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.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

CCCC Conversations on Diversity

Welcome to the “CCCC Conversations on Diversity”

The CCCC Committee on Diversity is pleased to announce a new blogging series. For the next several months, we will host a forum for CCCC members to broaden our organization’s thinking, talking, and writing about diversity in our profession. Starting on Thursday, May 29, 2008 (in 2 weeks), we will feature blog posts by Guest writers from across the discipline of rhetoric and composition in higher education at

We will begin the series with a Guest blog post by Victor Villaneuva, the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts at Washington State University. Guest postings will be open to anyone with internet access who wants to read it, and CCCC/NCTE members will be able to post comments. Everyone can find Victor Villaneuva’s blog post and each new Guest writer’s blog post on the CCCC blog site, bi-weekly (2 times per month), until Thursday, October 16, 2008.

At the risk of interrupting your summer plans, we’d like to ask for your attention over the next few months at a computer screen near you. We would like your help to generate a sustained conversation about the role of diversity in the work we do. Of course, the work of rhetoric and composition has addressed issues of diversity for decades, and each year brings new scholars and perspectives to CCCC. Ultimately, we’d like to think about our Guest writers’ statements, your responses, and the archived blog posts, when our Committee generates a CCCC Position Statement on Diversity this year. We believe that this statement should reflect the contributions of as broad a cross-section of members as possible (see our charge at:

Thanks for reading our first blog post on the CCCC Conversations on Diversity.

Enjoy your summer!

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA