Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rhetorics of Racism

Introductory Bio
Victor Villaneuva, the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts at Washington State University, is our first Guest writer for the CCCC Conversations on Diversity series. Victor's reputation is well known among most of the readers of this blog entry, I'm sure--most notably his award-winning publication, Bootstraps: from an American Academic of Color. A popular writer, speaker, and recipient of numerous awards, he is the former chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. He has authored or edited five books and nearly forty articles or chapters in books, and he has delivered over ninety public speeches throughout the country. His concern is with the connections between language and racism. We look forward both to his stimulating and provocative conversation with us on the subject of diversity and, importantly, our CCCC/NCTE readers responses, comments, and posts.

Blog Entry
First time I heard of a blog, a weblog, was from the late John Lovas, former chair of CCCC. I figured I’d leave that to others, that I’d just claim to be “old school” (meaning the dog that isn’t going to learn the new tricks). But I was asked to contribute here, and I agreed. Still not doing a blog, though, really, just a short essay. I was told to make it short, between 1200 and 2000 words, and in those four or so pages, to answer the following prompt:

How do you address the topic of “diversity” in your scholarship, teaching, and service?

Freeze. I reckon I don’t address much else in a little over twenty years of published scholarship (or in the scholarship that led up to those pubs). I reckon I don’t address much else in my service or in my teaching either. Or maybe, I don’t.

I don’t really work with “diversity,” that all-inclusive and non-inclusive institutional term. I’m old school. I don’t care for that word diversity any more than I cared for its predecessor, multiculturalism. I’m glad those who make institutional decisions about bureaucratic titles realized that there are problems that extend beyond “culture” (replete with scare quotes, since “culture” really means racism, and multiculturalism was a term for non-hostile-anti-racism).

Diversity just tries to be all-inclusive—the entire range of differences. That’s what the word means, after all—a range of differences. So—if you’re not part of the “same,” you’re among the range of differences. The French distinguished the Same from the Other. Diversity is the American version of l’autre. But who are the Same?

What’s the norm here? The temptation is to say white men. But that isn’t fair. Most are different from that norm, I’d bet, though they have enough power not to notice, more often than not. The norm is predicated on power. And the words used to describe some of those different ones, the diverse ones, tells of power, an insight provided by Rosemary Hennessy in her references to heteronormativity, the function of which is to make homosexuality a deviance from the normed hetero. It may well be that wif-man, the root of “woman,” was not a derivative of the male as man, but that sure has become the connotation. Or what to make of “differently abled”? Or “minority”? Differential power relations are carried in the language.

Where I work, there is an Office of Equity and Diversity. That’s an interesting title—Fairness and Difference. I wish that the “and” were replaced with “despite” or “within.” But right now, the Office betrays the precise problem, diversity detached from equity, two different subjects: fairness (what we all want) and difference (with the different maybe or maybe not being treated fairly). Separate out the two and all there is the acknowledgement of power differences, of a sorting mechanism that decides who is most likely to get parceled out, separated, othered.

CCCC and its parent organization, for example, have any number of committees and resolutions and initiatives on diversity, yet in the case of CCCC there have been women who have headed the organization; there have been African Americans who have headed the organization; and there has been one Latino (one, male, Latino, in sixty years). In sixty years, with all its committees and resolutions and initiatives, like this one, there has been no disabled chair, no out gay chair (assuming some of those many chairs would have been gay—just not placing their sexuality on the forefront of their expressed identity), no Asian American, no Pacific Islander, no American Indian, Asian, South Asian, or Middle Eastern chair—labels I’ve chosen based on CCCC members I know who self-identify along these lines. Acknowledging difference is not the same as acting on those differences—substantively.

Diversity as something other than Equity.

Whatever the euphemism, the language betrays the ways that the othering remains. Yet we are clear that there has been progress: access ramps, signers, GLBT organizations, initiatives to attract students of color to schools and organizations like ours, classes that focus on racism or disabilities or queer theory or gender.

Students always tell me at the beginning of classes that have as their focus racism, the particular diversity subset that I am most concerned with, that they believe there still is racism; “of course,” they say, “but it isn’t what it used to be.” The same can be said for all of the Others.

But all that has really changed—and it is a significant change, all in all—is the social sanctions againstracism. The social sanction against gender discrimination has altered, not as significantly as it has of racism (if the prevalence of the word “bitch” has any significance). Yet the social sanction of heterosexism remains as strong as ever, as public debate takes place about whether or not gay couples should be treated fairly. And social safety nets for the poor have become threadbare. Beneath the sanctions, the affects of bigotry and exclusion remain.

“You can’t drive a knife into a man’s back nine inches, pull it out six inches, and call it progress." --Malcolm X

That bigotries are not what it used to be isn’t to say that everything is okay, that we can toss the word diversity into initiatives of various sorts and have those initiatives address the underlying, structural problems. These problems take effect in real, political economic terms, and they’re ideologically transmitted, maintained, and obscured through language—our business.

We are all of us rhetoricians. All of us—linguists, compositionists, literary critics, writers. We look at how language affects us aesthetically, socially, politically.

