All White Remix

When I walked into Alison West 206 on February 11 for my first day as an English instructor, I expected to have at least one black student in my section. But no. When I called roll, white person after white person said “here.” And when they look at me (and heck, even at the headshots of the people whose writing we read), it’s all whiteness.


Why does this matter?

It matters because that isn’t reality.

So when Banks writes in Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age that his purpose is to scratch and interrupt, to play between two disciplinary conversations, one about African American rhetoric and one about composing in multimodal forms (2), I want to go with him. I find his writing to be self-reflective, engaging, and inviting.

But I also feel hypocritical because I haven’t figured out, as a white person teaching white students, how to talk responsibly about race and power. Or more importantly, how to do the work that Banks writes about in his compelling social commentary about rhetorical strategies used by digital griots.

How can DJs’ creative and rhetorical moves come into play when I’m teaching white first year students how to enter the scholarly conversation? Or to see the bibliographic essay as a mixtape, as Banks suggests? How can I help students try “sampling” through their use of someone else’s idea that is vital enough that they don’t just cite it but make it a “looped” and “continually repeated” part of their own creations (26)?

I feel convicted because I know that Banks is right that the “acts of writing, the social networks and cultural contexts in which they occur, and the technological networks in which they take place and are disseminated still involve systems of power, still reflect relationships  between individuals and groups within those systems” (154). My own writing as well as the E110 writing I assign are embedded within a “system of power” that unconsciously excludes or dismisses voices and perspectives of minorities, even as the academy tries to make room for people whose voices were silenced for much of history.

In short, I am utterly persuaded of the richness and possibility in flow, layering, rupture, and remix of hip hop. That process (and indeed, the product of a remix) appeals a great deal more than the staid and patchwritten research paper drafts that cross my desk.

On the positive side, the technologies available to us and to our students can open up startlingly rich combinations, as Banks deftly and creatively discusses (and indeed, performs) in his book.

The question I am left with is this: if “black griotic traditions call for an approach to writing that is committed to the range and flexibility to ‘teach in the idiom of the people'” (155), what can we do if the people in the classroom are. all. white? What then?

6 thoughts on “All White Remix”

  1. Janel,

    The lack of racial diversity not just in our E110 classrooms but also at the university as a whole is something I’ve heard reiterated countless times and from a wide variety of people: undergrads, fellow graduate students, and even faculty members.

    But even after hearing all of these “white” woes over the past two years, it doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten any closer to a solution. Furthermore, what can we, as graduate students/instructors, actually do to change the racial makeup of the entire university? Yes, it’s clearly an issue, but it often feels like a moot point since it’s essentially “out of our hands.”

    Racial makeup aside, I share your concerns about how to bring race into my E110 classrooms because, well, what can a “privileged” white male like me actually bring to the table? And that seems to be what’s at the heart of this issue, which you rightfully get at in your post: if we’re not from a specific community, how can we teach things about it in a respectful, effective way?

    Turns out, I don’t have any kind of answer to that because I admittedly avoid any and all conversations about race after I tried to have my students last semester discuss whether Miley Cyrus is trying to appeal to a more “urban” market and was promptly rebuffed by a black female student.

    But you know what? I’m damn good at facilitating mindful discussions of sex, gender, and sexuality because that is a community I actually belong to.

    So, although we should obviously try to teach outside of our comfort zones as much as/whenever possible (easier said than done), perhaps we can use Banks’ discussions of race to our advantage by adapting them to whatever communities we do belong to that achieve a similar rhetorical aim?

  2. Hey, Chris,

    Thanks for the response! I actually do usually agree with you that we can teach things in a respectful way. I think what’s holding me back a bit in the case of Griots is that Banks is advocating for a profoundly African American rhetoric; while it can certainly be put to use to make space for other “minority” discourses, it is intrinsically marked as black.

    I just worry about appropriating modes that began as response to and rejection of white/upper class power structures to put them to use in an all-white classroom.


    1. One way to discuss topics such as these is to come at it from your perspective, and I’m thinking here of the McIntosh article I linked on my post in the comments, but also this list, particularly this article: I like this article, which does not talk about race but neurotypicality, because it interacts directly with McIntosh (so her work can be up for discussion as well in terms of an academic conversation) and it breaks down terms really well.

      With both of these pieces, the discussion begins not as how others are marginalized, but as how others are privileged. That could be one way to start a conversation.

  3. While I agree with you, Janel, that Banks seems to be putting forth a very specifically African American rhetoric, I too think that his ideas can be applied more broadly to the wider definitions of “minority” or “diversity” that you and Chris bring up.

    After all, positing THE African American community is reductive in and of itself (something I got slightly frustrated with in Banks), but then it’s very hard to make an argument that that ANY community is truly monolithic. Yes, many of our students “read” as fairly racially and culturally homogeneous (white, middle class, possibly skewed conservative, etc.), but I don’t think that we should take that as the whole picture either. As you have both hinted, there are lots of other “invisible” communities that our students bring with them and that we as teachers can (and should) tap into while still making race part of the conversation.

  4. Janel (et al.),

    I wonder what you make of Callie’s idea that Banks is really putting forward an “ethic of diversity.” Does that elide his specific concerns and investments with blackness? If not, how might we teach such an ethic?

    And to tag on to Petra’s observation about UD undergrads: Yes, predominantly white—but what about class, gender, sexuality, religion, region, abledness? I suspect that the homogeneity we feel that we face (and I get it, I do) may in some ways literally be on the surface. So, how do we dig past that surface, to get students to recognize, identify, and engage with the differences among them?


  5. I think we might stretch Banks’ mission about a flexibility of idiom and form beyond a racial paradigm (as Petra has been suggesting). The ethics here might be as simple as not devaluing their non-hegemonic discourse tendencies–nobody, after all, really inhabits the hegemonic center, they’re just all jostling to be similar. This is difficult, of course, because we have a hard time differentiating teaching “this is a useful discourse here” from “this discourse is more useful here than your crappy discourse”, even when we say that explicitly. We should not fall into the danger of seeing diversity as a set of fixed categories (see: Haraway, cyborg, affinity).

    Since Janel might just read this, here’s a story that helps make my point: when I was applying to PhD programs, on a whim I applied to a very prestigious program at a school in New England whose name starts with an H. I’d submitted my application and fees, and within a few days got an email from a deputy-assistant-to-the-assistant-of-the-vice-provost-for-diversity-in-admissions type asking me if I had material to verify my membership in ethnicity X. My first response: “They read my application?” and then “I should have never checked off those boxes” and then, disgustedly “I’m not going to draw them a goddamned family tree so they can cut me up into little boxes and reduce me to my ethnic categories. That’s not me.” My response in email: “No I do not.” They kept the application fee, and I didn’t hear anything until a thin envelope arrived in the mail.

    Basically what I’m saying is, for Banks’ ethics to work, race of the served population does not really matter. What does matter is not reducing them to a series of categories that must be served as homogeneous populations, or telling them that their discursive ways (whatever they are) are less inherently valuable as communications tools than academic discourse.

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