Pajai Vue, St. Olaf College
Clare Wongwai, St. Olaf College
Language is powerful because it gives individuals the privilege to access a wide range of opportunities. We must acknowledge that it is problematic and harmful to uphold certain language policies, which are often standardized, as expectations. In writing centers, where the goal is to guide writers to articulate language onto paper, tutors must be conscientious of their attitudes toward language. This article examines the history, specifically the inclusivity and exclusivity, of Standard Written/American English and how it affects marginalized groups. This article also encourages reflection on terminology that is often associated with anti-racist practices. Lastly, this article aims to offer ways to reflect as it encourages intentional actions from writing tutors to engage in anti-racist strategies as they work to create more linguistically inclusive spaces for writers.
Keywords: Standard Written English, Standard English, Dialect, Linguistics, Linguistic Diversity, Inclusivity, Praxis, Pedagogy, Positionality, Accountability, Anti-racism, Reflective Practice
This piece intends to help writing tutors to 1) Learn the oppressive and racial implications of upholding Standard (Written) English and gain awareness about the importance of learning about and accepting all Englishes into the academic discourse, 2) Self-reflect on how their positions impact their perspectives and then explore the importance of solidarity and accountability during their writing tutoring sessions, and 3) Brainstorm ways they can help others at their writing centers engage in anti-racist practices and expand their awareness with tangible plans on how they can implement these practices in their home writing centers.
We intentionally structured our article to be accessible for all writing tutors regardless of where they are in their anti-racist journey. We hope this article can help you critically reflect and engage in ways to start dismantling white supremacy, especially in academia and writing. We are students of color who tutored at our college’s writing center and hope to continue working with historically marginalized youth. We are deeply invested in topics centering around dismantling oppressive systems. However, we want to emphasize that we are not experts and are still exploring these topics ourselves.
Additionally, we structured and revised our piece with accessibility in mind. We aimed to keep our paragraph lengths short and direct to aid in readability and comprehension. We also hope that the headings we provide for each section help guide the reader through our thought processes in a clear way. As we continue to keep accessibility at the forefront of our aims throughout our scholarship, we welcome and would be grateful for any feedback if difficulties or suggestions arise.
Language, Variation, and Dialect
As writing tutors, it is crucial that we understand what Standard Written English is, its instability, and the implications it has on multilingual students. Standard Written English, also known as Standard English, Standard American English, and Standardized Written English among other names, is viewed largely by academic institutions as a necessary tool for success in our society (Greenfield, 2011). In this article, we will use Standard English and Standard Written English as they are the most commonly used terms in the literature and disciplinary discourse (see “Language and culture / demographics”, n.d.). It is important for us to emphasize that when we say Standard Written English, we are referring to the white mainstream English. In academia, Standard Written English is promoted by many professionals as the “correct” form of spoken and written discourse while other dialects of English are seen as informal and less prestigious. However, in linguistics, many scholars do not categorize language and dialect through a social hierarchical lens; instead, linguistic scholars define both language and dialect as a form of communication governed by a set of rules and therefore, socially equal, and linguistically similar (“Language and culture / demographics, n.d.”).
It is important to note how language and dialect can differ. A dialect is derived from a language, and the linguistic term for this derivation of language is called variation. Variation refers to the “regional, social or contextual differences in the ways that a particular language is used” (Nordquist, 2019, para. 1). Therefore, a dialect is formally known as a variation of a language influenced by regional or social groups.
Linguists state that dialects derived from one language are still comprehensible to other dialectic speakers. As an example, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers can understand and be understood by Appalachian English speakers. This shows that, although mainstream society broadly ranks language as first and dialect as second in social prestige, all spoken languages and dialects are linguistically equal because both achieve the goal of communication between people (Greenfield, 2011). In other words, language and dialect equally serve the function of communication.
Standard Written English
There is not one precise definition for Standard (Written) English. However, in general, it refers to the variety of English with prescriptive grammar that governs spoken and written discourse in academia, professional institutions, and public dialogue. There is a demand and often preference for Standard (Written) English in academia, but there is a lack of stability for what constitutes the standard. Some try to justify Standard (Written) English with the argument that one consistent form of communication in English is needed in the United States. However, this idea creates the notion that other dialects are improper and cannot be understood. Yet, variations of English are not incomprehensible to one another. Standard (Written) English promotes exclusivity, creating a narrative that there is only one correct and proper way of speaking and writing. By solely upholding Standard (Written) English, structural issues will only be reinforced. The people who benefit most from this standard are those who are historically privileged by systemic structures, including colonialism, capitalism, and racism, especially in educational institutions.
Furthermore, Standard (Written) English is often attributed to “talking white” or “writing white”, and anything other than the standard is assumed to be spoken and written by people of color. Even more problematic, Standard (Written) English is associated with intelligence, and those who do not use the standard are regarded as uneducated. As Lockett (2019) puts it, “(white American) English is standardized and subsequently valued as a norm—whether it exemplifies correctness, represents (racial or national) purity, or serves as a marker of (white male) intellectual superiority” (para. 5). The U.S. does not have an officially recognized language. Yet, Standard English is pushed as the norm and associated with national purity regardless of its racial and oppressive implications.
Greenfield (2011) goes on to state, “it is no coincidence that the languages spoken by racially oppressed people are considered to be inferior in every respect to the languages spoken predominantly by those who wield systematic power: namely, middle- and upper-class white people” (p. 36). This leads to the conclusion that Standard (Written) English is a system of writing and expression rooted in privilege and white supremacy.
Standard Written English as Oppressive
The assumption that Standard (Written) English is superior can be found in educators from Pre-K through graduate school and guides many pedagogies for the teaching of writing (Greenfield, 2011). Thus, children in the U.S. are taught that Standard (Written) English is the socially acceptable and superior way of communicating.
Despite the fact that Standard (Written) English is unstable, grounded in, and further perpetuates white supremacy, there are still strong pressures within society, especially in public education, to prioritize this particular dialect at the expense of disadvantaging others. For example, the tenth kindergarten standard in the Minnesota English Standards, standard 0.10.1.1, states that students must be able to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking (MN Dept. of Education, 2011).” However, according to the Saint Paul Public School’s Office of Multilingual Learning, 113 languages are represented in the Saint Paul Public School district alone, not including variations of English.
When individuals are taught from a young age that Standard (Written) English is the proper way of communicating, despite their own rich language repertoires, there are harmful implications. Greenfield (2011) states:
When the languages of white people collectively are called ‘Standard English’ and when ‘Standard English’ is imagined as a tool necessary for participation in mainstream society, people of color are put in the oppressive position not of having to speak or learn to speak a particular language (for no single language exists), but ridding themselves of all linguistic features that may identify them with communities of color. (p. 46).
As Greenfield mentions, language is a crucial part of one’s identity. Standard (Written) English is oppressive because people of color are expected to learn the standard and neglect their own dialects.
Although many white speakers speak a variety of English, because Standard (Written) English is associated with white people and whiteness, white speakers of other dialects of English do not face the same discrimination and prejudice that people of color do. Vershawn Ashanti Young (2010) explains:
Standard language ideology insist that minority people will never become an Ivy League English department chair or president of Harvard University if they dont perfect they mastery of standard English. At the same time the ideology instruct that white men will gain such positions, even with a questionable handle of standard grammar and rhetoric (p. 113).
Through this perspective, language is racialized because when a white person speaks a variation of English, they are not immediately labeled as improper or incomprehensible. Their contribution to discourse is still valued, unlike a person of color who speaks a variation of English.
The assumption of a standard shows that language is not neutral, and instead, language has power–the power to marginalize and oppress those who speak and write variations of English. The use of a standardized English is for the benefit of white people built on white supremacy. To further explain, languages that have historically been considered inferior have origins that “can be traced to periods in American history when communities of racially oppressed people used these languages to enact agency” (Greenfield, 2011, p. 36). Many variations of English came into existence as a result of communities of color’s inaccessibility to Standard English and choice to speak their own dialect as a part of their identity. Historically, and even today, these dialects are often considered inferior as our society continues to push for Standard (Written) English as the proper English.
Racism in Writing Centers
Camarillo (2019) makes a powerful metaphor: the university is like a foreign country, and writing centers work as border processing centers to get writers to assimilate to a Standard English that requires them to shed other languages and dialects. Writing centers have historically been spaces for assimilation, asking students to write and communicate a certain way for their discourse to be accepted. To further explain, “People are the products and processes that they create or use. To change the process, then, means to change the person” (Camarillo, 2019, para. 11). In turn, writing centers become an agent in assimilating not only students’ linguistic repertoire but also their identities–connecting this issue to a larger systemic problem.
While many writing centers are becoming more linguistically inclusive spaces, institutions still expect writing centers to teach students that Standard Written English is the language of the educated. To understand the complexity of this interconnectedness, Camarillo urges us to view writing centers as having an ecology. The writing center is part of a larger system–an ecosystem that has influence on language and writing policies. When writing centers want to dismantle the harms of Standard Written English but other parts of the institutions continue to uphold it, reconstructing ideas of language and writing is difficult.
When institutions continue to push writing centers to teach the standard, they are enforcing racist ideologies. Although institutions believe that giving everyone access to the Standard Written English is inclusive and productive, “The work of getting someone to talk and write like ‘educated (white) folks’ is an act of violence because it functions on the basis that patriarchal white supremacist manners of expression superior to those of unassimilated non-white people” (Lockett, 2019, para. 48).
Therefore, although writing centers are put in a difficult position of deciding what to teach and validate, they must understand the implications of teaching Standard Written English as the only way to enter the academic discourse. As a critical part of the institution’s ecology, writing centers have power to act as an agent of change instead of an agent of assimilation, and “it is up to writing center directors, consultants, and clients to make changes to how people within writing center spaces view race, language, and identity” (Faison, 2018, para. 38).
If we continue the narrative that Standard (Written) English is a “flag of opportunity,” we uphold harmful beliefs rooted in white supremacy. One thing to consider is, “We must stop saying that we have to teach this dominant English because it’s what students need to succeed tomorrow. They only need it because we keep teaching it” (Inoue, 2019, p. 364). According to Inoue, one of the reasons Standard (Written) English is upheld as the standard language is because we continue to prioritize and teach it, and doing so is an act of racism and white supremacy. Inoue’s statement encourages us to think critically about how we view and teach language. To create a language-inclusive environment, we must not limit our teaching to Standard (Written) English and stop prioritizing it over other dialects. We have to stop perpetuating the racist rhetoric that Standard (Written) English is the language necessary for success in our society.
What Can Writing Centers Do?
Dismantling the prestige of Standard Written English will not be a streamlined process, but Faison (2018) puts into perspective, “These standards of Whiteness are standards Black people and other historically marginalized people must navigate on a daily basis” (para. 16). When generations of people of color are forced to continuously learn how to adhere to the standard, it is possible for white people to learn how to create language inclusive spaces in academia.
Writing centers need to implement anti-racist practices that acknowledge how linguistic oppression operates through Standard Written English. Faison (2018) suggests that writing centers shift their philosophy and teaching paradigm to view Black language, race, and identity as a writer’s asset instead of a deficit or academic obstacle.
Our own writing center has approached the topic of anti-racism by developing task forces for writing tutors to continue learning about language and inclusivity. One task force includes the
Anti-Racist Tutoring team where writing tutors meet once a week to discuss scholarship on anti-racist tutoring practices. Each task force divides into pairs and creates a passion research
project. Tutors spend an entire semester dedicating their time to research their topic, then present it at a writing tutor workshop. There, tutors share information, strategies, and resources on
anti-racism, language inclusivity, and creating accessible resources for diverse writers.
In addition to dismantling Standard Written English, writing center staff and services must reflect the demographic of their students to show that the writing center is a more inclusive space. Through her research, Lockett (2019) noticed that marginalized people of color are almost always in positions secondary to those who are white. If writing centers want to become an inclusive space for linguistically oppressed writers, they need to encourage people of color–especially those who are linguistically diverse–to hold positions of power. Their knowledge, experience, and language repertoire are an asset in creating a linguistically inclusive space, “because race matters when it comes to whether a student might actually use (writing center) services” (Lockett, 2019, para.
On a larger scale, as Camarillo suggests, writing centers must recognize themselves as part of an ecosystem. Writing centers cannot create change in isolation because they are part of a larger system in the institution. When only one part of the ecosystem advocates for change, the focus of change will continue to be on the students’ product. However, when an entire ecosystem supports and advocates for language inclusivity, the focus will be on changing the writing process. Deconstructing Standard Written English that is grounded in racial oppression and white supremacy cannot be done unless every part of the ecosystem works together. Therefore, it is crucial that writing centers examine their ecosystem to create structural changes and shift paradigms. We have broken this task into three steps with questions to help writing centers dissect and reflect on their ecosystem.
- Examine the institution’s ecosystem
- Which parts of the ecosystem hold the power to influence students?
- Which parts of the ecosystem continue to uphold Standard (Written) English?
- What are the language and writing policies? Are the policies resolute or upheld by myths about language?
- Challenge the ecosystem
- How can writing centers garner attention about the ongoing issues of Standard (Written) English and bring the issue to other parts of the ecosystem?
- Which policies, individuals, and organizations can be challenged?
- How can we advocate for change while working to protect those who could be negatively impacted by these challenges?
- Enact change within the ecosystem through education
- Who are the individuals and organizations in the ecosystem that can support change?
- Where and how can writing centers find resources to continue educating themselves on the harms of upholding Standard (Written) English and the importance of language inclusivity?
- How can writing centers educate their ecosystem about the implications of Standard (Written) English and the need for language inclusivity?
Another important factor in the institution’s ecology is who occupies the ecosystem. Students constitute a majority of an institution’s population. Therefore, writing centers along with the ecosystem must pay close attention to their student demographics. Language and writing are not stagnant, and language and writing policies should reflect the students. Therefore, the process of reflection and questions we posed is a continuous process that we urge writing centers to revisit often.
What Can Tutors Do?
As tutors, we must understand that language is not neutral. We must also recognize that language is always changing, and all languages and dialects are linguistically equal. We have to consciously create a language-inclusive space for our writers.
Tutors should strive to create a comfortable environment for writers to express their ideas by overtly creating a language-inclusive space. Young (2010), a language, gender, performance, and communication scholar, suggests creating a language-inclusive space through code-meshing. Code-switching, in contrast, is the switching between two or more languages/dialects based on the space a speaker is in. A speaker alters the way they speak based on the social environment they are in. However, code-switching takes a conscious effort because a speaker needs to know which language/dialect is acceptable in which space. Therefore, code-switching still carries the idea that Standard English is superior. According to Young (2010), code-meshing is when a speaker subconsciously combines two or more languages or dialects in
their speech. The speaker can do so subconsciously because the space that they are in views both languages/dialects as equals and does not value one over the other. Code-meshing embraces language diversity, unlike the more well-known code-switching.
Writing tutors can utilize code-meshing by using their own linguistic repertoire to converse with writers. Writing tutors can also mirror language when appropriate. For example, if a writer is using casual language, a writing tutor can also use casual language as opposed to Standard English. Additionally, code-meshing can also be applied to writing. Tutors can teach writers how to advocate for their code-meshing choices by utilizing footnotes to make justifications or explanations about their writing choices. On the other hand, if a writer chooses to commit to code-mesh in their writing without feeling the need to justify their writing choices, the most important thing to remember is to support the writer’s autonomy.
We invite you to think about the following questions when incorporating code-meshing into your tutoring sessions:
- How is the writer speaking to me?
- Are they speaking in a formal or casual manner? Does their body language show that they are comfortable speaking with me? How can I make them feel comfortable? Is it an appropriate time to mirror their body language?
- Which dialect of English are they using? If it is a dialect I use, will it be beneficial for me to use it as well?
- When and how do I address the use of code-meshing in a writer’s writing?
- Is the writer aware that they are code-meshing in their writing? Will it be appropriate and beneficial to bring it to their attention (by asking about their choice, not by “correcting” it)?
- How can I support the writer’s choices while helping them understand the potential outcomes of their choices?
Translanguaging is a growing method in the field of teaching of English as a Second Language. However, translanguaging is highly applicable to writing centers, because translanguaging is the act of creating a language-inclusive environment to allow students to use their whole linguistic repertoire (Wright, 2019). Students are encouraged to read, write, speak, and think in multiple languages, typically the one they are most comfortable with using. Then, they can translate the language into other languages. This creates a space where all languages have value and validity.
Writing tutors can use the same concept in writing centers. Writers should be able to read, write, speak, and think in the language or dialect they are most comfortable with. For example, writing tutors can encourage students to brainstorm their ideas in their native language and then allow them to translanguage it into Standard Written English. Tutors can also advertise and offer tutoring services in their language. The idea of translanguaging in writing centers is to show writers that although Standard Written English is often the end goal, their own language is just as valid and valuable.
We encourage you to think about the following questions when incorporating translanguaging into your tutoring sessions:
- When do I suggest translanguaging?
- Is the writer struggling to articulate their ideas? Is this due to the lack of ideas or a language barrier?
- “Do you have any ideas for your writing or are your ideas just difficult to put into words?”
- Is the writer struggling to articulate their ideas? Is this due to the lack of ideas or a language barrier?
- Is this a task (brainstorming, pre-writing, drafting, etc.) that can be done in another language?
- How can I be helpful during this process, especially if I do not know the language? Can I ask guiding questions? Can I give them more time to translate their thoughts and ideas into English?
- Are there additional resources that will be helpful for this writer, such as a translation app or another tutor they can have the option to work with in the future?
Warrington (2018) and her group of language arts teachers created a framework for student empowerment through self-assessment in the writing process. In this framework, students are the agents of their own work while teachers are supporters, making sure students’ writing reflects what they want to communicate. Conferences with teachers are student-driven, and the teacher gives insight as a more experienced writer instead of being a judge of the writing.
Writing tutors can adopt this framework to embrace writer autonomy. Since writers come from diverse linguistic backgrounds, writing tutors should always ask why a writer made a specific choice instead of pointing out what is wrong. It is possible that what writing tutors see as an error in Standard Written English is actually a rule in another dialect or an intentional style choice. In order for writing centers to become a more linguistically accepting place while giving students access to the standard, writing tutors must be conscientious about other dialects of English.
The following is a brief outline of some of the most prominent and relevant features of the framework:
- Writer as the driver, tutor as the passenger
- The writer is in control of their writing. They lead the tutoring session by brainstorming ideas, making stylistic choices, and stating their needs.
- As the tutor, you provide “directions.” You are a listener. Respond to their needs by asking clarifying questions and making suggestions. Do not take offense if your suggestions are rejected. Remember, you are there to guide their writing, not to write their writing!
- Share the feedback load
- Providing feedback is an important role for tutors. However, sharing the feedback load with the writer is a great way to support and develop writer autonomy.
- Share the feedback load by saying, “Before I give you feedback on this section/paragraph/etc., reread it and give yourself some feedback.”
- When a writer is not used to this kind of autonomy, follow up with, “For example, imagine yourself as your reader. Which parts do you find interesting and impactful? Which parts left you confused or wanting more?”
- When providing feedback for writers, give them the opportunity to comment on your feedback. The goal is to create a dialogue and make the process interactive.
- “Do you have similar thoughts? Do you agree or disagree (or are somewhere in between) with my feedback?”
- Think of this process as an author and their editor. Editors do not alter the author’s writing in isolation. The revision and editing process is a collaborative process. The editor brings suggestions and the author works with the editor to improve their writing.
- Providing feedback is an important role for tutors. However, sharing the feedback load with the writer is a great way to support and develop writer autonomy.
- Process over product
- Similar to “share the feedback load,” help writers understand the importance of the writing process by asking them to reflect throughout the different stages of writing. We must help writers focus on the writing process because that is where they learn how to advocate for their writing choices.
- Often, writers are focused on meeting the criteria and “writing to the rubric” for a good grade. As tutors, we must help develop and support writer autonomy. For example, after edits and revisions, ask the writer to reflect on what they did to improve their writing.
- It is crucial to ask, “How does this make your writing better?” to encourage them to reflect on their choices and apply their reasoning to future writings.
We suggest that writing tutors continue to seek resources about the implications of Standard Written English to learn how to better support writer autonomy. A resource we found extremely helpful is Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Change and Dialogue, edited by Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan. Although we only referenced Greenfield’s chapter, the book in its entirety gives a broader perspective on Standard Written English as a racialized language and a thought-provoking dialogue about how we can challenge the standard.
Lastly, writing tutors must understand their positionality in the Standard Written English discourse. We encourage writing tutors to reflect on these questions:
- How do I uphold the standard?
- Am I in a position of power to change the standard?
- What do I need to do to make the standard more accessible?
- What else must I continue learning?
The preceding questions were topics we reflected on while we did our research. As writing tutors who work in a writing center that is moving toward celebrating linguistic diversity and viewing language as social justice, we constantly think about the changes we can bring with our position. Part of fixing the problem is addressing it–bringing attention to it, and because we want to make others aware of the implications of Standard Written English, we committed to writing this article. As we transition out of our roles and venture into the education field, we will return to the contents of this article, especially reflecting on the questions we pose in the following section, and continue learning about Standard Written English through reading, engaging in discourse, and advocating for linguistic diversity.
From our personal experiences as writing tutors, we reflect on our journey through our training and the misconceptions we had when we first became tutors. For instance, before tutoring, we viewed code-switching as a useful skill, failing to deeply reflect on the systems and structures that established these expectations and continue to influence writers. Reflection and embracing continual growth are crucial. For example, tutoring sessions may not feel inviting if the tutor does not actively reflect on the power dynamics present. Tutors cannot grow and work towards inclusivity and solidarity if they are not committed to leaning into discomfort and curiosity. As we continued tutoring, our experiences with writers with diverse identities and abilities encouraged us to question how we and others saw language, communication, and expression. By celebrating every writer as a unique and skilled individual, we were able to see the value of encouraging autonomy. Writing tutoring equipped us with new perspectives to question the “standard” as we aimed to cherish writers that show up as their whole authentic selves.
