Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education (2017)—features the chapter,“Color Deafness: White Writing as Palimpsest for African American in Breaking Bad Screen Captioning and Video Technologies English” coauthored by Nicole E. Snell and yours truly—won the 2018 Conference on College Composition & Communication Outstanding Book Award in the Edited Collection category. This award would not have been possible without the steadfast commitment and encouragement of the collection’s editors: Tammie M. Kennedy, Joyce Irene Middleton, and Krista Ratcliffe.
This Southern Illinois University Press publication is made all the more special by the esteemed list of fellow constributors: Sarah E. Austin, Lee Bebout, Jennifer Beech, Cedric Burrows, Leda Cooks, Sharon Crowley, Anita M. DeRouen, Tim Engles, Christine Farris, Amy Goodburn, M. Shane Grant, Gregory Jay, Ronald A. Kuykendall, Kristi McDuffie, Alice McIntyre, Peter McLaren, Keith D. Miller, Lilia D. Monzó, Casie Moreland, Ersula Ore, Annette Harris Powell, Catherine Prendergast, Meagan Rodgers, Jennifer Seibel Trainor, Victor Villanueva, and Hui Wu.
As a black woman I rarely have the privilege of perceiving nakedness and lack of direction as “freeing”—quite the opposite. The point is not to evoke an essentialist stance, but to caution against the potential for a type of solipsism born of white heteronormative neoliberal paradigms. There’s good reason as to why black churchgoing women’s unique testimony involves being “clothed and in our right minds.”
Compelled to respond in the mode of cyberflâneus—as opposed to the flâneur,her masculine counterpart—the creative and critical endeavors I pursue seek and receive pleasure from visual, spatial, and tactile sensations, as the deliberate fashioning of online and real world personas across the darker parts of the rainbow. The constraints of respectability politics, of course, compel the performance of citizenship of the industrious and productive variety—in other words, that of a crafty black woman whose labor constantly threatens cooptation. Dwelling in this space as a woman otherwise, risks the designation of “digital streetwalker.” Feminine bodies, we’re told, must caution against following blind wanderlust, whether virtual or real.
Rhetoric is the battleground of ideas and budding composition teachers should be encouraged to recognize the stakes in such battles. Intradisciplinary contests between cultural studies and technical writing, now being fought over critical approaches to highly politicized issues, are actually a strong sign of the intellectual vitality of rhetoric and composition education. On either end of the spectrum, digital humanities needs to be applied creatively, as foundational to academic inquiry.
I guess this is why I insist on playing with elements of rhetoric to resist, even antagonize, systemic instances of neoliberal misogynoir at times. At the same time I acknowledge my habits/impulses to respond productively in online spaces. A digital libertine, I am not for being rotten with the Protestant work ethic… and so I think of haiku headlines as another digital composing strategy.
It happened around 1988, not long after Harvey Gantt became America’s first New South “post-race” mayor. My mother, resolving to escape the ramp-up to the impending crack wars, moved us away from the borough of Queens, New York and into the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s when I overheard a white boy call me halfbreed in my twelfth grade Spanish class.
It was a boy that I’d never had problems with before and it caught me off guard. I overheard him talking to another of the good ol’ boys when he referred to me in third person as “that halfbreed gal.” Those were his words, to be exact. I was confused and next hurt. I excelled in languages and the social sciences even back then, which is why his old-fashioned verbiage sounded strange and hostile to me.
My ears perked. “Breed?” I thought, “that’s what they do to animals!”
The categorization implied by his drawl cut to the quick. His enunciation resonated in a place that I was unable to locate. Finally, I was outraged. In my adolescent mind it would have been better had he simply called me “nigger.”
His drawling pronunciation of girl struck me as peculiar and the words that formed a compound had really hit me hard. The one-two of his white maleness bespoke a harsh admonishment. Combined into a single swipe, he cut me down in the most personal terms by figuratively connecting the stuff between my legs to what happens between my ears.
His offending blow reached beyond his Whiteness to strike at the deepest core of my Blackness. It was the cavalier, offhandedness. Not only was he white, but he was male; not only was I black, but also a girl.
