The “White Turn” in Composition Studies

When I first tried to publish “ ‘This the ConscienceRebel’: Class Solidarity, Congregational Capital, and Discourse as Activism in the Writing of Black Female College Students,” I must admit that I was taken aback by white resistance in composition studies— the field to which I am most closely aligned by nature of the work that I do but certainly not by the nature of my politics , aesthetics, or pedagogies.  I was not surprised that the white editors saw the work— a text that focuses on working class Black female college students— as irrelevant to the wider field.  But, I must admit: I was surprised that it was Black female scholars in the field who gave the white editors rhetorical ammunition.

black womenIt was Black female reviewers who brought up the point that most professors reading the article would be white and have mostly white students and so would not be able to relate to the content.  Yes, you heard that right.  It was Black female professors who made that claim.  And I shouldn’t have to tell you that the white editors went to town on that right there. Besides the fact that it undermines all Black women when Black women see themselves as tangential to educational research, the idea that the majority of college writing classrooms today mostly enroll white, middle class students IS FALSE!  That’s not historically accurate and it certainly does not apply to an era where higher education gets browner and browner every year. Whiteness in this field gets maintained by scholars of color as much as it gets maintained by white scholars and it’s time we start talking about it.


I saw and heard all that I needed to see and hear and took my scholarship elsewhere… and I will continue to do so.  However, I became clearer on the kind of white, racist gatekeeping that scholars of color themselves contribute to.  This experience with “This the ConscienceRebel” would not be my first interaction with scholars of color intent on maintaining their own tokenism/coon-ism as the price of their prominence amongst white, racist researchers.  I am, however, confused by the rhetorics of scholars of color in my field who notice and critique the “white turn” in the publications of my field and yet replicate it in the ways that they respond to other scholars of color.

white-spacesThe “White Turn” in composition studies is most obvious in the top-tiered journals and university presses.  If you ain’t noticed, then you ain’t been reading very well.  As just one example, quite a few articles and books deal exclusively with white women, usually elite white women. So it’s not the focus on gender or females that makes a piece irrelevant in this field— it’s when those women are Black.  I also see quite a few white authors publishing about communities of color.  Sometimes, there is very little, if any, intellectual consultation with scholars of color. Here’s what I mean: a recent article about Latin@ students in high school and college included not one single current Latin@ scholar. All major theoretical frameworks came from white scholars who do not ever address race or nation. I also read an article that situates itself as offering a local response to one college environment’s structuring without ever mentioning the campus racism that I experienced daily in that space.  I haven’t seen these kinds of moves in any prominent educational journal tied to a national conference and national professional organization anywhere else in the United States.  But, lo and behold, we do have that kind of mess happening in composition studies in 2015!

I only started thinking about this complicit role of scholars of color in the past six months. This fall semester witnessed an entirely new genre in my life as an academic: I reviewed four books.  Yes, four!  I also chaired a committee that chooses the best article in one of the top-tiered journals in the field.  Needless to say, I am exhausted.  I made a critical decision when I decided to review these books, all of which are written by dope-ass faculty of color: if I had substantial criticism, I would do that one-on-one with the scholar and not in the letter to the editor.  I don’t trust white editors to not twist my words/recommendations so I am intent on not giving them any ammunition. As it ends up, I should have known better than to think I needed such a contingency plan.  The books I reviewed were so thorough and articulate that I saw no major issues.  It’s like I told my girlfriend at NWSA this year: if a person of color with a radical disposition makes it to the stage where a university press is sending out the manuscript for review, then that book is T.I.G.H.T.— especially in comparison to the kinds of weakass books that are already on the shelves.  At least in my field, that’s what I see.  In all of my publishing so far, I can only say that two scholars have ever approached me this way.  For the most part, scholars of color in my field see the review as a place to perform their self-proclaimed intelligence and knowledge for white reviewers who they are usually friends with rather than have a conversation with Black writers, Black vernacular culture, or a Black radical tradition.  It’s not that I don’t want critique but when you say things like— you need to review all of the Black male scholars who have written about this issue and THEN show how Black women have added on and challenged that— well, that’s just a simple polemic that was already resolved in 1990.  Can’t even take it seriously.  When white folk take that up, all you get is an all-around COON SHOW.  Or when your suggestion is to include scholars who work exclusively on Black masculinities that they direct to white audiences, scholars who never discuss the ways that their work was made possible by Black Feminisms, then I ain’t listening. Every racist, white editor who has ever given me a hard time built on the direct criticisms of scholars of color.  I’m not talking about criticism from the likes of radical intellectual powerhouses like Robin D. G. Kelley here.  Naw, I’m talking about simple stuff that people should be embarrassed to put in print.

I suppose I am only now realizing all of this given the opportunities of the previous semester.  I don’t see myself as some new 21st century rhetorical coon performing for white folks in my field’s most esteemed publications.  I wonder why so many other scholars of color don’t experience themselves in the same way.