Jennifer Seibel Trainor is associate professor of English at San Francisco State University, where she teaches in the Graduate Program in Composition Studies. Her research focuses on critical literacy, antiracist education, and theories of rhetoric and persuasion. She teaches graduate courses in research methods, composition theory and pedagogy, and literacy theory, as well as undergraduate courses in writing. She is a recipient of NCTE’s Promising Research Award and a member of the National Writing Project. She served on the executive committee of NCTE's Assembly for Research. Trainor's articles have appeared in College English, College Composition and Communication, and The Journal of Advanced Composition. Her book, Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All-White High School, is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in a few weeks.
For the past several years, my efforts to address diversity have been centered on efforts to address racism and on creating effective antiracist pedagogies. I guess you could say I’ve been focused less on diversity than on impediments to it, particularly as those impediments manifest in the classroom, in white students’ sometimes racially-charged assertions, their defensiveness, and the difficulty they sometimes have in exploring issues of racial justice. This has led me to several research projects that investigate how white students respond to matters of race, the most recent a year-long ethnographic project at a suburban high school – 97% white -- located outside a mid-sized city in the Northeast. Of the insights about the workings of racism and the potential for antiracist pedagogies gleaned from this work, I’d like to share three:
We need a more complex understanding of the origins and sources of racism. Our current diagnoses – that racism arises from a need or desire to protect white privilege, ignorance of oppression, or lack of exposure to difference – don’t really capture the complexity of the processes by which students become convinced of particular ideas about race. These diagnoses are rooted in assumptions about reason and rationality: white students don’t know about oppression and so they dismiss it when confronted with it in a text, or white students are threatened by texts that protest racism because they understand on some level that they benefit from racism and hence resist out of a desire to maintain their racial privilege. Instead, we need to think of racism in terms of irrationality and emotion, and to see that students’ responses to matters of race are affective, more than logical or rational, rooted not so much in abstract political or identity-based calculations, but in local experiences and feelings that are to a surprising extent given force in school, a point that leads to Insight #2:
We don’t teach students about race only in those moments when we assign a multicultural text or include a unit that critiques whiteness or privilege. As Amanda Lewis writes, schools may not teach racial identity in the way that they teach multiplication or punctuation, but schools are settings where students acquire some version of the “rules of racial classification,” and of their own racial identity. We haven’t fully grappled with how students learn about race in the context of everyday interactions in school, but in my research I began to see how tacit, unexamined lessons, rituals and practices in school exerted a powerful influence on students’ responses to matters of race. To take a quick example: the high school where I did my research pervasively valued “positive thinking.” Students were exhorted constantly by teachers and administrators to “look on the bright side,” “focus on the positive,” and “keep up a good attitude.” There were bright yellow beanbags with smiley faces sitting along one wall of the classroom. The student aid who recited the pledge of allegiance each day over the PA system always added “Have a great day!” at the end of her recitation. This focus on positive thinking emotionally predisposed students to look negatively upon fictional characters, real individuals or groups of people who did not appear to present a positive outlook on life, which in turn fueled sometimes hostile or racist responses to critiques of racism, which were perceived as whining or complaining.
We often think that if we find the right argument, the right assignment or reading, we can convince students to give up problematic racial beliefs. But my research suggests a different persuasive process at work, one articulated by Kenneth Burke, who writes that persuasion takes place not through “one particular address, but [through] a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement.” We need to examine these seemingly trivial practices, taken-for-granted values, and daily-reinforced routines of schooling, in order to understand how they scaffold students’ learning about race.
The tropes and metaphors we rely on in our pedagogies – particularly economic metaphors for white privilege that liken whiteness to a wage or property that whites own and that can be used to secure other commodities and privileges – don’t address students’ lived experiences of race and privilege, and thus fuel white student resistance and confusion. We need better metaphors for whiteness and racism, metaphors that speak to the local, affective experiences of race that students bring to the classroom.
How do these insights translate into the classroom and into service? In the classroom, I have experimented with different approaches to antiracist education for several years now. Most recently, I have focused on an approach that privileges students’ emotioned responses to readings and ideas and that makes room for the emotional labor of unlearning racism, and I’ve worked with students to discover metaphors and descriptions of racial identity and privilege that actually do speak to their lived experiences. I’ve also worked to disrupt the routines of schooling that either get in the way of antiracism or that promote values, attitudes, and habits that actually scaffold and enable racism. I do this by employing some of the tricks of critical pedagogy – asking students to generate topics and themes, and to analyze the assumptions behind taken-for-granted school practices, as well as the values behind the discourses privileged in school. Finally, I’ve created assignments that ask students to talk back to contemporary multicultural and whiteness pedagogies by writing about their own affective experiences with and memories of race, and theorizing from there about what racism is and how to end it. A recent assignment asked upper-division pre-service teachers to critique, add to, or complicate Alice McIntyre’s Making Meaning of Whiteness by comparing her descriptions of race with their own experiences and memories of it. Beyond the classroom, I imagine building collaborative partnerships with high schools that focus on changing the practices and values that inadvertently support racism. I imagine pedagogical projects where teachers work to create new metaphors and models of racism and whiteness in our curricula. There are many other possibilities, of course, but I hope my entry here will provide one place to start for the CCCC committee as they begin the task of creating a statement on diversity for our field, one that addresses both its promise, and the myriad impediments we still face in our efforts to enact it.