Blogbook -- Language Engagements in Communities

Entry 42

Too often in our lives, we don’t encounter arguments in the meaningful and ethical ways that schools, colleges, and academic disciplines often understand or assume them to be, nor do we encounter finding common ground, forming agreement, or making ethical decisions collaboratively. We don’t usually find people engaging in any of the habits I listed at the end of the last blogbook post 41. What we get are unproductive shouting matches on CNN or Fox News, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or Facebook. People often just shout their claims at each other with little interest in engaging with anyone else’s evidence or reasoning, little interest in protecting those with whom they are engaging, and little interest in investigating their own biases or the ways their words do harm in the world. 

Let me give you a simple example of what I mean. About 2 or 3 times a year, I get hate emails and tweets directed at me. Usually, they come after right-wing or conservative news media have posted a summary of a talk I’ve recently done or an opinion piece on one of my books. The emails are always the same. There is a flurry of them, usually in the hundreds over a few days. For instance, on Nov 9, I received 48 of these hate emails – this is just one of several days of emails. Like all the others, the writers of these emails berated me, called me names, often racist ones, and told me how horrible I was for leading college students down the path of destruction toward failure and doom. 

Now, like on all the other occasions, I did not reply to any of these emails on Nov 9, and I did not receive any second emails from any of these people, asking me why I’ve not engaged in the conversation they initiated with their first email. I’ve never replied to any of the hate emails, and I’ve never received any such second emails from previous emailers. Why? Because none of these people are operating from an assumption of having a real exchange between two listeners who try to understand the other’s point of view, who try to communicate and connect, to help and heal each other. Their habits of language are shaped in languaging conditions that assume the loudest, most frequent, and snappiest retort wins, and their conditions have told them that all such languaging exchanges are battles to be won, not encounters that foster connection and healing. And in those emails, the only gauge I can figure that tells them they have won the exchange is how they feel in that fleeting moment when they hit “send.” This situation saddens me, breaks my heart really. And it ain’t that different from what conventional singular outcomes and standards for language imply. 

As I see it now, the shouters in our midst today don’t have much interest in knowing a subject or problem from paradoxical positions. They are not interested in communion or connection, or cultivating our relations among each other. If they were, they would ask more questions, read more, listen to others more. Some may argue that all the shouting isn’t this simple. It’s also a result of some who know better or more than others. It’s the only way to let people know the facts in a way they will hear them. 

But “facts” do not demand a position to hold. Agendas, claims, and theses do. Hierarchical logics, like those we find in our grading practices and in our standards for “argumentation,” do. When we understand what “facts” really are, that they are products of a particular regime of power, we will understand the futility in holding too tightly to our own application of them. We will understand that we rarely get to have our own way, that life is always going to be a struggle, and that paradox always lies all around us. And this can be a beautifully frustrating thing. 

And so, from my view, what I see and hear are mostly people thinking they know what’s good for everyone, but only on their terms, not considering seriously and compassionately others’ positions or the consequences of their languaging. This kind of arguing rehearses several of the habits of white language (HOWL from post 28) that all teachers are usually trained to take on. This mode of languaging also can participate in another set of whitely assumptions that claim to know what’s good for others, to be the authority, and to make decisions for others in paternalistic fashion (note 298). 

Marilyn Frye, drawing on another white feminist, Minnie Bruce Pratt, explains this paternalistic orientation as a set of “whitely ways.” Also drawing on a number of BIPOC scholars like bell hooks, Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, and John Langston Gwaltney, Frye’s passage describing these whitely ways is worth reading: 

She [Minnie Bruce Pratt] said she had been taught to be a judge–a judge of responsibility and of punishment, according to an ethical system which countenances no rival; she had been taught to be a preacher–to point out wrongs and tell others what to do; she had been taught to be a martyr–to take all responsibility and all glory; she had been taught to be a peacemaker–because she could see all sides and see how it all ought to be. I too was taught something like this, growing up in a small town south of the Mason-Dixon line, in a self-consciously christian and white family. I learned that I, and “we,” knew right from wrong and had the responsibility to see to it right was done; that there were others who did not know what is right and wrong and should be advised, instructed, helped and directed by us. I was taught that because one knows what is right, it is morally appropriate to have and exercise what I now would call race privilege and class privilege. Not “might is right,” but “right is might,” as Carolyn Shafer put the point. In any matter in which we did not know what is right, through youth or inexpertise of some sort, we would await the judgment or instruction of another (white) person who does. (note 299)

