Women of the Writing Center: Black, Female, On the Periphery—Being Black in a White Writing Center

The following interview was conducted with Writing Center graduate consultants Janelle Edwards, Ronisha Browdy, and Shewonda Leger.

What is it like being a black female in the Writing Center? Do you find this Writing Center oppressive in any way (think broadly here: clients, consultants, the overall look of the center, etc)?

Janelle noted that  “the Writing Center is not, in itself, oppressive; however, she has to “challenge a lot of clients perceptions.” She remembers a paper in which she was consulting with a client and the client was “talking about what a ‘normal’ American looks like,” and the consulant was talkin’ bout certain people in this country “wearing a towel on their head. And how ‘normal’ Americans were from the West” and “the West was Old America with its traditional values.” Janelle, kept her cool and educated the “blonde and White” client asking her “her what’s a normal American?” I said to Janelle, let me guess, the client ain’t know some of the first Black Cowboys were Black?” Janelle responded> “You know what I’m saynl. Know your history.” She continues, “Needless to say. It made the client uncomfortable. I never saw her again.” I responded “I know why.” She continues, “but I do think the center is open. Usually it is just the clients.”

I wonder: how should consultants respond to racist rhetoric in student writing?

While Janelle provides a perspective on how a consultation with the client can be used as a way to provide knowledge while having to navigate racist rhetoric in client writing, Ronisha sheds light on how the writing center makes her feel.

Ronisha posited, “I have had a limited amount experience at this particular WC, but the environment is inviting, but that doesn’t mean that I am not aware that I am a Black woman with different experiences and what I want to talk about is different. It’s not different from my everyday life. I felt like I was being singled out because I was new. It was different for some reason. I think if I was a Black man I would not have been approached by clients and consultants in the same way.” Ronisha admits,  I feel alone in the WC, which could have been because of the time that I was working. I just felt alone because I had no one to talk to.”

How can a Writing Center defined as “open,” lead to feelings of loneliness and disillusionment? And how can we implement a space where a Black female consultant does not experience this loneliness? How can we bring emotion back into the writing center?

Although Ronisha feels alone in the writing center, Shewonda believes that change starts with the individual.

Shewonda kept it short, direct and to the point, saying, “Nothing is wrong with the WC. A change begins with who u are. For now I see myself as the change. I will be the agent of change. I do not complain. I hate when people complain without intending to change anything.” I understand what Shewonda is saying, but if she sees herself as a part of change in the Writing Center, isn’t something already wrong?

When you challenge clients how do you think they perceive you since you mentioned that some never return?

Janelle says, “I find international students of Asian backgrounds are very accepting and receptive to challenges. I think that it was hard for the other student I had, and there was some resistance, but I think if I present myself as frank and as an intellectual, I generally don’t get a lot of pushback.”

Ronisha has had instances when clients push back, but notes that “Clients respond well to me. I don’t feel like they don’t listen, but sometimes they challenge back. I had one particular client who resisted because I did no do what he wanted to do. I’m thinking to myself, ‘where he get the idea he could do that to me?’ but  I politely explained what I could and could not do. I’ve heard about other consultants having issues like this with clients, and  I wonder why consultants aren’t more assertive to these types of clients?”

How does the stereotype of black women as aggressive and assertive result in them receiving either no pushback or a different kind of pushback from clients?

Shewonda has had similar experiences as Janelle and Ronisha but says, mostly, “The clients I work with accept it. They are happy I tell them the truth instead of turning in a crappy paper. I encourage them to sit in the Writing Center and finish their paper because the Writing Center is a place of motivation.”

I wonder: how does the writing center become both  a “place of motivation” and a place of frustration/dissatisfaction?

Do you ever feel challenged as a female consultant in The Writing Center?

Janelle frankly answers, “No, this writing center is so woman centered. None of my clients have been men. Mostly it’s been about the race. I may not get pushback because of the stereotype of black women as assertive and masculine. I am also confident. I know what I am doing and I am smarter.”

Janelle seems to have the inherent assumption that any challenges she receives because she is a female would come from men. This makes me wonder two things (1) Are White women less likely to challenge Black women in positions of power? And (2) Why does Janelle believe race and not gender is the primary reason she has received pushback from consultants?

Ronisha agrees with Janelle, noting “…[t]he WC is a very female centered space. I feel like men are either gonna have two reactions to me. They will either like me or test me somehow. Once I show my intelligence or push them the same way they push me, they back down a bit. Like they will be like “have you thought about this or this,” but I be like “Um have you thought about this?” I responded “Lord, I hate when they be testin’ my knowledge.”

Shewonda agrees with Janelle and Ronisha noting, “I have never experienced a moment where I feel challenged because of my gender.  I mean I got that white dude always coming to visit me every Wednesday.”

Race and intelligence seem to play a major role in how these black female cosultants deal with issues of gender discrimination. Once again, race be the main issue that the consultants refer to either negatively or positively.

Does this center need color? How would you add color to this center?

Janelle admits, “The center is very white. The majority of consultants are white women. There are white men. Most of the presenters are white [in orientation]. The directors are two white women. The challenge of being a black person in white space is also negotiating being open and visible and choosing when.” Janelle also said that the Writing Center could use “more hiring.” There are “not as many visible opportunities to us. How much is there a push for color diversity? There has been a push for LGBTQIA. The whole alphabet, but they do not market to students of color. There should be more marketing towards students of color – outside of international students. Black students do not know how great this place is. We could reach out to AAAS National Pan-Hellenic Council. They cater to Black Greek organizations. They been here over 60 years.”

Ronisha similarly agrees, saying “from being around the WC or those people I meet in class who work in the WC all seem the same shade. What is up with the recruitment? Do students of color not know about these opportunities? Do they not know how this would be helpful?”

Shewonda rounds out this opinion noting, “Yes the center needs color, but that starts with who applies for the job, so if Black people don’t apply the people here [WC] will be white. Black people don’t tend to know about this and they tend to not be confident in their writing to consult. I think we need to advertise more.”

How and in what ways can the Writing Center encourage more people of color to apply for consultant positions?

 Do you think this lack of color in writing centers is due to some kind of fear of Blackness, Asianness, Latinoness, etc?

“No. I think interpersonally institutional types of suppression or inclusion are not as readily apparent. When I interviewed I never felt any kinda way”. But there may be something about how the institution makes women of color feel. Who are our representatives on the website? We got a bunch of white women tweeting. It’s not us. There may be something with the institution happening. And anyway, everything is circumstantial. Individually it is a great space. It makes me think what are the barriers that keep students of color from coming here? Is it something that we mandate that they come here? Mandates to get over the hurdles of fear?”

Roni gets theoretical and asks, “I wonder who the Writing Center is made for in terms of the narrative being told about the Writing Center? It caters to the dominant culture, Usually people of color are the ones on the other side of the table. We ain’t used to being in the position to help but always being helped. There is a fear of failure.”

While, at times, failure is a constant fear in many writing consultants, Shewonda reminds people that diversity in the writing center can be beneficial to clients. She notes “if the diversity is there it would help people feel more welcome. We need a way to show people of color they are welcome.”

What in the Writing Center deters students of color, particularly Black students, from coming to the Writing Center? Through what ways can the Writing Center show minority clients that they are welcome within the Writing Center?

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