Power and Passing as a Native “Native” Speaker in the Writing Center

by Lucien Darjeun Meadows

I.

So, why should this national park—above any others—be preserved? 

It’s historically significant. 

How so?

The Native Americans used to use it. It was important to them and Native American culture. That’s all in the past now, but I think it’s still relevant.

Recently, I had a Writing Center consultation session with “Rose,” a first-year student assigned to write a newspaper editorial on how she would respond if a national park of her choice was to be destroyed to build a commercial development. Rose read her essay aloud, and we spent the majority of our time together discussing her writing from different perspectives—like exploring the importance of this park to different audiences and in different contexts, when this essay’s opening lines of dialogue were voiced.

In one major paragraph, Rose discussed the historical significance of her chosen national park to the major tribe of this region. Yet, she phrased everything in the past tense and conflated the story of this one tribe with nationwide Native cultures, leading readers to feel as if there were only one Native culture and perspective, and all in the distant past. I confined my comments to the text, observing how this paragraph was uniquely in past tense and the language moved between discussing this particular tribe and nationwide indigenous cultures without clear distinction. Rose confirmed as intentional the past tense, as “they don’t live there anymore,” and the conflation, as “most tribes saw the natural world in similar ways.” We moved on, returning to this paragraph only when relevant to larger themes (i.e. generating a thesis map).

II.

Tell me about how you came to explore this word for your essay?

Well, I know it’s a controversial word. Native American readers might not like my views. 

Oh?

You know, I planned on asking my consultant if they were a Native American but I saw I was working with you.

Funny you should say that! I’m Native. 

Is that right? I never would have guessed! You don’t look Native American. I’m fascinated by Native Americans. I love their culture. I love their skin and how they look.

A few weeks prior to my consultation with Rose, I had a consultation with Gloria, a transfer student assigned to write an essay to discuss a controversial word and use etymology and rhetoric to propose a solution to this controversy. Gloria’s chosen word was “pioneer;” she outlined conflicts between indigenous and white groups as to its usage, and I came out as Native to position myself and provide some real-life relevance to our conversation.

This decision led to stimulating discussion, with Gloria generating language to use in her essay, but I felt uncertain on three points: (1) Gloria was surprised to learn I was Native and frequently said, “I never would have guessed;” (2) Gloria repeatedly expressed her “fascination” with Native peoples and “their culture;” and (3) these two points took time away from discussing her essay, though they did facilitate conversation, as Gloria then shared her experiences as a Caribbean person and first-generation US citizen. I was glad to stand as a listener and peer to Gloria, but I still wonder about my choices—both with Gloria, and with Rose.

III.

I keep returning to my consultations with Rose and Gloria as relevant to humanist education and social justice in the Writing Center. With Gloria, I attempted to practice the “critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization” Paulo Freire describes as key to a “humanist, revolutionary educator” by coming out as Native to inspire a more critical, reflective analysis of Native perspectives as related to Gloria’s essay (62). Still, I felt Gloria kept moving toward seeing me more as a spokesperson than as the “partner” I (and Freire) would prefer to be.

However, with Rose, I remained silent, did not come out as Native, and thus focused our session on her essay without bringing in my personal subjectivity, but I think of how Frankie Condon and Bobbi Olson argue that “agency is occluded by silence on the matter of difference” (35). I felt a lack of agency by not coming out as Native, especially given Rose’s seeming belief that all Native Americans belonged to a homogenous, historic, and seemingly extinct culture—but, at the same time, my agency is not the focus of a consultation. I am here for the writer.

When is it beneficial—even necessary—to bring personal identity into the consulting session? Whether exploring Native identity, or other potentially invisible identities, when does a consultant decide to “come out” to their writer(s)? When does such coming out support “the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other,” from which Freire claims knowledge may emerge (58)?

And when, if problematic perspectives are being explored about folks with whom the consultant is identity-aligned (but what, then, defines “problematic”?), does one push alongside Condon and Olson to avoid “silences sustain[ing] conditions in which it seems acceptable to feel, give voice to, and act on hate, and those silences, regardless of intent, send the message to those who are targeted by hate speech that they are alone” (29)? How do such moments and silences shift power from a collaborative relationship to a power-over relationship, even one that might inadvertently reenact the marginalization of the one choosing/moved into silence? But when are such comings-out irrelevant or detrimental to the focus and mission of a consulting session?

