Finding Room for Whatever

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  FINDINGROOMFOR“WHATEVER”: ACRITICALAPPROACHTOANTIRACISTCOMPOSITIONPEDAGOGY   Lucy MarreroUniversity of Illinois–Springfield Whatever.  That’s what I thought about the assignment when it was assigned and the paper thatresulted. It was difficult for me to transform thoughtful research, extensive contemplation of thetexts I had read, and attempts at forming a thesis into an actual, final paper suitable for turning in.It wasn’t until I read Jeff Rice’s article “The 1963 Hip-Hop Machine: Hip-Hop Pedagogy asComposition” that I was even able to write a paragraph—this paragraph, in fact. Whatever.  This word can be seen as “an indifferent or oppositional student reaction to coursedemand” (Rice 457) that stems from cognitive dissonance. In my case, the cognitive dissonancewas located in the gap between the assignment (a discussion of how “race and ethnicity have influ-enced the teaching of writing today” [Ottery 2007]) and the scholarship that had grabbed my atten-tion, both in the class-assigned texts and in my own research. It was the cognitive dissonancecaused by my experience as the only person of color in a class about race and rhetoric.And it’s thecognitive dissonance ( whatever  ) that Rice suggests can be used as the site of “invention strategyfor research-based argumentative writing” (453). Whatever  . It’s a “popular, everyday term used heavily by youth culture when an experienceor reaction can’t be named” (Rice 455). An experience, perhaps, like a student of color feelingostracized in a class full of white students but unable to put her finger on exactly what it is they“did” to make her feel excluded. Edited American English, or “standard” English, seems to lack the language to discuss race and expressions of covert racism. We struggle to describe our experi-ences as marginalized people in an oppressive institution when we try to use socially sanctionedlanguage—language that is linear, binary, abstract. Perhaps this is whyVictorVillanueva posits thatit’s in “generalizing personal events” (Okawa, “Removing Masks” 126) that racism can be spokenof and ultimately combated. Perhaps this is why Patricia Hill Collins, Malea Powell, and other fem-inists and womanists of color believe in the power of storytelling as a synechdochal description of hegemonic oppression.Racism is so often expressed in covert ways. Legally we are all the same—no three-fifths law,“protection” from racism in the workplace—yet the victims of oppression continually shout thatthe supposed equality we possess is not the reality we face daily. Catherine Prendergast talks aboutthis  whatever   —this racism that lacks language to properly describe it—in a legal context: “sinceso much of racism in this society is unconscious—the norm rather than a deviation from thenorm—there is no language with which to expose and punish it given a legal system that demands proof of conscious intent” (39). A student of color can’t point to a classmate and say, “He hit me!”or “She called me a name!” She struggles for the words to describe the pervasive feeling of exclu-sion, the subtle discouragement from too-lofty goals, the silencing of her contribution to the classdiscussion. “Too often,” Prendergast writes, “the words just aren’t there, or they haven’t been heardyet (there is no precedent), or they aren’t permissible (or, they are ‘off-register’)” (39–40). Whatever.  The student can’t describe her experiences in the rhetorical strategies offered in the 12 YoungScholarsinWriting  traditional composition classroom because it is precisely those strategies that are in place to keep her   in place. If only the “narrow, limited scope” of Edited American English (Lovejoy 98) is per-missible, students of color are denied, as Gail Y. Okawa puts it, the “opportunity to express our-selves, our lives, and the lives of our communities more fully” (“Resurfacing Roots” 126).Censoring students of color by severely restricting their ability to develop a comfortable andauthentic writing voice only reifies a racist hegemony.And in the absence of any factors that mightnurture a student of color’s burgeoning writing voice—no “safe” environment for expression, novalidation of a marginalized person’s experiences and identity/ies, no space to write in an authen-tic voice, and a severely restrictive composition pedagogy—wouldn’t you throw up your hands andsay “Whatever”?It’s at this critical moment, the student’s frustrated or ostensibly indifferent reaction to cog-nitive dissonance, that Rice asks us to view “whatever” not as a “lack of response” but as an expres-sion of something “indefinable, obscure, or out of reach” (455). Maybe this “whatever” responsecan be a warning flag for professors: “You’re losing me. . . . You just don’t get it.” This criticalmoment is an opportunity, Rice argues, to “confront the  whatever   in order to overcome its class-room presence” (457). MyOwnLived“Whatever”:Using“Off-RegisterWords” I encountered many “whatever” moments in the class (Race and Rhetoric, the class in whichI first produced a version of this paper). These moments were the result of the seemingly unbridge-able gap between my experience with the assigned texts and the way in which the class discussionsunfolded. The texts we read for the class, many of which I reference in this paper, provided suchrich insight into the ways language reflects and reifies a racist hegemony. The brilliance of thescholarship resonated with my lived experiences, inspiring new insights as I built on their ideaswith my own. I continued the dialogue that began between me and the authors of the assigned texts by engaging with others outside the classroom who share my passion for social justice and lan-guage, and we found inspiration and a renewed energy for our sustained activism.Yet this affirmative, energizing conversation seemed impossible within the actual class dis-cussion, which took place in both a literal classroom and an online discussion forum. The geo-graphical distance between me, an online student in California who did not set foot on campus untilmy commencement ceremony, and the “on ground” students in a physical classroom in Illinois wascompounded by the social, political, and academic distance I experienced as the solitary person of color in the class (save the professor). There was a disconnect that even now I struggle to describe. Whatever  , I think as I write this.  They won’t understand anyway unless they’ve been in the same sort of situation .Perhaps the difficulty was that for me “race and rhetoric” was a deeply personal subject that provided insight into my own experiences and relationships, while for the other (white) students,this was all theory: interesting in the same way that Lacanian theory or considering  Frankenstein through a feminist lens is interesting. When  I   encountered the texts, I found myself   within  them:they were authored by folks with similar struggles who had found inspiring ways to make sense of theirs. They documented the struggles of people of color to fully express themselves within therestrictions of standard, academic language. They demonstrated a history of rhetorical resistance by people of color, and (sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly) located themselves asauthors and scholars within that history. Some even articulated their struggles with language as 13  Marrero  they wrote the very texts I was reading, and in doing so, helped me articulate my own struggles both in academic writing and in communicating about race with my white classmates. Most impor-tantly, the texts reflected so eerily the actual dynamics of the class discussion that I was experi-encing . . . but I was the only one who seemed to make that connection between the texts’ astutedescriptions of the struggles that students of color face in the academy and the  very struggles that  I was facing in that very same academic setting.  As I read Malea Powell’s metaphor of invisibledead bodies at a dinner party (“Blood and Scholarship”) that no one else seemed to see, I was jump-ing up and down, saying, “Yes! This! This is it exactly! Why can’t my classmates understand thatI am seeing dead bodies and they are not?!”Meanwhile, my white classmates theorized about language and race with a mostly detachedscholarly curiosity, becoming emotionally involved only when directly confronted . . . by  me , theonly student with lived experiences of racism.And here again as I write this, I think,  whatever  . I want to throw my hands up and give up onthis paper, on these rewrites, because I don’t really know what to say about my personal experi-ences or how to say it. Because I know that this is the real heart of what I want to express in this paper, but it is personal and it involves the personal interactions I had in that class. Because I don’thave any other language than this informal, “off-register” language full of “poorly constructed”sentences to talk about it because my nice, detached, scholarly tone flat out doesn’t work.And mostof all, because I am painfully aware that in talking about the personal part of my class experience,I will really turn off a lot of readers—which, ironically, is exactly what turned off my white class-mates. They found my statements and the tone I used—and by extension,  me  —combative andunpleasant. They sometimes ignored what I had to say, and sometimes minimized it. Sometimesthey did a sort of cursory acknowledgement of my contributions to the conversation only to imme-diately revert back to the conversation they were having about things I had no concept of—such asnever meeting a black person ’til college or their astonishment that wow, racism exists, and oh my  gosh , now we have to  solve it right now , this  brand-new problem ? (Because it just simply did notexist before they discovered it!) I was gossiped about as a “discontent” person within my own hear-ing; the insinuation was that my anger came from a personality defect, not as a valid response tothe racism I encountered from my classmates.It was a personally hurtful experience to be in that class. I spent hours with friends who“talked me down” from a rage or cried with me in frustration and helplessness. I spent too manyhours wondering if somehow it really was a personality defect or trying to figure out just the rightway to say something so that they would stop being defensive and just understand what I meant.And really, it’s only this paper that “saved” the experience for me and turned it into something inthe least bit positive. And everything in my personal story illustrates exactly the “whatever” expe-rience that students of color so frequently face. The “whatever” experience that’s so difficult toactually  name  can appear to be more of a “personal problem” than an example of covert racism tothose who don’t understand why I—or other people of color—am “so angry.” Or, more specifical-ly for this paper, why we can’t just be scholarly, detached academics when it comes to race. “Whatever”PedagogyintheClassroom “Whatever” pedagogy allows students to tell their stories in a way that reflects their identitiesand experiences and in language that is their own, to draw from the strength of personal, livedexperience. It provides them a methodology for composition that makes sense to students well- 14 YoungScholarsinWriting  versed in technology and used to composing all kinds of rhetoric—from emails to persuasiveessays to music—and doing so based on the results of Google searches, email exchanges, and“whatever” from all over the Internet. The result of all this cutting and pasting of thoughts andsounds and words is something new—something unique—that belongs to the rhetor/student/com- poser/sampler. Rice writes: “Sampling is the hip-hop process of saving snippets of . . .  whatever  you find and us[ing] it . . . any sound at all. Through the complex juxtaposition of these isolatedsounds, samplers construct new forms of meaning” (454).Composition professors help students of color to decide what samples to use, and what lan-guage(s) to use in their composition and when. Such marginalized students, in finding ways to fullytell their stories, find empowerment through self-definition, which resists the “hegemonic domainof power” as it “shapes consciousness via the manipulation of ideas, images, symbols and ideolo-gies” (Collins,  Fighting Words  285). MakingSamplesintoMusic:HowIWrite Rice’s theory of hip-hop pedagogy engaged me primarily because I found my own composi-tion process within his. When reading of Rice’s metaphoric “sample” gathering and the emergenceof patterns between seemingly disparate samples to create a new musical masterpiece, I realizedmy own cobbled-together means of gathering research and formulating a thesis actually reflects alegitimate composition process. Over the many years I wrote research papers in my undergraduateEnglish program, I developed my own process for writing: compiling passages of research, con-templating how they might complement each other, freewriting, and organizing the citations with-in the narrative that emerged.When in the research stage, I mark passages that I feel seem to address a particular theme thatengages me. For instance, when writing the srcinal incarnation of this paper, I was working witha loose theme that I termed “hegemony and agency.” I used this particular phrasing to make senseof an idea that I felt would continue to crystallize into an srcinal thesis, finding that it helped mein discovering new sources for useful scholarship. I keep a “research document” of possiblesources, expanding it as I continue, with retyped passages that I might use as citations in the final paper (along with appropriate information for the final Works Cited page).An essential, yet hard-to-describe, piece of my process is what I call “thinking below the sur-face.” This is what happens as I drive, walk, try to sleep, and talk to friends—semiconscious“thinking” in which I attempt to draw connections between the different sources I plan to use. Thisis what Rice might call searching for patterns in the samples:The student writer looks at the various distinct moments she has collected and figures outhow these moments together produce knowledge. Just as DJs often search for breaks andcuts in the music that reveal patterns, so, too, does the student writer look for a pattern asa way to unite these moments into a new alternative argument and critique. (465)Somewhere during this process, enough of a “new alternative argument and critique” emerges for me to begin writing.While there is a definite argument for outlines and other forms of structured freewriting, whatI find most natural is to simply begin to write what I have been thinking (and often talking) aboutand see where it leads. I use my research document as I write, copying and pasting passages whereI feel they fit. As thoughts begin to crystallize and organize into a more cohesive whole, I note inthe document any gaps that exist in the rhythm of the paper. This sometimes leads to what I find 15  Marrero
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