Thursday, July 09, 2009

Diversity, Healthy Skepticism, and “Color-Blind Racism”: A Challenge for Disciplinary Reflection

Introductory Bio

Nicholas Behm is an assistant professor at Elmhurst College in Illinois. He publishes work on composition pedagogy and theory, ancient rhetoric, postmodern rhetorical theory, whiteness studies, and critical race theory. His research examines how first-year composition textbooks may reinforce white privilege and maintain white hegemony. Currently, Behm is working on several projects simultaneously, including book chapters on racism and writing assessment, an edited collection on writing program administration, and articles discussing the personal essay and critical race consciousness.

Blog Entry

I concur with Vorris Nunley’s posting on April 16, 2009 that we need to clearly define and theorize what we mean by “diversity.” Too often, when political pundits, corporate spokespersons, and high-level academic administrators bandy diversity-speak, they are articulating what Nunley calls a “Neo-liberal diversity discourse.” Such discourse has been corporatized and codified in the academy and in the workplace as “diversity sessions” and “tolerance,” and often serves to hide racism, classicism, sexism, heterosexism, and ethnocentrism, effectively reifying what diversity discourse was originally meant to interrogate. Put simply, diversity discourse has been subsumed by hegemonies and then re-deployed as “Neo-liberal diversity discourse” to reinforce institutionalized racism. I commend the committee for attempting to construct a new discourse that will, as Joyce Irene Middleton notes in her May 21, 2009 posting, abandon “the false illusion of racial human difference (without abandoning the powerful history of racism).”

Although I think that a position statement on diversity is desperately important, I am skeptical about its potential impact on the discipline or on writing programs and institutions across the United States. I fear that the future position statement on diversity will be rendered as meaningless, as bereft of any transformative power, as prior position statements, such as the “CCCC Guideline on the National Language Policy,” “CCCC Statement on Ebonics,” or “Students’ Right to Their Own Language.”

I am skeptical because CCCC members have never adequately discussed the racialized history of the organization and of composition studies. If the discipline and the CCCC have been constructed and exist within a racialized social system, surely they bear the markings of that system. Racial inequality has been institutionalized and racism and its deleterious effects are systemic and pervasive not only in the legal, medical, political, and educational systems, but also in the CCCC and in composition studies. As Thomas West argues in the “The Racist Other,” the organization and the discipline facilely exteriorize racial critiques, condemning a class of people (poor white folks) or political organizations (Republicans) or legislation (No Child Left Behind) that are easily codified as racist (215). When we exteriorize our critiques, placing blame on an obvious scapegoat, we don’t examine our own positioning and how that positioning constitutes and is constituted by racial inequity. As West suggests, to adequately reflect on how composition studies and the CCCC may perpetuate racial inequity, we must start with ourselves: our positions, our pedagogies, engaging and investigating “how the internalization of hegemonic forces creates contradictions in us that need not lead to paralysis, silence, retrenchment, or guilt but to renewed efforts to counter oppressive behaviors, renewed efforts which nonetheless recognize tensions between self-interests and common commitments” (217). In other words, we are all racists in that we have been socialized within and conditioned by a racialized social system. This realization enables us to consider how race and racism permeates our work, our perceptions of reality, our discourses.

Gary Olson articulates a similar argument in “Working with Difference: Critical Race Studies and the Teaching of Composition,” which is a chapter in Lynn Bloom, Donald Daiker, and Ed White’s Composition Studies in the New Millennium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future. Olson suggests that composition studies lacks any serious study of how composition pedagogy and writing programs perpetuate and are constituted by inequitable relations of power that reinforce racial stratification. As a result, Olson argues that the discipline does not have the language to interrogate its processes of colonization, nor may it be capable of productively responding to the increase in diversity in the student population (208-209).

So, I suggest that we vigorously confront the CCCC’s and the discipline’s “colonial sensibility,” which Victor Villanueva persuasively outlines in “Maybe a Colony: And Still Another Critique of the Comp Community.” We need to make explicit, to challenge and to contest how whiteness pervades the discipline; how whiteness constitutes and is constructed and revised by valorized research methodologies, pedagogies, assessment practices, and curricula; how whiteness functions and circulates at our conferences and in our dialogues; how what we do, what we value, and what we know may reinforce whiteness. Of course, we need to build off of and extend the important work of scholars, such as Krista Ratcliffe, Victor Villanueva, Catherine Prendergast, Thomas West, and Gary Olson, who have already offered sagacious critiques of the discipline and articulated how whiteness functions and proliferates.

