Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Pathways to Diversity: Social Justice and the Multiplicity of Identities"

Introductory Bio

Eric Darnell Pritchard is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also a faculty affiliate in the department of English, the John L. Warfield Center for African and African-American Studies and the Center for Women's and Gender Studies. He studied English-Liberal Arts at Lincoln University and literacy, rhetoric, critical theory and African-American gender and sexuality studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Professor Pritchard's research and teaching interests include literacy, African-American and Queer Rhetoric, community-based writing, critical pedagogy queer theory, black feminist theory, masculinity studies and hip hop studies. His current focus is on the intersections of race, (queer) sexuality, gender and class with historical and contemporary literacy research.

Pursuant to those interests he is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled, Black Queer Literacies. The study draws on the life story accounts of 60 black LGBTQ people who he interviewed about the relationships among their everyday literacy practices and identity formation across their lifetimes. The study focuses on the fluidity of literacy and identity and its interplay with black queer cultural productions (literary, visual, performance) in activism, spirituality, education, and in digital realms.

For his scholarship and community work he has received numerous honors, including the "Scholars for the Dream Award" from the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and the A. Philip Randolph Award for Community Activism from the Wisconsin Black Student Union.

Blog Entry

I want to thank the members of the CCCC Committee on Diversity for the creation of this space for a very important conversation. As a young scholar in rhetoric and composition I especially appreciate the invitation to be in the conversation with people who, in their work, have blazed so many trails for me to ‘tell it my way.’

My response to the question “How do you address the topic of "diversity" in your scholarship, teaching, and service?” reflects the sentiments of Victor Villanueva, Malea Powell and other guest contributors to the blog. Each has professed their commitment to diversity, while acknowledging their specific contentions with the term as it’s sometimes invoked. In my case, I have long emphasized and used the phrase ‘social justice’ rather than diversity. I prefer social justice because I hear in it the recognition of institutionalized social inequalities and the necessity of intervention into institutionalized oppression in pursuit of social justice. Diversity is one result of anti-oppression work. Social justice then is a pathway to diversity, a pathway that I think we continue to struggle with everyday. I often wonder: how effective is it to emphasize the importance of having ‘everyone at the table’ — to use a phrase often employed to illustrate diversity —if discussions don’t center the inequities each encounters en route to the proverbial table? What effect does this structure of the conversation have on the sustainability of coalitions for social justice? This question seems especially necessary given past and on-going discourses in society that ignore the specificity and continuance of oppression. The result of this discourse is an emphasis on equality and diversity that leads (prematurely) toward post-race, post-gender or in sum, post-oppression, without a necessary uptake of the impact of oppression. Here I briefly explore the centrality of these issues to my own work and more broadly to our research, teaching and professional service as members of the rhetoric and composition community.

In my research I respond to these challenges through a call to reconsider the usefulness of the phrase ‘multiplicity of identities’ as an alternative to lists of discrete characteristics as a category of analysis. This analysis can be of socio-political and cultural issues, and by extension, histories and theories of rhetoric and literacy traditions and pedagogical models. A recognition of identity as multiple is central to highlighting the problematic of pointing toward actions like inclusion or tolerance as representative of diversity or resorting to simplistic understandings of institutionalized oppression and identity. This is important because, in quests for social justice, how can we confront the social inequalities that threaten diversity without completely grasping the complexity of identities, oppression and communities as multiple, fluid, linked and/or simultaneous?

For example, my work on the literacy traditions of black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people showed me the consequences of the field under – theorizing the multiplicity of identities. By under-theorizing I refer to theorizing identities as narrow or monolithic or through an oversimplified interpretation of intersectionality. For many of my research participants, resisting this predisposition has allowed them to assert their identities as Black and LGBTQ (amongst many other identities). Through this the black LGBTQ person destabilizes the heteronormativity by which blackness is often read and also resists the erasure of difference in LGBTQ/sexuality studies research across disciplines, insisting on paradigms that center the “heterogeneity of sexuality” whereby sexuality “is constitutive of and constituted by racialized gender and class formations” (see Roderick Ferguson’s “Of Our Normative Strivings: African American Studies and the Histories of Sexuality”). As such through their life story accounts my research participants intervene into composition and rhetoric research that depicts black and LGBTQ identities, movements and concerns in ways that fail to synthesize race, class, gender, sexuality and other identities. I should also say that this oversimplification of identities is endemic of work outside the realm of African-American and LGBTQ related research too. To move beyond this issue, I contend that we must return to the full definitions of women of color feminist writers and activists who first theorized and applied “intersectionality” — particularly the women of the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist organization. In their position paper “A Black Feminist Statement” Combahee described identities and oppressions as being on different paths that sometimes intersect and overlap, and at other times are synthesized or blended. The latter part of this definition — the synthesis — has often been ignored while the former — the criss-crossing of identities — has been used to define intersectionality. “Multiplicity” (see Michael Hames-Garcia’s “Who Are Our Own People?: Challenges for a Theory of Social Identity.” ) of identities references the entirety of this definition of intersectionality. Through it we can explore multiple oppressions and identities in ways that do not elide the specificity of difference, but acknowledges the intertwining of these oppressions and identities. Thus, for all of us for whom social justice is a goal in our scholarship, teaching and professional service we must always be attentive to the multiplicity of identities and by extension the simultaneity of oppressions and the unevenness of power and privilege. This includes provisional privileges as well (see Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”).

