Academic journal article College English

"Engaging Race": Teaching Critical Race Inquiry and Community-Engaged Projects

Academic journal article College English

"Engaging Race": Teaching Critical Race Inquiry and Community-Engaged Projects

Article excerpt

What good is rhetoric," asks Ben Kuebrich, "when Tamir Rice wasn't given a second to speak?" (567). Kuebrich's 2015 article about the processes and production of a community publication, I Witness: Perspectives on Policing in the Near Westside, "was not written for the current moment" (568) of heightened and visible race-related strife and violence but surely speaks to it. "I don't know how to write for this moment" (568), Kuebrich asserts, but knows all of us who understand the power and perils of language in the long history of racial oppression must try. Two years after Kuebrich's insistence that rhetoricians and compositionists counter the racist rhetorics that dehumanize, devalue, and threaten the lives of African American males, the call for rhetoricians to participate in antiracist work is persistently and palpably urgent. The "still . . . very deep and strong current of racism and White supremacy in the United States" (Au xvi) has been exacerbated by the Trump White House, from the White House website listing "Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community" as one of its "Top Issues," using language that connotes African Americans as the opposition while reinscribing racist stereotypes ("Standing"), to Louisiana's May 2016 "Blue Lives Matter" bill treating police officers as a protected class (Shuey). As Mark Potok, Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center claims, "[I]t seems undeniable that Trump's reckless, populist campaign has left a legacy of hatred, violence, and division."

There is wide consensus in rhetoric and composition that language, discourse, and communicative practices are not only complicit in but also inexLaurie tricable from oppression based on race and in maintaining White supremacy. Those with expertise in the myriad ways language functions have an important role to play, both in exposing race and power in language use and in offering antiracist alternatives. As Keith Gilyard writes,

[the] creative yet disciplined study, practice, and teaching of language across a range of activities and genres remain invaluable resources for the development of a substantive and critical democracy, . . . enabl[ing] us to make our best responses to cultural and linguistic diversity, educational opportunities and challenges, written texts and public deliberations. (xi)

The gross misreading of "Black Lives Matter" in its rhetorical context is among the most recent examples of the need for critical understandings of discourse beyond our classroom walls.

Just as there is current need in this area, there is also a current interest. Of course, "Talking about race is easy; talking about it well is hard. Teaching it seems downright impossible both inside and outside of courses focused exclusively on it" (Rivers 1). Unsurprisingly very few instructors teach race (Pimentel 97); anxiety, discomfort, and fear are inevitable for instructors of critical race pedagogies (Barlow 431). The research I present in this article will not assuage anyone's anxiety or discomfort. Nonetheless, I hope to add to this urgent conversation about the challenges of antiracist work in rhetoric and composition through the perspective of community-engaged projects, the term used in the April 2016 Conference on College Composition and Communication Statement on Community-Engaged Projects in Rhetoric and Composition (CEPRC) to refer to "scholarly, teaching, or community-development activities that involve collaborations between one or more academic institutions and one or more local, regional, national, or international community group(s) and contribute to the public good." The discipline has produced a wealth of scholarship documenting high-impact activities and initiatives benefitting students, faculty, and communities as well as the challenges, barriers, and risk-taking of such work.1 It has added new perspectives on longstanding disciplinary issues from the role of rhetoric in public life to newer issues raised by CEPRC, such as the dynamics of democratic collaboration across university-community boundaries (Flower, Community; Himley; House). …

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