Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Class Consciousness: A Sticky Issue


  • What has been the general reception of students who took AS334 Race/Religion/Caste in India & the USA class?
  • were the class demographics and dynamics like?
  • there any difficult moments or particular classes that you wish you could have taught in a different way?
  • Were there any meaningful or impactful moments or responses you received that have stayed with you?
  • did you want the students to have taken away from the class?  What is your message?
  • would you do differently next time round?

Answer:  So far I have run both classes as relatively small seminars. This was partly to try and see how students would react to the relatively challenging mix of themes and topics. As I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts in this series, there are lots of very good classes on race and racism at Michigan, and plenty of classes on religion. But very few (if any) which bring these two fields into contact with each other. And even fewer classes that add caste to the mix.

By and large, after running it twice, reactions to the class have been very positive, thus far at least. You can tell that the topics have hit a chord with the students when they begin to make intellectual connections between these areas, and apply them to real life situations or to current politics.

The class demographics have usually been a healthy and diverse mix of students from different ethnic, religious and class backgrounds. The nature of the class is such that it naturally draws a few activist types in addition to students who just wanted to learn how to make connections between these areas. In Fall 2017, for example, I had several students who were actively involved in various social and political causes, including environmental and women’s rights.  In Fall 2019 I had an interesting 50/50 demographic split between South Asian heritage students and white students. The latter wanted to learn more about the US whereas the white students were more interested in South Asian issues. A number of the students went on to apply to law schools and said that the class played a factor in decisions. So it worked out rather well in that regard.  

As for difficult moments, I don’t think there were any major ones. Most of these students had taken some sort of race or social politics class before this one, and they seemed to be well versed in national and international politics. Having said that, there was one particular class and specifically one topic in Fall 2019 that seemed to challenge the students more than other classes did. The topic was part of segment three of AS334 which looked at the resurgence of race/religion/nationalism in both India and US, and specifically the question as to whether it was reasonable to consider this entire phenomenon in terms of the reemergence of fascism? The students had been reading a series of articles about the similarities between the religious right and its socio-political tactics in both countries.  In the US contexts we read articles by the Jeff Robbins, Clayton Crockett others who have argued that the brand of politics adopted by the so called ‘Tea Party’ Republicans between 2008 and 2014, had laid the ground for an American style fascism to emerge. I remember showing a video to the class of an interview with former Supreme Court Justice David Souter (a Republican nominee to the Supreme Court) who had warned long before the rise of Trump, that American democracy was sliding dangerously towards an authoritarianism, and it was being fueled not only by the usual agents provocateurs on the right, but by an underlying “civic ignorance” that was becoming part and parcel of the popular mindset. In addition to this we were reading parts of William E. Connolly’s Aspirational Fascism, a small but really useful text which looks at “the United States’ current democratic crisis” and pays attention to the fact that the conflict between “neoliberalism and the pluralizing left have placed white working class in a bind” [Connolly 2017].

I could have chosen other texts, but I’m attracted to Connolly’s work because he is one of the few academics who are really able to think about the white working class without necessarily stigmatizing this group. Part of the reason why is his background. Even though he is a highly respected intellectual teaching at an Ivy League institution (John Hopkins) Connolly hails from the poorest sectors of white society (born and raised in Flint, Michigan where some of his family still reside). Connolly is therefore well positioned to able to provide intellectual solutions that include working class whites, arguing that it is possible to win back this group and pull it away from the spell cast over it by the right. I was drawn to Connolly partly because I lived through a similar period of racist politics in 1970s and early 80s UK, and partly because I could also identify with the British working classes and the realization that left politics also could not afford to marginalize this constituency.

Coming back to the particular class in Fall 2019, what took me by complete surprise was how unconvinced many of the students were with Connolly’s argument, particularly the need to try and engage with the working class whites. The stumbling block seemed to be class. I think many of the students simply found it difficult to understand what “working class” even means, partly because they were from relatively affluent backgrounds (its no secret that Michigan’s undergraduate intake over the past 10-15 years is increasingly drawn from the most affluent sectors of society). To be honest, I don’t think I managed to convince them about the nuance of Connolly’s position. It was the first time I had used this particular text by Connolly. What seemed intuitive to me, obviously was opaque to them. But it did convince me of how important class was and how it needed to be brought into these discussions carefully.

What did I want the class to have taken away from this class?  A short answer would be the ability to think more deeply and outside of conventional understandings of race, religion and caste, and to try and link them together wherever possible. The readings for this course and the way that discussions are organized (and mostly it is a discussion based course) are not designed to maximize the students’ knowledge of actual cases of racism. There are other classes that do that better. And, quite frankly, 13-14 weeks is not enough to cover the topic of race in the breadth and depth it deserves (let alone religion and caste in addition to this).

Rather, my aim was primarily to get the students to think about race/religion/caste and also to critically examine models of thought that sustain this form of prejudice. If we’re to change anything, or be able to make meaningful interventions, its necessary to reflect on the structures of thought that underpin racism. To do this one has to be understand conventional thought processes and how they sustain prejudice, before one can delink from established models of thinking about race. In short, my aim for the students was to get them to experiment with reconstituting their own mindsets, rather than simply enacting a stricter version of political correctness. This is why theory and philosophy is so central to this course.