Blogbook -- Antiracism Ain't Easy

Entry 20

It may seem like we’ve been talking about antiracism this whole time. And in a way, we have. But let’s be clear about what exactly I’m offering in this blogbook, which can seem hard to discern if your assumption is that this blogbook is a “how to” guide to antiracist teaching. In one sense, it is, but not conventionally so. Antiracism ain't easy. 

Antiracism is not really a particular pedagogy or a set of practices. We might identify a pedagogy or practice as antiracist in a classroom by some outcome it produces, but because racism and White supremacy are so much a part of everything -- they are a discourse made of both our material conditions and the ways we talk about our conditions -- it’s easy for a pedagogy or practice to be co-opted by the hegemonic structures around us. As Gramsci explains, this is how hegemony works. It constantly changes, adapts, and co-opts the forces and agents that work against it. Why fight your enemy head on, when you can incorporate them into your army, and make them fight for you? 

Take Rap music, which was first generated in the Bronx (New York) in the early- to mid-1970s by Black youth. The musical style and technology of isolating beats and hooks, extending them, and talking over them likely came from Jamaican musical traditions, which can be seen in early innovative DJs like DJ Kool Herc (see image) and Grandmaster Flash. Rap reflected in numerous ways the multicultural Black and Latine, poor, urban experiences in the Bronx of the time. It expressed joy, frustration, pride, and the living conditions in the Bronx, and did so by using what was available to people there, that is, turntables and block parties. 

By the mid-1980s, it was a multimillion dollar corporate business, and by the 1990s, a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Today, the music, once shunned or ignored by music critics, now is given awards and honors. It makes money for White corporate elites. It feeds much of the dominant White entertainment industry, and one could argue does very little for urban Black youth in the Bronx or Oakland or Detroit. 

Is Rap still a genre that reflects the experiences of urban Black youth? Is it still a potent superstructural practice forming the base of artists’ and listeners’ lives? Is it antiracist music? Does it free anyone anymore? Did it ever? Does it critique dominant culture, or speak to the Black cultures in the U.S. today? The answers to these questions are likely yes and no. The reason for the ambiguity is that Rap has been co-opted by the music industry, a thoroughly Capitalist White supremacist system. Rap music produced today is now a part of that industry. And it's likely that this was inevitable. 

My point is that Rap has been and can be liberatory for Black and other artists and listeners, but it can also be racist, White supremacist, misogynistic, and Capitalistic. It’s often all these things at once. The answer is in how the music is made; where, how, and under what conditions it circulates; as much as what the music says about the conditions of those who make and listen to it. The answer is also in how the music frees, or liberates, how it reveals the oppressions of people created by our present systems. That is, what are the outcomes of any given song, album, or artist? How does the music build more preferable systemically-constructed consciousness or critical consciousness, alienation or something else? (note 125

Does Rap music just trick people into buying into illusory dreams of better tomorrows by buying into corporate Capitalism and its placebo-commodities that appear to offer happiness and satisfaction because those buyable things have been presented to us all as desirable, as ways to soothe and calm, to make one happy in thoroughly unhappy systems? Does rap music offer a kind of jouissance experience for just a moment in order to take our minds off of all the shit around us (note 126)? Counter-hegemony is always a part of hegemony. It’s why I can offer this antiracist book in racist systems that would seem to halt it. It’s why Rap music could be born from hegemonic materials and contexts and flourish in a White supremacist, corporate, Capitalistic music industry. The short answer is that rap music is liberatory or antiracist when it is oriented against racist and White supremacist Capitalist systems that harm people by default.  

We can speak similarly of our classroom pedagogies. We want our BIPOC students, for example, to be as successful as our White students already are, but we want that success to look and sound the same. In fact, the educational system, even our disciplines of Composition Studies and Secondary Education, defines success in this one way. 

Is success to you closing “achievement gaps” that measure how well everyone is meeting pre-defined learning outcomes? If so, then you have an orientation that agrees with White supremacist systems. I ain’t saying that those learning outcomes are inherently bad. I’m saying that there ain’t no achievement gaps when you take away universal, singular learning outcomes that come from one dominant, White group of people. In short, we want everyone to meet the same elite White standards of English languaging, read and appreciate the same White authors and texts. These goals insert our pedagogies back into the hegemonic White supremacist system. It circulates the same stuff. So we’ll get a version of the same White supremacy we’ve always had. 

