Each fall, a week or so before classes start, the instructors in Stanford's Program in Writing and Rhetoric hold a retreat of sorts, during which they review the principles that guide the program’s theory and practice, give presentations on what they see as major concerns of the year, read and discuss articles pertinent to the program and its students, and enjoy one another’s company. It’s one of my favorite times of year.
During this year’s sessions, the question with which I open this post came up. Actually, someone first asked “Is writing white?”—and some discussion focused on the nature of academic writing followed. Both are good questions. In many cultures, early writing systems were the province of a small group of elites; moreover, writing was a means of regulation used by those in power to control those who weren’t. This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but one that holds a good bit of truth, especially in the U.S. where it was a crime to teach slaves to write (and read) and where written laws served to disenfranchise millions.
So in the sense that writing was aligned with power in this country, and power had a very white face, writing could be considered “white.” Ebony Coletu has written ( ! ) powerfully about what she terms “forms of submission,” demonstrating how the strictures of forms, such as those associated with welfare, led to submission to the system itself. In 1974 when the Conference on College Composition and Communication adopted the Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution that later appeared in a pamphlet by that title and in a number of other publications, the organization recognized this long history—and the danger that such linguistic racism engendered and supported.
The passage of that resolution marked an important milestone for me and many others in the profession. While I passionately wanted writing to serve as a means to empowerment, I saw more and more clearly how often it did not meet that goal, especially and often ironically in school settings. I read Elspeth Stuckey’s The Violence of Literacy and wept.
But then I acted. I put my own assumptions under a microscope, and I asked that students come along with me. For decades, I taught a course called “The Language Wars,” or some similar title, in which we moved from learning about the struggle to establish the vernacular as “legitimate” in a number of other countries to the struggle to legitimate vernaculars in this country. We learned that the structures valued in academic discourse (the tight logic, distanced style, etc.) were not valued characteristics of other discourses. We read Michelle Cliff’s “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write It in Fire” and understood why, after completing a Ph.D. in English literature, she felt she never wanted to write, ever, again. She had gotten sealed in the box of (white) academic writing, but she couldn’t live—or write—there anymore.
Best of all, we identified and traced challenges to “white” academic writing, collecting and sharing our favorite examples (often, of course, by people of color and women) of writers offering exciting—thrilling, really!—ways of writing, from Tillie Olsen to Geneva Smitherman, Lee Tonouchi, and a host of others.
It’s been a long time since that 1974 resolution, and over the decades I’ve taught The Language Wars, our field has become at least a little more inclusive, more open to challenges to such “white” writing, to the use of writing to regulate and control (think of all those exams, of all those college writing samples. . . .), and finally to the hegemony of English itself. Today, scholars are exploring the possibilities of translingual writing and approaches to writing, and they are leading the way in creating an academic discourse that includes and honors varieties of English as well as other languages. So over my 45 years in the field, I can see progress toward more pluralistic, inclusive norms for writing in the academy, helped along tremendously by the rise of social media and other electronic forms of communication. Adam Banks’s 2015 CCCC Chair’s address, originally performed in Tampa and subsequently published in CCC, is to my mind a brilliant example of powerful academic writing. And it is NOT white.