Review of Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication, by Frankie Condon and Vershawn Ashanti Young

JWells
University of Texas at Austin
jzwells3@utexas.edu

Condon, Frankie, and Vershawn Ashanti Young. Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. The WAC Clearinghouse, 2017. $30.95.

Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication presents reflections, conversations, and assignments from multiple educators that serve as examples of how we are reconstructing and/or allowing racism in our classrooms, as well as how we can improve our problematic behavior. Divided into three sections—including three to four articles each—that are preceded by a foreword and introduction, Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in its entirety reinforces the idea that antiracist work begins with acknowledging your racial presence in the academy and evaluating how this presence coincides or collides with your students’ identities.   

Taking us back to one of the first places we experienced racism, Asao B. Inoue’s foreword “On Antiracist Agendas” critically reflects on the use of whiteliness by his teacher, Ms. Whitmore, to respond to the intersections of race and language in their second-grade classroom. Inoue explains that while teachers like Ms. Whitmore tend to have good intentions, their methods for treating students fair and equal are often flawed because they do so based on their rules of what is offensive or appropriate—deciding for black and brown students what the language they were immersed in means to them, rather than asking them. Inoue advises readers to resist these “whitely ways”—yes, all teachers can perpetuate whitely ways—and instead adopt an antiracist agenda, which “offers an understanding or explanation of race, racism, and the particular racial formations that develop in and around the classroom or program in question” (xvii).

Inoue’s foreword sets the tone for the intended audience, which is reinforced by Condon and Young’s introduction. Condon and Young address their book to educators who “are thinking carefully and critically about race, racism, and pedagogy . . . [,] [who] understand racism is real and already have some grasp of its impacts on the lives of people of color . . . and [who] have some investment in action from where you are to teach for racial justice” (7). Condon and Young also provide these educators with context, working definitions, and key concepts, as well as manifestations that justify antiracist work as necessary, and they engage in conversations regarding this work in the academy. Reminding us that—contrary to post-racial rhetoric—we are not in living a post-racial society, Condon and Young assert that understanding the racism within our academy as well as the racism outside of it is foundational in “teaching writing across the disciplines as a vehicle for engaging students in resistance to racism in their own lives . . . ” (11). While Condon and Young’s introduction frames the injustices that students experience as a result of our society’s racial climate, the ten articles that follow make us aware of how we as individuals unconsciously and consciously preserve this racism within and alongside our institutions.

The works that make up Section One, “Actionable Commitments,” shift educators from recognizing racial injustices in the academy to enacting action by “embracing a willingness to be disturbed” (Diab et al. 19), acknowledging and unlearning bad habits (Logue), listening to counterstories (Martinez), and making space for linguistic diversity in our classrooms (Poe). Acknowledging “a great deal of self-work is required on the journey of growth from articulating a commitment to racial justice to making that commitment actional and sustainable,” Rasha Diab et al.’s “Making Commitments to Racial Justice Actionable” serves as a guide for “[a] moving from confessional narratives [b] with a ‘willingness to be disturbed’ (Wheatley, 2002, p. 34) [c] to articulations of commitment that are [c] paired with reflective action” (20). Diab et al. prioritize self-work but also encourage “work-with-others” to move racism from an individual problem that can be quickly solved to a shared recognition that racism is a global and political issue that has largely local and personal effects. With pictures to assist in contextualizing his personal journey, Calvin M. Logue’s “Teaching African American Discourse” models this willingness to be disturbed. To explain his motivation for proposing and teaching the first “Black Rhetoric” course at the University of Georgia in the 1970s, Logue recounts select interactions he had with African Americans as a white male who had been “socialized in rigid racial segregation” in Alabama during the 50s and 60s (44). Logue credits his commitment to helping university students “examine the continuing efforts of African Americans to achieve equal rights, opportunities, and protections for the self . . . ” (49) to the times in which African Americans have provided him with safety, despite his family privately disapproving segregation conditions, but publicly adhering to them.

Mya Poe’s “Reframing Race in Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum” reinforces this need to situate race locally. Poe suggests instructors do so by figuring out our student’s needs, evaluating what expectations we bring to the table and by understanding the link between race and multilingualism. Referring to a workshop she conducted with first-year-seminar instructors, Poe confirms instructors often times assume African American, Native American, and Latino/a students will need more help with their writing. Poe suggests we check our biases by simply counting the comments we provide to different students or by marking student papers without the names on them (98). Aja Y. Martinez’s “A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory” places a counterstory alongside a stockstory to propose the use of critical race theory in rhetoric and composition scholarship. She first displays the faculty’s critique of Mexican Ph.D. student Alejandra’s inability to write about anything other than race, keep up with conversations in class, and come to office hours. Martinez juxtaposes this critique with Alejandra and her mami’s recollection of her attempting to use coursework as a way to explore her area of interest in race and being repeatedly shutdown or dismissed when asking for help from professors who kept mistakenly identifying her as Chicana. Martinez’s method forces educators to recognize how their refusal to accommodate students from marginalized populations and to acknowledge their racial presence causes graduate students to fail. In effect, Martinez’s proposal also provides a method for calling our departments out for pacifying and allowing racism to pervade our classrooms.