Viewing identity through multiplicity does indeed make things fluid in ways that we are not socialized to be comfortable with or accept. However, I argue that the material circumstances of our students and our lives warrant that we embrace the complexity of people’s lives. If we do so, we will be able to access, document and analyze situated rhetorical and literacy traditions that are easily overlooked when we see identity too narrowly. Also, in terms of quests for social justice and embracing difference, multiplicity is a powerful lens because the specificity of the effects of oppression and differentials of power/privilege occurring in one body and/or across communities is better illuminated. This is important to any movements toward “diversity” because it forces us to take into account as full a rendering as the stories of everyone at “the table” as possible. Multiplicity reminds us, as put so eloquently by poet and essayist June Jordan, that “freedom is indivisible or it is nothing at all… and either we [emphasis mine] are working for freedom or you are working for the sake of your self interests and I am working for mine” (409). We must all recognize that our freedom is bound up in the oppression of other people. Further, multiplicity engenders a conception of diversity that recognizes difference as not a problem to be overcome but as a source of power. And perhaps most significantly, multiplicity supports the politics of coalition building across communities as necessary and sustainable. It suggests such coalitions are possible through the hard work struggling with one another for collective social justice and not against one another for individual advancement. A deeper understanding of identity and oppression is crucial to doing this hard work together.

Multiplicity of identities can also be useful to mediating professional development /institutional support structures. For instance, at the CCCC convention each year, there is a given time slot for caucuses and some of the special interest groups (SIGS) to meet. Generally this time is allotted for Friday evening of the convention when it comes to the ethnic/racial caucuses, queer caucus and many other caucuses and SIGS. Many of these caucuses meet at the same time, and though I doubt this is the intended effect, it forces people to choose one identity or commitment at the expense of others.

In my own experience, I remember having to literally run up and down the stairs of the conference hotel at a past CCCC, going from the Black Caucus to the Queer Caucus that met at the same time. In this sense, I am forced to either stretch myself to be in all the spaces with which I identify, get support and work to support others in these communities or, I am forced to decide which of my identities is most salient. Another example is those persons who identify as multi-racial/ethnic. If all the ethnic/racial caucuses meet at the same time, a person of multiple races/ethnicities will be unable to participate in the different spaces relevant to their personal and professional development. A restructuring of this schedule would also be very useful to building ally and coalition relationships between the various constituencies attending caucuses as it would allow space for members to be in other spaces as allies if that was desired by a given caucus or member. I could go on and on with the ways in which other persons from any number of identity groups are put in this situation. Our inattention to multiplicity of identities not only impacts our scholarship and teaching, but clearly, has limited our potential to provide the most comprehensive support to our colleagues at the institutional level as well. As Catherine Fox says, in English Studies, we operate under an “ironic display of desire to construct a collective identity for English Departments … occluding genuine reflection, dialogue, and struggle about what might constitute safety for marginalized peoples” (in “From Transaction to Transformation: (En)Countering White Heteronormativity in ‘Safe Spaces’,” in College English, May 2007) and consequently, how one arrives at a true coalition or collective identity.

We must resist the impulse to do violence to one another through oversimplifying the oppressions and identities we each encounter if we are to ever achieve the transgressive research, teaching and service we all imagine as our contribution to meaningful social change.


dave's not here said...

Thanks, Eric, for this insightful post. I have heard others express frustration at having to choose one SIG over another at Cs. More importantly, I hear in your post a commitment to identity and diversity as ongoing social practices and, as Bruce Horner argued a decade ago, part of the "work" of composition.

Beth Godbee said...


I *so* appreciate your comments and find myself inspired by your focus on action/activism -- a call for resisting the "impulse to do violence" and remembering that social justice requires working for our freedom collectively, not pitted against one another.

I appreciate how you weave together the interconnections of (1) social justice, (2) multiplicities of identity, and (3) pathways to diversity (and I'll especially take away from your posting the emphasis on "pathways").

Although I've asked this question before on this blog, I wonder (again) about the usefulness of focusing on diversity. If the term itself can distract us from inequities, power, privilege, coalition-building, and the work that needs to be done -- then why not create a social justice committee for CCCC?

Eric, thanks also for providing the tangible example of conflicts created by the CCCC SIG meeting structure. That's a great case for us to consider revising to act on a recognition that identities are not only criss-crossing, but also synthesized, as you explain.
I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

(And, Dave, great to hear from you, and I hope you’re doing well in Iowa!)



SVD said...


I agree with you that the assumption of identities as static—even monolithic—is more than limiting, but politically dangerous. Singular identities deny us our right to the multiple conversations that we dynamic creatures are privileged to. This white, heteronormativity that oppresses us all treats our diversity as nothing more than an endless series of categories and containers for all individuals to fit into.

As an undergraduate writing center tutor, I recently had the chance to present a special interest group workshop (along with six other peer tutors) at the IWCA/NCPTW 2008 Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. We presented our experiences practicing Antiracist Activism at our writing center. While I could respond to the complicated variety of resistance we faced, I’d rather empathize with the invisibleness of most social justice work.

Our workshop was plagued, among others, with poor planning. Multiple presentations of social justice presentations, panels, or workshops, occurred at the same time as our own. Rather than coming together as a coalition of tutors interested in social justice, we were systematically separated and categorized individually as a result of our diversity in presentations.

While we could form special interest groups and committees forever into infinity, I’m concerned that we’re going nowhere politically. We are all marginalized voices and we need to stand together as a collective voice to respond to the political majority. Otherwise, we will become white noise to each other silencing ourselves through separate practices.

Perhaps the most difficult, most pressing issue in front of us is to decide how to effectively organize.

Keep writing!


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