Editor’s Note: This month we’re featuring previews of sessions from California State University’s upcoming ERWC Literacy Conference. ERWC teacher and workshop leader Frank Mata is presenting June 21 in Southern California and June 27 in Northern California.
By Frank Mata
“Too Dope Teachers and a Mic” podcasters (@toodopeteachers) recently tweeted “How do y’all think about folx who you thought were dope, then did real harmful things? Not imperfections, not just being flawed, but actual harm?”
Their question made me think about how teachers, specifically English language arts teachers, truly have the delicate burden of balancing between an unconscious reinforcement of dominant oppressions and the liberation from it. Big, big thoughts… I know. But we are about to be at a literacy conference. How can we not think about this given the social unrest from our continued and historical American racial reckoning?
When thinking about this year’s upcoming ERWC Literacy Conference, I am struck with the potential opportunity we teachers have because we are facilitators of the spaces where transition and progress for our immediate society can form. This June, we get to actually look at one another, face-to-face, and dialogue about whether we are contributing to what we say we do. We say we nurture student voice. We say we provide space for young people to find and develop their own interests. We say we help strengthen their literacy and ability to communicate in a variety of contexts and audiences. We say, we say, and we say…
We say a lot of things.
And though I am absolutely honored to have been invited to speak about our roles as ELA teachers, specifically through the discussion of the existing 12th grade module Language, Gender, and Culture…at a “literacy” conference, I also come with a real-time on-going attempt at understanding this shared burden–our shared burden. At the same time, I am especially excited to be in Dr. April Baker-Bell’s audience because I believe she will ask the same questions we ELA teachers are faced with: Whose literacy are we teaching?
I come to this conference to find community with folks who understand (or are trying to) the nuances and layers infused within the concept of gender, literacy, and racial performativity. After reflecting about both the module and ERWC’s new Theoretical Foundations, this June I aim to unpack how we might not just be reinforcing dominant norms, but also harming young folks through what author Clint Smith refers to in his New Yorker essay as the “ideology [of white supremacy].” I am inspired by James Baldwin’s speech “A Talk to Teachers” that challenges all of us, specifically teachers, to inspect and confront how we are accomplices to harming these young people. I draw inspiration from Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young’s LGC module text “The Barbershop” because of its examination of how we all perform gender, intellect, and even race. I still wrestle with Dr. Judith Butler’s challenge for both students and teachers to examine “the relation between complying with gender and coercion.”
At my presentation I aim to unearth the hidden areas that affect this delicate discussion. I want to know how our own social positionalities (social identities) affect the dissemination, facilitation, and delivery to our economically, ideologically, and socially diverse student bodies. Does the discussion of dr. vay’s “Barbershop” hit differently when coming out of the mouth of a white woman? Do male teachers of color showcase an appropriate delicacy when fostering discussions about gender performances? Do we teachers actually have the intellectual capacity to see that our own literacy performance can stifle the transference of knowledge gained from these pieces?
We are not immune to the cold questioning from Butler, Lourde, Shira, Brooks, or Young. We are not immune to Baldwin’s criticisms of solidifying the existing and malignant racial gaps of our society. But we are capable of hard self-examination. We are capable of confronting our own dependence on these social performances. We are capable of authentically conferencing about what the state of literacy development is in our classrooms. And hopefully, we can be capable of undoing the harms we give from our unconscious reinforcement and protection of our static identities.
Frank Mata has been in the classroom for eighteen plus years. His current project is developing an ELA 12th grade course focusing on social justice and equity. He teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, CA.
One thought on “We Are Not Immune”
We are not only not immune, we are complicit. English Language Arts and First Year Writing have always existed in a nexus of race, gender, and power. We see ourselves as progressive and empowering, but paradoxically we empower by teaching and enforcing Standard Written English, the dialect of the powerful. I used to ask new writing center tutors, “Is the writing center a tool of empowerment or an instrument of oppression?” The answer is that it is both. How can we empower without oppressing? How can we celebrate difference while also fostering communication among the different? The nexus of differences we attempt to mediate is among the most interesting and exciting places to be, but our work entails great responsibility and requires great imagination. What is clear is that we have to change to rise to the challenge.
This sounds like it will be an interesting presentation.