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Composition Forum 27, Spring 2013

Ryden, Wendy, and Ian Marshall. Reading, Writing, and the Rhetorics of Whiteness. New York: Routledge, 2012. 190 pp.

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Timothy Barnett

Abstract: Wendy Ryden and Ian Marshall’s Reading, Writing, and the Rhetorics of Whiteness is a difficult book, but an important one for scholars interested in rhetoric, whiteness studies, and basic writing. It is an eclectic and intricate set of musings on writing pedagogy, culture, and race, and it is this eclecticism that both challenges the reader and opens new possibilities for dialogue about the discursive and material dominance of whiteness.

My initial challenge in writing this review is simply to describe the book, as it explores personal narrative, critical race theory, kitsch theory, the history of basic writing, literary and student texts, classical rhetoric, rhetorics of emotion, and more in rapid fashion. Ryden and Marshall’s primary concern with creating a dialogue is reflected in the fact that each author takes turns writing chapters; however, the dialogic quality is also reflected within each chapter as the back and forth between the experiential and the historical, the theoretical and the pedagogical is somewhat dizzying. On a first read of the book, I could not help but wonder how all these different ways of looking at whiteness “speak” to each other, and I am not convinced that they always do, at least in a direct way. However, that appears to be the point of the book. Reading, Writing, and the Rhetorics of Whiteness is not a Socratic dialogue, not a demonstration of knowledge by a virtuoso under the guise of a conversation. Ryden and Marshall’s text is provocatively argued, but it questions and circles back on its own project in ways I have rarely seen. This questioning and the text’s variety of approaches suggest an openness to multiplicity and conflict on the part of the authors and a recognition that such things are not only unavoidable when we discuss race, but, in fact, essential if we are to further Zeus Leonardo’s “goal of going ‘through race in order to have any hopes of going beyond it’” (79)—an ideal Marshall and Ryden refer to more than once. The complexity of the text is what makes it significant, but it also requires that I take some time to describe the book so that I can do it justice.

In Chapter One, Confessing Whiteness: Performing the Antiracist, Liberal Subject, Ryden opens with a personal narrative from her childhood where she “outs” her whiteness, more specifically, her involvement in a racist society that offers her race privilege. Central to this chapter is an in-depth analysis of Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, as an example of a “redemption” narrative gone awry, but, most interesting, perhaps, is Ryden’s insistence that narrative as a genre is insufficient for white anti-racist subjects hoping to create change. Whiteness narratives, she argues, inevitably re-center whiteness by suggesting that a primary cultural goal is to heal the injured white subject instead of confronting structural racism. Given that the book begins with Ryden’s powerful narrative and that it relies on personal narrative (in tandem with theory and textual analysis) in both Ryden’s and Marshall’s chapters, this very convincing argument is somewhat paradoxical. From the opening of Reading, Writing, and the Rhetorics of Whiteness, we are supposed to consider how narrative is both indicative of the problem of whiteness and a potential tool in solving this very problem, a tension I turn to at the end of this review.

In Chapter Two, Whiteness (as) in Basic Writing, Marshall describes his experiences as a British boy raised by Jamaican parents who emigrate to East Orange, New Jersey. This story opens the door to an analysis of the recent history of basic writing, and Marshall reasserts Shor’s and Villanueva’s ideas that basic writing may, respectively, be a form of apartheid and colonialism. While little historical detail is added in this discussion of Basic Writing, two things in this chapter stand out. First, I appreciate Marshall’s analysis of Charles Chesnutt’s The Wife of His Youth, which he nimbly interprets and positions as a precursor to the bidialectal work of such contemporary scholars as Gloria Anzaldua. Second, Marshall argues that “the project[s] of Basic Writing and bidialectalism are themselves meditations on the white space in composition studies; an inability to fully and completely face the consequences of racism not just in language, or on college campuses, but in U.S. culture generally” (60). While not fully fleshed out, Marshall asks us here to conceptualize basic writing in new ways. If basic writing in one sense represents Composition Studies’ liberal accommodation of “the other” (primarily students of color and working class students) since the 1970s, then Marshall suggests that these “others”—kept closer to the structures of power but still in “their place” in the basic writing class—continue to unwittingly sustain dominant structures of whiteness.

