Friday, October 30, 2009

What Are We Calling Equity These Days?: Interruption as Praxis and Revising a Word/World

Introductory Bio

Dr. Maria Montaperto is an assistant professor at Kean University in Union, New Jersey, where she teaches college composition and rhetorical theory courses, and assists in the development and coordination of the composition program, the undergraduate writing option in the major, and the new writing studies master’s program. Her scholarly interests focus on intersections between race theory and composition and rhetoric, particularly how invisible white privilege manifests and functions as a form of racism in higher education. She has regularly presented at CCCC, the Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s), and miscellaneous local conferences. Her most recent avenue of research takes up issues related to disciplinary and institutional oversights in the implementation of the vision of language equity outlined by the CCCC Students’ Rights to Their Own Language resolution.

Blog Entry

In his blog, Victor Villanueva says he doesn’t really “work with the topic of ‘diversity’” or “care for that word diversity any more than [he] cared for its predecessor, multiculturalism.” Malea Powell says, for her, “diversity isn’t a ‘topic’ at all.” More accurately, ”honoring diversity is a way of life,” something imbedded in her academic work, not added on. I agree the term has its shortcomings, and think it’s important to consider here because the CCCC Committee on Diversity’s plans to use the blog to help “construct a position statement on diversity.” This is an opportunity for us, right? For me, I would call it an opportunity to interrupt an epistemological dilemma in our own discourse, and the implicit pedagogies of that discourse.

Echoing others, I’d say I’m more interested in addressing “equity” than “diversity.” Diversity too easily becomes additive, a side note. Equity, however, is foundational. It is about justice, “fairness,” as Villanueva notes. More than a thing to address, the practice of equity is purpose with form. Scholarship, teaching, service? These are just contexts we inhabit in which we do or do not enact it effectively.

So then, equity.

My research in CompRhet focuses on race theory, and enacting equity in my scholarly work has specifically meant examining how invisible white skin privilege functions as a form of racism in higher education. This research teaches me that identity – racial and otherwise – exists as a complex network of socio-rhetorical constructions bound up in the discursive material events of our lives – it is written, is a kind of literacy. And, if true of racial identity, then logic dictates that racism, as a thread in that complex network of socio-rhetorical constructions, can be equally understood as being written – as a form of literacy. And, where there is literacy, there is always pedagogy.

So, literacies, and pedagogies, of race, of identity – and others, inherently of the same cloth, of racism, of unearned privilege, of cultural dominance? One of the answers to Villanueva’s ever-resounding question about “why nice people abide by not nice things;” A-B-C simple, we’re trained to. Trained, into practices of racism, but more disquieting, trained (myself and others), simultaneously, into practices of ‘not seeing,’ into ignorance of complicity. This is a double-bind in which white supremacy as a hegemonic structure functions on two distinct but recursively self-perpetuatory levels. One involves the deployment of pedagogies and literacies for the maintenance and replication of existing power relations; and another the deployment of what I would characterize as a kind of anti-pedagogy/anti-literacy.

As anti-literacy/pedagogy this is comparable theoretically to laws preventing slaves from reading and writing or being taught to, only this time in a kind of twisted reverse, a system of cultural domination turned in on itself, teaches, itself – imagine, a pedagogy of ignorance. Thus, it seems, to work against this we need to strive toward two ends. First, we need to work very concretely toward a greater understanding and knowledge of the function of pedagogies and literacies of white dominance. Second, to work simultaneously toward a different kind of literacy and another pedagogy, what I imagine as a kind of counter-literacy and a counter-pedagogy.

From my research, I’ve developed a working-principle I call interruption as praxis, a theoretically informed practice-based methodology for exposing, interrogating and disrupting inequitable systems of privilege—racial and otherwise. Firmly rooted in CompRhet, interruption as praxis (IP) is distinctly rhetorical. Tied to interests historically at the center of rhetoric, it is a literacy and a pedagogy. And, it is a process, like both Amy Lee’s composing pedagogies – self-reflection with enactment – and Paulo Freire’s “writing the word and the world” literacy but with pencils pushed into the hands of those least expected to need a lesson in ABCs.