After dismissal from Spanish, I found myself trailing behind him to his next class period, loudly demanding he explain himself. I was determined not to be ignored and, once outside, in utter frustration and within full view of teachers and everybody in third period lunch, I got his attention. Hurling an empty can of Welch’s grape soda, I yelled, with the utmost attitude,
“Excuse you, but I’m black on both sides!”
Aluminum pinging off his head forced him to acknowledge me.
He laughed nervously.
Realizing he was at the center of an ugly scene, he took back his words and apologized before scurrying off to class with his buddies. He decided, wiselythat a public altercation with the weird black girl from New York, wouldn’t be earning him any cool points, plus he probably thought I was about to whup his ass.
I don’t quite remember what else I said that day. I’m sure it was a lot. Whatever I said must’ve been articulated well enough to escape suspension and avoid my mom getting called into the principal’s office over my foolishness on a workday. That would’ve be a definite no-go! Thankfully, I checked my behavior in the immediate aftermath and quickly remindes myself to keep my hands—and projectile objects—to myself.
I made peace. A year later, in fact, the same boy who made the offending remark was assigned as my lab partner in Biology class. We managed to get along okay and were even somewhat friendly, but I never forgot what he said. Apparently, neither did he. My reaction made a memorable enough impression to have taught him to behave himself in my presence from then on… at least not if I was in earshot.
Looking back, I can guess this young man was probably a bit jealous of me. My academic abilities earned high marks with comparatively little effort. I must have seemed annoyingly anomalous according to his more familiar context. Perhaps it was his only way to express the disjunction he perceived about my book smarts. As a working-class white having only attended North Carolina public schools his whole life, how could he have known any better? How else was he to interpret the obvious cultural advantage I leveraged? As a Southerner and a white male, he’d more than likely internalized a belief in prevailing assumptions about racist presuppositions alleging the inferiority of black intelligence.
I was lucky. Northern school bussing afforded me the opportunity to enjoy certain regional advantages relative to my native Southern classmates, both black and white. The edge created by New York City politics enabled my mother to enroll my twin sister and me in a couple of Little Neck-Douglaston’s best elementary and junior high schools. As a top district for education, the schools I attended were well renowned for producing the highest scores in the city on state regents exams. The good fortune of our social circumstances allowed me to squeeze my way into excellent schools and make the most out of an unfair situation. My primary and early secondary schooling was flanked by the best teachers, many of whom were first, second, and third-generation Jewish residents of adjacent Long Island communities in Nassau County. No doubt due in part to their own experiences with the Holocaust, many of my teachers nurtured a strong commitment to liberal principles by enacting critical democracy in public education on every level. It was a mission they took seriously.
Our classroom lessons were enhanced by weekly outings to the world’s finest cultural institutions. Visits to the Museum of Modern Art, American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York Stock Exchange, and the like were par for the course. Additionally, my teachers had the flexibility to let us have 30 to 40-minute stretches of free time. They understood the soothing effect it had on their more rambunctious students. A break from the rigmarole of everyday class work allowed us to daydream by the window or bookcase and afforded me the freedom to slowly leaf through encyclopedias and unabridged dictionaries at leisure. For kids like me, it created just enough space to calm down before the stress of a 2-hour commute back home to my Southside neighborhood and granted teachers the luxury to focus proper attention on the creation and design of lesson plans so students might receive real practice in the art of learning.
I was often perplexed upon thinking back to how I reacted that day almost 30 years ago. I mean, really? I don’t even like “purple drink” for cryin out loud! For the life of me, I couldn’t fully grasp exactly why his words stung to elicit such rage. In addition to the discomfort of having some boy talkin’ up under my clothes like that, I can now understand my response better. The enormity of my outrage had as much to do with the personal and institutional attitudes that conspired to expose and set loose my innermost insecurities. Acceptance from my black peer group was something I desperately sought and it was exactly this kind of event that highlighted the problem. Not only was I afraid the black kids would think I was “acting white” because of my grades, I was equally uncomfortable with being viewed as what I was: the green-eyed, light-skinned chick with a funny-sounding accent.
The implicit assertion of his racial remark was about how I potentially look in the eyes of many whites. Embedded in his put-down was innuendo about my humanity and the social value placed on me due to my skin, based largely on the unconscious view that if not for some strain of European heritage I too would be deemed uneducable—as though being bright is naturally derived from being light. White perceptions about the visuality and intelligence of race wield tremendous damage on countless lives. More painful, is the way words such as “halfbreed” speak to another sad truth: the inescapable fact that I’ve been at times the unwitting beneficiary of this destructive form of racial bias. Crystallized in that moment is the agonizing reality I’m forced to accept. I am the recipient of unwanted light-skinned privilege at least so far as the white masculinist gaze is concerned. I work to balance the scales without appearing to overcompensate. I’d like to think I’m over it, but I know I’m not. I still feel some kind of way about the racial logic that posits Blackness and intelligence as mutually exclusive. The impact of events like these on my personal and professional journey over the decades cannot be underestimated, nor should they be.
Our histrionics are our history. The fallout surrounding colorism, racial discrimination, and Whiteness has become the prevailing subject of my life’s work. They inspire within me the need to heal myself and others from the wounds of racism and help frame smarter, more constructive conversations. Rhetorical race studies chose my body as a discourse, and not the other way around. It’s an all too necessary vocation. I wish this was not the case, but so it is.
Too often in teacher discussions about student writing we complain, paying too much attention to student writers’ spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and faulty reasoning. We derisively speak in terms of what’s supposedly broken or ill-informed about their writing and pathologize their triple exclamation points and wild use of emoticons as something in need of fixing or treating. Teachers behave more like doctors, dentists, and nurses when we approach the writing of our students as if it’s diseased, regarding the battery of “diagnostic exams” and “essay clinics” prescribed and administered as a cure for perceived language impairments and seek to eradicate the contagion of slang usage in drill-and-kill writing labs.
Of course what I’m saying is not so different than what’s been said by many, many other composition scholars for over four decades now, which is why I’m so discouraged by the perennial nature of the pedagogical myth that two semesters of English Composition can—or should—completely erase the graphic representation of what a person thinks, feels, and believes. Despite all empirical evidence to the contrary and all the reams and reams of quantitative and qualitative data that’s been researched and published on every variety of longitudinal analysis, large sample experiment, and ethnographic case study, it’s common that composition and rhetoric professors must still endure ideas reflected in videos like this:
Yeah, right… Whatev! ¯_(ツ)_/¯
This problem is taken a step further by the insertion of the word “sic” after examples of student writing to indicate everything that’s wrong with the supposedly unwashed, uneducated masses—and not in a way that merely implies the specificity of the words belonging to them. Originally meant to designate the “thus” in sic erat scriptum of the Latin phrase “thus was it written,” the insertion of “[sic]” is meant to indicate a verbatim transcription of a person’s wording, but is also used as a means of ridicule, designed to call attention to other people’s errors in writing and derisively draw a distinction between “us” and “them”—in reference to the class of college professors as opposed to the classrooms of students with whom we’re charged with sharing our love of learning. To my mind, the only real writing and composition classroom mistakes that occur have to do with the presumption of teacher superiority and the notions that scholarly betterment is a one-way street, and the knowledgeable transfer of becoming well-versed in the arts of rhetoric and poetic language moves in a single direction.
Nasty Nas said it best 20 years ago; it ain’t hard to tell. Young folks can and do know how to tell their own stories. They prove it every day, in fact, on their devices and with their thumbs. And they’re thinking too. Faculty ought to be meeting students where they are in order to help get where they need to go. It’s the professor’s job to go there with our students and let them show us how they’re writing—more vibrantly and colorfully than ever before.
One of my goals is to see more regional and public HBCU’s like Fayetteville State University, develop greater openness to the possibility that the teaching of writing, at the very least, is the work of all faculty members, regardless of discipline and across every department. Moreover, I’d like to spread the word that the flourishing of rhetorical agency for students is a dialogical process where professors must listen as much as they lecture. As more people begin realizing that African American English (AAE) is a legitimate language, they can better understand that writing with AAE in mind is a particular form of communication that deserves expression and not suppression. Fayetteville State is fortunate to have fluid and unabashed speakers of the African American rhetorical tradition through leaders like our current chancellor. It’s affirming for students to see that they too can make it—and without feeling as though they have to play their Blackness to the left. I’d like to see larger segments of the professoriate from outside the gates of HBCU campuses, beyond the field of composition and rhetoric to rethink the conversation about what’s supposedly so [sic] about Black students’ home discourses being applied as an authentic expression of themselves.
After all, wasn’t Charles Chesnutt among the first to articulate a scholarly theory about vernacular forms of AAE’s literary value and cultural rigor, even as he served as a member of theteaching faculty and head of the university during his tenure at Fayetteville State?
This is not to say that all students, regardless of race or color, should not also be required to become more proficient writers and speakers of the Language of Wider Communication (LWC), as well as develop some conversational proficiency and literacy in a foreign language. It’s vital that creative professionals be fluent in all conventions and practices of both “standard” and “nonstandard” forms of at least 2 languages. Linguistic diversity is something to be celebrated without one or the other being placed at the bottom of some false pecking order, ranked according to outmoded 19th century taxonomies. If students are frequently encouraged to think and speak and write in their home dialects as an avenue towards LWC mastery, in all classes, across every major, throughout their matriculation, well into their careers, they’d develop more confidence to cultivate their professional voices and become the types of lifelong learners we endeavor to promote. This will help our students seek out audiences of their peers who are meaningfully engaged with the communicative conventions, which they can help shape within their chosen communities. But this can only happen if more HBCU teachers are willing to see misspellings, not always in terms of orthographical errors, but pedagogical opportunities to explore questions of rhetorical agency. Such morphological leaps are meaningful and teachers themselves miss out on the chance to become more savvy interlocutors because of their own dialectal limitations.
The alter/native rhetoricity of AAE is of material significance. The historical and cultural experiences of Black writing matters and it deserves to be understood and valued, not denigrated and eradicated. To slightly paraphrase and contextually reframe John Edgar Wideman’s appraisals of Chesnutt’s considerable cultural contributions, when professors are insensitive to the materials they assess, they misinterpret student writings on the basis of superficial detail and consistently fail to respond to its deeper meanings. We—the teachers of HBCU students— end up failing Black students and institutions in a great many more ways than we realize.
Student: “WTF are all these red marks on my paper supposed to mean???”
The “happy accidents,” which we too often seek to obliterate through the obsessive correction of errors, only manage to inhibit students’ explorations into phenomenological abstraction. Over-correction places unnecessary prohibitions on students’ abilities to ask new questions and academically traverse uncharted, bleeding-edge territory and begin assuming agency over their written language to produce papers that aren’t [sic], but illmatic.
Alas, I suspect, it’s much easier (and less time-consuming) to grade ever-growing stacks of student essays and research reports with fat, red circles, and line-item edits for every other sentence through the insertion of archaic editor’s proofing marks; thus subsuming the writer’s ideas and Black student identity with a cultural eradicationist’s pen, pointed toward displacing unfamiliar viewpoints with concepts and structures that seem less strange to our traditional print literacy standards—at least to our scholarly eyes, lest they be considered in transgression of “proper English” or deemed in violation of the most egregious of all academic writing sins and get marked… awkward.
We miss so much when we refuse student rhetorical agency or try to fix and fit their thoughts into our boring little Blackboard boxes. I believe many fear what ensues when seemingly disparate things are literally con/fused to ignite tiny rhetorical explosions that give rise to linguistic innovation. These are the sparks of intention that bring forth invention. Expression that is both eloquent and meaningful demands the element of amusement and play. Without them writing is petrified, stagnant, and dies (not unlike the Latin we so enjoy inserting into our own, more scholarly publications and used by us more erudite, professors-types 😉 This is why the rhetoricians and compositionists I respect and pattern myself after teach and embrace diversity in written and spoken language.
As for my own part, I’ll do what I can to keep English Composition alive and ill.