Thursday, October 23, 2008

"Talking Back to Contemporary Multicultural and Whiteness Pedagogies"

Introductory Bio

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.

Blog Entry

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:

Insight #1

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:

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.

Insight #3

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.


Asao B. Inoue said...


Thank you for this incredibly interesting and provocative nutshelling of your research on racism. All that you discuss seems really important to our discussions here on this blog. So here’s my synthesis of what you’ve said.

Racist behavior can be understood, at least in part, as an emotional, experience-based, and felt set of dispositions that are “given force in school” through habitual, institutionalized practices, such as our assignments, lessons, and the disciplining of bodies and minds (to place Foucault onto your terms). And so, resistance to anti-racist ideas by Whites often is cultivated by a negative reaction to the current metaphors in the discussions on racism, ones around economics and privilege that don’t jive well with students’ own experiences.

My reaction. I find that how you move our discussion from the economic and the social to the experiential and psychological important. The emotional and how it’s reproduced institutionally and in daily behaviors and practices is vital to any discussion of diversity or racism. And I’ll admit that I’m sure I’ve given this enough attention in my own teaching or research. You remind me of Bourdieu’s work on habitus, and how he theorizies how in a macro way we inscribe (or have inscribed) on our bodies signs of race and gender and class and the like through institutions and their “vestments.” I also find important that you not simply ask your students to connect current conversations on racism to their experiences, but that you ask them to theorize about it from those experiences. One could also call this a kind of reflection or self-assessment on racism.

I wonder, however: how do we get our students not to think or behave as if their own personal experiences with race are universal ones? One of the things I find powerful about socially-oriented, and institutionally-oriented, critiques of Whiteness and racism, generally, is how they force us to (re)consider racism as a dialectical phenomenon in which our experiences are “articulations” between larger social forces and institutions and our own material experiences. Things are more than what I think and feel, so to speak. I call attention to “articulations,” because I’m trying to call upon the sense that Stuart Hall uses it, that is, as both a connection between two things and as rhetoric (okay, he doesn’t say “rhetoric,” but says something like “language” or “verbal descriptions”), and I’m also thinking of “articulation” as a form of the term, “mediation” (I know, farther stretch, maybe I should make up a new term: “articulamediation” -- LOL) that Raymond Williams uses to explain the historical changes in Marxian thought on the dialectical nature between “base” and “superstructure.” So I’m asking really about these very similar dynamics to the discussions in Marxian thought to those you make me wonder about in our own anti-racist (pro-diversity) pedagogies. Personal experiences, which are articulations, which are dialectics, which are emotionally driven and experiential, which are cultivated habitually, which are (re)enforced and structured (to call again upon Bourdieu’s language) by institutions yet felt and known by individuals. Pheww. Hmm. Complex, eh?

Thank you, Jennifer. This is a good expansion of our discussion so far.

-- Asao

v said...

I applaud an interest in the affectivity of racial thoughts, intensities, and reactions, but I question a perspective that simply--I use this word deliberately--imagines pedagogical freedom in the classroom while faculty senates are being disbanded, while the CEO-ization, if one may put it that way, of college leadership continues its "progress," and while the discourse of accountability works to rob faculty (and students) of any freedom beyond a corporatized institutional structure for higher education. Unfortunately, too many faculty are economically and institutionally constrained from exercising the sort of pedagogical dynamics that you imagine. Your true audience is or has to be the electorate: convince the parents and the college presidents may follow. Otherwise, fight for faculty and student rights to hear (witness) truly different curricular agendas.

When 50% or 60% (and that number seems to be only on the increase) of faculty are often variously struggling adjuncts, I keep hoping to see anti-racial pedagogical discourses such as yours Jennifer, that first of all target curricula and institutional structures, along with their current developments, that are only ever corporate and therefore racist (a metonymy I need to be allowed in this brief space).

Unless one imagines a corporatized future where faculty are non-entities, non-agents in teaching, and that administrators can ably "leverage" all that matters in redressing a racist past in education, then no matter how radicalized the faculty or the classroom space or practice, the faculty members you seek to inform will simply be sidelined by the corporate administrators of academia, pursuing whatever such benign organizations as NISOD or the League for Innovation in the Community College have to offer in the pursuit of a supposedly counter-hegemonic anti-racist pedagogical future.

jay Jordan said...

