Disturbing White Perfectionism in the Graduate Student Habitus

Disturbing White Perfectionism in the Graduate Student Habitus

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 3, Spring 2021

Author(s): Britt Starr

Britt Starr is a PhD candidate in rhetoric at the University of Maryland pursuing graduate certificates in women’s studies and digital studies. She is particularly interested in the rhetorical processes that enable social transformation and the roles that evolving communication technologies play. Her dissertation explores how teen activists from Generation Z use social media to challenge gendered, racialized, and age-specific anger norms that have long made it difficult for young activist women to be heard in public. As Fellow at the UMD Academic Writing Program, Britt helped redesign the curriculum and corresponding textbook to better incorporate antiracist and social justice praxis. She founded and leads the UMD ZineClub.

Abstract: Rasha Diab, Thomas Ferrel and Beth Godbee argue that to make antiracist transformation actionable in the composition classroom, educators need to enter the work with a “willingness to be disturbed.” A willingness to be disturbed, however, is not a disposition easily assumed for rhetoric and composition graduate students who are trained in academic climates that prohibit vulnerability and valorize perfection. This essay argues that perfectionism operates as a pillar of White supremacy culture in higher education that undermines graduate students’ potential engagement with antiracist transformation. Recognizing that transformation at the personal level is just one of many processes required on the path to institutional transformation, in this short essay, I hope to provoke feminist graduate faculty of rhetoric and composition to consider how they might disentangle perfectionism from its complicated, normative place in the graduate student habitus in order to advance the antiracist transformation of our field.

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As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally—our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time. (Margaret Wheatley 34)

It may be easy for antiracist feminist graduate students and faculty to agree with the opening epigraph, even to feel its truth deeply. Yet, for graduate students especially, in a university context whose primary function in society is to house and produce knowledge, “admitting we don’t know” and allowing ourselves to “be confused for a time” can be challenging to embody. Despite important feminist epistemological interventions that have challenged academic norms of objectivity, impartiality, and certainty (Wynter and McKittrick, Collins, Haraway) and despite the simple fact that being a scholar should imply a positive stance towards lifelong learning, contemporary academic cultural norms still demand the steady performance of mastery and certainty. Navigating one’s performance within this paradox can be especially difficult for the university’s newest professional initiates, the graduate students. In a recent study investigating impediments to success in the field of composition, Dana Lynn Driscoll, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin found that despite not asking interviewees about imposter syndrome directly, over 40% volunteered their (negative) experiences of it. To survive an intimidating environment, graduate students learn to hide away vulnerability and present a knowledgeable front while striving for perfection.

The problem that occupies this short essay is that perfectionism in the graduate classroom1 impedes graduate students’ ability to engage in the vulnerable, imperfect, often deeply uncomfortable self-work of antiracist personal transformation. There is a growing body of scholarship that seeks to make antiracist transformation in higher education not only theoretically acceptable, but actionable (see Condon and Young). This essay invites consideration of actionable transformation at the level of the graduate student habitus, an area that is undertheorized in the larger feminist project of institutional transformation for justice. I will briefly demonstrate the connection between perfectionism and White2 supremacy culture before considering what it might entail for the feminist faculty of rhetoric and composition to disentangle (White) perfectionism from its complicated place in the graduate student habitus.

White Supremacy Culture in the University Habitus

White supremacy culture has always been the dominant culture in the United States and thus has also dominated within United States institutions of higher education. Dismantling Racism Works defines “White supremacy” as “the idea (ideology) that White people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of White people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.” With White supremacy culture’s immanent presence in the United States, those residing in its spaces absorb its beliefs, suspicions, preferences, and “intuitions” inescapably and continuously with varying degrees of awareness. The university offers no escape. At the university, as Barbara Tomlinson writes in Undermining Intersectionality,racist premises and perceptions are always at work, operating “invisibly and institutionally through a series of taken-for-granted procedures and commonsense positions” (24). These “taken-for-granted procedures” and “commonsense positions” help to produce the habitus, a concept I draw from Pierre Bourdieu to reference the always-in-process interaction and interconnection of culture, normalized behaviors, habits, dispositions, ideology and even the socialization of emotions. I maintain that engaging in antiracist transformation is extremely difficult for individuals to do when White norms continue to dominate their community’s habitus. Thus, I argue, an important step in facilitating the conditions for antiracist transformation in the field of rhetoric and composition requires disentangling White norms like perfectionism from its habitus.

Practicing White Perfectionism in the Graduate Classroom

While critiques of perfectionism are likely familiar to feminist scholars, the re-vision for which this essay advocates entails understanding perfectionism as specifically White—a pillar of White supremacy culture—and recognizing how normalizing perfectionism obstructs antiracist transformation in the graduate student habitus.

As a graduate student myself, one especially influential site where I see (White) perfectionism cultivated in ways that forestall antiracist transformation is in the kind of criticism graduate students often learn to practice in the graduate classroom. I suggest that there is a connection between the normalization of what Karen Barad describes as a “destructive” rather than “deconstructive” practice of academic criticism and the perfectionistic lens through which graduate students learn to critique themselves and others. In New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, when asked “Why has critique run out of steam?,” Barad responds:

Critique is all too often not a deconstructive practice, that is, a practice of reading for the constitutive exclusions of those ideas we cannot do without, but a destructive practice meant to dismiss, to turn aside, to put someone or something down—another scholar, another feminist, a discipline, an approach, et cetera. (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 49)

While it is unlikely that graduate educators intentionally teach destructive practices of criticism, in the absence of explicit “deconstructivist” instruction, and perhaps also because of contemporary “cancel culture”3 outside the classroom, graduate students often resort to finding fault with assigned texts. In Tomlinson’s words, problematic practices of criticism contribute to the “unarticulated fears and social dangers” that “pervade academic culture,” as “graduate students learn to rely on reading practices that attack and disparage texts rather than analyze them” (11). Reading to find fault with the text is White perfectionism as practiced through reading.

Destructive criticism easily transfers to other perfectionistic habits of mind that perpetuate White supremacy culture in graduate student contexts. In “White Supremacy Culture,” an antiracist transformation guide for organizations, Tema Okun explains that in institutions where perfectionism dominates, “little appreciation [is] expressed among people for the work that others are doing.” What is “more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate.” Further, “mistakes are seen as personal…i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes.” When graduate students apply this thinking to themselves and others, consciously and/or subconsciously, it obstructs collective sociality, preserves existing norms and hierarchies, and prevents students from being willing to make the inevitable mistakes required to unlearn internalized racism in community with each other. Damaging in part because they are “used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named” (Okun), naming White supremacy characteristics in the graduate classroom is an important first step towards challenging them. What would happen if faculty invited discussion of these perfectionistic practices and challenged their place in academic norms?

Left unnamed, destructive criticism enables and feeds off “white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo defines white fragility as a “state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (103). The perfectionistic classroom practices described above—being hyper critical of one’s self and others, looking for fault, confusing “making a mistake” with “being a mistake,” and the threat of being defined by one’s ignorance—breed, I argue, precisely this fragility. Fragility then shows up in the room as defensiveness and as emotional intolerance for “being wrong,” which prevents the norms themselves from being challenged. Though it may not be visible to faculty, graduate students are often tense in the classroom, hypervigilant of how they suspect others are judging their and everyone else’s contributions. Unfortunately for antiracist transformation, hypervigilance and the willingness to be disturbed are mutually exclusive mentalities. One cannot approach the deeply uncomfortable work of introspecting on one’s White supremacist socialization from the perfectionist, competitive, fragile, and fearful disposition that graduate culture often engenders.

