Blogbook -- No Avoiding Race and Racism
It is not hard to argue that the early racial discourses from men like Birnier, Lineaus, Buffon, and Blumenbach were also racist (see entry 6). From their origins, these discourses were hierarchical and placed people in uneven racial categories. That is, from the beginning race was inherently a hierarchical set of categories that came out of European discourses of science and philosophy by folks like Hobbes, Locke, and Bacon. And these thinkers were influenced by Aristotle’s scientific rhetorics of categorization (see entry 5). So the very idea of race as a set of categories which was easily placed into hierarchies of value could be argued is racist.
Today, this leads some to claim that just mentioning, using, or identifying race in any way is racist. We should therefore stop using race altogether as a way to reference people, either as a group or individuals. The idea is that you can stop racism by avoiding the idea of race in language, which doesn’t allow such ideas to circulate in the world. Eventually, race goes away and so does racism. But this argument misses at least two important points about racist discourse as I’ve been discussing it in this blogbook.
The White Europeans who controlled the discourse made it hierarchical for their purposes and benefits and they did so using the logics they knew. But all discourses evolve, and we can urge such language evolution in any direction we wish, if we’re self-conscious about it, if we understand that our language changing is political in nature and outcome, creating power arrangements in groups of people who use that language and others.
This means, I think, that we have to point out race, use it meaningfully and ethically. It’s already here and has shaped our histories and experiences. It’s not an option to ignore it now. It’s in the “DNA” of all institutions and systems. We have an obligation to call attention to the concept’s past assumed hierarchies and refuse such ranking today. Black Englishes are beautiful, just as White Englishes and Brown Englishes are, for instance, yet each kind of beauty need not share the same criteria for beauty, and yet again, there may be many similar beautiful patterns in all Englishes. Beauty need not be understood in hierarchical terms, nor even comparative ones. We don’t have to compare all instances of beauty or language to each other nor to some universal yardstick. Of course, this will take a lot of work, a lot of undoing of the logics and languaging already programmed in us all.
In every way, Bloom's famous taxonomy for learning and thinking is a good example of hierarchies embedded in hierarchical categories that easily lead to White language supremacy. And imagine how this is then used in writing classrooms to judge students' thinking, and grade them. This framework creates racist outcomes in classrooms when used in the ways it seems to beg us to use it. We start students with knowledge activities, then comprehension, then analysis. When students do evaluating, they are graded higher than others that do other thinking in the taxonomy.
In other words: What meaning do we make from only juxtaposition without a framework for understanding the items juxtaposed? White, middle-class, Western, masculine traditions use hierarchy to frame meaning. Order is almost always understood as hierarchy: first, second, third; beginning, middle, end; topic 1, topic 2, topic 3; right to left and top to bottom orientations, etc. How close is “I ain’t gonna do that” or “I’s not doin nothing” to “I’m not going to do that”? Even in the grammar of the question, there is an assumed hierarchy in the comparison. What is the relationship created by a language construction like “how close is X to Y”? One of them is always dominant, higher on a chain of being, and used as the measuring stick. This kind of construction ends up being the grammar of White language supremacy in most classrooms.
The Western, Whitely, masculine frameworks we all inherit as language teachers tend to ignore or downplay other frameworks that create other kinds of meanings and understandings of languaging, such as affective, associative, phenomenological or experiential, and embodied memory frameworks. What’s it feel like to say, “I ain’t doin notin”? What language experiences give meaning to this sentence for you? The grammar of this question is not hierarchical, even as one might juxtapose another instance of languaging with it. For instance: What’s it feel like to say “I ain’t doin notion” and “I am not doing anything”? What language experiences give each question meaning in your past and make you feel the way you do when you say the words?
What complicates this first missed point is the history that makes our mouths and what they issue forth. Our choices for language and its standards have been limited in history up to this point. So race, and much racism, is already being ignored, and the strategy of not talking about race in our languaging has not made either go away. Ignoring race and its historical hierarchical logics keep us from understanding the ways White language supremacy is maintained through so-called neutral standards of English. Ignoring race doesn’t let us see the White racialized singular yardstick against which everything and everyone is judged in all classrooms.
