Between the Lines of Linguistic Justice: Lumbee English and Value Meshing in the Writing Center

Morgan Linn Zacheus, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Elise Dixon, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Abstract

Through a collage of storied vignettes written by Morgan– a pansexual Lumbee tutor– and Elise – a white, bisexual writing center director– we discuss the implications of enacting linguistic justice through code meshing in the writing center. Specifically, this article discusses the racial, political and cultural complexities of enacting linguistic justice in the writing center and the lived experience of a Lumbee tutor code meshing and “value meshing” her way through writing center sessions. Using the term “value meshing,” we describe the emotional labor of contending with complex histories of race, culture, discrimination, institutional and internalized racism when code meshing as writing center professionals. From both the perspectives of administrator and tutor, we argue the term “value meshing” can serve as shorthand for the complex emotional burden of consistently negotiating our language, our identities, and our sometimes conflicting cultural values, especially in collaborative settings like the writing center. We call for writing center professionals to carefully attend to the emotional burden of tutors of color as they enact linguistic justice through code- and value-meshing.

Keywords: Linguistic justice, Lumbee English, antiracism, code-meshing, value-meshing, linguistic diversity, wellness, White Mainstream English

At the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) Writing Center, Morgan’s laugh can be heard all the way down the hall. It echoes into the writing center director, Elise’s (Dr. Dixon’s) office. Some days, upwards of seven tutors will squeeze into Elise’s tiny office to chat, and our collective laughter cascades down the hallways of the building. These things didn’t start until Morgan became a tutor. 

While she was still in Elise’s writing center tutor training course and even after she began as a writing center tutor, Morgan would pop into Elise’s office for consulting advice, then to share stories about life. Elise noticed that this composed and quiet student’s language was changing in the process: her voice was deeper, her laugh louder and more at ease. She called most of the tutors “baby” and sent the g’s at the ends of her -ing words runnin’. Like all the tutors, Morgan had been trained by Elise that the writing center valued all languages and dialects, and that home languages are welcomed and delighted in at the writing center. 

Morgan’s comfort in sharing her home dialect was linguistic justice at work. Along with her fellow tutors, she had been trained by Elise to reorient her relationship to White Mainstream English (WME), to see language and dialects as morally neutral while recognizing that certain dialects had been devalued because of their connections to specific regions, cultures, races, and classes, and therefore to the prejudices to which they had been attached. In class, Elise had taught Morgan about code meshing and code switching (Delpit, 1995; Smitherman, 1986; Young, 2010), linguistic justice (Baker-Bell, 2020; Kynard, 2013), students rights to their own language (CCCC Language Statement Committee, 1974), as well as the implications for identity’s connection to language in the writing center (Condon, 2012; Denny, 2010; Dixon, 2017; Faison & Condon, 2022;  Faison & Trevino, 2017; Green, 2016). Most importantly, Morgan had come to understand that her language–however she chose to share it–was valued and valuable to her writing and her work as a tutor, so she spoke and wrote in ways that felt most authentic to her, free of the fear of judgment. 

A couple years into her career as a tutor for the center, and as Elise and Morgan’s friendship had deepened, Elise told Morgan, “I can tell when you’re comfortable in a situation because you start speaking Lumbee English more.” Morgan laughed, and then immediately spoke in White Mainstream English (WME): “I guess I do speak differently depending on my comfort level.” Elise noticed that her comment had shifted Morgan’s entire demeanor. Her shift into WME signified her discomfort at a white woman’s recognition of her language, culture, and identity. Despite our closeness, our identities and their histories weighed heavily on the observation. 

This story is one of many we aim to tell about the complexity of enacting linguistic justice in a writing center. More specifically, at the University of the North Carolina at Pembroke–a minority-serving institution (MSI), and historically American Indian university in the American South–language is rooted in very specific and complex histories of racism and white supremacy. UNCP was founded by Lumbee tribal members with the intention to train Native American public school teachers (UNCP, 2023). Many Lumbees speak Lumbee English, a dialect spoken by their descendents for generations. While Lumbee English can be heard in the halls and classrooms of UNCP, the widely accepted view amongst Lumbees (one also reinforced by most UNCP faculty) is that Lumbee English should not be used in academic writing. 

Despite being a dominant dialect at UNCP, the case for why Lumbee English remains subjugated lies between the realms of the Lumbee community, already socially and culturally nuanced, and the institution of UNCP as a model of Native excellence, perseverance, and resilience yet also a perpetrator of whiteness through institutional modeling and a majority white faculty. Despite being situated in the heart of Lumbee country (Pembroke, NC), where Lumbees live as the majority race, UNCP itself hosts a diverse faculty, staff, and student body that displaces Lumbees to a minority racial group (in their own college). Lumbee people, then, traverse complex terrain in which the foundational pride of community, identity, and language are present but are still often required to warp themselves into more approachable, digestible pillars of intelligence and validity by showcasing a written capability to conform and perform in WME. Navigating these linguistic complications is not unlike the connections Green (2016) draws between Dubois’ “double consciousness,” Smitherman’s “linguistic push-and-pull” and Green’s own conception of a triple consciousness, or, later, like a linguistic graft versus host disease wherein her home language is suppressed and transplanted with other languages that all fight to persist within her (pp. 75-76). Culture, language, race, and power consistently intermingle to create precarious and sometimes impossible circumstances in which minoritized people are forced to deny parts of themselves in order to foreground others, and vice versa.

Thus, in this article, we discuss the racial, political and cultural assumptions existing between the lines of linguistic justice in the writing center and the lived experience of a Lumbee tutor code meshing and “value meshing” her way through writing center sessions. In Linguistic Justice, Baker-Bell (2020) calls for

frameworks that interrogate and examine the specific linguistic oppressions experienced by linguistically marginalized communities of color and account for the critical distinctions between their linguistic histories, heritages, experiences, circumstances, and relationships to white supremacy. (p. 18)

Drawing from Morgan’s personal stories about her experiences as a Lumbee tutor in the writing center, we aim to provide a framework for considering the emotional complexity felt by linguistically marginalized tutors of color in the writing center. Using the term “value meshing,” we describe the emotional labor of contending with our relationships to complex histories of race, culture, discrimination, and institutional and internalized racism when code meshing as writing center professionals. We cannot code mesh without value meshing, and making visible the emotional labor of value meshing importantly highlights just how difficult and emotionally fraught linguistic justice work in the writing center can be. 

We present the concept and term “value meshing” as a tool with which to use as a shorthand for the complex emotional burden of consistently negotiating our language, our identities, and our sometimes conflicting cultural values, especially in collaborative settings like the writing center. As a term, value meshing serves to make more visible the entanglement of language, race, class, and culture when we code mesh, and more broadly, when we engage in and advocate for linguistic justice, especially in a writing center setting. Value meshing, then, helps us read “between the lines” of what occurs when tutors of color enact linguistic justice through code meshing.

Linguistic Camouflage (Morgan)

Growing up as a Lumbee youngin off a couple different dirt roads in Robeson County, North Carolina meant I knew two things for sure: one, I was a Lumbee Native American and two, my mama expected to me to act like I had the sense God gave me to not act like no Lum1in public. While the second token of wisdom could have come down to a lot of things, it was specifically reliant on the way I spoke—and much later, the way I wrote. This was because my mama wanted to be sure that her child, me, who was born to a young, single, Native mother and therefore already stacked across the board with disheartening statistics, could face the world with a little bit more than a reputational racial capacity of raising hell and a small, slow vocabulary reliant on staples like 2and Who’s ya people, gal3? My mother’s persistence was supported by the droves of other Lumbee teachers, church leaders, and family members who shared in her desire to mold Lumbee youth for more than Scuffletown4 antics. As a child born with the desire to please, I became a master of big words for my age combined with carefully poised sentences, most of which I learned along the pages of books written by popular white authors like Lemony Snicket, J.K Rowling, and R.L Stine. However, I was no dummy. None of my childhood peers ogled and awed in appreciation at my well-spokenness; but, that was fine because when I was with them, I walked and talked like a regular ole Lumbee girl straight from the backwoods, cuttin’ off the ends of most words and over emphasizing my vowels in the right places. It wouldn’t be until I moved outside the Pembroke limits that I realized it takes more than pretty words and smart thoughts to distract people from an accent. Outside Pembroke, folks who couldn’t help but mimic and question my Lumbee speak was what brought me to a new third level of linguistic camouflage: talking white.

All of this accumulated together in 2021 when I met Dr. Dixon in her Writing Center Tutor Training course. I was prepared to give her my best grammar, my most polished discussion boards, my most well-spoken class discussions. And, perhaps in some ways I wasn’t aware of at the time, I was taken aback when this white women wanted to tell me, outside of some of the bones of her expectations for tutors, she never wanted me to be a tutor who confused bad writing with somoenes’ perfectly fine (just not white) vernacular. Linguistic justice, she called it, and she included readings in her class that discussed code meshing and code switching for references. As a Spanish major, I thought about people whose first language wasn’t English; as a political science major I thought about students who were people of color and how their social/cultural communication just didn’t set them up to sound or act white enough to overlook their skin tones and features. And, I thought, good for them! There are writing centers out there considering them. 

It didn’t cross my mind until Dr. Dixon asked me to write this article that those inclusive writing centers and writing center practices were meant for people like me too. 

That Dr. Dixon’s writing center was eyeing people like me. As a student and tutor. Wondering over a puzzle of how I spoke and wrote the way I do, and why. 

Linguistic Justice in the Writing Center

There is no dearth of writing center scholarship that articulates the center as a liminal space where transgressive, radical, and subversive activist work can and should be engaged (Boquet, 2002; Bawarshi & Pelkowski, 1999; Denny, 2010; Dixon, 2017; Doucette, 2011; Faison & Trevino, 2017; Grimm, 1999, 1996; Geller et al., 2007; Green, 2016; Greenfield, 2019; Macaulay & Mauriello, 2007; McKinney, 2013). Writing centers are contact zones (Pratt, 1991) in which people from multiple cultures, races, languages, and backgrounds clash and interact with one another. Its very nature as a space, a philosophy, and a practice sets up writing centers to subvert institutional hierarchies in which teachers and administrators hold most of the authority and power; when they’re working at their best, writing centers provide “help that [is] not an extension of but an alternative to traditional classroom teaching” (Bruffee, 1984, p. 637). That alternative, in which peer tutors collaborate with their clients to help them develop a deeper sense of authority and understanding over their own writing, then, also offers opportunities for writing centers to be spaces of validation. Writing center practitioners can validate a student’s gender, sexuality, race, linguistic and cultural background because our identity markers are some of our greatest influences to our intellectual understandings of the world, and therefore bleed onto every page in which we write. 

Articulating linguistic justice within a writing center context is embedded in multiple practices: training tutors to understand concepts of dialects, multilingualism, code switching and code meshing, and even simply the idea that the academy (often coded as neutral by those who uphold cultural norms and “standards”) is rooted in white supremacy. Linguistic justice, according to Baker-Bell (2020) is “an antiracist approach to language and literacy education,” and so the work of linguistic justice in writing center training and administration must be based in showing tutors how language and literacy education has been and continues to be rooted in racism and white supremacy (p. 2). For Elise, engaging in linguistic justice as a writing center director has meant parsing out for tutors how institutional oppression is enforced through the regulations and rules put in place in and outside of the classroom, how those rules and regulations apply to the center, and when those rules can be subverted and transgressed. We draw from Powell (1999), who suggests “it is the rhetor’s very relationship with oppressive discourses that opens a space of possibility” (pp. 9-10). The writing center’s marginality provides a fruitful space for administrators to fly a bit under the radar while engaging in radical praxis, and to train writing center tutors to do the same. In doing so, writing center praxis—from using antiracist hiring practices, to advocating for tutor raises, to facilitating student-led interior design of the center, to training them about code meshing—has the power to transform UNCP from the inside out, albeit slowly. A writing center can provide a space for students to see themselves as agents within an institutional system that seeks to discipline them, regulate them, standardize them. It can allow students to begin claiming their identities, languages, and whole selves to subvert a system that does not value a whole self insofar as a whole self does not produce additional tuition dollars. A writing center can be a haven for whispered conversations around a potential campus-wide protest of the administration, a space for students to share grievances and warnings about a racist professor; it can be a space to support mutual aid. And it can do this radical work without any higher-ups even noticing.

To train tutors to see the radical transgressive potential of the center, Elise begins with providing a background of universities as regulatory institutions that have been and continue to be oppressive, especially to students who have been historically marginalized (Greenfield, 2019). She then provides readings and discussion from a broad base of scholarship around the writing center’s capacity to serve as a transgressive space from within (Bouquet, 1999; Denny, 2010; Geller et al., 2007; Grimm, 1999). Nearly every day of our tutor training discusses how our identities, our languaging, and our writing are indelibly tied (Blitz & Hulbert, 2000; Green, 2016; Trevino & Faison, 2017). We reach a more specific understanding of linguistic differences as we read through “Should Writers Use They Own English?” (Young, 2010) alongside supplemental readings on the characteristics of various English dialects, including Black Language and Lumbee English. By the time we reach this moment in the class, an understanding of the tutor’s role as a supporter of a client’s home language is evident to all students in the course.

The hard part is providing strategies for how to successfully work with a client’s often conflicting relationship to their home language within the academy and whatever course they are writing a paper; it cannot be taught in one day of class, or even in one semester. The work of supporting writers as they develop their own awareness of the relationship between their home languages and the institutions that seek to regulate them is complex, nuanced, and ever-changing. In order to facilitate linguistic justice in the writing center, all of us—tutors and administrators alike—must choose everyday to be humble, to never make assumptions of those who have entrusted us with their language/identity/writing, and be aware of the complexity of the systems within which students are working, and the identity markers in ourselves that may shield our own understandings of our clients’ desires in a session. This level of awareness is a tall order, one that we do not expect anyone to be perfect at, but one that we expect everyone to attempt and improve upon daily. 

But, as Morgan describes in her stories, this work is never easy. Every day, linguistic justice work is challenged by white supremacy’s hold on all of us: in white antiracists’ blindness to their own privileges, in internalized racism in communities of color, and in the institutions that benefit from both internalized racism and white ignorance/apathy.

Lumbees in the Writing Center (Morgan)

While Lumbees are well known for their Lumbee talk, we ain’t neva been known for our spelling and writing. Just taking a ride around Pembroke will show a newcomer to some of the linguistic adjusting the tribe has underwent. The small cove my family lived down had its name marked on the brick pillars spelling “Cler Water” (Clear Water), Pembroke is pronounced exactly how it’s spelled (Pem-broke! Ain’t no Pem-brook round here!), and the little abandoned Wakulla church clings to a piece of Native tongue none of us know nowadays—at least, I’ve always imagined it has. I’ve never judged my people for it. These are the soundwaves of assimilation versus the engraving of resistance at play. 

So, needless to say, I wasn’t surprised when I was the only Lumbee in Dr. Dixon’s course. Reading and writing Lums are few and far between, honey. That’s not to say Lumbees weren’t a part of the writing center before me. My own mama was a writing tutor for UNCP—before Dr. Dixon’s time out there. Nevertheless, I went through the course silently turning over my thoughts of what it would mean if I was the only Lumbee in the writing center. For four months I silently questioned if I was capable of helping anyone—some little Lumbee girl with a knack for academics. Was I capable of condensing the writing process and all its niches into a time crunch for different personalities, ideologies, genders, races, languages with my own in play as well? Would they even accept me once they knew that I came from controversial, nothing to see-or-do, violent Pembroke? If I got past all that, would they take me seriously if I drew out my words or called them “baby” or “honey”?

