Thursday, June 12, 2008

Definition Matters: Teaching the Materiality of the Trope Race, Using Barack Obama's, "A More Perfect Union" Speech

Introductory Bio

Professor and Department Chair of English at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Krista Ratcliffe contributes to the CCCC Conversations on Diversity her well-established and award-winning research on the cultural presence and/or absence of women’s voices and on the intersections of gender, race, and whiteness. In Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, which won the 2007 CCCC Outstanding Book Award, Ratcliffe troubles identifications of gender and whiteness to examine how whiteness functions as an “invisible” racial category. She examines the displacement and neglect of a literacy of listening and identifies the potential of rhetorical listening—a stance of openness—for inviting a more complicated notion of identification. In addition to her contributions through research and teaching, Ratcliffe serves as past president of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, as a current member of MLA’s Division on Teaching Writing, and of CCCC’s Task Force on Databases.

Blog Entry

I. Race as a Trope
In philosophical and rhetorical studies, Plato tells us that definition matters. Definition is, after all, a crucial step in his dialectic. In critical race studies, Cornel West tells us that race matters. Race Matters is, after all, the title of one of his books. Two key phrases from the previous sentences—definition matters and race matters—each signify in different ways. The slippage (between matters signifying as a noun and verb, between definition and race signifying as adjectives and subjects) demonstrates the communicative facility of language (in all senses of the word facility). Whatever the author’s intent, the possibilities for audience receptions are always multiple. This possibility and dilemma is at the heart of rhetorical studies. Given this multiplicity, it is fair to say that all words function as tropes, i.e., signifying differently to different people in different times and in different places even as cultural logics do offer possibilities for common interpretations.

By that logic, race is a trope.
But that claim sets some people’s teeth on edge.

There is a fear that, if race is discussed as a trope, then the discussion of race will focus only on language and discourse; by extension, there is a fear that bodies and cultures will be erased, both metaphorically and literally.

Is that fear legitimate?
Yes … sometimes.
But not always.

Does discussing race as the trope race always succeed? Of course not. No rhetorical tactic always succeeds, and success is always measured in terms of degree. Yet given this caveat, I want to relay how I used the tactic of discussing race as race in an undergraduate rhetorical theory course this past spring when we studied Senator Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union.”

My purpose here is to invite a discussion of the pro’s and con’s of discussing how the study of tropes, particularly the study of race as race, may be used as an antiracist pedagogical project.

II. The Class and In-Class Activity
First, a bit of context. Last semester in my undergraduate rhetorical theory course, composed mostly of juniors and seniors, the students and I began our study of rhetoric by reading excerpts from Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the purpose being to identify definitions and tactics of rhetoric. Then we studied five different units: political rhetorics, cultural rhetorics, literary rhetorics, visual rhetorics, and pedagogical rhetorics.[1] On the last day of class, I asked students to practice listening rhetorically to an excerpt from Senator Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, which we first watched on the web and then read from a printed handout.

The in-class assignment was for students to get into pairs to discuss the first of the following questions:

(1) What are the assumed definitions of race in this speech?
(2) What importance is ascribed to race in this speech (for people/cultures)?
(3) How does whiteness function in this speech?
(4) How useful is this speech for spurring a conversation about race?

My plan was that we could then pull back together as a class to discuss the pairs’ findings on question one and then discuss the other three questions.

The excerpt from Senator Obama’s speech, which we watched and read, is as follows:

This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign--to
continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just,
more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to
run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that
we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together –unless
we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we
hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from
the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction—towards a better
future for of children and our grandchildren. This belief comes from my
unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But
it also comes from my own American story.

I am the son of a black
man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a
white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during
World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at
Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in
America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black
American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners—an
inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers,
sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue,
scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never
forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional
candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea
that this nation is more than the sum of its parts-- that out of many, we are
truly one.

Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all
predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this
message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a
purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the
whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the
Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans
and white Americans.

This is not to say that race has not been an
issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have
deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions
bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The
press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial
polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that
the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive

As sometimes happens in my teaching, my plan was scrapped because the students and I spent most of the time allotted to this activity discussing just one question: “What are the assumed definitions of race in this speech?” That fact got me to thinking again about the importance of definition.

III. The Class Discussion
Once the pairs had finished their work, I asked students, first, to share passages they had identified where definitions of race were stated or implied and, second, to share what they thought were the assumed definitions of those passages. Students were asked to avoid jumping to conclusions about whether or not they agreed with the definitions; they were simply to define and classify. Here are some of their—and my—responses.

In Senator Obama’s speech, definitions of race are either stated or implied in terms of:

(1) color (“black man,”“white woman” … family “of every race and hue”)
(2) geographic location (“Kenya,” “Kansas” … “three continents”)
(3) historical location (WWII … today)
(4) economic location (Depression, factory … fundraising presidential race)
(5) ancestry (African Americans descended from “slaves and slaveowners,” whites with
no acknowledged African ancestry …Americans of African and white ancestry)
(6) biology (“genetic makeup”)
(7) a story (“in no other country on Earth is my story even possible”)
(8) the only facet of identity (“too black” or “not black enough”)
(9) only one facet of identity (“Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a
purely racial lens”)
(10) inflections in national symbols (Confederate Flag)
(11) cultural tension (“the press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial
polarization” … “it has only been in the last couple of weeks the discussion of race in this
campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn”)
(12) more than a black/white binary opposition (“not just in terms of white and black,
but black and brown as well”)
(13) subordinate to idea-based coalitions (“we built a powerful coalition of African Americans
and white Americans”)
(14) hope (“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve
them together”)

Once the students and I identified some of the above definitions, we discussed some implications. We concluded that if six paragraphs can generate so many different definitions of race, then that partly explained why it is so hard to talk about race in the U.S. For example, if Cornel West says “race matters,” assuming #13, and then reader person says, “yes,” assuming #11, then they have just honestly and unknowingly “agreed” on two different things. Disagreements can, likewise, cross definitions.

IV. Pedagogical Implications

This multiplicity of definitions evidences a U.S. racial discourse that (conveniently for the power structure of the status quo) obfuscates communication about race—about how it is inflected by history, economics, ancestry, biology, gender, etc.; about how it is a constructed category (a trope) originally perpetuated in the U.S. via myopic religion and false science to bolster a mostly non-white labor force as well as a mostly white ownership class; and about how it has subsequently had material consequences—both positive and negative—for the bodies and souls of real people, whether marked as “black,”“brown,”“yellow,”“red,”“white” or some combinations thereof. Throughout U.S. history, material bodies have been racially troped and, consequently, racial tropes have been embodied. In this way, tropes work not only so that they have material consequences for real people’s bodies but also so that, in the process of embodiment, they are made material (in common and different ways). And over time and place, this chicken-and-egg cycle continues.

So with this claim, I arrive back where I began. A discussion of race via the trope race begs a discussion not simply of language but of bodies and cultures as well as how all three are implicated in one another in particular ways in particular times and places. And extending this discussion of race to a discussion of whiteness-as-a-racial-category, then the trope of whiteness also begs a discussion not simply of language but of bodies and cultures as well as how all three are implicated in one another in particular ways in particular times and places. Whiteness is not the same thing as a body coded as white. Whiteness is a trope that signifies actions, attitudes, and (yes) certain bodies (that are coded as white). But bodies coded as white may or may not perpetuate actions and attitudes coded as white; likewise, bodies coded as non-white may or may not perpetuate actions and attitudes coded as white. Whiteness is a trope that may be performed by language, bodies, and cultures, either ignorantly or knowingly; and depending on the definitions associated with whiteness at a particular time or place, a performance of whiteness may be racist or anti-racist. The same is true of many other tropes.

Such discussions, I believe, serve pedagogical antiracist projects because they distance students from immediately jumping to personal claims/accusations of blame, guilt, denial, and/or defensiveness that often shut down discussions of race in the U.S. because we too often tend either to be silent or to argue past (not with) one another. Such distance, I believe, slows students down and asks them to listen to how race and whiteness signify structurally within the U.S. Once these structural significations are established as existing (the first level of stasis), then students can move to discussions of naming, valuing, and taking action (the second through fourth levels of stasis), only then coming (without the possibility of denial) to a reflection on race and whiteness in terms of how the structural affects the personal … and how the personal affects the structural.

[1] For a copy of my syllabus, cf.


Jay said...

Krista--your discussion of "A More Perfect Union" couldn't be more timely for me. I'm currently finishing teaching a course on African American Rhetorics, and my students and I listened to and read the speech for today's meeting. (We started discussing it right *after* we talked about his Father's Day address.)

I found myself focusing more and more of my own attention on one of the very paragraphs you cite--the one in which Obama refers to his "genetic makeup." Students and I had talked around what seems to be Obama's complex attempt at identification. Complex because he consistently argues that "I'm like you" and simultaneously that "I'm unique--and that uniqueness makes me at least as American as you are, if not more so" (where "you" here often, for Obama, stands in for the kind of structural whiteness you name and interrogate).

I argued for my students that this paragraph exemplifies Obama's attempt to distill that identification by way of making a kind of biological claim: rather than "e pluribus unum" referring to the federalist process by which a nation-state is made out of a collection of colonies/states, "e pluribus unum" refers to the process by which Obama believes he, himself, genetically embodies an idea of American perfectibility. Namely, that the guy who has a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, who went to school in Indonesia, attended Harvard, and worked on the South Side is *exactly* the person who should be president. It reminded me of his line from the 2004 keynote at the Democratic convention--something about how remarkable it was that a "skinny kid with a funny name" could be on the brink of the US Senate.

Given a growing collection of scientific studies about genetic alternatives to the tropes of race, and given popular accounts of people "finding" their genetic ancestors--who may be "racially" very different--I was interested to discover this paragraph in Obama's speech. All semester, my students and I came back to the idea of the complex rhetorical positioning that many African Americans have felt the need to inhabit. DuBois famously wrote that he felt his "two-ness," and many others in the African American tradition have articulated an American idea while at the same time shining sharply focused lights on those clear examples where American ideals have fallen short in practice. Does Obama move a step beyond the jeremiadic rhetoric of his rhetorical predecessors by making a more direct claim to a complex genetic ancestry--and, crucially, by making the additional claim that he is uniquely, genetically positioned to reconcile racial divisions?

Joyce Middleton said...

The June 20, 2008 issue of "The Chronicle of Higher Education" reminded its readers that Monday, June 23, 2008 (tomorrow) is the 30-year anniversary of “the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.”

The article doesn’t really stimulate much new thinking about affirmative action and race in academic admissions. But it gives readers an important review of significant legal contests that followed the trajectory of the Bakke decision, including the Supreme Court decision about the University of Michigan cases in 2003. Mostly, the article simply mirrored the open-ended and eroding arguments about affirmative action in an academia that still “grapples with race in admissions.”

I note here that another political, anti-affirmative action wave will show up at the polls in five states in November 2008 if Ward Connerly’s plans work out as they did in California, Washington State, and Michigan).

In addition, "The Chronicle Review" (same issue) featured several short essays on the “legacies of the 60’s,” which attempted to offer some reflective perspectives on the progressive movements of the 1960’s beyond academic topics—-the Vietnam war, the war on poverty, the protests, the assassinations.

Should I note that all three of the authors were white males . . . or do those identity markers matter to today’s readers? Should I add that none of the three guest writers discussed the important passing of the Civil Rights or Immigration bills of the 1960’s?

Whatever the future of racialized discourse in the U.S. will look like—-and so much of it has progressed and regressed since the 1960’s—-it will be inextricably linked to our courage and democratic sacrifices to talk about race, whiteness, and racism with each other and in our classrooms as Krista has shown us.

But we must also talk with those who can help to change the historical infrastructure of racism and racial whiteness that continues to influence how we make personal decisions, where we live, how we vote, how we see each other, and how we negotiate political power.

Have many of you, like me, been hearing too many folks in the media raise the question about why Obama is referred to as a Black man when his mother was White? Yes, I think out loud, in response. It's the structured historical legacy of the “one drop” rule—-we can certainly argue with it, but it still exists.

I loved the discussion of theory and pedagogy, together, in Krista’s discussion, just like it was linked in Victor’s previous blog post (and Victor also focused on unpacking racial tropes in discourse).

But after reading Krista’s post, I wondered about a few things:

(1) How many students in the classroom were non-white students and were they strong participants or mostly silent during the discussions?

(2) How did the students respond to the outcome of the class—did they feel more empowered to talk about the materiality of race, and did they understand the role of whiteness in relation to race?

(3) Did the students begin to see, for themselves, any relationships between the personal and the structural when they talk about the rhetoric of racism and antiracism?

(4) Did the class have a stronger understanding about where their beliefs about race come from?

(5) Were they all voting for Obama? Ha!

Asao B. Inoue said...

Wonderful questions, Joyce. I think the subjectivity of the students in Krista's class would be an interesting aspect for them to reflect upon themselves. Perhaps Krista asked them to do this during the semester. I think, reflecting upon where each sits on the landscape of racial tropes may help them consider how and why they find particular definitions/tropes of race more compelling than others, or even simply see them.

I also wonder how we can insert this conversation, along with Victor's ideas, in larger discussions we have at our respective institutions? I mean, how do I get my institution to address race in this complex way without using it as a marketing tool (e.g., in "Diversity" collateral) to promote static colored bodies? At each university I've been at, everyone loves to "celebrate diversity" but they don't want to confront difference.

Asao B. Inoue
CSU, Fresno

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