Talking Through: The Detriment of Avoidant Discourse in WC Allyship

JJ Gramlich

Introduction: Safe & Welcome for Whom?

The truth is that the writing center is pretty different than a standard work environment; many times, our education, passions, and work overlap and, for better or worse, WC work tends to follow us home. Though writing-specific policies are (usually) not concepts we incorporate in our everyday life, writing center pedagogy, theory, and thought cannot be dropped off at the door when you leave and picked up when you return. WC work is built on top of pedagogical theories and social philosophies/discourses that are pervasive and important in all contexts. This often manifests in the realm of sociopolitical conversation, and the moments in which WC works spark important discourse about allyship, privilege, colonization, and power. However, because so many of our individual identities and vulnerabilities are incorporated into WC work, the ways in which WC participants (staff, administrators, and writers) perceive the “specialness” of the WC work environment can cause problems as well. Many times, when both administrative and non-administrative WC participants put an emotional stake in WC work, we avoid ‘negative feedback’ from that space at all costs.

On one hand, this effort could be perceived as positive, as it usually entails the individual putting their best foot forward and avoiding hurting the people around them. On the other hand, to avoid ‘negative feedback’ at all costs is also to avoid engaging in difficult but productive discourse that would aid in the construction of a more welcoming space. Here is where we begin to differentiate between the notions of “safe” and “brave” spaces (which will ultimately be revealed to be “unwelcoming” and “welcoming” spaces, respectively). To avoid the ‘critical embrace’ of your colleagues (a concept which we will return to later in the piece) is to envelop yourself in a “safe” space that, as Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013) write, is less “congruent with our understanding of power, privilege, and oppression” and which fails at addressing “the challenges inherent in dialogue about these issues in socioculturally diverse groups” (p. 149). Consequently, we must consider the relationship between “safe” and “welcome” spaces and acknowledge who these spaces are safe/welcoming for. In fact, when we deploy any use of the terms “safe” or “welcome,” we must always follow by asking, “safe for whom?” “welcome for whom?”

In the IUPUI writing center, after having a conversation about intra-center power dynamics amongst three of the writing center staff, one white administrative member of the staff asked “Did I say anything wrong?” In this moment, the idea of “safeness” and “welcomeness” seemed to be directed at herself, to validate herself as an ally. Afterward, one consultant [a woman of color] expressed that this particular question made her feel as though the entire conversation had lost meaning because she realized that during the conversation, the administrative participant was prioritizing preserving her own reputation over fostering productive discourse.

Frequently, safe begins to mean not “an inclusive place in which someone’s identity and experiences can be shared without fear of retaliation from a cishetero, white society,” but has been co-opted and shifted by well-meaning, privileged writing center participants, to mean “a space in which criticism, challenge, or difficult conversations should be avoided” and to, as Arao and Clemens write, “encourage entrenchment in privilege” (2013, p. 140). Bridget Draxler’s (2017) “Social Justice in the Writing Center” laments some of these exact experiences that she learned to grow through: “I was terribly afraid of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong word. Avoidance was, in my mind, my only chance of giving students a safe space.” After sharing this anecdote that is remarkably similar to the expressed feelings of some of the white members of our center, she also went on to expose one of the primary issues in this form of ‘allyship’: avoidance, which Draxler describes as “a well-intentioned effort not to offend” (2017). Regardless of one’s opinion on these two spatial constructions, the fact is that the term “safe space” negatively impacts marginalized members of the writing center space, as this safety involves avoidance, and consequently only welcomes identities of privilege.

To be an ally in the center should not be about “saying the right things” in front of LGBTQ+ consultants or consultants of color, or to safely tiptoe around difficult issues and avoid contact; to do this is to, as Jacob Hermann (2017) puts it, “shift the intellectual and emotional labor of social justice education onto the shoulders of the already disenfranchised minority.” To continuously push this burden of labor onto marginalized voices, is to construct an ultimately unwelcoming space under the guise of safety. Furthermore, to avoid contact is to perpetuate the dangerous notion of “white benevolence,” which will inevitably depict the privileges of the center as peaceful and kind, and will inherently depict the marginalizations of the center as disruptive, angry, and radical (in the pejorative sense) (Craun, 2014). Instead, to be an ally in the writing center, we must be “brave” and non-avoidant, in that we (each with our own privileges) must allow ourselves to be welcoming to the critical embrace of our colleagues and peers in order to foster a more radically welcoming environment.

To Critically Embrace & Have Contact

As I continue to use the term “critical embrace” throughout his piece, I would like to briefly define the concept as I use it in this context.

During discourse about race, privilege, and colonization in our writing center, my colleague, Varshini Balaji, and I worked to not only negotiate these topics in a white, institutional environment, but also to negotiate our relationship with one another. In this conversation between myself (a white, American consultant) and her (an international student/consultant, and WOC), she brought up the notion of a “critical embrace,” which represents how we would engage with our other coworkers and each other in instances of problematic claims or “difficult conversations.”

A “critical embrace” directly combats the notion of “white benevolence” that Craun (2014) describes as a consistent effort of white people to depict themselves as peaceful saviors and depict “foreigners” as savage and evil. Frequently, when any marginalized member of society (particularly WOC), criticizes or makes any sort of noise to challenge hegemonic policy, values, and discourse, they are described as, “aggressive, ill tempered, illogical, overbearing, hostile, and ignorant without provocation” (Ashley, 2011). Though anger is valid in its own right, re-conceptualizing these interactions as a “critical embrace” allows us to both engage with them more meaningfully, and also to deconstruct our problematic perception of radicalism. Furthermore, to “critically embrace” is to embody Alison Cook-Sather’s (2016) admiration of the “brave space” concept, in that, the critical embrace is an “active risk [with] built in affirmation” (p. 1). The existence of “critical embrace” rejects the notion that conflict is always negative, that critique is always angry, and that there is a dichotomy between welcoming and discomfort. In our critical embrace we accept the existence of each other’s privileges and ignorances; more importantly, we accept them loudly.

To be critically embraced by others, however, we must first critically embrace ourselves. As allies to anyone, we are imperfect, and our fault does not lie in these imperfections but, rather, in our inability to expose and admit to them. Ultimately, we must grow comfortable with wrongness and engage in this discourse, without the “white fear” of being wrong or disliked, and to open ourselves to criticism and flaw. As Linda Martín-Alcoff (1989) writes, we must have a “double consciousness, [which] requires an ever-present acknowledgement of the historical legacy of white identity constructions in the persistent structures of inequality and exploitation” (p. 223). Though we are uncomfortable with being bodies of privilege and oppression, we inevitably are and must acknowledge this truth. To avoid this discomfort is to hold onto our privilege more tightly and reinforce the notion that it is the obligation of the marginalized members of the center to carry the weight of change.

In feedback to her paper proposal by members of the WC community, one consultant was told that her writing was “mean” and “angry” and she needed to “humanize the piece,” and to that she asks, “Humanizing for whom? What happens when humanizing my white subjects of criticism means dehumanizing myself?”

Writing centers are spaces in which we often see people at their most vulnerable and their most passionate. We see writing about controversial issues like abortion, civil rights, economics, and the environment, and we see the people who foster these dynamic thoughts and ideas. Often, both between consultants and writers, and between consultants themselves, these issues, thoughts, and ideas prompt uncomfortable but important conversations. These conversations are not easy, and are often emotionally taxing on everyone involved, particularly on groups that have been systematically oppressed and silenced. However, oppressed members of the center often still find this emotional labor necessary because of a need, “… to assist students from a myriad of cultures and races to not only understand academic discourse, but also understand how to situate their own discourse patterns within academic discourse” (Faison & Treviño, 2017).  As a space that often champions itself as an environment of contact, resistance, and periphery, writing centers have an obligation to foster these difficult conversations in a more careful, constructive way.

