Academic journal article English Education

White Abjections: Language and Feeling in the Urban English Classroom

Academic journal article English Education

White Abjections: Language and Feeling in the Urban English Classroom

Article excerpt

". . . decolonization is not only a political and military process but also an imaginative one-an enunciation of new possibilities and collectives, new names and identities, new structures of thought and feeling."

-Jahan Ramazani

Keisha (a pseudonym) sits on a desk in the back row, unraveling her meal. She tears off each square and pushes it into her mouth. The toilet paper roll starts to shrink as the minutes pass. I can barely stand it. "Keisha, please stop. It's making me sick." Clarice raises her hand, excited to school me on Keisha's behavior: "Oh, Ms. P., it's a condition some people have-it was on the Tyra Banks show!" A few students murmur in agreement. Keisha grins. "Sorry, Miss. I won't make you look." She turns her enormous body to face the windows. Now we share the same view: telephone wires, a gray sky, the rooftops of housing projects. Only my view includes Keisha's back as she continues to eat this ass-kissing promise, this terrible, white (sc)roll. My stomach churns inside my bony frame.

Keisha eating toilet paper in the back of College Essay Writing class seven years ago surfaces in my memory as a grotesque idiosyncrasy, or an unusual condition that she apparently shares with some of the men and women on the Tyra Banks show. Meanwhile, such television shows condition those who watch them to accept conditions like Keisha's as normal abnormalities; in other words, we shouldn't be too surprised that some people eat weird shit. It feels (un)easy to observe these anomalies from a distance. However, upon a subsequent re-membering that involves my consciously projected meaning onto this memory, my own white frame that cannot visually contain Keisha at this stomach-wrenching moment frames me as a part of her condition. What makes me a recognizable English teacher remains unnamed in the face of Keisha's condition. Similarly, "urban" (code for poor, minority [Popkewitz, 1998]) schools, many of which espouse "zero-tolerance" policies for any infraction to a school rule, function as "unwaved flags," or enhabitated routines (Billig, 2005, p. 42), that generally go unrecognized in their identity-productions. Such policies, incompatible with a "Restorative English Education" (Winn, 2013) that explicitly addresses racial injustices, have come to constitute an urban school norm. In this sense, the school validates my inability to tolerate Keisha's disruption to my everyday well-being as an English teacher reproduced by and reproducing school ideology. Inevitably, I am what I have become at this moment: trained teacher who pleads for her student to stop realizing (making real) an intolerable horror that re-frames the classroom as an abjective, rather than objective, site of learning.

Subject Matters

As I write this, I wonder whether Keisha ever "overcame" her "condition." I also wonder why this disturbing memory keeps bubbling up in relation to my obsessive questions about language and feeling in the urban English classrooms at which I have taught. The social injustice that hides behind the seemingly innocuous reproduction of what is commonly called "Standard English" emerges as a double-edged pencil: the simultaneous force-feeding of institutionalized, standardizing language and the unequal, racially skewed distribution of discipline to student mouths. As an effective English teacher-a teacher who efficiently prepares her students to score well on standardized tests, to improve their usage of Standard English, and to develop literacy skills based on quantitative assessments-at a Title 1 high school in one of Brooklyn's poorest and blackest neighborhoods, I am implicated in this injustice through my own repeated performances of the ideological norms of the institution that both produces and measures my English teacher effectiveness by the accountable whiteness that my students read, write, speak, and perform on insidiously "neutral" tests. Hence, I use the word effective bitingly. Even though I feel that I connected with my students in ways that evaded, exceeded, and often resisted school moves, my teacher effectiveness was intimately linked to systemic beliefs and expectations of what a good teacher is supposed to achieve in relation to, and as a means of propelling, current institutional ideology. …

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