on anti-racist teaching

In efforts to combat racist practices, an anti-racist instructional approach moves away from neutral or color-blind stances toward education. For example, I’ve heard some teachers say illogical comments such as, “I keep politics out of my classroom,” or “I take an objective stance when I teach.” Because of my position in rhet-comp, I’ll explore how this stance seems inherently shortsighted in this field; nevertheless, this explanation may apply to other areas or disciplines.

Before an instructor steps into a first-year rhet-comp course, governing bodies have determined what learning outcomes to teach, what department (typically English) the rhet-comp course resides in, and what students can enroll in these courses. Rather than viewing these decisions as the “way things are,” I prefer to recognize how these managerial and political decisions tend to maintain whiteness.

Sylvia Wynter has thought about the implications of the Humanities and Social Sciences on people’s perceptions, actions, and thoughts. Wynter writes:

If, as Ralph Ellison alerted us to in his The Invisible Man, we see each other only through the ‘inner eyes’ with which we look with our physical eyes upon reality, the question we must confront in the wake of Rodney King Event becomes: What is our responsibility for the making of those 'inner eyes?' Ones in which humanness and North Americanness are always already defined, not only in optimally White terms, but also in optimally middle-class, variants of these terms?

Wynter poses a provocative question that implicates educators in the construction of these inner eyes by connecting these eyes to events that transpire outside of the Humanities' and Social Sciences' classrooms. These disciplines seem complicit in constructing what's "more or less human" (54). While not exhaustive, a common motivator in comp classrooms is to learn material or acquire skills to get a job. At times, instructors have considered the ethical components of espousing this particular view. Other times, they have not. Wynter notes the historical underpinning of this form of material goal when she posits that Material Redemption replaced Spiritual Redemption. In other words, people used to seek spirituality as a way to redeem themselves, but modernity has repositioned that burden, in large part, to economic success, "as if it were a mode of being which exists in relation to pure ​continuity with that of organic life" (50). I understand this continuity as a way to exploit further those individuals falling outside of Whiteness and thus undermining their experiences and existence.

An anti-racist approach works to counteract this conception of the "more" or "less" human. In a rhet-comp course, it seems fair to state that Material Redemption underwrites, at least a partial component, of this course. Therefore, what does it mean to be a good writer for students embedded in a heteronormative, racist, sexist, and ableist context? For instance, the rhetoric of Material Redemption falls short because it ignores racist hiring practices in the workforce (Ruha Benjamin reflects on these practices for her own son's future). Furthermore, this rhetoric obfuscates how much more difficult it is for lower socioeconomic students, especially those of color, to receive opportunities to reach this Material Redemption. Consequently, an anti-racist approach considers the context of the course: white America. And, an anti-racist approach works toward identifying, interrogating, and challenging these detrimental practices.

edinburg protest
blm protest in edinburg, texas (photo by jlc)

the carceral state

Abolition seeks (as it performs) a radical configuration of justice, subjectivity, and social formation that does not depend on the existence of either the carceral state (a statecraft that institutionalizes various forms of targeted human capture) or carceral power as such (a totality of state-sanctioned and extradítate relations of gendered racial-colonial dominance).
- Dylan Rodríguez

The carceral state and carceral power form constitutive components of citizenship in the US. Knowledge of this relationship must inform an anti-racist approach. In particular, this concerns rhet-comp courses because they fall under the leadership of the post-secondary institution. Mission statements typically incorporate the rhetoric of citizenship. Here are three examples:

    • "think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens" (TCU);
    • "educate citizens and citizen leaders" (Harvard); and
    • "serves the citizens" (UT).

Citizens and citizenship guide conception of curriculum and instruction. The underside to this guidance, however, shapes itself on what stands outside of the citizen and citizenship. To provide a concrete example, it may seem that a criminal is bad while the citizen is good. The criminal and the citizen compose each other. The citizen materializes because the criminal exists and vice versa. Tacitly or explicitly, the rhet-comp course in the context of the institution formulates an iteration of the citizen.

Notwithstanding, instructors themselves carry notions of the ideal citizen or what citizenship entails. In this respect, these notions or formulations—as correct or as wrong as they may be—influence the instructional approach. So, what does citizen/ship mean to instructors and students, in this case writers, in the heavy presence of carceral state and enormous carceral power?

These assertions of insurgent being are abolitionist acts, in the sense that peoples inhabiting the layered undersides of modern citizenship and civil society...are actively creating, sustaining, and otherwise performing modalities of social life (crucially, methods of survival if not collective thriving) that fundamentally challenge the assumptive coherence and humanist universality of "civility" and "the citizen."
- Dylan Rodríguez

But insurgent beings traverse these courses, communities, and societies. As such, they have unequivocally created different forms of citizenship, or at least ways to navigate. It may mean overdoing it with the niceness when speaking with authorities or not wearing specific clothing while walking late at night. It may also mean forming networks to find the least expensive physicians, clinics, and medications when these aren't provided by a job. It may also mean relying on intuition to sense danger, Spider-Man style. In the classroom, it may mean cutting off a home language so as not to violate the rules of "standardized" or "academic" (yet typically white) English. These different tactics allow people to remain free—either from prisons, detention centers, in-school suspensions, or juvenile centers. They reconfigure the citizen because they reach beyond it. In a sense, they sometimes circumvent the citizen to establish a better quality of life, or at least, a method of survival.

In short, the rhet-comp course has a serious relationship with the carceral regime. However, Rodríguez asserts that "historical targets of incarceration are also the complex embodiment of its imminent undoing, hence its abolition as such" (1589). Consequently, a deep reflection toward the criminalized can illuminate ways in which the citizen and citizenship implicitly underwrite the rhet-comp course. In other words, it can identify the tacit ways in which the perceived "citizen" or "citizenship" rests on the existence of the criminalized as articulated in these educational spaces.

port isabel detention center
port isabel detention center, which is actually in los fresnos, tx (photo by jlc)

josé luis cano jr.