The concept of WCs as “contact zones” is one that is used quite frequently in the development of WC pedagogy and discourse. However, in order for “contact zone” to be a rudimentary feature of WC work and the WC mission, we must have a fundamental understanding of what this means. In one of its earliest definitions, a “contact zone, “refer[s] to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt, 1991). This definition highlights an important distinction between the locutionary and illocutionary features of the term “contact zone.” On the surface, one might conclude that a contact zone is a neutral space, a serene chamber that allows for equal elbowroom for all beliefs and identities, the absence of responsibility or engagement. This definition would most likely support the idea of a “safe” space, a faux-welcoming space, in that not only are our ideas safe, but the white racial habitus is safe and welcome too (Inoue, 2016). To define a contact zone, a writing center, in this way, as a space of equality rather than equity, is to pre-emptively punish any attempts at equity and ensure the maintenance of the status quo. Furthermore, while Arao and Clemens make noble attempts to define “bravery” and develop potential rules for how brave spaces can operate effectively, they simultaneously embody what Inoue considers to be the third trait of the white racial habitus, “rule-governed contractual relationships” which emphasize “rules, laws, and sameness” (2016). Thus, in both our quest to define the expectations for our contact zone, and the simultaneous “specialness” of our space, we construct a safe space that adheres to the white racial habitus and thrives under the guise of “welcomeness.” Consequently, this space becomes welcoming and safe only for white, privileged members during privileged moments because, as Jacob Hermann writes, “for the disenfranchised minority, every space must be a ‘brave space’” (2017).

In our center, an LGBTQ+ writing consultant mentioned a comparison between LGBTQ+ rights issues and civil rights related to black Americans. Another consultant said that there in fact was a distinction between the two movements, in that “people don’t choose to be black.” Obviously, the statement being made by the second consultant was asserting that LGBTQ+ people choose their sexual identity/orientation. While both consultants were allowed the “same” space and room for thought, one left happy and content, while the other left with their entire identity invalidated.

However, in her definition of “contact zone,” Pratt takes this social discrepancy into account. Her inclusion of “context,” particularly the inclusion of how points of contact can reflect power dynamics that were fostered in the “aftermath” of colonialism and slavery, asserts the responsibility of WCs to play an active, dynamic role in maintaining a contact zone. Defining ourselves as a contact zone is not an excuse to be apolitical or willfully ignorant of the power dynamics at play; we must engage, not just theoretically, but practically. If our spaces truly embody the characteristics of a “contact zone,” we must not only welcome these conversations in our center, but we must build them in a way that provides access and welcomes all writers and members of our communities. In a criticism of Stephen North’s (1984) claims of liberating “talk” in the writing center, Nancy Grimm (1999) responds that though under the guise of liberation and progression, North’s attitude may actually be highly regulatory, particularly to marginalized identities in the center. This regulatory attitude is again, a reflection of Inoue’s (2016) description of the white racial habitus that generally hosts oppressive restrictions on discourse frameworks.

Referring back to the idea that the space can either be welcome and safe or unwelcome and unsafe for its occupants, I want to clarify the use of the phrase “privileged moments.” Though spaces that are “safe” and inviting for privileged members often present “brave” opportunities for unprivileged members, it is important to remember the role that intersectionality plays in these labels and how in one moment a participant may be privileged and in the next, they are marginalized, depending on the fluctuating and overlapping identities within the center (Crenshaw, 1989). For example, while a white, female, WC administrator may be marginalized by her male peers in other spaces that disenfranchise WC work, she might also be a person of privilege when in discourse with consultants of color. While a straight, male consultant of color’s voice may be marginalized in the primarily white WC space, he will also hold some privilege during discourse about LGBTQ+ issues and experiences. Ultimately, the issue of contact in WCs requires us to ask: As a community, who do writing centers perceive as being the most welcome? How do we express this welcomeness in terms of perpetuating the idea of a “safe space”? Who do we expect bravery from? Who do we welcome into this conversation?