Recall Donald Bryant’s definition of rhetoric as “adjusting ideas to people and people to ideas” and Kenneth Burke’s “symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols." Not all persuasion is argument. How we come to believe certain ideas also happens through language, is rhetorical. And what the rhetoric seems more intent on carrying is less how we should go about putting an end to racism and to other forms of hurtful discrimination than how to believe that things are better than they used to be, a Platonic notion, Yeats’s gyres. We’d do better to remember Burke.

Hey, Victor--
I know that sometimes you feel like you aren't reaching people, so I wanted to tell you about this great paper I read. It was talking about "subtle" racism—which is color-blind racism. The student argues that racism was believed to have disappeared after the Civil Rights Movement, but it didn't--instead the language changed. I left the topic open, so that students could write about anything dealing with the history of rhetoric--and so, she decided on her own to do this. The student is white, and she was one of your students.

For me, what works pedagogically as well as philosophically, is looking at the tropes that are contained in the discourse of not-as-bad-as-it-was (why, we even have a VP for Equity and Diversity, a CDO). Burke makes much about the epistemological weight carried by what he terms four master tropes: metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, and irony. But I’m more interested in—and having students think about—tropes more broadly, less about identifying some trope out of the rhetorical canon than recognizing how the language carries common ideas, how being colorblind is a trope and what it does to blind folks to the harm caused by continuing racism, how diversity, no less than multiculturalism, has us celebrating when it’s too soon to pat ourselves on the back.

I have students look at the tropes developed by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Students take issue with him—always. His rhetoric is strident, readily open to charges of “reverse discrimination,” of bad-faith empiricism. And I agree: he’s not good at winning over readers. But before we’re very far distant from his book, his four “frames” of “racetalk,” the discourse we use to hide or deny ongoing racism, and could easily be extended to embrace all those who are the targets of diversity, finds its way into our conversations and into the students’ papers. It doesn’t take long for them to recognize that what he terms “frames” are tropes.

Although Bonilla-Silva tweaks the labels to his frames from publication to publication, they amount to four: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism (or the biologization of culture), and the minimization of racism:
  • abstract liberalism: every man for himself, and may the best man win; fair competition without regard (or mention) of race or ethnicity; lack of qualified candidates of color without regard to the causes for those lack of qualifications.
  • naturalization: it’s only natural that they would hang out with their own kind; it’s only natural that students of color would not attend a rural university; it’s just the way things are.
  • cultural racism/biologization of racism: they’re culturally predisposed to athletics; they’re culturally predisposed to partying rather than hard work (written about Puerto Ricans in a book titled Latinos); they’re culturally predisposed to having a lot of babies.
  • minimization: of course there is still racism, but it isn’t as bad as it once was.

I never call the students on their own uses of these tropes. I always assure them the class isn’t about them; just like I have built a career with faith in readers’ good faith; it’s about us all; about the language we are presented with and use. And so I ask them to read newspapers, extend beyond CNN and the Discovery Channel, keep their ears open.

Posted at a bus stop outside the local high school:

(Larger versions of this image are available at:

And then there are the current events in a world in which racism is different from what it once was. No room here to tell what students find, but here’s a simple list from one section of one class during fall semester 2007:

  • Celebrity Racism: Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Don Imus, Dog the Bounty Hunter;• Jena 6: nooses around the country, including Columbia Univ;
  • Charleston, West Virginia: the rape and torture of a young black woman in by six white people;
  • The Fence: anti-brown immigration hysteria;
  • The Fence: College Republicans (a sanctioned student organization) on our campus erect a fence; two faculty engage the students; the faculty show up on You Tube and Fox News;
  • Dr. James Watson: Nobel Prize Winner, co-discoverer of DNA—back to Black inferiority;
  • Supreme Court decisions on school integration;• Resistance Records andRaHoWa (ie, Racial Holy War);
  • Prussian Blue: thirteen year old girls performing neo-Nazi music, and receiving national broadcast attention;
  • The Knights Party: the new face of the Ku Klux Klan (literally);
  • Lewiston, Idaho, outside the Nez Percé Reservation, 45 miles from our campus: a thirteen year old American Indian girl is beaten for asking four or five young men “What about Native pride?”
  • Islamo Fascism Week on our campus

Students not only record these events, but they record how the events are presented—or not presented by the news media—the ways in which reporters or the police or local politicians are quick to dismiss each event as an aberration. One student drawn to looking at Los Angeles after reading The Necessary Hunger, an assigned novel I would recommend to all for the classroom (Black, Asian American, young gay love, athletics, class differences) found “The Homicide Report,” which claims over a thousand homicides a year in LA. To the degree that any gets press, the discussions turn toward “gang violence,” yet she found only one of 773 killings could be traced to a gang member. Now, I can’t vouch for her figures.

But I can vouch that the student could read a rhetoric that tries to minimize violence as cultural (two of Bonilla-Silva’s tropes). Our attitudes about racial difference and about gender difference are different (with only minimal changes in attitudes about sexuality or class), but we must be attuned to the rhetorics that convey the message that greater acceptance of difference is the same as greater fairness despite difference.


Michael said...

Victor -- and participants:

Great timing. From today's CHE:

"Cold Reality Intrudes on Diversity Conference in Disney World."


The brochures for the 21st annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education boasted of its being "the leading and most comprehensive national forum" on the issues it covers. About 2,000 people registered for the event, held this week at the Coronado Springs Resort in Disney World's Animal Kingdom.

