Contrary to what the title of this article might lead you to believe, this column isn’t going to be about Shakespeare. Well, not exactly. I was reading an introduction to a volume of Shakespeare last week for one of my classes, so he has become my scapegoat. Also, there are apparently a bunch of novelists who are lately excited about going through and modernizing Shakespeare’s works. Again. But this is much bigger than just him.
Why do we read Shakespeare? Because we’re told he’s great, sure. Because he speaks to universal themes, whatever those are. But is he that great? Does he really speak to an all-encompassing audience? Can anyone?
I believe that no human experiences are unrecognizable, which is just to say that if a person tries to understand someone else’s experiences, and truly listens to their stories, it is always possible to get (at least partially) into their shoes. We can sympathize (not always empathize, but certainly sympathize) with any experiences that we make a true effort to understand. But there aren’t any universal themes of human experience. Thus, it’s impossible for Shakespeare (or any other “classical, great” white writer) to write masterfully and comprehensively about the human experience. Those writers simply don’t exist.
Why is this? Oppression. Oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and any other demographic categorization.
Oppression fundamentally changes all social institutions to eliminate all prospects for a “universal human experience.” It is fundamentally impossible for two people to interact without histories of oppression being a factor, unless those two people are affluent, white, heterosexual and male-identifying individuals. In which case, they don’t have to deal with any oppression because they have the privilege to ignore that it exists. They are not forced to look at and grapple with the implications of its expression. The politics of oppression, and social forces in general, always impact individually mediated interactions, including when these interactions are solitarily conducted with instruments of culture, such as works of literature.
So when we say, “Shakespeare writes to universal themes,” what we really mean is that “Shakespeare writes to themes that reflect the experiences of white people of Anglophone descent who are either comparatively well off socioeconomically or have opportunities to gain such a status through upwards social mobility.” That’s not universal. It’s not even neutral.
Don’t confuse whiteness and socioeconomic privilege with neutrality or universality. They’re not the same thing. The incorrect equation of the two contributes to reinforcing terrifyingly omnipresent white supremacy, both in our own country and internationally. The eventual breakdown of white supremacy depends on our rejection of equating whiteness and socioeconomic privilege with “universality” and “neutrality.”
The destruction of white supremacy depends on ordinary people refusing to take on ideas of “universality” in experiences. It depends on parents discussing the subject at home. It depends on social studies teachers saying, “Fuck McGraw Hill and fuck textbooks. We’re going to work with a diverse array of primary sources, a collection of which will actually reflect history from the perspectives of all the people who lived it.”
The destruction of white supremacy depends on math and science teachers demanding more diversity in their own classrooms and more equity across analogous classrooms all across the nation. It depends on English teachers getting tired of Shakespeare and Austen and Bronte and Joyce, and electing to teach authors who write books with themes that are “less universal,” like Chimamanda Adichie, Junot Diaz, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Kofi Awoonor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ama Ata Aidoo, Aimé Cesaire and countless other brilliantly talented authors of color. (If you’re curious what I plan to teach in my classroom in several years when I get there, well, I’ve left a couple of clues…).
If we want a better world, one in which a dream for equal opportunity can be realized, white supremacy must be destroyed. And it must be destroyed actively by us, by ordinary individuals who desire a better world. It’s a big project, but one that can begin in small ways that include realizing the fallacy of the term “universal art,” and teaching and learning specific cultures outside of an idea of “universal” that doesn’t really exist.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.