Contact in Allyship

To answer these questions, we must consider the role of “the contact zone” in intra-center and institutional allyship. The relationship a center has to allyship will often determine who, both marginalized or not, feels welcome both in the center and in the center’s discourse. In a piece about his experience of “Writing While Black,” Cedric Burrows (2016) writes of a time in which a white writing center consultant told him that he should “reword” his dissertation as to avoid offending his white readers. Though Burrows re-emphasized that his piece was in fact not insulting white readers, but rather simply urging them to have a sufficient level of cultural competence before teaching black works, the consultant still said that “that’s not what someone who’s white may get from this writing” (2016). This moment is a prime example of Inou’s (2016) perceptions of maintaining a white racial habitus that prioritizes sameness, fairness, and the individual. While as a consultant, it was certainly their role to discuss the potential ramification of Burrows’ writing, the comment was also a reflection on the perceived necessity to coddle white fragility at the expense of marginalized peoples that is still prevalent in the writing center space (DiAngelo, 2011). In this moment, not only did the consultant avoid contact, but they asked Burrows to gear his writing to avoid contact as well. We are so conditioned to ally safely, by supporting radical content that is carefully constructed in palatable, white ways, that we succeed in nothing but maintaining the status quo and fetishizing theoretical work from POC. Here, this safe allyship proposes a welcoming space for the consultant and an unwelcoming space for the writer and work.

Often, allyship that is constructed through the lens of avoidance or “keeping the peace” very quickly translates into superficial or contrived allyship. Instead of engaging in radical discourse about tangible issues that may be occurring in our space, we dance around the subject matter with light feet, hoping to avoid any conflict.

As the language and cultural diversity coordinator in our writing center, I, a white woman, chose to promote an event called “Chai Time.” This was a monthly event held in our center by three international consultants and typically centered on issues of diversity. Though the intent was well-meant, it quickly transitioned into something more uncomfortable: a “parade” of diversity that continued solely for the sake of meeting an imagined “diversity quota.” It became both inorganic and uncomfortable for the international students participating. Some students began to feel like this event was a copout to avoid having specific discourse related to immediate issues of diversity occurring in our center.

The very nature of “contact”-based allyship requires participants to be willing to put their explicit thoughts, feelings, and experiences on the table for discussion. Often, we avoid explicit discourse because of a fear of criticism. Especially in such a ‘progressive’ WC environment, no person wants to be held up as the example of what not to say or do. However, because this fear is so rampant, many scholars and participants in this conversation stay silent, tentative, and peace-focused, instead of even attempting to engage meaningfully in the issue. This avoidance and fear is where the concept of privilege plays a more significant role. Instead of attempting to conceive of a peaceful, universal method of allyship, we must understand that it needs to be “reflective and attentive—meaning that, as tutors and administrators, we are observant throughout our interactions with others and adaptable to the ways in which power and privilege manifest in given moments” (Diab et al., 2012). To consistently play it safe, like Burrows’ writing consultant asked him to coddle his white audience, and a consultant of color at our center was asked to “humanize” her oppressors, is to completely curtail the concept of a contact-zone and reinforces the fact that WCs are welcoming and safe spaces for privileges while putting the task of emotional work onto oppressed members of the center (Hermann, 2017). Unfortunately, the most difficult part about engaging in this radical conversation about actual instances of oppression within our space is that it often inherently requires “calling someone out.” As we are all dynamic identities, engaging, conflicting, and collaborating with one another, we will inevitably marginalize and be marginalized both in instantaneous and systemic ways. To have explicit conversation about these interactions requires us to address each person’s specific identity (Draxler, 2017). Thus, we come to the crux of the issue: having radical, progressive discourse inherently requires us to “call out” members of our institution and community and to more confidently make assertions of acceptability and unacceptability, both concepts of which have been historically constructed as a negative and shameful experience.