This is why over and over, standardized tests like the SAT or ACT are shown to be racist in their outcomes. Many have shown over the years the way the SAT, like all standardized tests, produces racialized scoring gaps, with Whites and Asians performing better than Blacks, Native Americans, and Latines (note 120). It’s not just the cultural biases in the questions, nor just the ways public schools are funded by property taxes which heavily favor predominantly White middle class suburban areas over more densely populated and rent-heavy, urban areas where more people of color reside, it's in how the test is set up and what it offers students and schools. Lots of structures and forces work in concert to create such racialized scoring gaps.
The second missing point in the don’t-use-race-means-no-more-racism argument is that early racial discourse didn’t have other systems connected to it yet, not fully, such as economic, educational, and political ones, ones that brought other forms of power with them. This is what the SAT and the systems of higher education do today. These other systems are set up hierarchically and are designed to reproduce hierarchies, and race has been historically inserted into these systems’ hierarchies, often in surrogate terms and logics, like SAT scores, GPAs, non-racialized “Standard English” operationalized through rubrics and learning outcomes, as well as grades. All of these surrogates for race make or serve hierarchies. These systems in turn overdetermine flows of racial power in particular directions -- that is, toward White racial formations, even if unevenly. When we avoid seeing, talking about, or identifying race, we let racism continue as the default setting of our systems.
Capitalism too is a critical set of structures that participate in racism and White supremacy. For instance, if you have more money in the bank, you can get a better mortgage, better interest rates, etc. In fact, the less you need that loan, the better your loan conditions will be. Whites have more wealth, generally speaking, than Blacks and Latines, so their mortgages have better terms on average (note 121). This in turn gets them in richer, higher-funded neighborhoods and schools. This is economic power flowing to those who already have it through SOPs in the banking industry, and it creates racial power arrangements and White educational advantage in schools without anyone having to think about race. In fact, I’d argue most of the time, no one is. Grades do this same thing by giving those with A’s more opportunities and status through the awarding of scholarships, honors, and college offers.
Because race has been with us for almost four hundred years, and has been integral in the design of all institutions and disciplines, it becomes part of people’s experience in the world, thus naturalized. It’s verum-certum and verum-factum common sense. This means, we cannot always see things as racial or racist because they are how things have always been, at least to us. White supremacy is our historical and social normal. Racist ideas, language, structures, and outcomes are the air we breathe. We take such things as normal and natural, even preferable, because they are and have always been the way things are. And to most of us, the normal, the way things are, is not presented to us as racist or White supremacist -- well, that is, if you embody enough Whiteness, if you are accepted as Whitely. If you’re Black or Brown, then likely everything has always presented itself as racist.
Write for 15 minutes.
Juxtapose two texts you commonly use as examples in your classroom with students. Maybe they are examples of doing something similar in purpose but do so very differently in form or in some other ways. Maybe one is a White author and the other is a BIPOC author, say George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Anzualdua’s “How to Tame A Wild Tongue.”
How do you frame your reading of these two texts with students? What is the logic that guides your comparisons and the things to pull out and discuss? What are you discussing exactly and what things are important to note in each case? What orientation to language, grammar, words, and other rhetorical features of these texts does one need in your class to make any sense of each text? And what frameworks (logics) are NOT used or not implied in your framing of these two texts? What gets avoided?
The reason for many people’s inability to see racism in everything is simple. After overt racist discourse became wedded to all these societal systems, those overt references to race dropped off. But the systems and their biases remained. This is due in large part to general sentiment that it is unacceptable to mention race after the Nazi gencide of Jews during WWII, and the 1960s civil rights movements and the signing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the U.S., which barred employment discrimation based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and later sexual orientation. It’s the sentiments that come out of this history that likely fuel such arguments as the don’t-use-race-means-no-more-racism argument.
Our common sense gets in the way of seeing the problem with this argument. For instance, the way the Civil Rights Act is often applied in the U.S. takes as a given that overt racial language is the main sign of racism. We don’t reference race, so no more racism. In this view, racism is defined as intention alone, measured only by the presence of words about race. This logic ignores the racist consequences of facially non-racial structures, systems, policies, and institutions, like the SAT, or grading by a single standard in classrooms. It ignores the things around us and in us that don’t mention race but are historically racialized, like language.