In a move befitting this wild locale, one of the nation's leading proponents of diversity in higher education turned on her audience in a biting speech delivered on Thursday. Evelyn Hu-DeHart, director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, suggested that colleges let people attend this annual conference—typically held in family-friendly tourist destinations—to reward them for not making waves by pushing for more equity and black and Hispanic representation on campus.

Calling herself "a hard-nosed critic from the inside," Ms. Hu-DeHart said, "Let's face it: Diversity has created jobs for all of us. It is a career. It is an industry."

"We do what we need to keep our jobs," she said. "But as long as we keep doing our job the way we are told to do it, we are covering up for our universities."

"You all are covering up," she said. "You all are complicit in this."


The article goes on to discuss some of the contexts for those remarks (business vs. social justice), but it's hard to top that quote.

Thank you for this post on "Rhetoric of Racism." It is generative in reminding us that "Acknowledging difference is not the same as acting on those differences—substantively."

Michael Moore
Michigan Tech

Asao said...

Victor (and others),

There’s one idea, or statement, in this that I find really generative. I’d like to highlight it, and see what others think of it. In your sixth paragraph, you mention the social sanctioning of racism, sexism, elitism, and heterosexism. Yeah, I agree. I’d like to say that most of us – all of us – would agree with this sentiment, Victor, but I’m not sure. I just read a report of results from my own institution on “Multiculturalism, Diversity and Gender Issues.” In it, our Office of Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning found that

Across academic ranks, the full-time faculty believes that there is little racial conflict on this campus and subtle discrimination is not much of a source of stress. However, women and faculty of color rate subtle discrimination as a higher stressor than do men and white faculty. Faculty of color say racial conflict on campus is more extensive than white faculty do.

Additionally, it found that faculty of color were more likely to have taught “ethnic studies courses” than anyone else. Female faculty were more likely to have taught “women studies” courses than men. And both faculty of color and female faculty were more likely to “consider enhancing knowledge of racial/ethnic groups to be a more important undergraduate educational goal than white faculty and men do.” Hmm. If the demographics of my department, English, is any indictor of the power structures on campus as a whole (dominated by White, male, tenured faculty), then it’s clear how the social sanctioning of racism, sexism, elitism, and heteronormativity occur tacitly.

But I have stronger gut reactions to these results, and how they are presented, how they sanction racism and sexism. Why does racism, diversity, and the like ALWAYS have to be framed as issues that folks of color or women worry about, or that affect us only? Why must it appear as if racism (or “discrimination” in the report cited above) is just a perspective thing, an issue that is mostly perception. According to the rhetoric above, there “IS” little racial conflict (a statement of fact, signaled by the verb “to be,” even if it is couched as something all faculty “believe”), yet women and faculty of color “rate” and “say” discrimination is a higher stressor, statements that sound a lot more like opinion than the first one (even though that’s what all of these findings are). Looks to me like this rhetoric of diversity falls into a trap, the familiar default, white perspective as neutral and objective perspective. Why use the White faculty as a benchmark against which the faculty of color are measured. How would the findings on the state of “diversity” change if they were stated as: However, men and white faculty rate subtle discrimination as a lower stressor than do women and faculty of color? It’s not just a change in grammatical subject. It would seem that the burden of proof also shifts away from women and faculty of color. This is the subtle sanctioning of racism and sexism, isn’t it?

I’m glad, Michael, that you brought up another important point that Victor makes: “acknowledging difference is not the same as acting on those differences.” Again, yes. But the devil is in the acting, isn’t it? Of course, I agree that the rhetoric of diversity allows us to sanction racism, perhaps mostly without us knowing it. This is a problem. Victor is keen to point out Bonilla-Silva’s racial discursive frames that often well-intentioned folks in universities use (the ones he cites, I believe, were induced from students’ discourses), but these discourses, especially “abstract liberalism” and “minimization,” sound a lot like the discourse of diversity, which is probably Victor’s point in bring them into this discussion. However, on my campus, our statement on diversity, and even most of the results of the Faculty Survey I cite above, tend to focus on attitudes and language too much. The rhetoric of diversity does provide signals to us about racism, and constructs much of it, yes, but – and to me this is a big BUT – racism is mostly a structural and social problem, not simply a matter of words or attitudes. Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT saying Victor is saying this. Just making a point here. If we only consider the discourse of diversity and our racial discursive frames that we use to sanction racism, sexism, elitism, and heteronormativity then we are only looking at the ocean’s surface, not the vast volume of water underneath – all that stuff that creates the waves we surf on, or that carry us from here to there.

Again, I know, Victor is hinting at this stuff when he ends his blog entry on the current events his students explore. So I suppose I’m trying to make sense of these at my local level.

One more point. I’m in charge of our First Year Writing Program’s program assessments, so I gather and look at lots of data. One pattern we found this year is that both male and female African American students performed equally poorly in our writing classes and in our program portfolio, the worst of all racial groups represented. Over 25% of Blacks failed, while Whites were at 10%, Hispanics at 14%, and Asian Pacific Americans at almost 13%. Their portfolio fail rates were similarly distributed. A group of graduate students and TAs in a Composition Theory course of mine this last semester conducted a study on teacher commenting practices, and what they found was perhaps equally troubling: Black and Hispanic males received the most negative comments on their papers and the most comments concerning grammar per paper. And yes, you guessed it, white students averaged the lowest in both these categories. Is this the sanctioning of racism in our commenting practices?

So the sanctioning of racism also appears to happen through our pedagogies and teaching practices, even in well-intentioned, good hearted teachers (which our teachers are). Most of our teachers use themes and readings in their courses that are on what many consider “diverse” topics, like “racism,” “passing,” “identity,” “representation in media,” among others. And our Writing Program tries very hard to fight the social issues and inequality that is so ubiquitous in our academic and surrounding communities, which is one reason we moved to a DSP model. But despite these things, I see lots of evidence for Victor’s statement that acknowledging difference is not the same as acting on those differences? Might we still be sanctioning racism, sexism, elitism, and heteronormativity when we do not actively and aggressively address these issues in our own practices, and in the institutional structures that make up our departments, courses, programs, and schools? With the current rhetoric of diversity and under the current institutional structures, can we really make substantive changes, produce equality, provide for difference in meaningful ways? How might we see “diversity as something other than Equity,” as Victor says? Or how do we created equity in spite of diversity?

-- Asao

Keith Rhodes said...

So what should we do next?

I spent most of my "time out" of comp/rhet working for a law firm that was a "certified minority contractor" and that worked for other such contractors in trying to use affirmative action programs to their benefit. The multiple perspectives I gained as a hetero white male employee in this context mostly shocked me.

I got to see existing racism face on. If you think it's bad in academia, try heavy contracting. People have learned to keep mostly quiet about it, at least outside the hearing of supposedly "fellow" white males. I do see that as a good thing, in the long run. The less that message is heard, the less it is available and validated for newer generations. But it's far too easy to read too much into it right now.

It was disheartening also to see the extent to which the affirmative action programs mostly helped a narrow range of program insiders as jealous of their advantages as any racist good ol' boy. I was proud that my employer was different in this regard, but disappointed that it rarely made a difference.

I'm also acutely aware of how fragile the legal climate is for permitting any acknowledgment of the effects of racism, both historical and present. Sandra Day O'Connor may not be many progressives' favorite Justice, but she was critical to the decisions permitting some redress for historical racism. She's gone now. Much worse may be coming soon from the Supremes. Governmental offices, including state schools, may soon have a much more difficult time doing anything about even obvious racism without facing suits from right-wing organizations.

One thing I knew already was strongly confirmed. It's at least more possible to work on racism one person at a time. I think I did more good mentoring a single person than with all the programmatic work. Changing racist attitudes works mostly the same way.

But it seems like there must be more to do systematically. But what? If diversity programs are just a covering, what else is there? I will say that in my case I believe I learned not to make some of the usual mistakes as a result of things I learned from some very good women's studies courses. These programs are probably having good, if glacial, effects.

victorv said...

A couple of things.
1) I'm sorry about the typos, especially that one runaway sentence (I no longer remember what I was trying to say). I caught them, but no, apparently, in time to have the cleaner version post to the blog.
2) It's clear from Asao's comment that I was unclear about something: when I say that what has changed is the social sanction, I meant to suggest that our society as a whole no longer accepts racist epithets, tolerates fewer sexist epithets (though "bitch"--suggests a greater tolerance of sexism than racism), and tolerates fewer other kinds of bigotry. The great exception is sexuality, the last chic bigotry, to hear my students say things like "that's so gay" or, worse, "faggot." In other words, what I'm saying is that racism and other forms of hurtful discrimination are now silenced--censored and if not censored then publicly censured. And all that, then, serves to obscure the degree to which such bigotries remain--a la michael's post or Asao's (it's "our" problem because we're the only ones who believe it still is a problem, because we're the ones who suffer the problem).
Anyway--thanks for reading; sorry for being somewhat less than clear.

Cristina Ramírez said...

Our Language Does Betray Us!

Not only does our language betray us, as Victor commented, but it holds us back, it stymies us into thinking that everything is okay when it really isn't. In January of this year I was driving down a road in El Paso, Texas and heard the term "post-racial." I just about slammed into the car in front of me not believing what I had heard. Post-racial. Post-racial? This term was coming from several journalists out of the New Yorker and Robert Schorr of NPR was commenting on the term. The journalists were referring to the fact that because a black man is now running for the highest government position in America that we have come to the end of a long battle with racism. No, we have not. Our language betrays us. The term did not go unchallenged. Uzodinma Iwala comments from the Los Angles Times he stated on Jan. 23 "I am shocked by the commentary on the prominence of race as a theme in the Democratic Party primaries. Shocked not because race is a theme but because so many in the media seem to think that race would not be or should not be mentioned. It is as if we think that not speaking about race is the equivalent of making progress on race issues." (To read his comments go to and search Uzodinma Iwala, and to find the original comments from Daniel Schorr go to and search "New 'Post-Racial' Political Era in America") Iwala hits the nail right on the head..racism is about rhetoric, what we choose to make or not make salient.