It sounds a lot like how teachers behave, doesn’t it? In fact, I’d say the above could be how many justify the language standards they inflict on their students. They might say that teachers know what is better for their students, so they have a responsibility to teach them the right kind of languaging, no matter the cost. I’m not suggesting that we don’t know a lot of things worth our students’ time and efforts. I’m saying it isn’t as simple as who knows what. I’m saying our responsibilities should not be paternalistic and authoritarian but communal and collaborative in nature. 

In such arguing in the world, the goal too often is not to make a good, ethical decision in good and ethical ways with others who see and experience the world differently in the same places. The goal is rarely to help our students language on their terms, or to learn about the gifts they have to offer among others with gifts to give. The goal is never to open up, to make bigger, all languaging in the world, which in turn makes our world and ourselves bigger. The whitely paternalistic-teacher-shouters' goals are to win, to get everyone to think and see things in the same ways they do because they think they know what’s best for everyone. 

While most writing teachers would acknowledge that truth is not singular, that everyone’s experiences in the world are important, we still act, judge, and grade from a position of knowing the Truth (capital “T”). We say the goal is to help our students win opportunities and future rewards, but we mean win on our terms. We neglect the conditions that make those terms inherently unfair and harmful to many students of color and working class students, to women, to neurodivergent students. The conditions I’m speaking of are the racist conditions that create our standards and practices of judging and grading. It is the CMP (colonial matrix of power, see post 41). We teachers are often shouters too. We just don’t see ourselves as wrong, so we justify our brand of shouting. But as I see things, successful argumentation is mostly about listening to others deeply (note 300), not proving your side or humiliating your opponent, or making them language in one way only. 

I return to Walter Mignolo’s ideas about the CMP and the way that a universal knowledge is central to its function and reproduction. Keep in mind that the CMP is our racist, white supremacist conditions. Mignolo explains that the CMP functions from a universal knowledge, or rather one that operates as if it were universal, and is “the invisible side of modernity.” It is the “coloniality of knowledge.” He goes on: 

Coloniality of knowledge here means schooling and training from elementary to higher education as well as the mainstream media that propagates and consolidates it, and, therefore, consolidates the working of the CMP in all the domains of the enunciated (from politics to economy, from racism to sexism, from aesthetics to the hard sciences, from the social sciences to the humanities, and then all the way down to the wide populations consuming news and information) as well and mainly of the enunciation. (note 301)

Key to understanding this passage is how Mignolo uses the terms “enunciated” and “enunciation.” The enunciated are domains of control, regulatory power, and authority. They are “the content of the conversation.” Teachers and our standards and curricula are part of the enunciated. 

The enunciation is the “broader level . . . of knowledge in the deep sense of the word. It is composed of actors, languages, and institutions” (note 302). Our disciplines, journals, schools, and other organizations make up this enunciation. So the CMP is centrally about generating a universalized knowledge that controls conditions, and therefore people, their actions, and even their ways of understanding the world and language. The CMP is another way to call our conditions white language supremacy, and identify the location, actors, and methods of its maintenance in a white, Western, European modern/colonial/decolonial history. Therefore our standards and outcomes of language in classrooms are the enunciated and become dialectically a part of the enunciation that forms white language supremacy as institutionalized and naturalized.

I think the CCSS and the CWPA OS offer much value. Remember: We live in paradox. We do need more gathering of evidence, more reasonable consideration of ideas, more thinking about texts as texts, and more consideration of data. I don’t know if we need to or can always “get to the bottom of things.” That feels like a paternalistic and authoritarian impulse. Life and language ain’t never been as clean and neat as our standards and outcomes make them out to be. We can’t expect logos alone to solve our problems, can we? Has logos ever worked by itself, except in our dreams and stories? 

