Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where is the Rub with "Diversity," Right Now?

Introductory Bio

Susan C. Jarratt is professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she served as Campus Writing Coordinator from 2001-07. She studies ancient Greek rhetoric, political discourse, and student writing. Her books include Rereading the Sophists (Southern Illinois UP, 1991) and Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words (MLA, 1998) with Lynn Worsham. She co-edited Peitho, the newsletter of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, with Susan Romano and is currently writing a book about the rhetoric of Greek rhetors in the period of the Roman empire. Jarratt's interests are ancient Greek and Roman rhetoric, and contemporary rhetoric and writing in universities and public contexts. Her work in progress includes a collaboration with Andrea Lunsford, Robert Hariman, LuMing Mao, and Jacqueline Jones Royster in editing the Norton Anthology of Rhetoric and Writing, and an article in College English, “Classics and Counterpublics in Nineteenth-Century Historically Black Colleges (forthcoming, Nov 2009).

Blog Entry

Congratulations to Joyce for conducting a symposium on a term almost every one of the interlocutors has troubled. Would we expect anything less from this group? This is my first blog experience, and I come to it with curiosity and a desire for a new form of communication.

Reading these carefully wrought and impeccably researched mini-essays took me on a quick journey, reminding me of the movements of our profession. We have taken the charge of teaching writing in an institutional space burdened by low-status and instrumental circumstances and moved it elsewhere, finding within it amazing possibilities and weighty responsibilities: to discover the cognitive potential within students (Rose), to uncover histories of life, literacy, and language (Young); to persist in our investigations of pedagogical exchange (Alexander); to question relentlessly the terms of engagement with difference (Nunley; Ratcliffe); to force our histories into new worlds (Baca); to connect “college composition and communication” to gendered global power relations (Dingo).

Like some other bloggers here, the invitation gave me pause. It reminded me of an invitation by a young feminist scholar at Virginia Tech issued to twenty or so rhetoric and composition scholars in April 2008 to convene at her institution to talk about the state of feminism. We came (Black, white, women, men, American Indian, presumptively straight, queer/trans, no one visibly disabled, most of us a little older), but the talk in all the interstices was about our skepticism. All spoke about our work and the significance of feminist politics, thinking, and research to what we were doing then, but there were no clear lines--no manifesto was forthcoming. Feminism was all mixed up in everything else. What we spent most of the time talking about was the mass murder/suicide by a young Korean-American man that had taken place two weeks before. We came into a place of mourning. We walked around the central field, standing at the sites where the dead were memorialized--feeling the pain of these lost lives, of the troubled young man who took them, and most intensely, of the ways writing--his writing, his writing teachers--were implicated. Did his pain come from his experience of difference, from the failure of his writing? His acts gave fatal expression to a toxic mixture of ethnic alienation, the pressures of performing masculinity, and a trouble mind. To face this horror, we drew on the sustaining impulse of a community--another word most of us bracket but felt so strongly in those tender green April hills of Virginia.

Questions about feminist scholarly manifestos were not by any means unrelated to this situation, but our attention moved outward, our talk swirled around us in tentative modes--to soothe and comfort, to acknowledge the profundity of lives ended, lives taken in violence, the ultimate unknowability of the motives and consequences of acts, our an effort not to prematurely close off any interpretations, to allow for silence together in the face of a dreadful event. Up at Mountain Lake, we listened to Nikki Giovanni read from her poetry and from her memoir about her mother who had recently died. She gave us laughter, comfort, wisdom--not directly about the deaths but about the continuity of life and the power of language in the face of pain. Our closest approximation to group expression came late at night, watching “Dirty Dancing” with brandies in hand. “No one puts Baby in the corner,” we all chorused. Class politics, upper-class Jewish social life of the fifties, the hopeful moment of JFK’s years, young women trying to figure out how to be in their bodies-- all washed in the sensuous beauty of dance. These are a complicated tangle of threads to knit up into a “diversity” sampler. The metonymic links articulating positions of difference cradled us in a loose net that weekend.

How will we write diversity diversely? I read these blogs and saw over and again on display what we do well: reason, deliberate, respect each other, go back over themes, terms, ideas, writings--reminding ourselves of what we have learned and where we need more work. Victor V. stands out, as usual: keeping it open, bringing together the evidence of everyday life with the critical tools of our trade.

Without collapsing difference into an old style of celebratory humanism (the Family of Man), we might use this space to recall our everyday experience as writing teachers of the pleasure in the uncaptured, the uncontained, the yet-to-be-categorized. Sappho’s word for this is poikilos: the beauty of the varied, the pied, the ornately crafted, the unexpectedly shaped and colored. This noun gives aesthetic expression to a practice: polypragmasune--doing many things, the antithesis of Plato’s utopia where everyone had a single assigned place and task.

As a new blog-reader, I was looking for the sharp edge, and I admit, for stimulation: where is the rub on “diversity” right now? Professor Baca’s opposition between a “Western telos” and Meso-American writing spoke out loudly in a bold and agonistic rhetoric, straight with no chaser. Phenomenology to postmodernism -- precisely the theories opening for some experience, otherness, disjunction, queer writing, disturbed histories and memories -- these are right out. As Edward Said has taught so eloquently, all histories contain worlds of difference within, undiscoverable once they have been crammed into the box of “Western tradition.” But that is not Baca’s point. He rejects a form of training or a history of rhetoric based in a set of canonical texts and perhaps taught in a way that seemed closed and fixed. I’m not sure; these are blogs, after all, and not treatises.

What of the Greeks that Victor V. worked with in Bootstraps? the Greeks W.E.B. DuBois loved and used? None of this is to say: the Greeks and only the Greeks! We must keep opening up the world of writing in the directions Baca indicates, if not within the argumentative frame he sets up.

I’ve been trying to slog through the California Supreme Court legal decision upholding Proposition 8 denying marriage to same-sex couples: Strauss et al. v. Horton. The decision rests on a distinction between the revision and amendment of the constitution. I’m glad I have ancient rhetoric’s stasis theory to help me understand the legal moves. I need something else--stories, an openness to assent, love?--to grasp why it is so important for my friends, my daughter, my students to gain access to an institution I find pernicious.

How will we learn what we need to know about diversity? Through scrupulous methods that concentrate more on “how” than “what,” as LuMing Mao and Susan Romano are teaching us. Following Hannah Arendt, we take the risk of action, and urged on by Jennifer Edbauer, we take the risk of the amateur. The care at the core of our enterprise will flourish at these loose edges.

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.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA