The Writing Center at the University of Washington Tacoma received attention in February after a press release about their social justice and antiracism statement was featured on UW Tacoma’s news and communications page. Following the article, several far-right blogs misrepresented the statement to suggest that UW Tacoma’s writing center director, Asao B. Inoue, had claimed that dominant English grammar is racist.(1) Below is our email interview with Asao about the creation of the writing center’s antiracism statement.
WLN: First, can you tell us a little about yourself, your writing center, and your staff?
Asao: I’m the Director of University Writing and the Writing Center at the University of Washington Tacoma. I am an Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, and I was just promoted to Full Professor, as of September. I am also the Assistant Chair of CCCCs and so am the Program Chair for 4C18 in Kansas City next March.
My research is in writing assessment and racism. I’ve published on validity theory, classroom assessment, writing program assessment, and composition pedagogy. Most of my work deals with ways to consider race, racial formations, whiteness, and antiracism as a practice in writing assessment. My work has won three national awards, two outstanding book awards, and an outstanding scholarship award from CWPA.
Our writing center is lucky to have four professional staff members, all of whom work full time (except one, out of choice), and full time administrative support. We also have fourteen student writing consultants (tutors), with majors from Communications to Philosophy to Environmental Science to Psychology. The center is centrally located on the second floor of the library. We conduct face-to-face and online sessions.
WLN: Can you describe the composing process and timeline for the statement? To what degree was your staff involved?
Asao: During our staff meetings in the winter and spring of 2015, we read some literature on racism and language, including some in writing center studies, and discussed them. During the process, student tutors and professional staff decided to build a statement with my urging. We used a Google Doc so that we could continue our work outside of the confines of the staff meetings, and so that others who couldn’t make a meeting could still participate.
I shaped a lot of things in the statement early on, then let everyone else craft and revise the statement. We went through several iterations of the statement. I suggested that we think of the statement as a living document, one we would come back to periodically to refresh ourselves of our understandings of our position on antiracism and what we promise to do about it. This periodical looking back also means the statement may change as we change and as we try things.
In our 2016 pre-fall tutor orientation, we spent two hours looking at the statement and discussing what it meant we should do in all aspects of our work. In tutor staff meetings each quarter, we have revisited the statement a few times, again, talking about it and what it means to our practices. In the future, I plan to use it as a discussion point in hiring interviews. So the writing center staff was central in its development and continued use.
WLN: When composing the statement, were you met with any resistance, either from your staff or from administration?
Asao: The staff had no resistance to composing the statement. Everyone was enthusiastic about it. The interim management at the time of the workshops (I was not the director then, there was an interim TLC Director and an interim Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs) was eager to have me come and discuss, even lead workshops with staff and tutors, but were less enthusiastic about the statement. I think they didn’t realize that that was on my agenda.
While I didn’t plan to have the WC collaboratively build an antiracism statement, I did want us to have serious discussions about antiracism and social justice work in writing centers, and I wanted us to produce something from our discussions. Maybe the interim administration thought that I was going to just have conversations about respecting diversity, or about how to not commit macroaggressions. While those conversations were not outside the realm of what I wanted to do–what I knew to be important to do–they aren’t as needed as addressing and voicing the structural racism that we all live in and with, that we participate in every day in the writing center.
The interim administration were uncomfortable with the statement. They saw it as negative. As I see it, they exhibited white fragility. In fact, the comments they made during the process were ones that clearly told me that they didn’t think this statement was the right thing to do, that it was negative, and would turn people off. What I think they meant was that it turned them off, that it felt like an attack on them because they were white, and to them, it’s calling out racism as normal and systemic seemed to say that they were at fault. Mostly, they didn’t think it should be posted up. I thought, what good is a statement that you don’t post so that students can see it? So, the statement sat dormant for 6-9 months, until I became the WC director in the spring of 2016, and we hired a new Executive Vice Chancellor who was supportive of my work in antiracism.
Since the posting of the statement in the center, there has been no negative feedback on it–well, except for all that ruckus with Breitbart and the far-right media. But on campus, students and others have been fine with the statement. In fact, after the media attention, I’ve gotten many comments in person and by email of support, from the local newspaper editors to the TV station to students on campus. I even got an email from the President of Oregon State University, Dr. Edward Ray. OSU is my alma mater, and he had heard about me and the media attention. His email was quite nice and supportive, telling me how proud Beaver Nation was of my work here.
WLN: Why did you choose to write an additional statement separate from the writing center’s mission statement?
Asao: Because I was not the director at the time of the initial meetings and I was not working with the staff and tutors, it didn’t seem right to do that. This wasn’t a center I directed, but we could write a statement that goes with that mission statement. In this coming year, we’ll likely follow up on this. Perhaps we don’t need two statements, but to be honest, I like having a separate, stand-alone statement, one that shows our understanding and commitment to antiracism and social justice. But it does need to be linked more closely to our mission statement in explicit ways, or rather our mission needs to use our antiracism statement more explicitly. That is work we need to do.
WLN: What’s the ongoing conversation at your writing center and on campus after the press coverage?
Asao: We are on the quarter system, and are about to begin spring quarter. During this coming quarter, we’ll continue to use the statement in tutor meetings and orientations. We have several training sessions for tutors designed around interrogating whiteness, privilege, and thinking about our center as a “Brave Space” (as opposed to a “Safe Space”). This comes from work by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens. We also plan to do more intensive work with it during our pre-Autumn 2017 tutor orientation. Finally, this year, the professional staff began research projects that help us understand our practices and work in the writing center. They are essentially assessment projects and each focus in some way on some aspect of the antiracism statement.
WLN: What advice do you have for other writing centers hoping to compose a similar statement?
Asao: Know that if you are doing it right, you’ll encounter bumps and trouble. Particularly if you work in spaces with mostly white students and faculty. Usually, it is those groups that will have the hardest time with a statement like this. Be humble. Respect others’ ideas, even if they say, “Hey, there is no racism anymore,” something those of us who do research in this area know to be patently false.
Still, statements like this are really ones of feeling, how the individual feels about the topic. Respect everyone’s feelings, even when you correct their facts. Read stuff on racism and don’t confine yourself to just writing center literature. There are really good and important scholarship out there on racism, whiteness, class issues, gender, etc. And let your statement be intersectional. This is our next step. It’s not really in there yet. Know that these things take time. It may take a year, two, before you can get something up. And I think, there is more power in advertising the statement. Put it up on the wall and do something with it each term or semester. Come back to it in conversations or staff meetings every chance you get. Expect that it will change and that it should change. Use it in program assessment and research projects. Let it drive work in the center and maybe workshops and other events in the center. Get feedback from students and faculty groups on campus. Ask them for input. We haven’t done enough of that, but it is a process, and we are doing it.
- Dr. Inoue followed up with a blog post of his own to clarify: “…there is nothing inherently wrong with the dominant white, middle class English. It is not racist in and of itself, but using it to judge others, to punish or withhold opportunities and privileges, is racist because of the history and politics of the English language.”