Dawn An, Marymount Manhattan College
This article explores an incident of microaggression experienced by an Asian American female professional writing tutor working in a predominantly white institution (PWI). Using the genre of counterstory, the author hopes to show a racial Other’s processing of emotional trauma and its larger implications for anti-racist pedagogies in writing center work.
Keywords: Counterstory, Imposter Syndrome, racial Other, anti-racist pedagogies
I felt validated when the Rocky Mountain Writing Centers Association (RMWCA) chose to read Counterstories from the Writing Center edited by Wonderful Faison and Frankie Condon for its Summer 2022 Book Club. I had voted for it in RMWCA’s online survey because I believed it would serve as a timely reflection of where the field of writing center is heading in the future. As a feminist of color and a professional writing tutor working in higher education, I am especially interested in exploring the genre of counterstory and its rhetorical purposes in combating institutional racism on all levels. Aja Y. Martinez incorporates this concept and method of counterstory from critical race theory (CRT) to center the “lived and embodied experiences of people of color” (p. 33). Although people of color must confront interlocking systems of oppression on a daily basis, the stories of our struggles are hardly ever heard in a white supremacist society that tends to dismiss such lived experiences, leading to “the everyday erasures, exclusions and repression of narratives…that trouble, challenge, [disrupt] and destabilize ‘meaning in the service of power,’ its frames, its style, or rhetoric” (Faison & Condon, 2022, p.7). Therefore, Faison and Condon claim that telling counterstories is enacting anti-racist praxis for the following reason:
Counterstory insists on the legibility and intelligibility of that which has been treated as illegible and unintelligible under the aegis of white supremacist discourse: the racial Other, her lived experience, her resistance, refusal, survival, her brilliance–and the languages, discourses, genres in which she speaks her being. (p.7)
After I re-read this statement word for word, over and over again, it seemed like Faison and Condon were calling out to me to tell my very own counterstory. In her article “Asians Are at the Writing Center,” Jasmine K. Tang (2022) invites “fellow Asians and Asian Americans at the writing center… [to join] in a conversation we can have together about the multiplicity of our experiences at writing centers” (p. 11). Although I cannot claim to work in a place called “a writing center,” I hope to use my personal experience to contribute to this critical dialogue, thus continuing Tang’s work. Similar to Martinez’s counterstory that explores Alejandra’s fit in the academy (Martinez, 2014), I explore how well I, as an Asian American woman, fit in my role as a professional writing tutor at a small, private predominantly white institution (PWI). The conclusion I have reached through exploring my experience of microaggression is that certain historically marginalized bodies do not fit well in the academy, at least not in prescribed roles of authority. Thus, their uncommon presence is manifested through imposter syndrome. What follows is my account of how this incident of microaggression has profoundly transformed me.
In Spring 2022, the coordinator at my college’s academic support and tutoring center distributed copies of the manual How Tutoring Works: Six Steps to Grow Motivation & Accelerate Student Learning, for tutors and teachers (Frey et al., 2022) to all the professional math and writing tutors. We were supposed to read the manual in our down time, when we were not working with students, to enhance our tutoring skills. Later in the semester, we would have a staff development meeting to discuss the manual. However, for whatever reason(s), that meeting was never scheduled. Moreover, during the Summer 2022 break, the coordinator informed the tutors through email of his abrupt departure from the center because he had decided to accept another (better) position within the college.
As a result, I was left “hanging,” having read the manual but not having had the opportunity to discuss my criticisms of it with the coordinator and my fellow tutors, with whom I had hardly any (in-person) contact since the disruption caused by the COVID 19 pandemic. Although I found that the manual did offer some useful, objective strategies for tutoring in general, I observed that the master narrative embedded in the manual did not address critical factors such as how tutors’ and tutees’ embodied subjectivities could dynamically affect the outcome of a tutoring session. For example, in Chapter One “Effective Tutoring Begins with Relationships and Credibility,” the authors claim that the teacher/tutor’s credibility greatly affects student learning outcomes, and that it is consequently imperative to establish mutual trust between the tutor and tutee. The authors define teacher/tutor credibility as “a measure of the student’s belief that you are trustworthy, competent, dynamic and approachable” (Frey et al., 2022, p. 20). Furthermore, they elaborate that students are the ones who determine a teacher/tutor’s credibility: “We don’t get to decide if we’re credible. It is perceptual, on the part of the learner. They decide if we are credible” (emphasis in original, p. 20). Finally, the authors offer some cogent suggestions to teachers/tutors to show them how they can effectively try to boost their credibility in their students’ eyes.
However, what happens when a student walks into the center with preconceived notions of who is trustworthy and competent based on his own implicit (unexamined) biases? In such a challenging scenario, what can the tutor really do to effectively and efficiently gain the student’s trust when the student is suspicious of the tutor’s competency from the start of the session? As an Asian American woman working as a professional writing tutor at a small, predominantly white liberal arts college, I found myself in such a thorny situation with a young white, male student several years ago.
I recall that after I had briefly introduced myself as the writing tutor he would be working with for that hour, the student immediately asked me, “Do you even know what you are doing?” Within the cultural context of the Chinese immigrant community I was raised in, it would be considered extremely rude and inappropriate for a student to question the teacher’s authority. Therefore, I was very surprised when I was confronted with the doubtful tone in his awkward question. I was particularly disturbed by the connotation of the adverb “even,” which according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary may be “used as an intensive to stress an extreme or highly unlikely condition or instance,” which implied in that case he did not believe I was even knowledgeable enough to assist him with his written assignment. However, I confidently reassured him of the fine quality of the services offered by the center. (The center has a very strict policy of only hiring professional writing tutors with advanced degrees, although this policy does not extend to math and other subject area tutoring, where there are both professional and peer tutors.)
Despite my elaborate explanation, the student still did not seem too convinced of my expertise because he kept repeating the same nagging question throughout our session: “Do you even know what you are doing?” Since the writing consultation was supposed to be a collaborative process, I had to figure out how I should navigate the rest of the session with a student who was stubbornly unwilling to work with me in the first place. After that session was finally over, I had to craft a meticulous note in my client report form on WC Online stating that the writer seemed very reluctant to work with me, harboring serious reservations even after I had explained to him that I was indeed an experienced professional writing tutor with expertise in composition.
The client report form would serve as my best and only real defense in case the student ever did file a formal complaint against me, claiming that I was incompetent, or that I failed to address his needs during the session. Since the center, as a designated student support service, is supposed to be student-centered, its most important policy is that the tutor must always strive to reasonably accommodate all the student/client’s needs first and foremost. Simply put, we, the tutors, exist to serve the students who visit the center. At the beginning of every academic year when we complete our hiring paperwork, all tutors must sign the tutor’s responsibilities agreement to acknowledge that we would comply with all of the center’s policies as a condition of employment. As a result, that client report form might be used as written evidence, a record of accountability that would document what occurred during the session, which I could use to support my claims in case of any disputes.
As a contingent worker, job security has always been a pressing concern for me. Since student/client satisfaction is ultimately connected to the center’s evaluation of my job performance, accumulating too many negative student reviews would seriously jeopardize my already precarious position. I certainly never want to be labeled “the bad tutor.” Since bad tutors would become an unwanted liability for the center, which has always prided itself on serving all students, bad tutors, like malignant tumors, must be eliminated as rapidly and efficiently as possible to protect the center’s hard-earned reputation and ensure its continued survival (at least into the foreseeable future).
However, I would never characterize myself as “the bad tutor,” especially not in that case. Despite the student’s obstinate resistance to working with me, I believed that I fulfilled my duty as a professional writing tutor to the very best of my ability. I tried to work patiently and tirelessly with him the full fifty minutes of his session (according to the center’s policy, ten minutes would usually be reserved at the end of each hour for tutors to complete their client report forms and to take a short break between sometimes back-to-back appointments). I felt desperate and helpless because I knew that there was nothing else I could have done in that sticky situation to establish rapport with him. As a result, I decided I had no real recourse other than to move on from that frustratingly unproductive session.
Sometime after that session, I saw the same student come into the center to work with a white, female professional writing tutor. However, this time his demeanor was radically different: He was more relaxed and friendly, and he even seemed to display deference to my white, female colleague. I contemplated the reason(s) behind the disparity in his behavior toward me and her. I gradually came to the realization that I did not fit his image of a professional writing tutor. His ideal image was very likely to be of a white woman. Therefore, however much I might have striven to prove my legitimacy as a professional writing tutor, he probably perceived me as nothing more than an imposter, pretending to know what I was saying and doing. He obviously doubted my competency to perform my assigned role because he never booked another appointment with me, preferring to work with my white, female colleague instead. To my ultimate relief, I was spared the need to confront him ever again. His decision to work with her instead of me meant I did not need to justify to my supervisor why I would feel very uncomfortable working with him.
It was also much later that I began to realize that what I had experienced when I was working with that student was a form of microaggression, although he did appear to be polite and cordial enough to me throughout our session. Since Asian Americans are assumed to excel only in STEM-related fields, I wondered what would have happened if I had been introduced as the math tutor rather than the writing tutor. Would he have questioned my expertise in the same way? Perhaps he had assumed that I was a sort of misfit, the wrong tutor to perform the job, due to popular stereotypes of Asian Americans’ innate abilities.
Perhaps my performance was not convincing enough for that particular white, male student. According to the authors of the tutoring manual, competency is “the ability to perform as expected and according to standards appropriate to the task at hand” (Frey et al., 2022, p. 21). Although I spoke in standard academic English without any marked “foreign” accent, my racialized body did not conform to the position I was claiming to occupy. Tang keenly warns, “If we only think of Asian writers and consultants through perceived language difference, we contribute to their racial erasure” (p. 11). Even if my voice could have allowed me to pass as “an authentic American,” in the end my racialized body would have betrayed my Otherness to him. I might have sounded alright since my speech was certainly coherent (enough), but I certainly did not look right (at least not in his eyes).
The problem is that I am not a white woman, but the writing center has historically been constructed as a privileged space centering the white, female bodies which are “naturally” presumed to work there. Alexandria Lockett (2019) notes, “Composition Studies and Writing Center scholarship tends to almost always exclusively position marginalized…[bodies] as students not instructors, clients rather than tutors or directors (Denny; Lederman; Lamos; Malenczyk; Wallace and Bell)” (p. 27). If Asians are to be found within that sacred space, they are assumed to be the ones (most likely ESL, international, and/or multilingual students) trying to seek help to fix their writing rather than the ones providing that very service. According to the faulty logic derived from such a problematic assumption, as a native English speaker, the student could justifiably wonder if I, whom he had probably already deemed a foreigner merely based on my appearance, was proficient enough in English (a white settler language) to serve as a reliable guide who could offer him the right advice on academic writing. Lockett also observes that “what clients want can sometimes interfere with their own learning, especially in cases where they may decide to decline services from non-white or non-American tutors because they automatically dismiss the very idea that they could speak or write ‘better’ English than their white colleagues” (p. 27). In fact, I would argue that he was doing himself a grave disservice when he decided to dismiss my professional expertise.
In the eyes of a writer expecting to see white bodies in the writing center, I lacked the right qualifications to be recognized as a bona fide professional writing tutor even if I had graduated with highest honors in English, had worked as a professional reading and writing tutor in higher education since Fall 2002, and had taught freshman composition courses at various local colleges. None of those objective criteria (which I had listed on my resume when the center decided to hire me after reviewing it and interviewing me in-person) may have mattered much to him at all. Instead, he was (perhaps) just too preoccupied with the exotic object in front of his eyes; my foreign female body became a specimen waiting to pass his inspection.
Unfortunately, I would always thwart that student’s expectations because I could never “pass” as a professional writing tutor through that all too familiar white, male colonizer’s gaze, even if I did speak proper English, even if I had received all my formal education K-12 and beyond in the United States, and even if I had claimed to be a naturalized American citizen. The colonizer’s gaze would perhaps always perceive me as nothing more than a racial Other that did not belong in a predominantly white institution (PWI). Nor could I ever become successfully integrated into white mainstream American society (whether or not I desired to do so). I identify as a Chinese immigrant from Vietnam whose mother tongue is Cantonese. I had only begun learning English as a second language at the age of six when my family arrived in New York. Perhaps, I was not quite American enough for that student’s taste yet. Bluntly put, I was not “the real deal” he was hoping to find in the center.
In fact, this kind of microaggression is derived from stereotypes of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, unassimilable aliens without any legitimate claims to citizenship. Having a background in Asian American literature, I am too painfully aware of white America’s legacy of exclusionary practices as inscribed in the passage of discriminatory legislation in immigration. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act that was originally passed in 1882, which drastically restricted people of Chinese ancestry from entering the United States and becoming naturalized citizens, was not repealed until 1943. It was repealed only after China had become an American ally in World War II (Wu, 2021). Although some may point to the myth of Asian Americans as “the model minority,” anti-Asian xenophobia, once embodied in the discourse of the “Yellow Peril,” still does thrive. For example, there has been a precipitous spike in anti-Asian hate crimes since the inception of the COVID 19 pandemic in Wuhan, China. The perpetuation of the myth that Asian Americans are disease carriers responsible for spreading the highly contagious coronavirus has caused us to become particularly vulnerable to public scapegoating. Anti-Asian rhetoric along with rampant violence against our racialized bodies is tangible enough testimony to our continued exclusion and an unfriendly reminder that we do not really belong in this country.
I know that that session has left an invisible wound on my body and an indelible scar on my soul. As a result, writing this piece is a much-needed form of therapy for me since it helps me to process the emotional trauma I experienced and hopefully to come to terms with what I went through, personally and professionally. At times I can still hear that student’s nagging voice, always asking me the same annoying question over and over again: “Do you even know what you are doing?” However, I now interpret the question as “Do I, an Asian American woman, even know what I am doing working as a professional writing tutor at a predominantly white institution (PWI) where I do not seem to belong?” Since all the professional writing tutors (except myself) are white, as the only racial Other professional writing tutor, I may always feel awkward, marginalized and somehow out of place at the center, even after I have worked there for fifteen years and have earned the most seniority among all the professional tutors. Tang powerfully concludes “Asians Are at the Writing Center” with the following collective self-reflexive inquiry: “Is the PWI writing center worth our [Asian American writing center professionals’] labor?” (p. 19).
Since Fall 2010, when the contingent instructional faculty and staff at my college formally established our union (after a protracted battle with the administration that never wanted us to organize in the first place), I have volunteered for the role of tutor representative. It has been my duty and honor to advocate for my fellow professional tutors’ rights in higher education. What rights are we, as college employees, entitled to? Would I have the right to end a session early or even cancel the appointment by citing the student’s reluctance to work with me? Should colleges not share the responsibility to protect employees’ rights as much as students’ rights? In the next round of collective bargaining with the administration, perhaps I should try to draft language to put in our contract to address this kind of scenario (even if my experience is an isolated incidence).
I also have to process some ethical professional predicaments. According to Confucian ideology, a virtuous teacher should teach all students without any discrimination. However, this Confucian axiom is premised on a reciprocal relationship between the teacher and the student whereby the student respects the teacher’s authority. Would I not deserve to work with a student who actually respects my humanity along with the knowledge and expertise I bring to the table?
In writing center pedagogy, tutors are supposed to have the flexibility to work with all kinds of writers from various backgrounds. However, what should the tutor do when a student with unexamined assumptions derived from white supremacist ideology resolutely refuses to work with her because he considers her a racialized Other that does not fit his ideal model of who a professional writing tutor is supposed to be? Should she enact anti-racist pedagogy by calling out his (mis)behavior even if it would mean jeopardizing her already precarious position, or should she just stay silent instead?
I would have to calculate my risks very carefully because I would be so worried that the consequences of calling out could cost me my job, but at the same time I cannot bear to compromise my feminist of color values. Perhaps this predicament is precisely the reason why I am using The Peer Review’s special issue platform “Re/Investigating Our Commonplaces” to publish my own counterstory. I feel compelled to seize this opportunity to speak up and speak out now against all forms of microaggressions, which are never so micro after all!
I wish to thank the editors of this special edition of The Peer Review and the anonymous reviewers for their generous feedback on my manuscript.
Dawn An earned her BA in English with a minor in Comparative Literature from Queens College, City University of New York in 2002 and after a long hiatus earned her MA in English from Queens College in 2020. She worked as a reading and literature tutor in the Academic Support Center at Queens College from Fall 2002 to Spring 2019. Since Fall 2007, she has worked as a professional writing tutor in the Center for Academic Support and Tutoring at Marymount Manhattan College. In Spring 2010, when the Marymount Adjunct Collective (MAC), a local union representing contingent instructional workers at Marymount Manhattan College, was formally established, she volunteered to fill the tutor representative position. Her research interests include translingualism, feminism, and anti-racist and decolonial praxis in writing center studies.
Faison, W., & Condon, F. (2022). Counterstories from the writing center. Utah State University Press.
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Lockett, A. (2019). Why I call it the academic ghetto: a critical examination of race, place, and writing centers. Praxis, 16 (2), 20-33. https://www.praxisuwc.com/162-lockett
Martinez, A. Y. (2014). A plea for critical race theory counterstory: stock story versus counterstory dialogues concerning Alejandra’s ‘fit’ in the academy. Composition Studies, 42 (2), 33-55.
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