Ryden’s Chapter Three, The Kitsch of Liberal Whiteness and Bankrupt Discourses of Race discusses our inability to sustain useful discussions about race through the lens of kitsch theory. For Ryden, kitsch theory describes an aesthetic, related to propaganda, that can be “understood not merely as ‘fake’ or inauthentic but dangerous in its suppression of ‘ugly’ truths in favor of a type of beauty that abets totalitarianism and political control” (74). While kitsch, she notes, “is often a synonym for bad taste and cheap art reproductions” (74), kitsch theory is concerned as well with the mass reproduction and trivialization of ideas, such as the meaning of race in the US. In particular, Ryden asserts that contemporary discourse on race, including classroom discussion, does not move beyond nostalgic rhetorics of kitsch (mass produced, simplified and often idealistic modes of historical discourse) and melancholic discourses of kitsch (which “wallow in” difficult truths as artistic modes rather than as tools of critique). She asks us to consider how rhetorics of kitsch are at least partly responsible when students roll their eyes at classroom talk of racism or when we, as a culture, attempt, but too often fail, to confront racism—as in the uproar over Don Imus’s racist remarks about Rutgers basketball players several years ago (80). Suggesting that “it is ‘easy’ for white liberalism to characterize the Imus performance as recidivism that warrants a scolding ” (83), Ryden argues that our “scolding” of Imus (who lost his job, but reappeared on the air shortly thereafter) was a way for White culture to “feel better” without addressing ever-evolving forms of racism. Through her analysis of the Imus situation and classroom interactions, Ryden asks us to move beyond toothless, predictable discussions of race and into a more self-aware discourse open to real change.

In Chapter Four, Whiteness, Composition, and Enthymemes of Institutional Discourse, Marshall draws on Aristotle’s notion of the enthymeme to understand his own position as a Black writing instructor and WPA at two very different institutions, and he makes thoughtful connections between the personal and the structural as he imagines the ways New Critical (and, by extension, current-traditional) notions of reading are linked to “universal” notions of whiteness. The highlight of this chapter is Marshall’s analysis of the university as institutional rhetor and of two moments of student writing, one from an African American man struggling to balance school and home cultures and the second from a white, working class woman whose narrative exposes a “failure of rhetoric in this culture…to clearly articulate positions outside of” middle class whiteness (115). Marshall ultimately posits that these two texts are complementary because together they suggest how “race and class are made more complex by the way each of them engage institutional whiteness” (115).

Chapter Five, Moving Whiteness: Rhetoric and Political Emotion, considers the “‘sociality’ of emotion” (Ahmed, qtd. in Ryden and Marshall 121), the idea that “‘the work of decolonization must occur at the affective level, not only to reconstitute the emotional life of the individual but also…to restructure the feeling or mood that characterizes an age’” (Worsham, qtd. in Ryden and Marshall 122). In this chapter, Ryden convincingly argues that whiteness studies has too often depended on logic and rationality, while ignoring both the affective dimensions of white identity and the fact that white people’s choice to hold onto power is, in a very real sense, rational indeed. She then analyzes two examples of white students’ responses to texts that challenge whiteness and uses these responses to explore differences between sympathy and empathy, guilt and shame. As she yokes complex theories of the political/emotional to the classroom, Ryden urges us to think “about the cultivation of emotional capacities for the purposes of creating” alternatives to whiteness (129).

Chapter Six, Encountering Whiteness as Resistance: Dialogue and Authority in the Composition Classroom, is the last full chapter in the book (although there is an Afterword that consists of a short dialogue between the two authors). In this chapter, Marshall considers the question of stalled dialogue from the perspective of a Black instructor teaching primarily White students. How does a dialogue on race look from this perspective, he asks, and how do the competing elements of multiculturalism (the appreciation of difference) and of color blindness (a refusal to see difference) help insulate White students from discussing power and race—especially when their teacher is a man of color? In response to this dilemma, Marshall offers the example of Jody, a White student shaped by her small town and its belief in White invisibility as well as by the “political correctness” of her predominantly White classmates who accept multiculturalism in school but politely refuse to engage with race in complex ways. At the same time, she connects with the critical pedagogy her Black teacher (Marshall) offers, and she begins to consider her position in society more critically. Jody is full of questions—about race and identity, power and its meaning—and these questions serve as a springboard for discussions that go beyond the discourses of kitsch that Ryden describes. Of course, Marshall acknowledges that Jody’s engagement with race is not the norm among White students (especially when they are faced with instructors of color), but her example offers insight into the ways narrative about and analysis of race may be used in the writing class.

In their Afterword, Ryden and Marshall most explicitly address their dialogic method, as they transcribe a discussion the two have about Jared French’s painting Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone. For the first time, they confront each other and their methodology in somewhat direct ways. Ryden muses, for example, that “perhaps we’ve gotten somewhere after all, at least by changing the terms of the debate…. Our essays are very different, and maybe are attempting to do different things, but they ‘speak’ to each other, in the spirit of open-ended dialogue that we’ve been so bold, or naïve, to place our faith in” (158). The question, though, for the authors as well as for the reader, is where that “somewhere” is and how the essays they have written “speak to each other.” To answer this question most clearly, if would be helpful if the authors clearly described their theory of dialogue as well as how they see the particular dialogue they engage in as contributing to an “epistemology of whiteness in composition studies” (158).

What I find most dialogic in Ryden and Marshall’s text is their ability to constantly circle back and to question what they do, especially Ryden, who seems both intent on including the personal narrative when addressing the problem of whiteness and equally intent on discounting this mode because it is as much a problem in the fight to decenter whiteness as a solution. The question of personal narrative comes up repeatedly, even as it is used consistently—and to good effect—by both authors, and Ryden raises the issue in the Afterword when she writes, “So as I point out about narrative performance…, once we confess our whiteness, where does that leave us? Clean…? Or does it really leave us nowhere at all? Or, worse yet, ready to reassert whiteness when it is no longer convenient to be washed clean?” (155). Such questions push the reader—the White reader—to engage in internal dialogue about not only the methodological limitations of a study such as this one but the ethical limitations as well, even as the authors attempt to do what would appear to be the ethical thing: confront structural racism. What is encouraging to me about this kind of self-critical dialogue is that the authors view it as both necessary (and never ending) but not as something that should paralyze further questioning of whiteness because, their stories and analysis suggest, the role of “whiteness” narratives can change, especially when they are held up against and viewed through the lens of narratives from those who have been considered “Other.”

In that sense, it is important to note that, while it is Ryden who most forcefully analyzes and critiques the problem of the personal narrative in whiteness studies, Marshall has a good deal, at least implicitly, to say about this issue as well. His take is different, as he is a Black male born outside of the US, whose blackness is both very real, and yet interrupted—in some ways—by his early years in another country and by the fact that he speaks with a British accent and as a representative of White institutions in his role as a WPA. Marshall offers significant analysis of the problems of subjectivity as he continually acknowledges that his experiences as a Black man affect his teaching and his voice, but neither author fully engages how Marshall’s chapters, and especially his personal narratives, implicitly “speak back” to Ryden’s opening chapter that centers the problem of narrative in whiteness studies. Given the complexity of their subject positions (in terms of gender, class, and race) and their willingness to explore issues of whiteness together, the authors would appear to be in a prime position to consider how the genre of the “whiteness narrative” is changing as other voices get involved. Does whiteness get recentered when narratives of a Black man’s experience with it are told? If so, does it get recentered in the same way as when a white, working class woman tells her stories? How can we draw on the multitude of stories about race and whiteness being told today (which, while far from inclusive, are much more diverse than they were 50 years ago) to create narratives that do not simply establish the white subject as a subject in need of “healing” but, instead, show whiteness as a complex set of relationships that can—potentially, painfully—be revised?

Ryden and Marshall do not fully address these questions, but they are in an excellent position to take them up, and this comment is less a criticism of their current text than an acknowledgement that their text takes us down many complicated paths that should generate new directions for exploration among scholars of race and rhetoric. Reading, Writing, and the Rhetorics of Whiteness prods us to question ourselves and our classrooms—along with our very place in the world—as it asks us to play a role in the dialogue Ryden and Marshall have provocatively taken up. We would be wise to accept their offer.

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