center. Her puckish sense of irony was, no doubt, at work.

What can Randa Jarrar teach our students? That hate is efficacious? That it does something positive? That grenade-throwing terrorism is good? I don’t want Fresno State to stand for that. I want a university where everyone can thrive and no one is made to feel guilty because of their color. I want a country where white women belly-dance, Arab women rock and roll, Venezuelans knock baseballs out of the park, and the Chinese come to play basketball. I want a world where love wins out over hate.

Craig Bernthal has taught in the English Department at Fresno State for 30 years. He is retiring in two weeks.




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