These worries burned in me relentlessly and then, one day, I saw her. Lakota, another Lum. Brown-blonde curls, a quiet way about her, and always adorned with Native earrings. It was easy to see how our values aligned in the writing center: as the only two Lumbee, college-education-seeking, Pembroke-born and raised women in the room, that’s all we needed to reach across the abyss of unknown character and call each other friends. 

While I worried over what settling into the writing center would look like for me, Lakota had an air of reserved confidence about her. In those first couple of weeks as a new tutor, I found my values clashing relentlessly as I tried to figure out which codes were the “right ones” to utilize. Did I consciously, verbally spill my worries of my race, language, and identity to my fellow Lumbee woman—therefore admitting my own concerns of our possible inferiority and misplaced intrusion into the liminal space of the writing center? Or, did I follow Lakota’s lead and remind myself that worry weren’t gonna keep me, nor any other Lum that walked into the center?

I can’t say I ever told Lakota all of this. Just like I can’t say Lakota ever looked at me on a given day and offered me the solace I had been inwardly digging for by saying, “Oh God gal you’ll be fine. Don’t worry ‘bout dem people.” But still, Lakota’s presence with me in the center reminded me that we didn’t only belong, but that we had earned sittin’ ‘round other kind, brilliant people who had capabilities like ours. We bonded over the parallels that can be created by things like race, and location, and quirks, and passions. And in that way, she made space for me. Lakota, probably unknowingly, modeled for me for the first time that you can be Lumbee and more in an academic/work setting—and still talk the way you normally do.

Language, Culture, and Racial Complexity

UNCP is the most diverse university in the Southeast (U.S. News and World Report, 2023), a minority-serving institution, comprising 61% racially minoritized people, 13% of whom are American Indian (predominantly Lumbee) and 29% of whom are African American (UNCP, 2023). Since it was founded as the Croatan Normal School in 1887 with the purpose of preparing local American Indian students to be teachers in the area, the university’s Lumbee roots run deep (Eliades et al., 2014). The town of Pembroke itself is 64% American Indian, mostly Lumbee (DataUSA, 2023). Many locals have attended or are related to someone who attended UNCP. Some Lumbees who live in the area can trace their lineage to the university’s founding. Spatially, UNCP serves as a central location in Pembroke at events like Pembroke Days, Lumbee Homecoming, local public school trips, summer camps, and others. Thus, it would be difficult to find a Lumbee who didn’t see UNCP as a part of their life experience in some way or another. An attempt to separate a discussion of Lumbee English from the town of Pembroke, the history of UNCP, and the complicated racial and linguistic relationships therein would be to provide an incomplete understanding of an incredibly complex place, people, and language. 

The history of the Lumbee tribe is a complex one, with potential roots to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the hypothesis being that the colonists “blended their culture with that of the Hatteras Indians, who then migrated south and inland toward the Lumbee River” (Wolfram et al., 2002, pp. 28-29). Another hypothesis suggests (and can be supported by archeological evidence) that the Lumbee have lived in and protected the lands of Robeson county since prehistory (Knick, 1988 and Rudes, 2003, as cited in Wolfram et al., 2002, p. 29). A neat and tidy origin story of the Lumbee tribe does not exist, and therefore neither is there a specific connection between Lumbee English and any one tribal language. Depending on the origin stories, connections to Algonquian, Tuscarora, and Siouan languages can all be made (Wolfram et al., 2002, pp. 30-31). In any case, the Lumbee tribe as it is historically known has been marked by its peoples’ use of English, and more specifically Lumbee English. Lumbee English’s linguistic markers are influenced by multiple Indigenous languages, African-American English, and various English dialects (Wolfram et al., 2002, p. 36).

Embedded in the characteristics of Lumbee English, then, is a nuanced history with the segregationist South. Many Lumbees have stories passed down generations of living in a Pembroke that did not segregate in the same ways they had in other North Carolina towns. Indeed, according to Lowery (2010), in the 1930s,

The town lacked some of the obvious signs of racial segregation. No “white only” or “colored only” placards hung in cafés, and Indians regularly refused to sit with blacks in the balcony of the segregated movie theater whose white owners also ran Pate’s Supply. Pembroke was the only town in Robeson County that was dominated by Indian-run businesses, churches, and schools. Here, Indians could afford to resist the arbitrary divisions embodied in those placards. This soft edge to Jim Crow became a sharp blade, however, when Indians asked for increased funding from the all-white county school board or for fair credit terms from corporate landlords. (pp. 1-2)

Despite this very obvious cultural difference in town, racism persisted elsewhere, from segregationist laws surrounding schools to securing bank loans. This racism forced many Lumbees to make a clear distinction between themselves and their African American neighbors to avoid experiencing the same levels of discrimination, a distinction that now persists in a pervasive racial and cultural tension in and outside the walls of UNCP. While Lumbees fought to eradicate the Ku Klux Klan from Robeson county twice in efforts to stamp out white supremacy (in the Lowry War of 1864, and then again at Hayes Pond in 1958), some Lumbee peoples’ anti-Blackness continues to this day. 

An example of the complex racial relations in Pembroke and UNCP can be found as recently as the summer of 2020, when UNCP students participating in a small Black Lives Matter rally were met with local Pembroke counter-protestors. According to Locklear (2020), the counter protestors “reportedly used racial slurs, threw beer and brandished rifles and knives in a stated attempt to ‘protect their property’ from destruction. The counter protesters were mostly Lumbees. . .”  The incident was a source of distress for many UNCP students and prompted a swift response from the Chancellor, who stated his support for the BLM protestors in a campus-wide email. 

The BLM protest is just one example of the racial tension that can be felt on UNCP’s campus, where many non-Lumbee students who attend UNCP are not aware of its connections to the Lumbee tribe until they are living on campus. Additionally, since 29% of the student body is African American, the conception of the university as Historically American Indian University is sometimes lost on students who experience a much more visible presence of Black students on campus, especially in connection to its robust fraternity and sorority participation; it’s not uncommon to see Black fraternity brothers and sorors “stepping” on campus on one’s way to and from class.

Providing a lengthy history of UNCP, Pembroke, and the Lumbee tribe might seem gratuitous for an article on one Lumbee tutor’s experience practicing linguistic justice work in the writing center. However, our hope for this section is to illuminate the very deep roots of complexity surrounding Lumbee identity, its connection to place and space, but also to various peoples and linguistic characteristics. Morgan’s experience with code meshing Lumbee English and WME throughout her time at UNCP is imbricated with the complicated history of the Lumbee tribe, their neighbors, the town of Pembroke, and the university. Linguistic justice is never just about language, or just about race; it is always already layered with histories of colonialism, white supremacy, racial segregation, discrimination, and the dehumanizing effects of pitting communities of color against each other.

Christina if You Ever Read This, I Know You Didn’t Mean it like That (Morgan)

In the Spring 2023 semester, I became close friends with a white girl named Christina, who worked as a tutor for the writing center as well. Christina is small, with thin long hair, wears mom jeans, and talks a lot about her pets and how she really hates working; she also told me when we first met that I talk with my bottom teeth like Megan Fox—not quite the linguistic critic you may have been preparing yourself for, but there it is. 

Dr. Dixon might hate this portion of truth, but on more than one occasion I have taken it upon myself to do my friends’ homework assignments. However, it’s the truth. I have always found it easy to compile a few things from a homework assignment, the required reading, and a word count and pull together something to take one stressor off of my friends. It’s a very specific superpower that only works for others and not myself. One day, towards the closing weeks of the semester, Christina was in need of this super power. Over the course of her shift I riddled her a page or so and sent it to her. It’s important to keep in mind here that I’ve written in this article to sound natural, like a storyteller; my academic work is often performatively over the top. Also, I had no idea how Christina wrote and, as an over-performing minority, I might have overdone it a little for a homework assignment. 

It wouldn’t be until the next day when I seen Christina that I would be backhanded with something far more hurtful and unforeseen. 

I asked Christina casually if she was able to go back and edit the assignment in order to turn it in. I mentally prepared myself to be told how my connections were wrong, I had some odd transitions, or the classic for my writing, it was a bit too long and wordy. 

“Yeah. I had to go back in and dumb it down so it would be more like me. I didn’t know you could write like that. You don’t write like you talk.” 

Christina was busily skimming over her computer screen. She didn’t see the fast row of blinks from shock, or my brows knitting up together in instinctual defense, or the downturned eyes as I resolved to not ask her “Well damn Christina what the hell is that supposed to mean?” 

I never told anyone what Christina said to me. Dr. Dixon didn’t know until we began writing for this piece. I carried it inside of me as a reminder that no matter how much I befriend people or how much I help or how much I’m capable of rising to or above their capability, I’ll always be a Lumbee woman whose way of speaking will dress me up as less than, or at the very least not as competent as, my peers.

All My People Ain’t My People (Morgan)

There’s a saying around Robeson County for Lumbees. When one Lumbee meets another Lumbee, it will eventually be asked, “Who’s ya people”? They’re asking about your family, looking for a name drop like Locklear, Oxendine, Bullard, Hunt and so on, connecting—sometimes it feels more like interrogating. Regardless, it’s just something Lumbees do to establish themselves amongst each other. It’s important to know who’s ya people, pa. 

This line of tribal connectivity can get blurred with a quickness when you start considering things like age, sociopolitical views, and tolerance. And Lumbees steeped in poverty, a history of being overlooked/miscategorized as a race, assimilated heavily via Christianity in the Southern Bible Belt are sometimes almost visibly choking on their preconceived prejudices and distastes. As a Lumbee who could kind of claim middle class, and who studied both American continents’ sociopolitics in college, and pretty fiercely rejected the church at an early age…all my people ain’t my people. 

I came to face this in a grueling three-hour-long writing center session with an older, white passing Lumbee lady in about my second year of tutoring on campus. She was pursuing an interdisciplinary degree which meant she had to take a lot of courses in reading/writing. In the first few minutes of the session she explained to me two key points: (1) she hated reading and writing, and (2) she especially hated reading and writing for this African American studies English course. Already having pushed back on me about her needing to read this content before I could really help her, insisting that this entire course was just profusely boring and a waste of her time, and getting pretty irritated that I laughed when she asked me if there was any way I could write this paper for her, I leaned on one of my vocal tricks.

I don’t remember what I said but I remember the way she turned to me with earnest eyes and said, “You’re Lumbee ain’tcha?” 

“Yes ma’am I am.” I responded, thinking maybe somehow this would turn the tides. Maybe my light skin tone and curly hair had made me too ambiguous to pin down what my words could amplify. 

“Oh I knew it! Gal, I knew it!” (No she didn’t). “Baby you’ve got to see this. Look’n’here.” For the first time in this 30 minute struggle she showed me her writing. It was a small assignment to write about any African American activist from the Civil Rights movement that wasn’t a household name. She’d picked a woman who had done a lot of organizational work around the bus protest with Rosa Parks. There were probably less than 500 words on a document that she blatantly told me she had copied and pasted from different sites because she wasn’t “interested in this mess.” 

I began by telling her, “I think you have a really interesting topic—” but before I could finish my positive feedback, the lady stopped me to say, “I don’t think so. I mean this is stupid, this is a waste of my time. All of this writing about Black people all the time. I mean, yeah, sure I guess they were going through something then but everyone was. And now here we go again with the Black Lives Matter movement and it’s just always something with them.” 

I believe I’m being honest when I say I was conflicted. I grew up in Pembroke. I know how racist and prejudiced Lumbees can be. I also know the stories I’ve had my nana and papa tell me about their “colored water fountains,” about going to the movies through the back, about my papa being called the n-word all his life, being rejected from houses and jobs for it and the jobs he did get having clients say he couldn’t work for them because he was Black. To them, he was always reminding people, “I ain’t. I’ma Lumbee. I’m Native.” Sure, in a way that almost no one talks about…my people went through it too…and it feels like we’re the only ones who care. 

But now that shit she just said was racist. And I had no intention of sitting there passively just to continue through the appointment. Somehow I passed off an excuse to go to Dr. Dixon’s office to ask for help. This began a long cycle of me venting and persisting through this appointment. A few times Dr. Dixon offered to step in, end the session, take over the appointment but there was a stubborn will in me to see it through. 

When this lady finally folded up her notebooks and stuffed her computer in her bag, chittering away about needing to get home to kids, and thanks for the help, and still grumbling about “this stupid paper for this stupid class,” I noted to myself quietly that whereas her Lumbee accent was still flowing strong, mine was all dried up and sealed away. Subconsciously I had reserved myself to my deadpan, Mainstream White English, dabbing it with words from my political science courses and writing center rhetoric/jargon. In this way, I know now, I had built division between her and I, severing the bloodline of church parking/neighbors porch/down by the river Lumbee chatter. Instead I centered us in a place where her homegrown racism/ignorance was overwhelmed with all the academic entities and personal anger I could muster. Surely pointing out things like lackluster grammar, a shoddy introduction and a repetitive conclusion, and line-by-line sentence revision to de-racist an essay has to make someone question their very loud (and wrong) belief system, right? That’s what I was leaning on. 

Nothing like using the tools of the oppressive institution against your own people to make you feel big in the moment, and questionable, like me, in the aftermath.

On the drive home that night I thought of Dr. Dixon, Clo and Zaveyan (Black tutors in the writing center, and more importantly my friends), and of the Lumbee lady. There was an ache inside of me for reconciling that I would be spending a lifetime in resistance against (and possibly in reformation with) my people to ensure spaces I filled didn’t permit harm to my people.

Value Meshing

If language and culture are intertwined, then so too are code meshing and the meshing of the (sometimes contradictory) cultural values embedded within those codes. In coining the term code meshing, Young (2010) argues that advocating for a switching between Black Language (only at home or in “casual” conversation) and White Mainstream English (for the classroom and workplace) supports the racist precedent that Black Language is still inferior to WME. Instead of code-switching, code meshing, he argues, “blends dialects, international languages, local idioms, chat-room lingo, and the rhetorical styles of various ethnic and cultural groups in both formal and informal speech acts” (p. 114). Code meshing observes the reality that all people mesh and blend various forms of language every day; advocating for code meshing in academic writing approaches an understanding that no one language is more effective than another. Advocating for code meshing in the writing center means teaching tutors to see the value of this linguistic blending in student’s academic writing and to subtly help students think rhetorically about their language use. 

But code meshing is often easier said than done, especially in institutional settings where most college instructors see WME as the only way to effectively write. Students are sent to the writing center sometimes because their instructors told them their writing was “too casual,” “inappropriate,” “incomprehensible” or “incorrect” when what they really meant was “you’re writing in Lumbee English/Black Language/Southern English and I don’t like it.” Tutors are then put into the unfortunate position of knowing the racial and cultural implications of “fixing” someone’s language, but also knowing a student’s grade depends on it. Further still, other students come to the center to “fix” their papers from code meshed to WME because they’ve been told by the very speakers of their home language or dialect that writing in their home language makes them sound “stupid.” 

To further complicate this issue, tutors of color are often put into impossible linguistic situations: they may very well be speaking in their home language or dialect with a client who shares their own linguistic and cultural background while, by client request, helping them to erase that very language and culture from their text. Or, a tutor’s common linguistic identity with a client might indicate to the client an assumed shared value (as is Morgan’s section above) that runs counter to the tutor’s values. Any attempt to pull the language, values, and identities apart in a dialogue takes time, trust, and a lot of emotional energy, too much emotional energy for one writing center session. Adding in the additional complication of being asked by your white teacher/ boss to use antiracist and linguistic justice practices—therefore forcing a paradigm that necessitates your engagement in this emotional labor (not to mention the mental gymnastics around this whole situation)—makes for an exhausting career as a tutor. This exhausting work is not simply due to the complexities of code meshing; the meshing of our own cultural values in this process—one that Morgan and Elise have come to call “value meshing” —is perhaps most exhausting of all. 

Value meshing occurs simultaneously with code meshing. When we code mesh, the cultural values, roots, and histories of our various languages blend, clash, intermingle, and discombobulate. Value meshing, as a concept, provides a term for an experience that has always existed for linguistically marginalized people of color: it describes the emotional labor of contending with our relationships to the complex histories of race, culture, discrimination, institutional and internalized racism. We cannot code mesh without value meshing, and making visible the emotional labor of value meshing importantly highlights just how difficult and emotionally fraught the work of linguistic justice can be. 

We want to be clear that we are not the first people to describe the emotional labor tied to code meshing and the continual work of linguistic justice. Indeed, this understanding is implicitly present in Green’s (2016) discussion of linguistic Graft vs Host Disease (GVHD), where she describes the emotional difficulty navigating code meshing and the concept of authenticity (Green, 2016, p. 76). Green (2016) describes the symptoms of GVHD, including anxiety, shortness of breath, fatigue, and chronic pain, among others (p. 76-77). Those who advocate for linguistic justice are no strangers to the emotional labor of experiencing, using, having to explain, and being undervalued because of linguistic justice work, especially as people of color. Advocating for linguistic justice can cause a “war with one’s selves” (Green, 2016, p. 76) as we negotiate both the internal, personal struggle of maintaining a sense of self-worth in the face of great oppression and resistance, while simultaneously working overtime to advocate for what is right, what is necessary, what is inevitable. We are not the first to discuss the emotional toll that this work takes, and we are certain we will not be the last. By attempting to put a name–value meshing–to the complex and painful work of code-meshing as a person of color, we hope to provide space for deeper conversations about what it means to ask folks of color to engage in the work of linguistic justice in settings like the writing center, so that more sustainable and healing spaces can be created to support this work.

Value Meshing (Morgan)

My appointment with this Lumbee client is my own definitive example of the emotional labor and negotiation implicit in value meshing. At the surface level, this appointment completed its goal: I was able to assist this Lumbee woman with her current academic writing needs. However in the depths of this collaborative exchange, for me, was a deeply upsetting conflict that was requiring me to code-switch far beyond my identity as just a tutor. 

What does it mean if upholding my client’s linguistic justice as a Lumbee woman means thereby devaluing and minimizing the injustices of another minority? And what does it mean for me as Lumbee tutor who is opposing that Lumbee voice and, ultimately, her own perceived justice? In this case, value meshing highlights how code meshing is not only a deeply complex act, but a byproduct of oppression and a form of resistance against oppression. Traversing permeable linguistic codes also serves as a precursor to traversing multifaceted value systems which is always laborious. And it does not always feel as though it has successfully or appropriately upheld linguistic justice. For anyone, not even yourself. 

As I write here, I write as myself, a Lumbee woman, and so much more—and yet my voice will stand as discourse for the Lumbee, for the Indigenous, for the Native. That is to say, the female, Lumbee voice of Morgan Zacheus is one that will not fit the narrative of all. Yet, my words stand as depictions of my lived experiences and the perceptions those experiences have formed. So, while I am never not Lumbee, and the weight of my race is never not evident in my interactions, one would be amiss to simply ask me, or any other minority, to limit my race as the only actor in the linguistic and written communication I engage. One would also be amiss to assume that the ways I feel and think would be representative of all Lumbees. 

The term value meshing, then, becomes a concept capable of extending past the surface of code switching and meshing. With code meshing or switching, one can identify my race, gender, sexuality and the systems in which I mesh and switch those identity markers through language. Value meshing as a concept helps to illustrate the lived experience—]the pain, frustration, confusion, or joy—that is embedded in the work to write as one’s whole self, or to tutor as one’s whole self. I am not just a pansexual female Lumbee but I am a rural, poor country Indian. I am an anxious and over performing student and friend, and I am a politically and historically educated liberal. I do not just tap into the linguistic codes of these identity markers—I am, speak, write, and tutor as myself, and these identities bleed into one another and through me. Carefully, I go through the world determining who and when can see or hear me as myself, or which veins I must block to keep from dripping too much, or not enough, of myself into a moment. 

Too often, I have been asked to do additional emotional labor in explaining what it feels like to value mesh as a Lumbee woman. To extend the emotional labor of telling you—the likely white, female audience member that comprises the majority of writing center professionals (Faison & Condon, 2022)—that I was uncomfortable as a historically and sociopolitically educated Lumbee woman, angry as a Lumbee woman who was idealistically opposed to my client, but that I was also understanding as a Lumbee woman who had cousins and grandparents harking on the same sentiments in my childhood home, and that I was also persistent as a tutor in making her see how we, as two Lumbee women, could be wronged and forgotten, yet still advocate for the acknowledgement and liberation of other wronged minorities, is already asking a great deal of a multiply marginalized person. Asking me to explain it in a more detailed, somehow deeper context would be ignoring the point of value meshing, which should give language to the deeply painful work of enacting linguistic justice as a linguistically marginalized person. No matter the linguistic negotiation, meshing and switching I am doing, all my perspectives are Lumbee. I may not name them as such, but I don’t often have to. To quote Talisha Haltiwanger Morrison, “When you’re a person of color, you’re a person of color all the time.” While many readers of this article can return to their white lives after this reading, I am still here, wrestling in real time with my life as a Lumbee woman. You will leave with my stories, having hopefully learned something new, and I will still be wrestling between the lines.