To extend their important contributions and to confront how the CCCC and composition studies may construct and may be constructed by a racialized social system, I suggest that we consider employing the critical frameworks offered by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. In Racism Without Racists, Bonilla-Silva argues that a new racial framework pervades the major social structures and arrangements of the U.S., consisting of inconspicuous mechanisms that construct, proliferate, and reinforce racial inequality. An essential component of the “new racism” is what Bonilla-Silva calls “color-blind racism.”

To articulate the construction and diffusion of “color-blind racism,” Bonilla-Silva extends Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus to race: Bonilla-Silva contends that white people ghettoize themselves into homogeneous communities in which they constitute and are constituted by a “white habitus” that “conditions and creates whites’ racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters” (104). One consequence of the white habitus is to reinforce what Bonilla-Silva calls “a white culture of solidarity” that naturalizes whiteness and white privilege and fashions a white lens that many whites use to interpret racial differences in ways that facilely ascribe their own privileges to anything but their race (104).

Considering the racial makeup of the CCCC, which Joyce Irene Middleton outlines in her May 21, 2009 posting, Bonilla-Silva’s conception of a “white habitus” is particularly important for CCCC members to consider. We need to ask how the CCCC and composition studies may constitute and may be constitutive of a “white habitus,” and how “color-blind racism” may be promulgated and reinforced by the discipline’s valorized discourses, pedagogies, assessment practices, journals, and conventions.

Bonilla-Silva argues that a “white habitus” enables the rationalization of racial inequality by constituting and diffusing four powerful frameworks: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism (28-47). Abstract liberalism, accounts for the tendency to embrace tenets of political liberalism (equal opportunity, meritocracy, equal rights, individual choice) and/or economic liberalism (free market, competition) in a “decontextualized manner” to justify and rationalize racial inequities (141). Abstract liberalism, according to Bonilla-Silva, is the most powerful framework because denizens of the U.S. thoroughly and routinely accept and valorize the fundamental tenets of liberalism, rendering those tenets so natural, normal, and moral that they seem irresistible and unassailable.

The second framework, naturalization, explains the process through which people rationalize racial inequity by suggesting that residential segregation, racial preferences in friends and partners, and school segregation are all perfectly normal and natural. Naturalization enables some to designate residential and school segregation as either a choice or as a biological tendency.

The third framework, cultural racism, explains racial inequities as resulting from supposed group characteristics. This framework is a facile revision of the framework of biological inferiority that segregationists used during the era of Jim Crow. It ascribes pejorative characteristics to particular groups and describes these characteristics as permanent, as biological (39-40). Before and during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Southern segregationists justified the inequalities suffered by African Americans by claiming that African Americans were less intelligent and biologically inferior. Today, however, systemic racism is justified by arguing that Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and/or other minority groups are inferior as a result of culture, rather than biology.

Bonilla-Silva’s fourth framework, minimization of racism, accounts for the widespread view that racism and discrimination no longer figure in the United States. This framework promotes the assumption that racism only involves the aberrant acts of a small number of people that are easily codified as racist (29). All four frameworks protect white hegemony by deflecting attention away from how racism is institutionalized and systemic. They form an “impregnable yet elastic wall that barricades whites from [. . .] racial reality” in the U.S. (47).

The members of the CCCC need to critically consider how these frameworks circulate in our dialogues; in our scholarship; in our writing programs; in our evaluations of students’ work; in our assessment practices. We are experiencing a critical—if not kairotic—period in the history of the organization, the discipline, and the United States, during which difference and diversity have once again become prevalent topics on the news, in classrooms, and during legislative sessions. Let us seize this moment by deploying the critical tools that we possess to construct a critically reflective statement that relates how the CCCC and the discipline may function to reinforce systemic social and economic inequities; that articulates a language with which we can critique discourses and practices that serve to inure hegemonies; and that exhorts CCCC members of privileged groups to commit race, ethnic, gender, class, sexual orientation treason so that we can work purposefully and ingenuously to eradicate inequalities of all kinds.


Anonymous said...

Colleges and universities all across the nation have attempted to bring people together by focusing on everyone's differences (i.e. diversity/ multiculturalism). Consequently, we have not been brought together. Maybe the answer lies not in focusing on our differences, but in what we all have in common: our humanity. Focus on that, and we may begin to see change that we can believe in.

Anonymous said...

I don't really agree. It was only natural that we chose to breed with different races which resulted in longer life spans. People who are genetically mixed are living much longer and have healthier bodies than we see in the past. What started as somewhat of a mistake worked to make us a much healthier human. WHat about Eurasia? People can't help but breed in with eachother due to shortages of spouses. How is that racist? One thing you should remember is that mixing different animal breeds has the same impact in creating healthier genes in the animal. It's just natural, not a threat to our culture or people. People are healthier, living longer, happier than ever before. How is that negative?

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