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Making Race Visible: Literacy Research for Cultural Understanding

reviewed by Patricia H. Hinchey - 2004

coverTitle: Making Race Visible: Literacy Research for Cultural Understanding
Author(s): Stuart Greene and Dawn Abt-Perkins (Editors)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807743917, Pages: 205, Year: 2003
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Readers can be sure that this book delivers on the promise of its title:  this collection of articles does render race visible.  The task is simply stated, much more arduously accomplished.  Despite a flood of research demonstrating pervasive racial influences and inequities, many Americans still believe that our racist past is largely behind us, and that with enough determination and hard work, anyone can overcome obstacles to individual success.  This naive faith in equal opportunity and individual efficacy may be due at least in part to the fact that racial influences, however pervasive and pernicious, remain maddeningly subtle and unrecognized—even among those working toward a more just society.  In direct and compelling refutation to assertions that race has little contemporary effect, and with an unflinching look at some stark contrasts between teachers’ and researchers’ intentions and realities, the wide-ranging set of articles Greene and Abt-Perkins have put together starkly uncovers race as an ever-present variable in all experience, inside and outside of classrooms, at the levels of both individuals and groups, inescapably affecting all institutions, teachers, students, and researchers alike.


Potential readers who work outside the field of literacy may pick up the book because of an interest in the first part of the title—the promise of making race visible—and then be tempted to put it back down again when they see the subtitle, Literacy Research for Cultural Understanding.  That would be a mistake.  For one thing, cultural workers from a variety of fields will find themselves on familiar theoretical ground, given that articles draw heavily on such theorists as Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and Foucault and that the editors explicitly center the collection on critical race theory, particularly on the work of Ladson-Billings.  But even more importantly, literacy is central to inequities.  As Gloria Ladson-Billings herself makes clear in a pointed and informative “Foreword,” “To be able to read and write was (and continues to be) about power” (ix).  Language not only reflects power relations, it also functions as a key tool for wielding and maintaining power.  A better understanding of what language reveals and how more and less powerful groups and individuals manipulate it will leave any reader able to pursue social justice more sensitively—and, one would hope, more effectively. 


The editors delineate several specific objectives for the collection:  affirming the value and need for teachers’ and students’ voices in dialogue about what is and what might be; exploring how individual racial position and privilege may unconsciously affect perceptions, good intentions notwithstanding;  thinking deeply about the ethical consequences of research—including the possibility that well-intentioned efforts may serve to reinforce the traditional hierarchy they intend to oppose; and, detailing how the research process can help researchers and readers alike pursue change (26).   Voices of researchers, teachers, and students fill the book’s three sections, and as a collection the articles firmly support the editors’ assertion that any single piece of research can offer only partial and tentative conclusions, that data are likely to be conflicting, and that framing and reframing data is a process central to making race visible (p. 15).


Part I, “Recognizing Teacher and Student Racial Identities,” features narratives that both demonstrate the impact and complexity of racial identity in the classroom and detail the difficulty of recognizing racial habits and strategies in our own behavior.  In this section, Courtney Cazden argues persuasively that the “outsider” perspective of the researcher must be complemented by the “insider” perspective of teachers and students in classrooms.  Cazden’s review of publications by researchers who analyze misinterpretations in their earlier work born of unconscious racial perspectives (pp. 38-44) is particularly instructive about the need to be tentative in interpreting classrooms; to revisit our interpretations again and again; and, to seek other visions and voices to offer alternative readings of data.   Arlette Ingram Willis’ narrative, which analyzes a particularly difficult preservice teacher education class, offers a crucial insight for teacher educators:  when a classroom strategy focuses on informing White students about past and present inequities experienced by people of color, it not only reinscribes Whiteness at the center of the classroom, but it also does so “at the psychological or emotional expense of students of color” (p. 68).  And, Deborah Appleman’s narrative of teaching and research makes clear the difficulties of not only eliminating racist manifestations from classroom work but also of not objectifying students in research efforts.  Together, these articles offer readers a compelling call for more humility and caution in their work as well as good reason to attend carefully to the following sections, which offer specific iterations of overarching ideas laid out in the first section.


In Part II, “Working Against ‘Color Blind’ Practices and Contexts,” articles by Joanne Larson and Marilyn S. Sternglass offer contextualized examples of how unspoken racialized assumptions function to marginalize students of color, in a variety of ways:  through lower teacher expectations; through dehumanizing descriptions—“animals,” in the case of one teacher (p. 103); through what matters most in classrooms; through the kinds of questions asked and activities assigned; through how teachers respond to what students offer.  These articles raise complex questions about what kind of literacy and language learning, what standards and timetables, which goals and what instruction make sense for which students, when, and under what conditions. In Part III, “Making Visible Power and Discrimination,”  Melanie Sperling details how race and class influence two very different writing classrooms and calls attention to the sociopolitical consequences of differences, again raising questions about who schools should serve, and how.  Patricia E. Enciso’s piece on “Reading Discrimination” offers a startling example of how the traditional privileging of rationalist perspectives can marginalize and silence others—the narrative is one likely to jolt readers’ perspectives and remain in their memories.  And, Colette Daiute and Hollie Jones explore a number of specific but alternative ways to read a variety of texts, useful for anyone interested in applying more than one lens to data and much more cautiously interpreting it.


Sonia Nieto’s “Afterword” is firm in reminding readers why the work of the book is important in historical and societal terms, at the macro and micro levels:  “Talk is cheap, as we know, but action is much more difficult” (p. 205).  In addition to a call for reform, the book is a call to action, and it not only models a variety of pedagogical and research strategies that can be widely employed, but it also embodies a wealth of theoretical and practical strategies in reference lists.  It deserves a place in professional libraries among familiar works by Delpit, Heath, hooks, Ladson-Billings, Paley, Perry, and Tatum.


A final reason to explore the book is perhaps most simple but most important:  I suspect that nearly every reader will recognize at least one personal blind spot among those the authors courageously reveal and will walk away from the book with a bit more humility. 




Delpit, L. D. (1995). Other people's children: cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.


Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


hooks, b. (2000). Where we stand:  Class matters. New York: Routledge.


Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers:  Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Paley, V.  (2000/1979).  White Teacher.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.


Perry, T., & Delpit, L. (1998). The real ebonics debate:  Power, language and the education of African-American children. Boston: Beacon Press.


Tatum, B. D. (1997).  Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? New York: Basic Books.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 5, 2004, p. 901-904
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11263, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:27:36 PM

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About the Author
  • Patricia Hinchey
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    PATRICIA H. HINCHEY is an associate professor of Education at Penn State. Her books include Finding Freedom in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction to Critical Theory; Studentsí Rights; and with Isabel Kimmel, The Graduate Grind: A Critical Look at Graduate Education. Her most recent work, Becoming a Critical Educator: Defining a Classroom Identity, Designing a Critical Pedagogy, will be available spring, 2004.
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