Teaching While Black (2015)

Teaching While Black: Witnessing and Countering Disciplinary Whiteness, Racial Violence, and University Race-Management

Overview: The late Critical Race Theorist, Derrick Bell, argued that we must see racial progress as cyclical, sometimes regressing in catastrophic ways and, at other times, incrementally moving forward (Bell, Delgado).  He called this position Racial Realism and saw it as the most hopeful and pragmatic theoretical lens and praxis to do anti-racist work.  His reminder of the importance of Racial Realism seems all the more portent today given the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, the treatment of Rachel Jeantel’s court testimony about Trayvon’s murder, the nationwide protests that have animated young activists, the discursive somersaults that law enforcement and state institutions continually maneuver to justify racial profiling, and the obvious and constant reminder that to be black in the United States is to be the target of a ruthless racial violence.

Most days, it feels like I am still an undergraduate during the 1992 rebellions in South Central Los Angeles when the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King got us to our feet. Sylvia Wynter reminded us, as best captured in her writing called “‘No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” as we protested on our campuses, that we be sure to keep the epistemological frameworks and knowledge systems of our disciplines in focus.  She passionately urged us to decode the symbolic violence that was encoded into our disciplinary sense-making that was ideologically wedded to the very same violence waged against Rodney King and South Central Los Angeles.  I propose to take up Wynter’s charge here: 1) that, we begin to notice the violence in the classrooms and research that we sustain, and; 2) that, we question the disciplinary apparatus that makes it possible that racially subordinated students of color will experience racial violence at the site where they are supposed to be democratically educated: the composition classroom.  I’m talking about the kind of social and political processes that we need in order to prevent racist logics as viable membership in this community that we call composition-rhetoric and I am calling these racist logics of the same order of violence as the murder of Trayvon Martin and dismissal of Rachel Jeantel.  Wynter was always sure that undoing racial violence is an intellectual and epistemological task, but only if we see the work in front of us.

I am not interested here in general discussions about moral and philosophical principles of equity, equality, or diversity. I am offering my own personal experiences and stance of bearing-witness as more than just one individual’s observations but an indication of the levels of systemic racism that we do not address.  I take up the tools that Allan Luke privileges: the tools of “story, metaphor, history, and philosophy, leavened with empirical claims,” all of which Luke argues are as integral to truth-telling and policymaking as field experiments and meta-analyses (368).  I take up these tools in the context of myself as a writer and researcher of black language, education, and literacies as well as an educator of future compositionists.  I use two main-frame narratives to offer stories of institutional racism that compositionists— and thereby, our field— have maintained.  These frames offer a place to decode the symbolic violence that is encoded into our disciplinary sense-making and move towards what a theory of Racial Realism might entail for our classrooms and discipline.


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