Maybe we need a new term to help us teach and learn languaging. Maybe instead of language standards or outcomes, we think of our goal in language and literacy classrooms as one that centers on helping students through language engagements in community. That is, maybe we could teach engaging language as structural practices among people we are trying to work alongside and help reciprocally in a particular place. Maybe our goals are to cultivate languaging practices that are understood as in us, outside of us, and around us. These language engagements can take on an antiracist orientation by attending to more than words, evidence, and claims, attending to our various conditions and subject positions, our differences in our languaging, as well as our inter-being, shared humanity, and shared soil.

I think this kind of learning outcome would allow for languaging that nourishes and heals all of us, while paying closest attention to those currently harmed most in language systems that are designed to harm them, or perhaps more accurately, not designed to not harm them. The difference is in the default settings of the system. The latter assumes the system is defaulted toward harming some so that others may prosper. That’s Capitalism, and colonialism, and patriarchy, and heteronormativism, white language supremacy, and all language education to this point. It's the default setting for the CMP.

Articulating and using language engagements in community as the primary goal for a writing classroom instead of learning outcomes or standards only sounds crazy and hoaky because the idea is so different from what we’ve come to expect in our classrooms, schools, and society. It’s so different from the universal “truth” of standards as our educational saving grace, which the CMP has presented to us everywhere. But we can redefine what it means to engage in languaging, and what a “learning outcome” should reference, and even how we use them. Learning outcomes that are antiracist and anti-white supremacist should be about what students situated in community do together for everyone and their places, not what individuals should achieve alone. And they certainly should reproduce racist heirarchies.  

Outcomes of languaging ain’t about what we can get individually. They are about what we give and share and open up around us. Like our languaging and world, I think our outcomes in classrooms should be emergent, always in the act of becoming. And so, standards and outcomes can’t – or shouldn’t – rank students. They should open up learning. And such anti-white supremacist standards should come from those they attempt to help, not from a far away place and group, or an expert, and certainly not from an authority. They should come from all these places and people, while also resisting them all. That is antiracist and decolonial work.  

To language in these ways together means that we might be inquiring and practicing a number of habits of language that I’ve already mentioned (see post 22). These habits of language are, I  believe, in contrast to HOWL. They do not call forth a universalized way of embodying them, nor a hyperindividualism, nor a singular, neutral, or objective way to see, hear, or experience the world. They do not deny those dominant ways with English, nor do they deny the Englishes that compete with that dominant English, but they do deny the need for the dominance. They deny the need for a CMP, while acknowledging that its dominance makes our current white language supremacist conditions, acknowledging that we are not going to escape the CMP by only languaging differently. And paradoxically, these habits work from the assumption of hope for a more just and equitable future.

So language engagements and engaging languaging in classrooms might be characterized by these classroom imperatives, which draw on the habits I offered in post 41 and 22