Thanks, Jennifer--this post is very intriguing, and I definitely look forward to reading more of your comments in book form.

Given that you would expand the field of critique of racism to the affective domain, I'm wondering if--in practical terms--that means going well beyond even what you suggest here. I definitely agree that asking students to focus on their prior (affective) experiences with racial difference and forming connections with high schools can be key. But, as "v" points to, there are definite built-in limits to pedagogical projects. Even if classrooms can in some way be transformed by the sorts of institutional activism "v" suggests, they're still classrooms. Anti-racism will involve massive efforts in numerous institutions and at all societal levels.

In a larger sense, this is a conversation that can (and should) connect with CCCC's larger conversation about the role of writing and rhetoric educators. In other words, on the issue of race, do we see ourselves as classroom teachers? As agents of political change? As coalition builders with people outside of colleges/universities? All 3?

As valuable as our own academic research is and can be in generating anti-racist projects, our research often has limited effect. Understanding those limits causes many members of our field to ask questions about what they can do outside the classroom, and that leads, among other things, to work on public policy. As we get further afield, how quickly do we get out of our depth?

In summary, we can all agree that racism is so deeply rooted that it calls for much more than a classroom-based pedagogical response. To what extent do we as teachers and citizens attempt to do more?

Joyce Middleton said...

I sure hope that this blogging series can really serve the interests of those of us who teach writing. I still wonder if blogging is really compatible with the work of teaching rhetoric and writing.

That said, I love the statements that we've been posting. I think these entries help to show the depth and breadth of thinking about issues of identity, inclusion, and pluralism in the work that we do as teachers of writing.

But this first post for the second part of our series leaves me with more questions than answers, and I sure wish (hope) that I can ask Trainor about them. I read her recent article in CCC (9/2008), but I didn't find answers to my questions there, either.

My questions are mostly about the connection between whiteness and affect as a means of finding new metaphors for talking about race and whiteness, especially among young people.

Her argument helps to point out that the invisibility of whiteness can be a very tricky concept sometimes.

For example, I wondered if and when there was any "presence" of nonwhite people as the author was making her observations (in the classrooms, in the interviews, etc). If there were, then I'd like to hear more about some kind of Q&A with the nonwhite students and the white students (and/or the white teachers).

But if there was no Q&A between whites and people of color, then--and this is an important observation I have made in whiteness studies--colorblind rhetoric controls the discourse (and most Americans want to see themselves as colorblind, right?).

When colorblind rhetoric dominates the discourse, then whiteness recenters itself, and the speakers may never address topics of race and whiteness together (racial whiteness).

In fact, in the few comments to Trainor's post, I don't recall now whether anyone used (included) the word "white" or "whiteness" in talking about race on this blog. I rarely talk about race without talking about whiteness together.

In her article, Trainor argues about the problems of the "whiteness as property" because it's a metaphor that doesn't resonate for most young people in America's classroms today. But "whiteness as racial" is also a metaphor that does not resonate for most white people, whether they are young or not.

As long as "whiteness" maintains an oppositional relationship to "people of color" (I use the term "nonwhite" people), then whiteness will too often dominate the rules and terms for discussing the infrastructure of race and identity in the U.S.

bridge2 said...

I want to thank the folks who have posted such thoughtful, provocative responses to my blog entry on diversity. There’s lots to think about here. I’m especially sympathetic to the views expressed by “V,” who rightly points out that most teachers, particularly at the high school level, don't enjoy the kind of academic freedom that would allow them to implement pedagogical practices of the kind we need if we are to address racism effectively, and by Jay Jordan, who writes that “anti-racism will involve massive efforts in numerous institutions and at all societal levels.” I agree with both of these points. Space didn’t permit me, in my original blog entry, to talk about the serious constraints teachers like the one I worked with in my research project face as they try to address racism. In my book, I talk about what Ellen Brantlinger calls the “parentocracy” of middle class parents who exert considerable pressure to ensure that schools continue to privilege their children, and who, at the school I studied, reacted immediately to any perceived politicization of the curriculum and who were very protective of their children, insisting that teachers shelter them from references to sexuality in literature, for example. So, yes, the idea that teachers can simply – I word I’ll use deliberately too – begin to teach for change at the high school level (and perhaps, increasingly, at the post-secondary level as well) is flawed on many levels.

