Rhetorics of Insecurity: Foregrounding (Un)Documented Status as Axis of Identity

This conference talk was presented at MLA 2018 in New York, NY.

In a recent essay published on Medium, Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) and Long Island University professor Jamila Lyiscott asks us to consider how our classroom pedagogies align with the hegemonies of coloniality (2017). She writes, “What if I told you that prevailing attitudes toward the language practices that students bring into the classroom are rooted in colonial, often racist, logic? What if I told you that by not disrupting these kinds of attitudes in your classroom, your pedagogy might be more aligned with colonialism than you realize?” Lyiscott proceeds to discuss ways in which we can work against these attitudes, including checking our own attitudes about multiple language practices and those of our students. Coloniality inhabits and becomes manifest at the most intimate rhetorical and corporeal levels, after all.

Along the same lines and for similar reasons, here I want to draw attention to inured language practices that are also harmful, albeit so deeply embedded in our daily forms of discourse that we often literally fail to have words for them and therefore erase their significance and existence among those of us with privilege. In this case, I refer to the issue of un/documentedness and the tendency to evoke the label as one that exists solely in reference to those whose existence is directly affected by the lack of papers. This is not to deny—ever—that people who are undocumented do not face special dangers and fears that the rest of us do not, but it is to say that with that identity human beings become burdened by political and material hardships that many of us do not have to assume in our daily lives. Because those of us with documented-status privilege do not have to take these hardships into account, knowledge of these issues becomes the responsibility of those most affected by them. This though those of us with privilege and power tend to have more time and energy at our disposal and though that privilege is bought at the expense of those without it. Frankly, this is to argue that, just as we have struggled to render masculinity, whiteness, straightness, cisgender identity visible rather than the “natural,” non-designated analogue to an “extra” inconsistency, we must work also to render documentedness a visible dimension of identity rather than a presumed but invisible status against which undocumented people are disparaged. To fail to acknowledge that aspect of one’s privileged identity is to contribute to the violence of ongoing colonization and coloniality that imposes whitestream nationalism on Indigenous lands and also to the ethnicist frameworks that cast non-whites as liminal outsiders who can be used to guard the borders of whiteness and conquered geographies. We see this in the Latinx community where documented Latinxs are encouraged to see themselves as distinct from undocumented Latinxs, to strive toward whiteness through a reliance on anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism, and to seek to prove their UnitedStatesian identity through a renunciation of language and often military activity.

Furthermore, ignoring this aspect of identity obscures how Latinx and other identities are framed as in/visible via a reliance on the “regime of deportability.” Adela C, Licona and Marta Maria Maldonado define “Latin@ visibilities and invisibilities” as “spatialized practices by individuals, families, communities, institutions, and the state that render Latin@s (or through which Latin@s render themselves) visible or invisible across contexts, with repercussions for survival, community integration, and political praxis” (2013, p. 1-2). These are intrinsically influenced by the regime of deportability, which produces “hyper/visibilities and hyper/invisibilities as it, at once, calls migrants out from the shadows (in a spectacle of detention practices and raids) and forces them back into the shadows by entrenching notions of illegality and practices of surveillance and policeability [even as] society continues to rely heavily on (unauthorized) immigrant labor” (p. 5). To this we must add the ways in which a reliance on the regime of deportability as a regulatory mechanism affects intersectional identities and their attendant needs so that they too are rendered simultaneously hyper/visible and hyper/invisible in rhetorical ways useful to nationalistic organization. For example, in the case of disabled undocumented immigrants, too many people are denied material access to treatment and access to empathy reserved for human beings. M. Carmela Pérez & Lisa Fortuna explain that the combined problems of poverty, exploitation, racism, discrimination, and substance abuse disorders (2005, p. 110-111), coupled with limited access to services and the increased impetus for secrecy, allowing us to understand how disability is more likely to be read as criminality. Doris Marie Provine & Roxanne Lynn Doty show how public policy reproduces prevalent racisms and, in turn, contributes to a “racial project” that establishes difference as fact so that “[e]ven in the absence of overt racism, the combination of increased surveillance and sanctions, agency hype, and everyday practice together produce an immigrant ‘other’ whose continued presence is increasingly perceived to be dangerous for the security and integrity of the nation” (2011, p. 264).

