“BLACKstudies”: a Contemplatively Poetic Response to Alexis Pauline Gumbs(& Audre Lorde)

“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination.” 

–Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” 1977  

Prologue (or an artist’s statement) 


Although written six years ago, I recently read Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ (2017) “17th Floor” oracle essay wherein she contextualizes Audre Lorde’s teaching experiences as Lorde expresses them in her 1974 “Blackstudies” poem. According to Gumbs, Lorde’s “Blackstudies” should be “activated as a resource for current Black and Brown lesbian educators . . . who bring complexity and nuance to their teaching setting” (375). Let me explain: When Lorde wrote her introspective “Blackstudies” poem, she was teaching composition in CUNY’s[1] CAPS[2] program wherein she navigated racism, sexism, and homophobia, while contending with such outside of her white cis-male dominated classroom. “High up on the seventeenth floor, Audre Lorde struggled to feel grounded,” says Gumbs, who then asks: “How could the work she was addressing in this classroom interact with the real world (literally) below?” (379).  

Although Lorde was situated in a classroom with her “enemies”—armed white police officers and officers in training—when she composed “Blackstudies,” confessing: “I do not know whose words protected me / whose tales or tears prepared me / for this trial on the 17th floor” (155; part. 2, stanza II, lines 1-3), Lorde’s poem was inspired by the relationship she cultivated with the Black creative writing students she taught at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College in 1968. In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde explains it thusly:  

The ways in which I was on the line in Tougaloo . . . I began to learn about courage, I began to learn to talk. This was a small group and we became very close. I learned so much from listening to people. The only thing I had was honesty and openness. And it was absolutely necessary for me to declare, as terrified as I was, as we were opening to each other, ‘The father of my children is white.’ And what that meant in Tougaloo to those young Black people then, to talk about myself openly and deal with their hostility, their sense of disillusionment, to come past that, was very hard. (“Interview,” Sister Outsider 90) 

I quote Lorde at length here because the relationships that Black lesbian women foster with their students—if they are open and honest—most likely will be rift with hostility and disillusionment. These associations, built between Black (and/or white) students and their queer Black teachers, cultivated inside and juxtaposed against a white cis-male heteronormative america hellbent on annihilating Black and brown folks, ain’t easy. “I am afraid / that the mouths I feed will turn against me,” writes Lord (“Blackstudies” 154; pt 1. stz 5, ll., 1-2). Thus, Lorde’s poem is a study in being a queer Black teacher. As such, says Gumbs, today’s queer, Black teachers reading Lorde’s works (or psalms) should turn on, energize, animate—put into praxis—Lorde’s theories so they might find a balm in their own Gileadean environments.  

Gumbs models such engagement by “activating” Lorde’s poem via an abecedarian oracle through which she (and Lorde, the holy ghost) instructs readers to think of a challenge they encounter in their teaching, such as homophobia, then to reflectively read the “H” section of her oracle (375). There, teacher-readers find inspirational thought—a prophecy, a foreshadowing—directing them on ways to counter that challenge and/or suggestions regarding how to protect their spirit as they confront such in and out of class oppressions. Gumbs employs each letter of the alphabet, excepting letters “X” and “Z,” and composes a divine message intended to support queer teachers drudging through the trenches as Lorde did.    

My poem, therefore, titled after Lorde’s “Blackstudies,” is an honest, open, declaration of the barriers between me and my Black students that threaten to thwart my teacherly self and practice; it answers Gumbs’ call to exercise theory—to trust in the Lorde. However, instead of galvanizing Lorde’s work as Gumbs instructs, I activate Gumbs’ “17th Floor” essay. I employ her abecedarian approach, including letters “X” and “Z,” to stimulate and transcribe my own teacherly self-reflection, thereby composing a poem addressing the classroom challenges I have faced.  


I am a Black lesbian woman. I have been teaching composition to Black and brown students for over 20 years. I currently teach writing courses at a public HBCU where anti-Black racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and ageism are as present as they are in historically white institutions. However, the anti-Black, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and behaviors I encounter amongst my Black and brown students (and colleagues) dispirit me more than white folks’ oppressions—as evidenced in my poem’s first line. It answers Gumb’s question: How can the fact that you are not the first educator to face contradictions and transformations sustain you? (376) to which I respond, “it doesn’t,” and explicate my answer via a poem penned as fluidly as Kanye writes his curses in cursive. [3]   

I am a witness that poetry, says Audre Lorde, comes out of “an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling” (“Poetry,” Sister Outsider 37). It is only through poetry, therefore, I could best “respect [my] feelings and transpose them into a language so they can be shared” (37), and I certainly want, I need, to share my feelings about teaching Black and brown students—born and/or coming to age in a 21st century where colorblind racism, pinkwashing politics, and pseudo-decolonization so visually impairs them—they see me an impediment to their knowing selves.  

How do I engage Black and brown students in a liberatory praxis when they recognize me as their enemy? How do I help them to write themselves into a liberatory existence when my writing curriculum doesn’t sit right with them? How do I talk about these barriers—many of which have been manufactured to fragment our togetherness—with Black and brown students who only hear white noise coming from my mouth?  

My poem records these emotions and feelings, thus “address[ing] the barriers between us (me) and that future” [emphasis mine]—that future generation of Black and brown students drunk on a cis-male heteronormative capitalist patriarchy that renders me useless. And though I know I am not useless, I often feel worlds apart from my students—a distance exceeding the expected generational gaps and classroom hierarchies naturally separating us from one another. Our disconnections can seem so wide I feel depressed—as I imagine Lorde occasionally felt. But! as quiet as it’s kept in (traditional) Blacks studies, still we rise;[4] thus, my poem acknowledges, too, the coalition of folks on whose shoulders I stand, whose spirited faith propels me to keep on keepin on even when the fact that I am not the first educator to face contradictions and transformations doesn’t (immediately) feel sustaining. 


But it is, isn’t it? I would not be able to enter the classroom day after day, semester after semester if I were not entering with a coalition of folks allied toward a united action. Thus, my poem, directly in “part three: M” and indirectly throughout, names family members, mentors, teachers, and literary figures—some of whom are ancestors—who have (and are) my burst of light. [5] I carry their wisdom and their prayers with me; wherever I am, so, too, are they. I name my coalition via citation practices forwarded by Katherine McKittrick who invites Black writers to use citation practices as spaces wherein they (we) narrate “what we do with books and ideas . . . how we arrange and effectuate the ideas that make ideas” (15). According to McKittrick, whose (2021) Dear Science: and Other Stories also centers Black studies, traditional citation practices “acknowledge the shared and collaborative intellectual praxis that makes our research what it is” (15-16). However, as marginalized text, she explains, while citations showcase and centralize the knowledge Black scholars have mastered, they fail to reveal “how we came to know imperfect and sometimes intelligible but always hopeful and practical ways to live this world as black” (17).   

“What if citations offer advice?” asks McKittrick (19). “What if citations are suggestions for living differently? What if some citations counsel how to refuse what they think we are?” (19). The copious notes [6] ending my poem, therefore, answer McKittrick’s call to reveal the lessons that cannot be contained within my poem, to share the other stories, the “how I got ovuh” stories, the whose I am stories. They also detail my relationship with and/or admiration for particular people and their practices—some of them academic, others secular and spiritual. Traditionally, my endnotes also provide context for my poem and include the questions Gumbs poses in her “17th Floor” oracle essay my poem answers.  

Moreover, while McKittrick’s work proposes alternative knowledge by way of citation narratives as “alternative stories” through which Black writers write against the empire (18), my poem acknowledges alternative epistemologies via counterhegemonic composing styles I borrow from Black feminist, Black Arts Movement writers like Ntozake Shange, [7] Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez who have written against English language standards. As a matter of fact, I borrow Sanchez’s Blackening, if you will, of the Japanese tanka and haiku; instead of these 7th and 17th century poetic forms being about seasons and nature, their subjects are of the Black experience and are composed in a Black English inclusive of the grammatical structures that make it a language.  

With all that said, I neither can write nor teach, neither address nor dismantle the barriers between us (me) and that future without a coalition of folks who inspirit my activism, which is why I position the Latin “et al.” (and others) after my name as author, for my poem “BLACKstudies” is our poem; it is a collaborative project I am empowered to compose (and ultimately publish) because of the genius and courage of our ancestor/grandparent writers, teachers, thinkers, and activists. I am because they are. It really does take a village—a united state, despite america’s splintering spirit. 


 part one: A-E [8]  

the fact I am not the first educator to face contradictions & transformations does not sustain me; [9]  

for the fact of my Blackness [10] challenges me to show up for & be present to 

Black[11] students who don’t see the Lorde in me 

but find their savior in the white man department chair  

who’d rather manufacture peace 

than hold students accountable to their higher power;[12]  

& tho I try to have mercy on my traitorous students— 

to give them grace 

to pardon their sins 

to forgive them for not knowing what they do— 

cause I know their childhood aint been my childhood:  

supported by middle class luxuries[13]  

privileging home libraries,  

club affiliations,  

paid college tuition, & summer vacations  

inside a two-parent household showing me  

Black is beautiful 

practicing Black love 

relying on Black ways of knowing  

because they believed in Black genius,  

Black family tradition, & kinship  

to raise children to be young, gifted, & Black 


w/souls intact [14]  


to turn the other cheek 

to think before we speak 

to be mindful of our planting 

cause what we sow is what we reap— 

the devil has been busy stealing our children 

their consciousness, their Blackness, 

out of my hands [15]  

convincing them they exist in a post racial America [16]  

where my layered Blackness meeting Black across Black 

isn’t a rainbow [17]  

but a stain upon their white-washed dream. 


I’ve grown too tired of trying to uplift them 

they squander the gifts their ancestors gifted them 

the systems between us keeps me from reaching them 

& creating safe spaces aint gone protect them [18]  

a brave composition is needed. 


part two: F-L [19]   

I have no practice 

grounding my teacherly work 

in the sound of here 

in a sonic consciousness 

enabling my presence [20]  


for the god in me 

is an angry god of floods 

promising rainbows 

layered in Black, meeting Black 

across Black[21] toward Black love 


but like sea lions 

claiming their territories 

I must claim tenure[22]  

& my hands aint strong enuf 

to hold my students & me 


my hands are tired 

from juggling judgment & love 

& presumed justice 

wearing my whole body down 

threatening transformation 


if only they’d learn 

to unknow what they’ve been taught 

to believe my Black 

will lead them back to their Black 

into Black togethering [23]  


might I be able to communicate a communion that frees them. 


part three: M[24]  

Roll Call: 

Choling Bryant [25]  

Donald Bryant [26]  

Rose McKenney Jones [27]  

Mary Bryant [28]  

Tywana Greene [29]  

Yasmin Greene [30]  

Anita Bryant[31]  

Persephone Taylor[32]  

Barbara Mesa [33]  

Karen Bullard[34]  

Maria Krane [35]  

Patricia Moore [36]  

Vernetta Clenance [37]  

Eddye Rodgers [38]  

Vickie Frazier-Williams [39]  

Doris Hart [40]  

Patricia Daniels[41]  

Tananarive Due[42]  

Genyne Boston[43]  

Margie Rauls[44]  

Gloria Taylor[45]  

Deborah Plant [46]  

Gurleen Grewal [47]  


part four: N-T [48]  

I am inside a nightmare of corporate education 

where Black students aint required to master African-American literature  

as long as they can afford tuition; 

& does it really matter they can’t recall a Black playwright? 

have never read The Color Purple? 

can’t list three Toni Morrison novels? 

& have no recollection of Sojourner Truth? [49]  

& I have ploughed thru public school’s hidden curriculum 

& planted Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Walker, & June Jordan 

& gathered Black history from Ptah Hotep [50] to Patrisse Cullors 

& still, I aint the teacher my Black students want. 



unapologetically Black 



& religious 

like when Celie met Shug & found God in everything that is or ever was or ever will be[51]  

& if only I can get my Black students to get the white man off their eyeball 

to see thru their third eye thru which they transcend a myopic wokeness  

& dive into a critical consciousness clarifying their Black genius 

then, will they know I love them? 


& don’t they know I love them? 

that my red pen bleeding on their page is my offering— 

a blood covenant securing us in an I-thou relationship promising transparency, truth, & presence? 

that my love inspirits them to compose compositions as fluid as hieroglyphs inside pyramid walls? 

that my love insists they know words as intimately as they know themselves—in spirit & in flesh? 

that my love begs them to read & write themselves into an existence they were never intended to realize? 


No. my Socratic inquiries are not a questioning of ur intelligence[52]   

but an invitation to ur wondering inside the in between 

love is or it aint; thin love aint love at all [53]  

& I wonder after they graduate & have children themselves to raise 

will they know what I have known & truthfully admit I loved them? 


part five: U-W [54]  

 when I resigned one year short of earning tenure[55]  

my mother, a former elementary school teacher who suggested I major in education after I told her I wanted a creative writing degree, said:  



Remember—80% of ur work goes to the students you teach.  

They are ur priority; they’re the ones you aim to reach 


& Mommy being Mommy, practiced what she preached  

& put her students first 

she, a 3rd grade teacher integrating an all-white elementary school, 

prioritized her predominantly white class, especially her Black students— 

rarely there, but when present, holy visible 

like the little Black girl for whom Mommy purchased a JC Penny brand white sweater 

so she wouldn’t have to keep coming to school in the dirty, disheveled one she wore; 

& sometimes, before we can teach Black students to come to voice  

thru arranged vocabulary & syntax 

we must give them clean sweaters to wear— 

warmth as secure as Maya Angelou’s navy blue peacoat [56] absorbing wind on the pulse of morning [57]  

wind is our teacher  

& Mommy’s been the wind beneath my wings urging me to fly right 

but not right like  

right or wrong  

nor right like  

left or right 

but right like  


for the good of those who love the Lorde  

will eventually know justice.  


part six: X-Z[58]  

when my Black student shouted 

Malcolm X led the Million Man March— 

after his classmate claimed it was Martin Luther King— 

I asked the Lorde to be a fence around me [59]  

to give me the strength to enlighten generations Y & Z 

who had no reverence for Black history 

their flailing about felt like blasphemy 

& the more I taught them, the more they denied me 

my classroom space had morphed into calvary 

& I was the thief begging for mercy 

so that I might muster grace enuf for them— 

my zillennial[60] students  

who believed in a post racial america 

because Barack Obama was the president 

& I—a nigger crook purloining their american dream 


the academy is fulfilling its purpose 


ensuring our Black students swim only the surface 

got em thinkin they’ll drown  

after deep submergence[61]  

believin my lessons are a grave disservice 

can’t even save them w/biblical verses[62]  

the deeper I dive,  

the wider the gap of convergence  

as tho I prohibit their breathing 


& I just don’t know where to go from here 

lately I don’t feel the Lorde drawing me near 

as I age thru teaching, so does my despair 

my students, they take up so much of my air— 


part seven: A-Z [63]  

but like a phoenix [64]   

rising out of the ashes 

still I rise. I rise 

into each new semester 

a hope-filled Easter morning. 



(Must Read) Works Cited 

Angelou, Maya. And Still I Rise. Random House, 1978. 

—. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1970. 

—. “On the Pulse of Morning.” Random House, 1993. 

Baraka, Amiri. SOS: Poems 1961-2013. Grove Press, 2014.  

Bryant, Kendra. Free Your Mind . . . and the Rest Will Follow: A Secularly Contemplative Approach To Integrating Mindfulness into the High School English Classroom. 2012.  University of South Florida, Ph.D. dissertation. USF Digital Commons, https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5192&context=etd. 

—. “Gays are going to hell: A Lesbian Teacher Tries to Teach Compassion.” Solace: Writing, Refuge, & LGBTQ Women of Color, edited by S. Andrea Allen and Lauren Cherelle, BLF Press, 2017, pp. 23-33. 

—. “‘Heaven last all ways’: Examining Celie’s ‘Suchness’ in Walker’s The Color Purple.” Alice Walker’s ‘The Color Purple’: Critical Perspectives, edited by Devaleena Das, Pencraft International,  2016, pp. 122-132.  

—.  “My Daddy, My Mammy: A Black Man Doing Black Feminism.” drknbryant.com, 24 Nov. 2019, https://drknbryant.com/2019/11/24/my-daddy-my-mammy-a-black-man-doing-black-feminism/. 

—. “A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet: Unearthing Grandma’s Black Feminism.” drknbryant.com, 17 Nov. 2019, https://drknbryant.com/2019/11/17/a-rose-by-any-other-name-would-smell-as-sweet-unearthing-grandmas-black-feminism/. 

Christian, Barbara. “A Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique, no. 6, spring 1987, https://doi.org/10.2307/1354255. 

Cooper, J. California. A Piece of Mine. Wild Trees Press, 1984. 

Due, Tananarive. The Between. HarperCollins, 1995.  

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. 1913. Good Press, 2019.  

Evans, Mari. “Who Can Be Born Black.” I Am a Black Woman, William Morrow and Company, 1970, p. 93.   

Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks, Grove Press, 1967, pp. 109-140. 

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, The Continuum International Publishing Group, 1970. 

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “17th Floor: A Pedagogical Oracle from/with Audre Lorde.” Journal of Lesbian Studies, vol. 21, no. 4, fall 2016, https://doi.org/10.1080/10894160.2016.1164519.  

—. Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Animals. AK Press, 2020. 

Hammond, Fred. “Jesus Be a Fence around Me.” Purpose by Design, 2000. Verity Records. 

Hansberry, Lorraine. To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words. Directed by Gene Frankel, 02 Jan. 1969, Cherry Lane Theatre, New York City. 

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. South End Press, 1981. 

—. All about Love: New Visions. William Morris, 2001.  

Hotep, Ptah. The Teachings of Ptah Hotep: The Oldest Book in the World. 2388 B.C. Edited by Asa G. Hilliard III, Larry Williams, and Nia Damali, Blackwood Press, 1987.  

Houston, Whitney. “Greatest Love of All.” Whitney Houston, 1985. Arista Records. 

Hurston, Zora Neale. Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo. Edited by Deborah G. Plant, 2018, Amistad. 

King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” 1963. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by James M. Washington, Harper One, 1986, pp. 217-220.   

Leonardo, Zeus, and Ronald K. Porter. “Pedagogy of Fear: Toward a Fanonian Theory of ‘Safety’ in Race Dialogue. Race, Ethnicity and Education, vol. 13, no. 2, summer 2010, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13613324.2010.482898.  

Lorde, Audre. A Burst of Light: And Other Essays. Fire Brand Books, 1988. 

—. “Hugo Letter: On Generators and Survival.” 1989. Audre Lorde Papers (box 18, folder 2.1.137). Spelman College Archives, Spelman College, Atlanta.  

—. “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.” 1981. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 81-109. 

—. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” 1977. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 1984, pp. 36-39. 

—. “Blackstudies.” 1974. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 153-157. 

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Signet Classics, 1998.  

McKittrick, Katherine. Dear Science and Other Stories. Duke University Press, 2021. 

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. 

—. Beloved. Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. 

Plant, Deborah, editor. The Inside Light’: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. Praeger, 2010. 

Sanchez, Sonia. Sonia Sanchez: Collected Poems. Beacon Press, 2021. 

Simone, Nina. “Mississippi Goddam.” Nina Simone in Concert, 1964. Philips. 

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—. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 

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[1] City University of New York
[2] College of Police Science
[3] phrase borrowed from verse four, line four of Kanye West’s “Otis,” a song he produced on his 2011 Watch the Throne album with rapper Jay-Z.  
[4] And Still I Rise is the title of Maya Angelou’s third collection of poems, which includes a poem of the same name, published in 1978—a year before I was born. “Still I Rise” as well as “Phenomenal Woman,” also included in that collection, is two of Angelou’s most popular poems. 
[5] A Burst of Light is the title of Audre Lorde’s 1988 collection of essays, which includes the most inspirited “I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing across Sexualities.” Considering these current times, wherein cis-gendered Black women are fighting against transgendered Black women, Lorde’s essay ought to be required reading—a national book read (if the conservatives would stop banning books and closing libraries)—that might unite Black women under one coalition fighting against the other who oppresses them (us) as one. 
[6] My poem submission originally included footnotes, which I believe would be more accessible to readers like me who prefer to read notes on the same page as the main text accompanying them. However, because the footnotes distracted from the poem’s structure, I conceded to rearranging them as endnotes.
[7] Shange’s respelling of words like “enuf” instead of “enough” in works like her 1976 choreopoem, for colored girls who considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, have so influenced my writerly self—inviting me to rewrite myself via alternative spellings, abbreviations, and punctuation marks that allow me to boldly Blacken white pages. Her works, predating text messaging shorthand, is a study in Black English, in Black Arts, in Black being; it is a study in Black voice significant to Black narrative.
[8] This section of my poem responds to Gumbs’ questions: “How is your classroom more and less fraught than the classrooms Audre faced? How can the fact that you are not the first educator to face contradictions and transformations sustain you?” (376); “What is the Blackness of your challenge as an educator? What cannot be known? What must be transformed? Can you inhabit the Blackness of your teaching?” (377); “What are the experiences that you had as a child, or as a student, that show up as challenges in your teaching?” (378); “How do you create safe space in your classroom?”; and “How does your classroom interact with the rest of the world that your students must navigate during and after your time with them?” (379). 
[9] Gumbs’ question: How can the fact that you are not the first educator to face contradictions and transformations sustain you?” (376) garnered an “It doesn’t” response from me. At that very moment, I knew I had written the first line of this poem, for I have been barely managing my feelings re: the current corporate classroom situation and its 21st century consumerist learner in whom I continue to deposit, but from whom I rarely receive a return beyond loose regurgitations of course material and lecture. (And when I use the term “deposit,” I don’t mean like Paulo Freire’s (1970) banking concept of education but deposit as in “pouring my energy into”—until my well is dry.) While being able to see myself in others and knowing upon whose shoulders I stand have often comforted me as a Black American lesbian woman, I don’t find sustenance in Lorde’s classroom experiences—at least not in her “Blackstudies” poem. I feel, instead, fatigued.  
[10] Here, I am referencing Frantz Fanon’s (1952) “The Fact of Blackness.” Like Fanon, who contemplates his Black personhood against a world of white dehumanization, I think about my Blackness in relationship to my Black students, many of whom have drank the Kool-Aid and prescribe to a whiteness politick that mammies and mules me.
[11] I initially hesitated to boldface the term “Black,” which I also capitalize throughout the poem, because I didn’t want the boldface type to distract readers. However, after many conversations w/a graduate student re: the term “Black” and the language debates re: capitalizing it and using the term at all, I opted to boldface “Black” because I want readers to hear “Black” as though a Xhosa-speaking south African woman clicked the term out her throat. 
[12] At the historically Black university where I teach, the department chair is a well-meaning enuf white man. However, in his desire to help Black students, his efforts often undermine the Black women teachers who hold students accountable for following the course syllabus, class procedures, and departmental mandates. Often, Black students, both graduate and undergraduate, have complained to the chair re: my academic standards—which they read and agreed upon as evidenced on the syllabus forms I require they sign and return to me at the semester’s start. Instead of encouraging students “to rise to the occasion,” as I often tell them, our white man department chair has gone as far as to supporting student withdrawal from a course and offering that course again during an off semester under him as a directed study. What happens to Black studies when white folks direct and manage HBCU programs and departments? What leg do I have to stand on when my Black and brown students see in me a roadblock and see a savior in the white department chair—and in other white teachers who pass our students through systems because they either pity them or are afraid of them? I struggle w/this: w/holding Black and brown students to a particular standard while they participate in and navigate through an academy whose curriculum duplicates racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, ableist ways of being. How do I support my Black and brown students w/out giving them handouts? Or should I give them handouts? Here! You get an A! You get an A! It’s freedom time; this is reparation.       
[13] My first post doctorate teaching gig was at Florida A&M University [FAMU], where I graduated w/my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It was 2012, and four years prior, iPhone had just recently become smart; everyone had it (or the Android), including students. Such material possession, at least to me, was a symbol of financial ability—like Air Jordans in the mid-80s. Unfortunately, I had not yet been introduced to bell hooks (outside of her scholarly contributions to composition theory) nor had I read any Karl Marx or Antonio Gramsci. And although Kanye West’s 2004 “All falls down” had put it in my face: “It seem we livin’ the American Dream / But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem / The prettiest people do the ugliest things / For the road to riches and diamond rings / We shine because they hate us, / floss ’cause they degrade us / We tryna buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we’ll stoop / Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe” (verse 4, lines 9-16), I still didn’t comprehend nor had compassion for my Black students who entered the classroom ill-prepared: no textbook, no paper, no sense (or very little) re: college readiness. It wasn’t until a student brought to my attention her need for a book voucher that would enable her to buy her textbooks that I realized from what my middle-class privileges shielded me: Although Black students were attending this four-year university, most of them did not have parents who were footing the bill. As a matter of fact, during one of my personal narrative writing activities, one student revealed her houselessness at the semester’s start. I had no idea. As a college student my students’ age, I had no concept re: student loans, textbook vouchers, or Federal Pell Grants. As a result, I did not initially understand nor have compassion for my Black students. That was my first lesson re: class differences in the Black college classroom; we are not a monolithic people.      
[14] The original line of Weldon Irvine’s (1969): “When you’re young, gifted, and Black, your soul’s intact” was sang by Nina Simone. It was inspired by Black playwright, Lorraine Hansberry whose 1969 autobiographical play is titled To Be Young, Gifted and Black. A college girlfriend of mine introduced me to Nina Simone via a homemade mixed CD of what she considered Simone’s greatest works. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was included, and although I knew very little of Simone’s biography and civil rights activism then, in her voice, I felt the struggle—both her own and of the Black children of the 1960s for whom she sang. In another verse, Simone sang, “There’s a world waiting for you,” which is the world for which I endeavor to prepare my students who cannot (yet) envision the world as I see it and have seen it. When I taught English Language Arts at a predominantly Haitian high school in Miami, Florida, prior to being a university professor, I played Nina Simone on a loop, so much so, my students would enter the classroom asking to hear “Mississippi Goddam” (1964). As a college professor, although I don’t have the classroom space nor extended time to play Nina Simone as I had, I do integrate Simone’s music into my instruction by way of my Martin Luther King unit, during which time students listen to and analyze her (1968) “Why? The King of Love is Dead.” If I don’t share Nina in my composition classroom, I don’t know if my students will ever know her, and Black students should know Nina Simone.    
[15] According to Gumbs, Audre Lorde was challenged to create safe classroom spaces for her students while preparing them for an unsafe world of intersecting oppressions (378). “She engaged in this battle even in her own nightmares about how demons of White supremacy wanted to steal her children, and the blackness of her hands,” says Gumbs (378). I feel this so regularly—but my Black students claim a wokeness that resembles sleep deprivation more than it does critical consciousness. White supremacy is so covert it’s slicker than oil, outwitting Black students whose elders and ancestors are noted tricksters.    
[16] As a first-year composition professor at FAMU during the semester when Trayvon Martin was murdered and the #blacklivesmatter hashtag was evolving into a national movement, I situated my first-year writing curriculum within Martin Luther King’s rhetorical genius, inviting students to read and think beyond King’s popular 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Alas, because Barack Obama was serving as the U.S. President, more of my Black students than not attached themselves to the notion that we were living in a post racial America. As a result, my students were not interested in studying the civil rights movement—and told me so. These born-in-1994-18-year-old students’ concept of relative American history dated as far back as 2001, when Al-Qaeda terrorists supposedly attacked the United States. I was at my wits end, but more than that, and perhaps hyperbolically so, I felt heart broken. How could these Black students who were witnessing a modern Emmett Till lynching be so blasé about civil rights? While I understood their apparent apathy re: a Martin Luther King they felt was overstudied, students told me they were uninterested in civil rights all together because those movements happened so long ago. My students’ expressed disdain for studying King’s rhetoric in relationship to current happenings felt like a personal affront. Admittedly, after teaching that class of students, I posted Matthew 7:6 on my office door.  
[17] In Gumbs’ (2020) Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, she wrote about the Melon-headed whale she describes as being layered in Blackness. Her exact words: “layered Blackness where Black meets Black across itself as Black” (133) are inspired by Toni Morrison, whose Pilate character from Song of Solomon(1977) describes such Blackness as a rainbow (133). I want my Black students to see in themselves a Blackness so beautiful, they “may as well be a rainbow” (Morrison as cited in Gumbs, 133).  
[18] I bought into traditional safe spaces until having read Zeus Leonardo and Ronald K. Porter’s (2010) “Pedagogy of Fear: Toward a Fanonian Theory of ‘Safety’ in Race Dialogue.” In their article, Leonardo and Porter claim creating safety around public race dialogue protects only white students while harming Black and brown ones. They advocate, therefore, for brave spaces where “risk discourse about race” acknowledges the “already here” presence of violence, thus moving students toward a more actively progressive discussion re: race (139). After having read Leonardo and Porter’s essay, I moved beyond traditional safe spaces and informed my Black students of my intent to create brave spaces. Although Leonardo and Porter’s essay is grounded in race dialogue, as a composition classroom in an HBCU, most of my class discussions about writing are race centered. Thus, I aim to cultivate a radical classroom environment where Black students feel a “safety” that enables a brave thinking and being that disrupts white male heteronormativity. Unfortunately, it seems many of my Black students, have a narrow concept of safe spaces believing them to be environs wherein I, the teacher, must manage their feelings re: teacher feedback, assessment, and instruction. Students’ expectations for such “safety,” align closely w/ coddling and/or entitlement that doesn’t serve them—and sometimes, results in a classroom experience that isn’t safe for me. Despite my efforts at constructivist teaching, supported by the buffering model of effective teacher feedback, some students lack the vulnerability and valor required to learn. As a result, I have experienced students’ clapback-callout-cancel behavior, which is a violence students often don’t realize they’ve committed against me. If Black-on-Black crime were a real phenomenon, then I’ve experienced it most in the classroom, especially in the online classroom.  
[19] This section of my poem, made up of five tankas, a five-line, 31-syllable Japanese poem—which I learned to write Black after reading Sonia Sanchez’s poetry—addresses the following questions (and one statement) Gumbs poses: Does your fear before class feel like a fear of falling or a fear of not being able to climb the mountain of work ahead of you?” (380); “What are the gods of your classroom?”; “How often does what we feel in our hearts make sense in our heads?”; Do you find yourself taking the journey of each student personally?” (381); “How can your classroom become a place where justice is possible and judgment is suspended long enough for transformation (justice) to occur?”; “In the face of transformation, so much must be unlearned” (382); and “What do students learn about how communication works when they are with you?” (383). While this section addresses these questions, the first three tankas are inspired by Gumbs’ Undrowned.     
[20] In her “be present” chapter (Undrowned 67-72), Gumbs discusses the presence of the Indus River dolphin who she says “live[s] in sound . . . echolocating day and night . . . ask[ing] where, again where, again where” (68). She then beautifully writes: “The poem of the Indus [R]iver dolphin is the ongoing sound of here, a sonic consciousness of what surrounds them, a form of reflective presence. Here” (68). However, in a previous chapter titled, “practice,” Gumbs asks: What are your dorsal practices? What evolutionary repetitions have you cultivated to move through oceans? What are the ones you need to cultivate for the waves moving you now?(45). Those chapters considered together brought me back to my 2012 dissertation about a contemplative high school English curriculum grounded in mindfulness practice that I’ve since neglected, and I questioned myself: Kendra, at what point will you, the teacher become the grasshopping student again? What happened to your practice? And how has neglecting your mindfulness practice contributed to the weariness you feel navigating the oppressive school environment?   
[21] See endnote xvi. 
[22] In her “learn from conflict” chapter (Undrowned 83-86), Gumbs describes how sea lions fight each other for territory, repeatedly threatening each other by way of “‘ritualized postures’” also called “‘tenure’” (84). I have thrice been on a tenure track, spanning over a 10-year period and have recently, July 2023, earned it; needless to say, I cringed when I read Gumbs’ overt criticism of the academy and its players. Admittedly, and most likely because I had been holding that posture for so long, I have been a sea lion. However, I am not fighting other professors. I am fighting the system, which requires both my hands. As a result, sometimes my students become collateral damage because I don’t have hands enuf to hold them and the things they carry.  
[23] Here, I am calling in the great poet Mari Evans, who asks, in her 1970 “Who Can Be Born Black” poem: “Who / can be born Black / and not / sing / the wonder of it / the joy / the / challenge / And /to come together / in a coming togetherness” (93). It is one of my favorite poems, one I occasionally recite to my Black students—who I believe should memorize poems; they should have at least one poem they carry w/them reminding them of their Black genius, and Evans’ poem is one of the ones. “Who Can Be Born Black” brings tears to my eyes as I read it and recall all the Black genius, Black spirit, Black audacity that enabled my existence. I want my Black students to feel all of that when I recite Evans’ poem to them. I learned of Evans when I was an 8th grader attending my first Maya Angelou lecture. According to Angelou, Mari Evans was one of her favorite poets; she became one of my favorites, too.  
[24] This verse of my poem responds to Gumbs’ section, “M is for mother (my my my)” wherein she asks: How does mothering show up as a place of mythmaking, measurement, muting, and messages in your own teaching situation?(384). According to Gumbs, Lorde is metaphorical mother to the students she teaches as evidenced “all over the poem ‘Blackstudies’” (383). I, too, often feel like Mother to my Black students—a result of the mothering I received from kin/folks who nurtured me w/what theologian civil rights activist Howard Thurman (1958) terms “mother love.” And so, this verse is a libation, if you will, to the kin/folk—grand/parents, aunts, teachers, and mentors who inspirited my humanity. This roll call verse also acknowledges “those who hold me accountable, who expect me to be who I need to become. . . . [who] ignore[e] the lies I tell myself about myself” (Gumbs, Undrowned 23). In her expressed gratitude for her teachers, which is also what “part three: M” is, Gumbs writes: “Even in my resistance I am grateful for you all. For the love you are teaching me, deep, Black, and full. For the nurturance, push, and example. What you learned by facing your own death. What you learned in your drowning is my breath” (23-24). What you learned in your drowning is my breath. Yes! I am because of these folks listed here—some elders, others ancestors. àṣẹ and praise God!  
[25] Mommy. My mother is my first master teacher whose mother love continues to support me way into my adulthood. In 1969, she integrated a predominantly white elementary school in Miami, Florida and retired from there after having taught majority 3rd grade classes. When I was in elementary school, Mommy gave me my first rhyming dictionary and thesaurus, and when I was in 7th grade, she took me to hear Maya Angelou lecture after I found in her my muse. My mother has been my biggest advocate and cheerleader, reminding me, still, to keep my eyes on the prize.  
[26] Daddy. My daddy was a social worker who predicted I’d be a career student and told me I was a revolutionary with no cause. I am living to prove the latter wrong. Nonetheless, his mother love regularly cooked dinner, nursed me in Mommy’s absence, and insisted neither of us—my sisters nor I—be satisfied with C grades, for anyone can be satisfactory, he said. When I was in high school, Daddy attended a parent-teacher conference with Mommy and me wherein he defended (and demanded) my right to privacy after the white man school counselor attempted to suspend me for writing and passing a letter in class he read without my consent. By the time Daddy was through w/him, I knew that white man school counselor would think twice before threatening school suspension upon another Black girl. Daddy passed when I was 22 years old; he was 55. I’ve written an essay about his Black feminist spirit on my blog site: drknbryant.com.  
[27] Grandma Rose. My maternal grandmother absolutely belonged to herself as Alice Walker (2010) encourages readers to do in her poem “Lost.” Grandma Rose was born Pilate, but changed her name post high school. She was a single mother to four children, and, before becoming an x-ray technician, was a day’s worker, paid $7.50 + carfare per day. Grandma Rose collected elephants and tea pots, slept in a round bed, and decorated her house in Asian aesthetics. And at 60+ years old, she eloped while on a senior group bus trip to Las Vegas. Grandma Rose belonged to herself, indeed. I’ve written an essay about her, too, on my blog site: drknbryant.com. 
[28] Grandma Mary. My paternal grandma was the first entrepreneur I knew. She was, what we called then, a beautician, in Liberty City, Florida. Grandma seemed money rich: she owned several properties, drove a Lincoln, and traveled regularly; she and Grandaddy even went to Hawaii for one of their anniversaries when I was an elementary school student. Grandma’s 12 siblings, who were from Tunis, TX, insisted on yearly family reunions where mother love flowed through great aunts and uncles and a host of nick-named cousins. Of the many things I remember about Grandma Mary, my clearest memory is of her pulling a pan out of the oven with her bare hands—a pan of dressing, I think (or maybe a poundcake). I swear Bill Withers (1971) wrote “Grandma’s Hands” for her.  
[29] aka Cookie, my auntie, my mother’s baby sister, who has also regularly cheered my success, just as much as Mommy has
[30] aka Auntie Pump, my auntie, my mother’s middle sister; she passed in 2015 at 59 years old. 
[31] aka Darlene, my auntie, my daddy’s only sister. She took my twin sister and me to church, bible study, and vacation bible school, and regularly voluntold me for delivering the church welcome, reading the church announcements, and writing and reciting poems for various gatherings. She passed in 2022 at 68 years old. 
[32] Girl Scout Troop leader who treated (and still treats me) like her own.  
[33] fourth grade elementary school teacher who exposed me to poetry writing and assigned the first poem I wrote write, titled “Ants”; it won a blue ribbon at the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair & Exhibition.
[34] my mother’s colleague, who taught gifted students and was one of the first blue-Black women I can recall seeing who wore her hair natural and her lips fiery red. Whenever Ms. Bullard saw me sitting in my 5th grade class, she, an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., always told me how creative and smart I was. She’s been rooting for me since I was in elementary school writing poems about ants.    
[35] my 7th grade journalism teacher—a Cuban woman who’d pass notes with me in class when I was too afraid to speak up. During Bill Clinton’s Presidential Inauguration, which Mrs. Krane required my classmates and me to watch, I discovered Maya Angelou. Her reading of “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) was mind-growing, so much so, Mrs. Krane gifted me Angelou’s (1969) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’ve been Angelou’s student ever since as well as Alice Walker’s whose (1982) In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens Mrs. Krane gifted me for my 8th grade “graduation.” Mrs. Krane and I still exchange letters, but now I gift her books.  
[36] a mother-friend w/whom I became acquainted while on a middle school Black history trip to Atlanta, GA. I watched Mrs. Moore practice a loving-kindness to her two children (who were also on the trip) that seemed to be reserved for Rudy and Claire Huxtable. As a very involved school parent, Mrs. Moore selflessly extended her kindness and mother love to me whenever she saw me in school. She has been my mother-friend since.  
[37] a towering Black queer woman high school counselor who wore her natural afro shaped like a crown. Although I was not a student assigned to Ms. Clenance’s roster, she tended to me every time I showed up at her office door. Ms. Clenance, who I called “Sister Clenance,” introduced me to J. California Cooper, gifting me her (1984) A Piece of Mine. Sister Clenance knew I was lesbian before I did, gifting me April Sinclair’s (1994) Coffee Will Make You Black, whose main character Stevie is so much like I am.  
[38] Grandma Rose’s friend who also worked as an instructor at the high school I attended; she looked out for my sister and me, and I regularly stowed away in Mrs. Rodgers office in between classes and after school fretting about this and that teacher and/or assignment. When I graduated high school, Mrs. Rodgers told me I was a diamond in the rough, which first offended me; however, I have since come to understand the process required in refining diamonds. 
[39] a mentor-friend who attended the same church as I. Vickie used to sponsor church talent shows I participated in, and she graciously read my rudimentary poems—which was like a famous person reading them since she was a news reporter for South Florida’s Channel 10 WPLG local news station. Vickie, too, has been rooting for me ever since.  
[40] “talent scout” who managed the Miami-Dade ACT-SO [Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics] Competition in which I participated as a 11th and 12th grader. During ACT-SO rehearsals, Mrs. Hart required me and other competing students to perform in front of her and our peer audience, and she’d unapologetically tell us when, why, and how awful we might’ve performed. Mrs. Hart’s brutal honesty about students’ talents (or the lack thereof) was akin to Simon Cowell’s; however, receiving such criticism as a high schooler inspirited my ACT-SO peers and me to put in the kind of work that insisted on Mrs. Hart’s rounds of applause. My expectations for my classroom students are undoubtedly informed by Mrs. Hart’s expectations of my peers and me. Her honesty didn’t embarrass; it ignited, and under her guidance, the Miami-Dade NAACP ACT-SO chapter often brought home medals from the national competition, including the third place one I earned in the original poetry category (1994). 
[41] Miami-Dade ACT-SO coach who celebrated my poetry. Mrs. Daniels’ house, not too far from my parents’, looks like Miami Gardens’ Black Museum inside. It is filled with Black cultural artifacts from Black Cabbage Patch Kid dolls to copies of Negro Digest, Mammy replicas and hot irons; Black figurines are shelved on every other wall. Walking into Mrs. Daniels house is like walking into the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s level three community galleries.   
[42] Black speculative fiction writer who was assigned my high school writing coach during the Miami-Dade NAACP ACT-SO Competition for which I placed first locally in its original poetry category, and, after Tananarive’s mentoring, placed third nationally (1994). ACT-SO provided me my first national stage with seasoned writers who judged and advised my original poem, “De Chu’ ch,” written in a dialect mimicking Paul Laurence Dunbar’s writing style. Tananarive Due, who at the time of my mentoring had shelved her then unpublished first novel (1995) The Between, talked with me about rejection letters and how many she had received—was receiving. Unconsciously (or maybe hopefully), she was preparing me for a writing career—one at which I am still grasping.     
[43] my undergraduate English teacher at FAMU, who, like Mrs. Hart, told me the truth about my writing. I was not as excellent a writer as my white middle and high school English teachers would have me to believe as I composed college papers riddled with subject verb agreement and verb tense mistakes, comma splices, and fragments. Dr. Boston encouraged me to mindfully think about my writing, which is a lesson I attempt to pass onto my own writing students. Dr. Boston, too, illustrated the significance of Black students attending HBCUs where teachers are surrogate aunts and uncles, for when my father passed while I was a graduate student at FAMU, Dr. Boston mourned w/me—tears and all, she bowed on her knees before me, and she mourned. Dr. Boston and I still exchange handwritten letters, and she often gifts me journals and pens.     
[44] my advanced grammar teacher at FAMU who challenged my intellectual self more than any other teacher I had met before. Dr. Rauls was a straight up, no nonsense teacher who required students to go to the chalk board and diagram sentences. She became disillusioned about Black students and the significance of grammar instruction quite early—before the turn of the 21st century—often debating w/me and other English teachers the irrelevance of it all. Dr. Rauls and I exchanged handwritten letters and the made the occasional phone call until her passing in 2020.   
[45] my neighbor who lives down the street from my mother. Glo became my friend after she brought a pot of chicken souse to my daddy’s wake in 2002. During every holiday visit home since then, Glo invites me over for a cocktail. We laugh a lot, reminisce about parties my parents threw, and thank God
[46] my graduate school professor who exposed me to Africana spirituality, mindfulness practice, and (more of) Zora Neale Hurston. Dr. Plant is the most intellectual person I know, who encouraged me to go deeper into myself than I knew was possible. She also invited me to write a chapter essay for her (2010) The Inside Light”: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston, which became my first published work before earning a doctorate degree. Dr. Plant, who also edited Hurston’s (2018) Barracoon, is a cerebral giant whose insistence on serious scholarship and mindfulness writing inspire my own.  
[47] my graduate school professor who directed my dissertation and taught me everything I know about contemplative pedagogy and Toni Morrison. Dr. Grewal, and Indian woman, is a Toni Morrison scholar who expresses a loving-kindness and patience I am still growing to embody. I aim to apply her contemplative teaching practices to my own.  
[48] This section of my poem responds to Gumbs’ questions: Are there aspects of your teaching situation that feel like a waking nightmare?” (384); “Are we over, outside, on?” (384-385); “Where are you?” (385). According to Gumbs, where I am informs from where, about what, and how, I teach. “[T]he conditions of your teaching are specific in place and in time,” writes Gumbs, “and are shaped by the particular places you come from philosophically, geographically, and physically” (385). In other words, teaching is intimate and personal. Gumbs also asks: What questions will you craft to protect and honor your spirit?”; “What will you be remembered for?”; “What do you need to say as an educator?” (386); “Is there a ‘they’ you feel separate from in your work as an educator?”; and “Is there something in your teaching setting that seems large enough to destroy you?” (387).
[49] In 2020, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was teaching a class of senior English students in a course called Senior Seminar. This course, designed as a survey course intended to assess students’ knowledge of the various literary time periods to which they had been exposed throughout their college tenure, was populated by about eight Black cisgendered female students and one cisgendered white male student; about half of the female students identified as queer. Because we are situated in an HBCU, I thought I’d quiz my predominantly Black student class on their Black literary history; after all, each of them had already taken the required African-American Literature course. This quiz, which ended up being my course diagnostic determining how and with what materials I’d instruct the course, included questions like: Name one Black playwright and her or his title work. Name a novel centered on religious ideas. Name an author from the Harlem Renaissance. Excepting the obvious Langston Hughes response to the Harlem Renaissance question and the Tyler Perry response to the Black playwright, my Black students could not recall Black for most of the questions I posed. Instead, they called on writers and books like William P. Young’s The Shack and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. And when I asked about a children’s author, one student named her favorite white-authored vampire series. To make matters worse, the one lone white male student in the class did recall Black for each of his responses, which did not make my Black students shamefully shrink; instead, they damn near dapped him up. When I expressed my disappointment with my Black students re: their Black negligence, they claimed to be so inundated with whiteness that even after attending an HBCU for four years and taking courses like African-American Literature, their first thoughts are still white-washed. They practically Kanye-shrugged it off and told me not to be mad at them; be mad at the system, they said. I am mad at both.   
[50] an Egyptian vizier—the highest official who serves the pharaoh. Ptah Hotep served in the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt and is credited for composing a literary manual, The Teachings of Ptah Hotep, instructing young men on behavior. This text, too, is considered by some scholars to be the oldest book in the world; for rhetoric and composition scholars, it provided the instruction for rhetoric that informed Greco-Roman ideas re: argumentation. I introduce Ptah Hotep and African rhetoric to my graduate students who take the Practices in Contemporary Grammar & Rhetoric course I teach. Although the course has been traditionally taught via a Greco-Roman lens, I begin with Africa, reminding my Black students that she is the cradle of civilization—the beginning of all intellectual genius.  
[51] direct quote from Alice Walker’s (1982) The Color Purple (167). Undoubtedly, Shug Avery’s conversation with Celie re: spirituality informs my own walk with God. Before reading Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, I, too, was Celie, imagining God as a white man I was trying to get off my eyeballs; sometimes I’m still throwing rocks (168). Nonetheless, Shug Avery is my spiritual teacher who I think of every time I see a fallen or severed tree, feeling like I might be bleeding, too (167). But, as I explain in (2016) “‘Heaven last all ways’: Examining Celie’s ‘suchness’ in Walker’s The Color Purple” (122-132), ultimately, Celie’s spirit—her Buddhist being—transforms herself and the novel’s other characters. Thus, it is Celie’s quiet compassion I strive to embody in and outside of the classroom. Each new year I teach, however, mustering compassion gets more difficult, which is probably why I reference Walker and The Color Purple throughout my instruction; they remind me to stay the course—to keep my eyes on the prize.  
[52] In the Writing, Science and Technology course I teach to STEM students, I invite them to compose a mid-term self-assessment letter wherein they specifically address their work ethic; they also compose questions to me re: their progress and my instruction. One student wrote to me in her assessment letter that she finds the questions I pose while commenting on her written assignments offensive. According to her, if she knew, for instance, that she should have written a long sentence as two shorter ones, then she would have, and so, my inquiries felt like a questioning of her intellect. To this student, and to many others who have referenced my commenting as “throwing shade,” my questions about their writing are not Socratic inquiries inviting them to think more deeply about their writing as they entered the revision stages but were efforts at making them feel inferior; they neither felt safe nor brave in my classroom. As a result, during next class session, and thereafter in every class I have since taught, I explain to students my intentions around posing questions when offering them feedback for their writing. While many of them expressed their “aha” moment re: my Socratic teaching methods, others, unfortunately, admitted to preferring I tell them exactly what to write over prompting their own thinking—to continue the banking system of education that got them thus far.       
[53] direct quote from Toni Morrison’s (1987) Beloved during a conversation Paul D is having with Sethe re: her murdering her daughter Beloved (164). This line is one of my favorites, for, in Toni Morrison fashion, it begs readers to theorize about love, particularly mother love, and to contemplate to what ends one might go to express love. This quote also invites readers—it invites me—to question how I love and to really consider love as love despite to whom I am rendering it. “Love is or it ain’t,” says Sethe (164), which supports bell hooks’ ideas re: the fallacy in unconditional love she explicates in her (1999) All about Love.  
[54] his section of my poem responds to Gumbs’ questions: “What is the collective you feel accountable to as an educator? The students? Your fellow educators? Your institution? (387); What are the visions you want to express and how must they be expressed for the victory?”; and “What needs to be changed in your approach to your work as an educator?(388) The last question is inspired by Gumbs’ exploration of Lorde’s (1989) essay, “Hugo Letter: On Generators and Survival.” In it, says Gumbs, Lorde discusses the transformative power of wind, having written, “‘but wind is our teacher’” (388).  
[55] In 2016, after spending four years at FAMU, one year before going up for tenured associate professor, I resigned from its English Department. I had gotten so wrapped up in the university and department’s politicking that I lost sight of my classroom responsibilities and the students for whom I was accountable. When I first began teaching, Mommy told me teaching is innate, and as a teacher, I am responsible to my students first; neither the institution, nor my colleagues—both about whom I care—are my priorities. “Keep your eyes on the prize,” Mommy reminded me. The struggle continues.   
[56] Media mogul, Oprah Winfrey, gifted Angelou the navy-blue Chanel peacoat she wore during the 1993 Presidential Inauguration.
[57] title of Angelou’s 1993 presidential inaugural poem
[58] This final section of my poem responds to Gumbs’ questions, posed only in her “Y is for young” section. Here, I also include reflections on letters “X” and “Z” for which Gumbs writes no text: Who are the ancestors, elders, and mentors that can put whatever you are facing as an educator into perspective? What tools might you need to create to strengthen your connection to them? (389). In this final paragraph, Gumbs reminds readers that what might be “triggering” for today’s classroom teachers pales in comparison, if you will, to Lorde’s classroom experiences wherein her students wore loaded guns on their hips. Although I do not have gun-toting students enrolled in my classes, often, my students’ white-washed conditioning, coupled with their consumerist behaviors, riddle me like bullets. All I have these days is hope, and barely that. I don’t see how the ancestors, elders, and mentors who’ve brought me this far can go the rest of the way w/me. Seemingly, I, alone, must “rise to the occasion,” and still I rise.
[59] At my students’ loud and wrong declarations, I sang, Fred Hammond’s (2000) “Jesus, Be a Fence around Me,” a gospel song I often hum to myself during long silent stretches of students’ apparent lack of preparedness for class discussion.
[60] the generation between Millennial and Gen Z, born between 1993 and 1998
[61] Here, I am referencing Gumbs’ Undrowned wherein she encourages readers, especially Black ones, to be like marine animals who learn to breathe under water despite daily threats to and attempts at their lives. Recalling our ancestors who survived the middle passage journey, Gumbs claims their breathing is not separate from their captured kinfolks’ drowning and the ocean’s breathing. She says their breathing contextualizes undrowning: “Breathing in unbreathable circumstances is what we do every day in the chokehold of racial gendered ableist capitalism,” writes Gumbs, who suggests we take notes from marine mammals who “are amazing at not drowning” (2). 
[62] I don’t profess an ability to save my students nor anyone thru Biblical verses (or w/#blackgirlmagic); however, after a class of homophobic Black students attempted to use Bible verses to support their anti-gay rhetoric, I countered their hate speech with specific Biblical verses re: love, all of which fell on deaf ears. I write about this classroom experience in (2016) “Gays are going to hell: A Lesbian Teacher Tries To Teach Compassion” (23-33).
[63] I end my poem w/one tanka that marks the entire alphabet. While the alphabet song concludes w/the singer claiming knowledge of her ABCs and inviting listeners to join her in the next round of singing, this final stanza invites readers into my human teaching experience. Although I do not teach composition in a classroom populated by student police officers of whom I am afraid, like Lorde, I do have “layers of fear to face” (Gumbs, “17th Floor” 376). As a Black lesbian teacher instructing within a “particular historical and pedagogical moment” (375)—inside a global pandemic, post Presidents Barack Obama and Trump, during American race riots and Florida fascism, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the Russo-Ukrainian War, all while teaching at a historically Black university fixated on earning research one status, thus patterning itself after whiteness—I am afraid (and frustrated). I am afraid of two things: 1. many of my Black students are so whitewashed that they, claiming #woke while clad in natural hair and dashikis, are actually black faced minstrels; and 2. despite my instruction, I will not be able to awaken them. I am afraid for my students and frustrated by the systems reproducing a hegemony so normalized, my Black students treat me like a Juda. But still, I rise, calling on (the) Lorde—hoping such abrupt brevity lends itself to sounding as fervent and hopeful as Maya Angelou’s “Good morning” at the close of her (1993) “On the Pulse of Morning” poem.  
[64] For early Christians, the phoenix symbolized Christ’s resurrection. However, for Job, who said: “In my own nest I shall grow old; I shall multiply years like the phoenix” (Job 29:18), it also symbolized longevity. Having said that, Angelou’s mentioning of dinosaurs in the opening stanza of her (1993) “On the Pulse of Morning” poem brings me to birds, a few of which evolved from dinosaurs, according to some scientists. Although Angelou wrote, “Any broad alarm of their (mastodons and dinosaurs) hastening doom / Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages” [emphasis mine] (stanza 1, lines 7-8), I imagine the phoenix being as established as the crying rock, the singing river, and the speaking tree Angelou said are ours (stanza 9, line 18). Through them, these sentient (non-human) beings, Americans “[c]an give birth again / To the dream,” said Angelou (stanza 10, lines 3-4). If I am right/eous, then I, too, will have the longevity of Job to look upon each new day, to approach each new semester, as an opportunity to givebirth again to the dream—a dream our Black and brown students can manifest if I remain brave enuf to share it and they woke enuf to receive it. The children are our future, sang Whitney Houston (1985). I’m hoping.  

We Don’t Need More “Safe” Spaces; We Need Transformative Justice

Higher education and by extension writing centers are oppressive, violent, and harmful (Wilder; Patel; Meyerhoff). While writing centers often tout values of social justice and inclusion, in practice, they perpetuate and enforce oppressive ideologies (Green; Faison & Condon; Faison & Treviño; Greenfield). As Grutsch McKinney posits, writing centers often adhere to a grand narrative that “writing centers are comfortable, iconoclastic places where all students go to get one-to-one tutoring on their writing” (3). This grand narrative perpetuates the racism and discrimination experienced by marginalized people in the writing center—while allowing writing centers practitioners as a whole to function in the same oppressive ways and continuing to claim writing centers are safe spaces for all. However, in reality, this grand narrative functions as a stock story that allows writing centers to “feign neutrality and at all costs avoid any blame or responsibility for societal inequity” (Martinez 70). These stock stories include perpetuating the idea that the writing center is a “safe” and “welcoming” space; using the terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion as neoliberal catch-alls that promote assimilation; and giving ourselves self-congratulatory praise while avoiding the call to be co-conspirators (Love).  

Through a combination of storying, building upon current scholarship, and radically imagining futures, we will discuss how a Black feminism and transformative justice frame illuminates the systemic oppression/white supremacist mindset that is ingrained in writing centers. These systemic oppressions overlap with neoliberal myths of “safe spaces” and “homes” that undermine and scapegoat marginalized consultants in the writing center for the systemic oppression they experience. We conclude our article by discussing what transformative justice has to offer us for (re)imagining our writing centers outside of these neoliberal stock stories and offer readers reflective questions for transformation.  

The Necessity of Black Feminisms 

(Bethany). I was Mentor Program Coordinator for a writing center, which meant that I was responsible for facilitating new graduate students’ transition and onboarding into the center. They had to do onboarding and logistics training as well as get acquainted with writing center scholarship. I created a curriculum with readings that focused on 1) intersectionality and Black feminism, 2) active listening and care in centers, and 3) a choose-your-own-adventure pathway of various options (e.g., linguistic justice, queer theory, feminisms, research). Each new graduate consultant—the mentee—was assigned a mentor who was a returning graduate consultant in the center. As the Coordinator, I met with each pair at least once a month to discuss the curriculum.  

One semester, I had to meet several times with a mentee one-on-one rather than alongside their mentor due to scheduling conflicts. I had been doing this for two years now and was previously an Assistant Director of another center, so I felt more than prepared to tackle a quick check-in meeting. However, now, I’m regretful of the hubris I had. I turned on my Zoom room a few minutes ahead of the start time and found the mentee already there.  

I began my usual check-in questions about how he was doing, what’s happening this semester for them, what questions they had, etc. As the mentee replied to my questions, I began to feel a tight feeling in my stomach. I realized that he was interrupting me and using microaggressive, genderist language to talk about his wife. My stomach continued to turn, and as a survivor of violence and trauma, I tend to never ignore my gut, but I pushed away the alarm bell because this was work, and besides, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard from folks before, so why was this different?  

I changed gears away from the check-in to try to ease my own discomfort. I moved to the readings, because I thrive in intellectualizing rather than feeling, so I figured this had to be better.  

“How did you feel about this month’s readings? What questions did you have from them?”  

“Well, the article on emotion and writing centers that used stories was really illogical and filled with fallacies. It wasn’t very empirical.” 

“Can you say more about what you mean by “empirical”?” I asked. 

“Using actual data that is quantitative and rigorous. You can’t just tell a story that has logical contradictions and expect it to pass as scholarship. This is why I chose not to go into your field.”  

“You were going to go into Rhetoric and Composition?”  

“Yes, but I ended up not because the methods were not rigorous or empirical enough.”  

We talked more about his journey applying to both RhetComp and his current field, and he asked me what methods courses I even had to do in my MA and PhD. I could feel my stomach tighten more, and I continued to ignore it. I answered with all the methods training I had, taking the bait and feeling the need to justify my field before I said, “Also to circle back, stories are empirical data. We do have methods that are valid, and the idea of rigor is a Western myth of objectivity that has racist origins. When we read about intersectionality and Black feminism last month, did you discuss with your mentor about their importance? Or how it relates to storying?” 

“I understand the importance of talking about identity and privilege, but at the end of the day, it isn’t important to research and writing centers.” The rest of that meeting was a blur, but I do remember logging off the Zoom and vomiting, unable to hold back the silent screams of my body, urging me to listen. 


All identities are also social and cultural constructs, and historically, arise out of and work in tandem with racism and white supremacy. For the macro-level, intersectionality and Black feminisms consider the ways that society has interlocking and overlapping systems of oppression. While each system of oppression will be slightly different based on contextual time, place, and moment, generally these systems include (but are not limited to) white supremacy, heteronormativity, patriarchy, capitalism, elitism, ableism, et cetera.  

These systems, as illuminated by intersectionality and Black feminist lenses, demonstrate how people with systemically disempowered identities are “impacted by multiple forces and then [they are] abandoned [by systems and institutions]” (Crenshaw 10:31). Each of these identities cannot be untangled from one another, as the Combahee River Collective declared, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The Combahee River Collective Statement is just one text that highlights the ways that society runs on the power of webs of oppression. These webs and their work call us to acknowledge how identities, systems, and power are co- and multiply- constructed to restrain and oppress. Those with multiple systemically disempowered identities are most impacted by systemic and interpersonal harm, which creates structural oppression.  

These systems create our institutions, which include education, banking, criminal justice and law, state welfare, media, housing, et cetera (Kendall). As Kendall declares:  

We don’t have bigotry by accident; it’s built and sustained by the same cultural institutions we’re taught to revere. We cannot keep sustaining a system of gatekeeping that privileges a very few at the expense of the majority. (94) 

In this, these institutions are reflections and intentional creations by the overlapping oppressing systems. These intentional, institutional systems work to erase, harm, and silence, but intersectional feminisms allow feminists to “step up, reach back, and keep pushing forward” (Kendall 14) toward accountability and liberation.  

Then, at the micro-level, each of these systems not only interlock and overlap, but they also create obstacles, harm, and oppression for anyone that does not fit the “mythical norm” (Lorde). In other words, everyone has various positionalities (e.g., race, nationality, language use, gender, sexuality, religion, class) that are contextually place and time specific. These positionalities and identities cannot be separated at that individual level.  

Yet, writing centers and their practitioners ignore and flatten the impact of whiteness and white supremacy in writing centers. Even though intersectionality and Black feminisms demonstrate a necessary framework for understanding and disrupting centers, we as a field have not taken up the call. Instead, we fall into the racist legacies of literacy crises, linguistic assimilation, colonial structures, and more.  

In one of the most telling critiques, Faison and Condon write that, writing centers participate:  

in the institutionalized practice of cannibalizing the cultures and languages of Othered bodies; enforcing the assimilation of student writers and tutors of color into whitely discourses and the epistemological spaces in which those discourses are legitimated and reproduced. Whitely writing centers, we think, participate in the academy’s racial project of defining and containing racial Otherness within acceptable, normative limits, thus preserving white advantage and privilege. (9) 

Writing centers, in their design, perpetuate an institutional legacy of colonialism where bodies of colors are forced to conform to acceptable and normative practices. As true in most institutional structures, policies, procedures, practices, et cetera work together to maintain a culture of white supremacy that forces marginalized communities to conform in order to preserve white privilege.  

As Inoue (“How Do”) declares, “White people can perpetuate White supremacy by being present. You can perpetuate White language supremacy through the presence of your bodies in places like this.” So, when most writing centers are in PWIs and/or in a racist society, when the majority of writing centers are operated and staffed by white people, when the majority of our scholarship is written by white people and hosted at “and-grab universities, we perpetuate whiteness and white supremacy. 

Disrupting Safe Spaces  

(Amanda) My friend and I sat together in the empty, locked, writing center, using the peaceful afterhours environment of the center to catch up on whatever homework we had left from our honors literature courses.  

Eventually, the quiet of studying turned into the distracted banter of friends, and then gossip. We were essentially just chatting about our coworkers. My friend had just started hanging out with one of our coworkers, Wyatt, and eventually our conversation drifted over to him.  

“Yeah, he’s nice,” I said, “But he ‘jokingly’ carries around that info-wars mug all the time.”  

My friend didn’t try to come to Wyatt’s defense. She readily agreed that he could be a jerk sometimes and started to add to the stories I’d heard about him. I learned that Wyatt had started to have jam sessions with some of the other boys in the writing center, where they would hang out, chat, and play music. Then she told me that at one of those jam sessions, Wyatt and the guys had started ranking every consultant in the writing center based on how cool they were, and another girl, who’d been in the writing center a few years longer than me and was the only other woman of color in the center was at the very bottom of the list.  

In defense of this ‘least cool person,’ I insisted, “She doesn’t deserve that.” 

“Yeah, but they think she makes everything about race.”  

These interactions became one of the first on a long list of grievances I had, not about the writing center, but about being a Black person in academia. It was reinforced to me then, how people saw it when people of color advocated for themselves in harmful environments. For instance, my writing center director told me that the reason she didn’t focus more heavily on race and privilege in our writing center class and professional development was because she’d tried it one year, and it had really scared the white consultants who had never thought about privilege before, and she didn’t want to do that again.  

It was evident in this writing center that consultants of color were scapegoated as uncomfortable, and as ruining the safe, fun, vibe of the writing center when they pointed out injustices. But, I didn’t fully think that the writing center played a role in that. By the end of my first semester of the writing center, I wrote a paper where I came to the conclusion that, “When it comes to issues of racism, exploitation is not often intentional, but when working within a discriminatory system that does not acknowledge the burdens that minorities experience in the dominant cultural that instances of burnout and isolation occurs.” I knew that racism existed in the writing center, but I had landed on blaming the system, and only the system, while failing to think about the ways that we, as consultants, were implicated inside of the system. There was no way that my friends, colleagues, and directors were racist.  


Even with all the personal, racial, and political trauma that I (Amanda) have experienced at the hands of the writing center practitioners, I had still fallen into believing the stock story of the writing center as a comfortable home; a safe space for everyone. A space where racism happened incidentally, rather than as part of the larger structure. A viewpoint that ultimately allowed the writing center practitioners around me and myself to, “avoid any blame or responsibility for societal inequity” (Martinez 70).  

As Grutsch McKinney describes, the myth of the writing center as a safe space or home that I had adhered to “can be traced back to the conscious decisions made by writing center directors to make the space look like home. They wanted to create a physical identity for the center that welcomed students and comforted them” (22). However, the trouble with the physical identity and narrative that directors chose is that a narrative of home or safety will always be a narrative of white supremacy. 

This is true, for one because in writing centers, home becomes defined by white, middle-class standards of home and comfort, often leaving those whose homes don’t fit into that mold to feel othered or outside. For example, Treviño and Faison write:  

I want to stress that feelings of familiarity, of knowing, and being used to things are a part of what makes spaces feel comfortable and homelike, but I did not grow up in a home surrounded by white middle-class comforts. 

Treviño & Faison are only two of many multiply marginalized writing center practitioners (e.g., Garcia, Green, Lockett) who have talked about feeling out-of-place, not-at-home, and othered in the writing center as a result of a physical and verbal rhetoric that prioritizes a white, middle-class distortion of comfort and safety.  

Safety exists hierarchically. Ultimately, the idea of safe spaces and home is perpetuated and preserved because it comforts white writing center practitioners. Inside of a space that functions on neoliberal myths of safety, those who act “against”— by making moves like pointing out inequity — that environment are deemed as unsafe, but the people who act “against” the environment are the people who were never safe to begin with. Much like how “the least cool” person in the writing center was the least cool because she disrupted white comfort. When that white comfort is disrupted, Black and brown bodies are then scapegoated as causing that discomfort through systems like Spiritual Bypassing. Ceballos et al. write, “Spiritual Bypassing is what happens when white women confronted with racial trauma fall back on unity, peace, kindness and love to force People of Color to recant their claim to trauma at the risk of being painted as mean or divisive” (115). Spiritual Bypassing allows writing center practitioners, especially “well-meaning” white woman practitioners to continue to distance themselves from accusations of racism.  

For example, in the narrative that Faison shares about Spiritual Bypassing, she recounts she how did a consultation on a racist dissertation which claimed that “a woman, no matter her racial background, would have inferior children should she become impregnated by and consequently bear the offspring of a Black man” (Ceballos et al. 98). More than just recounting the racism of the consultation, Faison recounts the subsequent racism she experienced by her colleagues who, “dismissed [her] concern as an underappreciation for and a misunderstanding of science” (Ceballos et al. 99). Here, not only is Faison silenced, but she’s also villainized as misunderstanding science for even bringing up the issue of racism in the first place. Spiritual Bypassing relies on this villainization because by using it, white practitioners can both ignore the stories of marginalized communities and punish marginalized communities for discussing them in the first place. So, when speaking out against oppressive and harmful situations in the writing center, marginalized bodies are labeled overemotional, angry, or disruptive – the people who make a writing center “unsafe”— a phenomenon that Ceballos also discusses happening to her at her own writing center in Counterstories where she was labeled as an “angry Latina” in a writing center that exerted the idea of comfort (Ceballos et al).  

Additionally, my (Amanda’s) narrative shows how silencing pairs with Spiritual Bypassing. Silencing marginalized communities allows white practitioners in writing centers to not have to hear marginalized voices or be implicated in the racism they claim to resist. Rather than hearing counterstories, the white-centered publications in writing centers create a grand narrative of inclusivity without ever having to engage in issues of race that implicate them in broader systems of white supremacy, which then excuses practitioners from making any ideological changes. The safe space and home myths function together to create this unity, peace, kindness and love, which means that anyone who disrupts this vision, often marginalized consultants, can be painted as divisive in the space, while directors, other consultants, and people who enter the space can maintain the feelings that they’re doing the right thing by maintaining their ideas safety, and coziness, and unity.  

Turning to Transformative Justice and Community Accountability 

(Bethany; CW: linguistic harm). It’s 2015, and my first full semester as a writing center tutor. 90% of my job is working with students who must come each week to work with me as a requirement for their writing lab class that supplements first-semester composition. I have the same 5 students I meet with for one hour each week. Every week, we are required to work on papers for their Comp I class as well as writing exercises (usually required grammar drills) that are required for the lab.  

I go and grab the worksheet from the back filing cabinet for this week’s writing exercise. This client—a self-identified white, disabled, first-gen woman—sits down and I ask, “What do you want to work on today? We can do the writing exercises or stuff for your class.”  

She shrugs, “I don’t care.”  

“Okay, well the writing exercise is due tomorrow, so maybe we should just knock that out.” She nods apathetically. I prioritize efficiency rather than listening and responding to why she is responding with apathy. I see but don’t truly listen or hear what her actions are telling me. 

Instead, I pull out the exercise and begin to lecture about different sentence types and when to use conjunctions, commas, and the like, as the exercise asks. We get to the example sentences, and I question her about how she thinks we can make the sentence grammatically correct. She doesn’t really engage, and I naively think it’s because I didn’t explain it well. I try to explain sentence types using different colors of paper to represent different components.  

She finally says, “I don’t understand any of this because I don’t know what you mean by noun and verb. I hate grammar and I’m failing English anyway. This doesn’t matter.”  

I launch into another lesson about what a noun and verb are, ignoring the core of what she was saying—that there’s emotions, trauma, and feelings here with these topics and class. Even though I had begun tutoring after barely being trained (i.e., watching 2 sessions and was thrown into it that year); even though the grammar drills were required; even though I didn’t have the knowledge or language yet to unpack why grammar isn’t actually that important or the linguistic and racial harm and violence that its enforcement causes, I caused immense harm to this student by my ignorance. And the worst part is, 8 years later, and I can’t remember if I ever addressed her feelings or the content of what she was saying, or if I continued because I thought “good” tutoring meant doing our required grammar drills. 


We all have and will commit harm. Our institutions have and will commit harm. And the worst part is we can’t undo harm once it’s been committed. All harm and abuse are a subset to the larger systems and webs of oppression and violence. They can’t be untangled from one another.  

Our institutions, which include the institutions of writing centers, are sites of assimilation, harm, and systemic and localized oppression. These institutions were never going to be the place for transformative or radical change, as their very goal and creation were and are antithetical to that.  

As Sara Ahmed discusses in Living a Feminist Life, she critiques how diversity, equity, and inclusion work, or DEI, serve as “brick walls.” Moreover, she discusses how doing that DEI work, which is always through the labor of the diversity worker, is “not the same thing as an institution willing to be transformed” (94). In that, our institutions have a stake in maintaining the status quo of racism, sexism, transphobia, colonialism, et cetera. They have distorted DEI efforts by continuing to occupy indigenous land, relying on police and carceral logics, and much more. In writing center scholarship, there has been countless harm through oppressive ideologies and practices, including not only those mentioned in the introduction, but also beyond. People experience harm daily in writing centers (e.g., the stories found within scholarship of Lockett, Dixon, etc.).  

So, what do we do about the harm? One answer is transformative justice and community accountability. Writing center practitioners must reflect not only on their own identities and world with intellect and criticality, but also, we must also address the harm systems and people committed. Some writing center scholarship has discussed restorative justice (e.g., Banville et al.). While some institutions have tried to turn toward restorative justice, that work is incomplete and stays within the same system of harm. According to the Alberta Restorative Justice Association, restorative justice is “an approach focused on repairing harm when a wrongdoing or injustice occurs in a community. Depending on the process or technique used, restorative justice involves the victim, the offender, their social networks, justice agencies, and the community.” In this definition, restorative justice is used to reduce harm while working within the system that caused the harm in the first place to maintain the same status quo Ahmed critiques. It is a retrofit and a harm reduction technique within that system that does nothing to prevent future harm. It is a reactive, incomplete measure rather than a proactive one.  

Arising in response to the restorative justice movement was transformative justice (TJ). TJ works to transform the system as well as mitigate harm. In the book, Beyond Survival, one of the contributors declares that transformative justice is “a process where the individual perpetrator, the abusive relationship, and the culture and power dynamics of the community are transformed […]” (Barnow 50). As Mia Mingus discusses, transformative justice resists relying on the state’s carceral systems and perpetuating oppressive norms. Additionally, transformative justice seeks to be active in cultivating “healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved” (Mingus). 

In this definition, there are many similarities to restorative justice, but it differs greatly in its overall goal— TJ seeks to abolish and transform the system rather than working within the same structures that caused oppression in the first place. Relatedly, transformative justice necessitates the praxis of community accountability. Contrary to popular belief, “being accountable is not about earning forgiveness” (Cheng Thom 76). Instead, community accountability (CA) is rooted in Black queer Feminist values and is a process that’s an act of healing—through self- and community- care—that helps people understand that everyone can grow (Barnow). In addition, even though harm cannot be erased, the work turns toward transforming and healing individuals, communities, and society (Barnow). Overall, these frameworks of TJ and CA serve not only as ways to enact radical criticality for imaging better worlds, but also as tangible praxes to enact.  

Your Turn to Grapple with the Messiness 

(Bethany) Writing centers have come to embody and be a microcosm of everything, everywhere to me. With that, I tend to feel everything, everywhere—not always all at once, but the messiness reigns inside and I’m filled with complex, clashing and crashing emotions. Sadness, when I find writing centers and the world to be too overwhelming and seemingly too big to change. Anger, at whatever in this microcosm is hurting people and reinforcing larger harm. Shame, knowing I, too, commit harm. Reckoning, knowing shame isn’t a productive emotion and builds walls to our progress. Mourning, at the loss of who I could be today if I had started my (un)learning earlier. Joy, in being intentional that I want a future-me to be proud of actions I take now knowing I already lost so much time to past progress. I want to become a person who future-me doesn’t mourn. 

(Amanda) Most days in the writing center come with a flood of contradictory emotions. Safety, maybe, when I walk in the doors and see my friends. Tension, as I walk by the receptionist and wonder if I have to explain my presence. Laughter, at the heart of a good conversation. Uneasiness, when I don’t see anyone or anything that helps me feel as if I belong in the space. Elation, when I share my ideas, and they are heard. Frustration, when those ideas are appropriated. Anger, when I have to sit through conferences and professional development sessions rife with racism. Often, guilt, as I think back to the times when my decision making was informed by antiquated views, or when I was a bystander, and I let something slide that I really shouldn’t have let slide, or I made fun of student writing, or helped a student write a “better” racist paper because it was easier than challenging views. Guilt, also, as I think about my role inside of an institution that was designed to be oppressive and white supremacist and whether or not I want to continue to participate in that system. Guilt at all of the harm I have and will continue to cause, but also acceptance when I realize that, as Bethany reminds us, it’s impossible not to cause harm. And even hope, sometimes, when I make plans for what I’m going to do and how I’m going to act when I do cause harm.  


A transformative justice worldview is a necessary and lifesaving framework; while some scholars have begun this work in writing centers, it must continue in all facets, particularly tutor education, professional development, and administrative praxis. To implement this in writing centers (and institutions at large), we must create better worlds through radical praxis. However, when there is the inevitable harm, injustice, or inequity committed, community accountability allows individuals to begin healing. This healing of ourselves, writing centers, institutions, and society is an act of transformative justice. 

While it would be wonderful if there was one way to embody this transformative justice praxis, the actual work is messy and imperfect, but it still moves toward collective action. For instance, Sara Ahmed and Gloria Anzaldúa talk about the fragmentation and in-betweenness of embodying this transformative worldview. In other words, a tension exists between a better world we can imagine and the practice of being fragmented, messy humans who are also working toward better. Radical often seems like a scary term, as though it’s a word that can be substituted for extreme. In reality, though, as Angela Davis writes, radical simply means “grasping things at the root.” For this reflective portion of the article, we want to use radical imagination as a framework, which Lamar Johnson defines as a concept that: 

compels language and literacy scholars and the field of English education to take action to eradicate a system that blocks the chances of creating the impossible—in this case, a more just and equitable world. […] [T]he (re)imagining of y(our) selves must occur and y(our) hearts, minds, and souls have to be angered for justice and angered with the prophetic imagination (Dantley & Green, 2015) to create the world that we hope to see but that is not yet. (499)  

We want to think radically about ourselves, our identities, and our imaginings for the future. You may be wondering what TJ looks like and exact plans for how to do it. We cannot give you the answer to that question. Instead, this work is collective, messy/complex, community-based work that embraces small moments of progress in the present moment. This work is going to be tense and contradictory and ask for a lot of learning and unlearning to the oppressive norms many of us were indoctrinated in. It will be messy, and we will cause and continue to cause harm by reinforcing the systems that we were indoctrinated into, but we will have the responsibility to stay accountable to our communities and ourselves as we learn and unlearn, and (re)imagine a better future. 

We want readers to take a moment to reflect radically on goals and visions for the writing center and what it can look like. The questions below are meant to help you reflect, and they are inspired and influenced by transformative justice scholars (e.g., those in Beyond Survival, brown’s emergent strategy, and Creative Interventions): 

  • What are you embodying in your daily life? In your work? 
  • How can you grow? How can you learn? How can you unlearn?  
  • How can you become a person you don’t have to mourn later?  
  • How do/ can you move beyond shame to more productive action?  
  • Who do you lean on? Who leans on you?  
  • Are your needs being met? If so, how? If not, why not?  
  • What is your first reaction in conflict?  
  • How do you feel when you experience/witness anger? Joy? Sadness? Grief? Tension? Conflict?  
  • How do you make room for complexity, non-linearity, and messiness? 
  • Have you engaged in transformative justice (not restorative or carceral justice)? How can you continue/begin this ideological shift? 
  • What are the organization’s policies, practices, spaces, and places embodying and reinforcing?  
  • Knowing that “safe” and “welcoming” are neoliberal myths, how will/does the organization and participants define safety with that in mind?  
  • Do participants within the organization feel comfortable voicing conflicts and harm? How do you know they are comfortable? If they aren’t, how can the organization work to establish a community of care? 
  • What is the organizations’ participants’ first reaction in conflict? 
  • How will/does the organization make room for complexity, non-linearity, and messiness? 
  • Has the organization engaged in transformative justice (not restorative or carceral justice)? How can you continue/begin this ideological shift? 

Toward Different Worlds 

(Both). The rest of the story from here is currently a fiction where we dream for a better world and people–not better writers or writing. In that dream, we would look back at who we are now and probably “being sorry” at what we were doing and working toward more self-accountability. In it, we are not just surviving, but thriving and living. It’s a world without universities and institutions as we know them. It’s a world where we operate on crip time where there’s time for “pauses” (Inoue, “Teaching”) and criticality rather than capitalistic deadlines. We don’t flatten others’ stories into one-dimensional tropes, but instead understand and accept that we are all messy people with an array of identities and experiences just trying to do our best. We work toward accountability of ourselves and others for a world where it’s not about “fixing” others—for their use of language(s), so-called “deficits, “differences in identities, trauma, etc.—but instead experience all the differences and complexity that are brought to our transformative communities. We want us to “be alive, awake, grieving, and full of joy” (Piepzna-Samarasinha). 

Works Cited 

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Alberta Restorative Justice Association. “What is Restorative Justice.” www.arja.ca/what-is-restorative-justice. Accessed 17 May 2023.  

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 4th ed, Aunt Lute Books, 2012. 

Banville, Morgan, et al, editors. “Issue 4.2: Researching and Restoring Justice.” The Peer Review, vol. 4, no. 2, Autumn 2020, thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-4-2/? 

Barnow, Blyth. “Isolation Cannot Heal Isolation.” Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, edited by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Ejerise Dixon, AK Press, 2019, pp. 43–54. 

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017. 

Ceballos, Mitzi, et al. “Spiritual Bypassing in the Writing Center.” CounterStories from the Writing Center, edited by Wonderful Faison and Frankie Condon, 2022, pp. 95–108. 

Cheng Thom, Kai. “What to Do When You’ve Been Abusive.” Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, edited by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Ejerise Dixon, AK Press, 2019, pp. 67–78. 

Combahee River Collective. The Combahee River Collective Statement. 1977, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/combahee-river-collective-statement-1977/. 

Creative Interventions. “A Practical Guide to Stop Interpersonal Violence.” 2012, https://www.creative-interventions.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/CI-Toolkit-Final-ENTIRE-Aug-2020-new-cover.pdf 

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241–99, https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039. 

Davis, Angela Y. Women, Culture & Politics. 1st Vintage Books ed, Vintage Books, 1990. 

Dixon, Elise. “Uncomfortably Queer: Everyday Moments in the Writing Center.” The Peer Review, vol. 1, no. 2, Fall 2017, thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/braver-spaces/uncomfortably-queer-everyday-moments-in-the-writing-center/. 

Faison, Wonderful and Frankie Condon, editors. CounterStories from the Writing Center. Utah State University Press, 2022.  

Green, Neisha-Anne. “Moving beyond Alright: And the Emotional Toll of This, My Life Matters Too, in the Writing Center Work.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, 2018, pp. 15–34. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26537361. Accessed 17 May 2023. 

Greenfield, Laura. Radical Writing Center Praxis: A Paradigm for Ethical Political Engagement. Utah State University Press, 2019. 

Grutsch McKinney, Nancy. Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers. City of Publication. University Press of Colorado., 2013.  

High Country News Data.  

Inoue, Asao. “How Do We Languaging So People Stop Killing Each Other, Or What Do We Do about White Language Supremacy?” Conference on College Composition and Communication, 14 March 2019, tinyurl.com/4C19ChairAddress. 

– – -. “Teaching Antiracist Reading.” Journal of College Reading and Learning, vol. 50, no. 3, Sept. 2020, pp. 134–56. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/10790195.2020.1787079. 

Johnson, Lamar L. “The Racial Hauntings of One Black Male Professor and the Disturbance of the Self(Ves): Self-Actualization and Racial Storytelling as Pedagogical Practices.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 49, no. 4, Dec. 2017, pp. 476–502. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1161253&site=eds-live. 

Kendall, Mikki. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot. Viking, 2020. 

Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah, and Ejerise Dixon, editors. Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press, 2019. 

Lockett, Alexandra. “Why I Call it the Academic Ghetto: A Critical Examination of Race, Place, and Writing Centers.” Praxis, vol. 16, no. 2, 2019, www.praxisuwc.com/162-lockett. 

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, c2007, pp. 114-123. 

Love, Bettina, We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Boston. Beacon Press Books, 2019.  

Martinez, Aja Y. “A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory: Stock Story versus Counterstory Dialogues Concerning Alejandra’s ‘Fit’ in the Academy.” Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 33–55. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43501855. Accessed 17 May 2023. 

Meyerhoff, Eli., Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World. University of Minnesota Press, 2019.  

Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice.” Leaving Evidence, 12 Apr. 2017, leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/access-intimacy-interdependence-and-disability-justice/. 

Patel, Leigh. No Study without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education. Beacon Press, 2021. 

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018. 

Treviño, Anna, and Wonderful Faison. “Race, Retention, Language, and Literacy: The Hidden Curriculum of the Writing Center.” The Peer Review, vol. 1, no. 2, Fall 2017, thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/braver-spaces/race-retention-language-and-literacy-the-hidden-curriculum-of-the-writing-center/ 

Wilder, Craig Steven. Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Bloomsbury Press, 2013.  



“Institutions Don’t Define Us, Our Relationships Do”: Navigating Burnout, Relationship Building, and Collaboration as Graduate Students

In the final paragraph of Leigh Patel’s No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education¸ she states, “institutions don’t define us, our relationships do” (170). This statement, following an examination of the structural inequalities of higher education, is a reminder of the importance of relationship building while in the institution. This, however, is easier said than done. Since the institution operates as a capitalist meritocracy, everyone defaults to looking out for themselves, which doesn’t translate into relationship or coalition building. This is due to settler colonialism which, Patel argues, “has shaped epistemology, what counts as knowledge, and educational policy and practice via the emphasis on individual achievement” (21). Terms such as “achievements” or “achievement gaps” continue to “illustrate the ways that individual achievement is discussed and valued more than collective learning and well-being” (21). Therefore, these considerations and accompanying pressures do not support collaboration that can create work that will not only bolster the CVs of graduate students but also contribute to larger bodies of knowledge and alleviate the burnout experienced from coursework, exams, teaching commitments, and dissertation writing. As a result, graduate students experience exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of inefficacy, all in the name of producing an original contribution to the field and sacrificing relationships in the process. 

It was not until we were both experiencing burnout that we realized how graduate programs pit graduate students against one another. These conditions are not helpful toward relationship building and collaboration which we argue is crucial to combating burnout caused by the institution. As a result, we have been more intentional with our relationship building and collaborating with our graduate student colleagues. To do so, we exercise two feminist co-mentoring practices. The first feminist co-mentoring practice is from Beth Godbee and Julia C. Novotny which “attends to the relationship and people involved in the mentoring” (180). This feminist co-mentoring approach is associated with “partnership, solidarity, empowerment, and agency” which are necessary toward “asserting the right to belong in higher education” (Godbee and Novotny, 180). The second feminist co-mentoring approach is what Sonia C. Arellano and Ana Milena Riberos call comadrismo. Comadrismo is a Latinx, feminist co-mentoring practice that works to “create mentoring relationships in Rhetoric and Composition that challenge hegemonic models of feminism while supporting the success and development of Latina academics” (343). We use these two feminist co-mentoring practices in hopes that we can be, as Patel describes, “less individualistic, competitive, and punitive with ourselves and each other” to combat the institution and build relationships with our colleagues (170). In this article, we use autoethnography to illustrate how our burnout has led us to be more intentional in our relationship building by narrating how our relationships came to be and how these relationships have been strengthened through collaboration. Ultimately, we hope to show how we used our burnout as an opportunity to grow and collaborate with one another instead of letting burnout be a barrier toward our successes and the successes of our colleagues.  

Our Methodology 

Our experiences in academia are shaped by institutional capitalism and settler colonialism in higher education. Therefore, our choice to narrate our experiences through using autoethnography is necessary to combat the belief that it is not a legitimate form of research methodology. As Michelle Fine states in Just Research in Contentious Times, “Given the troubling history of social science, one might reasonably conclude . . . that universities are too elitist and soaked in a long history of exclusion, stratification, and White supremacy to be of use for generating counter-stories, gathering counter-evidence, or fueling movements for change” (116-117). Moreover, Sue Doe et al. capture our purpose in their claim that “autoethnography testifies even as it also calls to action” (146). Therefore, this methodological choice is crucial to challenge the dominant voices that govern academic spaces and continue to perpetuate colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal norms that cause burnout and make it difficult to form relationships with one another. Finally, we echo Walker et. al in the belief that centering graduate student voices highlight the “experiences and needs of this special population” so that institutional policies can be created and revised with current and future graduate students in mind (170). 

How We Became “The Nataly/ies” 

Before we discuss our experiences with burnout, relationship building, and collaboration, we believe it is important to tell the story of how the two of us met and how our relationship has evolved throughout the years. From the very beginning, we embraced the opportunity to build a coalition together, and ultimately, we created a support system that included becoming mentors and supporters for one another. Going forward, we will mark each of our narratives with our names (including the first initial of our last names) to avoid confusion. We also want to note that our different positionalities, Nataly is a Mexican-American woman and Natalie is a white woman, shape how we experience the institution and build relationships. 

Nataly D.: I began the PhD program at Texas Christian University (TCU) in fall of 2020. Like many during the pandemic, my courses were online. I was living in Houston, TX (TCU is located in Fort Worth, TX) while I waited for my graduate courses to begin in person. I remember that the department, professors, and classmates made attempts to create community despite the circumstances, but it was difficult for me to make new friends and form relationships via Zoom or other communication channels. When we returned in person for the fall 2021 semester, I was eager to meet my cohort as well as the new cohort who were able to begin their programs in person. The director of graduate studies (DGS) at the time emailed me before the fall 2021 semester began and asked if I would be interested in meeting the new graduate students during their orientation. I happily accepted this opportunity and joined them during their lunchtime. 

At this point, I had a year of the PhD program under my belt. I felt a level of confidence heading toward the new graduate student orientation that day, but looking back, I believe that this could have been an opportunity for me to use my seniority as power to separate myself from the incoming graduate students. I, however, agreed to attend the new graduate student orientation because I know how it feels to be in their position: new to TCU, overwhelmed by the information being given at orientation, and nervous about starting a graduate program. Therefore, I wanted to give them information they wouldn’t be able to get from the DGS, who has never been a graduate student in this program. I wanted to make myself available to them right from the beginning and offer the incoming graduate students any information I could on professors, coursework, or TCU more broadly. It was here that I met Natalie, gave her my phone number, and thus began our friendship. 

Natalie S.: I was so grateful that Nataly decided to attend the orientation luncheon for my incoming cohort. As an older graduate student, I was a little apprehensive about meeting the other students and if I would vibe with anyone, given my age difference. Right away, I felt comfortable with Nataly, and she was very knowledgeable about the program, courses, and professors — and she was willing to share that information with all of us. We realized that we would be in two courses together in my first semester, and I sat with her in both, and we began to grow closer as the semester progressed. During these courses, we became Natalie with the “ie” and Nataly with the “y” by our professors. One day, a fellow student said, “here come the Nataly/ies” and now, when people see us together, that is how we are addressed. Ever since August of 2021, Nataly has been an integral part of my support system, and I hope she feels the same way about me. 

Breaking the Cycle: Our Mental Health Journeys 

Results from a 2018 study showed that graduate students are more than six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety. In their article, “Graduate Student Burnout: Substance Use, Mental Health, and the Moderating Role of Advisor Satisfaction,” Allen et al., note that graduate students experience “high levels of stress, moderate or severe anxiety symptoms, and moderate or severe depressive symptoms” as a result of burnout (1130). At every stage of a graduate program, we are faced with different benchmarks that quickly deplete any of our mental replenishment from semester breaks and trigger those burnout symptoms. Whether it is assistantships, comprehensive exams, or dissertation work that is added to our plates, we still have the constant pressure to publish our work, present at conferences, and distinguish ourselves. If burnout takes over, we risk spiraling into a negative mental space filled with imposter syndrome, depression, and hopelessness. Given all these pressures, it is not surprising that “44% of graduate students who reported depression or anxiety during the past year faced academic hardship due to their mental health problems” (Allen et al. 1131).  

There is no guaranteed way to avoid burnout, depression, or anxiety, but we were both able to find pathways to combat burnout that yielded useful interventions for us. Now we have our friends, professional mentors, and outside support systems in place to aid us, as Beth Godbee advises, “in building confidence after it’s been lowered — helping one seeing that one’s not alone and navigating further traumas arising not only in graduate school but also through job searches and academic careers” (“The Trauma of Graduate Education”). However, before we discuss relationship building, mentoring, and collaboration, we will share our experiences with burnout, depression, and anxiety.  

Nataly D.: In my second year of the PhD program, I noticed that my energy was running out quicker than normal, and I was losing motivation to do my work despite having interest in the subject matter. This was accompanied by negative, hopeless thoughts that made me think the work I was doing was not going to have an impact or that it was not contributing anything to the field. By the end of my second year, I could feel myself yearning for a break but finding sadness in the fact that summer meant I would have to prepare for my comprehensive exams. I also had to continue working as an academic coach to pay my bills, all while running on empty. My lack of energy caused me to fall behind on my reading. Then, the straw that broke the camel’s back happened during a stressful family visit that caused a panic attack. After this, I started looking for a counselor. The next thing I knew, I was in my counselor’s office where he confirmed that I was experiencing burnout. Things got worse before they got better. My stress, anxiety, and depression were at their peak during the fall 2023 as I was in the process of completing and defending my comprehensive exams. Slowly, however, I am on the road to recovering from burnout thanks to counseling, maintaining my relationships, and evaluating the expectations I have for myself and those that I thought others had of me. 

Natalie S.: The first year of my PhD program was anxiety-ridden mostly from learning the system, the professors, and my specific interests. At our institution, the second semester of the first year is four courses, which is tiring and overwhelming, but doable. Knowing that the following summer would be entirely dedicated to studying for my comprehensive exams, I made a conscious effort to take off the entire summer break before my second year. Even though I took every precaution to store up as much energy as possible, similar to Nataly, I also noticed that during the second year of the PhD program, I began to feel unmotivated, lethargic, and in a state of constant stress. At the end of the Fall semester, I began to see a therapist because I was constantly anxious, depressed, and also experiencing guilt for not being able to accomplish everything and juggle my family and friend obligations. This was when I learned that I was experiencing burnout. For me, the final stressor occurred in the spring semester when none of my close friends were in any of my courses. I began to feel isolated and alienated, which added to my lethargy, depression, and burnout. Currently, I am working towards balance in my life, but it is an ongoing battle. 

Articulating Your Goals & Protecting Your Voice 

As graduate students trying to make names for ourselves, we are susceptible to getting caught up in the machinery of the institution that can make it difficult to build relationships. In Patel’s Decolonizing Educational Research, she argues that settler colonialism causes knowledge to be seen as property and limited in nature, leading graduate students to be competitive, even when attempting to collaborate with one another (35). We each have had first-hand experience where collaborative attempts were made, whether that be on a minor level with partner or group work or toward the possibility of publication that were unsuccessful and detrimental to our mental health. In reflecting on these moments, we note the need to be aware that not all efforts to build relationships and collaborate will be safe from the “unquenchable thirst for property that is core to settler structures” (Patel 35). 

Nataly D.: A few years ago, a graduate student approached me about collaborating on a project. We were still getting to know each other but I thought of them as my friend especially because of their attempts to build a relationship. When they asked me to collaborate, however, I hesitated. I felt that collaborating on a project required a relationship where both parties knew about each other’s work ethics and what they valued. They brought up the option to collaborate multiple times which made it difficult for me to say no. Eventually, after they asked multiple times, I agreed. I didn’t want to collaborate, but I thought that collaboration would be a stress reliever. I immediately saw that this would not be the case. Our goals for the project were not the same. I liked the project’s topic, and our approaches were unique, but the process was not enjoyable. They would edit my language which inherently changed my writing voice and made me feel like I was losing myself in the process. I also felt that they were forcing this collaborative opportunity to be a publication which was never my intention. I believe that they were operating on the institution’s notion that everything needs to be turned into a publication or else it is a waste of time. I felt that the entire process only damaged the possibility of us becoming closer friends. In the end, this experience was harmful to my mental health. 

Natalie S.: In one of my courses, we routinely broke out into discussion groups for each class meeting. During one of these breakouts, I had a difficult interaction with another student that really shook my confidence and upset me. Essentially, a fellow colleague dismissed my thoughts on our readings as reductive, which was affirmed by another member of the group, who happened to be a friend of the colleague. The fourth member in my group looked at me and made a disgusted face at the other two’s comments and behavior. She then mouthed to me, “Don’t worry about them,” and smiled at me. Shortly after, we were given a break, and before coming back together for group presentations on our readings, she took me aside and said, “those two were wrong for being so hateful and dismissive of you. They do the same thing to me, so I do not associate with them unless I have to. You made good points, so I would share them with the class when our group speaks.” Even though she validated my hurt feelings, bolstered my self-esteem a bit, and attempted to help me brush off the uncomfortable exchange, I told her that I was so anxious from everything that I did not feel comfortable sharing anymore. She told me that she understood but that we could not be bullied and ultimately silenced by colleagues over their pettiness and competitiveness. When we returned to our groups, she mentioned that I had some interesting thoughts and hoped I would share them, which helped me to be assertive and find my voice. Without her taking the time to encourage and support me, I would not have felt safe to contribute and would have allowed other’s settler colonialist mindsets to determine how I exist and function in the academy. 

It Takes a Village: Meaningful Co-Mentorship 

As we have emphasized throughout this article, relationships are vital to our success and growth in academia. Not only do we turn to each other for support when things are stressful, but we also learn from each other in many ways that benefit us personally and professionally. Initially, the first relationships that we build in our graduate programs are the department advisor and/or our mentors. As Allen et al. state in their study, “positive relationships with a faculty advisor are associated with improved mental health, decreased stress, and less emotional exhaustion among graduate students” (1132). There is often, however, a social aspect missing from our faculty-mentor relationships, something that can be found in graduate student peer relationships such as peer comadres (Ribero and Arellano 349). This is due to, as Godbee argues, the power relations between graduate students and faculty members who might serve as dissertation directors, committee chairs, etc. She states that “graduate students can benefit from dispersed and networked mentorship relationships, especially with mentors who don’t hold asymmetrical power over them” (“The Trauma of Graduate Education”). In this section, we reflect on how we have functioned as (co)mentors to our colleagues and how this practice has strengthened our relationships, created a sense of belonging, and fostered personal and academic growth. 

Natalie S.: Personally, I have never considered myself as someone who functions as a mentor; however, after reading Godbee and Novotny’s article discussing feminist co-mentoring among graduate students, I began to reconsider how I view my relationships and experiences. As they state: 

We see co-mentoring as feminist as it attends to the relationship and people involved in mentoring; carefully considers matters of status and power; and provides an alternative to, if not direct counter for, the traditional master-apprentice model that has contributed to inequities for women. Additionally, Bona et al. argue that co-mentoring is not a method but a relationship, and as a relationship, co-mentoring is associated with partnership, solidarity, empowerment, and agency—all important concepts for feminism and for anyone (men, women, transgender, cisgender) asserting the right to belong in higher education and other high-stakes settings (qtd. in Godbee and Novotny 180).  

During the reflection on my co-mentoring experiences, I slowly began to realize that I was dismissing my mentorship practices as just being a good friend or classmate.  

As Godbee and Novotny urge us to consider, “individuals might begin by recognizing where they are already involved in feminist co-mentoring, where it could be extended or tried anew, and how current mentoring approaches could be deepened” (191). For example, I generally tend to keep a small group of friends and share knowledge with those colleagues that I have built strong relationships within the program. Within my circle, I share any tips and tricks that I have learned in (and about) the program, about conferences, and for publications. I have also helped colleagues by offering feedback on any writing they share with me or ideas for projects and including them in panels for conferences. I did not recognize these actions as mentorship, only natural friendship components.  

When I dissect the presence of co-mentorship with one of my newest colleagues, who joined the program in the cohort following mine, I definitely think of Godbee and Novotny’s discussion of “power with” mentor relationships. I am older, by age, than most of the graduate students in my program, so I was excited when I met this wonderful woman who is around my age and also has children. Once we got to know this about each other, it felt like an immediate bond formed, and we wanted to help each other get through this program as easily and quickly as possible. So, in that very moment, without even being aware, our co-mentoring relationship began. Similar to a pairing in the case study that Godbee and Novotny share, our relationship reflects, “their collaborative (or co-) relationship shows how solidarity is built through power withthat is, not only through the direct or immediate sharing of knowledge, access, resources, and insights, but also significantly through the indirect and slower, sustained relational work that provides individuals with a sense of belonging” (186). By seeing ourselves in each other, we feel a sense of validation that we not only belong in the program but we can provide meaningful contributions to the field. We truly embody what Godbee and Novotny hope: “If we agree that feminist co-mentoring plays an important role in fostering one’s sense of value (i.e., self-empowerment, agency, solidarity), then individuals can recognize it as important to their own and others’ positions in academia” (191).  

Another close relationship that I have involves the only other rhetoric and composition student in my cohort. During the second year in the program, we were in two courses together, and we both each had a separate third course. We were both really feeling the pressure of our projects and deadlines, so she suggested that we team up and create something together for a course final to help ourselves out. Given everything on my plate, it should have been a no-brainer to immediately agree. Unfortunately, in the back of my mind, I worried about sharing credit for a project, especially with the only other rhetoric scholar in my cohort, as well as abandoning the opportunity to start working on a publication draft (which was an option for our final project). As the last month of the semester approached, I realized that we were both exhausted and burnt out, and I was being silly to worry about the negative impacts of our possible collaboration. Thankfully, she had not started working on another final project, so we went on to create a wonderful presentation together. Interestingly enough, it was an amazing piece on feminist coalitional rhetoric that our professor asked permission to use in her future courses. Without that burnout, I would not have worked with my colleague and created such a meaningful project. This experience helped me reevaluate how I exist in the academy and ultimately participate in the “working with” aspect of feminist co-mentoring.  

One thing that I became painfully aware of during this reflection is that institutional influences still plague my co-mentorship practices, even though I have a strong desire to dismantle the harmful structures that operate within the academy. However, I am working to unlearn those indoctrinated behaviors and realize it will take a concerted effort by all of us involved to exact change. 

Nataly D.: Like Natalie, I also have a relationship with my colleagues where I refuse to gatekeep things like calls for papers or opportunities that can help us all grow professionally. I have found that sharing these things, especially with my younger colleagues, has strengthened our relationships because it comes from a place of vulnerability. I have been in many conversations where my younger colleagues have openly shared their fears of not being published by the time they go on the job market. In these conversations, I have shared that these were once my fears too, so my inclination to mentor them comes from a place of understanding which we believe is important for relationship building. Vulnerability and understanding help unveil the stressors we experience as graduate students and unite us closer together.  

However, vulnerability and understanding function differently from graduate student to graduate student. As a graduate student of color, I understand that there are specific approaches that graduate students like me need. One mentorship approach I have embraced is Ana Milena Ribero and Sonia C. Arellano’s “senior comadre,” which is an application of comadrismo (345). A senior comadre is an older Latina graduate student who uses her experience in the program to mentor younger Latina graduate students. In experiencing burnout, I approach relationships with my Latinx, younger graduate student colleagues with this framework rather than falling into the institutional trap that could tempt me to be competitive with colleagues I share identities with. This framework also brings attention to the flaws of the system and uses them as fuerza. Fuerza, or strength, is “an example of how to turn obstacles into opportunities for critical work,” where a senior comadre can teach her younger graduate student colleagues to “push past the pain, to be productive through the tears” which requires vulnerability and understanding (346). Below, I share a narrative of how I became a senior comadre to a younger Latina graduate student, a relationship I still maintain today. 

At the same new graduate student orientation lunch where I met Natalie, I met the newest rhetoric and composition Latina student. She spoke Spanish and was the oldest in her family, like me, and was nervous about graduate school. I thought about how I felt my first semester of the master’s program almost five years ago, where I was the only Latinx person in the entire department, and what it would have meant to see someone like me. While we were eating lunch, one of the other Latinx students (male), who was from a different part of Texas, asked if we had experienced any racism or discrimination in Fort Worth. I nodded no, she nodded yes. Nonetheless, we knew that it existed, and there was a possibility we would experience it while at TCU. After lunch, me and the younger Latina graduate student walked over to a coffee shop where she would wait for her ride. I decided to wait with her so she would not be alone, and we continued to get to know each other more. We asked about each other’s families and what part of Mexico they are from, and she asked about being a Latina at TCU. At one point in the conversation, I said to her, “we have to stick together!” Thankfully, we have. In these past two years, I have tried my best to support her as she navigates graduate school by giving her advice, listening when she is struggling, and being a friend. 

Find Your People: Collaboration as Catharsis 

As mentioned earlier, the drive to differentiate ourselves in order to be a marketable commodity is conditioned deeply into the minds of graduate students. In our earlier narratives, we shared our negative collaborative experiences that felt driven by competition. However, if developed in healthier, mutually beneficial ways, collaboration can not only produce work we would not have created in solitude, but it can relieve stress and burnout and help us cultivate our distinct voices. Andrea Lunsford and Lisa Ede affirm these benefits as they reflect on their years of collaboration when they say, “In our experience, the act of writing together and seeking ‘identification’ allows us to better see ourselves as distinct. As a result, we have felt free to experiment in writing together, aiming for a seamless voice in one piece . . . and for clearly demarcated but communicating voices in another” (5). Collaboration is like any relationship; it can provide catharsis if you choose the right partner. 

The difference between our collaborative experiences with other colleagues and this specific project is that we already had a close friendship prior to working on this article. We knew that we were both struggling with our mental health, so even though this opportunity meant one more thing on our plates, we both happily accepted the opportunity to collaborate because it would help us combat burnout and the institution, grow in our friendship, and work towards publication. Our work together in this project truly embodies Meeks and Hult’s objectives for collaboration which are, “Working in partnership, co-mentors empower one another, work as pro-active agents, and enter into a more holistic relationship rooted in a common goal. In this way, co-mentoring takes this concept of power over found in traditional mentorships and transforms it into power with” (qtd. in “Asserting the Right to Belong” 179). Through this article, we were both able to achieve our common goals of publishing an article concerning the mental health of graduate students and sharing our experiences of co-mentorship, collaboration, and relationship building in the hopes that it can help other graduate students. 


Although we argue for considering collaboration as a tool to combat burnout and institutional pressures, we are not suggesting that collaboration is a cure for either. We understand that burnout is a mental health condition caused by many stressors, some of which are imposed on us by our institutions. We also recognize that the institution is rooted in colonial and capitalist structures, making it difficult for change. However, as graduate students, we should consider how collaboration can be used towards coalition building in order to navigate our programs, contribute to knowledge-making, and combat the structures of our institutions — all of which can result in a positive effect on our mental health. In our experiences with collaborating for this article, we found collaboration to be an effective method to discuss these topics, grow in our friendship, and help other graduate students recognize why and how graduate programs have such an impact on one’s mental health.  

Building coalitions, whether through mentorship, collaborative writing, or in other forms, allows us to reclaim agency over our education and do things on our own terms, not how the institution wants it. Lunsford and Ede speak to that agency in their collaboration by saying, “our writing together has given us a stronger sense of our own stylistic proclivities, our own ways of thinking, knowing, writing, organizing, and revising” (4-5). We soon learned that we each have our own unique writing styles and ways of thinking which helped us grow as writers together. Collaboration and (co)mentorship allow for graduate students to challenge dominant practices within our institutions, such as knowledge gatekeeping, competition, and burnout. Without these relationships to intervene and work to dismantle the system, graduate school will continue to function as the colonial, capitalistic, and patriarchal machine as it is intended. 

Works Cited 

 Allen, Hannah K., et al. “Graduate Student Burnout: Substance Use, Mental Health, and the Moderating Role of Advisor Satisfaction.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, vol. 20, no. 1, 2022, pp. 1130-1146. 

Doe, Sue, et al. “What the Students Taught the Teacher in a Graduate Autoethnography Class.” Self+Culture+Writing: Autoethnography for/as Writing Studies, edited by Rebecca L. Jackson and Jackie Grutsch McKinney, UP of Utah State, 2021, pp. 136-148. 

Evans, Teresa M., Lindsay Bira, Jasmin Beltram Gastelum, L. Todd Weiss, and Nathan L. Vanderford. “Evidence for a Mental Health Crisis in Graduate Education.” Nat Biotechnology, vol. 36, 282–284 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089 

Fine, Michelle. Just Research in Contentious Times: Widening the Methodological Imagination. Teachers College Press, 2018. 

Godbee, Beth. “The Trauma of Graduate Education.” Inside Higher Ed, 08 July 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/07/09/how-trauma-affects-grad-students-their-career-search-opinion# 

Godbee, Beth, and Julia C. Novotny. “Asserting the Right to Belong: Feminist Co-Mentoring among Graduate Student Women.” Feminist Teacher, vol. 23, no. 3, 2013, pp. 177–95. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.5406/femteacher.23.3.0177.  

Lunsford, Andrea A. and Lisa Ede. Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 

Patel, Leigh. Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability. Routledge, 2016. 

—. No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education. Beacon Press, 2021. 

Ribero, Ana Milena and Sonia C. Arellano, “Advocating Comadrismo: A Feminist Mentoring Approach for Latinas in Rhetoric and Composition.” Peitho, vol. 21, no. 2, 2019. https://cfshrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/RiberoArellano_IV_Advocating-Comadrismo-2.pdf 

Walker, Kelsie, et al. “Graduate Student Bodies On The Periphery.” Our Body Of Work: Embodied Administration And Teaching, edited by Melissa Nicolas and Anna Sicari, University Press of Colorado, 2022, pp. 97–109. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2vt04mk.14. 


Because We Already Are Legitimate: Feminist Coalition Building among Graduate and Undergraduate Students to Counter Patriarchal, White, Heteronormative ‘Expertise’

Our research team was formed in the Winter of 2022 as a continuing research initiative that was developed to incorporate student voice in assessment research. As our primary task, we worked under university assessment specialists to craft a research agenda where we developed student-centered inquiries around assessment and learning, trained our undergraduate partners in data collection and analysis, and reported our findings across academic spaces. We started as a traditional, top-down hierarchical research team, where expertise and power came with title and authority. Our team, composed of two Writing Studies graduate students and two interdisciplinary undergraduate student-researchers, worked to meet our primary funding purpose, but soon began to understand our group differently as we explored the complexities of relationship-building and activist work in academia through our unique methodology of participant-centered research and peer-to-peer mentoring in our writing. The call for our research became more personal, the stakes of the group became more important, and our team fortified to support what we felt was our new central mission: fighting the perception of who was deemed appropriate and legitimate in academic research. Here, our coalition formed.  

Over the last three years, across two separate research inquiries, we have worked to build a horizontal mentorship model that intentionally challenges the traditional academic default of who is worthy and capable. In other words, we actively decenter heteronormativity, whiteness, and patriarchal practices through our research and writing, emphasizing our diverse perspectives as a group who negotiates a multitude of identities, along with our precarious roles as both undergraduate and graduate students. While each team member exists in a more perilous position in the university than the last, we have rejected the traditional power structures often handed down in research teams, embracing our liminality as both a means of adding much-needed perspective in empirical research and highlighting the obscured power of living on the edges of academia. Individually, we have each felt conditionally accepted to the university and academic world and were unable to see our liminal positions as places of possibility; however, through our coalition building we could act as a dynamic unit of perspective and expertise. Together, we were already legitimate.  

In our effort to look past legitimacy as a construct of academia and gatekeeping barrier, we join others (e.g., Morris, Rule, and LaVecchia) in challenging the notion of “conditionally accepted” (Grollman) members of academia through coalition building. As a concept, conditional acceptance captures the experience of being pushed to the margins of higher education largely due to the perceived status associated with personal identity. In practice, our team is determined to disrupt the patriarchal heteronormative domination of research, writing, and legitimacy by drawing on non-hierarchical forms of mentorship (VanHaitsma and Ceraso) to build coalition in hostile academic environments, research from non-traditional viewpoints, and write in ways that value and honor our varying positionalities. Specifically, we draw on coalition building as a necessary feminist and intersectional practice to form a group that demands that we do not need to erase pieces of identity to add valuable, thoughtful work to academia.  

In the following, we detail our experiences as liminal players in academia, graduate students and undergraduates, with a vast array of historically othered identities, to describe how we work against academic gatekeeping in both the institutional and national context. We argue that through building coalitions across our distinctive identities, each facet of our personhood is undeniably found in how we frame the contexts of our research and our writing. Our research focuses on how marginalized groups on-campus are impacted by inequitable curricular design; because of this, our coalition building is essential to carve out space in often-gate kept sectors of academia and ensure that we highlight traditionally silenced voices. In other words, our coalition building allows us to reject the need to “legitimize” ourselves in the eyes of academia, embrace our positionality, and fortify against gatekeeping forces to add new voices to writing practices and research.   

Building Coalition, Finding Power in Liminality  

In building our coalition, we often ask ourselves: how can we ensure that our personal histories intersect with one another in a way that is mutually responsive as we come together in addressing these inequities, especially while we exist on the edges of legitimacy in our positions? To this end, we forward the work of Black Feminist scholars on intersectionality and horizontal mentoring throughout our conscious effort in developing the foundational model of our coalition building. Building from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, Patricia Hill Collins extends the conversation via her examination of the “matrix of oppression” and how we can transcend barriers of domination that impede coalition-building (18). Therefore, we believe that coalition is centered around building bridges and forming connections, despite differences, in order to act in a way that acknowledges the convergence of race, gender, and class on personhood (Glenn and Lunsford; Crenshaw; Collins); we also extend coalition to include bridge building across positionality, coupling the concept of coalition with the need for horizontal mentoring as forwarded by Pamela VanHaitsma and Steph Ceraso. While VanHaitsma and Ceraso speak from positions of academia as tenure-track faculty, their insistence on including the perspectives and voices of those in the process of “making it” is central to our coalition. Our team, certainly, is in the very midst of that process. Loren enters their senior year as an undergraduate; Mik has graduated and is beginning to apply to graduate school; Mikenna is working on their qualifying exams; Jennifer is finishing their dissertation. In this sense, our team extends beyond our academic responsibilities and gives significant weight to how our individual backgrounds impact our academic identities while we continue to refine our practice of building an intersectional coalition.  

We begin with trust in shared ideology. Loren and Mik were chosen by former undergraduate members of the research team due to their mutual desire to amplify underrepresented voices in higher education assessment research. This shared desire was crucial to the initial stages of our relationship-building as our coalition had not yet fully formed. As with other types of budding relationships, it was necessary that our partnership was founded on mutual ideology. VanHaitsma and Ceraso underscore how “talking with someone who shares our experiences may offer crucial space for validation and support” (VanHaitsma and Ceraso 216). We met virtually on a weekly basis as our main source of communication. At first, Loren and Mik were hesitant to take space in meetings and found it difficult to overcome traditional feelings of hierarchical workplace relationships due to their positionality as undergraduates. Over time, our research team’s interpersonal dynamic quickly evolved into an organic structure that favored non-hierarchical membership and operated largely on trust and compassion, largely due to our personal commitments to the topic. Because we were able to relate to the research impetus through our individual experiences with marginalization and liminality, we were able to carve an open space for our whole selves in the research endeavor.  

In these meetings, we made intentional space to reflect on our experiences as first-generation students or people of color in the classroom, speaking to our lived experience and how these moments might influence and impact our research. Kathryn M. Lambrecht describes the necessity of sharing burdens in student hood wherein “the more students know about other students having similar struggles, the more likely they are to feel a sense of solidarity with their peers” (Lambrecht 147).  We found this to be fundamental to our cohort’s non-hierarchical development. As our collaborative relationship deepened, we were more open to sharing our uncertainties and fears as marginal members in academia deriving from various experiences in our lives. This cemented our trust as we learned to maneuver through vulnerability during our conversations about ourselves and, later, with our participants. We were able to bring this vulnerability to our interviews and focus groups, providing other undergraduates with an open place to describe what it meant to be non-white or first generation or low income in the walls of a highly selective higher education institution. In each of these conversations, we also make a conscious effort to discuss non-academic happenings in our lives. Our work, although important, is only a fragment of our lives.  

We then center our personal and collective missions through our research agenda and methods. As scholars of color, Mik and Loren operate within an academic space that falls within Carmen Kynard’s definition of a “damn-near-all-white institution” (188). It is through the lack of the institution’s proximity to authentic anti-racist BIPOC scholarship that feelings of ‘othering’ manifests. How can we expect BIPOC scholarship to excel in spaces that have shown performative effort to actively enlist their perspectives? As assessment researchers, we follow scholars like Asao Inoue who argue that assessment is inextricably linked to the hegemonic “racial habitus” wherein students of color are held to a standardized metric of whiteness throughout their education. Assessment has disproportionately disadvantaged students that do not fit the status quo: students of color, first-generation, low income, queer-identifying, etc.– all of which are overlapping identities of our team members. Rachel Daugherty suggests that telling one’s story can construct the maintenance of intersectional feminist scholarship through the deliberate cultivation of safe spaces for diverse perspectives. Therefore, we elect to prioritize the historically othered students’ perspectives in our research methodology. It is through our conversational-style dialogue with undergraduates with similar backgrounds that we gain significant insight into which assessment practices are widely viewed as disproportionately unjust by eliciting much more nuanced and genuine responses. Notably, we found that participants were usually eager to share negative academic experiences signifying the unspoken camaraderie between their shared positionality as students. This was observed via participant responses that are typical of casual exchanges between friends, using both slang and expletives to emphasize their frustration with the university’s assessment practices. For example, a participant described their interactions with faculty as “shady” to evoke the depth of untrustworthiness between themselves and the predominantly white faculty. Another participant described a professor’s intimidating behavior as “gaslighting the hell out of [them]” when they requested greater support on course content.  

To further express solidarity with participants, we offer our coalition’s main practice of cultivating space for marginalized students by sharing personal anecdotes with our participants derived from our own academic journeys; a practice we describe as iterative-member checking (Burke Reifman, White, and Kalish), which reflects elements of critical race theory’s practice of counterstory (e.g., Martinez; Yosso). Our livelihoods are not monolithic by any means, but we often encounter cultural and racial similarities that contextualize our understanding of their experiences. For instance, Mik would detail their insecurities as a transfer student who had felt out-of-place in comparison to their peers who attended the university directly from high school. Mik’s story encouraged one participant to describe their mutual insecurity as an older transfer student who did not “want to seem stupid” as all their peers seemingly understood the material with ease. The two then talked about overcoming their anxieties of asking for academic support, exchanging resources and advice that abated their transition from community college. Thus, iterative member-checking encourages intuitive connections with our participants because we are able to deconstruct their responses with critical nuance that may not be reflected by researchers who do not share the same lived experiences. To a greater extent, we want to ensure that we foster an academic environment that offers marginalized groups the ability to voice their concerns without fear of ‘being othered,’ largely because we have lived in this fear.  

We continue to build coalitions through our temporal positions. While “student” is often code for “inexperienced” or “uninitiated,” we also acknowledge the power in the liminal nature of this label. All of us, as we progress in our studies, will inevitably abandon the student label and the institution in which we exist as students. We recognize this temporal status as one that can offer us more promise for coalition building that extends past institutional borders. Namely, we know that pushing against these institutional boundaries may burn local capital; further, we know that this local capital can be burnt because it will not travel. In no way do we see our temporality as an excuse for indignance, but rather, we seek to reclaim liminality as a space for experimentation and for pushing against well-established mechanisms of subjugation built and maintained by the institutions we currently reside in. In this vein, we call on scholars like Lambrecht who have advocated for viewing liminality and emerging “expertise not as a deficit but as a potential source of agency” (134). Our research is then an act of resistance that lives outside the walls of a singular institution and the larger power hierarchies prescribed by higher education.  

Coalition Enacted through Collaborative Writing 

Our trust, shared mission, and devotion to empowering ourselves are reified and manifested in how we approach our writing tasks. Ashanka Kumari, Sweta Baniya, and Kyle Larson posit that “[t]raditional academic genres alone are insufficient in building praxis necessary for responding to institutionalized inequities.” We agree, and further contend that traditional, top-down co-authoring processes are insufficient in addressing institutional inequities. As writing tasks make up a huge portion of our responsibilities as a research coalition, we have developed a strategic research methodology that works to honor all our voices (Burke Reifman, White, and Kalish) that has resulted in empirical articles that allow student voices to be centered in research (Burke Reifman, Sims, Penarroyo, and Torres). Specifically, our co-authorship model relies on the framework of collaborative, horizontal mentorship. Critical work on mentorship notes how, despite its many benefits, mentorship “too often becomes deprioritized, professionalized, and reinscribes power hierarchies” (Singh and Mathews 1703). In enacting our coalition, we actively work against reproducing such mentoring hierarchies by leaning into one another’s strengths as varying writers positioned across a wide spectrum of abilities. In this sense, we consider ourselves flexible learners offering guidance to one another, while simultaneously receiving it. 

When we first came together, our discussion was largely pragmatic. We provided basic introductions to one another during which we discovered a significant overlap between our academic positionalities ─ Jennifer and Mikenna hailing from the same program, and Mik and Loren pursuing an undergraduate degree within the same discipline. Jennifer, who has led previous cohorts, then provided a brief overview of our team’s ongoing research projects to get Mikenna, Mik, and Loren up to date. New to the practice of research, Mik and Loren were hesitant to participate, offering tidbits of feedback here and there. As undergraduates, Mik and Loren were initially less confident in their capacity to contribute meaningful work because of their perceived “lower status” on the academic ladder. As scholars of color, they must contend with preconceived notions of being seen as illegitimate in comparison to their white peers and the status quo (Pittman; Buchanan and Dotson). The effects of structural racism commonly manifest in impostor syndrome or feelings of incompetence, despite excelling academically otherwise (Peteet et al.).  

The meetings were initially quiet and even rote– we moved through the motions. Over shared time and through vulnerable conversations where we developed trust and fortified our shared mission of our research, we began to evolve. To collectively reject the notion of impostor syndrome and recognize it as a product of structural racism and misogyny, we slowly, yet consciously eliminated the prospects of ascribed expertise. Meeting by meeting, the agenda became a group endeavor, the writing projects were broken up equally, and the direction of the team was a group decision. This development became most apparent in our writing, where we were able to clearly abdicate a traditional hierarchical structure, and as a group, we lean into a reflexive manner of reviewing one another’s writing.  

Today, Mik and Loren take on a much more active role as researchers, taking the lead on multiple publications and proposals. They will bring calls for conferences and writing projects to the group with plans and purpose in mind, they help to adapt methodologies and research pursuits using their experience as students, and they use writing as a vehicle for their voices. With substantial experience and guidance, they also feel fully equipped to offer insight to contemporary attitudes, language, and behaviors of undergraduate student participants; critical nuance that we deem necessary to better serve the community we research and represent.  

As our coalition’s practices solidified and our criticality came to the forefront, our team found that existing in an academic space that seeks to address inequities in higher academia inevitably creates discomfort. Our discomfort exists within the confines of disclosure due to its exploitative nature (see Donegan for a description of how disclosure is compounded by liminality). Rusty Bartels emphasizes the duality of how “the ‘unknowable’ that disclosure seeks to make ‘known’ can also be a point of danger, a necessity, and a price to pay” (Bartels). We harbor identities that higher academia often draws on to incorporate marginalized identities into their institution without offering material support to sustain their livelihoods. To circumvent this, our team has found comfort in the inclusive “we” pronoun throughout our writing practice. “We” allows us to exist as a singular, but united entity without disclosing any intimate details about our respective selves that can be used to exploit us. At the same time, we acknowledge how disclosure can be a liberating and meaningful experience. In this collection, we have chosen to disclose the composition of identities that the team represents. It is through our writing practices that our coalition can manifest in a tangible form. 

The Barrier: “Diversity” 

The use of the inclusive pronoun marks our existence in hostile waters. For those arriving with identities outside the white, cishet, middle class norm, we often find a sense of conditional acceptance, a term defined by Eric Anthony Grollman. As Grollman contends, conditional acceptance impacts those with historically ancillary identities and speaks to “the feeling of being accepted in the academy on the condition that one does little to challenge the academic status quo.” As a team, we hold a myriad of intersecting identities that compound in marginalization and conditional acceptance. We represent proud first-generation identities, working together to counter the othering feelings of “figuring out” school and the pressure from our families to do something great in academia, despite the othering of our low-income, blue-collar upbringings. We represent a multitude of queer identities, from genderqueer to non-hetero sexualities that feel easy to hide and obscure in the academic world. Parts of our group identify as people of color, calling on the inherent power of their families’ immigration stories and cultural identities to persist in historically white spaces. Conversely, part of our team exists as white women, who must acknowledge, confront, and challenge this inherent privilege throughout our work. Our abdication of power authority seeks to decenter our whiteness, knowing that we cannot make claims for social, racial justice without the implicit reproduction of social injustice through unchecked centering of whiteness. Our coalition also honors the myriad powers of womanhood in establishing our political solidarity, drawing from bell hooks’ framework of feminist activism wherein we are compelled by the “need to do more research and writing about the barriers that separate us and the ways we can overcome such separation” as we center our research on the experiences of underrepresented groups (56). Finally, we all come from the liminal space of studenthood; while in various stages, graduate, undergraduate, transitioning to graduate school, our diverse social identities are further amplified by our student statuses. 

Intersectional feminist scholarship has long recounted the multitude of ways that “socially constructed categories of identity” (Harold, Prock, and Groden, 2) intersect and change depending on the environment you find yourself in. In this sense, we join others in finding that academic identity and status act as an extension of oneself. These statuses then carry certain presumptions due to the way status can become synonymous with an individual’s externally perceived value. In this, our marginalized social identities are further compounded by the precarity of student status (see Banville, Das, Davis, Durazzi, Dsouza, Gresbinnk, Kalodner-Martin, and Stambler for more on this experience). In our experience, the word “student” is meticulously adorned onto our titles to preface “academic researcher” for the sole purpose of differentiating our team from more “legitimate” forms of work created by non-student researchers. Our institution can then satiate its desire to claim innovative diversity and promote itself as a hub for marginal perspectives while offering minimal contributions to the actual labor we undertake on its behalf. As Sara Ahmed reminds us, institutions often allocate resources and therefore the responsibility of diversity initiatives on individuals, despite the drain on the individual and the inherent creation of hierarchy in this approach (253). 

As a result of these many liminal identities, our research team’s perceived value radically shifts depending on the academic environment we operate in and the goals of that environment. In this, the institution has held us up as diversity incarnate and touts our work as instrumental to equity in one space and then, delegitimizes our work as “student” driven and “special interest” in the next. Like others, we have experienced the celebration of our diversity as a group as ornamental. Sarah Dwyer helps us understand the “for-show” diversity in the utilization of “nondiscrimination statements, diversity policies, and Safe Space stickers” to frame “diverse bodies as objects for institutions to acquire and display” (33). We are the safe space stickers, touted at meetings and in emails as a “diverse group of student researchers.”  

In this way, we are everything the academy wants on paper. We represent many of the identities that higher education has traditionally and systematically pushed aside yet seek to highlight in diversity initiatives; we work hard, and sometimes for free; we bring our otherness to the research moment as assets, countering years of educational trauma around these identities; and we show up for the institution, articulate in the ways they demand and ever willing to prove our “worth”. We are the “diversity champions” that the institution has called on (Ahmed 253). Yet, we live on the margins of acceptance for our actual work, fighting for minimum wage pay, begging for audiences with those who decide our funding, and having our work obscured as just a “diversity initiative.” In other words, while we publish, research, present, secure grants, and move through all the appropriate academic gateways for legitimacy, we are almost always reduced to our diverse identities, which are couched in student hood, rather than the products of our efforts. Martinez, in her counterstory, also describes how “‘diversity” takes on the form of hospitality,” where diverse identities are accommodated, but never truly taken in the fold (224). Thus, we can understand our position as a diverse research team in two different ways: (1) as a corporate signifier of institutional diversity, or (2) as a disruptive coalition that actively creates space for historically underrepresented groups in academia. 

As a research team largely concerned with contextualizing undergraduate perspectives on their assessment, we understand the significance of how our personal ideologies inform our work. Our equity-centered research team, as self-described in previous publications (Burke Reifman, White, and Kalish), must be careful to maintain a particular academic environment in lieu of establishing problematic dichotomies that serve a traditionalist oppressive hierarchy. We understand operating within higher academia as navigating through a historically rigid nexus of settler colonialism (Patel). Through this, we continue to act as both institutional signifiers and disruptors in our work. We hold the qualifying titles they have given us, yet we do the work we want to. 

Nonetheless, academia continues to make calls for diversity and facilitate conversations on inclusion and equity without doing the work to remove conditional acceptance.  In other words, diversity policies and initiatives act as a thin bandage over deeply rooted structural inequities that value white, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle-class bodies more than others. While we feel the effects of these competing values throughout our work, we band together to build a coalition and privilege our personal mission, to the best we can, over the institution’s desired view of us as “diversity champions.”  

The Double-Edged Sword, Free Labor, and Agency  

The coalition we have worked to build through our horizontal approach to mentorship remains dedicated to our work of removing the default heteronormative, white, patriarchal lens to research and writing; instead of accepting this norm, we work as a group to incorporate an array of perspectives and academic experiences in empirical research. However, despite our best efforts and many successes, our research coalition will no longer be funded by our institution in the following academic year. We are immensely saddened by their decision to terminate the funding of our program, even more by the unwillingness of well-meaning individuals who could not articulate our value to administrators. In fact, we were referenced as an “independent program,” a phrase that carries the implication that our actions did not align with our organization’s expectations.  

Kelsie Walker, Morgan Gross, Paula Weinman, Hayat Bedaiwi, and Alyssa McGrath rightfully remind us that speaking about the conditions of student hood is dangerous and that our “bodies bear the high cost of complacency” in these systems of unjustness (108). We speak about these conditions here, knowing the possible consequences, and we bear the weariness of the experience in our bodies. Be that as it may, we wholeheartedly stand by our decision to deviate from conventional expectations of operation. Within the short span of a year, our team’s outright rejection of their proposed standardized schema has demonstrated the material and psychological benefits of training undergraduates as researchers and academic writers in their own right. Our collaborative model sanctioned vulnerability as we learned to reconcile our varied positionalities in conscious coalition-building efforts through co-authorship. Through our collective efforts, we found that the active creation of community is crucial to the success and well-being of not only our identities as students, but to our overall personhood as marginalized actors. For this reason, we plan to continue our assessment research regardless of funding with the intention of expanding our purview to larger participant pools and audiences.  

Unfortunately, the continuation of this work outside of institutional funding does necessitate the act of free labor, which presents its own challenges. Like others, we contend all academic labor must be paid due to its remarkable contribution to cultural work and its implications for future working conditions within universities (Allmer; Tennant). Unpaid labor also carries greater risk; it does not guarantee us any immediate tangible benefit compounded by the basic fact that we must function under a capitalist system. After all, we must provide for our respective households and must also be wary of the burden of time and energy we shoulder to commit to this research. Alexis Pauline Gumbs thoughtfully reminds us that “The university is not about the preservation of a bright brown body. The university will use me alive and use me dead.” To continue this labor, we must acknowledge the certainty in which the university will take any given opportunity to co-opt our labor as another shiny diverse commodity, while offering no material means to support our livelihoods.  

However, as each of us transitions outside of our current institution, we feel secure in our capacity to supplement the conceptual framework and methodologies we find valuable. It is an inherent amalgamation of marginalized experiences that deserve to be amplified and given the same respect as White bodies in higher academia. For us, our act of free labor is an act of resilience, creating impact and space for future generations of marginalized researchers. We hope our work will challenge who can speak on research and complicate the purposes of that research. In this sense, we have the power to disrupt performative measures of university-forward diversity initiatives and, instead, facilitate meaningful relationships with underserved communities through our work, leveraging liminality as a productive tool. After all, higher education tells us they want diversity, and they want to hear the voices of historically disenfranchised groups—so we write together to deliver that, and we operate on the understanding and steadfast belief that our words and experiences deserve and need to be shared. Most of all, we assert that we are, in fact, legitimate.  


We would like to acknowledge the significant contributions made by our shared first authors, Jennifer Burke Reifman and Mik Penarroyo. The pair worked closely throughout the entire writing process, engaging their respective graduate and undergraduate positionalities to complete this project, as such they are sharing first author position. We would additionally like to thank Mikenna Modesto, a member of the team, for their time on this project.   


Works Cited 

Allmer, Thomas. “Academic Labour, Digital Media and Capitalism.” Critical Sociology, vol. 45, no. 4–5, 2019, pp. 599–615, doi:10.1177/0896920517735669. 

Ahmed, Sara. “The Language of Diversity.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007, pp. 253-256. 

Banville, Morgan, et al. “Identity, Agency, and Precarity: Considerations of Graduate Students in Technical Communication.” Programmatic Perspectives, vol. 12, no. 2, 2021, pp. 76-96. 

Bartels, Rusty. “Navigating Disclosure in a Critical Trans Pedagogy” Peitho: Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric & Composition, vol. 22, no. 4, 2020. 

Burke Reifman, Jennifer, Mahalia White, and Leah Kalish. “Students as Researchers and Participants: A Model of Iterative Member-Checking for Inclusive, Equity-Centered Assessment Research.” Intersection: A Journal at the Intersection of Assessment and Learning, vol. 3, no. 1, 2022.  

Burke Reifman, Jennifer, Mikenna Sims, Mik Penarroyo, and Loren Torres. “Investigating Student Confusion and Self-Efficacy with SLOs to Support Student Learning.” The Learning Assistance Review, vol. 28, no. 1, 2023. 

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Harper Collins, 1990. 

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Coalition Building against Anti-Asian Racism: Interweaving Stories of Transnational Asian/American Feminist Survivance


This article discusses transnational Asian/American[1] women writing scholar-activists’ coalition building against anti-Asian violence. The increasing violence against Asian/American communities in the United States and beyond in recent years has spurred coalition building efforts to amplify Asian communities’ voices that denounce colonial, white supremacist ideologies. We reflect on our own coalition building and struggles, to theorize our labor of building community, solidarity, and (dis)connectivity against colonial and anti-Asian violence as “a set of historical conditions involving . . . our bodies” (Tang) that we inherited as transnational Asian/American women writing scholar-activists in the United States. As Black feminists have long argued, coalition building is crucial in Black and other oppressed communities’ liberation (Browdy et al; the Combahee River Collective; Jones). Calling for community-based collective knowing, working, and acting against oppressions, the Combahee River Collective has demonstrated and emphasized centering love and intersectional struggles for Black women, while remaining in solidarity with other oppressed communities for their liberation. Such work demands acknowledging how people, things, and ideologies are interrelated (Jones), and “center[ing] the voices of feminists of color who are doing the work to ensure our futures” (Pough and Jones). Uptaking Pough and Jones’s calls, we share our coalitional work for futures where our multilingual and BIPOC communities can thrive (Cooper; Ore et al.).   

Our work that centers our own lived experiences and coalitional work as Asian/American women is not new, as shown by other Asian/American students’ and women’s intersectional organizing and activism (Dziuba; Hong; Monberg; Tang). Extending this strand of work, we ask: What does our labor of coalition building look like and consist of in our transnational Asian/American women scholars’ work/life? What imposes, sustains, or stalls this labor? We answer these questions through autoethnography (Chang; Jackson and Grutsch McKinney) to historicize our work against colonial and anti-Asian violence in community, classroom, and other transnational spaces. As many Indigenous scholars have argued, advancing the world against colonial violence necessitates different relations, imaginations, and stances (King et al.; Riley-Mukavetz; Smith). Examining our “anticolonial stances . . . [of] being in relation with each other but for survivance” (Patel 8), we adopt Rhee Jeong-eun’s notion of “affective connectivity” (17). Then, we discuss how we cultivated a space to write and interweave stories of our lived experiences across different contexts to make visible affective connectivity, or what we call 울림 (ullim, resonance in Korean), within and outside our stories. We conclude by discussing tensions and reflections in building coalitional work. 

Affective Connectivity for Coalition Building  

Our discussion and praxis of coalition building and survivance[2] is guided by Rhee’s notion of affective connectivity. Rhee theorizes affective connectivity as decolonial [3] feminist methodology in its emphasis on: 

  1. affective work, 
  2. particularity,  
  3. non-linear knowledge-making, and  
  4. connectivity from her own past mother and other mothers (thereby “m/others”) (17-26). 

Working through the “haunting” (Gordon) memories of/about her late mother, Rhee forwards a way of knowing from “rememory” (Morrison)—remembering and recollecting what has been forgotten and learned anew. Challenging the Western notion of a bounded “self,” disconnected from “others” and their memories, Rhee poses, “Who we are and become is the work of rememory, a different way of being/knowing/doing that recollects our ghostly connections, relations, and connectivity across geographies, culture, time, and language” (20). This way, the notion of affective connectivity views a self always in connection to others and their onto-temporal-epistemologies.  

Affective connectivity then requires affective work. As noted earlier, Black feminists have emphasized the interconnectedness and interrelatedness in coalition building. In her discussion of coalitional learning for justice, Natasha Jones notes the importance of being “attuned to issues of power, privilege, and positionality while actively pursuing options for addressing and redressing inequities and oppressions” (519). Rhee similarly encourages us to trace our own haunting memories, connect them to others, and understand our relation to these hauntings: “To be haunted is to notice us linked” (24). This “haunted engagement” (21) also means to “notice what we are trained not to notice” (3) in the Western academy, attending to invisible ghosts that offer ullim yet do not “exist” for others, and therefore, must be proven otherwise, for their veritable reality.    

As a Korean American woman, migrant, daughter, and scholar, Rhee emphasizes the connectivity of particulars (21). She notes how the Western notion of the individual “self” frames her and her mother’s being, knowing, and doing as “too particular to be in as academic knowledge” (48). Against the wall of knowledge that delegitimizes the particulars, she stays “neither Korean nor American, neither feminist nor not feminist, [but] something in between,” and “transgresses the wall” (47) through writing her mother’s memory of “unresolved regret and mourning for … intergenerational trauma” or (han, “a collective feeling of grief that Koreans … have inherited … as a result of a long history of injustice”) (35).  

Affective connectivity requires a relational recursive memory work that defies the linear and disconnected view of time and space. As Rhee draws on Morrison’s work, rememory is an act of remembering and forgetting simultaneously, actively remembering and re-collecting haunting memories. For transnational migrants, this work of cyclical “back and forth” recalls multiple bodies across multiple temporalities and spaces. Rhee asks:    

When you start to rememory not just your mother’s story but your m/others’ stories so that they become your mothers, what kind of a different being or connection can you become? Whose rememory have you bumped into in the place where it happened? Why and which rememories do matter? Then, what kind of different transnational and decolonial feminist accounts can we tell: “as an account of oneself with and through others, connecting my experience with the experience of others” (Ahmed, 2017, p. 30). (20-21) 

Rememory works to connect feminist bodies to m/others’ bodies, histories, and colonial violence. As discussed later, our coalition building and survivance too was shaped by different people across multiple borders that we have crossed knowingly and unknowingly and that caught us in between. Accordingly, how we understand our own feminist inheritance across separated yet co-existing worlds in our transnational lives orients us to our coalition building and survivance differently. This way, our coalition work looks both inward and outward, to the past and future, as we learn from Black, Indigenous, and other Women of Color scholars.  

If affective connectivity works through haunting and rememory, how does this remembering contribute to coalition building or survivance? Rhee argues, “feminist telling other feminist stories is a way to chart both the possibility and evidence of decolonial feminists’ intergenerational and transnational knowledge project” (21). As a scholar working and living on the stolen land, we pose that solidarity building between/as transnational Asian/American scholars must recognize and attend to Indigenous rhetorics and their strategies named survivance. Remembering “other mothers’” bodies, we return to the notion of survivance to understand intergenerational histories of other feminists, and work to avoid fetishizing difference. 

Tensions and “Headaches” in Transnational Feminist Survivance 

The notion of survivance has importantly guided us to inquire and envision our activist coalition building. Coined by Gerald Vizenor, survivance refers to “an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories” (Vizenor vii). Viewed as a way of “reimagining the possibilities for existence and ironic identity within Native communities” and “a scholarly relationship to writings by Indian peoples” (Powell 401), survivance illuminates Indigenous communities’ knowledge and rhetorical practice of “survival and resistance together” against the “marginalizing, colonial narratives and policies” (King et al. 7). As transnational settlers, thinking of our coalition building in connection to survivance engendered tensions. While transnationality denotes ways of practicing varied affiliations beyond one nation-state, it can recenter whiteness, flattening different positionalities of those displaced, enslaved, and genocided (Fujiwara and Roshanravan 6; Kimoto 145). As privileged migrants who came to this land by choice, we are complicit in the colonial violence that occupied Indigenous land, enmeshed in the “cacophony” (Byrd xvii) resulting from the United States settler colonialism and imperialism with incommensurable interests and differences (Tuck and Yang). 

We use our privileged transnational positionality to take up Patel’s (2016) call for “acts of a collective countering of coloniality” (9). In doing so, we find Rhee’s dwelling in the cacophony between her and her mother as a productive way to attend to the tensions or “headaches” (Rankine 61, qtd. in Rhee 26). Rhee asks:  

Yet, what my mother did not know was that the place she wanted her daughter to settle in … is a wake of slavery, genocide, and its afterlives, which are still unfolding. How did she not hear about herstories of this land? History is full of stories of the American Dream, democracy, equality, progress, freedom, and hope: that quintessential American story—my parents/I sacrificed everything to come to this country to give us/children an opportunity. Yet, how do you notice only an opportunity, not how the (white America’s) opportunity depends on “looting and violence” (Coates, 2015, p. 6), including the destructive condition and structure of your/parents’ sacrifice? (26)  

Her questioning shows a possibility of working with “haunting” memories as not only feminist work but also decolonial feminist work (11). While we do not claim affective connectivity always leads to decoloniality, it alerts us to examine how we recognize and connect to the “haunting” in the very site where the “headaches” begin. In other words, transnational feminist survivance for “countering of coloniality” can emerge through affective connectivity practices. As our narratives demonstrate, this inward and outward coalitional work entails “headaches,” unstability, and unsettled bodies. 

Activism Contexts and Methods 

In sharing our survivance stories, we adopt autoethnography (Chang; Jackson and Grutsch McKinney) to resist self/culture, Black/White, and academy/community binaries and “[list] . . . certain key events, themes, memes, traumas, and metaphors” (Monberg et al.). Rather than starting with a particular “theory” or “framework,” our stories started from 쪽글 (jjokgeul)—the kind of short, descriptive, reflective, messy freewriting—to center our lived experiences of transnational survivance. Once we wrote our individual narratives, we took time to read and annotate on each other’s work following our senses of ullim, that is, our resonance or affective reaction to each other’s (trans)languaging and labor practices. We repeated this process twice more, which drove us to develop our jjokgeuls in different ways that we had not expected. This way, our writing was not a static representation of our lived experiences but a dialogic reflection on and (re)connection to our own and each other’s experience. We presented our preliminary stories at the 2023 CCCC, and we continued to reflect on tensions, limitations, and possibilities in our stories for this article. 


In illustrating our labor of survivance for coalition building, we pay attention to how this labor shapes our praxis as a writing scholar-educator-activist, and what sustains or stalls this labor. Our coalition building has recursively affirmed our own survivance strategies, while expanding our ways of being, knowing, doing, feeling, and teaching language and writing.  

Eunjeong: Remembering and Centering Racialized Multilingual Communities’ Embodied Translanguaging for Answerability  

“[H]ow do I write we’re moving to the next door?” My mom texted me like usual during my doctoral exam. She was immensely proud of moving to a slightly bigger restaurant after being gentrified out of a booming town in Texas a while ago. “Starting [blank], [the restaurant] is moving to a bigger facility to better serve you!!” “You need to put the date in ‘Starting [blank]’ so people know when you move.” I was proud of my White Mainstream English that I learned at a Predominantly White Institution. My fancy English was supposed to make my first-generation immigrant parents sound just a bit more “professional.”  

A few days later, I asked her about the sign. I couldn’t help but laugh at the picture with the exact phrase, “starting [blank].” She said, “I was going to change it, but then people actually came in and asked ‘when?’ . . . So I decided to keep. . . It’s much better. If I smile at them, see their faces, and tell them, they would be more likely to come.” 

Running the restaurant heavily relies on my family’s affective labor and translanguaging (García and Li). “People here like it when you keep talking to them and asking how they’re doing at their table.” Later, I learned that this very first lesson my mom taught me here in the US is called small talk. Her small talk doesn’t feel “small” though. Translanguaging across a “broken” English, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish, my mom checks on customers, hugs, or bows, tries to remember the last conversation they had, and trains and jokes with her employees.  

My mother’s embodied translanguaging of centering connectivity and emerging meaning, not the “correctness,” became more challenging, in the backdrop of resurging anti-Asian racism for the last few years. Their 눈치 (noonchi)—rhetorical sensitivity to and embodied reading of the context, including people’s relations—was at peak, even in their own restaurant, especially around police officers with their then-mixed status and ongoing police brutality. Looking at many Asian women who were murdered because of white supremacist anti-Asian racism, my mother and I remembered our border-crossing that we buried deep down—the times when we had to prove our “goodness” because we were seen conniving and unfaithful at the Customs and Immigration for my mother, and at my F-1 visa, green card, and later citizenship interviews. My mother told me to smile more “just in case.” We faked smiles behind our masks, also knowing this was futile in white temporality—the history that we contribute so much but does not care about us.  

My family’s translanguaging makes me pause: How does our scholarship honor and account for their embodied translanguaging and affective labor—the way they trust their noonchi to stay away from any “trouble,” all the “failed” attempts at learning “English,” yet still successful conversations and relationship building with their employees, who are often undocumented and multilingual, and other community members? And how do I remember my family’s translanguaging and remain “answerable” (Patel) to my BIPOC students and communities? The dominating English-only, monoglossic ideologies and colonial structure of educational spaces and beyond view racialized multilingual students and communities’ language and literacies, monolithically anything but for “success,” “career,” or “better” future, also conceived monolithically (Baker-Bell)—so much so that my mom’s language, knowledge, or success won’t count. Yet, my students I worked with over the years in Queens and Houston, majority of whom are transnational, racialized, and multilingual, already use their language and literacies to sustain themselves, their families, and their communities. While colleges boast a certificate in translation for taking classes on literary criticism and translation theory, my students’ translation in their Parents-Teacher Conferences, doctor’s appointments, or other everyday translation goes unnoticed. And the institutions and society tell us that our language belongs to the past, not future (Flores et al.), and tells us not to be “‘stuck in the past . . . [and] move on’” (Cooper).        

So I center their embodied languaging and history, including ones that have been left behind, forgotten, and invisiblized in my class. We discuss unrecognized yet crucial language labor, make the connections between and across our wor(l)ds, and center the relations, as humans responsible for each other’s time and space. We reflect on our language and positionalities and talk about how our writing is shaped by not only what we know because of our experience but also what we didn’t have to experience or know, and the distance between the two. Instead of teaching how to “fill the gap” in their research, my students and I think about from whose perspective it is the gap, who gets served and how, and what kind of future the knowledge serves. And at times, some of us awkwardly step aside and decenter ourselves to see how much Black and Indigenous ways of knowing and doing language are erased and policed in our institutional space that sits in a historically and predominantly Black neighborhood. In my pursuit of affective connectivity with them and their communities, I recognize how claiming “we” and “us” in building coalition and solidarity may “inadvertently participate in . . . epistemic injustice” (Tang), erasing the intersectional difference I should not forget.      

And I struggle at times. I hesitate when students view me through gendered Asian/American affect such as how I’m a “truly caring”, “motherly,” “cheerleader” (Yoon). I disconnect from a white feminist student who calls racialized and gendered women’s language and literacies “trivial.” My mind conjures up m/others’ not-quite-trivial translanguaging again.  

Whose haunting memories do I remember? Who do I dis/connect to/from? How do I remember better? I want to remember and connect better not because I want “closure” and move on, but because I want to learn to live with their haunting memories engraved onto my body to remain answerable. Being answerable as a transnational feminist means then being conscientious of how I stand, with whom, toward what kind of interconnected future (Hsu), even when the colonial logic wants me to erase myself from any temporality, telling me I don’t know or haven’t been on this land long enough to know. Against this barrier, I am learning and working to be in coalition, while remembering and de/centering my communities’ embodied labor, albeit ephemeral and “trivial.” 

Soyeon: Linguistic Inheritance: Resisting Language Immunization as a Transnational Mother of Color

I was busy with daily morning routines at home. My 8-year-old second child asked me, “Mom, am I taking the A test today?” “Not really.” I was surprised that my child knew the full name of the test. “My friend B takes the test today. He speaks Chinese a lot, and I speak Korean a lot too. But why don’t I take the A test today?” he asked. I felt ambivalent, first relief, thinking that I don’t have to open my manila folder for my second child. The A test manila folder. I printed all the documents and email communication relevant to the A test of my first child and archived them into this manila folder along with another manila folder that contains all the immunization records of him. At the same time, I felt a surge of rage again. I was thinking of B, who will be in a separate classroom and answer questions in reading, speaking, listening, and writing for several hours as my first child did.  

As a transnational mother of color, I remember my labor against literacy education systems operating through bureaucratic apparatuses while trying to be informed of how my then 8-year-old first child could exit his English as a Second Language (ESL) program some years ago. To navigate the ESL curriculum [4] and its final “exit” process, I had to email my child’s school more than eleven times between September 2019 and May 2021 (approximately for twenty-one months) in addition to multiple in-person visits and one-hour-long phone conversations with teachers and administrators more than three times. I emailed my child’s teacher first, and the teacher transferred my inquiry to an ESL coordinator, and then the ESL coordinator transferred my inquiry to her colleague, and that colleague transferred my inquiry to the school district’s multilingual curriculum office, and finally I was able to reach one of the staff members of the office. Mostly, teachers and administrators said that they needed to ask someone else to know more about policies. I was also told that schools do not use ESL as an administrative term any longer, and instead they started using “multilingual.”  

In my email, I asked for information: What is your policy? How do ESL students exit the program? Were they tested for “exit” already? If not, when are they scheduled to be tested? What are the criteria for “exit”? I did not receive answers in writing. Through an accidental personal conversation with a staff member at school, I came to know that to exit the program, ESL students need to surpass the mark of their previous year in each of the listening, speaking, reading, and writing proficiency tests. If they got the grade “high” in the previous academic year, they need to get an “advanced high” grade in each test next year. The year after the next year, they will need to get an “advanced-advanced high” grade in each test. The bureaucratic and neoliberal systems that control literacy do not say the time of the decision, yet constantly burden individuals to exceed oneself. This neoliberal temporality consumes my energy and leads me to the moment of distress or what Tamika L. Carey calls “rhetorical impatience,” which refers to Black women rhetors’ performative temporal strategies of self-care for equity and justice (273) against a “system of temporal hegemony” (270). 

The staff member of the multilingual curriculum office of the school district to whom my inquiry was transferred seemed to be also Korean-English bilingual. In the middle of the phone conversation, they switched from English to Korean and said that they could explain the A test processes in Korean. I instantly refused. After the call ended, I thought about my refusal. Why did I refuse their suggestion for “language alternation” (Zentella 80) or a translingual moment? It was maybe because I wanted to resist a sense of the potential paternalistic whiteness or the presumed ownership of English I felt from the moment when they started “providing” Korean. After the conversation ended, I was directed to the test-relevant web page operated by one of the state education agencies. Additionally, I came to know that ESL students should be “monitored” for two years after “exit” to ensure whether they reached the “appropriate” level of English proficiency. 

Literacy and bureaucracy sustain each other (Vieira 150) and impose hygienic ideologies on particular bodies. Registering and enriching my and my children’s translingual practices as part of a “translingual historiography” (Kimball 33) or claiming what Kimball calls “translingual inheritance” is my activism against this reality. In the school district’s mandatory registration system, I marked down that my family used Korean as a home language when I became a parent of public education. [5]   It was my activism to make my translingual practice and inheritance known across contexts and register them in educational systems for both of my children. I study, teach, and do translingual practice. Then, why would I conceal that my family uses Korean at home? I recognized how this question works as a proxy to register what Prendergast called “a distinguishing trait” in which “literacy and race became interchangeable” (6). My family’s literacy was registered as seemingly neutral information. But I feel that this registration operates not only as a bureaucratic apparatus but also a racial apparatus that disenfranchises “undesirable” people (Prendergast 2) who need to be tested, monitored, and controlled. As a transnational mother of color, I resist language immunization by registering my and my children’s translingual inheritance under the label of “home language” although this system does not afford representations that can capture our daily translingual practices, which cannot be represented simply either as Korean or English. This registration action entailed affective labor but returned me to other mothers who also dwelled on questions similar to the home language question I answered or who did not have a chance to be informed of what this type of question would entail. This registration action also opened up points of affective connectivity where I feel other mothers and children who were more severely and physically punished by their ways of literacy (Pritchard 60) and whose languages and “rhetorical sovereignty” (King 26) were taken away and violated. 

Minjung: This Cruel Game is Called “Not Korean Enough” or “Too Korean” in White Space

In Tom Hong Do’s painful and visceral memoria on his passed father, he reminds us how language and body are interconnected, and translanguaging is always “embodied and responsive” to the material conditions like “time, place, race, class, or gender” (451). Sharing how his father’s body was marked in medical reports, Do notes: 

Despite the fact that his own report identifies the physical and neurological damages ba sustained, the physician hedges his statements and suspects that ba has a “possible language barrier” that makes him unintelligible. … [T]he physician specifically identifies ba as an “Asian male (possibly Cambodian).” This indexical marker of race is immediately followed by his supposed “language barrier.” … [T]his conclusion is perceptual rather than factual and speaks to how the white listening subject is either unable or unwilling to interpret the linguistic production of racialized translingual bodies as intelligible. (457) 

Do teaches us that it is not just language but embodied languaging with extralinguistic features that indexes how a racialized body is interpreted, defined, evaluated, and legitimized—especially Asian bodies as sites of “language barrier” and unintelligibility. Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I started to teach college writing in my second year after moving to the United States from Seoul. I thought as long as I master English and sound “American,” I will fit in and survive at school and teaching.  

Behind this thinking was my Korean upbringing. Practicing standard English in Korea is a big deal. You need it for getting into a good college and a good job—and generally for looking smart. I remember receiving compliments on how good my pronunciation was, just like Americans that we heard over and over again in audio tapes from English listening tests; just like how I practiced in front of TV arching my tongue to make /r/ sound. There was a sense of pride to represent a “good” English speaker as that meant sophisticated, independent, liberal, and feminist. But when I was applying for master’s programs in the United States, I was no longer a “good” speaker. I remember asking my advisor, a white male professor, for a recommendation letter to get a teaching assistantship. “You are going to teach American college kids English?,” he asked. I knew it wasn’t really a question by his tone. Unlike his doubt, I did receive the teaching assistantship with the acceptance letter.  

Every new teacher struggles. Learning to teach requires time, training, and experience. But at that time, a bigger problem seemed to be my transnational and translingual background that is “unusual” for a college English professor. To my colleagues and students, I tried my best to pass as one of them. The mask I was wearing got heavier each day. I started to call umma less and less. When I visited my parents in Seoul during breaks, I was afraid of “losing my sense of English” for using Korean. At the end of the semester, my course evaluation read: 

Be more assertive. This is not high school.  

She’s so awkward.  

I can’t understand her when she explains activities.  

Even after realizing that “passing” couldn’t excuse me from being racialized as an Asian woman, it didn’t quite give me the peace about my identity. Only recently, my partner and I started to hang out with more Koreans in our neighborhood in Michigan. I always had very few Korean friends in the United States, and I would notice myself avoiding them even if I had a chance to make acquaintances. A few months ago, I was in a local bakery. The savory pastries they had reminded me of Paris Baguette or other big bakery chains in Korea. The bakery was busy. All the customers lined up were white. The cashier was a white person. When it was just my turn to order, an East Asian man who looked very Korean came out of the kitchen to help with taking orders. Maybe he is the owner? Maybe that’s why those pastries looked so familiar? Thoughts were flowing, and it took me a second to finally hear him saying “What would you like?” in English. I froze for a second till I finally said my order. I was so ready to speak in this white space as a white proxy, but then the sudden presence of a familiar but unfamiliar face and body flustered me.  

The next day, I told the bakery incident to my Korean friend, and she said she had similar experiences. She was in a yoga class where everyone was white but her and one Asian woman. When the instructor asked the class to find a partner, she noticed that both of them were trying not to make eye contact with each other. We laughed in unison and wondered why. Then she said, “I think I know why” and showed me a screenshot of Gloria Anzaldúa’s words on her laptop: 

Chicana feminists often skirt around each other with suspicion and hesitation. For the longest time I couldn’t figure it out. Then it dawned on me. To be close to another Chicana is like looking into the mirror. We are afraid of what we’ll see there. Pena. Shame. Low estimation of self. In childhood we are told that our language is wrong. Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. (38-39) 

To face another Asian or Korean is like to face yourself. They are mirrors. Looking at them means you are looking into your pains, your doubts, your shame, your family, and yourself. You are a traitor, a poser, a not-Korean. That is some scary thing to do in everyday life. And the stakes are higher when you are in a white space. It’s you and another you and a bunch of white folks. Your survival instincts tell you not to look into the mirror, so you avoid each other. Then you go and talk to that bunch of white folks with a smile and your perfectly arched tongue. These experiences haunted me for contradicting what I was reading at graduate school. Anti-racism. Linguistic Justice. Why can’t I be brave enough to “be myself” and face the mirror against white supremacy instead of policing myself? Even on the best days surrounded by “well-meaning” people, I am upset because a coworker brought up her newly-found enthusiasm in K-dramas that I have never shown any interest in. Then I am also upset when I feel invisible because no one knows anything about Korea and treats me as another abstract Asian. After carefully listening to me at the breakfast table, my partner asked me, “So which one do you want? Do you want people to engage with you about Korea or not?” Well, can’t it be both? 

Interweaving Stories, Affective Connectivity, and Activisms 

Our stories show that affective connectivity guided our coalition building against anti-Asian racism, yet with different struggles and issues. Practicing affective relational practice was to de-isolate ourselves as colonial subjects to “let your oppression peek at mine” (West xiii), and vice versa. This way, affective connectivity can push forward coalition building for transnational feminist survivance. Below, we discuss how our ullim points converge and diverge, hence “interweaved,” across our stories and offer implications as to how these survivance stories can expand across contexts.  

Affective Connectivity as Affective Labor

These stories commonly unravel our affective translingual labor against anti-Asian barriers, entangled with our and other politicized and racialized Asian/American bodies and surrounding sociomaterial and ideological conditions. Eunjeong’s activism is shaped by her then-mixed-status family’s embodied translanguaging and rhetorical sensitivity, conditioned in the colonial and white supremacist ideologies and materialities. As a first-generation immigrant mother scholar, Soyeon’s rhetorical activism is channeled through her embodied literacy labor against the bureaucratic colonial temporality. Minjung labors against a deficit perspective on her teacher subjectivity, illuminating the uneasiness and complexity behind working with the haunting memories; she policed her teacher identity as a Korean migrant “to perform and show people that [she is] just as good as [her] colleagues.” Our stories then reinforce how our activism is underwritten by affective connectivity, mediated by our embodied affective labor against the colonial onto-epistemologies.   

Affective Connectivity as Remembering within Particularities

Our agentive labor takes place in particular times and spaces of our languaging. Eunjeong and her mother’s embodied translanguaging in community spaces differs from Soyeon’s affective languaging in the education system. These stories also diverge from Minjung’s languaging and teaching subjectivity. Here, we do not intend to make a representational transnational Asian/American story. Rather, as affective connectivity affords, we see ourselves and our stories remaining particular and incommensurable. Indeed, throughout our reflections on our stories, we have found how our ways of being, knowing, and doing language as Asian/American are sometimes at odds with our knowledge and work as a scholar-educator-activist. While sharing our stories, Minjung noted, “I was you. You were me. I will be you. You will be me.” These reflections affirmed that our embodied ways of being, knowing, feeling, and doing language are the very apparatus to work against anti-Asian violence, showing that our onto-epistemologies are interwoven with each other’s stories in connection to other settler histories and temporalities. As Rhee argues, “In the process of explicitly recognizing our collective and collaborative work/life, we may be able to share knowledge/memory that heals and empowers us” (55). This is the potential of interweaving stories of our survivance labor that we look toward.  

Affective Connectivity as Building Connections with “Other Mothers”

While sharing our stories made us notice both particular and collective haunting memories, it also pushed us to recognize what we (do not) know about BIPOC communities’ memories and survivance. Practicing affective connectivity then asks us to humbly see who else has crossed the borders and how we are here the way we are because they were here before us—Eunjeong’s mother, other Asian women who lost their lives to the white supremacist violence, and the Indigenous and Black communities around her campus,  Soyeon herself as a mother and other mothers at her child’s school, and our Korean and BIPOC immigrant-generation friends, students, and communities, as Minjung’s story highlights. We sit tight and try to fathom the impalpable pain and particular stories as we look to (im)migrant women who have come before us, and dispossessed and displaced Indigenous, enslaved Black, and other marginalized communities. We recognize that a responsible rhetorical practice for our answerable affective connectivity is then both centering and decentering our voice, story, and herstories, as we connect to and learn from our BIPOC communities’ survivance stories.  

Remembering for Feminist Inheritance: Embracing Transnational Feminist Tensions  

Our desire of transnational coalition began from our own positionalities, rooted in our desire to dismantle the colonial categories of language and identities and to claim particular yet relational Korean migrant women scholars’ onto-epistemologies. Yet, our affective connectivity enabled us to look to what Mohanty imagined as international coalitions of Third World women with the “everyday, fluid, fundamentally historical and dynamic nature of the lives” (6) away from the Western deficit frames of their ways of being, living, and knowing.  

As we look outward, we grapple with the tension around how affective connectivity can be “accountable to Indigenous sovereignty and futurity” as a decolonial feminist methodology (Tuck and Yang 35). Affective connectivity offers a heuristic for “other” ways of knowing, yet it does not always directly contribute to the “rematriation of land or knowledges of the traditional Indigenous stewards of this land” (Itchuaqiyaq and Matheson 301). In fact, our resettlement “can . . . actually further settler colonialism” through “an entangled triad structure of settler-native-slave” (Tuck and Yang 1). Therefore, non-Natives must acknowledge this complicity in uptaking the notion of survivance. Joining this effort, we embrace the tension and humbly recognize the limit of our affective connectivity and relationality, and the necessity to work with the haunting responsibly (Riley-Mukavetz 560).    

Despite and perhaps especially because of the tensions, we cannot work against barriers alone as such work necessitates learning and linking different haunting memories remaining hidden and enmeshed in our varied positionalities. Interweaving our stories affirms our activist time/space-making against anti-Asian linguistic and racial injustice, temporal and bureaucratic strategies that sustain colonial power, and white supremacist language ideologies. We carry our feminist inheritance and continue learning from m/others’ different memories, languaging, tensions, and experiences while noticing our relations to them and their survivance.  


We thank all the people who helped us interweave these stories. We are very grateful to Dr. Sara P. Alvarez, Dr. Ligia Mihut, Dr. Amy J. Wan, the rest of the 2023 CCCC Transnational Composition Standing Group who sponsored our presentation of the preliminary discussion of this article, and all the audiences who attended our panel session in person and virtually and shared their feedback with us. We also thank the special issue editors who helped us connect our stories to other feminist coalitional and collective work. Finally, we thank and remember Dr. K. Hyoejin Yoon, who fought against injustices as an Asian American rhetoric scholar prior to us. We, as transnational women of color, hope to inherit and continue working with what she has taught us. 

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[1] We use “Asian/American” to reflect our fluid and complex sense of identity and tensions surrounding the two dominant identity options, “Asian” and “American,” as represented with the slash (Monberg and Young; Palumbo-Liu).
[2] Survivance is not a notion we inherited, nor do we use the term survivance, thinking that using the notion makes our coalition building a decolonial project. As will be discussed later, we honor this notion’s lineage from Indigenous people and their approaches to their identity and resistance to colonial representation while acknowledging our transnational settler positionalities. We embrace tensions that are entailed and hope to conscientiously engage with this feeling to extend coalition building outwards.  
[3] Rhee and we came from South Korea, which was under the direct impact of the United States’ expansionism and imperialism. Our critical stance against US colonial violence in Korea has impacts on our coalitional work against colonial violence within the US. As explained further later, however, we recognize that this connection does not necessarily entail or contribute to decolonization, as Itchuaqiyaq and Breeanne importantly remind us.  
[4] My focus is not on ESL programs in K-12 contexts and their curricular efforts. Here, I discuss how the sociomaterial infrastructures of ESL programs are entangled with my racialized feeling as an immigrant parent of color. 
[5]  Both of my children were tested in their “English proficiency” after I enrolled them in public education systems. My first child was identified as an “English Learner” (EL), while my second child was not identified as an EL. 

The Impact of CRT Bans on Southern Public Universities: An Analysis of the Response of PWIs and HBCUs to Anti-CRT Legislation and a Way Forward


Racial bias is socially learned and legally enforced. Therefore, educators in states across the country, and specifically the South, are rightfully concerned about what could happen to them if they provide students an education that counters the common—racist, imperialist, and colonial—narrative of the U.S. and how it reached its exceptionalism. However, this article will push back against the generalist narrative that teachers in southern red states are constantly attacked for teaching or being presumed to be teaching CRT or DEI in the classroom and show how these differences are linked not only to the racial, geographical, and political makeup of each state but also to the national political ambitions of governors in those states.  

By exploring the ways that southern politicians use anti-DEI and anti-Critical Race Theory (CRT) rhetoric and legislation to advance their political agendas, I analyze the approach to DEI and CRT restrictions in states where the politicians are in lockstep with those in red states seeking to become the POTUS. Next, this article analyzes the actions parents and school boards took in response to the passage of each bill. Further, this analysis attempts to show that while both bills lack substance and are what some pundits have called “nothing bills,” these bills can and have been weaponized against teachers and schools if they are presumed to be teaching CRT. 

My analysis will then nuance the educational ramifications of teaching Black students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) where their states have banned CRT. Additionally, I focus on how HBCUs have responded to these bills intended to ban or severely restrict CRT by analyzing an official response to CRT bans from an HBCU in Mississippi. From the analysis of the official response, I provide four actions that university administrators, faculty senates, and student government associations can take to counter and thwart current or new legislative restrictions on CRT or DEI: defy, dissent, disavow, and disobey. I end by showing how I defy, dissent, disavow, and disobey anti-CRT legislation in the classroom. 

These States Messy: My Experience Educating in the South with an Anti-Woke Agenda 

As someone who taught in Oklahoma and Mississippi—states that banned teaching CRT—I noticed tangible differences between how doggedly both states are actively implementing or punishing those educators it presumes are teaching CRT and the schools that employ them. These tangible differences led me to explore how presidential political aspirations and agendas dictate politicians’ approaches to DEI initiatives in public education. 

 When I entered the professorship in 2018, my first job was at an HBCU in Oklahoma. At that time in 2018, K-12 teachers were on strike due to low wages and poor working conditions. Additionally, there were growing concerns about transgender children using bathrooms that did not match the sex on their birth certificates. The political climate in Oklahoma in 2018 forecasted what became a deeply concerning educational trend in some of the southernmost U.S. states: the restriction of the rights of historically underserved populations.  

What began as bathrooms and who should use them quickly became a push to restrict any reference to (let alone education about) the struggles of historically marginalized and disenfranchised people within the classroom. As more and more restrictions on educators, curriculum, libraries, and bathrooms mounted in Oklahoma and its neighboring state Texas, I quickly grew disconcerted (and afraid) with the educational climate and decided to move to Mississippi in 2022.  And just as I was moving to Mississippi in May of 2022, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed SB 615, which “requires students at public schools and public charter schools to use restrooms and locker rooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates” (Rose and Leblanc).  

Racial and Political Demographics: Oklahoma and Mississippi

In Oklahoma, 7.8% of people identify as Black/African American, and in Mississippi, 38% of people identify as Black/African American. While these racial demographics are intriguing, they cannot be fully understood until looking into the political leanings and ideologies of each state. Oklahoma is “tied for the fourth-most Republican state in the United States… [and] has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1952 except for 1964” (“Most Republican States 2023”).    Furthermore, what also must be considered are the political aspirations of elected officials within these states. Although Gov. Kevin Stitt has not intended or made his intentions to seek the office of the President of the United States known, Oklahoma’s ranking as the fourth most conservative state with the least amount of African American residents allows for more restrictive legislation to blossom. 

While Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi is not running for POTUS, Mississippi’s systemic disenfranchisement of public schools in predominately Black neighborhoods may be a legislative guide for POTUS-seeking politicians. Mississippi is, after all, the last state to desegregate schools[1] . Mississippi’s place in the racist history of America cannot be underestimated. In very real ways, “Mississippi places a mirror to America and tells her who she really is” (Brook). Mississippi is not absolved of its racist past or present, but there is neither a presence of public hysteria nor negative political rhetoric about CRT to forcefully enact and enforce anti-CRT and DEI educational legislation. Essentially, Mississippi got other problems, and politicians and parents just ain’t got the time to give anti-CRT legislation anything more than lip service. 

Racial Resentment: The Rise of Anti-Woke Rhetoric in American Politics and Education 

Attacks on educational institutions, the curriculum that is taught in those institutions, and the educators who teach the curriculum are nothing new. Undoubtedly, the anti-woke educational agenda is just the newest iteration of attacks on the liberal education system, free thought, and one’s pursuit of individual intellectual growth that is rooted in facts and historical accuracy. Moreover, various governors and school board leaders across multiple Southern states are at the forefront of implementing so-called anti-woke initiatives. In 2022 alone, Republicans in at least 10 states were “considering requiring schools to publish lists of all the books, reading materials, and other activities teachers use. Some proposals would allow parents to review materials before they are added to lessons or the school library, or to opt their children out of certain activities” (Ujifusa). These proposals and bills, Andrew Ujifusa argues, occurred: 

…at the height of political pushback against the teaching of what their sponsors have deemed “divisive concepts” that prompted 14 states to enact bans or restrictions on how schools address topics like racism and sexism. And beyond curriculum, one bill in Arizona would allow the state to punish teachers who withhold students’ confidences—like a disclosure that a student is gay—from their parents. 

There is no question that certain southern politicians are determined to rid public education of any content about the experiences of people who are not white, male, and heterosexual. One only needs to do a survey of the banned books list[2]  to discern the “concerns” that many powerful white men and women have about what people of color learn and might say.  

Considering this concern extends to all of public education, educators at all levels across mostly southern and midwestern states should be concerned with how their institutions are responding to anti-woke initiatives. However, not all Southern states that banned CRT and other DEI initiatives have elected officials actively seeking to ban books, fire teachers for perceived CRT teaching, or vastly change course content to reflect a whiter historicity of the U.S. that undermines, minimizes, or excludes the experiences of People of Color (POC). How voraciously elected officials pursue the undermining and white washing of American education depends not only on geography, racial makeup, and educational needs of those in the State but also on the political makeup of the State and the aspirations of the politicians therein. 

This is a White People Problem: CRT Laws, Parental Response, and HBCU Backlash 

            The majority of these anti-CRT bills are about white people and their problem acknowledging racism’s existence, its systematicity through legislation, and its connection to their continued racial and economic dominance through its perpetuation. Most of these bills (as they are read) ensure that schools are complying with the U.S. Constitution and Federal laws. The issue with the bill is that it also ensures white people and historically marginalized populations never considers their role, responsibility, or how they benefit from discriminatory practices. For example, Oklahoma’s anti-CRT legislation, HB 1775, has eight concepts that are banned and cannot be taught in schools. Concepts that are concerned with accountability or feelings are bolded: 

  1. “One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex. 
  2. An individual, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether conscious or not. 
  3. An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of their race or sex. 
  4. Members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect [based on] race or sex. 
  5. An individual’s moral character is determined by their race or sex. 
  6. An individual, by virtue of their race and sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race. 
  7. Any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of their race or sex. 
  8. Meritocracy or traits such as hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.” (“Prohibition of Race and Sex Discrimination”) 

What is alarming about HB 1775 is how quickly it turns from equitable and inclusive educational practices, e.g., no one race or sex is superior to the other and no individual should be discriminated against based on their race and sex, to exclusionary, bowdlerized (white-washed) pedagogical practices, e.g., no individual, by virtue of their race and sex, bears responsibility for past actions committed by people of the same race and sex, and no individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish… psychological distress on account of their race. 

Comparatively, Mississippi’s SB 2113 is rhetorically savvy in that it aligns with the U.S. Constitution. Michael McClendon, in his analysis, noted that “the concepts outlined in SB 2113—namely, discrimination against individuals based on their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin—remain largely illegal under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” and because of this alignment with the U.S. Constitution, “the bill would likely only have limited impact on current pedagogical practices in K-12 schools” (McClendon). However, the vague language on prohibiting classifying students based on race may “have implications beyond what is Federal Law” (McClendon). Contrastively, SB 2113 is far shorter than HB 1775 and has only four concepts that are banned and cannot be taught in school: 

  1. No K-12 public school or public institution of higher learning (IHL) may compel (or teach a course that compels) students to ‘affirm, adopt, or adhere to the idea that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin’ is inherently superior or inferior, or that any of these groups should be treated adversely on the basis of that identity.   
  2. No K-12 public school or public IHL may classify students by race (with an exception for the required collection of demographic information). 
  3. No public funds may be expended for any purpose that would violate these provisions. 
  4. If any provision of the law is declared invalid, the other provisions remain. (“Senate Bill 2113”) 

On its face, this bill (as it is read) is all gas, no go. The average American educator does not and would not compel students to affirm the idea that any human being is inherently superior or inferior based on their race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or national origin. For most educators, the thought of teaching such ideas in a classroom is abhorrent. However, when considering these bills, people “are less worried about reasonable people reading the law and acting reasonably and more worried about the climate of overreaction surrounding the law” (Ballard). 

Parental Response: School boards, Libraries, and Book bans 

While the laws supposedly banning CRT are both concerning and questionable, it is mostly white heterosexual cisgendered womens’ overreaction to these laws that is noteworthy. In Oklahoma, Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) accreditation was downgraded after a white teacher filed a “… complaint with the state after she claimed training videos she was required to watch ‘…specifically shame white people for past offenses in history, and state that all are implicitly racially biased by nature’” (qtd. in Gamble). The school district responded that 1) the training on implicit bias occurred before the HB 1775 became law and 2) that within the training itself “there is no statement or sentiment pronounced that people are racist – due to their race or any other factor. We would never support such a training” (qtd. in Gamble). Considering how much racism has played in important factor in Tulsa, the complaint filed seemed odd because it was in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, known as Black Wall Street, where a violent mob of white people committed one of the worst acts of racial violence on the Black residents of Greenwood District: The Tulsa Race Massacre. [3]    

Today, to demand that this same city and school system that serves mostly minority students not teach a complete education of America that would include and discuss the history of various minority contributions to and struggles in America is incompetent, a dereliction of duty, exclusionary, and downright racist because it panders solely to the feelings and tears of (mostly) white women– be they educators, parents, or school board members. But feelings aren’t facts. And the facts are this: the assault on public education in Oklahoma is an assault not only on black students but also on every single minority student who must be educated there. Furthermore, the assault on CRT extends beyond the public school system and into public libraries (which serve the public and not just students) with calls to ban certain books. Without question, Oklahoma has made its intentions clear to its citizens: we are here to support and advance solely the educational desires white parents have for their white children and everyone else can get to the back of the bus or get off it entirely. 

In contrast, Mississippi is different, not because it does not want to do what Oklahoma is doing, undoubtedly it does, but because Mississippi schools have other, more pressing concerns to address. Many of the schools have crumbling infrastructure which affects student performance and teacher retention. Many of these crumbling schools serve a predominantly Black student body. The lack of funding or equal access to funding is (without question) by design. At one school in Holmes County Mississippi, one teacher noted that “when it rains, the roof of the decades-old facility leaks. During the worst downpours, hallways flood. Attempts to raise taxes and build a state-of-the-art high school in this high poverty district have failed” (Harris). Furthermore, “the girls’ bathrooms still don’t have mirrors, and the plumbing is often broken… classroom sets of literature books… have pages missing” (Harris). In very real ways, Mississippi schools and the school board have neither the time or money to “enforce” a law that (simply put) is republican virtue signaling. 

HBCU Responses from Oklahoma and Mississippi: Not Today, Satan 

Working at an HBCU in both Oklahoma (at the height of white furor over CRT) and Mississippi (after leaving Oklahoma), the informal and formal responses of these institutions was exactly what I needed. PWIs like Oklahoma Community College were quick to cancel a fully enrolled course on race and ethnicity in the U.S. “pending a review for compliance with HB 1775” (“Class on Race ‘Paused’”) as public records showed “the cancellation was precipitated by a parent’s complaint about ‘critical race’ and a student’s complaint about a video on redlining” (“Class on Race ‘Paused’”). While the course was reinstated on June 4th, 2021, how quickly Oklahoma moved to address the concerns or crying white people concerned me. How would the only HBCU in Oklahoma, Langston University (LU), respond? 

While there was no formal response from the administration or the faculty senate, the Dean of Arts and Sciences at LU told us all to keep teaching what you teaching and I’ll handle the rest. [4] As an educator, that is what I needed to hear. Our students came to this specific HBCU for a reason: they desired to know their history and what had systematically been kept from them. They did not desire to have teachers continue to paint incomplete pictures that left them out OR made them seem content with their condition– which they were not. These students wanted us to teach them all the facts and all the truth. As an educator, that stance from students (whatever their race) excites me.  

At Jackson State University (JSU), an HBCU and the fourth largest public institution (in terms of enrollment) in Mississippi, the JSU Faculty Senate issued a formal response to SB 2113, a Resolution of the Jackson State University Faculty Senate Defending Academic Freedom to Teach About Race, Gender, Justice, and Critical Race Theory, that read in part:  

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Jackson State University Faculty Senate resolutely rejects any attempts by bodies external to the faculty to restrict or dictate university curriculum on any matter, including matters related to racial and social justice, and will stand firm against encroachment on faculty authority by the legislature or the Boards of Trustees… BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Faculty Senate affirms the Joint Statement on Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism, authored by the AAUP, PEN America, the American Historical Association, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities, endorsed by over seventy organizations, and issued on June 16, 2021. 

Additionally, not only does JSU faculty formally admit it will actively resist and disobey legislation/laws that ban CRT or encroach on academic freedom, but also calls on the JSU administration to be just as, if not moreso, resistant: 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Jackson State University Faculty Senate calls upon the Jackson State University administration to affirm that they reject any attempts by bodies external to the faculty to restrict or dictate university curriculum, pedagogy, andragogy on any matter, including matters related to racial and social justice, and will stand firm against encroachment on faculty authority by the legislature or the Boards of Trustees. 

The JSU faculty fully adopted and passed this resolution on January 27th, 2022. And while the JSU administration did not and has not publicly supported the faculty’s position, they have not deterred or obstructed– either consciously or unconsciously– faculty from continuing pedagogical practices in the classroom that align with CRT. In very real ways, these informal and formal responses by HBCU faculty and deans provide some insight into how to subvert anti-CRT legislation. From reading the JSU Faculty Senate approved the resolution, there are four specific acts faculty intend to do in the classroom in response: Defy, Dissent, Disavow, and Disobey. 

  1. Defy: Resist all laws that limit an accurate teaching of history, science, literature, etc. based on beliefs that race and gender are not integral to history, science, literature, etc. must be openly defied. 
  2. “…the Jackson State University Faculty Senate resolutely rejects any attempts by bodies external to the faculty to restrict or dictate university curriculum on any matter, including matters related to racial and social justice 
  3. Dissent: Actively hold opinions that run counter to laws that ban or encourage efforts to undermine intersectional pedagogical practices. 
  4. “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Faculty Senate affirms the Joint Statement on Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism 
  5. Disavow: Deny any support for any legislative or school board measures that seek to ban, whitewash, or water down curriculum rooted in learning from the experiences of People of Color (POC). 
  6.  Joint Statement on Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism 
  7. Disobey: Break any legislation meant to deny POC access to an equitable education that includes their experiences and the experiences of their ancestors from being taught. 
  8. [The JSU Faculty] “will stand firm against encroachment on faculty authority by the legislature or the Boards of Trustees.” 

How faculty at HBCUs resist the push to whitewash their curricula or classroom activities and assignments differs depending on both the faculty members and the classes they teach. However, my resistance is tied to the students I teach and the knowledge they want to have. As a teacher of mostly Black and African-American college students, I recognize that many of these students have neither had many African-American teachers nor been introduced to Black/African-American literature, art, and prose as an educational site of study. With such a focus on student-centeredness, relating every college activity or course with their daily life or what they should expect in their careers, I would fail these black students if I had them engage with exclusively white literature, prose, and art.   

My students (and many students) bemoan reading and writing about things they do not presently care about. Sometimes, in a first-year writing class, the hardest thing any teacher will do is get students to read and actively engage with what they are reading. To make the task of learning to actively engage with readings less cumbersome for students, I attempt to give them readings centered on their experience, i.e., Zora Neale Hurston’s “How it Feels to be Colored Me” and James Baldwin’s “If Black English isn’t a Language then Tell Me What it Is.” From readings like these, I can discuss the writing moves Hurston uses to make an effective narrative or I can discuss the way Baldwin attempts to persuade his audience in his essay on Black Language.  

I do not suggest that instructors of predominately white students at predominately white institutions do not assign these readings or discuss the writing moves Baldwin and Hurston make in these readings. However, I do suggest that assigning these readings in an anti-CRT educational landscape would give any teacher of predominately white students more pause than an instructor who teaches predominately black college students at an HBCU. It is fair to say that the HBCU emboldens me to be brave. The HBCU encourages the educational advancement of Black people over the legislative restraints put in place to stop their educational advancement. It is simply negligent for me to teach this population of students while disregarding to contributions of Black people to the shaping of the United States.  

At the same time, my students read many white authors throughout the semester. The purpose of teaching is to give a fuller and more complete picture of the U.S. and the experiences of those people in the U.S., which includes a great many white men and women. My students find value in those readings as well, depending on the content: the white woman who wrote “A Few Words on Breasts[5] or the white man who wrote about war and soldiers and “The Things They Carried.[6]   

I want students to hear different voices, different people, and different stories so they can gain perspective. Writing and reading are all a matter of perspective(s) and persuasion(s). The more perspectives one has at their disposal, the more persuasive, communicative, and informed citizens, workers, and individuals they will be. Literature, indeed writing, provides perspective on difference. It is this difference that politicians and their base have long sought to extinguish. But engaging in difference is the only way to build a more equitable society.  

Conclusion: Building a Coalition and Addressing the Barriers Between Us 

The backlash against the idea of teaching students using a CRT lens is fierce and cannot be underestimated. Legislators and school boards in states Oklahoma have moved quickly to investigate educators for potential CRT violations,[7] causing some educators to resign. [8] In states like Florida and Texas, the political aspirations of the governors are driving their anti-CRT and anti-Woke agenda. These political aspirations have caused them to put bans on not only how children are educated, but also the type of children who are educated, e.g., LGBTQIA+ children.  

In Mississippi, similar laws have not had the same effect on public education and educators not because Mississippi is less systematically racist than Oklahoma, Texas, or Florida, but because its long time systemic disenfranchisement of public education in predominately Black and brown neighborhoods shifts the focus from what is taught in the classroom to ensuring students and teachers have neither the materials nor the conditions to effectively teach and learn at all.   

The four acts I mentioned are subversive and activist in nature; they are radical. But if, as MLK posited, the privileged will not willingly give up their privilege so that the human condition can improve for those without the same privileges, then conforming, going along to get along, and saying things are fine when they are not will cannot possibly lead to an equitable human condition for those who are not privileged. It would only show our propensity to participate in acts of deliberate inhibition that stop progress. People must be willing to defy, dissent, disavow, and disobey. What I am calling for is the courage to be an accomplice [9] : the courage to break laws restricting anti-racist and anti-DEI curricula and initiatives, the courage to fight for equitable education for all those educated in U.S. classrooms, and the courage to push for a better education for all students in U.S. classrooms.  

Institutions of Higher Education cannot be so quick to change their curriculum for fear of losing public funds. HBCUs, which are historically underfunded and never get their equal share, can lead the way in this fight because whether the threats are to cut government funding due to our curriculum or because we are not meeting arbitrary performance standards/measures, HBCUs stand firm. They been here before. HBCUs always been denied their equal share. What is it to them and to those of us who teach in the spaces of HBCUs to say “no? We have made do educating our students on less than our monetary share, and we will continue to make do educating them whether the U.S. government supports us or not. 

Works Cited 

Ballard, Toren. “How the Critical Race Theory Bill May Affect History Instruction in Mississippi.” Mississippi First, 24 Mar. 2022. https://www.mississippifirst.org/blog/how-the-critical-race-theory-bill-may-affect-history-instruction/. Accessed 25 May 2023. 

Brook, Justin. Exposing Parchman. Directed by Rahman Ali Bugg, Roc Nation, 2023. 

“Committee Substitute for Senate Bill No. 2113,” Mississippi Legislature, 2022, http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2022/pdf/SB/2100-2199/SB2113SG.pdf. Accessed 12 July 2023. 

Contorno, Steve. “DeSantis Administration Rejects Proposed AP African American Studies Class in Florida High Schools.” CNN, 19 Jan. 2023. https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/19/politics/ron-desantis-ap-african-american-studies/index.html. Accessed 23 May 2023. 

Faculty Senate. “Resolution of the Jackson State University Faculty Senate Defending Academic Freedom to Teach About Race, Gender Justice and Critical Race Theory.” Jackson State University, 27 Jan. 2022. Pdf file. https://www.jsums.edu/facultysenate/files/2022/02/Adopted-Jackson-State-Univrsity-Faculty-Senate-Resolution-1.27.222.pdf. Accessed 30 May 2023. 

Green, Neisha-Anne. “Moving Beyond Alright: And the Emotional Toll of This, My Life Matters Too, in the Writing Center Work.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 37, no. 1, 2018, pp. 15–34. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26537361. Accessed 30 May 2023 

Gamble, Justin. “Oklahoma’s Board of Education Downgrades School District’s Accreditation Over Complaint that Training Shamed White People.” CNN, 29 July 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/29/us/crt-tulsa-school-accreditation-status-downgrade-reaj/index.html. Accessed 26 May 2023. 

Harris, Bracey. “Crumbling Schools, Dismal Outcomes: Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Educators was Supposed to Change Everything for Southern black Children.” Clarion Ledger, 9 Feb. 2020. https://www.clarionledger.com/in-depth/news/politics/2020/02/10/black-children-holmes-county-mississippi-denied-equal-education/4510336002/. Accessed 26 May 2023. 

“Prohibition of Race and Sex Discrimination.” HB1775 Emergency Rules, 2023, https://sde.ok.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/HB%201775%20Emergency%20Rules.pdf. Accessed 15 July 2023. 

Iyer, Kannita and Boyette, Chris. “Texas Governor Signs Bill to Ban DEI Offices at State Public Colleges,” 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/06/15/politics/greg-abbott-texas-dei-office-ban-colleges/index.html. Accessed 6 Aug 2023. 

Lynch, Jamiel. “Mississippi Governor Signs into Law Prohibition on Schools Teaching Critical Race Theory.” CNN, 14 Mar. 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/14/politics/mississippi-critical-race-theory-law/index.html. Accessed 11 Feb. 2023. 

“Oklahoma City Community College: Class on Race in the United States ‘Paused’ After Legislation on ‘Race or Sex Stereotyping.’ Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression [Case Overview]. https://www.thefire.org/cases/oklahoma-city-community-college-class-race-united-states-paused-after-legislation-race-or-sex. Accessed 26 May 2023. 

“QuickFacts.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2020. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/dashboard/TX,OK/RHI225221. Accessed 23 May 2023. 

Rose, Andy and Leblanc, Paul. “Oklahoma GOP governor signs anti-transgender bathroom bill into law”, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/25/politics/oklahoma-anti-transgender-bathroom-law-signed-stitt/index.html. Accessed 6 Aug 2023. 

Smallens, Yasemin. “Oklahoma’s Bathroom Ban Will Endanger Trans Children.” Human Rights Watch, 24 May 2022. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/05/24/oklahomas-bathroom-ban-will-endanger-transgender-children. Accessed 30 May 2023. 

 Stecklein, Janelle. “State Senate Votes to Ban Adult Access to Some Books in Libraries.” Enid News & Eagle, 7 Mar. 2023. https://www.enidnews.com/news/state-senate-votes-to-ban-adult-access-to-some-books-in-libraries/article_ee7d6b3e-bd38-11ed-bd6a-a395dca9c6da.html#:~:text=OKLAHOMA%20CITY%20%E2%80%94%20State%20senators%20on,access%20age%2Dappropriate%20library%20books. Accessed 26 May 2023.  

Ujifusa, Andrew. “How Politics are Straining Parent-School Relationships.” Education Week, 10. Feb. 2022. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/how-politics-are-straining-parent-school-relationships/2022/02. Accessed 23 May 2023. 


[1] Bolton, Charles C. “The Last Stand of Massive Resistance: Mississippi Public School Integration, 1970.”
[2] Orrin Grey. “The Ten Most Banned and Challenged Books of 2023.”
[3] NY Times Interactive Story. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/24/us/tulsa-race-massacre.html
[4] This statement is the authors’ recollection of the conversation she had with the Dean of Arts and Sciences. The statement should not be taken as a direct quote.
[5] Ephron, Nora. “A Few Words about Breasts.”
[6] O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried.
[7] Camper, Nick. “Norman High teacher received complaint from parent, accused of violating HB1775.”
[8] Reiss, Rebecca. “An Oklahoma teacher says she resigned over a state law requiring teachers to censor books in classroom libraries.”
[9] Green, Neisha-Anne. “Moving beyond Alright: And the Emotional Toll of This, My Life Matters Too, in the Writing Center Work.”