Existential Angst in an Unmapped Political Landscape

Lily Padula for the Chronicle

September 03, 2017

The political rhetoric over the past year, attacking immigrants, non-Christians, and people of color, has not been easy to handle for this brown-skinned, accented, naturalized citizen who came to America in 1987 from Tamil Nadu, deep in southern India.

In a part of the United States — Oregon — where immigrants, non-Christians, and people of color are a small minority, I have never before felt so out of place. The violence in Charlottesville, Va., has made those feelings worse, even though I live on the other side of the continent and in a blue state. Such a sustained discomfort is a complete contrast to my past experience here. In 2008, for example, the Register-Guard, a daily newspaper in Eugene, Ore., published an op-ed I wrote about how privileged I felt to be an "ambassador" for an alien culture that is from the other side of the planet.

Until recently, I always felt at ease with my difference and high visibility, particularly at weddings and graduation parties to which students — almost always religious conservatives — invited me. One of my favorite such experiences with students relates to two sisters, Susan and Gina. (I have replaced the real names of students in this piece to protect their identities.) A decade ago, Susan was wrapping up her freshman year in the university’s honors program, for which I was the director, when she sent me an email:"[My] sister’s having her graduation/senior piano recital June 16. You’re welcome if you’re curious or if you’d like to meet the rest of my family.

"P.S. In all fairness, I should warn you that you’ll be mixing with pretty conservative folk, should you choose to attend. And the graduation will be held at our church. So if either of those factors will be too unbearable or uncomfortable … [smile]"

Gina was scheduled to join the honors program the September following her high-school graduation. I was most delighted with the invitation and, of course, accepted.

The graduation was unlike anything I had ever attended. It was held at their church, with a piano recital by the honoree, who was the only student graduating from the home school. The audience was strictly friends and family — and me. I was a strange presence in many ways: I was alone and silent whenever the gathering chimed in with their responses to the readings from the Bible, and I was the only one who was glaringly ethnic with my dark-skinned Indian look.

That graduation was truly the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Jokingly, the sisters even referred to me as their uncle on campus. Susan and Gina — and their parents — and I did not view one another as foot-soldiers in the struggle between believers and infidels, nor between the natives and the immigrants, nor between whites and browns. We were fully aware of our differences, and yet we trusted each other while pursuing a shared goal to understand the world against the backdrop of different "truths" offered by different people.

Ten years have gone by since that invitation to a home-school graduation and dinner. Susan and Gina have moved on with their lives and occasionally email me with updates.

Of course, the intellectual pursuit of truth is always fraught with tensions. In 2005, as the university’s Honors Program director, I had required students to read Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. An email from a student, "Earl," shocked me: "I feel that the title, and I suspect the subject matter of Frankfurt’s work, is inappropriate for the honors program." Earl went on to write that "as a Christian, such ‘bad words’ are not something of which I approve or of which I employ in my speech and writing."

In my reply to him, I provided information about Frankfurt, along with reviews of the book, and tried to persuade him that On Bullshit had nothing to do with "bad words" and that it was a philosophical argument on the importance of truth. I wrote that Frankfurt makes a convincing case that those who engage in "bullshit" are absolutely indifferent to truth, unlike liars who try their best to hide the truth. My explanations made no difference to Earl; in a politely worded email, he informed me about his decision to withdraw from the honors program "after careful prayer and consideration."

I did not blame him for his reactions; after all, this is to be expected, given the image problem that pervades higher education, which is characterized as dominated by left-wing faculty who are opposed to religious and conservative students. The problem persists despite considerable evidence that most faculty do not bring their personal preferences into the classroom. However, in this episode, I did not feel singled out — Earl did not have a problem with my otherness, and his concerns merely reflected his preferences, which perhaps also equated Frankfurt’s book with a caricatured liberal faculty fondness for "bad words."

However, unlike those past experiences, in this new America I worry that my otherness unnecessarily complicates the intellectual ideas that I explore in my classes. When I discuss migration and immigration in economic geography, or during discussions on the hijab and religious freedom as a global issue, I am now concerned that I might be perceived as having an agenda because of my otherness.

I also worry that my alien-ness when discussing politically controversial topics could easily lead to my name ending up on the likes of the "Professor Watchlist," which documents faculty members who supposedly "advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." In short, this intense pressure is all new, after my three decades in this country.

Thus, this past academic year was punctuated, for me, with an existential angst in an unmapped political landscape. The year came to an end. In early June, I wrapped up my final class meeting and walked back to my office, wondering what the next academic year would bring. Until I turned into the office hallway, I had no idea about the wonderful surprise that awaited me.

Gina was standing by my office door. She had decided to surprise me with a visit, and with hazelnut cupcakes that she had baked in her mother’s kitchen during her couple of days in town with her family. Just what the doctor ordered!

Sriram Khé is an associate professor of geography at Western Oregon University.