That said, I want to make two points. More than anything, I hope that my research changes and complicates the ways we interpret white student racism when we encounter it in our teaching. Such a change does not, of course, promise an immediately apparent pedagogical solution to the problem of racism in the classroom. But it does promise some forward movement, away from counter-productive reason-based arguments with students (which I’ve engaged in, and never felt good about, and which I’ve seen other teachers engage in, including the one I observed for my research project), away from metaphors and descriptions of race and whiteness that don’t make sense to students (more on this below), away from judgements about white students that reify simplistic dichotomies of “good” (nonracist) and “bad” (racist) whites. I hope that new interpretations of the meanings of racism, of its multiple valences for students, of its connections to institutional practices we sometimes take for granted, will move us in new directions. I don’t claim to know exactly what those directions might be. I suspect they will, and should, depend on local conditions. I also don’t claim to know how possible new directions are, given the many constraints that V points to.

But, and here’s my second point, I do think that local, grassroots alliances between parents, teachers, students, schools, university educators, and community members are possible, and I think they represent an extremely promising venue for the many kinds of changes we need in our schools, including social change oriented toward issues of antiracism. When Jay Jordan asks if we see ourselves as classroom teachers, agents of political change, or coalition builders with people outside the college/university, I think the answer is all of the above. I can give a quick example of the kind of work I’m talking about. At Stanford University, in the School of Education, Denise Pope, who wrote a terrific book called Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, has started a project called "Challenge Success." Pope’s initial concern, and the topic of her book, is the culture of achievement and pressure, coupled with academic disengagement, that is running rampant at many high schools, particularly those serving affluent communities, where the focus is overwhelmingly on a shallow notion of academic performance tied to high levels of anxiety about getting into the “right” college. "Challenge Success" addresses this problem by building coalitions of people – parents, teachers, guidance counselors, school administrators, students, university psychologists, mental health workers, university admissions committees, etc – and inviting them to work in their local schools and together with each other in think tanks and yearly conferences. Their goal is to reduce stress, increase academic engagement, decrease incidents of cheating, and promote students’ mental and psychical health.

Now, admittedly, this is not a social justice issue (though it has the potential to be) and therefore was probably easier to get off the ground rhetorically than an antiracist project similarly organized might be (although, the anxieties and beliefs that promote “doing school” are wide spread and entrenched, tied in complex ways to economic, institutional, and social realities). But I offer it as model for the kinds of coalition building that can be done. Call me a dreamer, but I can imagine similar work taking place around themes of social justice. In the case of the high school I studied, and I offer this as a particular case, not as a set of solutions that would work anywhere, we would have needed to start small, with a few committed social-justice oriented teachers, and a group of similarly minded students (such students did exist in the school, and were deeply unhappy by the racism they witnessed, as well as by alarming expressions of homophobia and classism). It could reach out to university experts in education and in composition. It could bring in parents. It could plan events to raise awareness, host in-service for teachers about changing practices, sponsor social justice reading groups. Would this be easy? No. Would it work overnight? Definitely not. Would it work at all? I honestly don’t know. But I think such projects are worth the effort, and I do think they require us to be more than classroom teachers, or rather, to see our work in the classroom as irrevocably connected to people and institutions beyond the classroom walls.

I also wanted to address a couple of Joyce’s questions: First, there were no people of color in the room when I conducted my research. This was in part because I chose an all-white high school (97% white) for my research site – I wanted access to white students’ views, and my own classroom experiences told me that those were harder to get in mixed-race groups. But I also chose it because it reflects an important reality: many of our white college freshman come from backgrounds where they have little or no interactions with people of color. Even earlier studies I conducted at the college level in California, where diversity is hard to avoid, were very sheltered from that diversity in high school. Surveys of incoming freshman on one UC campus, for example, show that over 50% of white students report little to no social interaction with African American or Latino students. We can thank de facto segregation for that, but also tracking, which keeps students separated by race even at very integrated schools. In addition, many conversations about race among white people take place in such vacuums. That’s part of the problem, and I felt like it was important to study and understand. Yes, without people of color in the room, as Joyce notes, color blind discourses did to some extent prevail. But here’s where things were interesting. In many of the conversations I had in the all-white context of the school I studied, racial difference (not a universalizing color-blind sense that we’re all the same) was the dominant theme and the main question on these white students’ minds. Color blindness was a school response, reflecting white students’ perception that this was the “right” answer to the issue of race, but when they really got to talking about race, what preoccupied them was their strong sense that we aren’t all the same inside. This preoccupation sometimes turned to grotesque assertions of racism, but it also often turned to piercing questions about the meaning and nature of difference, about why we’re different, and how, and what that means for our goals of racial justice.

