On Being Flustered

Marcos Gonsalez describes the challenges of imagining a different way of being in the classroom with students, especially marginalized ones.

April 26, 2019

Flustered, as an affect, as a way of being, is nothing new for those of us who are marginalized within the university. Being flustered happens when those who have previously excluded you are now feigning “open minds” and “good intentions” and that they are “devil’s advocates.” Being flustered is a result of being alone in your rage. Being flustered happens because you are made to feel crazy, unintelligible and “uncivil.”

Before meeting to discuss with others how to improve the writing skills of students of color, I tell myself I will remain quiet. I know how these conversations unfold. Laura Smith and her colleagues, referencing Stephen Brookfield, note there are “three kinds of overarching behaviors that constitute general stumbling blocks for white teachers: (a) preaching or vigorously proclaiming one’s superior knowledge and thereby posing as ‘the good white person,’ (b) disdaining or disparaging other whites who are not as enlightened as oneself, and (c) withholding or silencing oneself in multiracial settings to let others speak, thus affirming the assumption that one’s white voice will necessarily be the most powerful.” They highlight how whiteness is attitudinal -- different kinds of affective and tonal postures taken up to deflect or dampen any critique against whiteness in the university. I have known those different attitudes intimately, for decades, which is why I want to remain quiet.

Yet there I am with my hands in the air for emphasis and voice riled up. Riled up because I try as best as I can to vouch for the voices and styles of writing that marginalized students bring to the table, vouching for them all across the spaces of my life: in the university, in workshops, in online spaces, at home with loved ones. Riled up because I know what it’s like to be one of those students who gets written off. I am a poor, first-generation scholar, with an undocumented Mexican father and a Puerto Rican mother, helping my parents with the little bit of stipend and fellowship money I get, figuring out things in real time though real time is costly, deathly. I know what it’s like for a teacher or professor to annihilate you with critique, to be told you speak incorrectly and don’t speak well. I know what it’s like to have a professor tell you that you aren’t ready for graduate school because you do not think or write as elegantly, or as sophisticatedly, as they do. I know what it’s like to doubt and question your worth and thoughts within the university system. This doubt is intensified by the hardship many first-generation students of color have in acquiring solid mentorship and support in navigating academe.

Now I am a writing instructor and close to completing my doctorate in English (though no one thought it possible). I am trying to make students better writers and thinkers. I am trying to imagine a different way of being in the classroom with students.

I make my case as I have made in so many settings, in person and online: higher education is structured by white supremacy. When I teach classes with only students of color, those students speak freely about whiteness and being marginalized in the university. They note how they can’t speak or write freely in many other classes and spaces.

I remind students that they must remember the contexts they are in -- not all classes are like mine. And this reminds them they have to code-switch in other classes. Those who can’t code-switch suffer the most.

When I head into the office of a fellow faculty member of color, we speak, sometimes indirectly, about systematic racism and the difficulties of being in academe, using gestures or vocal emphases to express the intensity of how we feel, knowing how thin the walls and doors can be. Even when we are alone, white supremacy still structures how we relate to one another.

The group I’m speaking to about improving the writing of students of color is white with the exception of two of us. They are all sympathetic to what I am saying. They want antiracist writing pedagogy, too, but I think they are put off by my emotion, by my being riled up. Discomfort appears in their faces. After my speech, the room falls silent. The conversation moves on to something else. I’ve said all those fancy words in my confident stride, with eloquently crafted sentences, giving them my best white man’s speech -- and yet, like always, like so many times before, I’m flustered. I feel invisible. I feel like I didn’t explain myself well. After some minutes on the other topic, unexpectedly, across from me someone says, “I want to return to our prior conversation. We did exactly what he said we would do: we moved on uncomfortably.”

I appreciate this rare moment because this white person is doing the labor expected of me and those like me. When a white person does this, it sets a precedent, an example that this work of dismantling white supremacy does not always have to be led by those it hurts most. This might be one way of enacting change in the university and in the classrooms where students of color exist, when those in positions of power, who have less to lose, get flustered. Though this being flustered is not the same when a marginalized person is flustered, because the people in positions of privilege and power usually get rewarded for their anger, for speaking up, while we usually do not.

Being flustered is similar to José Esteban Muñoz’s theorization of a brown depressive affect, where he posits, “Feeling brown is a mode of racial performativity, a doing within the social that surpasses limitations of epistemological renderings of race.” Being flustered performs itself similarly to Muñoz’s formulation where the knottedness becomes a source for knowledge production, which can critique the banality of systematic racism as it happens across the university. Since I entered kindergarten, I have known what it is like to be flustered. Now I am finally able to cope better with this particular affective embodiment, theorizing with it in order to help forge antiracist writing pedagogy.

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Marcos Gonsalez is an essayist and Ph.D. candidate in English language and literature. His work focuses on queer of color embodiment and poetics and thinking the nonhuman decolonial in aesthetics. His essays can be found or are forthcoming at Electric Literature, Ploughshares, Catapult, The New Inquiry and Los Angeles Review, among others.


Marcos Gonsalez

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