Together lack of access and lack of empathy reinforce the rhetorical impression of embodied threat, an impression difficult to contest when it seemingly corroborates discriminatory legal rhetorics. For example, the Immigration Act of 1990 lists nine grounds for exclusion including health concerns (such as having or having had “a physical or mental disorder and behavior associated with the disorder”), “moral turpitude” offenses, or the possibility that an individual “is likely at any time to become a public charge” (U.S. Department of Justice, 1990). The proximity of these designation within immigration acts classifies members of already vulnerable groups “as a form of pollution” (Park & Park 2005, p. 27), reflecting enduring impressions of immigrants as biologically inferior and a costly burden to taxpayers. These sentiments are exacerbated in the case of undocumented people, who are seen as dangerous and a burden the cost of which is unmerited rather than as human beings. Nationalistic rhetorics frame Othered flesh as social sickness, and so, the very real issues affecting very real people become obscured or come to be regarded as proof of their undesirability. Meanwhile, those with documented privilege may come to resent the basic needs of undocumented people, especially if their own lack of access is evident, and come to see things such as shelter, food, and medical care as issues of meritocracy rather than fundamentally connected to organizational schema designed to discourage and/or eradicate the Outsider.

Because language allows us to create the conditions of the world around us, here I wish to focus on a rhetorical approach to uncovering this one expression of coloniality. But as I do, I will say that of course talking about these issues is insufficient without actions and activism to support such dialogues. However, in raising the standing of un/documentedness to a more evenhanded recognized axis of identity, it is a sincere hope that within the classroom we can come to recognize it as one that implicates us all, and recognize how it affects the ways we read and write and also live our lives. Thus, we can we begin accommodate our identities and those of our students in an inclusive, decolonial praxis. Hence, drawing from compositionists working in feminist, critical race, and disability studies, today I call for an approach that foregrounds ethos, accessibility, and intersectionality as markers of “good rhetoric.” And, in doing do, I aim to highlight un/documented status as an aspect of identity that everyone maintains, not just the most vulnerable, and for that reason those with contextual privilege are responsible for acknowledging that identity and its privileges. It is important to do so in order to uncover the often-unchallenged assumptions that continue to inform whitestream rhetoric and composition pedagogy.

Traditionally, rhetoric has been loosely defined as the ability to communicate in a stylistic and persuasive manner. But the concept itself has proven problematic, at times associated with the many uses of elaborate and ornate language, at times with the conveyance of ethics and truth. For me, rhetoric is stylistic language that influences relationality and governs whose goals are centered and whose are overwritten. It is not just a vehicle for identification and persuasion but these processes in action. Positionality influences our goals and our social roles, creates impressions of insider and/or outsider status in rhetorical and material relationships, and affects others through our constructions of inclusive or hostile spaces. It is inescapable though some believe it’s not always about gender, race, disability, un/documented status. Life is about every single one of those things for all us, even if the default norms obscure one or more of those dimensions of privileged persons’ identities. As Tara J. Yosso argues in talking about racism, subjugation “is often well disguised in the rhetoric of shared ‘normative’ values and ‘neutral’ social scientific principles and practices” (p. 119). This is why it crucial that we reframe rhetoric to bypass notions of neutral audiences to imagine specific identities. Otherwise, the notion of a good person speaking well continues to harbor epistemic violence under the guise of objectivity and virtue.

Thus, I wish to engage in what Royster and Kirsch term the use of critical imagination to suggest how we might re-envision rhetoric’s capacity as an invitational rather than identity-imposing process. This involves what Royster and Kirsch explain as “tacking in” and “tacking out.” Tacking in is the “use of longstanding analytical tools…to focus closely on existing resources… and existing scholarship to assess what we now understand and to speculate about what seems to be missing,” while tacking out is the use of “what we have come to know by more-traditional means…to broaden our own viewpoints in anticipation of what might become more visible from a longer or broader view, where the scene may not be in fine detail but in broader strokes and deep impressions” (p. 72). These strategies are crucial in highlighting standpoints backgrounded by whitestream rhetoric but that are nonetheless pervasive.

