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Addressing the Elephant in the Composition Classroom: Let’s Talk About Race

By Asma Sofan | Inquiry Essay

 The first text I thoroughly analyzed in my Academic Writing course at the University of Maryland was “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” a rhetorical essay by Gloria Anzaldúa in which she demands her Chicana identity be recognized and appoints cultural influence as a primary driver to organized social hierarchy. I was pleasantly surprised by the introduction of Anzaldúa’s bold writing in my English Composition course, as I did not expect such a defiant text to be featured or even praised in a higher education setting. I had assumed that the curriculum would predominantly highlight White European American (WEA) writing and merely skim nontraditional texts in an attempt to convey inclusivity.  Following the assignment of Anzaldúa’s essay, the course featured additional texts that challenged WEA norms and investigated language’s impact on self-identification. However, despite the instructor’s and featured authors’ attempts to incite conversations about linguistic diversity, I noticed that students, including myself, either resisted connecting the texts’ topics to current national perspectives or shied away from tying the topics to personal experiences. 

I found it ironic that my classmates all hesitated to commit to the outspokenness the texts encouraged. Could it have been that some students believed such writings were not meant for thorough analysis in a Composition class? Or that those students did not want to label themselves out of the majority by identifying with what they could have assumed were marginal writings in the curriculum? Regardless of the reasoning behind the students’ unwillingness to participate in such conversations, a lack of previous, active discussions about race, language, and culture’s influence on identity still inhibited the meaningful learning experience intended for multicultural literature. Minimizing race and culture’s effect on students’ linguistic abilities often proves to be the primary delaying factor in Composition courses’ progression towards cohesive student engagement. As student writing advances in college levels, students’ ownership of their identity begins to compete with their academic pursuits. This collective growth of seemingly separate sides to a students’ experience in all likelihood must complement one another if significant progress is to be made. So, is critically reading texts written by multicultural authors and addressing diverse rhetorical styles not enough to engage students in conversation? Does cultural reticence to candidly discuss matters of racism, injustice, and their attendant tensions run deeper than instructors are prepared to deal with? This begs the question, then, what is the best pedagogical approach to discussing race in Composition classrooms to ensure that all students feel engaged and welcome to openly share their views?

Developing an approach to activating racial literacy among students in a Composition class might first require the examinations of expectations implied by the classroom environment. In one of Pimentel et al.’s case studies, a faculty member, Victoria, aimed to emphasize her embrace of her students’ freedom of expression by assigning daily discussion prompts when calling for attendance. In her reflection, she investigates a particular day early in the semester in which she prompted her students to discuss their favorite childhood television series. One of her few non-WEA students, Francisco, was hesitant to share his favorite Spanish series from his Mexican American background with his predominantly WEA peers. Victoria later reflects that Francisco’s tentativeness could have been caused by a discomfort stemming from his not participating in the previous discussion of popular English series and his wondering if his lack of participation facilitated the discussion’s success. To rectify Francisco’s belief that he does not belong in the class’s environment, Victoria pushed him to explicitly share his memory in an attempt to improve his confidence (Pimentel, et al. 113-115). Ultimately, acting upon the instructor’s overt request, Francisco decided to participate aloud. Although Victoria’s direct approach’s main objective was to improve her student’s confidence, I wonder if her request for Francisco to share his multicultural perspective might have further distinguished his background from his peers’. Could there have been a less intrusive approach which Victoria could have used to allow students to feel assured in their backgrounds and linguistic feedback? 

Most Composition instructors agree that multicultural literature introduces unique inroads to society’s perception of race and invites students of all backgrounds to engage in topics they might not otherwise encounter. However, some point out that such texts can be ineffective if inexpertly delivered to students. Thomas et al. criticize a particular approach to diversity pedagogy they term the “Group-based,” or “Diversity-Oriented Approach,” which groups all individuals of non-majority backgrounds into single entities and further creates an ‘Us vs. Them’ social phenomenon. Thomas et al. claim the approach “often fails in promoting student acknowledgment that individuals exist at the intersections of identities or diversities” (303). If non-White literature is inaccurately introduced in Composition courses solely to convey non-WEA inclusivity, it might undermine the core values that the writings represent, which strive to promote the nuances of culture and its unique impact on linguistic diversity.

A pedagogical example of Thomas et al. 's criticism of a potentially counterproductive multicultural pedagogy is conveyed in Klotz and Whithaus’ writing course that featured Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (73). The instructors’ students believed Tatum’s book to be misleading in race’s nuanced influence on identity, and found it to be restricting to a binary perspective of racism, in which individuals are either heavily influenced by race’s expectations, or not at all. Klotz and Whithaus were surprised by students’ opposition to the text, as they had expected Tatum’s discussion on race to gain the students’ wide approval, as it did in writing courses conducted in other institutions. It perplexed Klotz and Whithaus further when students deemed Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera to be a preferable text to Tatum’s because of its “Tolerance for Ambiguity,” as in its comprehensive understanding of the different social elements that shape one’s experiences (73-74). The students’ collaborative opposition to Tatum’s text resulted in an alteration to the course curriculum and its replacement with Anzaldúa’s essay. This deepened Klotz and Whithaus’s understanding that, although both texts aim to address racial and cultural diversity, their audience’s approval varies depending on the environment in which they are introduced. Due to the complexity and subjectivity of race and how it engages different groups differently, there might never be a definite method of engendering racial literacy that applies to all educational settings. Although a definite method might not suit all student groups, what can be learned from past examples is that minority-focused personal experiences and multicultural texts alone are insufficient in tackling racial discussions, and an innovative approach should be implemented if progress is desired. 

