White Teachers Are a Problem | A Conversation with Asao Inoue

pittsburg segregation map

“You are the problem . . . Your body perpetuates racism,” Dr. Asao Inoue told a group of his white colleagues earlier this year in his chair’s address at the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication held in Pittsburgh, titled “How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, Or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?” (see text, video, and slides). Professor and Associate Dean at Arizona State University, Inoue has written several influential antiracist books within writing studies. His talk, which challenges racism in the teaching of college writing specifically but speaks to teachers of any discipline at any level, precipitated intense discussion online. Among other responses, the talk moved a great many people—including people of color who expressed feeling heard, seen, and supported as well as white people, such as myself, who felt challenged to do better and be better.

I sat down with Inoue to discuss the talk. The video of our conversation is below. The central takeaway is not at all difficult to grasp: Teachers need to appreciate diverse ways of using English, and this includes not penalizing students for using dialects or aspects of dialects outside “Standard” English. When we are inclusive linguistically, we practice antiracist teaching. When we are not, we perpetuate White Language Supremacy. To be clear, Inoue stresses, there is nothing wrong with valuing Standard English. What is wrong is valuing Standard English more than other ways of speaking and writing—since doing so devalues and places obstacles in the way of the speakers and writers who use those other ways. We have to finally and forever rid ourselves of the idea that “Standard” English is the one and only Correct English.

Other aspects of the talk were more difficult—especially the passage cited above, where Inoue calls white teachers “the problem.” He is alluding here to the famous passage in The Souls of Black Folk where W.E.B. Du Bois describes being or feeling constantly asked as a Black man, “How does it feel to be a problem?” The use of the term “problem” exists and must be understood, then, in historical and literary context, which complicates it. Also, as he told me in our conversation, “Provocative statements and claims get us to this point right now. They get us to talking about white supremacy . . .” So for white people to be a “problem” does not mean we are bad. (He specifically says many of us are good.) But it does mean we need to sit with our “whiteness” for a while and puzzle out just what, in light of being white in this society, our lives and work mean for ourselves and for others. Such racial introspection is exactly what Inoue calls us to do when, in our conversation, he describes the problem of white teachers as a paradox. He calls white teachers to listen to folks of color and to question our assumptions not only about others but also about ourselves. His talk—and our conversation—help me to do this work more deeply. I am grateful for this.


Thanks to Taylor Lyon for transcribing this conversation. As you will see, they retained the conversational quality of the text, with all its mid-sentence starts and stops and so forth.

CORRIGAN: Welcome! Paul Corrigan here with Dr. Asao Inoue, chair of the College Conference on Composition and Communication, known as 4Cs, recently Associate Dean at Arizona State University, author of several very influential anti-racist books in writing studies. And this year Asao gave a powerful talk as the Chair’s Address at the 4Cs, and the talk precipitated a debate on a professional Listserv that included some responses that were so racist they were covered in Inside Higher Ed [see erratum below]. Also, and more importantly, the talk also moved a great many people, including people of color who felt that they were heard and supported and seen by the talk as well as white people, including myself, who felt challenged to be better and to do better. Asao has agreed to talk with me about the talk. So thanks for being here today.

INOUE: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

CORRIGAN: I’ve got some questions, so we’ll jump in and we’ll see where it leads us. The first thing: We’re in a moment right now in the U.S. where for the first time in my lifetime conversations about racism and antiracism are a major part of the public discourse, in the last few years. And I’m thinking about the rhetorical concept of kairos, the most opportune moment for a message to be delivered, and it seems that your talk was particularly kairotic. So were you counting on that? Were you thinking about that?

INOUE: Well, I think kairos is also about perspective. I mean, whose kairotic moment are we talking about? Who dictates the kairos of a moment like this one that you’re noticing? So I think, from my perspective as a person of color who grew up in the U.S., talking about racism and white supremacy has always been kairotic for me. It’s always been exigent. Maybe in the U.S. more generally today, white folks are being forced to or are more willing to allow discussions of race and racism, whiteness, white supremacy, etc., to be kairotic. That is, to be on the table and discussed in an open and explicit way. Or maybe people of color and the oppressed, or the oppressed, are forcing this to be kairotic, right? So was I thinking about it? Was I counting on it? No. What I was hoping for was to create some kairos for this, whether it meant by pushing people or it meant by surprising folks or maybe making them a little uncomfortable. And I think that is really important for anyone’s growth on any dimension—is to feel a little uncomfortable. And I think that tells us—that it’s a signal to us—that says, “This isn’t what I came into the room thinking or feeling or behaving or embodying. Let me sit with it for a little bit and see how it might change me or how it might help me.”

CORRIGAN: I love that. In your talk you name and attack rightly “white language supremacy.” And I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t heard that exact phrase before, but I think by the time I get to the end of your talk I had a sense of what exactly you meant, which is basically using white language norms or what we refer to as “standard English” as the standard to judge student writing, student speech, student . . . etc. Am I understanding that correctly?

INOUE: Yeah. I think you’ve got the heart of it. It took me a few drafts when I was doing the talk, writing the talk, to come to that term. I had played around with a few other terms, so it was a term that I thought carefully about to use, so it’s probably why you hadn’t heard it [Laughs]—because I don’t know if anyone else had used it before. I didn’t see it anywhere else in exactly that way, so, I mean, I played around with “bias” and “dominant English” and terms like that, but those concepts didn’t really give me the the right kind of—I wanted a response that was going to be uncomfortable, and yoking things like supremacy, especially white supremacy, I think often will do that and makes people sort of perk an ear, if you will. So that’s where, I guess. But you have the gist of that right. It really is hinged on not—it’s not like an attack on white folks who use a particular kind of middle-class dominant English. It’s not an attack on that, nor is it an attack on those things, that language practice as such. It is an attack on the using that as a standard universally, which, ultimately, we know what that does to various groups of folks who don’t use that or do not come from groups who use that language predominantly.

CORRIGAN: So one of the key takeaways from your talk, then, in terms of this very practical . . . is that teachers must respect language differences. What advice would you give for teachers who accept that argument, want to do that, but are really only familiar with their own dialect which happens to be the standard English dialect?

INOUE: Yeah. I mean, that’s the problem for most of us, right? We speak our own version of English or we use our own versions of English. So first, I should say we probably should recognize that most of us only have access to one kind of English and that will usually be dependent upon where you’re from, who raised you, what luck of birth and place you happen to get dealt when you were born, etc. So I never say writing or English teachers need anything more linguistically to teach diverse students than what they have now, what they come into their own classroom with, what they bring to that classroom. We all use the language we have to do language work, whatever that language work is. For writing teachers that language work is teaching language or teaching critical thinking. Now, by this same logic I think our students shouldn’t need anything more linguistically than what they come into the classroom with in order to succeed and have success or access, for instance, to all of the grades possible in the course if they are willing to do the labor of the course or to do the work of the course. So, respecting language difference means not holding up a false language hierarchy in a classroom and judging all students against the one standard that creates that hierarchy. And what goes along with a hierarchy are things like the ways in which we understand logics, the different kinds of logics we might have, the different priorities we have when we notice things in language. So what do we notice as evidence or what do we notice as being logical and clear and concise, or even the notion of concision itself is itself a Western linear sort of tradition and disposition. So for me this is mostly about—not English teachers, writing teachers, learning new languages so they can teach the students in front of them—although that would not be a bad thing, for us to broaden our language capacities. But instead it’s to find ways to use your own language and the languages that come into the classroom to good effect for those who are there, and part of that might mean finding out new goals and new outcomes for those classes.

CORRIGAN: When I talk to my students about Englishes, plural, I always struggle a little bit to know what to call any particular dialect because I don’t want to imply an essential link between dialect and race, as if my black students were “talking white” if they use standard English or failing to “talk black” if they if they don’t use African American Vernacular English. So do you have any suggestions for me on how to how to navigate that?

INOUE: I do, but let me first say I think that posing that question to a class, a first year writing class, a language class, a literature class, is really a good opportunity to talk about these things that we’re talking about. And I think it is exactly what that classroom is about, right? Because what happens when you ask that question, when you start getting into the politics of language and language identification and language ideologies? And those are exactly the things I think most of us want our students to be aware of. They don’t need to be experts on it, but they should be aware of it and that they are positioned in that political debate even if they are not a part of the debate exactly. It has consequences on them. So I think that we need—for myself, I offer this explanation or a set of questions as a way for my students to think about this with me. I think we need to name the varieties of language like English in ways that matter most politically to our students and historically to those before us whom we inherited these varieties of language from. So it’s important to say, “This is white English,” “This is black English,” etc., since those are the typical political terms that we have today. This is not to say that doing such labeling decentralizes language practices for particular individuals who may be affiliated with a racial, you know, group or formation. So, we can identify what we see inductively. That is, we can notice inductively what’s happening and make observations without using such observations as major premises that later dictate false syllogisms about our students and their language practices. So, we don’t need to use it in a deductive fashion, and I think that’s important, but we have to identify this—what we’re doing. So I think your caution is a very good one. I think we need to connect race to language because language has always been a marker of race. It has been deployed in a number of ways for racial and racist projects in the U.S. and Western Empire. And when we don’t see language practices racialized, we can easily think that black or Latinx failure in writing programs or classes, for example, are caused by lazy, inept, or dumb students, and most of the time this is simply not the case. So, yeah.