This is connected to another point I wanted to make in response to Joyce’s questions. Joyce writes that yes, whiteness as property may not resonate with students, but neither does whiteness as racial, and she notes that whiteness too often is allowed to maintain an oppositional (and dominant) relationship to “nonwhite” people. Again, these are points I agree with. But I need to say that as accurate as our metaphors may be – whiteness as property, whiteness as racial – they are meaningless as pedagogies if they fail to reach students. More importantly, I think there are metaphors that will work, particularly if we listen to students, and invite them to share their own definitions, metaphors, and stories. In the “beginning stories” I share in my book – stories where white students told of their first memories of learning about race – the idea that whiteness exists in opposition to nonwhiteness gives way. Us/them metaphors don’t hold. Instead, a white student talks about her experience of being the victim of racial harassment, when other white students called her “the n word” because she is working class. Another student trenchantly observes the connections between whiteness and school success at the expense of students of color (she remembers with bitterness being told by a teacher that her friendship with a student of color was hurting her ability to “really make something of herself” in school and beyond). Another student remembers a family argument about the legitimacy of a white working class uncle’s racist pronouncements, and learns in the process that there are “good” nonracist whites, and working class racists like her uncle who are to be avoided. In these stories of racial learning, one of the things that struck me was the absence of people of color at all. There was also little color blind rhetoric, and little avoidance of whiteness as a race. Even more surprising, there was little sense of whiteness in opposition to a racial other. Some of these absences are not necessarily good -- I'm not offering them as a defense of white students' discourses -- but they should give us pause as we think about how best to teach white students. Most students had no experiences with nonwhites, and to the extent that they had memories saturated in oppositional categories, they were often categories of differing whitenesses, different ways to be white. Getting at these stories is crucial to developing metaphors of whiteness that will persuade white students, and will help them begin to make those articulations, to use Asao’s word, between their own experiences and memories, and the larger structures that give those memories their rhetorical shape and force.

Beth Godbee said...

I wish the blog allowed us to comment on a comment. . .

Asao, I *did* laugh out loud (LOL) with your new word “articulamediation.” I love the complexity within it and the clear emotional/affective focus that Jennifer describes in her blog.

Lots of food for thought. :-)


Beth Godbee said...


Wow! I know I'm reading your post "late" -- after your 2-week blogging period -- but I'm really inspired, intellectually charged by your comments. I'm also excited about reading the CCC article (yes, I'm "late" on that too!) and forthcoming book.

I'm thinking about the importance of storytelling to understand deeply entrenched ideas about race, power, and privilege.

I'm also thinking about the importance of inter/multi-racial relationships, which brings me to Eileen O'Brien's sociological study about how whites come to anti-racism.

O’Brien find that whites come to antiracism through a combination of factors, including activist networks, or friends introducing friends to antiracism; turning points, or intensely emotional or cathartic events; and empathy, developed through “approximating experiences” that allow whites to imagine racism for themselves. She says there are three types of approximating experiences: experiencing sexism or another type of oppression, witnessing racism of a close friend or family member, and noticing contradictions between beliefs and practices. O’Brien’s findings on approximating experiences, like Nel Nodding’s research on an ethic of care (understood as direct, face-to-face “caring-for”), indicate that a commitment to social change often arises through close relationships and care for others. Further, inter-racial relationships sustained over a period of time prevent “false empathy” and provide accountability, or as one interviewee reported to O’Brien: close relationships with people of color “prevent me from making excuses for not confronting racism” (123). A commitment to antiracism, then, may be rooted in “receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness” (Noddings's terms), qualities that suggest relationships are needed to provide approximating experiences.

So, I'm thinking about Joyce's questions and about Jennifer's research, and I'm wondering about the importance of multi-racial relationships, and I'm back to valuing one-on-one and small group interactions and teaching (where I'm going with my own research).

I'd love to hear more and look forward to conversations continuing on the blog!

I also want to plug another blog that writing center tutors at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) have started for discussions of antracism and peer tutoring praxis. Here's the link:



CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA