Friday, July 20, 2007

The Fight against Structural Racism

The matrix of university departments, their individual instructors, Writing Centers, and tutor-writer interactions is quite complex – the connections between them are anything but linear in that it isn’t a simple hierarchy as one might assume. In trying to explore the relationships between these intimately connected yet disjointed entities, it helps to first get an idea of the scale at which each operates. The university departments operate on a vast macro scale as systems that control the livelihoods of their instructors and serve the needs of their home institutions, which, ideally, ultimately serve the needs of the students. Instructors operate on more micro levels but, depending on the natures of the taught courses, tend to serve large numbers of students simultaneously; individual student interactions and considerations are often lacking. Writing Centers are usually not strictly affiliated with any one academic department and serve large numbers of students that come in from various departments across campus. Tutor-writer sessions are the most micro-level, intimate interactions in this matrix. Such differences of scale between the components of the matrix being studied here result in differing ideologies and philosophies in how each treats literacy and the writing process in terms of the students they all claim to serve.

The gap between the macro systems of university departments and individual students is vast, and instructors serve as connecting links between the two. Instructors, however, are bound by the rules of their respective departments which are themselves bound by the rules of the home institution. It is not surprising, then, that delicate, qualitative issues tend to get neglected in the bureaucratic web in which only quantitative issues (those that can be represented in numbers and statistics) are considered and funded. Here, I speak in generalities – of course there are instructors out there who do tend to individual student needs; the point is that in class sizes as big as they are at state universities, such interactions are often structurally impossible. The focus and modus operandi of Writing Centers are quite different from those of university departments and most instructors. Writing Centers exist, in part, to narrow the gap between the home institution and students by tending to individual, qualitative aspects of college education on one-to-one bases through tutor-writer sessions. Thus, issues often not considered by the macro systems of academia because of their disassociation from the needs of individual students can and should be addressed at the more micro levels of the Writing Center.

The pressing qualitative issue I wish to focus on in this paper is that of racial diversity. Contrary to popular belief, racism and racial inequality are prevalent in our society: “Racial practices that reproduce racial inequality in contemporary America are (1) increasingly covert, (2) embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) void of direct racial terminology, and (4) invisible to most whites” (Bonilla-Silva 158). All of the points brought up by Bonilla-Silva apply to the issue of racial inequality in educational institutions at the university level.

To understand how racial inequalities can persist seemingly unnoticed by the majority population in a contemporary society, a structural definition of racism needs to be introduced. “Racial categories and the meaning of race are given concrete expression by the specific social relations and historical context in which they are embedded” (Omi 11). To explain how this is possible, race must be regarded as a “socio-historical concept” (11). Race is made real by the prevailing racial ideas of society and their implementation into that society’s structure, including its political, economic, and social systems. This social construction of race and racism has certain fundamental aspects that help to explain its far-reaching role in shaping society and the interactions between its diverse constituents: it is highly dynamic, comprehensive in its influence, and deeply integrated into the workings of other societal systems. These aspects define the racial structure of society.

What gives racism its structural foundation is its stratified nature, “a hierarchy that produces definite social relations among the races” (Bonilla-Silva 151). The racial structure of a society is highly dynamic, however, and “racial meanings have varied tremendously over time and between different societies” (Omi 11). What doesn’t change between different racialized societies is the element of “racial inequality – that the subordinated races’ life chances are significantly lower than those of the dominant race” (Bonilla-Silva 151). Starting as collective ideas within the society’s dominant group, racial meanings eventually take root in that society’s social systems and start to indirectly influence all members of various racial groups. In this way, race comes to define concrete social relations among the races, including differences in political participation, access to economic opportunities, and cultural acceptance.

Because of racism’s integral part in the overall social structure, having taken root in its political, economic, and cultural systems, it indirectly influences everyone who is involved in and using these systems. “The meaning of black and white, the ‘racial formation,’ changes within the larger racial structure. [This] means that the social relations among races become institutionalized (form a structure as well as a culture) and affect social life whether or not individual members or races want it to” (Bonilla-Silva 154). This is the tragedy and harsh reality of the structural view of racism – everyone is involved and affected by it; all of the members of the dominant race benefit from it, and all of the members of the subordinate races get exploited by it.

Education is often regarded as the ultimate equalizer, as the most tolerant social institution that gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds as racial minorities an equal opportunity to succeed that is solely based on merit, not race. This idea is given credibility by the adoption of widespread policies of colorblindness: “Colorblindness is a way of avoiding the mess of racial history by pretending that racial differences don’t exist” (Barron & Grimm 59). As explained above, however, the institution of education has been built historically on a racist foundation and inherently acts as an institution which, by its very existence and maintenance of the status quo, propagates racial inequality in society. This is further explained by Barron and Grimm’s summary of Young’s work, as follows:

According to Young, oppression is “embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and collective consequences of following those rules” (Young 41). Oppression in a structural sense has more to do with “often unconscious assumption and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies [like universities] and market mechanisms – in short the normal processes of everyday life” (41). People just doing their jobs, without reflecting about how they are currently and potentially affecting the system, end up perpetuating oppression because they “do not understand themselves as agents of oppression” (42). (Barron & Grimm 69)

The rules and policies by which the institution of higher education operates benefits the dominant, white middle-class segment of the population: “Students who bring differences of color, class, and culture are expected to make themselves over to match the institutionalized image of a typical student, while white middle-class students’ sense of complacency is reinforced by the familiar values and routines of university life” (Barron & Grimm 59).

To reiterate what Bonilla-Silva pointed out above and fitting it to the current discussion of higher education, this form of racial discrimination is “(1) increasingly covert, (2) embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) void of direct racial terminology, and (4) invisible to most whites” (Bonilla-Silva 158). Indeed, “It is difficult for those of us who are white to see the invisible social structures and assumptions that impede productive engagements with difference. Members of the dominant group have difficulty conceptualizing systematic oppression because it lies outside of their lived experience” (Barron & Grimm 69). The supposed policy of “colorblindness” at the institutional level in higher education is merely a mask that covers up the harsh reality of racial inequality and its structural foundation in society.

Having covered the sociological background of racial inequality in some detail, let us know go back to the initial discussion of the intricate matrix consisting of university instructors, Writing Centers, and tutor-writer interactions and expand on how each element of this matrix deals with the issue just described. As part of my field work for the course, I interviewed a faculty member at UIC and a director of a different Chicagoland university Writing Center.

I interviewed Professor Amanda E. Lewis (PhD, University of Michigan 2000) on April 27th, 2007. She is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Sociology and African American Studies at UIC. “Her primary areas of research and teaching include race and ethnic relations, sociology of education (particularly urban schools), gender, and qualitative and ethnographic research methods” (Lewis online). She is the author of many studies on the nature of racial inequality in education, including “The Impact of Color-Blind Ideologies on Students of Color: Intergroup Relations at a Predominantly White University” (with Mark Chesler and Tyrone Forman), published in the Journal of Negro Education in 2000. Her book, Race in the Schoolyard: Negotiating the Color-line in Classrooms and Communities, was published in 2003 by Rutgers University Press (Lewis online).

Dr. Lewis was my instructor three semesters ago of a course called “Racial and Ethnic Groups.” Taking this class, listening to her inspiring lectures, and reading the course material literally opened my eyes to the reality of racial discrimination in contemporary American society. Being a white, middle-class student, before taking this class I was ‘blinded’ by my society’s claim of “colorblindness.” To this day, I hold the conversations Dr. Lewis and I had outside of class to heart; the awareness she helped establish in me and the consequences this has had on my personal growth are truly priceless.

My interview with Dr. Lewis was interesting in that she approached my questions from a very practical point of view. Her vast experience in the field showed in her thoughtful and straightforward responses to my questions regarding racial diversity in higher education and its impact on literacy and the writing process. When asked to define racial identity, she responded with a two-fold definition: racial identity is composed of (1) self-identity, which is one’s connection and affiliation to a certain group and its history, and (2) how others define you. Her answer to a question about how such identity operates on a campus that pretends to be “colorblind” was that race matters among interactions between peers, TA’s, faculty, administrative officers, etc., and while universities may claim pride in diversity, how racial identities actually (in reality) manifest themselves in such interactions are a different story.

Dr. Lewis stressed the fact that racial identities truly manifest themselves in the interpersonal dynamic between two or more people of different racial backgrounds who hold certain pervasive stereotypes about one another. In terms of literacy and the writing process, many minority students deal with the psychological pressure of trying to overcome the stereotypes regarding academic performance that the dominant, mainstream culture may hold of them. There are fears, for example, of not being taken seriously when expressing one’s opinion in writing and instead falling for mainstream views, thus resulting in having one’s voice silenced by racial psychological oppression. As Barron and Grimm explain, “Students of color are supposed to write as though their color didn’t matter” (Barron & Grimm 59). This psychological fear is only reinforced by the usually-disadvantaged educational backgrounds that minority students tend to come from; it is well-established that racial minorities tend to get much poorer access to quality K-12 education than white, middle-class children. Coming out of such inferior schools and being thrown into a university environment that proclaims “colorblindness,” minority students are faced with unprecedented pressure (invisible to the mainstream population) to catch up in terms of the knowledge they are assumed to have by the dominant culture and its policies. This is a prime example of structural racism at work.

I asked Dr. Lewis what she would do if she could make campus-wide changes in how the university deals with literacy and the writing process. She responded that, as it is, not enough is invested in the Writing Center and in the courses that teach students proper writing composition skills. Too many students graduate from high school and struggle through university education because they don’t have the skills to communicate properly in the written form as a consequence of the structural racial inequalities at the K-12 level. As part of her hypothetical campus-wide changes, Dr. Lewis would expand the Writing Centernow to help disadvantaged students find their literary voice, Dr. Lewis responded that tutors must take an active role in getting these students up to speed with conventional writing practices. This is the most practical way in which to contribute to racial equality at the university level because if these students can’t communicate their ideas in the written form, their options in life and opportunities to succeed in the outside world become severely limited. Effectively, teaching structurally disadvantaged students to write correctly helps them most in finding their own voice in the world. This is the crux of the matter and the main point of this paper. structurally to include permanent tutors knowledgeable in disciplinary writing who would help disadvantaged students catch up on and improve their writing skills. When asked what tutors can do

In the matrix of university instructors, Writing Centers, and tutor-writer sessions, the latter two can have tremendous impact in enacting positive social change. As mentioned before, Writing Centers and tutor-writer sessions are not as intimately bound to the rules and policies of the structurally racist university institution; they are able to confront more delicate, qualitative issues such as racial inequality that the more macro entities essentially ignore. While Dr. Lewis is aware of, and even teaches her students to be aware of such things, she can only do so much as an individual professor in the sociology department to help her students write better papers. She is bound by the rules of her department and those of the home institution to teach the material that she’s teaching in such a way as she’s teaching it. She is playing her part in counteracting structural racism by raising awareness of these issues. Tutors at the Writing Center can also take an active role in counteracting structural racism by giving those students who have been affected by it a better chance to succeed in society by getting them up to speed with growth in literacy and the conventional writing process.

I also interviewed Carrie Brecke, the director of the Writing Center at Roosevelt University, on April 30, 2007. Carrie has been the Assistant Director of the UIC Writing CenterRoosevelt, which has only been open for one semester. What is unique about Roosevelt University is its diverse student population, even more so than UIC’s: Carrie said that the demographics are somewhere around 50% white, 50% non-white, including about 50% of students over the age of 25. Such non-traditional university demographics ought to make Roosevelt’s budding Writing Center teem with productive diversity. for fifteen years prior to starting the center at

As a result of Carrie Brecke’s experiences at UIC, she is making the WC at Roosevelt run in a similar way, with a similar philosophy of ‘peerness’ as a foundation for how it operates. The following quote appears at the top of the center’s website:

Our insistence on dialogue as the underlying structure of a peer tutoring program comes from an even more fundamental conviction that true education consists of dialogue.

- Singley and Boucher, “Dialogue in Tutor Training: Creating the Essential Space for Learning” (“Roosevelt University,” online)

At the core of the accepted WC tutoring philosophy at UIC and now Roosevelt is the idea of ‘peerness.’ As the WC handbook explains, ‘peerness’ involves “helping students grow as writers while respecting them as peers;” it is a way to give student writers a voice in their learning process much akin to participatory democracy, which “is less about ‘majority rule’ and more about people learning to listen seriously to each other about things that are important” (“An Introduction” 18-19). I do hope, however, that our “fundamental conviction” in the Socratic philosophy doesn’t, as Steven North wrote, “outlive [its] usefulness” and “come back to haunt us: mislead us, delude us, … or lock us into trajectories which – should we persist in following them – are likely to take us places that we don’t really want to go” (North 17). As I argue in my previous paper entitled “Socratic and Directive: a contextual fusion of tutoring methods,” there are alternative tutoring methods that can be very successful under the right circumstances.

It is important for the tutor to not have an ideological dependency on any one tutoring philosophy but to be open-minded to all methods and to be aware of the circumstances when each method can best help the writer in a tutoring session. In the end, it is the tutor’s awareness and ability to objectively monitor how his or her session is going that play the largest part in deciding which tutoring method to utilize so as to maximize the benefit for the writer. No one method can be considered best; each has its advantages and disadvantages in a variety of different circumstances. The accepted WC philosophy should thus be expanded to include both the directive and Socratic methods and all possible variations in between. I agree with Shamoon and Burns when they state:

If writing center practices are broadened to include both directive and non-directive tutoring, the result would be an enrichment of tutoring repertoires, stronger connections between the writing center and writers in other disciplines, and increased attention to the cognitive, social, and rhetorical needs of writers at all stages of development. (Burns & Shamoon 148)

Increasing the number of acceptable tutoring methods by contextually fusing the Socratic with the directive would raise the number of tools that tutors can use so as to best help the writer, whoever he or she may be.

It is especially critical to be aware of and consider all methods of tutoring when the writer is one who is a victim of structural racism. The point here is not to point fingers or make special policies regarding any particular writers, but to simply raise the awareness of the utmost importance that a tutor-writer session can be to students that truly need our help with more than just a paper. In a system that institutionally ignores their disadvantaged backgrounds, these students may seek the help of the Writing Center to get further in life and tutors ought to recognize and embrace such opportunities to help. This may mean going out of our way to make ourselves available to the writer by suggesting regular weekly meetings, taking a more active role in the writer’s learning process, and even setting aside more than our three assigned tutoring hours to meet the writer’s needs. Only by actively going against the structurally racist status quo can tutors, as individuals, hope to promote positive social change.

As a concluding thought, I shall share a relevant experience I had this semester as a tutor at the UIC Writing Center. During my first week as a tutor, a man of Middle Eastern descent that looked to be in his forties came into the center seeking information about the university’s TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) preparation classes. I didn’t have a session at the time and volunteered to help him find the information he was looking for online. We found that Kaplan was holding weekly courses at the university; I printed out the contact information for the man, for which he was very grateful. We got to talking and I suggested that I could help him with the essay writing part of the test, if he wished. He was very happy about the idea and from that day on I met with him regularly once, sometimes twice, a week for the majority of the semester.

I learned much about the man and his particular situation: he was an immigrant and a full-time physical therapist by trade for a number of years in the United States and was suddenly now required by law as a result of some new legislation to take and pass the TOEFL exam to be able to stay in his profession. The man could clearly communicate in the spoken word but, understandably, didn’t have much experience with proper English grammar and essay-writing, and now he was in a situation in which he was presented with what seemed like an ultimatum from the government – to get a certain percentile on the TOEFL by a certain date or lose his job in the U.S. So, while working full-time, he also had to take an expensive Kaplan course so as to maximize his chances at passing this test; considering he also agreed to meet with me as often as twice a week to go over his writing, it could be assumed that his situation was truly desperate.

I did my best to help the man with his writing, assigning essays for him to write that we would go over the next session, using every minute of our sessions to productively get him to write the ‘proper’ essay. After realizing the man’s situation, it was impossible for me to look at our sessions as just ‘another session.’ I was helping this man in something greater than just writing a good paper – I was fighting alongside him so that he may retain his livelihood. I witnessed tremendous progress in the man’s writing ability over the weeks we worked together and it was a truly rewarding experience for me. I do not know whether he succeeded or not, but I can only hope that my working with him helped him become a better writer so as to pass this test. However one may put it, this man was a victim of structural racism, and recognizing this at the time, I took the initiative to help fight against the system that was trying to bring him down.

Works Cited

“An Introduction to Tutoring at the UIC Writing Center.” Spring 2007.

Barron, Nancy and Nancy Grimm. “Addressing Racial Diversity in a Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal. Volume 22, Number 2. Spring/Summer 2002.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “Racialized Social System Approach to Racism.” Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity. Ed. Charles Gallagher. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. 151-160.

Lewis, Amanda E. “Personal web site.” Department of Sociology. Last updated: August 27, 2003. University of Illinois at Chicago. Last accessed: May 6, 2007. .

North, Steven. “Revisiting ‘The Idea of a Writing Center.’”

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. “Racial Formations.” Rethinking the Color Line: Readings in Race and Ethnicity. Ed. Charles Gallagher. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. 9-17.

Roosevelt University Writing Center.” Last updated: February 19, 2007. Roosevelt University. Last accessed: May 6, 2007. .

Young, Iris Marion. Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

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