CORRIGAN: In your address, you draw kind of a bright, clear line between (a) the practice of devaluing non-dominant Englishes in the classroom and (b) killing black and brown bodies on the streets and in prisons. And I think this is a really important line to draw, and because so many of us miss it so often it’s important to draw it as vividly and brightly as you did. But I’m imagining two possible responses to that that I wanted to see if you might speak back to. So what would you say to the listener who says (a) “I want to see how those things are connected but I just don’t” or (b) the listener coming from a very different place who says, “You know, I’ve lost loved ones to racist violence and I don’t think it’s appropriate to equate these two things or to put them even on the same . . .” So I think it’s an important point but I’m imagining these possible responses and I want to know what you might say to those.

INOUE: Yeah, a really interesting question and an important one. I’ll start with the first one, the (a). So let me see. So (a) is about—you said you wanted to see how things are connected but you’re not sure—how did you put it?

CORRIGAN: So to the listener who says, “I see the violence in the street. I’m correcting grammar. I don’t see how they’re connected.”

INOUE: Well, I think there really is a lot inside of this in terms of promoting a white English that kills people of color, right? So, a lot to unpack. And first of all, I think folks have to see it as an important issue and a vital issue, one that’s visceral and bodily, not simply language and not simply in our heads, because it ain’t just how we communicate. Language is how we think, how we see, how we feel, how we make sense of the world. It is us in almost all of that that can be. It’s not the only way that we do these things, but it’s a primary way we do these things, and it certainly is a primary way in which we express what we do when we do these things to other people. So my job in the address was not to explain fully this dynamic but to pose it so that it can be the discussion at hand. When we think in one way and refuse to value other ways equally, then it is not a far road to killing. We see this all over the world throughout history. We can look at the dialogue and actions around our own southern border in the U.S. today. Are we having these same conversations about our northern border? No. And there is one big glaring difference: the south is Mexico, racially brown; the north is Canada, racially white. Are those places more complex racially? Of course, but that’s not how racial discussions or thinking function in the U.S. It’s broad brushstrokes, not fine, penciled lines. So this response is exactly what I was hoping for. That is, that we get to talk about this and we get to try to solve a few of these problems or start by ironing out things. Now, the second response, the one that’s more about thinking about levels of violence and understanding, “Well, I lost loved ones to racial violence,” and this is absolutely true. So, first, it ain’t all about grammar, or even mostly, that is the killing. So, two, the fight against racism and white supremacy is not an either/or thing. The iron cage of racism that I was trying to explain in the talk and white supremacy have many interconnected bars. So, just because we can see or understand how white language supremacy leads to killing people of color, that does not diminish the suffering or the racist physical violence that happens also. It’s a both/and issue, not an either/or issue. We’d be foolish, I think, not to fight the war against white supremacy on multiple fronts.

CORRIGAN: Yeah. That’s really helpful. In your talk, you cite Audre Lorde’s famous statement that you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tool. And I’m thinking of the rebuttal by Henry Louis Gates, that it says we can only dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tool. And before your talk this had struck me as an open debate between different strategies of language use in the furtherance of justice and in the dismantling of white supremacy, but as I read your talk, it comes across to me that this is actually not an open debate and your point seems to be not just that strategic assimilation into white language and culture won’t work but that we all should have already known that. Am I on track with that?

INOUE: You probably are. I mean, I don’t want to invalidate your response to this, because I think it’s a really, really good one and a nuance that might be lost by some if they don’t know some of this debate. So I’m glad that you bring this up and, likely partly because of the genre of an address like this and how much time I’ve got, I can’t [crosstalk] debate. But it may also be that my own need to do other things made it sound like in a very real way that this sounds like this is a closed debate. So I’m glad you bring this up. Let me offer some embellishment on what I said.


