By Frankie Condon, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
You really don’t have to have a lot of experience as an antiracist activist and educator to begin to notice common responses to narratives like those told by Collin Lamont Craig and Staci Maree Perryman-Clark in their essay, “Troubling the Boundaries: (De)Constructing WPA Identities at the Intersections of Race and Gender.” There’s quite a bit of predictability, really, when it comes to what whitely (#1) folks will say when people of color tell stories about racism (and please look up the term “whitely” before you get all upset and call me a reverse racist (lots of us think there’s no such thing as reverse racism and you could look into that argument too), for the term refers not to white racial identity, but to particular forms of racialized consciousness and rhetoric taught and learned across racial lines that tend to privilege whiteness). Honestly, there’s probably no quicker way to make whitely folks mad than to tell them that what they’ve thought or said in response isn’t very original or to write about typical whitely responses in which whitely readers recognize ourselves, but wish we didn’t.
I’m a fan of Jim Corder and, in particular, of his essay “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.” In it, Corder describes the problem of collisions of narratives: when one person’s story so counters, troubles, or challenges another’s that the world trembles and threatens to collapse for the hearer. Corder catalogues possible responses under the conditions of such an argument into four general types: the one whose world trembles refuses to hear and to acknowledge, shuts out the other and their narrative as if they did not exist; the one whose world trembles goes to war with the other, fighting to suppress the other’s narrative and to maintain their own; unable to reconcile the two narratives, the one whose world trembles goes insane; the one whose world trembles opens herself to the other, recognizes in the narrative of the other “a rightness so demanding, a beauty so stunning, a grace so fearful as to call the hearer to forego one identity for a startling new one.” (24)
I can feel as irked, as frustrated, as tired, and, occasionally, as smug as the next guy when I encounter the predictable in whitely responses to the stories people of color tell about racism. I also know that such responses are learned and they can be unlearned to the extent that we are willing and able to turn toward them, lean into them, study them, and challenge them. These responses can also be unlearned as we test our ability to imagine alternative responses—responses that are both more reflective and performative of our openness to the possibility—the hope, even—that we might be changed by one another.
In that spirit, then, here are some examples of what I would think of as typical, whitely responses to stories told by people of color about racism. In my view, responses like these do some of the rhetorical work Corder describes of denying, silencing, suppressing, or retreating to extreme affect (or insanity). To be clear, these are not responses I know have been offered in this particular case, but ones that seem to me to be likely or predictable or by which I would be unsurprised based on my experience as an antiracist activist and educator:
“How shocking that such things should happen at all, let alone in our organization/institution!”
Those of us working within predominantly white institutions and organizations need to stop being surprised by racism, which is (come on, really now!) a quotidian event for far too many colleagues and students of color. The fact that we continue to be shocked suggests the degree to which we have been conditioned to or have, in fact, embraced a racialized form of collective amnesia. This selective forgetfulness prevents us from perceiving, recognizing, and acknowledging patterns of discrimination and marginalization. And recognition and acknowledgement are the necessary precursors to analysis, organization, and productive intervention in institutional racism.
“We feel terrible, just terrible that these things have happened. Please excuse us while we cry for a while. See how terrible we feel.”
Sorrow may be an appropriate (initial) response to stories like those of Mr. Craig and Ms. Perryman-Clark, but it is also an insufficient response. Offered in the absence of friendship, trust, alliance, or solidarity, performances of sorrow displace accountability, agency, and responsibility for individual and collective action.
“Race privilege (and racism) are just so darn invisible to us.”
Those of us who are still inclined to assert the invisibility of race, race privilege, and/or racism to us should read Sara Ahmed’s essay, Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Antiracism (http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm). In fact, we should all probably re-read this essay annually and any time we begin to feel comfortable in our understandings and approaches to social justice work, generally, and antiracism, in particular.
We’ve had plenty of opportunity and time to begin to see the effects of our racialization and to see racism in action (if, in fact, we ever didn’t see). Further, the assertion of the invisibility of race and racism—however ignorant we have allowed ourselves to remain to the effects of racial ideology and the fact of racism—does not displace the necessity for careful, critical, and reflective engagement in the right-here-right-now and in the future. To say that race privilege has been invisible to us is to suggest that we are now beginning to perceive it. And if we are beginning to perceive race privilege, then we are in a position to begin organizing in multiracial coalitions to counter it within our institutions and organizations.
“That full professor who said those things to Staci is such a jerk! Thank goodness we are not him!”
If we are to begin organizing effectively to intervene in institutional forms of racism, we really do have to stop disassociating ourselves from individuals who give voice to or enact forms of raced-white (il)logics and racism in which we have all been steeped and/or subject to, and of which we are pretty much all purveyors. We need to recognize and acknowledge the ways in which individuals take up and reproduce social (il)logics and be willing to acknowledge—without excusing ourselves or others—our own reflections mirrored back to us by the actions of others. I just don’t think it’s possible to organize change initiatives by pathologizing others or by isolating ourselves from actors in any particular event.
“Well, you know, no one intended to hurt you. People do make mistakes, you know. That security guard felt terrible, just terrible about what she did.”
Let’s dispense right now with the intentionality defense. Who cares, really, what any person or group intended when the work that needs to be done is to acknowledge and address the effects: to change the conditions of possibility for faculty, graduate students, and students of color in our institutions and our discipline? For a very down-to-earth and clear explication of this point about the intentionality defense, have a look at this You-Tube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc&list=PL0299BC83C1A51D5D&index...
“Let’s form a committee to address these problems. Collin and Staci, will you co-chair and we think we know four or five other people of color who can work with you.”
Remember that story Ms. Perryman-Clark tells about that professor who positions her by virtue of her gender and her identity as an African American as being better “equipped” to work with an African graduate teaching assistant? Okay, so we might think about that moment as an unsolicited nomination. In the essay, Ms. Perryman-Clark unpacks a range of racist and sexist assumptions implicit (and explicit) in the professor’s conversation with her, one of which (in my words) goes something like this: “taking care of other people of color, speaking to race and racism, and addressing difference in predominantly white contexts is the job of people of color.”
Look, it’s unfair and, frankly, stupid to expect people of color to do all the work required to productively organize change initiatives in predominantly white institutions or organizations. Unsolicited nominations are unfair because (a) it is neither the presence nor the actions of people of color that create racist conditions within predominantly white institutions, but the racial (il)logics of those institutions and the “consensual hallucinations” of whitely folks within them. (Mills 18) To expect people of color to do all the work is to put the hard labor of antiracism on those who are most subject to conditions of racism and to the disempowerment that is an effect of those conditions. (b) If a goal of sustained and organized intervention in institutional racism is to increase the diversity of faculty, staff, and students, then nominating people of color to do all the work is a bad idea because saddling people with work that is implicitly designed to fail (see (a)) and demanding of them work that will consume their time and energy in ways that make it very difficult to succeed individually (to attain tenure and promotion, to complete exams and dissertations, to complete degrees) virtually ensures people of color nominated to do that work cannot accomplish their own objectives. Sure, a few people make it through. But they are the exception rather than the rule and holding them up as models for what ought to be possible is in itself a racist practice. (Williams 11) For a more explicit treatment of this practice, try re-reading the first chapter of Ellison’s Invisible Man (or the whole book) and especially the contents of that letter—you know the one.
“Let’s form a committee to address these problems. Y’all just sit back now and our committee will report to you in a year or two.”
Conversely, denying people of color a voice and leadership roles within change initiatives is a flawed practice and one that similarly dooms such initiatives to failure. Here’s the bottom line, I think, and while it isn’t complicated in theory the truth is that it’s very complicated in practice, but in ways that we’ll all be better for experiencing and working our way through: we need to build multiracial coalitions. If we want to increase the number of young people of color drawn to the field of composition and rhetoric and to the work of writing program administration, we need multiracial coalitions of allies, advocates, and mentors working together to create the conditions of possibility for such a change. If we want to improve working conditions for students and colleagues of color learning and teaching, writing and administering writing programs in predominantly white institutions, and if we want to transform the CWPA into a multiracial organization within the discipline, we need to build multiracial coalitions of allies, advocates, and mentors working within and across institutions as well as within the CWPA.
In the spirit of opening up and leaning in to try to imagine alternative, more reflective and performative responses, here are a few initial steps the CWPA might take and the list is by no means exhaustive.
1. Make a public commitment to antiracism, in particular, and to anti-oppression, in general, as integral to the work of the organization. Make the organization publically accountable to people of color within it, to students of color served by the organization’s members, and to communities of color who are entrusting their children to the care of institutions in which our members work.
2. Get some training. Sure, we’re all smart folks, but not all of us know much about antiracist organizing principles and methods and that’s what we need. Send a multiracial leadership team from the organization to some intensive antiracism training (The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond offers some great training as does Training for Change out of Philadelphia). Yes, pay for that training and create some expectations that leaders who attend will use that training to organize within the CWPA and to pass that training on to others within the organization.
3. Write a racial history of the CWPA and of WPA studies. Create a timeline that shows the relationships between the organization, shifts in knowledge and knowledge-making practices in the field, and race relations in and outside of academe. Tell the stories of people of color within the organization. Make it public. Analyze it. Where have we been? What have we accomplished with regard to the democratization of American higher education, racial justice, and antiracism? Where have we fallen short and when and why?
4. Go visiting. Listen to members of color and their allies. Listen to graduate students of color working on entering (or leaving) the field. Listen to students of color and their allies at predominantly white institutions where members are WPAs. Make listening a priority. In this regard, we have a great example to follow in the work of Craig and Perryman-Clark’s essay and a great opportunity to take what they say and how they say it seriously, to learn from them, and to do that for which they advocate. And, while we’re at it, let’s create means by which the people to whom we listen can share their stories if they choose. Let’s create an archive. Make it public. Study it and encourage others to study it too.
5. Ask the multiracial leadership team to create a long-term plan for transforming the CWPA into an antiracist organization. Help that team construct goals along an actionable timeline and to articulate how it is the organization will know how well it is doing in meeting those goals. Then follow the damn plan.
6. Get lots of people thinking about, studying, and writing about race and racism. Invite research by organizing conferences themed around antiracism, around race, racism, and the teaching of writing, around race, racism, and writing program administration. Encourage the publication of this research. Reward this research, those who produce it, and those who publish it.
7. Authorize our multiracial leadership team to travel to institutions requesting the team’s support to assess writing programs and institutional support for writing with particular attention to issues of access, inclusion, mentorship, and support for the leadership of students and faculty of color.
8. Make sure our multiracial leadership team is supported over the long-term; that there are ways for folks to rotate on and off so that no one person carries too much of the load for too long and that there are always new folks as well as elders on the team. Listen to our team. Take note when they tell us they are frustrated or angry at our lack of action or the slowness with which the organization changes. Lay aside defensiveness and lean in when criticism comes to learn and to discern how to move.
9. As you peruse this list and are inclined to construct a counter-list of all the reasons why these things are stupid and won’t work, take some time to think and write about the space and work of the in-between: about what—given the obstacles, the challenges, the history you would point out—might be possible, do-able, and productive. Make your list public and solicit feedback. Be ready to pursue a course of action when you sense a tipping point at which there seems to be collective momentum to act.
10. Expect to fail, sometimes spectacularly, and commit as an organization to learning from failure and to staying with the work of antiracism even when the work is hardest.
Ahmed, Sara. 2004. Declarations of whiteness: The non-performativity of anti-racism. Borderlands 3.2: http://borkerlands.net/au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations_htm.
Condon, Frankie. 2012. I hope I join the band: narrative, affiliation, and antiracist rhetoric. Logan: Utah State University Press.
Corder, Jim W. 1985. Argument as emergence, rhetoric as love. Rhetorical Review 4, no. 1: 16-32.
Ellison, Ralph. 1995. Invisible Man. Vintage, 2nd Edition.
Mills, Charles. 1999. The racial contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Williams, Patricia. 1992. Alchemy of race and rights: diary of a mad law professor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.