Okay, to be fair, her feedback survey only mentioned that I was biased against the argument of her paper, black civil rights, and while I don’t think I am racist--and I’m definitely not opposed to addressing police brutality in African American communities--her comments made me stop and wonder: am I racist? As a white male, when I enter a consultation with a minority, say a woman of color, can what I do, how I present myself, and how I help be racist?
She wanted a grammar check, that infamous check for grammar, the insatiable wailing toddler in the backseat of consultations, the archnemesis to the tutor’s goodwill. I explained that I’d do my best to “help you become a better reviser of your own work” as I usually do, and then we got under way. As we grazed over the introduction and crossed into her claim, comma splices, standalone demonstrative articles, and FANBOYS felt like distractions to the ambiguity that was trying to be her thesis. In order to address the higher order concern, I suggested that she specify her claim, posing neutral questions like “how specifically do police treat African American communities differently?” and “in what ways is this a problem?” Without explicit permission, I trailed from her initial request to what I considered a more relevant prescription.
Even worse than straying from her initial request, my neutral questions were too specific. Nick, an admin at our writing center, later explained how oftentimes clients don’t distinguish themselves from their writing and take criticism of their writing as criticism of themselves. My questions de-validated her argument, challenging the legitimacy of police brutality instead of prompting her to think critically about the development of her argument and specifying her thesis. Both my decision to address an unwanted higher order concern and how I posed my questions obstructed the flow: because she thought I disagreed with her, she may have assumed me less able to help and been more reluctant to receive it.
So, I have already conceded that my tutoring tactics failed me, but what if there’s more to the story? What if our subconscious recognition of the fact that I’m a white man and she’s a black woman further exacerbated the issue? We each bring identity constructions to the literal table; however as strangers, we both can only recognize those identities apparent to us. I failed to see beyond that which was apparent in her, that she’s female and black. She recognized that I’m a white male, but failed to see that I’m gay, liberal, Houstonian, etc--some of which are identities that, had she known, might have reduced the chances of her drawing the conclusion that I was biased against her topic.
As tutors, we must be vigilant of identity constructions. We are members of a profession that demands we transgress into insecure spaces, especially when a client’s identity plays a role in the topic of their work. The questions I asked delegitimized her argument and its relation to her identity. In precarious consultations like this one, we should use our acknowledgement of the potential for misconstruction to ask questions that situate the client as the authority over content. More general statements like “what is it that you argue in this paragraph?” and “okay, so summarize that and include it in your thesis” keep the conversation grounded in the essay and remove potential interference from identity constructions.
The answer to my question is yes and no: I may not be racist for blundering as a tutor, but I offended my client’s identity, thereby disrupting our rapport, which in turn inhibited her learning process.