The fact that we are not speaking about race as a society lulls our students into believing that racism is not the same, or that we do live in a post-racial society. This is truly dangerous, and is the reason we should be teaching our students about rhetoric and it's connection to racism! After two weeks of reading articles on what is rhetoric from Leff, Vatz, Covino, and Berlin, I ask students to read an article (I change it up every time.) I ask them to look at what is made "salient" and what is not made "salient" of a story. My students always have much longer list of what is not made salient than what is made salient. For example, here on the border (as I am sure you have heard in the news) we are facing one of the biggest drug wars in history. Already in Mexico, there have been over 4,000 people killed (that's more than the number of soliders killed in Iraq) in the fight over supremecy of the cartels and drug routes. The news stories emphasize the shooting and killing among the Mexicans "over there" but what they don't make salient is the issue here at home that is driving Mexicans to shoot and kill one another, and that's the increasingly high demand of drugs here in America! Saliency. As we learn from Foucault, it is what is not said, "those imposing things which do not speak, but which leave their traceable marks, their black profile aggainst the light surface of what is said" (History, Discourse and Dicontinuity).

So what do we do next, as Keith Rhodes asked. Yes, I agree working one on one with others does make a difference, but we have to continually be speaking about this. I bring it up at dinners and other venues. I don't inititate the conversation, I let the people I'm talking to introduce it. "So what do you do?" is always the question of the evening. "I'm a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition," I answer. "Oh, hmmm, what's rhetoric?" I put the definition in terms my audience can grasp. "It's the study of language and how it shapes our realities, knowledge..etc." And then I strategically chose my examples. I use the power of language that I have been blessed with to make a difference.

Other things we can do is start our own blog that deals with these issues. Use technology for the positive. Can I make a plug here for my own blog? I will post it if people are interested. Let me know.

Talk about these issues in our 1311and 1312 classes. Racism is the last topic students think of when they enroll in a writing class.

I know that fighting racism is about as tough as threading a camel through the eye of a needle, but we do and can make a difference! Let's allow our language to shift reality.

Kafkaz said...

Last night I had this very involved dream in which I was deep in conversation with a character(a being, and a person, but not human, exactly, it seems, which is the way with the sharp but fuzzy logic of dreams) who, I finally realized, was the personification of both the Tree of the Knowledge, and the Tree of Life. The character was profoundly depressed, and our conversations meandered a good long while before I realized who this being that I was somehow very involved with was, at which point, my basic reaction, insofar as I can recall the dream, was something along the lines of, "But . . . you're *Knowledge!* But . . . you're *Life*!" Eventually, of course, it dawned on me that nothing could be more burdensome than knowledge and life, especially together.

And that's always the problem with examining these rhetorics, it seems. The erasure (e.g. "But, you are knowledge--and you are the very stuff of life, ergo, you can't be blue verging on indigo") of "post-racial" or "post-sexist" is simultaneously naive, hurtful, and hopeful. It's a bittersweet yearning after a world in which the will and the word makes it so. If it's a cancerous bit of rhetoric, too, then that's ever the way of life and of knowledge, isn't it? (I think of how a cancer cell can look delicate and lovely, like a sea anemone).

Too often, I can't tell the cancer cells from the anemones. Which to prize, and which prize? Even the simplest verbs slip and slide into each other.

No wonder I can't always even figure out my own darned dreams (or even behave admirably in them).

I guess the life and knowledge in every creature is both beautiful and burdensome. The dream conversation absorbingly unfolded when awareness of that simply flowed. It came to a halt when I questioned that flow, and then eased into motion again when the moment of both/and insight finally washed over me. (I'm often terribly slow, apparently even in dreams)

No shortcuts to bodhi, I guess, even when the tree itself draws you in.

Krista Ratcliffe said...

What I really, really like about Victor's post is the way that he lays multiple discourses alongside one another: e.g., a discussion of the physical layout of his workplace, rhetorical tools (frames/tropes), messages to him, celebrity culture, bus stop fliers, and rhetorical theory (K Burke). For students, UG students especially, such pairings are what make rhetoric come alive for them. I plan to steal some of these ideas next time I teach. So thanks.

And ... I just realized as I was reading VV's opening that I don't think I've ever used the term "diversity" in class. Not once in all my discussions of race and racism. That absence intrigues me ... that the dominant institutionalized trope (whose purpose is to create a site for addressing consequences of institutional racism) is not a term that I find pedagogically useful. I wonder if I'm odd ... or if the distance between the institutional use and my pedagogical non-use is in any way significant. That is, has the institutional term "diversity" become a sanitized term that serves to celebrate the ways institutionalized racism is being addressed, rather than providing a site for discussing the ways in which it still is not. If so, ironically, it functions to perpetuate that-which-it-was-designed-to-fight.VV claims that diversity is the new multiculturalism. So I'm wondering--what is it about our discourse on racism in this country that perpetuates this celebratory focus as the default mode (even as the tropes associated with this celebratory focus change) ? Yes, I realize that a celebratory focus is an easier, more palpable one for lots of people ... i.e., easier than a critical focus (I'm thinking here of the differences between celebratory and critical multiculturalisms). But there has to be more to the perpetuation of this celebratory default mode than its merely being easy, doesn't there? The "easy" answer seems ... too easy. It's true. Yes. But what else is at work here?

Kafkaz said...

Cristina--I would like to see your blog. Please do post the link.