In this respect, IP is as much an approach, as a practice. An approach to practices perhaps – rhetorical, pedagogical, institutional – that offers faculty, administrators, and other key university workers in higher education a framework for digging beneath powerful hegemonic structures and for understanding and working against inequity at a systemic level. But, similar to conventional literacy and pedagogy, there is no simplistic 1-2-3 or paint-by-number set of directions. Rather, again, like rhetoric, it has a purpose within a context, which together determine form.

So then, interruption as praxis.

What, concretely, does this counter-literacy, this counter-pedagogy, look like? How does it work?

A) As noted, IP functions rhetorically, and is a theoretically informed practice-based methodology. Non-linear, it’s a re-read and a re-write.

· I read, years ago now, Ian Marshall and Wendy Ryden in a 3C dialogic essay discuss a writing teacher’s (our) responsibility to speakers of “non-standard” dialects of English. Ryden asks of responsibility to the “standard” speaker, to those future potential employers in the position to hire or not hire someone on the basis of “how they say a word.”

· I still can’t get my mind entirely past the preface of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands where she asks non-mestizos to meet her – the new mestizas/os – halfway. There are a plethora of similar scholarly requests.

B) As the name denotes, IP is about interruption – is an interruption. It breaks open/into – disrupts – one’s self and others, in multiple contexts, by multiple means. Here. Rhetorically. With form for instance. Syntactically. On the level of word. It interrupts privilege specifically – exposes it, my own and others, questions/interrogates, and disrupts – (blogs,) conversations, classrooms, lives.

· I began, as a doctoral student, to use the term “standardized” English, especially in the presence of English studies professionals. It’s not a term that falls lightly on these ears, or is easily ignored.

· I take it quite literally. Believe with all my heart and mind she meant it that way. At 32, to fulfill my language req, I go to Mexico as a summer exchange student to study Spanish for 7 weeks and live with a Mexican family. Two years later, to save the basics I learned, I give up my TAship, sell nearly everything I own, and go to Vieques, Puerto Rico, to write the dissertation there. I leave six months later (because of interruptions – more kinds and types than there is space here to name), finish my degree in my home state of NJ, and return again for eight months. Hablo mucho español. Aprendí mucho. Mucho más que un idiomas. Señora Anzaldúa, puedo leer todo su libro ahora. Gracias.

C) IP has consequences. Can get dangerous. You may sacrifice personally, and professionally, will make mistakes, for the sake of enacting equity. Done well, it’s often terribly uncomfortable. Aches even.

· I made a point to use it on a social occasion while talking with the chair of the English department, a very shrewd but rather conservative British Literature scholar. The even minor potential consequences for irritating her, even mildly, is not lost on me.

· Lost a byline on a published article. Graduated three months late. Put off the job hunt for a year. Other irretrievable professional and personal opportunities se fueron, todo se fue.

In her blog about teaching “Disability as Diversity,” Margaret Price asks a question at the heart of courses (I think any work) whose objective is greater equity: “How can we get beyond classroom conversations on diversity that adhere to simplistic bumper-sticker nostrums (“Celebrate Diversity!”) and into the more complicated, localized, and sometimes painful conversations that lead to true coalition?” To do just that. To “get beyond . . . diversity” as the conversation. No around the pain. Through it. Identity, meaning, may/will relocate. We’ll get lost. Lose things. Let them go.

Snapshot: A course in IP.

Split-level graduate and undergraduate on the rhetoric of race and ethnicity. “To do this work, is to squirm. If you don’t squirm at least once, you’re probably not doing it right,” I said on the first day.

Even though it’s my first time teaching it, I know the class will be difficult – intellectually, ideologically, emotionally. The course, if I do it right, will be and teach IP.

After-class aftermath.

A progressive-minded white student. A young woman. East coast, Italian American like me. It’s where we are, and where we’re from. A moment of contention. Specifics irrelevant. It’s about race. She saw and heard things she didn’t like. I remind her I warned this would happen. She’s in shock. I watch her whiteness unravel. I let it. She’s angry. “Am I just supposed to let it go?” Trusting in a sense of her I’ve formed, I say, “This isn’t about you, or even anybody else in class. Not any of us.” Something just barely begins to dissolve. Enough to see beneath. Commitments not isolated to race, or limiting concepts of “diversity.” Her interests lie beyond that, rest in an image of equity. I’ve seen her brush through brambles to find this place before, in another course, at another time. I’ll watch her do it again. Tell her, for now, I’ll be here. Not to save her from heartache. But to hold her hand. To try my best, to lead. Stumbling, I recount and remember past and present falls. We’ve only just begun. We’ll/i'll make mistakes.

Another Interruption.

I wonder, if to start, we might consider changing the name of the committee and the position statement (using a different term, means of expression, throughout our literatures). By highlighting it, do we risk perpetuating diversity as supplement and equity as after-thought? How can this statement be (re-)written so as to not unintentionally re-inscribe “the current rhetoric of diversity” of which Asao Inoue writes in response to Villanueva?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Neutrality of Culpability: Toward a Re-conceptualization of a “Post-Racial” America

Introductory Bio

Erec Smith is an assistant professor and writing center director for Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. At Drew University, his prior institution, he had administrative duties as a diversity officer and cabinet member. He has published on the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and writing center theory ("Writing Under the Bodhi Tree") and is interested in the intersection of spirituality, rhetoric and diversity. His 2008 novel, Creamy Nougat, explores the relationships of race, class and social status in a “post-racial” context. He is currently interested in community writing centers and works with Philadelphia’s Spells Writing Center (, putting on workshops for children and adults in the region.

Blog Entry

As a professor of rhetoric and composition, a writing center director, a former diversity officer, and a writer of a novel that I can comfortably define as “post-racial,” I have much to say about the presence and nature of diversity initiatives on college and university campuses. I have been pulled by a campus’ desire for unity in diversity and pushed by the same campus’ resistance to being “forced” to open its collective mind. I have seen the oppressor become the oppressed and vice versa. I have seen diversity activities backfire, making dominant and subordinate people more solidified in their roles.

Throughout all of this, I’ve noticed that in higher education, we seem to be focusing on the effects instead of the causes, the symptoms instead of the disease (this trend is clearly reflected in the fact that, on most campuses, the diversity officer is a glorified ombudsperson only called upon when something racist happens and not to celebrate or promote diversity). To help more of us in higher education move in a more corrective direction, first step would be to revise the term “post-racial” for a more accurate view of society. “Post-racial” is not to say that racism does not exist. Instead it acknowledges that racism exists, but the perpetrators are not members of a homogenous, easily identified cohort. I argue that in post-racial America, there is a “neutrality of culpability” that pits us all as identity-creating beings dealing with seemingly involuntary drives to essentialize. The monolithic issues of institutional and environmental racism should not be ignored but approached differently—by deducing generalizing modes of identity toward more specific moments of xenophobia (its construction, maintenance and benefits).

A fine example of approaching race through the phenomenon of identity construction is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity (2005). In a chapter titled “The Demands of Identity,” Appiah address “the not-uncontroversial assumption that differences of identity are, in various ways, prior to those of culture” (64). He initially uses the example of the Robbers Cave experiment, in which two groups of white, Protestant, middle-class boys were placed on a Robbers Cave State Park campsite in close proximity—but separate—from each other. After each group had a few days to bond, one group was told of the existence of the other group, and after challenging each other in competitive sports, “tempers flared and a violent enmity developed between the two groups, the Rattlers and the Eagles (as they came to dub themselves)” (62).

The animosity between the two groups was alleviated only when the researchers who devised the experiment created “shared subordinate goals” for the two groups. The researchers staged a water and food shortage that caused both groups to have to work together to ensure survival (or, at least, comfortable living for the amount of time they were left on the campsite). After the Rattlers and Eagles cooperated for such an important cause, the demarcations between the groups were shattered (113): “We often treat cultural differentia as if they give rise to collective identities,” writes Appiah, but “what happened at Robbers Cave suggests we might think of it the other way around” (64), meaning seeing the trees for the forest, looking at individual performance, and focusing on a hierarchical relationship between groups. At this point, I would like to argue that Obama’s description of contemporary America, in his famous speech on race, strongly implies a definition of “post-racial” that echoes a neutrality of culpability.

In his “A More Perfect Union,” speech, the televised response to Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for his unapologetically racist remarks against White America, Obama initially reiterates his familial and social background ( He states that he is “the son of a Black man from Kenya and a White woman from Kansas,” and that he is “married to a Black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.” He goes on to say “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Obama describes himself as an example diversity personified and praises America for being the sole place where such a person could exist. But by setting up his comparison of White and Black racial issues he also promotes the idea of a neutrality of culpability (a phrase that I believe we should use instead of post-racial):

As imperfect as [Wright] may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened
my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children…. I can no more disown
him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can
my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this
world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on
the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic
stereotypes that made me cringe.

Obama’s implicit ad hominem tu quoque, a tactic often construed as a logical fallacy, is anything but fallacious in this context. Obama explicitly states here that, although Wright said some harsh and bigoted things, so did Obama’s own grandmother in his presence. However, both guilty parties, Obama argued, are a part of him (him being the embodiment of diversity and part of America, at large). If we agree with Obama’s statement, then our major goal in higher education must be commonality, since we apparently already have the best and worst of our society in common. Further, Obama articulates this paradox as his justification for seeking leadership of this country:

I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe
deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them
together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have
different stories, but we hold common hopes . . .

This neutrality of culpability is also illustrated in Diane Goodman’s book Promoting Diversity and Social Justice (2001). Goodman lists several types of oppression (sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc), their corresponding dominant groups (males, whites, heterosexuals, etc) and subordinate groups (females, people of color, homosexuals, etc). She does this in order to show how one person can embody both a dominant and subordinate membership but, for one reason or another, tends to embrace just one. She writes:

We all have multiple social identities that, depending on the social category,
may place us in either a dominant or subordinate group, on different sides of
the power dynamic. I, like most others, am part of both advantaged and
disadvantaged groups. For example, I am a woman and a Jew and therefore am part
of the subordinate group in sexism and anti-Semitism. Yet, I am also White,
heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, and in my middle-adult years, which
makes me a member of several dominant groups as well. Our particular
constellation of social identities shapes our experiences and our sense of self.
Goodman is careful not to dismiss people’s reasons for embracing one group identity over the other, but she does want to point out the idea that some dominant group members double as subordinate group members. Her purpose, consistent with Obama’s personal observations and Appiah’s academic observations, is to expose the arbitrary nature of group identities in a way that does not alienate them but brings them together in their paradoxical human tendency to categorize for the sake of security and—voluntarily or involuntarily—power.

The point is that we are all constructions and abstractions. This realization may lend some insight into how we see others who we’ve constructed as different from our constructed selves. This is not to say that racism does not exist and does not affect our lives, but a neutrality of culpability may alleviate “diversity fatigue” among traditionally oppressive and oppressed groups and re-construct diversity studies in the future. If we understand race as a symptom of illusive demarcations of judger/judged—thus acknowledging each other as both judger and judged—we can more easily embrace the commonalities we already have as human beings. I am confident in saying that if people in higher education really want to improve diversity relations, they will broach the subject by exploring the social construction of group position.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA