The Challenging Tutee – Racially Sensitive Writing
A consistent topic of professional development here at Capital Community College is the challenging student. Challenging can refer to many things: lack of motivation, poor academic skills, poor social skills, lack of knowledge of the assignment, desire for the tutor to do most if not all the work, emotional problems, anxiety, etc. At Capital, an urban “two year” school in the second poorest city in the country, we often see more than one challenge. Indeed, sometimes three or four are rolled up into one tutorial. There are many ways to handle these challenges, and I certainly would love to hear from others in the field about how they react.
Today, however, I was presented with a challenge which I’ve only had to deal with a few times in seven years of writing center work: racially sensitive writing. I hesitate to say it was flat-out racist, but it caused me to wonder what my role as tutor was in combating such things, even marginal comments like this one. The student, who is a non-traditionally aged white woman, is also a challenge in that she is highly anxious. She demands tons of attention from our tutors, yet she is non-matriculated and takes just one course a semester. A tutoring session with this student is often stressful. Tutors find themselves routinely coaching her into believing in herself so that her anxiety doesn’t take over and paralyze her (which it can quite easily).
Today’s assignment was an extra credit paper analyzing “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” and a breakdancing play that preceded it. Apparently much of the cast was black. The student wrote a comment in the introduction which said something to the effect that the production (paraphrasing here:) “showed that blacks were capable of doing more than common labor. They are good dancers, actors and comedians. They are really funny” (end paraphrase). The statement didn’t sit right with me — it seemed to embody the stereotype of African Americans as buffoons, or as entertainment for whites. (See Spike Lee’s film “Bamboozled” for the ultimate extreme of this stereotype)
Later in the paper, which by the way was hand-written at this stage and due tonight at 5:30pm, the student wrote a variation of this statement, which seemed less charged. She wrote that she felt the intent of the production was to show that blacks should not be thought of only in terms of blue collar work. Her second phrasing seemed much more productive as it connected the assertion to the works themselves.
My question to all of you out there: what’s the best way to handle this situation? Is it our role as tutors to confront students who make racially sensitive comments in their papers? Is it more important that they stand on their own two feet and accept the consequences of what they write? Does the context change our reactions? At Capital, there are faculty, staff, and students from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds — should this compel tutors to intervene when experiencing something like this?