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?


6 Responses to “The Challenging Tutee – Racially Sensitive Writing”

  1. Thanks so much for raising this question. I hope others will also jump into the discussion. I believe that we are all ethically responsible for anti-racist work and such work should not (cannot) be checked at the door of the writing center. I strongly believe that choosing NOT to intervene is a decision to choose to collaborate with the perpetuation of racism–there really is no neutral territory. So for me, the question is not SHOULD we intervene. The question for me is HOW.

    Who the tutor is is a significant component of this question because depending on our own identities and experiences, we will all have different things at stake when engaging in this kind of encounter. What follows, then, is my response for how a white person such as myself might confront another white person similar to the student you describe.

    I just finished reading an outstanding book by Tim Wise which has helped me think in more complex ways about what my responsibilities are as a white person to resist racism and how I might go about doing so. He made two points that really stood out to me so I will offer them here as an invitation to think about how such suggestions might translate into the writing center context (these are paraphrasing from memory–not direct quotes). Parenthetical comments are me, not Wise:

    1. When confronting a racist person head-on, it might not be possible to change THAT person’s views. But such a confrontation is critical because it sets an example for the people OBSERVING who may still be open to rethinking their attitudes and decisions. It sets a precedent and forces others to think. (Hey, that translates into our love of process over product!)

    2. The goal in the confrontation should not be to simply alert the person that you are offended by her comments such that she now knows not to say them around you (or in the writing center), but can go on about her business still feeling perfectly comfortable making such comments elsewhere. In other words, the confrontation should not shut down dialogue; it should provide opportunity for critical reflection. (Perhaps that means asking her directly: How do you feel about those stereotypes? Are any of them legitimate in your eyes? Who is your audience for this paper? Would you have written this the same way if your professor were African American?…etc)

    I hope to hear more ideas on this because it is a question I struggle with–how do you find that balance between being productively confrontational without being so aggressive that you shut down opportunity to actually make a change? (Perhaps that gets back to Wise’s first idea that change may not be immediate and local, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters.) Hmmm….

  2. You raise a crucial issue, Kevin, similar to one that our staff discussed, heatedly, in our most recent staff meeting in which a tutor revealed his interaction with a tutee who displayed a startlingly ethnocentric perspective. Confronting sexist language, racist language, ethnocentric language, and the thinking that goes along with the expression, these are all well within our domain.

    The situation you share seems extreme in both the student’s need to have her anxiety addressed and her overt expression of racial stereotypes. It sounds like the situation called for both personally comforting and intellectually challenging her. But, wait a minute. Isn’t that what most tutoring sessions call for?

    Seems to me that the writing center is not, cannot be, a neutral zone where we defer reaction to the substance of students ideas, including the ideas that are repulsive or distressing. Within the intimacy of the tutoring session, tutors have an ideal space to both comfort and confront their peers. Pratt’s contact zone. Sure, tact is something that we praise in our staff, but I’m also beginning to suspect that a tutor’s blunt reaction to racially insensitive language might be quite valuable for discomforting a student and nudging her or him toward deeper learning.

    I worry that this sounds like I think the center staff represent highly aware paragons of anti-racism, that we just put on our tights and capes and take on ignorance and all the isms. Not so, but we’re at least struggling together and putting difference on the table for discussion. That excellent book, The Everyday Writing Center, by our upcoming keynote speakers (yay!), discusses both centers’ complicity in and some means of resistance to the racism of the culture we are all embedded in.

    About The Everyday Writing Center:

    On a practical note: Maybe we can adapt the old I/we test for racially stereotyped texts. Just as we can demonstrate that “Moe came to the store with mom and I” is inaccurate because “Moe went to the store with I” sounds wrong, perhaps we can also help writers test for stereotype language if we have them insert “white” wherever they’ve used “black.” (Here I paraphrase your paraphrase:) “Whites are capable of doing more than common labor. Whites are good dancers, actors and comedians. Whites are really funny.” Just a thought.

  3. On one hand, if this is a student who has never displayed/espoused racist ideas before, then I would explain to her that her words can have an incendiary interpretation. It could be just a matter of not fully expressing her idea. For instance, if in her head she is thinking, “some people believe black people can only do manual labor. the performance that i witnessed discusses this stereotype, and is good evidence that such beliefs aren’t true” but does not express all of that, then what you have in front of you sounds worse than it is. This is a place where growth as a writer can happen, because I’m sure she would not want her writing to be interpreted in a harmful way. She just needs to explain the premise of the performance and other points better.

    I know that in the case you’ve described, this student has made racist remarks before, which does change the situation.

    In the past, when students have brought in homophobic writing, I have refused to work with them, referring them to another student. Why? Because as someone who is not heterosexual and who does not benefit from a heterosexist society, such work is hostile to me. There is no way I can be sympathetic to the student, nevermind professional. I don’t know what the protocol is for this, but I feel that if a college declares itself to have a nondiscrimination policy, then it must extend to faculty and staff as well.

  4. oops, I meant referring them to another tutor.

  5. Here are my three cents regarding racially sensitive writing: (1) Laura writes that intervention sets an example for others who witness the tutorial; intervention is also the tutor’s ethical responsibility. I intervene because I believe it’s my responsiblity as an educator of rhetorical practices to ask students questions that correspond to “the rhetorical triangle”: author, text, and audience all triagulating around/through context (e.g., how racist statements meet the goals of the assignment, meet the expectations of the audience, affect the credibility of the author or other sources). In Laura’s words, “the confrontation should not shut down dialogue; it should provide opportunity for critical reflection.” In fact, I prefer leaving a tutorial having the sense that I offered this person an academically “professional” solution to achieving their educational goals in writing/speaking. This approach corresponds to challening the student, the goal of the college where Kevin works. (2) However, I respect Kerri’s stance that homophobic, heterosexist students and their writing have no room in her life right now, if ever. I’ve known some tutors to feel verbably assaulted, too. In that case, referring such students to other tutors is a good idea for both parties. Who’s to say that students didn’t later critically reflect? Didn’t learn something valuable? (3) Food for more thought: I recommend that we all read/reread Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech. If I remember correctly, Bulter researched hate speech statutes and the legal cases involving them. She argued that laws against hate speech reproduce additional hate speech.

  6. See this post from the PeerCentered blog for a tutor’s perspective on relationships between race awareness and tutoring boundaries

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