Putting Words into Praxis: Engaging in Anti-racist Terminology at Writing Centers
Directing Our Purpose
Throughout this second section, there will be bulleted reflection questions that we invite you to consider and write to intentionally. Sub-bullets offer additional guidance on suggestions to consider or points that may resonate with you. We include these questions because we believe it is crucial that we all continuously reflect on our positions in tutoring sessions and our intentions that inform our words and actions. We suggest that you use these sample questions to inspire how your continued reflection and learning could take form in your practice as a writer and a tutor.
- Why are you engaging with this article?
- Are you wanting to integrate anti-racist approaches into your tutoring? Are you wanting to integrate these approaches into tutor training? Are you wanting to grow from your past mistakes or mitigate future ones?
- How do writing, racism, and anti-racism relate or intersect?
- Writing can have both racist and anti-racist elements. How could this look? How can writing be racist? How can it be anti-racist>
Reflecting on concrete goals that we hope to see in our tutoring practice and at our writing centers can help us brainstorm actionable items. In the context of tutoring sessions, looking introspectively and thinking of specific examples from your past experience can be helpful in this planning process.
- How can you manifest community during tutoring interactions?
- There are ways we can listen and reflect, which can inform how we better respond to writers. How can you encourage writers while promoting their autonomy? How can we contribute adequate conversations during a session?
- How can writing tutors support linguistically diverse writers?
- Do you understand Standard Written English and its impacts on academic writing? How could this knowledge inform your practice and what your tutoring sessions consist of?
Pedagogy, Praxis, and Positionality
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, is considered a foundational text in the critical pedagogy field. Freire calls for students to be equated to teachers as he states that both sides must learn from each other. Freire (1968/2014) defines praxis as a “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed (p. 126)”. Through praxis, people can acquire a critical awareness of their own condition and their role in transforming spaces, structures, and institutions for the better.
- What informs your tutoring praxis?
- Is it your experience as a writer? Have you had mentors who taught you valuable skills? Is it your identity?
- What power dynamics are present when you interact with writers?
- Do you notice a level of comfort you or writers feel when you tutor? What would be the ideal power dynamic during a tutoring session?
- How can you mitigate the negative effects of power imbalances?
- Are there words you can say or actions you can do to encourage writers to feel more comfortable? Which identities and communities may require more effort to feel comfortable?
To evaluate ourselves critically, positionality must be questioned and explored. We must dissect and reflect on our positionalities as writers, readers, and tutors. The place you grew up in, your education level, values you were raised with, your racial/ethnic identity, and experiences with discrimination all can contribute to the knowledge you have and the perspectives you are both aware and unaware of.
- What aspects of your identities inform your writing and perspective? How do these identities affect or direct how you write and what you write?
- What hardships have you experienced due to factors that were out of your control? What hardships have you observed others experience that you have not experienced?
- What are some experiences you can never understand? What is an identity that you cannot relate to? How may their experiences differ from yours?
- For instance, are they viewed differently by others? Do you have certain privileges that they do not have?
Reflecting on one’s own position can help one better understand their privileges and disadvantages. When reflecting on your strengths and areas for improvement, the education you have received, supportive figures that positively influenced you, and the resources you had access to all help shape your writing abilities and approaches.
- What aspects of your teaching/tutoring/writing have been most influenced by your experiences and identity?
- Are the types of writing and skills you are most and least comfortable tutoring shaped by your experiences and identities? Are the aspects you notice about writers or the ways you connect with writers impacted?
- What bias do you bring with you and how does it influence your approach to tutoring? What could you be overlooking and not taking into consideration?
- For instance, have you caught yourself holding certain stereotypes about a writer or their situation? Are there possible implicit biases that impact your interactions?
A Critical Look at Accountability and Allyship
Everyone has made and will make mistakes. Whether an action was intentional or unintentional, taking accountability is crucial for one to grow and mitigate the harm one causes. We can hold others accountable if we witness harm being done (e.g., confronting another writing tutor who commits a microaggression or confronting a writer whose paper includes offensive language). One can correct the statements and words others say, both explicitly and implicitly, while explaining the importance of the correction. In a writing center, if a tutor is reading a writer’s work and notices the writer misgenders someone, the tutor could interject with: “by the way, that person uses they/them pronouns.” If a writer were to use a racial slur, and the tutor feels they are in a safe position, they could respond: “I’m not sure what your intentions are behind what you just said, but that word is considered a racial slur and could really offend others.” In these circumstances, the tutor has control over how much or how little they choose to engage or continue with the conversation. One can inquire more about the intentions behind the statement or explain the harm more in detail. However, writers may not be receptive to taking accountability. We recommend that if one is feeling unsafe or if the situation becomes harmful, the tutor should stop the conversation and seek out a trusted individual (e.g., co-workers, supervisors, mentors, friends) to debrief while also making sure to maintain confidentiality of the writer.
In the case that you are corrected, work to acknowledge, apologize, and understand the harm you caused. Make sure to reflect and identify what you will do to avoid causing harm again. For example, in a writing center setting, if a tutor were to realize they caused harm, they can pause, taking a moment to acknowledge and apologize for their wrongdoing. This apology could be started by naming what harm was done and the potential impacts of the harm: “I’m sorry because I realize what I just said is offensive because it assumes… and can make others feel…” Next one can commit to action and provide their intentions behind those actions: “I will work on educating myself about… and catching myself from making those assumptions because they are harmful to… and I do not intend to cause harm.”
To be transparent and supportive as writing tutors, we must take accountability for ourselves when we realize we caused harm. Committing to accepting responsibility for one’s impact requires the ability to give authentic apologies. Saying phrases of acknowledgment and then committing to reflection and improvement can sound like: “Thank you for telling me. I will reflect on that” or “I will spend some time reflecting on this.” While asking clarifying questions could be helpful for your growth, remember that this is not the person’s job to educate you on why your actions were harmful. Drafting an accountability statement beforehand can be an effective practice that prepares one to communicate more clearly when they need to.
One way to write out your statement of accountability and apology is to first write a phrase that communicates that you understand the harm you caused: “I realize what I said is offensive because it relies on and perpetuates the stereotype that…” Next, write how you will reflect on the harm you caused and its effects on the individual/community: “What I said was hurtful and contributes to how Indigenous communities are historically and continually mistreated. I will reflect on how my words impact these groups by…” Lastly, write how you will commit to concrete action: “Every week, I will dedicate time to read books written by Black authors about anti-racism efforts because what I said demonstrates that I need to further educate myself about…”
Tutors can reflect on ways they have caused harm and contributed to repair through statements of accountability. To further their reflections, tutors can also categorize their roles in social activism work, specifically as allies, accomplices, and co-conspirators. Being mindful of these roles in activism is relevant because the position of an ally is frequently discussed and claimed in the same spaces where accountability is emphasized. It is important that we are introspective as we question what allyship means and looks like.
Allyship is often talked about as the end goal. There has been a recent increase in racial justice advocates calling for the distinction to be made between allies, accomplices, and co-conspirators. Allies are helpers that can passively support oppressed communities when it is convenient for them. We can work towards being an ally, but while taking on this title, one may be unintentionally engaging in a savior mentality. Accomplices make intentional efforts to dismantle and disrupt systems, and co-conspirators are proactively engaged in a mission they are entrenched in while being careful to center communities. They leverage their privilege as they work to help meet the needs of marginalized communities.
Advocates like Jana (2021) divide these roles into phases on a continuum that individuals should aim to progress through. She describes how allyship is “the thinking and learning stage,” accomplice is “the reactive response”, and co-conspirator is “the proactive phase.” For example, a person in the learning stage may observe the mistreatment of a marginalized group and may commit to educating themselves about the issue. Although these allies may feel some negative emotions stirring, they do not commit to speaking up and often are disconnected from the marginalized groups they are supporting. In contrast, a person in the reactive stage commits to action and speaks up. Their actions are guided in reaction to the injustices they witness.
However, these accomplices may not be in contact nor directly connected with marginalized groups. A person in the proactive phase, a co-conspirator, could go a step further by standing with marginalized groups, being in their presence, listening to their needs, and centering their voices.
- How would you distinguish between the intentions and actions of an ally, accomplice, and co-conspirator?
- Are there people in your life or figures you know of who exhibit these traits in their activist work?
- Why is this distinction important, especially for those who are writing tutors?
- Could the intentions and actions of a person significantly impact how they tutor writers? In what ways could they cause or prevent harm based on their role in activism?
Solidarity in Writing
We often hear the phrase, “We stand in solidarity with…”, especially from departments, institutions, organizations, and businesses after an unfortunate event involving a minoritized group or individual. Yet, we must be critical of what this phrase is signaling and the intentions behind it. Performative activism is harmful. Critical reflection on others and ourselves is needed when solidarity is declared toward a marginalized group.
- What do we mean when we say this? What motivates people or companies to release these statements? Do some have shallow intentions when writing and disseminating them?
- What makes something authentic versus performative?
- Ulterior motives such as upholding status or fulfilling personal agendas can appear performative as they do not aid impacted communities (they may even cause further harm).
- If the writer does not take the time to reflect on the situation and concerned parties, can their statement be received as authentic?
- If the writer does not take accountability and understand the harm caused, they cannot commit to action. Therefore, actions and systems cannot change.
Empty statements that are constructed and distributed do not center impacted communities. Actions should back up statements. Otherwise, solidarity statements only serve to benefit the internal motivations of those writing them, not those impacted and in need of support. Thoroughly examining and questioning solidarity statements could be a beneficial practice for those hoping to show up for vulnerable communities in effective ways.
- How do we and how should we practice solidarity as writing tutors to linguistically diverse students?
- Your writing center team could work together to draft accountability statements in response to current events locally, nationally, and globally. They could even put this into practice by writing a statement of solidarity in response to linguistic racism. In this process, tutors can reflect and discuss their reasons for writing the statement and what impact they hope it makes for the impacted communities.
- Your writing center could hold a solidarity statement writing workshop open to other writers and community members. This could consist of exploring examples of inadequately and adequately constructed statements. Learning from past examples can help writers identify what aspects make statements genuine and beneficial to impacted communities.
In addition to using this phrase, we can ask ourselves the same questions about what we associate with the commonly used buzzwords: anti-racism, equity, inclusion, diversity, bias, barriers, accessibility, activism, and solidarity. Sometimes these words are used without intentionality and can often show up as ways people use social activism for self-serving purposes. It is important when you see words and terms like these to listen closely and question the meaning. Drivers of social change are often more impactful when they are informed by and amplify the community in need.
Goal Setting and Suggestions
Let us strive to be more intentional with our statements and actions. We can work towards cultivating more meaningful and long-lasting impacts of our work by writing out the concrete ways we can contribute to anti-racist work as writing tutors. Goals could include dedicating an allotted amount of time each week to self-education on anti-racist practices in academia. Another goal could be actively incorporating new inclusive practices during sessions and then sharing them with other tutors. Writing tutors could even reflect on and discuss the language choices they use and hear after each session.
- What is one concrete way you will work to contribute to anti-racist work as a writing tutor this semester?
- You could gather a group of co-tutors or classmates to read a book on anti-racist practices and hold regular discussion sessions
- You could research topics on anti-racism in writing centers and create products including a workshop, handout, presentation, or publication.
- How will you work to achieve this goal, and how can you remind and keep yourself accountable?
- For instance, if you want to educate yourself on Standard Written English, during every tutoring shift you could dedicate 15 minutes to read about the history of SWE and the harms that may result when it is enforced.
As you encounter terms, define them for yourself, seek out other perspectives, and try your best to align the language you use with your intentions. Tutors can form research groups that focus on anti-racism initiatives. They can listen and contribute, when appropriate, to discussions that put minoritized people at the forefront of their focus. By regularly setting aside time to learn about anti-racism-related terms and topics that one is unfamiliar with, an individual can start their journey from allyship and work their way towards co-conspiring.
- How have you changed as a writing tutor over time?
- Think back to the first time you tutored. Were you confident in your knowledge and facilitating skills? What challenges did you face, and have you overcome them? What has this position taught you?
- What do these changes indicate about your praxis and positionality?
- Did your background impact those you connected with or how you reflected on your interactions with writers?
- How do you hope to change and grow as a writing tutor?
- What areas of growth do you still have as a tutor? Do you want to be a more patient listener? Do you want to be able to better explain the background of SWE? Do you want to be able to encourage the voices of writers who have been historically quieted?
You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it. (James Baldwin, 1979, p. 1)
To truly grow as writers, tutors, and advocates for minoritized and underserved communities, to be an agent of change, to become more reflective and intentional in all of the roles we step into where we have the power to amplify other people’s voices, we must understand the power and potential influence we have. Let us commit to engaging continually in self-growth and healing practices so we can dedicate our fullest selves to encouraging others to feel more autonomous and comfortable expressing themselves through writing.
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