I think a number of things are at work there:

--Desire, of course. Sometimes, it's not so much celebratory as wishful or wistful.

--Fear, too. In some business environments, "diversity" processes are a self-defense mechanism. Having a clear and visible program in place protects the business against charges of discrimination.

--Also, frustration. Here in Chicago, it's definitely easy to grow weary of what can seem like unrelenting hatefulness of speech by everyone concerned, on the one hand, and unrelenting violence on the other. It's awfully hard to imagine where to stand, or where to speak from, or how. Is there a space between the bullets and the fiery rhetoric that a mere mortal can either comfortably, safely, or effectively speak from? I don't know. You can sacrifice comfort and safety to do it, but then it often seems that this entails sacrificing effectiveness, too. Which leads me to . . .

--Hopelessness. If there's a certain, "I give up" or "Why bother?" air around discussions of racism and sexism, this should not be so shocking. I guess if I were one of those working hard to leave a better world in my wake, and were charged with being part of the problem, I might start to feel pretty hopeless about things, too.

--Validation. Look, people do need to celebrate. It feeds us. We celebrate writing even knowing that the work of Composition is far from over, and that there are many huge systemic problems still to address. No one, I think, imagines that the celebratory moments suggest that the work is over. In fact, I suppose folks hope that the celebrations are energizing and motivating enough to get more folks interested in working hard, and to keep those who have been working hard for a long while, already, going for a little longer. For those who are weary, a rhetorical analysis of the inherently oppressive nature of celebration is exactly the sort of thing that might lead to a hands thrown up, ball taken home, "why bother?" reaction. If everything is always already wrong, what's the point of trying? Defeat is inevitable, after all.

--Economics of the spirit. As a middle aged woman, I'm often struck by my sexual invisibility and erasure, which is ironically dawning on me right at the time when I'm more comfortable in my brain and my skin and my spirit than ever before. It ticks me off, scares me, annoys me, and sometimes gets me awfully damned passionate when I think about the huge forces all around me that define female sexuality in limiting, destructive, and minimizing ways. But there's only so much of my energy to go around. I can and do work to counter those forces, but finally I do make the conscious decision not to expend all of my energy directly battling that. Instead, I'm happy to be me in the world, one relationship at a time--one mother, one wife, one friend, one colleague--just being the embodiment of another view of things, and another possibility. Is it enough? Lots of folks might say, "no way!", but I think this small existence does matter, and it keeps me sane to keep its smallness in perspective. When I drain away all of my spiritual energy being kind of fruitlessly ticked at larger forces, they actually crush me. I prefer not to be crushed, so on I go being a little bitty vortex of perhaps nonetheless valuable otherness.

Asao said...

Krista and Kafkaz,

I wonder if the celebratory nature of the rhetoric of diversity in the U.S. isn't partly a function of rhetorical epideictic traditions. I realize this doesn’t really get at the core of your question, Krista, but the genre or tradition of epideictic rhetoric is easily seen in all stages of civil rights traditions, and it fits within most of the narratives that Kafkaz identifies. The problem is, particularly in our U.S. historical moment, rhetoric is dead – at least until baby Bush is gone and someone else replaces him who treats/uses rhetoric differently. So as I see it, the rhetoric of diversity is not just uncritically celebratory, but impotent. It’s good to celebrate difference, but if inequalities remain, not just in spite of our celebrations but perhaps because of them, then the rhetoric of diversity is a rhetoric of racism. I think this is why, Krista, you and Victor do not use the term much. And when I think about it, I rarely use that term, unless I’m speaking to particular people (ones, quite frankly, I think will not know the difference between “diversity” and “anti-racism” agendas). These are moments when I know the point of the conversation is not to actually discuss, debate, or explore the issues, people, concerns, and so forth, but to do something else (perhaps celebrate).

For me, it seems that al lot of this does often come down to who has the burden of proof, why do they have it, and who does that burden tend to favor? If our rhetoric of diversity is a celebratory one most of the time, then any mention of racism or inequality seems to spoil the party. The burden of proof for these accusations ends up being on the “complainer.” Is this ethically responsible? This reflects on Kafkaz’s really important point about the middle-aged female’s sexual invisibility and erasure in our society. I appreciate, Kafkaz, your willingness to share that insight with all of us. As a male in our society, I cannot know as you do, but I think racial, homosexual, and class invisibility also occur in our culture (intersecting, of course). Growing up, I experienced a similar invisibility. And when I was noticed, when my body was actually acknowledged as marked not White and not middle class (which was the frame: a deviation from White, middle class-ness), it was almost always a mistaken identification (I was Mexican or Latino in some way, rarely Asian Pacific American, rarely an individual). For me, it was a troubling and confusing erasure, since even when I was allowed to be there, I was not there – other people’s versions of me were there. And often, those versions of me were not complimentary, highly presumptuous. So I feel you, Kafkaz. And thanks.

-- Asao

Kafkaz said...

Asao--It's all terribly complex, and the terrible complexity of it can be quite overwhelming.

We know so very little.

