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Affective Whiteness and the Rhetorics of Linguistic Mobility in Writing Classrooms

Thomas R. Watson Conference, 2016 

Mobility Work in Composition: Translation, Migration, Transformation

“Affective Whiteness and the Rhetorics of Linguistic Mobility in Writing Classrooms”

by Jennifer Polish

Presented on October 20th, 2016

Please feel free to interact with the digital version of this presentation on my website and feel free to Tweet at me @jenniferpolish before, during, or after the Q&A so that I can respond to your comments or questions. Additionally, please feel free to get in touch with me if any of this information proves inaccessible for you so that I can correct my error.

I was at a workshop at the CUNY Graduate Center last year, and to end her presentation on students who are acquiring English as a new language, a brilliant CUNY professor, Carmina Makar, asked for ten volunteers from the audience. She wouldn’t say what we were volunteering for, but ten people went up anyway, of course, and she gave us each a piece of paper to hold. Each page had a large number written on it.

The setup: two teams of five people. Each person holding a number. She would read a five-digit number out loud, and without speaking to each other, we were to arrange ourselves into showing the audience that number with our pieces of paper.

After confirming that we understood — we had to rearrange ourselves to match the number she called faster than the other team — the professor announced the five-digit number.

In Spanish.

This being a conference at CUNY — despite the unfortunate and overwhelming whiteness of the graduate student population — one or two participants-turned-contestants on each team were able to efficiently direct the rest of us into the proper places. By the time we were done (I think my team won), I (super whitegirlprofessor) was still translating the second or third number in my head.

I tell this story by way of framing my talk today, which will focus on thinking through what we mean when we talk about mono/multilingualism.

To get to this question, I will examine the intersections of anxiety and affective whiteness — the intersections of dis/ability and race — in college writing classrooms. Pulling these threads — the dominance of white middle class American English together with anxiety and affective whiteness — will help me talk about the ways that suppressing affective expression in the classroom reinforces monolingualism for white students and compulsory multilingualism for many students of color.

To start, I want to disclaim this all by saying that I am no authority on the experiences of people of color: far, far from it. Anything I do happen to know, or to be able to somewhat coherently speak on, is because I am indebted to the affective, intellectual, and life labors of people of color, particularly queer women and men of color. My position as a white professor is unethical at best if I do not — especially teaching at CUNY, where the undergraduate population, at least, consists largely of students of color — actively interrogate the violence of (my) whiteness, and attendant white supremacy, in the classroom so that I can facilitate the abilities of my students to safely and effectively dismantle it.

Diving in, then, I want to explain what I mean when I say “affective whiteness.”

According to José Esteban Muñoz in his work on Latina Affect, whiteness is “a cultural logic that prescribes and regulates national feelings and comportment. White is… an affective gauge that helps us understand some modes of emotional countenance and comportment as good or bad” (680).

In other words: whiteness is an affective pressure valve. Regulate your levels of expressivity incorrectly, and your emotional countenance can be, will be, rendered bad, rendered nonwhite. Rendered less than, rendered, even, dangerous.

Affective whiteness, Muñoz explains, is a relative dearth of emotional expressivity.

In a classroom, affective whiteness is what governs the realm of classroom etiquette: divorce your body from your mind, because being “too” emotional is unprofessional. It’s anti-intellectual and it makes (white) people uncomfortable.

The hegemony of affective whiteness pervades rhetorical constructions so deeply that it transforms white feelings into facts.

The reign of affective whiteness elevates white feelings to the level of fact so that white rage no longer looks like rage, it just looks like the heat of an intellectual discussion.

The dominance of affective whiteness devalues the intellect of people of color such that an analysis of Claudia Rankin’s poetry that includes a statement like “white people do this to me all the time” must, for the sake of this student of color’s safety in a white-dominated institution like higher education, with probably a white teacher like myself in the front of the room, be prefaced by the statement, “I’m not mad but,” “not all white people but,” “not to be racist but.”

Affective whiteness racializes depression as white — dearth of emotional expressivity, again — while ignoring POC mental health because it may fall outside the register of what mental health is expected to be like.

Affective whiteness renders students who have non-normate bodily experiences — mental health issues, say — as less than, as themselves problems, even as threats. The dominance of affective whiteness renders them unable to carry themselves with “proper” comportment, unable to meet “reasonable” classroom expectations. Affective whiteness riddled these students with anxiety to begin with, because it manifests in the pressure to check your feelings at the door, to be rendered dis/abled, to be rendered less than, to be rendered excessive, to be rendered inappropriate, if you enter with your intellect firmly connected to your emotional experiences.

These all, of course, have disproportionate impacts on students of color, who too often only see themselves as footnotes, token figures, white torture porn narratives, or all of the above, in school.

So what, in short, does affective whiteness do?

It racializes dis/ability by casting non-normate emotional/affective expressions/forms of composition/modes of comportment/dimensions of rhetorical expression as problems, as “crazy”, as dis/abled. As threatening.

We can see this most clearly, most poignantly, at work in the schools-to-prisons pipeline, which has a lasting impact on the students of color that we see — and don’t see — on our college campuses.

The expectations of affective whiteness normalize white feelings — especially white rage — as facts, literally written into the way that “rational” “argumentation” is taught and enforced. It links “rationality” with able-mindedness, and it links “rationality” with whiteness.

In doing so, it ties whiteness to able-bodiedness such that POC bodies are rendered dis/abled.

And yet the irony — one of many — here is that affective whiteness burdens students of color to somehow be “present enough” but not actually present in their bodies.

In this way, the false binary between intellect and emotion is fundamentally racialized.

And what does all this have to do with Carmina Makar’s exercise, where the numbers she read off were in Spanish?

The exercise flips the dominant script about who gets to be the expert, who gets to lead, who gets to get it right, what assets are valued, and what forms of language are problematic. Monolingualism, here, is a problem. Rather than framing multilingualism as an “issue” in teaching.

This has profoundly affective — profoundly emotional — implications.

Especially in writing classrooms.

It calls attention to the affective implications of the demands of translation: the anxiety of getting it “wrong,” the frustration of the demands of speed, the exhilaration of figuring it out, the joy of being able to explain it to others, the excitement of learning by teaching and by experiencing, the disorientation of not knowing, the shame of others knowing it better, faster, than you.

Performing affective whiteness in writing classrooms involves actively suppressing non-normate speech (multiple Englishes, for example) and bodily movements that are often dismissed and racialized as dis/abled, as “excessive”, emotional, and thereby counterproductive to “intellectual” space. Like the default white subject, then, the default able-bodied subject shapes what it means for multilingual students to have true access to purportedly monolingual writing classrooms.

Because otherwise, you’re just constantly getting it “wrong.” And experiencing all of the emotions to go along with that. But you can’t show that. You just need to keep playing the game, destructive as it is.

Because affective whiteness demands that students do not — and we surely see this in graduate classrooms all the time — stop the class to ask the meaning of a term. Affective whiteness, with its bootstraps implications, demands that students look it up themselves, because it assumes that they are alone in needing clarification of the dominant modes of knowledge-production and sharing.

Affective whiteness demands that students attempt to blend, and when the dominant course content and lesson plan design are bleached white, the anxiety starts to kick in. The anxiety of knowing that, in a classroom where the teachers usually look like me, you cannot generally blend in. You cannot contort your body into the language of affective whiteness without fundamentally surrendering something. And the anxiety kicks in, kicks down, kicks up. Kicks the underside of the desk that was designed to keep your body composed in a way that renders all bodies the same, to check all bodies at the door so that nothing can challenge hegemonic knowledge formations.

Affective whiteness in writing classrooms, then, demands anxiety management, concealment, alongside the performance of blending in.

So when we talk about monolingualism, we’re talking, really, about white students, about white American students. Because we demand multilingualism from everyone else.

And it’s about time that our pedagogical methods focus on students whose body-minds themselves challenge the status quo.

Because we’ve been teaching to students who look, talk, and compose their bodies like me for far too long.

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