Vol 2. No. 10 (Spring 2021)
Vidya Natarajan, Writing Program Coordinator, King’s University College & CWCA/ACCR Conference Co-Chair
Her “Moving Beyond Alright” address, delivered at the 2017 IWCA conference in Chicago, was one of the most stirring calls to righteous action that writing centre professionals had ever heard. Neisha-Anne S. Green, carrying the responsibility of being the first Black person to deliver the annual conference keynote in the 34-year history of the IWCA, made a passionate case for “social and civic justice” in writing centres, and the active accompliceship of those in power towards those disenfranchised. In this year of racial reckoning, she has agreed to deliver the opening keynote at CWCA’s 2021 conference, “Transformative Inclusivity.” I could not be more thrilled.
When we meet virtually, her warmth and passion flow right through and beyond the edges of the little Zoom window on my screen. I mean to ask her about the two striking paintings that flank the portraits on the wall behind her chair, but end up asking, instead, how she would like to be addressed—Professor Green, Neisha, Neisha-Anne?
“Through grad school and whatnot,” she replies, “everyone knew me as Neisha, because that’s what my family calls me, Neisha or NeNe. But I realized that people needed to put some respect on my name. I couldn’t force them to put respect on my body. I can’t force them to put respect on my scholarship and on my intellect and on my intelligence, but without them knowing it, I can force them to put respect on my name. And so, I made a conscious decision, when I started at American University, to introduce myself as Neisha-Anne. And I’ve been doing that, within professional circles ever since.”
At American University, Washington DC, Neisha-Anne wears many hats. She is Director of Academic Student Support Services and The Writing Center, Faculty Fellow for the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Program, Faculty Affiliate for the Anti-Racist Policy and Research Center, and instructor. In each of her roles, she is committed equally to mentorship of students and colleagues, and to critique of institutional power:
I tell my administrators all the time: to me, the Writing Center is the hub of the university. Whatever happens across the university will eventually trickle its way into the Writing Centre, because it’s happening to students, and students are using the Centre. Whether or not we are paying attention to it, it is going to come through our doors. The people who are at the biggest disadvantage are the students who are seeking help, and the tutors who want to help them but don’t have the necessary tools.
Despite her seniority, and despite the wide recognition she has won, much of Neisha-Anne’s everyday experience has involved countering subconscious racism in the academic world. “So much racial trauma has seeped into our hearts and our bodies and in our minds. Existing out of a space of trauma is a whole lot of work.”
She talks of the work she has been doing with her (largely White) colleagues. “Some people can understand [antiracism]. They can grow and get to that piece of understanding. When it actually comes to implementing it, though, there is a lot happening for them. What we’re basically asking people to do is to be brave. And not just be brave with their everyday actions and be brave with how they hire and how they train–we’re asking them to challenge their socialization, challenge the way that they were raised, challenge who raised them, challenge their familiar community.”
This means that if she points out an instance of racist behaviour or thinking, she feels called upon to support the person who has transgressed. “I get conflicted on this because I’m like, well, this is not my job, but I’m sympathetic to the fact that no one is helping them do the back work. No one is helping them figure out how to tackle those hard discussions with their spouse or their parents or their auntie or whoever the hell raised them. I think we need to do some racial reckoning and some racial healing work.”
What would racial healing or reckoning look like? Neisha-Anne suggests that the process of healing must necessarily begin with a sober and honest evaluation of collective, familial, and individual histories. She refuses to buy the idea that people can simply disown responsibility for past wrongs. She asserts that racial healing would require White people to acknowledge the racial wrongs done by their ancestors, and the benefits gained from those wrongs.
“As people of colour,” she says, “we already call on our ancestors for guidance, we take looks back, we try to understand their experience, understand their words, understand how they survived. I think White people need to do similar work: they need to go back and have those hard conversations with their ancestors and reckon with the things that have happened in their past. How many times have we heard people say, ‘Well, that’s not my problem, I wasn’t there you know, that happened before my time.’ But we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors.”
So how can Writing Centres support Black, indigenous, and racialized staff and students?
“Get out the way.”
Neisha-Anne recalls an article she reviewed for a Writing Centre journal, in which White scholars used critical race theory and counter-story to describe the experiences of racialized persons. “It’s not your story to tell,” she says. “
Give people of colour their own avenue, their own way to tell their stories. Why pick up my creation and my tool, when you already have your own tools? Because you have the skin colour to tell that story, you have the privilege to tell that story. And your gatekeeping has been telling me that my tools aren’t good enough for me, for the academy, and for the world. Writing centres need to create spaces for those stories to be told, and heard, without getting in the way.
Neisha-Anne Green is Director of Academic Student Services Writing Center in the Academic Support and Access Center at American University. Hear more from Neisha-Anne at her Opening Plenary to the CWCA/ACCR 2021 conference on Monday May 17 . Conference details are available here.