Value Meshing (Elise)

My time at UNCP has been marked with a great deal of care and love—the tutors in the center and I have grown together and in great esteem of one another, and my gratitude for their willingness to share their whole selves with me is boundless. Tutors like Morgan have shown me how a white female writing center administrator can more responsibly engage in linguistic justice alongside linguistically marginalized tutors of color, and in turn, that labor has become central in my everyday work. Giamo (2023) argues “Little attention . . . is given to tutors’ affective, material, physical, and psychosocial experiences, which I see as a complex network of wellness issues that result from neoliberal policies or from precarities that are created by neoliberalist values” (p. 11). While my work as a writing center professional has often attended to tutors’ identities, embodied experiences, vulnerabilities, and therefore wellness (Dixon, 2017; Brentnell et al., 2021, 2022), my work with Morgan and the other tutors in my center has shown me how deeply tied a tutor’s wellness can be to how I support their whole selves as they enact linguistic justice in their tutorials. Indeed “writing centers must take up the call to do deliberate anti-racist work, which necessarily means accounting for the health and well-being of tutors of color in addition to greater attention paid toward how marginalized people move through writing center spaces” (Giaimo, 2023, p. 128). For me, this work has primarily been about providing processes of support (like systems in which tutors know exactly what to do if they need to tap out of a session that has become emotionally unmanageable) while decentering myself in favor of the tutors’ agency to make their own decisions (like using my white and institutional privilege to advocate for living wages, intentionally hiring and then making sure to support tutors of color, and mentoring tutors of color into leadership roles where they can then sustainably serve as mentors themselves, and above all, trusting tutors to know and advocate for their needs, and being a trustworthy recipient of their requests). 

Nearly everyday, one to two of my work hours are spent sitting and chatting with tutors. We talk about boyfriends, breakups, family issues, trauma, grades, tuition. I listen intently, I ask questions, and I use my institutional power to help when I can. To some, these hours may appear as time that could be better spent lesson planning, grading, writing, or doing the hundreds of other tasks of a writing center professional. To me, however, this is the most important work of all– it is the work of holding space, rhetorically listening (Ratcliff, 2005), and providing unconditional love. Condon (2012) writes that “the work of white antiracism cannot be altruistic and still be antiracist” (p. 19), and this dictum has settled itself into my brain and soul. As a white woman administrator, I know building a center oriented toward linguistic justice is ongoing, flawed, and messy “learning in action . . . within paradoxical conditions” (Condon, 2012, p. 16). It simply has to be done, and it must be done with me in the background. 

Conclusion

In articulating the concept of value meshing, we argue that code meshing does not stop at the acknowledgement that “racially and linguistically marginalized students” are, at the request of institutions and perceived authorities within those structures, “asked to switch their language, their cultural ways of being and knowing, their community…in favor of a white middle class identity” (Baker-Bell, 2020). Value meshing simply provides additional language for us to consider how the fluctuating and foundational aspects of identity are purposefully (and not so purposefully) presented in our language and lives as we negotiate white supremacy’s hold on us, specifically for tutors in the liminal space of a writing center. Value meshing helps us to read between the lines of the experience of code meshing and the work to enact linguistic justice for tutors of color.

In developing the term of value meshing, we hope to give language to the work that we all enact when we engage in linguistic justice, especially in vulnerable spaces like writing centers. We know it isn’t news to anyone that linguistic justice is difficult work for those who practice it. Indeed, Baker-Bell (2020) writes

You can’t be out here saying that you believe in linguistic diversity at the same time of shutting students down as soon as they open their mouths. You have to be about this life for real for real! You have to be ready and willing to challenge everything you once understood about language and what students need in a language education. You have to be ready for the messiness that comes with this process. (p. 100)

The messiness of this process, we argue, includes the work of value meshing. Linguistic justice work, especially the work of code meshing as a writing center tutor of color, also includes the exhausting work of value meshing. In a writing center session, value meshing does not always feel good: it can lead to upsetting interactions, can cause existential crises, and can alienate us from our heritage and people. 

Yet, we all must persist. Inoue (2016) argues, “… the problems of racism and linguistic hierarchies that accompany such issues in the academy will not go away if most teachers and researchers do not have explicit antiracist agendas. . .” (pp. xvii-xix). Racism and linguistic hierarchies in the academy will also persist if writing center directors and tutors do not fold those agendas into their daily practices as well, despite and because of the messiness those practices entail. We must be mindful of the emotional labor connected to asking tutors of color to engage in linguistic justice practices and create space to support the work of value meshing. 

We must read between the lines of linguistic justice to see the lives of those who enact it.

Notes

  • [1] A Lum is a shortened word for Lumbee, with connotations that denote true authenticity of Lumbee-ness.
  • [2] Pa is a term of endearment, similar to the use of “man,” “bro,” or “dude.”
  • [3] See section entitled “All My People Ain’t My People” for explanation of this phrase.
  • [4] Scuffletown is a Lumbee term for the town of Pembroke, NC.

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