Carnegie Mellon University

An Aspirational Rhetoric of Anti- Racism: A Participatory Study of Responsive Engagement

Author: Will Penman
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2018

Dismantling racism in the U.S. is as important today as it has been since our country began. Following many scholars of race and whiteness, I understand racism to be an action of closing oneself off and controlling, and anti-racism to be a contextual process of putting oneself in uncertain situations, receiving people’s guidance and critique, and correspondingly acting. From this understanding, this dissertation argues that a process of responsive anti-racist action is also in part language skills; anti-racism is rhetorical. In particular, when white people talk about wanting to act against racism but not knowing how, it shows the limitation of anti-racist approaches centered on people’s beliefs, suggesting instead that we should develop rhetorical concepts to address people’s deep-seated habits around race. This dissertation analyzes rhetorical strategies adopted by a group of mostly white people in their efforts to act more strongly against racism, developed in the context of a three-year participatory study with local people from two progressive churches.

I expand and use an analytic framework in which the core of anti-racist rhetorical practice is a process of seeking exposure, receiving people’s guidance and advice, and acting. Three practices are developed in collaboration with participants for their potential to maintain this rhetorical process: call-and-response, debriefing, and a strategy for researchers of participation. I find that the scripted, community-authorized nature of call-and-response makes participating a way of speaking so as to be shaped. People’s willingness to participate creates habit, teaching them to yield control and stay exposed. Debriefing is a strategy for white people to support each other, by talking through day-to-day stories that might otherwise make them feel stuck. Debriefing gets people out of their own interpretive ruts, opening themselves up to insights by others that can support continued and new action. Finally, participation addresses researchers’ need to also learn to maintain exposure to others. Participation yields the researcher’s control to people in and around a project, and exposes ethical calls that would otherwise remain hidden. 

Ultimately these three strategies contribute to a responsive anti-racist engagement, which builds on emerging directions in rhetorical scholarship that emphasize vulnerability. In contrast to much of rhetorical theory focused on how effectively a rhetor changing the audience, responsive anti-racist engagement attends to how effectively rhetors respond to others. This is particularly important when responding to systems of injustice. Theorizing and practicing responsiveness may facilitate more robust, thoroughgoing, transformative anti-racist ways of being in the world.