Antiracist Writing Pedagogy: Racialized Places of Labor and Listening

by Asao B. Inoue
Professor and Director of University Writing & the Writing Center
University of Washington Tacoma


First, an exercise in listening, not for me, but you, dear reader. The place I grew up, and the place in which I began reading and writing. This is the origin of my antiracist pedagogy.

I grew up in North Las Vegas in government, subsidized housing. Each apartment was white brick with three windows, one next to the front door, and one in each of the two bedrooms. Thinking back now, our home seemed like a cement box, not a home, yet it was my home. One of my strongest memories of living on Stats Street in North Las Vegas was coming home after the landlord had fumigated the entire building. We opened the door to find literally thousands of dead or dying cockroaches everywhere. They created a bed of carcasses the size of quarters and silver dollars on the floors and carpet, some still writhing and twitching. The roaches, legs up, formed a layer of bodies on tables, couch, chairs — everything. Some were dangling from the ceiling, dropping periodically. They ticked when they hit a hard surface. I remember the ticking.

As the door swung open, my mother clutched us closer and sat down in the doorway of our apartment. The three of us sat on the cement stoop, and she put her face in her hands and cried. It was the first and almost only time I remember seeing my mother cry. I was maybe seven years old. A friend came over that night and helped my mom vacuum up the roaches. I remember snatches of the entire evening. It was traumatic for us all. I never really recovered from the experience. Piles of shiny-backed, brown roaches, some in their death-throws, most dead, that’s what I remember. The feeling of helplessness, of thinking how do we live in such a place? How have we lived in such a place? How do we escape? How will we ever make this our home again? How do I go to school tomorrow, and come home, and learn? You see, I knew, even then at seven or eight years old, that this was the place where I would need to do the labors required to learn. I would need to sit on those floors, or in that chair, and read my school books, or write the first essay I remember writing, ironically about who I was, about my skin, my color — yes, that’s how I translated the prompt, “who are you?” Those floors would be where I would sit and read each night, book after book, and win the second grade reading contest. It was not easy labor.

What does my childhood home have to do with antiracist pedagogy? Antiracist pedagogy pays careful attention to the places our students labor for our courses, the places of reading and writing. So I situate what I’m offering in my past, in my home and educational life as a poor, child of color. I situate myself as a writing teacher who was a boy of color, growing up in a mostly poor, African American city, North Las Vegas (NLV was established through redlining practices by local banks), trying to learn in extreme poverty, in a home with one mom, who was then younger than me now. We struggled to make “ends meat” — That’s what I still hear when the euphemism is spoken, “ends meat,” like cheap meat that only poor folks might feel lucky to struggle and get, meat that was always on my mind growing up, mostly because we didn’t have it, and I was always hungry — meat was what folks struggled for, what folks looked to make, even if only the ends of it. In many colleges and universities today, particularly the ones I’ve taught in, our students may live in similar conditions as the ones I grew up in, in poverty, in food scarce homes. Even if this isn’t the case for your students, all of our students’ homes are important places that make up the context for much of their learning, whether they are places in which they do the labors we ask of them, or places to escape from in order to do that work elsewhere.

Antiracist pedagogy in writing classrooms, as I see it, makes more present the contexts of laboring that our students in the classroom must work in, or against, then attempts to link those contexts of laboring to larger, racialized structures in society, structures like redlining, economics and tax laws, histories of racial segregation in the area, the discourses used at home or in churches. These structures create linguistic alcoves in the larger language gardens that make up diverse places, like Tacoma, or Fresno, or Seattle.

Most of the labors of learning in our classrooms do not occur in those classrooms. They occur elsewhere. We ask students to read and write, and most of that reading and writing happens somewhere else. But where labor happens is just as important as what that labor consists of, or who does it. It mattered, for instance, that my labors of reading in second grade were done in extreme poverty, in an apartment that no one in my family wanted to be in, a place we wanted to escape. It also mattered that we lived in an almost all black neighborhood, in an almost all black city. It mattered that my best friends were black, that they shaped my languaging early on. It mattered that by the 20th of each month there was no more money in our home, no more food to be bought. What was there was all we had until the first. It mattered to my laboring to learn that we shared our home with thousands of cockroaches, that no fumigation could rid us of. It mattered that I would sit on the floor, read my books, and think about the roaches, the many, many roaches.

Living conditions, work schedules, child-care duties, domestic and family duties, transportation issues and travel time to and from school, mental illnesses, and food scarcity are just some of the issues that my students at the University of Washington Tacoma face all the time, not all of them, but in my classrooms, more often many of my students of color. Many of these are the conditions that make up the places my students call home. They are not all bad, but they are not all helpful to learning or to the work of our course either.

I use labor logs and weekly labor and mindfulness journals to make more present the places of labor, like home, and work, and the bus, and the car. These are important in my courses in part because course grades are determined by a labor-based grading contract, which students and I negotiate during the first and sixth week of the quarter. Students are acclimated to thinking in terms of labor not just because of the contract, but because all assignments are articulated through labor instructions. For instance, I provide an initial set of labor instructions that leads students through a reading of the contract for class discussion. In class, we continue that reading through further discussions that I lead (see slides 5-6). Each week in our five-minute freewriting time dedicated to our labor and mindfulness journals, I ask them to look closely at the entries in their labor logs for the previous week. Choose one entry, one session of labor, and describe it physically, discuss how it felt, what engagement felt like during the session, and what they might learn from this labor session for their next labor session?

When we share some of these entries together, we talk about common problems with doing the labor of the class. Every quarter, I’m always a little shocked at how many of my students do most of their serious reading and writing for the class in non-home places, usually places on campus, such as the library, or on a bus, or in their car in the parking lot. Keep in mind, most of my students are commuter students. We have very little student housing, so most students take the bus or drive to campus. Doing the work of our course in the library, or campus coffee shop, or study nook in a hallway would seem inconvenient to me, unless home is not a place for reading and writing, at least not the kind they are trying to do in our course, or if going home just isn’t that convenient, given their schedule.

After one discussion of our labor in a first-year writing course, I brought in some demographic statistics on Tacoma. Then we looked briefly at maps of where people lived, which showed us the racial makeup of those neighborhoods and their median household incomes. I asked my students to consider the places where they did most of their labor for the class and why they think they made those decisions at the time? Then I asked them to consider how these data suggest structures in our lives that offer us options for the places we live, work, go to school, commune with others, and do the work of our course. How might such structures be already racialized and affect their work for our class by affecting their decisions about where they do their work? Not easy questions to answer, but when asked often enough, they can open discussions that help me, the teacher, adjust the class’s week to week work, respond to the diverse students in front of me at each moment of the term. Do we slow down and do less reading but think more carefully about it? Do we adjust the assignments’ due dates because too many students in the class work all weekend? Like all good support groups, sometimes just hearing someone else say, “I’m struggling because I have to take care of my father,” or “my home is too noisy. I get interrupted every 5 or 10 minutes, so I work late at night after the kids go to bed.” Sometimes, antiracist pedagogy is a pedagogy of listening and opening spaces for listening. Sometimes, listening is all we can do, and enough.

I’m tempted to say that what I offer here are the practices of the labor log and the weekly labor journal as antiracist, metacognitive practices that help focus students’ attentions on how and where they labor for the course, but they are not — well, not the main thing I offer. The big thing is finding structural ways in one’s courses that will allow conversations about one’s laboring for the course to be about the places in which students are laboring in order to think with students about what those places mean to us, how they help us, or do not help us, how they construct us and our work for the course

What makes these conversations antiracist pedagogy are their outcomes, at least in my classrooms. We use them to make decisions about the work of the course, adjusting to the material lives of those in the room — this creates equity in how labor is assigned and circulated in the assessment ecology. Additionally, it is antiracist because it explores the racialized structures that create the places of laboring, offering students ways to move past individual guilt, or hopelessness, or an “I just don’t write well” attitude, and toward informed stances that I believe offer coping strategies for the material conditions that do not end when final grades are assigned in our course. Tomorrow, we all still got eat.  

Finally, antiracist pedagogy, in my view, demands that we listen compassionately and carefully, designing structures and times in our courses for listening, knowing that sometimes we need to respond to what we hear as teachers, changing things to help our students out, and sometimes we just need to listen. You might be surprised at how many of your students of color, for example, will tell you that they have never felt listened to by any teacher — and that’s mostly what all students want, to be listened to and respected.