What, for instance, do I know of the world of 13 year old boys? Virtually nothing. And yet here I am playing mom to one of those creatures, with very little real sense of the myriad ways in which the world beckons and terrorizes him. I recall enough of what it's like to be that age to know something about it in the most general way, but this is a whole different thing he's going through. We had no cell phones, text messaging, IMing, MySpacing, or constant "social proprioception" to deal with, for instance. I was hypersensitive to social subtexts at 13, found them them pretty overwhelming, and really loved disappearing into other things--getting away into books, films, music, and writing. Now, there's a hunger and a pressure not to get away, and that's a new one one me. Until recently, too, I had no clue that quite a few teachers really quite disklike a certain kind of boy student, just on general principle. I guess I can claim a fairly sympathetic imagination, but really I'm utterly clueless about that kid's world.

So, there's a constant lack of real knowledge to deal with (in this and in so many things). If I can be so ignorant when it comes to loved ones, imagine how much worse it must be with those I know far less intimately. This isn't easily remedied. We can listen, so there's that. And we can pay attention. And we can imagine. That's all good, but it's not the same thing as really knowing what the world looks like from someone else's perspective.

Then, there's the brick wall problem always to contend with. I put quite a bit of time into working with the small parochial school our daughter attends. Our community is about 50% Hispanic, and many of our Spanish speaking adults speak little or no English day-to-day in their homes, but the the school has no ELL support, no Spanish language courses. Nothing. (The church, in contrast, offers services and religious ed in Spanish, and these services and courses are packed.) Building school enrollment is a constant concern, so it seemed quite natural to me, as a newcomer to the school, to suggest that we step up our ELL efforts and resources, and reconsider our language offerings (or lack thereof). The public school district here has a cohort arrangement in place that has English and Spanish speaking students staying together K-6, and being immersed in both languages all the way through. They are physically together, and together in languages, over that whole period. Great idea. But every time I suggest any language enrichment strategies at all for this small school, you'd think I had stridently demanded that we offer a course in "Cursing, Swearing, Spitting, and Sweating" or some such. That's how appalled the principal and the school board are by the whole notion of it. I keep on suggesting, arguing, cajoling, and so on, but it's frustrating to keep encountering the same brick wall. (Finally, we are set to offer a before school language program. That's progress, and I did greet that develpment with some celebration, though it's absolutely the smallest of victories, as I am all too painfully aware. Already enrolled the daughter in the program, and am encouraging everyone to sign their children up, as well.)

So, let's see, that's 1) knowing next to nothing about others' lives, and 2) fighting like crazy for progress that's so small it's practically indescernable to the naked eye.

Then there's 3) the difficulty of altering definitions. I was talking, yesterday morning, with the woman who, with her husband, owns one of our two main local gas stations. I stop there every morning for the newspaper, and often again in the afternoon for a soda. This morning, she was asking after the kids, wondering when they're out of school, etc., and we got talking about education. "I'm," she told me, "not educated at all, and that limits me, so my son sees how important education is, and really values it." Not educated. Not educated? Not educated! The woman speaks five languages fluently, owns a business, which is doing well, and has taught herself enough Spanish to communicate effectively with their many Spanish speaking customers. (She saw the need, did it, and enjoyed it! Ah, if only that stubborn little school were as smart as this supposedly uneducated woman!) She has lived in over a half dozen countries, run businesses in many of these, and moves among languages, cultures, and people with the kind of sure touch we'd love to see in any professor. How is it possible to cope with a world in which she is defined--and defines herself--as uneducated? It's mind-blowing and humbling for me to think of exactly how much more educated she already is than I will ever be.

Anway, yes. The term "diversity" has been trivialized and emptied by practice and procedure in the same way that "green," to give one example among many, has been. Taking three jets, two private planes, and a handful of limos to the exclusive private hotel that asks that its wealth clientele not blow through three dozen towels a day is just not green by any stretch of the imagination, coporate branding efforts notwithstanding. On the other hand, hanging up the towel to use another day is a positive gesture, and a good habit that might lead to more. Just so, branding campaigns that consciously set out to create an aura of diversity around a company or a product can both to make me sigh at the emptiness of it all, and appreciate the cumulative power of images to shape and change attitudes.

The good thing about terrible complexity is that it's endlessly engaging.

Alex Reid said...

Really some good thoughts Kafkaz. There is a curious tension between defining a problem as "complex" and defining a problem as "solvable." That's not to say that complex problems can't be solved, but often they are solved by finding ways to reduce their complexity. Either that or we address them through a series of partial moves, which I think is certainly more the case with racism.

I think this tension pervades the discourse on diversity. Institutions want to present themselves as successful. How many English departments assess themselves as failures? At the same time they turn around and bemoan student illiteracy and the need for more faculty. Does CCCC foreground its public identity on the inability of students to write? No. It focuses on its successes.

Why wouldn't institutions and organizations focused on diversity do the same thing? Why wouldn't they define themselves as functional?

Of course, we don't have to be satisfied with such discourses. Instead we oscillate between the intractable problematic and the addressable problem: the former with no end and the latter with many little endings.

Joyce Middleton said...

First, I would like to thank all of the folks who have been participating in this blogging activity, so far, on this CCCC website.

As we can all see in the responses to Victor’s blog entry, the concept of “diversity” is a problematic one, and it’s interesting to note who does and who does not use the term at all in their teaching and writing.

Victor’s understanding of the "unusefulness" of the term is important for all of us to think about—and indeed, many of us have.