INOUE: So I don’t want to be as bold as to say that the question is closed that you bring up here, but I appreciate you bringing this up and I think that I agree with Gates but I also agree with Lorde [Laughs]. And Lorde for me makes the stronger case right now. We cannot dismantle white supremacy without including other ways of building a fundamentally different kind of world of language, of logics, of anything, right? We have to use both dominant and non-dominant tools, if you will, equally. But maybe dismantling houses is the wrong metaphor or maybe it’s too limited. The work we are all talking about is structural work: changing structures that harm people, language structures, institutional structures, societal structures. And they’re really dispositions. So I think, for me, Bourdieu most robustly defines dispositions the best as durable structuring structures as they reproduce themselves in stubborn ways. And so it’s difficult to get outside of them. That’s why I think this is probably, for good reason, a debate, right? So, in short, I think we need both the master’s tools and other tools, but we can’t have one without the other. So again I think this is the case of a both/and situation.

CORRIGAN: Probably the most difficult passage in your talk is this one: You say to your colleagues—I’m going to quote several sentences here—“You perpetuate white language supremacy in your classrooms because you are white and stand in front of your students as many white teachers have before you, judging, assessing, grading, professing on the same kinds of language standards, standards that come from your group of people. It’s the truth. It ain’t fair but it’s the truth. Your body perpetuates racism.” And I see two things running together here. One is white actions, specifically the action of judging by white standards. And then the other is white bodies, simply being in the room as a white person. And now I know I can change my actions, but I can’t change my body. I can change what I do but not who I am, and if both are bad then I’m wondering, where does that leave us?

INOUE: Yeah. Great question, and again, another one that I’m really thankful and humbled that you brought up. I think we know versions of this, of my response—that you’re going to know versions of my response from other rhetorical ways we think about stuff. Who can get to say what and how does something get read or heard differently from when a different body says it or hears it? So, I think this passage that was part of the address came out of me needing to tell my white colleagues, most of whom I love and care about, that it fucking sucks and hurts and is hard to be the problem. So it’s a paradox, and a paradox cannot be solved. Both sides are equally true, or all sides are equally true or have some truth to them. So yeah, I’m not offering a way out of this paradox. It’s a paradox, one of those white supremacist structures that have been created historically and maintained and cultivated and nurtured throughout history, right? So it’s a situation that we didn’t create but we’re in. So I’m not blaming people for being white. Being white is not a problem. It is the conditions within which white people live that is the problem. So the problem is the condition of being white in a white supremacist world that gives favor and privileges to white bodies, and then those bodies get read differently. So that same issue or that same dynamic works in a different direction when you’re a body of color, when you’re Black, or you’re Latinx, and so forth. So for me it’s really more about the conditions in which we do this, so maybe I’ll come back to your initial question about kairos, right? So this may be one way to inflect kairos in this. It is the ongoing kairotic thing that we have to do. But I will say that this paradox is something, like all paradoxes in literacy classrooms, that Freire tells us or talks to us about. We should be questioning and thinking about it. We should be finding ways. I think this is an absolutely vital question for every writing teacher to think about when they teach language and then judge that language or grade that language in a classroom, which, when we know what that means for our students, it means doling out opportunities and prizes to folks.

CORRIGAN: Now, I really appreciate that notion of it being a paradox. I mean, I’m wanting you just solve it for me.

INOUE: [Laughs]

CORRIGAN: But your point is precisely, “No.” You’re not going to solve it.

INOUE: Right.

CORRIGAN: The next thing I want to ask you about is very practical. So you talk about kind of the main example of how white language supremacy operates practically in the classroom is through grading. What are some other ways?

INOUE: Wow. Well, grading and evaluating student writing, which includes all the ways that we offer feedback to students’ language and efforts, is all I’ve thought about really on this issue. It’s the majority of stuff I’ve thought about, although I am broadening that out. And it’s all—well, what that boils down to is issues of labor. And that’s how I’ve seen it, as issues of labor. How do we honor and value labor in very real, tangible ways? How do we make labor the way, the keys to access in education, in classrooms? And so maybe that’s one perspective, because I can’t answer that. Everyone’s teaching conditions, everyone’s pedagogies are a little different as well as their goals and teaching and their courses are different. Their students are different. Those students’ situations are different and they should be responding to those. So, you know, I can’t offer too much there. But I can offer broadly: maybe it’s about our stances as teachers, thinking about, “What am I valuing in this ecology? How do I change that in a very real way and how do I change it so that I may be a little uncomfortable for a while?” I think that if you change it so that you’re still comfortable then you haven’t really changed much at all [Laughs]. All you’ve done is switched stuff around and said, “Oh, it’s a new dinner.” I’m like, “What? You just put the meat on the other side of the plate.” Changing it would be, “Let’s go vegan,” “Let’s get the steak off the table and try something else,” or “Let’s not do it this way. Let’s try a totally different venue.” So I think for me that’s central, is thinking about the stance that I’m taking as I design and implement and enact with my students my pedagogy and my assessment. And the assessment, to me, is always the engine. Pedagogy is the warm, fuzzy stuff that we like to talk about because that’s part of the topics that we have studied and that we care about, and that’s why we often get into this business. But it’s the assessment stuff that matters most when it comes to opportunity and inclusion and exclusion in the academy.

CORRIGAN: I’m thinking also maybe text selection. Have guest speakers come in. Do they all speak the dominant standard language as well?

INOUE: And I think that would be a stance, right, like our stance towards what kinds of texts seem legitimate, what kinds of guest speakers seem legitimate. Yeah, for sure.  I like that. Yeah. I think you’re right.

CORRIGAN: So another example that you give—and I’m only hesitating because this is very specific to writing studies and hopefully folks in and outside of the discipline will be interested in our conversation—but you pull out the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, which is, for those who don’t know, a very influential guiding document in writing studies. It outlines certain habits of mind that students need to develop in college writing, including metacognition and creativity and curiosity. And you offer a really important and clear critique of the process that this document was created by, which is specifically almost all of the people who were involved in making are white. And it’s clear to me that that is a problem. But the second part of your critique I’m hoping you can help me understand, which is that it seems that you’re saying that the product itself is therefore damaged and [inaudible]. And I think this is really an important and hard statement you make: You say of the document, “Good work done by conscientious white people can still kill people of color by codifying white language supremacy.” I’m wondering if you can help me see how the document does that. I ask this because things like creativity and curiosity and metacognition don’t strike me—and of course I’m white, so maybe they wouldn’t—but they don’t strike me as white language habits, particularly because I’ve learned so much about them from writers of color. So maybe I’m not understanding your point. Maybe you can help me here.

INOUE: Yeah. Again, a really smart question, and I think it comes back into the heart of another paradox in this. So part of it might be that there’s another paradox, right? So sure, the main point of this section of the address was to point out how it ain’t enough to have the good intention of white women doing work that impacts the lives and opportunities of people color, that no one seemed to notice at that time this central document was almost completely created by white academics and led by a group of white women. Just as the process movement of composition theory, I think, taught us that product ain’t everything, and in fact it’s just a small bit of what we do when students learn literacy, we should also learn from who is a part of the process, the history, the labor of our organizations’ schools and classrooms and scholarship, especially the work that does so much work for all of us, like the framework. Now, if we drill deeper into how teachers and programs use the framework, that’s what I’m wondering in this bit of the address. And maybe I was being a bit too provocative in the section with my wording, but withholding, not overstating, being subdued in one’s claims, not being provocative I’d argue are whitely dispositions of language that I reject. That is, I do have some in my own languaging. I will have to admit that. But provocative statements and claims get us to this point right now. That is, they get us to talking about white supremacy in the framework and things like—take curiosity, for instance, it can be used, if we are not careful about how dispositions mark curiosity for teachers, to perpetuate white language standards in writing classrooms. I mean, how is a teacher going to grade on curiosity? What exactly is a teacher going to do in their assessment ecology because they want to promote the habit of mind called curiosity? In other words, what does it really look like? How is this solving a grading or evaluation problem that is the framework in general? I think most of the time it doesn’t. I think the habits of mind tend to solve curricular and pedagogical problems, leaving the assessment problem—the engine of racism, as I said before, in white supremacy—alone. So that’s what I was trying to sort of help us think about and pose it as a paradox with the very good—and I know most of those folks who created the framework. They’re wonderful, good, smart, intelligent people, and of course I think they’re not intending bad things here, but again intentions are not the point. It is the impact that is important, not the intentions.