Proposing An Anti-Perfectionism Intervention

To dismantle White perfectionism’s long-standing place in the academic habitus, graduate educators will need to reconsider revered concepts like criticism, productivity, and mastery. In what follows, I propose four ideas for how graduate faculty might disturb the grip of perfectionism and instead cultivate conditions that would enable students and by extension, departments, to undertake antiracist transformation.

To counter White perfectionism, Okun proposes cultivating a culture of appreciation. Patriarchy may have coded the concept of “appreciation” as feminine, soft, frivolous, and unacademic in its binary opposition with the tough, cool, masculine rationality of “criticism,” but perhaps for this very reason an appreciation of appreciation may be the antidote feminist academics need to cultivate in a historically patriarchal institution. While the suggestion may seem elementary to seasoned feminist educators, what may be new is the connection between appreciation and antiracist transformation. To read “for the constitutive exclusions of those ideas we cannot do without,” as Barad suggests, faculty could guide graduate students to first summarize and discuss aspects of the text they find useful and only then consider how scholars might build on the work. Historicizing readings for how they contributed in their original context can help students see the processual, always-ongoing nature of scholarly production as well. Students who internalize the practices of a culture of appreciation rather than perfection will likely feel less defensive or “fragile” when confronting their complicity in a problematic system.

If another driving force of perfectionistic culture is faculty’s sense of obligation to help students gain “mastery over” a subject area, perhaps the concept of “mastery” deserves reconsideration. I suggest faculty re-imagine “mastery” to reflect existing feminist scholarship about the importance of positionality and partiality to knowledge production and acquisition. Feminist faculty often already teach graduate students the importance of continually interrogating how their positionalities influence their research perspectives. How might faculty apply this existing praxis to revise what “mastery” means in their department? What if the how of approaching scholarship became as important as the what a graduate student must know? Once subject area mastery requires graduate students to demonstrate a thoughtful, nuanced understanding of their own positionality with respect to their subject area to avoid reproducing oppressive structures, then antiracist training could become a more exigent part of graduate training.

Disentangling perfectionism from graduate culture to enable antiracist work might also be aided by bringing mindfulness into the graduate classroom. The work of transformation, whether in the classroom or outside of it, requires individuals to sit with the discomfort of having longstanding, internalized hegemonic ideologies disturbed. Mindfulness practices can cultivate the conditions necessary to sit with discomfort. Similar to “appreciation,” the language of “mindfulness” might raise the hackles of those who have been enculturated to prize “rigor” and “rationality.”4 But I would argue that a mindful approach to learning and being in the classroom enhances one’s ability to think “rationally” and “rigorously” about one’s positionality and the epistemological frameworks in which they have been conditioned to think.

In addition to mindfulness, explicitly championing a “growth mindset” is another way graduate faculty might actively foster a disposition necessary to engage in personal antiracist transformation. A growth mindset sees making mistakes and getting things wrong as necessary to the messy process of learning and growth (Dweck). The contrasting “fixed” mindset that typically results from the American education system prioritizes being or looking “right” over taking the risks required to learn and grow. Imposter syndrome combined with a fixed mindset can leave graduate students unwilling to reveal what they don’t know for fear of exposing themselves as “frauds”. Naming the importance of growth mindset in the graduate classroom could help impart positive affect rather than fear to students’ willingness to “be disturbed,” to engage in difficult conversations, and to interrogate their own complicity in structural harm. In short, growth mindset can help make the classroom a space of antiracist transformative potential.

An Invitation for Further (Re)Consideration

My goal throughout this essay has been to consider how the conditions for antiracist transformation can be created in an environment (the university) whose habitus of perfectionism normally prevents students from being able to take on antiracist transformation as individuals, scholars, and educators. While I hope to have offered some meaningful suggestions to these questions throughout this short essay, my goal, as the call for this subsection of Peitho suggests, is not so much to answer the questions I raise as to provoke their further (re)consideration.

Given that perfectionism functions as a pillar of White supremacy culture, what would it mean for each of us, as scholars, leaders, and educators, to actively push back against our internalized perfectionism in an institution that demands perfectionistic habits? How can graduate programs cultivate in graduate students the humility, the willingness to be vulnerable in community, and the “willingness to be disturbed” that is required for the imperfect process of antiracist transformation?

End Notes

  1. In this essay, I refer primarily to “the graduate classroom” as a shorthand for all of the spaces and sites where graduate students’ academic habitus forms. I encourage readers to consider spaces outside the classroom that contribute to the perpetuation of perfectionism as well. -return to text
  2. In this essay, I capitalize the “W” of “White” to signal that despite perhaps well-meaning intentions to downplay the presence of a coherent White culture, White culture indeed exists and its norms usually dominate in traditionally White institutions like the university. This paper hopes to make the connection between White supremacy culture and the White norms of American universities clear and to provoke readers to challenge White norms that perpetuate White supremacy in American universities. By capitalizing the “w”, I underscore that Whiteness and White ideology are not neutral and require confronting. -return to text
  3. “Cancel culture” is the contemporary American cultural practice of shaming and/or ostracizing a member of the public or of a particular community– professional or otherwise– for making offensive remarks, for engaging in offensive behavior, or for having remarked or behaved offensively in the past, whether intentionally or not. Social media has made it possible for anyone with a social media account to “cancel” anyone else publicly at an unprecedented pace and scale and with an unprecedented permanence. I believe this pervasive cultural practice has seeped into the collective consciousness of at least the current generation of graduate students who may consciously or not self-censor remarks that they fear may be perceived as offensive rather than risk the danger of saying the wrong thing in front of classmates. This also means that making remarks that “cancel” is safer than making remarks that risk being canceled. Cancel culture has quite suddenly made the stakes of even inadvertently offensive speech dire, particularly in professional settings. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that offensive remarks should go unchallenged, only that they should be treated as useful opportunities for learning and dialogue, rather than result in immediate ostracism. The process of learning requires that learners can become aware of what they don’t know and interrogate their existing understandings in order to reconsider and come into better understanding. Cancel culture, in my opinion, hinders learning, growth, and dialogue. -return to text
  4. I enclose these favorite terms of academic culture within quotation marks in order to trouble commonsense assumptions about their meaning and value. -return to text

Works Cited

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. “Structures, habitus, practices.” The logic of practice (1990): 52-65. -return to text
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. routledge, 2002. -return to text
  • Condon, Frankie and Vershawn Ashanti Young, editors. Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017. -return to text
  • Diab, Rasha, Thomas Ferrel, and Beth Godbee. “Making commitments to racial justice actionable.” Condon, Frankie, and Vershawn Ashanti Young, editors. Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017. -return to text
  • DiAngelo, Robin. White fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people to talk about racism. Beacon Press, 2018. -return to text
  • Dismantling Racism Works, DRworksBook, www.dismantlingracism.org/. -return to text
  • Dolphijn, Rick & Iris van der Tuin. “Interview with Karen Barad.” New materialism: Interviews and cartographies (2012): 48-70. -return to text
  • Driscoll, Dana Lynn, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin. “Self-Care as Professionalization: A Case for Ethical Doctoral Education in Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 71.3 (2020): 453. -return to text
  • Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc., 2008. -return to text
  • Haraway, Donna. “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” Feminist studies 14.3 (1988): 575-599. -return to text
  • Okun, Tema. “White Supremacy Culture Characteristics.” DRworksBook, http://www.dismantlingracism.org/White-supremacy-culture.html. -return to text
  • Tomlinson, Barbara. Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism. Temple University Press, 2018. -return to text 1 or 2
  • Wheatley, Margaret. (2002). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. -return to text
  • Wynter, Sylvia, and Katherine McKittrick. “Unparalleled catastrophe for our species? Or, to give humanness a different future: Conversations.” Sylvia Wynter: On being human as praxis (2015): 9-89. -return to text