  • Attend to and listen deeply and humbly to others first. Languaging in a community in sustainable and meaningful ways is equal parts listening and speaking, taking in and giving to others, receiving and gifting, but the open behavior of listening is always first. 
  • Cultivate goals for exchange that center on doing no harm, acting compassionately toward others, gift-giving, and protecting everyone involved, which includes the land, water, and air that affords us our engagements. Languaging is not a fight to win. It’s a dance of reciprocity we do together in our places. We need each other and our places healthy and engaged because we and our environments are all interconnected. All of what makes each of us is needed by all of us. 
  • Humbly look for shared ideas, values, goals, and ways to compromise ethically, as we embody our differences in our places of engagement. While we are different in important ways, we have commonalities too. How can we sit in this place with both aspects of languaging equally? How do we allow for the paradoxes that are created by our differences next to our sameness? How does this place help construct our differences and similarities? 
  • Be mindful of context and historical conditions. Inquire about where everyone is coming from (their material conditions and histories), and their politics or social positionings. If these things are not clear, make a habit of inviting others to share their politics and positionings as vital ways for understanding them and their languaging. How do you come to this engagement? Since we live in white supremacist systems, seeing each other as differently situated in such systems, while being products of those systems, is important in understanding in compassionate ways and languaging for and with each other.  
  • Always interrogate the consequences of all languaging, knowing that any instance of languaging will have different consequences for different people, in order to do no harm and work toward protecting everyone and our mutual places of engagement. If we care about the well-being of each other and the lands around us equally, then we must care about how unequal the consequences of our languaging may be, asking who benefits most and who is harmed more? Who among us has borne more of the burdens of our languaging consequences than others? And the “who” also references soil, land, air, water, trees, animals, all life.
  • Language sustainably. Do language as if everyone’s words feed and nourish you and those around you and the soil you walk upon and the air you breathe and the water you drink because they do. By the same token, our words can also be poisonous, with uneven toxic effects on different people.
  • Bravely sit with paradox. Life only gives us this. Resist the impulse to erase or ignore paradox and contradictions, as if they are bad. Embrace inquisitively the flux and uncertainty and change and difference that are the main constituents of life, languaging, and all decision-making. Paradox means you are in the presence of divine diversity, of life in its robustness. 

Imagine reading someone and their text or writing from these languaging imperatives in a classroom. What would that engagement of languaging – the exchange – look, sound, or feel like? What would we learn? How might such imperatives become the organic languaging outcomes of a classroom? How might they also help us engage humanely, compassionately, sustainably, and ethically? How might we word our way toward loving others, the soil, the air, and water that we all take for granted? 

If we conceive of our languaging mainly as a binary, a fight against others, as a situation where the goal is to win or determine a winner by focusing only on logos with little regard for the politics that make such discussions possible and unequal, then we will continue to get the kind of shouting matches we see all around us. Our classroom’s learning outcomes will always be framed as individualized combat in a rigged racist battlefield. We’ll get people unable -- that is, people without the abilities -- to listen to others’ words carefully and compassionately; unable to compromise on important things, unable to deeply attend to others even as they disagree; unable to see, hear, and feel equally their differences and similarities; unable to give and receive humble language-gifts that can nourish us all; and unable to sit in the company of paradox upon the nourishing soil that affords all of us our language engagements.

I could go through all of the standards in the CCSS. I’m sure you could see the critiques I’d make. Those should be clear by now. What should also be clear is that there is nothing special about CCSS or the CWPA OS, or how either is written. They are written like all learning outcomes and standards are written. They are written from the enunciation that fuels the CMP. They act in schools and classrooms as the enunciated. They create white language supremacy not because they are inherently bad or evil, but because of how they are grown and situated in our classrooms as the truth, the way, the standard, which then creates hierarchies in students, and those hierarchies do what all have done historically, harm and oppress people of color, the poor, the minoritized, and those from the global south. 

If all this is true, what do we do? What do we do in our classrooms to guide our teaching and our students’ learning? How do we language our way forward? 

The short answer is that it all depends on who is in the classroom, what their lives afford them, what your conditions afford you as a teacher, how you are embodied as a teacher, and what your background and training has been – that is, it depends on your orientation. It also depends on where that classroom sits in our world. Too often our academic training and languaging is like a religion. Most of us inherit our practices and orientations from our elders or past teachers and mentors without questioning any of it, thinking it worked for me, without seriously considering just how different our students are from us. 

As I see it, my antiracist orientation and pedagogy, like yours, is but one among many. Ultimately, I think this means that we must do our own antiracist outcome work with our students, perhaps slyly or with some compromises. An antiracist orientation to classroom outcomes considers carefully our students in front of us, meaning we attend to them, listen to them, invite them to help us build such outcomes together. It also means they help us. We, the agents of the CMP, need the help, often more than our students, if we wish to reorient ourselves, if we want to understand the ways we participate in the CMP, in white language supremacy. Together we might cultivate antiracist classroom ecologies that explicitly work to not harm anyone in the room. We work to promote and cultivate rich language engagements that resist and delink the logics of hierarchy and HOWL.


This blog 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 to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.