C.17: Racism and White Privilege in the Writing Classroom: Tactics, Risks, Rewards

Reviewed by Anjali Pattanayak, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, WI (pattanayka@uwplatt.edu)

Chair: Scott Gage, Colorado State University-Pueblo, CO

Speakers: Scott Gage, Colorado State University-Pueblo, CO, "The Archive, the Image, the Memory: Challenging White Supremacist Memories of Lynching in the Writing Classroom"

Earl Brooks, Pennsylvania State University, PA, "Revisiting Race in the Composition Classroom: Reflections on the Trayvon Martin Case"

David Green, Howard University, Washington, DC, "Risk, Race, and Memory in the Composition Classroom"

Respondent: Ersula Ore, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ

Ersula Ore set the tone for this workshop by analyzing four major journals in our field in terms of the diversity of contributors and highlighting previous research on the invisible power of whiteness. Pointing to how ideas of literacy are built upon white notions of literacy, she noted that by not considering race in conversations of literacy we are ignoring the ways in which race informs rhetoric and the writing classroom. She highlighted the importance of pedagogies that decentralize racism and racist rhetoric by blending rhetoric and race.

Scott Gage explored the idea of addressing race and rhetoric in the classroom by discussing a project in his senior seminar class, English 493, that asked students to subvert images of lynching to memorialize and value the victim, a project that he described as "inviting student participation in the politics of lynching's public remembrance." In pictures of lynching, the victims are shown to be objects that are subject to the gaze of the white spectators. The images developed by his students emphasize the "wounding lynching has on the community" and, instead of showing the victim, focus on mourning. Gage showed student samples of remixed images, which included images showing the shadow of a person bowed in mourning in front of a tree that had once held a victim, and that now only held a noose and hat. This project was not only about creating public remembrance, but also about questioning the static nature of the images as part of history by reimagining them as something in need of continued attention in the present.

Earl Brooks likewise stressed the need to examine rhetoric surrounding black victimhood in the classroom in his presentation about a project in which students examined the textual rhetorical moves made in the Trayvon Martin legal case. Drawing on critical race theory to examine how race and racism influenced the rhetoric used in documents surrounding the Martin case, Brooks fostered a critical literacy by asking students to challenge what they were reading, spending time unpacking "who was the action victim in the Martin case," discussing the one million hoodie march, and profiling based on wearing a hoodie. Students also analyzed how Martin's parents used rhetoric to humanize their son while others used rhetoric in the opposite way. They also were asked to explore the way that the race of the defendant and the victim shaped the way that the case was tried. Through a critical analysis of how victimhood was either reinforced or called into question, students examined the impact of rhetoric on the way that issues are framed in the public consciousness. This class provided students with a toolbox of terms for discussing multiculturalism and diversity in rhetoric, and with strategies for analyzing the intentions of the writer, the context, and the relationship between writer and audience by asking them to examine the role that race played in other forms of media. It also encouraged students to grapple with controversial topics in meaningful ways.

David Green drove home the importance of considering race in the classroom through his analysis of how the slippage between testifying and storytelling influenced the trial of the Central Park Five. He specifically focused on the documentary about the five men who, after four out of the five implicated each other, were wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in 1989. It wasn't until 2002 that the convictions were vacated. In his presentation, Green examined the "communication breakdown that lead to four admissions of guilt" by examining the interrogation in which police ask suspects to "tell a story" to the African American oral tradition of testifying and verbal witnessing. He connected testifying with the idea of "storying," which involves constructing a fictive narrative and the contextual nature of memory. In this instance racialized understandings of rhetoric had a tremendous impact on the lives of four men who found themselves confessing to, and being convicted of, a crime that they did not commit. He argued that memory can become racialized, and that personal memories (and therefore narratives) can shift, and that we lose "pathos" in "legal language." We need instruction that better serves underrepresented minorities, particularly given how current literacy practices result in these students having disproportionately lower attendance at and matriculation from higher education institutions. Noting that racism is both "enacted and overlooked," Green argued for using the African American oral tradition of testifying to better understand rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric.

The argument made by these speakers, that race can and should be addressed in the writing classroom, has been made even more compelling by recent events that have reinforced the need to state the obvious: #BlackLivesMatter. Race, and the rhetoric surrounding race, sorely need greater attention, and this panel made great strides in engaging more composition scholars in the conversation. Composition, as a site where attention is focused on the relationship between rhetoric and the construction and representation of identity, is uniquely positioned to prepare students to understand how culture, institutions, and historical representations influence rhetoric and how rhetoric, in turn, shapes perceptions.

Anis Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff (2010), describing the theoretical framework of rhetorical genre studies, wrote that:

genres are understood as forms of cultural knowledge that conceptually frame and mediate how we understand and typically act within various situations. This view recognizes genres as both organizing and generating kinds of texts and social actions, in complex, dynamic relation to one another... connected to social purposes and to ways of being and knowing in relationship to these purposes. (p. 4)


Given our culturally and socially situated understanding of how writing works, composition studies is uniquely positioned in the university to engage students in critical discourse of how rhetoric influences perceptions and is ultimately dialectically connected to culture. Given recent events, it may even be argued that it is our responsibility to teach students to become more aware of the relationship between rhetoric and culture, rhetor and audience, and the very real consequences that representation has in our society. I hope that there are more panels in the future that encourage a critical eye towards writing and social justice as it relates to race, and, given the standing room only crowd for this panel, it is clear that I am not alone in that desire.


Bawarshi, Anis S., & Reiff, Mary Jo. (2010). Genre: An introduction to history, theory, research, and pedagogy. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press & The WAC Clearinghouse.

Created by ccccreviews. Last Modification: Thursday December 31, 2015 21:13:36 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.