Saint Mary’s Talk Addresses Antiracism and White Supremacy

On August 13, staff and faculty joined Arizona State University Associate Dean Asao B. Inoue for a virtual talk, “How Can Saint Mary’s College of California Be Antiracist and Address White Supremacy?” “I want us to consider how our language and judgment practices in our classrooms may contribute to white supremacy in our own world, and how knowing this dynamic helps us to understand how to be an antiracist literacy teacher,” Inoue said, addressing the SMC teaching community in particular.

The Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Equity, and Inclusion in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at ASU, Inoue introduced the concept of “white language supremacy,” which he defined as “the condition in classrooms, schools, and society where rewards are given in determined ways to people who can most easily reach them.”

Regardless of a professor’s morals or personal beliefs, Inoue explained that individual professors can perpetuate white language supremacy without knowing it. “We can have good intentions, be good people, demand clear and logical writing from students, and yet, through our language standards and judgments, we end up promoting white language supremacy because those standards and expectations come historically from a white racial formation in a Western world; and when such standards are used to decipher grades and opportunities for everyone, they become white supremacist.”

Call to Action

Inoue provided professors with an alternative to the traditional method of teaching, which reflects racist standards. Unlearning racism and learning anti-racism is a lifelong practice, but Inoue revealed something that professors can begin doing to become anti-racist as soon as tomorrow: “Stop grading student writing by a single standard.” Inoue introduced a practice known as “ungrading,” by which students still receive a final grade in a course, but grading is removed from the classroom; meanwhile, students are not being held to a single white standard of writing.

“Grades make students avoid taking risks and see failure as only bad, not as a learning opportunity, not as something to inquire about or be interested in. Failure engenders shame, not engagement and interest, as it should,” said Inoue. “It’s not just that grading is bad for all students; it’s that it’s worse for students of color and maintains white supremacy in the world.”

Throughout his talk, Inoue acknowledged that professors in higher education might be resistant to the idea that they participate in white language supremacy as well as the idea of giving up the practice of grading. However, Inoue believes it is up to professors to uphold white language supremacy traditions or challenge them in their classrooms. In his conclusion, Inoue asked SMC’s professors to question who grading is helping us become. He also asked: “Who is it excluding? How is it protecting literacy as white property?”

Inoue, who was the 2019 Chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and a past member of the CCCC Executive Committee, and the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, was asked to speak by the Composition Program as part of the Provost’s Academic Growth and Innovation Fund.

History of Racism in Language Standards

Language standards as we know them today may seem normal in the classroom setting, but Inoue pointed out that they have a history, and a racist one. According to Inoue, contemporary grading methods can be attributed to the work of white supremacist, historian, and political scientist Lothrop Stoddard in his 1920 book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy.

Inoue explained how, as institutions of higher education saw increasing enrollment of people of color, they sought methods to keep these spaces exclusive. Traditionally, universities such as Harvard were previously ungraded and consisted of homogenous groups of young, white men. As a result, psychological assessments and standardized tests, such as the SAT, IQ tests, or other college entrance exams, were developed to control who could enter higher education and who could not. “All of these assessments were fundamental assumptions that dictate that all people had uniform cognitive dimensions and those dimensions fall along inherent hierarchies, bell curves, or normal distributions that can be measured with some precision, then used to engineer society,” Inoue said.

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