Rhetoric as the establishing of positionality requires a comprehensive reorientation, from a focus on the rhetor’s use of style to coerce the audience into consenting to the rhetor’s code of ethics and acting from that stance, to an emphasis on the mutually constitutive quality of identity and ethics. To do this, we must shift from speaking well to what Krista Ratcliffe deems rhetorically listening well. We must practice communication within “logics of accountability” where accountability, as bell hooks explains, is an appreciation of our similarities and differences and a realization that “all people have a stake in each other’s quality of life” (Ratcliffe, 2006, p. 31). To quote Malea Powell’s 2012 C’s Chair’s Address, “Through relationality, [we] can build another path—one that resists a defensive posture and instead, honors the stories and bodies who came before and will come after [us]. It isn't a solution, but a worldview to tell stories, teach, and live in this weird space called academia” (p. 390). In suggesting this shift, I do so in full recognition that what I suggest is nothing new, that my Indigenous ancestors lived the tenet of “all our relations,” that my African ancestors knew the communal and creative power of nommo which, as Sheena C. Howard explains, “brings about harmony and balance” (Howard, 2011, p. 739). In recognition, too, that these principles are still practiced today in communities and public spheres habitually rendered the phenomenological background of “respectable” rhetorics and “correct” composition. What I call for, then, in asking that we all acknowledge our relationship to un/documentedness is a foregrounding of communal orientation as a corrective to the individualism of eurowestern rhetoric that fosters oppression by ignoring those dimensions of identity and ascribing them only to those without privilege.

A commitment to listening and learning must be accompanied by an acknowledgment that “additional” identities that seem to belong to those “others” pertain to us all, even and especially if we are privileged to never feel their effects. For example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson reminds us in conversation with Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Georgina Kleege that “disability is everywhere. Just like we know now that gender is everywhere, even when it doesn’t look like gender. Just as Toni Morrison says, Blackness is everywhere, even when we’re not talking about African Americans” (p. 28). Even and especially when one is non-disabled, not a woman, not raced, not undocumented, these are axes of identity that organize all of our lives. And so, even and especially if we are not affected by them directly, we should listen to those most affected by them to better comprehend our entanglement within these categories to ensure that we do not remain complicit in perpetuating oppressive norms. Rather than asking who we want to be in a given situation in order to be heeded, we might ask ourselves who we must be in order to heed.

This calls for sincere humility, a willingness to be uncomfortable. It demands that we be prepared to attend to signs of those things that we don’t know we don’t know and then seeking to educate ourselves accordingly. As Sharan B. Merriam et al. note in their work on insider/outsider status, this positionality is complicated. There are “silent understandings, culture-bound phrases…and non-verbalized answers” (p. 406) that we may not be privy to, and always some that we should perhaps not aim to know. Cultural meanings are “multiple and contradictory…[and some that] cannot be understood without reference to historical, political and economic discourses” (citing Kondo, 1990; p. 409), even  among parties who seem themselves as members of the same community. Humility requires that we not enact erasure or impose on people the role of native informant. Instead, we can acknowledge our ignorance outright by declaring our positionality and its limits. Acknowledging our communication from a specific place within a nexus of identities frames a lack of knowledge as an opportunity to learn and grow and empathize without (hopefully) being paternalistic. And, this requires that we explicitly reimagine rhetorical potential from a social justice outlook, not in uncertain theoretical terms but as it affects human beings in concrete ways, especially those whose needs have not been habitually centered—those of us who have been rendered tropes through which “real” rhetoric takes place.

In closing, I wish to state that I personally despise the language of legality and illegality, that I hope for a day where terms do not have the ability to segregate human beings who share my flesh and blood and language and culture. But I recognize too that my privilege and security come at the expense of those whose every move is determined by a visa or permit. I state this here because I do not wish to legitimize oppressive uses of language but, as Richard Delgado notes in expounding on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s take on decolonial writing, I too acknowledge that there is immense difficulty, even an impossibility, in promoting self-liberation using colonial discourse. Too often we use “terms, topics, and metaphors” familiar to dominant culture audiences, unfortunately diminishing the intent and effects of resistance (Delgado 2013, p. 311). Writing that centers those forced to live at the periphery of concern must reflect this remaking process. We cannot always ourselves of what DeCerteau calls “imposed knowledge and symbolisms…manipulated by practitioners who have not produced them” (DeCerteau 1988, p. 32) because we are our stories and we must apply them—and ourselves—differently. Our survival compels it. Yet as Licona & Maldonado explain, the “racialization of Latin@s as foreigners and immigrants…renders [us] ‘reasonably suspicious’ and therefore potentially criminal” 2014, p. 522). It is not the case that colonization and coloniality affects only some of us; it implicates us of all by a matter of severity and degree, granting some privilege, imposing harsh injunctions on others, and exerting both in all contexts in the interest of state taxonomies. Until we find new language of subvert the logics of ableist ethnoracial nationalism, perhaps the very least we can do is acknowledge the erasure of identity that takes place at the expense of undocumented members of our communities and make use of that privilege in service to those rendered hypervisible and hyperinvisible by the colonial apparatus.


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