CORRIGAN: Right. And I think you were clear about that, and anyone who’s been following intelligently conversations of racism and anti-racism can make that distinction between, “No, you’re not attacking me. You’re pointing out the problem.” In the last paragraph of your talk, you have like a list of questions, and you almost kind of go back point by point over what you had stated. And you say, “Am I being overly dramatic?” And you finish this list of questions saying, “These are the questions we need to be asking.” And this shift, which seems to be from assertion to question or from saying “This is so” to “Is this so?” makes me think about earlier in the talk where you kind of right up front talked about deep listening, asked your audience to listen deeply. Are you saying in this conclusion that what is most important here is that your listeners listen rather than asserting that we all must agree? Is that what you’re doing by ending with questions?

INOUE: Yeah, sort of. So I think it again depends on who you are in the room, right? Again, because of time how much time I had, I wanted—an earlier version of the talk had a little bit longer section in which I introduce or I talk about Krista Ratcliffe’s stuff on rhetorical listening and that as a response to Jacqueline Jones Royster’s keynote or chair’s address.  And the current version might actually not serve my purposes very well in this respect. So if you’re white and you’re in the room, I wanted you to listen [laughs], but listening requires that somebody else is talking, unless we’re listening to something else, like we’re not listening to other bodies, you know, saying things. But in this case we are. So yeah, my strategy was to open with questions and then try to say, “Now isn’t it time you listened to me?” [Laughs] Now, I will say, on this note, I think I heard one—I didn’t really hear a lot of negative. In fact, I didn’t hear hardly any negative critiques of the address during the conference or even after by email, but I don’t know if anyone would actually do that, like, you know, email me and just be snarky, like, “I didn’t like your address.” [Laughs] So those who didn’t like it or thought I was wrong just probably left it alone. But I will say that I heard one thing about, “Oh, Asao said this before. He said this at CWPA a few years ago when he gave a plenary there.” And in some ways I did. It wasn’t the same talk and it wasn’t the same illustrations and it wasn’t the same point, but there was a central core that was the same about white supremacy. Now, I think that is important here because if we’re really listening, why do I have to say it twice? And I think I felt like I had to say it and I have to keep saying it until things change, otherwise you can’t—I think we often as scholars and academics—we often put this wrong set of criteria on messages like this. We think, “Oh, you’ve already published on that. You don’t have to say that again.” But in reality you have to keep saying something until something—if the point is to change things, like structures and things like that, then I don’t think you can just stop and say, “Oh, well we talked about that twenty years ago.” Well, did anything come of that talk? [Laughs]

CORRIGAN: [Laughs] Right.

INOUE: No! We’re still in the same situation or we’re in a slightly different situation, but we still require the same message. That’s why we have history as a discipline and we take history classes and we learn from historians, because it’s important to keep looking back and understanding, “Let’s remember what happened.” We tell ourselves stories about our family members because we don’t want to forget and we want to pass that information on and that knowledge so that perhaps we change in the future or perhaps we don’t lose the mistakes we made in the past or the things we did well in the past. This, to me, is another version of that. I have to keep saying this and I’m asking that we listen or attend deeply to the words. Yeah.

CORRIGAN: So you just shared now about how you hadn’t got negative feedback during the conference or after personally, but this certainly changed when the talk was discussed on the professional Listserv. So, I’m curious. After that pretty intense and racist backlash, I guess a lot of a lot of resistance to it—I don’t know if we’re going to classify some people who disagree as racist and others not.

INOUE: Sure. Yeah.

CORRIGAN: There was a lot of backlash and some of it was certainly extremely racist. Is there anything you would say differently now if you were going to give the talk, maybe more adamantly?

INOUE [Laughs] No. I don’t think I’d change anything. I think probably ten years ago I might have thought differently about this in the sense that I would have said, “I want to see this happen: X,” whatever X is on that Listserv, if I knew, “Oh, there’s going to be this backlash and there’s going to be . . .” But today I don’t think I can control that. I don’t feel the need to control that. Do I have an ideal scenario in my head of how an interaction might go and how the changes might be? Of course I do, but I don’t feel compelled to think that that version of a future world of possibility is better than whatever happens or what could happen if other actors said, “No, let’s do it this way and this is the changes that we want.” Those are better ideas if they are. So I haven’t given up everything. I’m not perfect, but I’ve given up a lot, released a lot of my needs to want things in a particular way. I’m willing to say, “That’s what happened? Okay. That’s what was meant to happen, and now where do we go from there? What do we do from there?” And I will say also, that Listserv you’re speaking of, you know, I’ve been a longtime member of that Listserv for many years, way back even—I think I started way back when I was early grad school. And I think I put a few things on there, posted a few things on there here and there, but never really a lot. As much as I liked it in terms of a resource for stuff—because there was a lot of really good stuff on there over the years. But I never felt like I could contribute very much on there. And so it doesn’t surprise me of what’s happened with it, you know, more recently and after that conversation. And, in fact, I don’t really—I still belong to it, but I don’t really pay much careful attention to it unless somebody’s asking me something or whatever, but it hasn’t been a home for me for quite some time, you know? And I think I’m saying that as a way to say it’s too bad it couldn’t be, because I think it was at one time a very good—it could have been a very good—thing for scholars of color, teachers of color like myself, as much as it has been a good thing for the folks who say, “This is a good thing,” “We don’t want to lose it,” and so forth. But I also think that we might be in a historical moment in terms of technology in the ways we communicate that things like a Listserv just aren’t as meaningful to enough people or there are more meaningful ways to communicate and get interaction than a list. Maybe. I mean, I still find value in things like that, but I’m saying I wonder about that, thinking about my students, thinking about colleagues who are younger who have lots of other ways of communicating electronically. So I’m saying this might be a critical mass. Like, it might be something else and not just the talk.

CORRIGAN: Sure. Well, the last thing I want to ask you is just that is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to comment on or [inaudible]?

INOUE: No. I can’t think of anything. I mean, I really liked the questions you asked there. It really got me thinking about, you know, the talk and perhaps some of its softer spots, weaker spots [Laughs]. But yeah. No. I think I don’t have anything else unless you have something else you want to ask.

CORRIGAN: I wasn’t thinking of my questions as finding soft spots so much as I’m really moved and challenged and wanting to listen and understand.

INOUE: Yeah, well, I mean honestly I’m quite humbled by your thoughtful questions as well as many other folks who have reached out to me in private or even like on Twitter, on other places. I’m really thankful and feel really lucky that folks have been willing to sort of tend to that address as much as they have. You know, I’ve gone into that document, because you know we have to—it gets published in the C’s Journal in the December after the address, so it will be published officially. Even though it’s available now, you know, online, it will be published in December of this year. So I’ve been getting it ready for publication for their editorial process and so forth, and I’ve been sort of poking into the documents here and there every couple of weeks or whatever, and every time I go and there’s always a bunch of people in there [Laughs]. So I feel really humbled that folks are finding it valuable enough to come back to it and look at it, and that’s exactly what I was hoping—that the message gets out. And that was actually one of my stipulations in my consent to publish contract with C’s. It was that it has to stay free and it has to be a free resource even in the journal electronically, and I’ve got to be able to keep that there so that folks can find it and it can be available to anybody who wants to read it for no charge.

CORRIGAN: Well I love that you did that. It’s provocative as you intended, it’s lyrically, beautifully written, and it’s just a really important document, so thank you for writing it.

INOUE: Thank you. I appreciate your attending to it.

CORRIGAN: And thanks for talking me about it.

INOUE: This was fun. Thank you.

CORRIGAN: All right. So long.

INOUE: Okay. Thank you. Bye.


In the video and in an earlier version of this written post, I stated that there were multiple responses to Inoue’s talk “so racist they were covered in Inside Higher Ed.” However, the IHE article, about the discussion of the talk that took place on WPA-L, actually only cites one overtly racist email, although it also notes that some participants considered that email to be “only an overt example of the everyday racism that happens on the Listserv.”


Image: This map of racial segregation in Pittsburgh comes from Aaron Williams and Armand Emamdjomeh’s “America is more diverse than ever — but still segregated,” Washington Post, May 10, 2018. It was included in the slide presentation for Inoue’s talk.


2 responses to “White Teachers Are a Problem | A Conversation with Asao Inoue

  1. Thanks for the interview, Paul. I appreciate Asao’s point; he does, however, erase classism in his push to hierarchize race over other forms (and there are many) of pedagogical oppression. The challenge, as you know, against educated class English, has a long and venerable history (e.g., Freire, Students’ Rights; Chaucer).

    • I don’t see that erasure, Irv. Was there a specific thing Asao said that leads you to that interpretation? Or was it simply that he was focusing on race instead of other things? I’ll have to take a closer look at the transcript once it’s transcribed, but I can’t imagine him saying other oppressions don’t matter or making it a contest between which is the most important.

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