Let’s ruminate on a hypothetical example, one any critical and conscientious teacher might participate in and that illustrates some ways we all do White language supremacy. It should also reveal that our ethical and antiracist beliefs do not guarantee our abilities as teachers NOT to reproduce racist outcomes in our classrooms. We need something more than antiracist beliefs and ideas. We need antiracist orientations, which I’ll get to in the next post of this blogbook. 

If you recognize parts of yourself or classroom in the example, good. That is a start toward reorienting yourself in antiracist ways. 

Let’s say you and your students are reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’  Between the World and Me, an important book-length letter written to Coates’ nephew, a book about race and racism that all Americans should read. You’re having a class discussion about its opening section. Beyond discussing what Coates (see image) is saying in this passage, you also want students to write a response about it after class, summarizing Coates’ ideas and then responding to them, engaging with them. You are trying to meet some of the department’s learning outcomes that deal with writing in response to a text. Here’s the passage your class focuses on: 

This leads us to another equally important idea, one that Americans implicitly accept but to which they make no conscious claim. Americans believe in the reality of race as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism -- the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them -- inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, a tornado, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men. 

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy or physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in Hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence of human hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signified deeper attributes, which are indelible -- this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. (note 127)

Your classroom discussion brings up several questions that you hope students will use in their written responses afterwards. So the discussion is meant to prepare them to do well in their writing. It’s conventionally good pedagogy. 

The conversation is vibrant and many talk in the class session. The discussion ranges and brings in examples and ideas that students offer. You write on the board several key questions that come out of the discussion, ones you hear in the back and forth among students: What then is “race” if it is not biological? How can racism come before the idea of race? Don’t you need race to make racism? What then is racism? How is “hierarchy” part of race or racism? What does Coates mean when he says that White people “have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white”? What is whiteness then? 

Now, because you are a good teacher, you have lots of habits of White language in you (I’ll get to those later on in this blogbook). For now, understand that your habits of White language are how you get to be trained, certified, and hired to be a literacy or language teacher. They are your qualifications for being a good teacher. These habits are dear to you. They pretty much define you. These habits also helped you locate Coates’ book and understand it as important in a discussion of race and racism in your English or writing classroom, where such ideas are important to discuss. These habits also are deeply a part of the learning outcomes you have to use to create and assess this writing assignment. 

A few days later, you get the written summary-responses from your students in order to give credit for the work. You don’t grade these papers. You know that there is no need to grade such a low-stakes assignment, one that is meant to help students “write to learn.” You know that not grading them can encourage more students to take a few risks in what they say, as well as not be harmed by the grammars they come to your classroom using. All you are looking for is a summary of Coates’ ideas and a meaningful discussion of some aspects or ideas that the student-writer finds important to engage with. You want each student do decide what is important to talk about. You are not looking for a particular answer or discussion. You are simply looking for the student to engage with the ideas that come out of Coates’ text. 

Nothing seems wrong here. In your raciolinguistically diverse classroom, you haven’t oppressed anyone. In fact, you’ve offered an environment that helps everyone in some important ways. You’ve given every student leeway to express things as they will. You’ve let them dictate what they wish to write about. You aren’t even holding too tightly to your version of the summary of the Coates text. 

But how exactly are the power arrangements explicitly set up in your assessment ecology in such a way as to relieve the pressure that all students feel, a pressure to be like you, a pressure to talk and write like you? How have you actually designed what “success” means in your classroom? How do students know what this definition of success means? What hegemonic pressures to be like you have you countered explicitly in your assessment ecology? How have you countered the pressure that all students feel to be interpellated as “good” White students writing in good Standard White English? 

In numerous ways, your assessment ecology is already deeply informed by White language supremacy. If you think you are not participating in White language supremacy and you are the gatekeeper, then it matters who you are and what your orientation to the system is. 

In this case, we might notice a couple aspects of the assessment ecology, or the full system in which students do labors of writing and you, the teacher, do labors of assessment, which together make up some kind of place of learning (I’ve defined assessment ecologies in more careful ways in Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing for A Socially Just Future). Despite the engaging classroom conversation, the actual assessment of students’ learning is conducted by you (the teacher) only, and through only a text, the summary-responses. The really engaging discussion is not assessed in any way, yet I’m sure we’d all agree it is vital, important, and necessary for learning in this situation. It may even be the most engaging part of the learning for most students. Why is it not assessed in some way? 