Most researchers believe that successful racial literacy substantially relies on the unmasking of white privilege. In her study, Sealey-Ruiz describes her approach to sparking racial literacy in her course by assigning a Frontline documentary clip, “A Class Divided”, featuring scripted racism inflicted on WEA third grade students by their teacher based on the color of their eyes (Sealey-Ruiz 390, Elliot). Prior to the assignment, some of Sealey-Ruiz’s WEA students were not engaged in racial discussions and found them redundant. However, after watching the documentary, they began to realize race’s significance in society. One student reflected, “The film really hit me hard. I felt sorry for the little White kids because they look like me…. I’m kinda ashamed, because it’s like I’m admitting that the only reason I am starting to understand racism and take interest is because I see how it can affect someone that looks like me” (391). According to multiple research studies, Sealey-Ruiz’s student is not alone in feeling initially indifferent to discussions of antiracism because of the minor impacts of racism on the student’s background, as various studies have shown that other WEA students convey the same mindset. Taking that information into consideration, one begins to question if the disregard of race can ever be a positive method to embrace diversity within an educational setting. Had Sealey-Ruiz not exposed her students to challenging perspectives, her students would not have fully understood the motives within diverse literature to spread racial awareness. This same approach is best involved in Composition course curriculums for its toning of racial literacy, which then fuels successful linguistic creativity.

As neglecting race in discussion prevents the overall understanding within student groups, the failure of addressing the magnitude of its influence on general perspectives can further divide individuals. In a reflection similar to that of Klotz and Whithaus’s students’ disapproval of Tatum’s writing, Fishman faced rejection towards his own assignment of multicultural readings. However, instead of a collective group of students backing one another to change the status quo, Fishman only recorded encountering resistance from Ellen, one of the few African American students in his course, in response to what she claimed was a misrepresentation of the black community in one of the readings. Her objection to the reading’s assumptions was faced with her classmates’ quick dismissal and rejection of her views, which ensued in arguments in many discussions (351-353). It became apparent early in the course that merely opening racial discussions without strategic direction can lead to growing tensions between both student-student and instructor-student relationships. In Fishman’s reflection on the tension-filled discussions in his class, he notes that he could have addressed his privileged background to acknowledge Ellen’s concerns. Would his discussions have performed better had he acknowledged Ellen and his own experiences’ vast differences? Or, perhaps, prior to prompting any discussions bound to fixed analyses proposed by such readings, could his judgement on his student’s perspectives be better informed had he openly addressed his students’ racial diversity and how that could have impacted their experiences?

One obstacle that often prevents the ideal understanding of racial literacy in classrooms is the Colorblind Effect, which supports that prosperity is achieved almost completely by merit, without any hindrance such as race and social class. Although such a practice sounds theoretically ideal, it is often tied to the act of denying the fact that race’s influence on one’s experience can limit an individual’s potential. Pimentel et al. claim that “Rather, a colorblind perspective usually translates into classroom practices that build upon and bestow neutral WEA students’ cultural, linguistic, and racial knowledge” (109). Although conducted with positive intentions to combat racism, the Colorblind Effect only diverges society’s focus from the crucial struggles faced by minority groups. This can potentially reduce one’s confidence in finding a satisfactory method of discussing race in classrooms, as precedent solutions have almost always faced significant criticism.

Many solutions have been proposed to resolve the complex issue of activating racial literacy in the classroom, yet none have been perfectly fit for all educational settings. Debates still arise as to how to deconstruct and rework the approach to implement thoughtful racial discussions; however, there remain evident uncertainties on which, if any, innovative methods will surface in the near future. What is important to recognize is that racial literacy is dependent on effective and transparent student contribution to racial discussions, as well as instructors’ deliverance and direction of such discussions. How those two factors are set to work together is often determined by varying factors in each settings’ demographics, social class, etc. Multiple pedagogical alterations must be put in trial to construct the right approach to teaching racial literacy in the Composition classroom, and it is in the hands of both students and faculty to research the appropriate measures each community can adopt. 

Works Cited

Elliott, Jane, et al., directors. A Class Divided. Yale University Films, 2003.

Fishman, Stephen, and Lucille McCarthy. “Talk About Race: When Student Stories and Multicultural Curricula Are Not Enough.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 8, no. 4, 2005, pp. 347–364.

Klotz, Sarah, and Carl Whithaus. “Gloria Anzaldúa's Rhetoric of Ambiguity and Antiracist Teaching.” Composition Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2015, pp. 72–91.

Pimentel, Octavio, et al. "The Myth of the Colorblind Writing Classroom: White Instructors Confront White Privilege in Their Classrooms." Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication, edited by Frankie Condon and Vershawn Ashanti Young, Across the Disciplines Books, 2017, pp. 109-122.

Sealey-Ruiz, Yolanda. “Building Racial Literacy in First-Year Composition.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 40, no. 4, 2013, pp. 384–398.

Thomas, Kecia M., et al. “An Inclusive Strategy of Teaching Diversity.” Advances in Developing Human Resources, vol. 12, no. 3, 2010, pp. 295-311.