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Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach

reviewed by Heidi McKenna & Jack McKenna - 1999

coverTitle: Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach
Author(s): Heidi McKenna and Jack McKenna
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807736376, Pages: 192, Year: 1997
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White supremacy is the dominant and pervasive feature of racism in North America. Educators committed to social justice who study its depth, resiliency and entanglement with the fundamental forms of North American culture must be prepared to work through feelings of despair when envisioning its vast scope and impact. For anti-racists committed to social equity, there are many paths to social activism: some work to record and popularize marginalized histories; some explore theoretical frameworks solid enough to create leverage for change; some work to change overtly racist social conventions and legislation. And some courageous few have determined not to wait for risk-free methodology, but to attack racism at its most fundamental level: within the thought and action of the individual citizen. The book Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach by Louise Derman-Sparks and Carol Brunson Phillips is a "how to" manual for educators interested in teaching classes "preparing adults to meaningfully and effectively use an anti-bias approach in their work..." (p. xvi). Perhaps its greater impact, however, will come from the story that emerges of the authors' fifteen year collaborative journey as anti-racism educators. Theirs is a story of commitment, discouragement, tenacity, flexibility, and success. While educators teaching anti-racism classes will find the book an outstanding resource for strategies and tactics, all people working on any level against racism will find here inspiration, renewal, and hope.

The authors bring solid credentials and fifteen years of experience to this work. Ms. Phillips identifies herself as an African American deeply embedded in "family loyalty and standing up for what is right" (p. xv). She is the Executive Director of the Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition in Washington, DC Ms. Derman-Sparks grew up in a New York City "working class Jewish family where social activism was a way of life" (p .xv). Since 1974 she has worked as a faculty member of Pacific Oaks College as an adult educator. Both women have long histories as social activists, and place a high value on thoughtful, individual, direct action against racism as the measure of the success of their students and their teaching. They combine passion and compassion with skills and knowledge to create a guide for others to use in managing a very difficult learning environment, one fraught with contested boundaries, explosive personal dynamics and systems of unexamined bias and privilege. Derman-Sparks and Phillips have written their book in three parts; the first explores their conceptual framework and definitions; the second section is a description of their anti-racism class; and the third contains suggestions for modification of the class to fit different circumstances.

In reading the first section it is important to remember that the authors are fifteen year veteran practitioners in this field, and most of the relevant theory and research did not exist in the early years of their teaching of this class. To the extent that a particular emerging construct or pedagogy has proven effective in moving their students toward an anti-racist stance, it has been embraced. The first chapters contain an insightful illumination of racism which, because it has been developed through their practical experiences as anti-racism educators, contains some ideas that will likely challenge thoughtful readers to reexamine their own thinking. Contrasting views help clarify and define the language we use to engage racism. An example would be the strongly worded assertions of the authors regarding the terms "race" and "ethnicity."

Derman-Sparks and Phillips assert that while many Americans confuse race and ethnicity and often use the two terms interchangeably, each refers to different aspects of human identity. They define race as a socially constructed system of subornation which ensures an unequal distribution of power, privileges and resources; while it has no basis in biology, race is nonetheless made real through the political meanings attached to it which impact how people are treated in our society in all aspects of their lives. In contrast, ethnicity is defined as "the geographic place of origin of an individual's family and group identity" (p.13). Many educators who promote equity and social justice teach both terms as social constructions. Unlike the authors, these educators believe through misuse both terms are equally able to invigorate racism. Educators so believing will take issue with Derman-Sparks and Phillips' definitions. But the authors are very pointed in defending their stance; insisting that, "Blurring the distinctions between the two terms reflects a profound misunderstanding and/or denial of racism as an institutionalized system of privilege an power" (p.13). The intensity of the authors' view may arise from the practical necessities of teaching an anti-racism class. They comment that when people "use 'race' and 'ethnicity' interchangeably, they confuse the positive role of culture in human development and daily life with the negative impact of racism" (p. 13). While fully acknowledging the need to powerfully affirm the positive values of culture, especially while managing the heat of an emotionally driven disagreement between students, this reviewer must respectfully suggest that it may not be prudent to use "geography" as a touchstone to make the terms "ethnicity" positive and "race" negative.

Consider the US/Mexican border south of San Diego. There is a pedestrian bridge which crosses the many asphalt lanes entering Mexico. At the southern end of the bridge below the spiraling ramps, surrounded by concrete and chain- link fence, is a small granite stone detailing the exact boarder between Mexico and the United States. One can easily at this point stand with one foot literally in each country. There is no border: the line that looks so substantial on political maps does not exist. What does exist is a huge complex of human and physical resources constructed by the United States government to make real a border created decades ago through military force. As Eugene Gargia said in his keynote address to the National Association of Multicultural Education 1997 Conference, "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." "Geography" itself is a constructed term with a long history reinforcing racist practice, and it can be a dangerous knife to use when cutting the racist mold off the bread of human culture.

Yet those of us who may be offended at being labeled "confused" and "profound[ly] misunderstanding" (p. 13) must, in our response, consider the dilemma of anti-racist practitioners like Derman-Sparks and Phillips: if we wait for a fully realized anti-racist lexicon with commonly shared understandings of meaning, we will wait a long time indeed. If not with the words "race" and "ethnicity", just how does a teacher clearly distinguish between the racist aspects and the positive aspects of culture? We can forgive their apparent name-calling because of the practicality of their stance and their authority as veteran practitioners in what is arguably the most challenging curriculum in America. If their words are intended to provoke readers toward more careful consideration of the frustratingly fuzziness of the language we often use, then they are guilty of nothing more than good basic pedagogy: to move students by provoking and challenging their beliefs.

The authors distinguish among three forms of racism: institutional, cultural, and individual. Derman-Sparks and Phillips describe the covert and overt historical manifestations of racism as well as its structural dynamics within the United States, tracing its origins to the "formulation and evolution of capitalism in American society" (p.13). Additionally they examine the ideologies of racism, and the bankrupt biological and cultural arguments which are often used as justification. They end their discussion with portrait of the "New Faces Of Racism" which explores recent shifts in the dynamics of racism, and the emergence of new arguments to justify the continuance of its covert forms.

Derman-Sparks and Phillips show how in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the end of legalized segregation, the myth of Whites as "victims" has emerged as the ideological core of current rhetorical masquerades which obscure and justify individual, cultural and institutional racism; from such a perspective, any attempt, legislative, judicial, or corporate, to redress the impact on people of color of several hundred years of legal racism is seen as victimizing Whites. According to this ideology, race has little or no role in social mobility. Instead, the failure of an individual or racial group to "get ahead" rests in the behavior choices they make. Derman-Sparks and Phillips' identification of this ideology as a predictable obstacle for most Whites on the path to anti-racism activism is well supported by recent historical events such as California's passage of Proposition 201, as well as the University of California Regents' vote to end affirmative action in its admissions policies. Often this "White victim" stance is devoid of explicit racial terms, and employs instead a code language which supports White supremacist ideology without signifying the race of either its agents or its targets. The authors site as examples terms commonly used by educators such as "inner-city, at risk, low-achieving, language deficient, and prone to violence [which] have become so linked to children of color that they begin to function as explanations of educational problems"(p.20) and which are, in fact, the outcome of racist practices. These codes arise from and simultaneously support an erroneous premise that the United States is and should be a "colorblind" society which no longer needs to "discriminate" among people by conferring "special privileges" upon people of color. Within such a world view, individuals who contest White supremacy and "see" its inherent privileging of Whites and its oppression of everyone else can be labeled as "racist" and accused of "playing the race card." Clear definitions give Derman-Sparks and Phillips a foundation upon which to contest such Jabberwocky as they gently prod both White students and students of color toward a more accurate and critical understandings of current social landscapes.

They begin by insisting that "racist behavior is measured by its outcomes for people of color, rather than its intentions" (p.22), Derman-Sparks and Phillips then distinguish between the impact of racism on Whites and people of color: since racism is a system of differentiation which both bestows privilege to some and oppresses others, an individual's position mediates how she or he will experience it. These positions, while primarily constituted through membership in either the dominant or subordinate groups, are also impacted by gender, ethnicity, and social class. Insisting that there are no innocent bystanders or neutral observers -- individuals from both dominant and subordinate groups are enmeshed in a racist system--the authors recognize that responsibility for perpetuating racism is unequally shared: "Racism in the United States is a White problem. Whites established the system in the first place, control its resources and power, and also have the primary power to transform it" (p.24). To aid new practitioners in learning what to anticipate in teaching anti-racism, they extensively explore, both in their conceptual framework and in their anti-racism course description which follows, the different paths to an anti-racist identity taken by Whites and people of color. Taken as a whole, the first section provides anti-racist educators with a set of strategic definitions and classifications which educators can use to guide tactical leadership responses in the potentially volatile environment of a class teaching anti-racism.

In the second section Derman-Sparks and Phillips present the chronological progression of their semester course on anti-racism education. Beginning with an overview of the course content and features, the authors then amplify each of the fifteen weekly three-hour lessons, discussing their purposes and experiences, including how and why aspects of each lesson have changed over time. Each point along the path is fully supported with copious quotations from student journals, and readers benefit from both student and teacher perspectives: for it is through the window of the student journals that we, as readers, engage the course ourselves. We learn, through the cognitive and affective responses of the students and the thoughtful commentary of the authors, that there is a recognizable landscape through which each group of students must travel on the road to anti-racist activism. We read the lessons learned during many passages through this contested terrain of race and identity: which of its features should be by-passed, and which, in spite of the difficulty and risks of the passage, must be confronted crossed.

Derman-Sparks and Phillips divide their course into four distinct phases: Beginning Explorations of Racism, Exposing the Contradictions, Transformation to an Understanding of Self and Society, and Anti-racism as a new Beginning. They begin by awakening their students to the inadequacies, contradictions, and tensions in their unexamined adaptations to racism, for without disrupting these taken-for-granted assumptions it is unlikely that growth will occur. While gradually increasing their incisive yet gentle probing they must simultaneously and consistently reflect profound respect and support for all students to demonstrate their belief that "everyone must struggle with the effects of being raised in a racist society, including us, and that we can change if we so chose" (p.40). Derman-Sparks and Phillips delicately balance challenge with support while attending to the different safety needs of both White students and students of color. They liken the process to eating an artichoke beginning with the less meaty outer leaves before moving on to the more substantial hearts of each. Inevitable to both endeavors are barriers of resistance.

Because the authors consciously provoke cognitive and affective disequilibrium, their students often react with strong feelings of resistance. Emotions such as guilt, fear and anger inevitably arise as students face the realities of racism; although uncomfortable, Derman-Sparks and Phillips show how these feelings can be facilitated while guiding students toward a more complete understanding of the "inconsistencies in their thinking, mismatches between their beliefs and behaviors, voids in their knowledge and understanding" (p.67). When the authors first taught this course, and an emotional explosion occurred among their students around their fourth or fifth weeks of instruction, they sought to modify the structure of the next semester's class so it would not happen again. Yet the explosion still occurred. After several attempts, Derman-Sparks and Phillips realized that the explosion was a necessary part of a transformational process; instead of trying to avoid or contain it, they honed their skills for dealing with students' emotions as well as their thoughts.

Anti-racist educators must become skilled in facilitating students' affective as well as cognitive responses if we hope to successfully teach to anti-racist attitudes, beliefs, and activism. This means that far from trying to develop strategies which make our classrooms less emotionally explosive, we must instead learn to anticipate, precipitate, and influence the powerful outbursts that must occur. Despite their success developing strategies and skills for dealing with powerful emotions, it does not make the task easy, and the authors admit to occasional, disheartening lapses in confidence when they question their abilities and stamina: "It is sometimes very difficult not to feel overwhelmed and inadequate about handling situations that arise with a student or between students. The questions 'What have I unleashed?' and 'Will I be able to positively facilitate it?' come to mind...Some days we vow we will never teach the class again" (p.67). Anticipating the predictable transformative crises that will occur in unpredictable ways, teachers entering this arena must invest considerable time and energy in personal preparation. The authors conclude their book with a discussion of resources and strategies for those who will teach and learn anti-racism.

In the last section Derman-Sparks and Phillips emphasize four key dimensions of the teaching role: interracial team teaching, stresses and ways of coping with them, teachers as learners, and continuing self-education. Considering the fact that educators who adopt this model for classes will require their students to design and implement anti-racist activities within their workplaces in order to pass the course, it is interesting to note that much of the teacher preparation discussed in this section occurs outside the classroom. The authors state flatly that "...asking students to 'do as I say and not as I do,' doesn't work in our approach to anti-racism education" (p. 151). Thus they recommend that teachers also participate in social change activities in ways similar to the anti-bias activities required of students. This has the effect of, "vitalizing one's understanding of racism and of what it means to resist rather than acquiesce. Such learning does not come from books" (p. 152).

What does come from Teaching/Learning Anti-Racism: A Developmental Approach is a map which will benefit both novice and experienced educators leading students through the terrain of anti-bias education. Educators who guide their students beyond critiques of current social relations toward action on behalf of a more just and equitable society will find guidance in both theoretical and practical issues. As Asa Hilliard writes in the forward, "I do not know if racism/White supremacy can be eliminated...if it can, it will be in large measure because of the type of work presented here" (p. xii).

Garcia, E. (1997, October). Of roots and wings: The central role of diversity in school reform. Paper presented at the meeting of the National Association of Multicultural Education, Albuquerque, NM.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 4, 1999, p. 889-895
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10347, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 6:42:53 AM

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About the Author
  • Heidi McKenna
    University of Washington

  • Jack McKenna
    Lake Washington Schools, Kirkland, Washington

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