The articles in Section Two, “Identity Matters,” exemplify how the insecurities and privileges associated with our identities cause us to feel othered in our academic spaces, which at times influences us to perform in whitely ways. Octavio Pimentel et al.’s “The Myth of the Colorblind Writing Classroom” situates narratives from two white instructors who, by grappling with their antiracist approaches to their writing classes, show the deconstruction of whiteness is continual and needs more than one approach. While one instructor, Victoria, decided to include multicultural texts in her syllabus but not talk about race directly, the other, Michael, immediately admitted his white male privilege to his class. Nonetheless, both approaches alone left students of color still feeling muted, Pimental et al. report. Also contemplating the presence of whiteness in their classrooms, Dae-Joong Kim and Bobbi Olson’s “Deconstructing Whiteness in the Globalized Classroom” shares their conversations about the ways in which they both enact whiteliness when teaching. Olson reflects on her experiences as a white instructor teaching a class full of non-white students, realizing her otherness as a white woman in this situation granted her the same authority it did working with all-white students. On the contrary, Kim’s otherness as a non-white international teacher in predominantly all-white classrooms put him in “an unstable position” where he felt it necessary to enact whiteliness in order to establish authority (151). Similar to Kim, Deatra Sullivan-Morgan’s personal narrative “Why Am I So Damaged” admits feelings of imposter syndrome. Sullivan-Morgan says as a black woman it’s been ingrained in her from birth to work twice as hard, and in doing so she’s become a “Ph. Diva” 160). But even with that success, she feels she is still struggling to swim through the “shark infested waters surrounding the ivory tower,” still questioning “will the fear ever leave me?” (160).  Sullivan-Morgan’s narrative, like the other authors’ feelings of apprehensiveness regarding our identities’ place in the academy, is the result of the academy not following an antiracist agenda.

All featuring sample assignments completed by undergraduate and graduate students, the articles in Section Three, “In the Classroom,” demonstrate how students engaged with the topic of race and with race and language in writing courses, as well as how their instructors attempted to respond to this engagement. Using a few essays written by a Puerto Rican male student and African American male student in her class, Sophia Bell’s “‘Whiteboys’” provides support for adapting Mary Lousie Pratt’s (1991) vision of classrooms as contact zones and for viewing the texts written by marginalized students in these contact zones as autoethnographic. Bell discusses how these two students used their assigned narrative project to interrogate their whiteness and the whiteness surrounding them; one student’s work shows signs of playing into the whiteness assigned to him, and the other’s work tries to disassociate from it. Their complicated relationship with whiteness is what made it difficult for Bell to respond, as she had an impulse to encourage them to reject whiteness (191). Jessica Parker also requires students to engage critically with their race and class. In “Writing and Unwriting Race,” Parker discusses an activity that uses hip hop and a “Propaganda Exercise” to  connect hip-hop texts with canonical works. Parker offers hip-hop as a framework for discussing race and class because it “provides a familiar foundation from which to explore these issues,” whereas canonical texts, when assigned alone, can leave students feeling uncomfortable with or distant from the context (198). In this chapter, Parker also gives us “A Note on Language” policy statement from the syllabus, which is used to recognize the power of language and the value of other discourses. Both Parker and Bell agree there needs to be a foundation for discussing race specifically before writing about it. Using theatrics as a vehicle, Timothy Lensmire et al.’s “Dangerous Play,” too, supplies a creative approach to investigating race. Lensmire and his student co-authors use this chapter to reflect on their experience with Lensmire’s “Show Off Your Bakhtin Contest”’ assignment, which instructs students to put on a brief play where they “dazzle their friends and best enemies by making believe that you understand Bakhtin and you can apply his ideas to that which you apply them” (213). Lensmire suggested groups apply their Bakhtinian skills to terms that came up in the short essays they wrote discussing their interactions with language. One group used an essay written by Rebecca, the only black student in the class, who wrote about her son’s use of the phrase “niggah please” (212). While students were initially uncomfortable with the presentation, they ultimately seemed to appreciate being forced to realize more about their unprocessed feelings regarding language.

Posting the names of twenty out of hundreds of black individuals murdered by police officers, as well as listing colleges where students protested, occupied administrative buildings, and made demands for racial justice—the epilogue brings us back to Condon and Young’s advice to be aware of the racial injustices our students are facing, as well as their calls for educators to join students in their antiracist activism.

Because the texts in this collection do so well at capturing the whitely ways of all instructors—which is usually a strategy to overcompensate for insecurities—this text is especially useful for graduate students and novice instructors. I also believe this text serves as a resource to help graduate students of color initiate a conversation with our advisors, professors, and departments about the discomfort we feel within our programs. In addition, Diab at al., Poe, and Kim directly and indirectly provide content useful to writing centers; however, I would have liked to have seen at least a couple of articles fully dedicated to explaining how writing consultants can respond to constructions of racism in student papers.

Performing Antiracist Pedagogy provides educators with a sense of responsibility and reality, which is why some of these articles are a bit difficult to read. Rather than just offering a checklist of best practices, exercises and workshops, or tips for handling heated discussions, Performing Antiracist Pedagogy provides educators with methods to address the insecurities, stereotypes, and whiteliness they bring into the classroom. If you read this text and don’t feel as if you, too, have accidentally enacted whiteliness in the same ways these other educators have, then you’re not doing the work.

Works Cited

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession, 1991, pp. 33-40.