I often encounter African American college students (and to a lesser extent, AfroCaribbean students, at least those who genuflect to what they call “British culture”) who speak with great pride about only speaking/writing what they call “Proper English,” never speaking a word of Ebonics which is often erroneously interchangeable with “street slang.” These students often cite this ability as the reason for their stellar, academic performance in school. Despite the fact that we are not at a national, competitive university, these students often think they are at Hahvahd, all because their teachers have emboldened and praised them for their acquisition of a standardized English (if you saw their writing’s content and style, even this, however, is questionable). Besides the anti-black nature of this sentiment (if black people speak it, it must be wrong) and the utter inability of any of these students to offer any accurate definition of what Ebonics is, the ideology of American empire is fiercely evident. Only in the United States can you be considered educated or intelligent because you only speak/read/write one, standardized, school variety of a language. Continue reading
I recently spent a good deal of time reading the last year’s issues of one of the prominent journals in my field, rhetoric-composition studies, and found myself unpleasantly surprised. There was, of course, the usual error in representation of a black student, in this case an adult returning student whose vocabulary of her writing process was described as simplistic (the researcher did not culturally interrogate the student’s vocabulary) while a white male adult student was described as sophisticated. I wasn’t surprised by that, however. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a white researcher called us simple and it won’t be the last time either. I was a bit taken back, however, to see two articles in the same year about ONE writing program.
Since we are talking about 16 articles for the whole year of the journal, two articles, not just about the same college or from researchers at the same college, BUT two articles about the SAME PROGRAM accounts for more than 10% of the year’s content. I am not an editor and never want to be since it is excruciatingly arduous work. My problem here is with the school in focus and with how the editors of my field understand, in contrast, colleges that serve working class students of color. And since these editors were selected “democratically” by peers in the field and articles are peer-reviewed, these editorial choices cannot be regarded as merely individual phenomenon.
I have always worked at schools that serve large or ONLY serve working class, first-generation, working, and/or racially marginalized students. And for as long as I have worked there, I have gotten editorial and peer responses across the board that question how THAT student population, or how the university where I work, is relevant to the kind of classrooms most compositionists see— white middle class kids. The problem is that this is a lie. White, middle-classness is not what MOST colleges and universities today look like and it is not going in that direction either. This is merely a white myth that the field maintains as part of its possessive investment in whiteness, to riff off of George Lipsitz. Given the activism, widespread outrage, and speak-out against our current student debt crisis, it is unfathomable to me that we are so ahistorical and still choose to see colleges and universities as the sole bastion of the elite. Casting today’s college student population as white and middle class serves political and ideological needs, not statistical needs, and does the work of maintaining existing white social networks (see Robert Jensen here).
This university writing program that saw two articles in one year simply isn’t relatable to the kinds of universities where most of us work so why the need to keep casting such spaces as the model? Let me break it down. I won’t name this university, I’ll just call it MidWest Big Mac, so as not to retract from my larger focus. Midwest Big Mac is a selective public university, a very large research-extensive university. Only them 1 or 2 flagship state universities across the country can relate to THAT! So, off the bat, we are talking about 60-80 colleges and universities. That’s just NOT where the majority of us teach. In the past ten years, 4.7% of the undergrad student population at Midwest Big Mac has been black, 4.4% Latin@, and 0.2% Native American. If you are at a school that is trying to keep its demographics in keeping with the national demographic or a school whose population reflects a local or historical population, you cannot relate to this school. 25% of admitted students had a 4.0 high school GPA and most of the students scored above 1700 on their SAT. 97% attend full time with their first year retention rates at 96%. Given the conferences and consultants who are all focused on the singular experience of the first-year experience and general retention, these statistics put you in the elite ranks, not the common ranks.
At 26K tuition per year with room and board, Midwest Big Mac will cost a family/student at least 100K by the time of graduation. Even if that is relatable to many universities in the country, here is something that won’t be. With an endowment of $8.4 BILLION at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, MidWest Big Mac does not seem to feel the effects of the recession. It is the second-largest endowment in the nation among public universities and the seventh-largest among all U.S. universities. Only 6 other colleges can relate to you, MidWest Big Mac! And yet the premier journal in my field constructs this location as the predominant college composition experience. If you were ever wondering how a discipline maintains its whiteness or how educators maintain a system that is completely non-responsive to non-white, non-middle class, non-elite peoples, I encourage you to think of this example.
I once had to mediate a complaint against a teacher who failed a student’s paper because it was plagiarized. The student had lifted entire segments of each page from websites and the professor had a policy against this on his syllabus. The student insisted that the professor was actually implementing his policy only with her because he disagreed with her political beliefs. That’s a difficult thing to prove so she was out there on a limb with that one. Because she was contesting her final grade (she was insisting on an A and that a B+ was the lowest grade she could ever accept) and not the plagiarism, I had to read the plagiarized paper and her corpus of work (most often lifted from other sources). Her writing was stunningly weak, riddled with the most anti-black racism I have ever read from a college student, and strangely misinformed all at the same time. In one section of a paper, the student wrote a rather lengthy diatribe against affirmative action and used, as her evidence, that Columbia University’s undergraduate student population is 40% “black”…”Colored” is what she called them. She argued that Columbia had accepted all of these unqualified “Colored (i.e., black)” students over the white valedictorian of her class who was denied admission. I was confused, to say the least, and thought she meant a different Columbia than the ivy league institution housed in New York City. Columbia’s students are 40% black? When the hell did that happen and why ain’t I workin there? Thass that hotness right there. I did get excited for a minute when I read her words but then realized that I was being foolish for listening to such a foolish student. That just ain’t what Columbia has EVER looked like! She did have a (cut-and-pasted) section from Columbia’s website in her writing. The charts, graphs, and language did, in fact, show that Columbia was reporting 40% of its undergraduate student population to be OF COLOR (the majority population in that number is Asian). I was astounded that the student clearly did not understand and had never really seen the term “of color” before. She seemed to think it was referencing those old Colored Vs. White drinking fountains where “Colored” meant black. Her white male professor looks like the first person who actually confronted her ideas and writing ability and she saw him as a race traitor of the John Brown variety, insistent on lynching him! It would be funny if it weren’t so damn tragic. There are no surprises here though. This was a Christian, conservative white female at a Christian, conservative white-run college who had attended a Christian, conservative white high school. Imagine my surprise though to hear the exact same language from SOPHOMORE students of color at a “minority-serving” public college who attended predominantly Black and Latin@ public schools! They too had never heard the term “of color.” The same white political continuum operates in how they have been educated.
Contrary to what many of my colleagues believe, the challenges that I experience with students have nothing to do with grammar, skills, or any another lower-order concerns. Like last week: my students were assigned a lecture by Robin D.G. Kelley called “Becoming Engaged Intellectuals” (I treat the lecture like any reading assignment where students must transact with the text in the same way):
Here is Robin Kelley, a brilliant and acclaimed historian, talking to a group of students of color at an elite state university about being young people of color while my sophomore college students have mostly never heard of nor called themselves people of color before. I find myself growing more and more impatient with college faculty and systems who cannot seem to (or do not want to) grasp that young people of color need to have a sense of themselves in order to write themselves into being.
Like always, I had students say things like they don’t think they are or can ever be intellectuals because English is not their first language or because they have an accent. These are actual quotes from last week’s class. And, of course, I have students, young black women, who unpack a discussion after class rather than in class because they don’t think they have a voice that people will hear… they will just be cast as that loud black girl in the corner again. That’s a quote too. Despite my early onset of racial battle fatigue, I realize that I need to sharpen my critique on the privileging of decontextualized grammar instruction. I don’t centralize grammar instruction in my course so for many folk, this means that I do not teach it all. If I thought grammar would alleviate the social and educational injustices that my people face (or even impact the students of color who I have described here), I would do it all day long. But at what point in my people’s history did a grammar lesson ever resolve systemic oppression, institutional racism, and education inequality? I mean, really, who thinks this simplistically? If all black folk needed was a grammar lesson for equality and social mobility in education, don’t you think we woulda BIN done that? There is a real vile disrespect happening in this construct.
I am reminded these days that I must offer a discursive paradigm that communicates the historical weight of my students’ experiences, the dignity of their persons, and the political presence of the minds that no one has really allowed them to tap into. I need a critical discourse, no matter an audience’s limited capacities, of the linguistic needs of students who have internalized the kinds of racism that I am describing in this post, an internalization that has everything to do with how you understand and actualize yourself as a writer. I won’t relegate them to a separate water fountain by dumbing down my analysis of the spaces that marginalize them or only give them grammar instruction. Haven’t we already had enough Jim Crow classrooms and drank from enough Jim Crow water fountains??
I spent my weekend reading more than 60 essay drafts and another 60 website sketches/plans. By the time I got to J’s, I had really lost it and found myself emotional: a mixture of sadness and anger that I have not felt in quite a while…which always means I’m about to put clowns in CHECK! J is an AfroLatina who is perhaps one of the best storytellers I have ever encountered and yet she won’t speak in class because her anxiety about her “accent” paralyzes her. I. Mean. Physically. Paralyzes. Her. I should have used my course website to build more sound and multiple speaking voices there so she could HEAR herself and not just see herself. I know that now…I also know that the fierceness with which I will go AFTER and AT all the perpetuators of such debilitating spaces for students like J has been renewed.
In my first year writing (FYW) classroom this fall, I want to offer students a workable, go-to definition of neoliberalism. I don’t expect students to read political economy or write research papers on that. This is not the best way to teach and interrogate neoliberalism in FYW. Instead, I want to treat neoliberalism rhetorically. We are all neoliberal subjects so a writer’s stance on neoliberalism is always evident, whether or not you use the word, whether or not you fully comprehend the meaning, whether or not you are explicitly discussing economic issues. I am not so keen on using what passes as scholarship in my field as an offering to my students either though.
I haven’t made any final decisions yet, it’s still all coming together. I tend to get side-tracked when I do syllabus planning. I start taking notes for other projects or I make notes of new realizations. This moment is no different. Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought is what I keep thinking about right now– the moment when I first met the text when I was an undergraduate student in the early 1990s. Every black female scholar/black feminist who knows the book seems to have a chapter, section, or set of sentences that impacts her most. Or, alternatively, she has a critique of something that doesn’t quite work or doesn’t work for the 21st century. I can’t say why, but Collins’s ideas about black feminism’s ethic of personal accountability offered a whole new way of thinking when I was an undergraduate: “people are expected to be accountable for their knowledge claims.” Maybe I was just stank and needed a justificatory system for why I couldn’t stand a whole bunch of the folk around me. Something just clicked when Collins framed her black female students’ ideas as black feminist consciousness. For Collins, there was a consistent critique from her black female undergraduate students where their value of an academic was related to that person’s character, that person’s treatment of the people around them, that person’s moral decisions in day-to-day life. You can’t just mouth the words. It was not a popular sentiment amongst heterosexual/heterosexist black men on campus who seemed insistent that what they did behind closed doors in their bedrooms had nothing to do with their politics of black life and culture. I wasn’t tryna hear that. If you beat the hell outta your wife/girlfriend/jump-off, then your version of black liberation is not one that can liberate me. I knew that at 20 years old and still have very little patience for the ways men want to discursively neutralize/control the misogyny they actively promote. I am not trying to suggest that there is or should be no help for such abusers, I don’t believe that, but if you think that you are entitled to the violence and deception that you instigate in your bedroom, then you aren’t looking for/capable of help.
It is easy enough to see how this black feminist ethic of personal accountability works in relation to sexual abuse and violence against women. However, that ethic extends to other places too, especially in my own field where the racism that I see scholars inflicting should be treated as criminal. When a white woman mails to her only black student a book with the N-Bomb in the title after not assigning a single black author in her class (but openly dissing Gilyard’s work and calling Smitherman’s work irrelevant) and then casting that black male student as a predator when he displays his offense, I will never be interested in her publications on anti-racism. And I have nothing positive to say about the white people who co-sign her and treat her version of anti-racism as viable to anyone or anything but their own ongoing white privilege. I think of myself as fair-minded here: I have equal disdain for the people of color around her. Like I have already said on this blog, my culture gives me special words for such folk of color. When a non-white male (but phenotypically white) chair of a department sides with racist white students who violently attack the only black female assistant professor who asks her students to talk about racism, I am not interested in anything he ever has to say about diversity, administration, or the teaching of writing. I won’t implement or listen to the practices of those who find him insightful either. When a non-white woman (but phenotypically AND culturally white) brutally disrespects a black male scholar in his home and elsewhere but is always bowed down, on her knees, to white men, I do not want to hear a word of what she has to say about political economies, feminism, or decolonization. I refuse to trust this woman’s colleagues and co-authors who have silently stood by and casually watched such anti-black violence while labeling themselves radical. I got questions about the white scholars who are so politically comforted by the work of all these anti-black tokens too. I learned from Collins a long time ago as an undergraduate that oppressed people are also often invested in oppressive systems (we like to forget THAT part of intersectionality) which makes it very telling when white racists like these token-kind so much. I am not suggesting that any of these cases represent people who can’t change but in order for that to happen, they need to cop to what they have deliberately and consciously done, instigated, lied about, stolen, and attacked. When, instead, you are strutting around conferences, colleges, and journals like an arrogant George Zimmerman, full of confidence and non-remorse for having gotten away with the murder of another black person, I have no regard for you, your scholarship, your lifestyle. I am not being hyberbolic here, I am describing very real and VERY recent incidents. And I do not mean false alarm when I suggest that the scholarship from such actors in my field is akin to George Zimmerman, in his current political state of mind, writing a book about the end of racial profiling. Black people can’t afford to take THAT seriously if they plan to stay alive. If we are really going to proclaim “We are Trayvon Martin,” then we have much more than police and Stand Your Ground to challenge. Concrete experience— rather than the stand-alone sanctity of the rational, (Western)logical thesis— is a central criterion of meaning, consciousness, and intellectual radicalism. This stance is part of my black feminist consciousness.
I am reminded of how such black feminist consciousness works as I craft my syllabus, one that will never include scholars like I have described who act solely in the service of white violence. Some of the most egregious forms of violence against black communities have happened because of and at the hands of university scholars: the well-known instances of the Tuskegee Experiment and the impoverished Henrietta Lacks with her multimillion HeLa Cells should be proof enough. The scholars in those contexts, however, did not see themselves as doing anything wrong. They did not see themselves as unethical… it took history to teach us this. History will remember the scholars who I have described in the same ways where, just like now, people will someday look back and wonder how these folk could do such things and why folk said nothing about it. I won’t need the distance of history though. I do not have any hesitation about the kinds of people who will never be introduced to my college students and the kinds of people who will never influence my pedagogy. I may not know which scholars I am using to discuss neoliberalism yet but I certainly know who I am NOT using. And I certainly know the people in my field who maintain plantation-style racist violence, despite everyone’s dangerous self-delusions that they are offering black people freedom. Black Feminist Consciousness means knowing and doing better than that, in the classroom and out.