Just because race isn’t mentioned, or there is no racist intention, doesn’t mean White supremacy ain’t operating in the system. If the good jobs require that candidates have degrees from accredited colleges and universities, then the racial statistics of college graduates each year tell us that our schooling systems are racist by producing far fewer Black, Native American, and Latine graduates relative to their proportion of the population. And those job requirements are racist by outcome, even as they try to find the best qualified applicants regardless or race. It’s the same kind of problem that those mortgage stats reveal.
Additionally, the schools that Black and Latine students do get degrees or certificates from are less prestigious, for-profit institutions that spend less money per student, and are less resourced. They are poorer funded schools because they usually have shareholders to pay. Profits are not put back into education, but into the pockets of stockholders. Guess who most of those are? Elite Whites. So in White supremacist systems, the education of Black and Latine students is important because it turns out their Black and Brown degrees make White elites money, but it doesn’t offer BIPOC students much, just debt.
The academic degrees that Black and Latine graduates tend to get are also skewed. Black and Latine graduates are less than half as likely to get an education or engineering degree than their White counterparts (note 122). So there are far fewer Black and Latine teachers and engineers than there should be.
These are key jobs that build our world in structural and ideological ways. What could be more important than who teaches our children or who builds society’s spaces of commerce and communion for us all? These are the people who make our experiences of the world by making us and our lived environments. What I’m getting at is that none of these schools, professions, or jobs are looking to exclude Black, Native American, and Latine students or applicants. And yet, that is what happens. So no one is mentioning race. No one is making decisions explicitly with race in mind. And that leads to racist consequences in society.
Ignoring race means we continue living in a racist world. It’s not that the emperor don’t have clothes on. It’s that his clothes are weaved with racist threads, made of the extracted labor, wealth, and bodies of Black and Brown people. His White supremacist clothes are a skin-suit that keeps him warm at the cost of so many BIPOC.
And to his list, we should probably add the redlining practices of banks, Japanese “internment,” and so-called “remedial” English courses. What this removal of problems does, according to Slater, is “decrease, in the mass of the population, the knowledge, skill, resources, and motivation necessary to deal with them” (note 123). And so, to ignore race and racism in our schools and teaching really amounts to eroding our abilities and desire as a community to dismantle White supremacy and racism.
Think about the idea of “good writing” in your classrooms and perhaps in important standardized tests that you may know of, say, the AP language exam. Since the beginning of college tests and entrance writing exams, which began in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the judgements used to evaluate such writing of potential college students have been deeply informed by White, middle- and upper-class Englishes that were influenced by a cannon of British literature. This is not surprising, given who was in charge at the time of making those writing tests and evaluating them.
Let’s put aside the fact that the vast majority of all the professors, test writers, and evaluators of such student writing have been White, middle- and upper-class men, and those White men out of necessity have drawn on their language and dispositions to create standards by which to judge student writing. And they’ve done this without referencing race or class much of the time. That is, their ideas of good writing have been a racialized and classed discourse that ignored its racialized and classed nature. It posed simply as universally “good writing.”
I’m sure this is how “good writing” was presented to you as a student. Good writing is just good writing. It seems outside of or despite any given author or group of language users because we can put it on a piece of paper and divorce that language from the raced, classed, and gendered languageling who issued it. We can find similar languaging made by a wide and diverse range of individuals. But -- and here’s the important part -- you cannot find the same languaging made by different racialized groups of people.