Western White traditions of assessment focus on textual evidence with markers a judge can see. The orientation of this logic is ocular. It’s the same one that feeds common sense such as, “seeing is believing.” It’s a logic that comes from Western European empirical traditions that assume most of what is important or measurable is seen. This Western and White bias in the assessment ecology may very well harm students who come from cultures and places that do not place such a value on the ocular as the primary kind of evidence in arguments, or as the main  markers of work and learning in texts.

Performing something in some visual or ocularly-oriented way, say in a text through particular textual moves like quoting a text then talking about the details and words in that quotation, is a White Western, linear way of understanding how to measure the learning that produced such a text. There is lots of learning that is not captured in a text, that cannot be seen by the teacher. This is a paradox, but one that in schools when we favor ocular evidence, participates in White language supremacy. For instance, there are other ways to measure learning, such as through the actual labor of students and the presence of their bodies in a place. 

The second thing to consider in this assessment ecology example is how each summary-response will actually be read by the teacher and what will be used to do that reading (and grading -- even credit/no credit systems are still hierarchical grading systems). What rubric or set of expectations would you use to decide if any paper submitted to you is okay or not, meets the guidelines for learning in this reading and writing activity? 

Let’s say you don’t use ideas expressed to determine credit or no credit. You feel that doing so would be determining completion of a writing assignment based on whether each student mimicked your ideas of Coates’ text or your ideas of the issues it raises. You don’t think that’s fair. 

But your grading ecology demands that you determine credit or no credit. Students have done work. They too are expecting you to tell them if they have done things right. Some may even expect a response from you about how well their attempts were. You decide that you’ll determine credit only by the following simple guidelines: 

  • Does the student summarize Coates’ passage adequately? 
  • Does the student respond meaningfully to something brought out of the passage? 

Both of these criteria seem quite reasonable. But they miss any direct assessment of reading and the learning produced from the act of reading. You think you’re judging how well a student read and comprehended Coates' book by the summary part of the summary-response, the first item above. But you are not. You are measuring indirectly reading comprehension and learning through the product of a student’s writing labors

Most school systems use writing or item tests to measure reading and a students’ comprehension of texts in this indirect way because these things seem adequate surrogates. But they only are if you work from cultural and language histories that favor ocularity and evidence as seen only. Now, you could argue that the summary is the only evidence you can gather in order to assess reading ability or comprehension, or so you think. If you can break out of the White Western empirical traditions that favor ocularity, then you might find other ways to demonstrate and measure reading, if that still seems important to do.  

And while the above two criteria are reasonable, there is another problem. They are not universally understood. They cannot be. They are slippery and ambiguous terms that also become racially filled in these seemingly simple criteria. I’m referring to two particularly problematic terms: “adequately” and “meaningfully.” 

These terms are not only key hinges of meaning in each criterion, but they determine how to judge each student paper. These terms are determined by the teacher, by you. Your notions of what you experience as adequate and meaningful. And no matter how many examples you give and how much explanation you offer students for each, they remain, by definition, slippery. They float. And what do you think has defined the “adequate” and the “meaningful” in your languaging history? How is that history racialized? How is it unlike your students’ histories? 

And this question gets at another deeper problem when using these reasonable criteria to judge student performances. What do you have available to you, what habits of language and judgement do you have at your disposal to make such simple binary judgements as these two? What has been your training to make such judgements in texts? 

You use, as we all do, the disciplinary, cultural, social, and racial habits of language you have inherited in the places you learned how to language, how to read, how to write, how to judge such things. And who were the people you learned your languaging from? What racialized places did they inhabit in the world? 

To really answer these questions, you can start by doing some racial math. Account for as many of your mentors, teachers, and authors you learned your languaging from. Add up all the White people, Black people, Latine, Asians, Native Americans. Add up the men, women, and nonbinary. Add up those who went to colleges and universities, to elite schools and state ones, and those who did not go to college. Find the social dimensions that are most salient to you and do that math. But do the racial math first. And do the gender math. Are those numbers anywhere close to the proportions of students in your classroom along each social dimension you counted? Does your languaging come from the same places as your students? Why is yours so much better? 

Antiracism ain't easy. 


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.