“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.
Note. A transcript of the conversation will be prepared and posted below. If you would like to be notified when it is available, please let me know (ptcorrigan at gmail dot com).
Erratum. 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.