And through our writing tests and standards in schools, we decide what groups will be successful, what groups we care most about, what groups we want to give opportunities to. This has been the way of literacy testing and standards for over 130 years. Much like the early racial discourse, teachers admitted this very fact early on, then stopped. Lester Faigley, in his award-winning book, Fragments of Rationality, discusses this very question, and looks at such tests from the late 1800s to about 1990. Faigley explains the historical tends this way:
The Latin roots of evaluation are ex + valere -- to be “out of” or to “emerge from” value. Each judgement of value is made from some notion of value, usually a notion that is widely shared within a culture . . . The only consistent finding [of what teachers value in writing] has been that the length of essays is associated with judgements of quality. Textbooks, by and large, are of little help because they speak of good writing in general terms such as those Michael Adelstein and Jean Pival use to define good writing: “clear,” “concise,” “effective,” “interesting,” and projecting “the authentic voice of the writer” (6). And guidelines published by English departments -- at least at places where I’ve taught -- are even less specific. An “A” paper is one that “displays unusual competence”; hence an “A” paper is in “A” paper.
The classroom successes of process pedagogy have drawn attention away from how judgments of writing quality reflect larger cultural assumptions about the purposes of literacy education. Such was not the case throughout much of the history of writing instruction in America. Literacy instruction was closely associated with larger cultural goals, and writing teachers were as much or more interested in whom they want their students to be as in what they want their students to write. (note 124)
You should here in Faigley’s argument Althusser’s ideas about the ways we are interpellated as subjects through language (see post 18). Faigley discusses this at length. This is why he says that teachers are interested in “whom they want their students to be.”
The bottom line is that Faigley shows the way writing teachers first wanted a particular kind of student, one like them, White males from more elite backgrounds, usually shown in the kinds of books and authors they draw on in their writing, and the kinds of sentiments they offer in their languaging. These authors and sentiments were unquestionably White, elite, masculine, and Capitalist in orientation. Think of our elaborate systems of “style,” attribution of sources, plagiarism, and the uses of the possessive. These all have Capitalist logics inherent in them, ones White, European settler-colonizers used to rob and kill indigenous peoples, take their lands and resources, all over the world. Literacy teaching and its testing in the U.S. has always been a race and class-based project. Our expectations and ways of judging language have always been a part of racist discourse.
Write for 10 minutes.
Consider the last time you used a racial term to identify something or someone in your classroom. Or consider how you’d feel if you used “White language supremacy” to describe the language standards of your school or classroom to your teacher-colleagues, or to your students.
Was it or would it be difficult to reference race in such discussions? Why? Does race feel inappropriate to reference? Why? Where do your feelings of discomfort come from? Are your feelings the most important thing to protect, hide, or manage in such a discussion? What would happen if you could use such a racialized term to discuss language standards?
Over the twentieth century, however, such references to race and class fall away, but the language expectations remain, only now they are assumed to be neutral because race, class, and other social dimensions are not mentioned, not attached. Think about it. What are the texts most read in your high school, the ones you teach or the ones used as examples? William Shakespeare, George Orwell, William Golding, Harper Lee, J.D. Saliger, John Steinbeck? Are they taught as the White cannon that they are? Are they exposed as the politically dominant racialized group of writers who are the instruments of White language supremacy and Capitalist settler-colonial languaging efforts by schools and governments that they are?
Are the White places where each author grew up and was educated included in the curriculum in order to understand their texts or how those texts got to be so important to so many in the U.S.? Are the texts that have been historically ignored, those by BIPOC authors, read next to this canon in ways that resist hierarchical comparisons -- juxtaposition without implied hierarchies? Are the political forces that make such people like Orwell, Golding, Lee, and Salinger identified and discussed?
Shakespeare’s schooling is not confirmed, but the others are telling of our tacit commitments to White language supremacy. Orwell graduated from Eton College, Golding, Oxford, Lee, a segregated University of Alabama, Salinger attended Columbia, and Steinbeck, Stanford. Why must all of our students, regardless of where they are from or who has given them the gifts of words, regardless of what they hope to do and be in the world, mimic these elite White authors?
Paying attention to the ways race structures our lives, ideas, and languages is vital to what an antiracist teacher is and does because if we ignore race, we’ll miss the ways racist discourse is in and around us. We’ll miss the way White language supremacy has made our tongues, made the frameworks we use to read all languaging, grammared us into White supremacist languagelings against our wills. Not using race will not make it all go away. It allows it to stick around. And we become the language-emperor in our classrooms, wearing White language supremacist robes, colonizing the mouths, minds, and bodies of our students.
This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.