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Breaking Bad Habits of Race and Gender: Transforming Identity in Schools

reviewed by Sue Ellen Henry - January 19, 2010

coverTitle: Breaking Bad Habits of Race and Gender: Transforming Identity in Schools
Author(s): Sarah Marie Stitzlein
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742563596, Pages: 144, Year: 2009
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Sarah Stitzlein’s book Breaking Bad Habits of Race and Gender draws on long-standing Deweyan tradition of social problem solving while also utilizing some more recent work by Judith Butler to elaborate on the notion of flexible identity(ies). Combining these generative traditions offers readers a thoroughly new way of conceiving of behaviors relative to self-identification and thinking about identity(ies) of others, particularly those who have been historically marginalized in our society. The argument also gently builds toward powerful and important insights into the potential for schools to serve as sites of social change. The reasoning is sophisticated, and the writing is exceptionally clear. The primary argument of the book is that cultivating flexible habits that allow individuals to self-reflect and to resist the “sedimentation” of bad habits provides a procedural framework for reducing prejudice and racism, particularly in schools. This is a theoretically sophisticated and compelling argument, one that scholars interested in issues of multiculturalism will surely find worthy of consideration.

The book is organized in a linear manner, which for a complex argument such as this – particularly the combination of Dewey and Butler – works well in helping readers who may be less familiar with either of the theorists who serve as the foundation for the argument. Following an introduction to the argument, Stitzlein offers a well-researched chapter on John Dewey’s notion of habits, particularly focusing on the ways in which “elastic” habits can support people in addressing social problems they experience and the problems of democracy more generally. Chapter three then explores the ways in which the science of race has helped cultivate some rigid -- and in many cases conflicting -- habits and beliefs about race, arguing in the end that such habits “reproduce the historical meanings of race” (p. 33). Stitzlein is careful to point out that these contradictions, such as the notion of race being a biological set of characteristics as opposed to a socially constructed phenomena, make it difficult to understand the habits we manifest and which frame our identities. Building on this idea, she then examines Judith Butler’s work on performativity in constructing gender, highlighting the ways in which the embodying of gender (as well as race) shapes the habits we come to share around these identities. These habits in turn become a set of normative expectations that shape these embodiments of gender. Consistent with Butler’s argument, Stitzlein maintains that such embodiments are typically confining, and can create categories that are ultimately exceptionally narrow and foster isolation and exclusivity. Combined with bad habits, these factors together can produce and reproduce racism and sexism. One important response to interrupt such a cycle, which capitalizes on the idea of resistance through language that Butler explores, is the cultivation of flexible habits, examined in chapter five. Stitzlein suggests that, “habits themselves should be so flexible that they change – thereby changing our entire beings – when we engage with the new or different” (p. 88). Because habits provide a mechanism for telling others who we are and in turn shaping who we are, they possess the capacity to help alter one’s being through the practice of new habits, and -- powerfully, for Stitzlein’s argument -- they have the potential to support individuals in becoming open, intelligent people (using Dewey’s definition of intelligence as thought which is aimed at smooth, useful collective communication). Breaking a bit from Butler’s notion that continuity in identity is to be avoided entirely and following from Dewey’s more moderate approach to transaction, Stitzlein argues that, “flexible habits bring about change without jeopardizing growth and continuity. Growth expresses the movement invoked by experience, which compounds on itself. And freedom depends on continued development and growth of experience” (p. 100). Chapter six considers some of the ways this theory might play out in school contexts, and why a school environment might be a particularly important context for enacting this type of socially-conscious pedagogy.

Particularly powerful in this text is the theoretical sophistication of the argument. While Stitzlein uses others’ qualitative examples of classroom events surrounding race and gender to exemplify important principles and problems, what remains most compelling is her analytical argument for the cultivation of flexible habits to interrupt the reified habits regarding race and gender that the hidden curriculum of school sustains so well. The book seems to beg for a qualitative examination of school from a habits point of view, and those looking to find a text that is theoretically comprehensive and that offers compelling real life examples of schools may find this text slightly disappointing. However, in her attempt to offer examples of the kinds of interactions that might benefit from flexible habits, Stitzlein does use several short case studies from Debi Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin’s (2001) text The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism. These stories, collected from Van Ausdale’s year-long qualitative study of a multicultural pre-school, offer provocative opportunities to see how children ages three to five have “learned” the habits of racism as well as an interesting argument for the powerful effect that Stitzlein’s flexible habits pedagogy might have. Such a pedagogy might be very influential for young learners whose early formal education is largely dedicated to the cultivation of appropriate “habits of school” (such as following directions and learning to sublimate individual needs). I can imagine a powerful pairing of the Van Ausdale text with the Stitzlein text, particularly for courses in teacher education.

While I was deeply intrigued by Stitzlein’s compelling argument regarding the potential of flexible habits, there were points in the text when the absence of emotions, the emotional content of racism and sexism, and the stickiness and resilience of racism and sexism for supporting individuals’ notions of self, seemed problematic. Indeed, Stitzlein raises this criticism of Butler when referencing Lois McNay’s argument that Butler fails to fruitfully examine “the fact, lived experience of gender as performative” (p. 78). A similar critique could be made about Stitzlein’s text. The creative and interesting argument Stitzlein makes about flexible habits seems to miss the power of what authors such as Jennifer Trainor, in her work Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All-White High School (2008), call the “emotioned logic of racism.” Trainor makes the case that racism does not emerge from a desire to protect white privilege, as the “privilege as property” argument attests; rather, working-class white students become emotionally bound to rhetorical patterns that are racist in their by-product (but not necessarily origination) due to the hidden curriculum of school. The achievement ideology so ubiquitous in schooling (work hard + get good grades + have a happy attitude = success in life after school) doesn’t allow these students to see that conscious resistance has a place in reframing society toward more socially inclusive and just ends. I can imagine in particular classes that this might be an interesting opportunity to combine two lines of theoretical thinking that, together, may become very powerful in shaping classroom practice.

While this is a small critique, it does not in any way invalidate the important work Stitzlein has offered readers and teachers. This is an important book that will make a serious contribution to our collective thinking and action in unlearning racism and sexism.


Trainor, J. S. (2008). Rethinking racism: Emotion, persuasion, and literacy education in an all-white high school. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois State University Press.

Van Ausdale, D., & Feagin, J. (2001). The first R: How children learn race and racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 19, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15900, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:36:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Sue Henry
    Bucknell University
    E-mail Author
    SUE ELLEN HENRY is an Associate Professor of Education at Bucknell University, where she teaches social foundations of education, multiculturalism and education, and a course on democracy and education. Her research interests focus on issues of social class in classrooms and the role of emotion in teaching and learning. She has published work in Educational Studies, Educational Theory, Teachers College Record. She recently completed a chapter for an edited work for Motherhood & Philosophy, part of the Everyday Philosophy Series published by Wiley-Blackwell, focused on the "quest for certainty" in new mothering.
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