Like Anne DiPardo writes in her seminal article, “‘Whispers of Coming and Going’: Lessons from Fannie,” still arguably the most often-cited text on working with Native writers in the Writing Center despite its publication over 25 years ago, “We all negotiate among multiple identities, moving between public and private selves, living in a present shadowed by the past, encountering periods in which time and circumstance converge to realign or even restructure our images of who we are” (125). Not only consultants, and not only writers. We all negotiate.

And writing centers—these fascinating, liminal, often-marginalized spaces we learn and talk and learn—are uniquely situated spaces for issues of power and privilege, voice and silence, enactment and negotiation. Marilyn Cooper declares, “the goal of empowering students can best be achieved in a writing center” (103), and Nancy Grimm believes, “Writing centers are places where students struggle to connect their public and private lives, and where they learn that success in the academy depends on uncovering and understanding tacit differences in value systems and expectations” (5). Uncovering and understanding.

V.

What other possibilities exist for navigating self-disclosure in Writing Center consultations beyond full silence or full disclosure? Are these two points along a linear binary or could they be triangulated out to a third point—where, almost regardless of whether the consultant “comes out” to the writer, there is authenticity, agency, and voice? As Elizabeth Boquet writes, “If the writing center is to function as an apparatus of educational transformation, that order must develop out of chaos, not through the elimination of it. We must imagine a liminal zone” (84). How can we, as diverse consultants, co-create this liminal zone with writers, where silence does not have to mean oppression, and where full self-disclosure is not required for authenticity?

More consultants than ever before hold diverse identities, including Native and indigenous identities. This presence generates greater awareness of the challenges and opportunities in working as consultants of potentially invisible identities. However, there are still major gaps in conversations and practices. While we know more about approaching self-disclosure from queer perspectives, for example, scholarship on Native perspectives in the Writing Center remains scarce. What about power and passing for the writer—whether in navigating a consultant’s disclosure or navigating their own? What about power and passing for the writer’s text itself?

There is so much to discover. These discoveries will happen—are happening—in writing centers with consultants and writers like you, who are exploring and learning and collaborating to, as bell hooks wrote, “transform consciousness, creating a climate of free expression that is the essence of a truly liberatory liberal arts education” (44). I’m excited to work toward that alongside you.

Works Cited

Boquet, Elizabeth H. “Toward a Performative Pedagogy in the Writing Center.” Noise from the                         Writing Center. UP of Colorado and Utah State UP, 2002, pp. 83-135.

Condon, Frankie and Bobbi Olson. “Building a House for Linguistic Diversity: Writing Centers,                        English-Language Teaching and Learning, and Social Justice.” Tutoring Second                               Language Writers, edited by Shanti Bruce and Ben Rafoth, Utah State UP, 2017,                               pp.  27-52.

Cooper, Marilyn M. “Really Useful Knowledge: A Cultural Studies Agenda for Writing Centers.”                      The Writing Center Journal, vol. 14, no. 2, 1994, pp. 97-111.

DiPardo, Anne. “‘Whispers of Coming and Going’: Lessons from Fannie.” The Writing Center                    Journal, vol. 12, no. 2, 1992, pp. 125-144.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Herder and                 Herder, 1972.

Grimm, Nancy. “Contesting ‘The Idea of a Writing Center’: The Politics of Writing Center                     Research.” Writing Lab Newsletter, vol. 17, no. 1, 1992, pp. 5-6.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress. Routledge, 1994.

Lucien Darjeun Meadows was raised in West Virginia. His poetry has appeared in West Branch, Shenandoah, Pleiades, Narrative, and Beloit Poetry Journal. An AWP Intro Journals Project winner, NAI Certified Interpretive Manager, and PhD student at the University of Denver, he has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and awards from the Academy of American Poets, American Alliance of Museums, and Bread Loaf Conferences. Lucien’s research explores interconnections between environment and identity through formalism, Native studies, translation theory, and working-class Romanticism. He has a profound weakness for kittens, vegan chocolate, and ultramarathons.

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