A Call to Action

The downfall of WC allyship is often taking an “around, not through” approach, which negatively impacts the progress of our work and further supports marginalization. It is circling the subject rather than engaging in it, and there are often several reasons that we choose to engage in this method of discourse. A significant reason is because of the fear of “messing up,” this “well-intentioned effort not to offend” (Draxler, 2017). Since WC work typically draws in tolerant, caring people, and because WC spaces are generally more tolerant than larger academic spaces, we often find ourselves working hard to not offend others or say the “wrong” thing. While it is important to actively work to create a surface-level welcoming space for all WC participants, it is equally important to avoid being silent for the sake of peace, because as Alison Cook-Sather (2016) acknowledges, we are in spaces where, “painful or difficult experiences will be acknowledged and supported, not avoided or eliminated” (p. 1).  Just because no one is talking about difficult issues does not mean these issues don’t exist. To be quiet and to attempt to placate uncomfortable points of “contact” is not allyship. Likewise, “When we act under this guise, we are still acting politically, and more often than not, when we choose to silence or ignore difference in our spaces, we offer continued support to systemic power structures that continue to privilege white, straight, male, middle-class ways of being” (Hallman & Webster, 2017). Unfortunately, when it comes to discourse about conflicts of diversity in the center, no one wants to be the person to initiate this discourse, because no one wants to be held up throughout WC scholarship as the “socially inaccurate” opinion. No one wants to be perceived as problematic, both because we care about others and don’t want to hurt them, and because we selfishly want to maintain our appearance as “ally” or “good.” However, there are ways in which we can actively acknowledge our privilege and ignorance without being written off as a bad person; this requires reviewing the culture in our space and often re-constructing what it means to be privileged, oppressed, right, and wrong. In her center, Bridget Draxler discussed how her staff had conversations about their various intersecting identities and said, “Starting by naming both our own privileges and our own experiences of oppression, where we are sensitive to systemic oppression and where we are blind to it, immediately laid the groundwork to acknowledge the diversity of our staff and our common fallibilities…” (2017). Our fear of how others may perceive us, and our fear of engaging in anything that gives us emotions other than “cozy home” feelings, have conditioned us to believe that allyship is silent. Thus, we must shift.

We must not only shift our actions and dialogue, but we must completely reconstruct what it means to be wrong and problematic. The introduction to The Peer Review’s special issue “Writing Centers as Brave/r Spaces” reminds us that we need to move away from “safety (passive) to bravery (active—an act of motion that requires engagement)” (Hallman & Webster, 2017). In doing this, we should not normalize intolerance, hate, or problematic behavior, but rather we should change our attitude to that of the “critical embrace”: to intertwine discomfort with freedom, and to normalize criticism and feedback as healthy. Adjusting our metaphorical view of allyship from “confining space” to a “freeing force” will not only allow for us to have more productive discourses about diversities in the writing center, but it will also allow for all participants in these conversations to feel more fulfilled, heard, and welcome. It will challenge surface level racism, such as the persistent social attitude that WOC are inherently angry when they challenge systemic racism. It will challenge micro-aggressive discrimination, such as the level of emotional labor that is expected of marginalized consultants while privileged consultants are afforded safety. And it will challenge systemic and encultured discrimination, that maintains the white racial habitus, a discriminatory framework for existence, which faultily suggests we should be static and “fair” in our interactions. To allow oneself to be critical of others and oneself, while simultaneously embracing others and oneself, to create a space in which mistakes are critiqued but not shamed, and where privileges are acknowledged loudly, will result in a center that is more welcoming not only in terms of people, but also of progress.

Author Biography

JJ Gramlich completed her undergraduate degree in linguistics at IUPUI, where she worked at the writing center and served as the center’s coordinator for language and cultural diversity. She plans to start her graduate studies in the fall at Ball State and continuing her writing center work there.


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