Two claims in Victor’s statement underscore what I love about his work because he’s so clear-sighted about these issues: (1) His keen focus on the relationship between rhetoric and language (looking at the tropes that are contained in discourse) and (2) his claim that “the norm is predicated on power,” the central topic for any discussion on equality and fairness, I think.

Victor’s anecdotes about his experiences in the classroom give us a good look at how his students engage these claims, with varying degrees of success. What’s important about Victor’s work is that he always brings readings and theories of discourse to his analyses and writing in order to assess the current predicament of “othering.”

I think this is important because he shows us that our personal narratives and experiences with each other are important, but these are not enough to talk about in order to change our minds about equity and power. We really need to bring the extensive thinking that many authors have been working on for years to inform how we see our relationships with each other.

So, I’d really like to ask folks on this website to talk about the books on the rhetoric of diversity that are on their reading lists, and why?

We all have our stories . . . but what about the huge body of intellectual work that informs the way we analyze issues of diversity and, importantly, contributes to our thinking and work as anti-racist (anti-othering) activists.

I’m also interested in simply hearing what other folks have to say in response to each of the blog entries—a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, whatever.

Too many of us are avid blog readers, but not enough of us are blog writers (Do we really teach English? Ha!).

Perhaps blogging will help us to become better thinkers, writers, democratic citizens.

6/10/2008 9:12 PM

Kafkaz said...

Seems like all the texts we absorb and ponder (or, sometimes, absorb without pondering) work together to shape us.

Was watching old tv commercials and cartoons on YouTube last night, and thinking of how those, too, are key texts.

Guess I couldn't pick *the* text, even if I tried. And the distinction between stories and intellectual work is one I'd rather challenge than reinscribe.

I don't keep a blog. So far, I lack whatever quality it is that drives people to blog. But I write in lots of blogs, and join many discussions.

What Alex said about the "intractable problematic and the addressable problem" rings true to me.

Yvonne said...

Yes, Victor, you are right when you write, "Differential power relations are carried in the language."

In addition, unless someone has experienced racism as I have, then one is not prone to understand issues of racism. Sometimes, I feel like the privileged expect me to say, "Yes, MASSA."

As a woman of color, my father warned me that I would have to live in a world in which people would judge me for my color, sex, class, and the fact that I don't judge others in terms of a person being or not being Christian, not by what I hold in my heart. He also warned me that people would judge me not for what good I do, but by other superficial things such as money, clothing, where I live, etc. These things my father foresaw have come to pass and I have experienced them many, many times.

When I first moved to Michigan from Hawai'i to earn my graduate degrees and teach in the public schools, parents questioned my ability to speak English and my knowledge of American History. I was not offended, I just found this interesting. Thankfully, my students, their parents and I were able to form a wonderful community where we learned about one another's cultures, celebrated them and we all became better persons because of our interactions with one another. For this, I am grateful.

Even in "so-called" liberal Boulder, Colorado where I reside, I have experienced soft bigotry and blatant bigotry.

When I married, I wondered why my husband's mother treated me so badly every single time we visited his family or they came to our home. Finally, after 25 years of marriage and knowing him for over 30 years, my husband admitted to me that his mother was racist. (Currently, we have been married for 29 years, and in total have known each other for just short of 35 years.) That put things into perspective, and I realized that no matter what I did or how kind I was to her, nothing I do would please her. So, I just had to stay away to protect my spirit. This was sad, but necessary.

We live in a time when civil rights is at risk in a country that is supposed to be democratic. Cultural misappropriations are common and show that those of privilege feel free to use sacred rituals they don't understand.

People who sit on Boards and Commissions don't understand the people they are serving and make policies, which are counterproductive and which directly impact society.

I love Michael's quote of Ms. Hu-DeHart: "What we do to keep our jobs...But as long as we keep doing our job the way we are told to do it, we are covering up for our universities...You all are covering up...You all are complicit in this."

Asao is also right. These words ring true. I know. I was a woman of color in an institution of high education. I call attention again to what Asao writes: "Across academic ranks, the full-time faculty believes that there is little racial conflict on this campus and subtle discrimination is not much of a source of stress. However, women and faculty of color rate subtle discrimination as a higher stressor than do men and white faculty. Faculty of color say racial conflict on campus is more extensive than white faculty do." I experienced this first hand and can attest to this.

I hope that one day, diversity is considered an important asset and not a liability. But that would take shaking up the status quo.

While I love my husband, he sees the world through the eyes of a white male from Western European culture of dominance and privilege. Though my husband has gone back to the islands with me numerous times, whenever he experiences the native peoples of Hawai'i, he is surprised and learns something new about diversity and himself. Good for him.

The first time he went to Hawai'i to visit my family his comment was, "Wow, I was the only white guy. That felt weird." My response, "Now you know how I feel, but they all openly welcomed, accepted, and embraced you, and did not judge you by the color of your skin or they way you speak."

Thanks for allowing me to share a bit of my story. I hope my opening up helps others understand the issues and leads them out to better understand what is at stake, for what I shared took courage.

I honor all of you for taking the time to discuss this most important issue. We need enlightened people like all of you.

Yvonne Siu-Runyan

CCCC Annual Convention

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March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA