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Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom: Critical Educultural Teaching Approaches for Social Justice Activism


reviewed by Helen Anderson - August 25, 2008

coverTitle: Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom: Critical Educultural Teaching Approaches for Social Justice Activism
Author(s): Virginia Lea and Erma Jean Sims (Eds.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820497126, Pages: 276, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com


With the power to evoke profound emotion, to invite dialogue and imagination, as well as to inspire critical reflection, art can function as a highly effective tool for social change. This is the premise of Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom: Critical Educultural Teaching Approaches for Social Justice Activism, edited by Virginia Lea and Erma Jean Sims. The essays in this collection draw attention to the richness of pedagogical possibilities opened up to anti-racism educators and educators for social justice through art. This book provides scholars and educators with a wealth of strategies for employing various art forms to engage students in critical thought and action in response to systemic injustice, particularly in regard to racism and hegemonic whiteness. As defined by V. Lea and E. J. Sims, hegemonic whiteness is:  “...[T]he economic, social, cultural, and symbolic practices by which white, upper-middle class people, who are mostly men, continue to hold, disproportionately to their actual numbers, the power and privilege in the dominant institutions in the United States, Europe, and the world” (p. 185, emphasis in original).  


Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom covers a great breadth of theory and application of art in anti-racism and anti-oppression pedagogy, from the socially-transformative potential of particular texts (including literature, film, drama, music, and visual art) to the analytic, imaginative, and collaborative skills gained in the creation and performance of works of art. This use of art in the classroom and community to “affirm students’ cultural knowledge,” “encourage solidarity” across social difference, and provoke “critique of self and society” is what Lea and Sims term “educulturalism” (p. 262).  


All of the essays in this book explore how art can be used as a means to make visible and to disrupt systemic inequality, beginning with Catherine Kroll’s work on the importance of “(alter) narratives” as a tool to problematize hegemonic national mythologies about race and class. Providing examples from specific pieces of music, visual art, film, and story, Kroll asserts that, “In its appeal to cognitive, aesthetic, and effective realms, art propels us into transcultural spaces, urging us to entertain alternative explanations for the social fissures and inequities around us” (p. 30). Drawing upon narratives that challenge mainstream representations of race, Kroll calls for a “pedagogy of movement,” that is, a pedagogy capable of “unseating the cultural, political, and economic hegemony of whiteness” (p. 43).


Following Kroll’s work is Ann Berlak’s exploration of the adaptive unconscious and its role in perpetuating racist beliefs and behaviour. As Berlak contends,


Attitudes towards concepts such as race or gender, for example, operate at two levels – at a conscious level our stated values direct our behaviour deliberately, and at an unconscious level we respond in terms of immediate but quite complex automatic associations that tumble out before we have even had time to think. The adaptive unconscious is unintentional, effortless, and responsive to the here and now...Conscious thought takes a longer view; it is controlled, slow and effortful. (p. 51)


According to Berlak, challenging prejudice and the naturalization of white supremacy thus requires drawing students’ attention to the ways in which their adaptive unconscious may shape their thoughts and behaviours, as well as how behaviour modification can help reshape one’s adaptive unconscious.  Berlak attempts to achieve this in part through the use and discussion of films such as The Color of Fear (p. 57) and School Colors (p. 61), which highlight the systemic, institutionalized nature of racism.


Moving on to other forms of art, in Chapter 3, Erma Jean Sims and Virginia Lea discuss how poetry can be used in the classroom to transform whiteness, offering examples of activities they have conducted with their students. One such activity involves using poetry “developed by people from historically oppressed racial-ethnic backgrounds” to help convey to a largely white student population “the pain these individuals have experienced around issues of race and whiteness,” as well as “the meaning and uplift [the poets] have been able to find in these oppressive contexts” (p. 68). Another activity involves asking students to create their own “I AM” poems as a way to examine “how whiteness impacts our public and private identities” (p. 70).  


Continuing a focus on literature, in Chapter 4 Rosa Furumoto explores the benefits of community-based literacy programs that bring Spanish-speaking/Latina/o student-teachers, children, and parents together to study Chicana/o/Latina/o children’s literature, drawing upon the families’ “‘funds of knowledge’” (p. 93). Such an approach to education “challenges whiteness by helping children see themselves, their culture, and experiences as something worthwhile to examine, study, and celebrate,” (p. 91) while simultaneously helping the student-teachers to reflect upon and engage with “the socio-political contexts of literature and literacy instruction” (p. 92).  


The discussion in this book shifts from specific works of art to art as process in Babatunde Lea’s essay on “Polyrhythms as a Metaphor for Culture.” Here B. Lea points out how the process of drumming, as much as the product, can serve as a source of guidance and insight about cross-cultural relations and social justice. He describes the complexity of the process of learning how to play a polyrhythm, two different rhythms simultaneously, while trying to find “the place at which the rhythms begin and intersect,” called the “One” (p. 98). He asserts:


“Polyrhythms” can be seen as a metaphor for culture. In a pluralistic society like the United States, many cultures are arranged hierarchically, interrelating, jostling for recognition and space....[I]f we want to move toward a better understanding of social equity, we must find the “One” – the place at which different cultural expressions intersect....If there is any aspect of a polyrhythm that is wrong, then the whole rhythm is set askew. All must learn to understand and respect the other rhythmic components and their importance to the rhythm as a whole. (p. 98)


Returning to a discussion of film following B. Lea’s essay, Roberta Ahlquist and Marie Milner assert the importance of disrupting stereotypical and racist images in the mainstream media through lessons in critical media literacy. Ahlquist and Milner use the Academy-Award winning film Crash (p. 101) as a tool to raise students’ awareness of the complexities of racism and the frequent over-simplification of these issues in the media. The authors provide examples of study questions that can help guide discussion about the film. In Chapter 7, Karen McGarry also turns to film as a pedagogical tool, using it to trouble the myth of Canada as a happily multicultural nation.  This myth of cultural harmony and equality, McGarry contends, makes it difficult for students to see the persistence and pervasiveness of racism within contemporary Canadian society. Working with the film The Couple in The Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey (p. 128), which depicts two performance artists exhibited in a cage as natives of a fictional land, the author seeks to help her students “disrupt conventional racist assumptions about non-Western cultures,” and begin to decentre “the whiteness embedded in multiculturalism” (p. 133).


In addition to film, live drama is also explored in this collection, in Denise Hughes-Tafen’s discussion of theatre written by black women of the Global South. Hughes-Tafen draws upon this work to help her students conceptualize how problems can arise from the construction of identities premised on whiteness and Americanness. Working with youth marginalized by class or race or both, Hughes-Tafen uses Performative Inquiry to help students practice dialogic relations and social justice activism through the performance and creation of drama. Also focusing on the role of performance and embodiment in anti-racism education, Eileen C. Cherry-Chandler highlights the contribution made to anti-oppression pedagogy by performance scholars Elyse Lamm Pineau, Bryant K. Alexander, and Dwight Conquergood. Quoting from bell hooks, the author writes:


How power is traditionally constructed and orchestrated in the classroom and how subjectivity is denied to some groups and accorded to others compels many to call for a “return to a state of embodiment in order to deconstruct” those traditional practices that foster disengagement, elitism, and a lack of social commitment. (p. 169)  


For Cherry-Chandler then, performance studies “can help change ‘formal as well as informal structures’...that cultivate intercultural distance” (p. 169).


Moving into the realm of visual art, in Chapter 10 Judy Helfand discusses the experience of incorporating art activities into her American Cultures class to “help the students question ideologies, norms, and values that maintain whiteness” (p. 173). Asking each student to research and give a brief presentation on an African-American visual artist of their choice, Helfand found that her students:


...[M]ade cultural stereotypes visible and brought in authentic images of African-Americans, part of the process of breaking down racial barriers that maintain white supremacy. They critiqued dominant cultural standards for visual art. Taken together, the classroom activities...on visual art allowed many students to experience transformative learning – learning that leads to changes in a worldview and openness to multiple perspectives. (p. 182)  


Maintaining a focus on visual culture, Virginia Lea and Erma Jean Sims discuss how to engage students in the practice of “imaging whiteness,” which involves identifying “the hegemonic process of whiteness in the form of an image” (p. 193). While this activity can help students come to better understand how whiteness operates as a cultural script, Lea and Sims point out the need to move students beyond understanding towards action.  


Also paying attention to how culture is visualized, in her essay “Figuring the Cultural Shape We’re In,” Cathy Bao Bean writes with reference to her own experience as a “Chinese American” about the complexities of multiculturalism and the need for conceptualizing culture outside an American pyramidal framework.  As she explains, in this cultural pyramid that shapes many American social institutions:  “...[T]here is room for fewer or only one at the top...Progress is linear and upward....The most desirable is primarily a matter of exclusion and choosing only one...’Perfection’ and ‘ideal’ are meaningful terms” (pp. 211-212). In contrast to her American self, Bean describes her Confucian self “as being the central space of a spider web. In this web, there is no ‘I’ except that which is formed by the strands or ‘relationships’ to family, neighbourhood, company, government and so on” (p. 215). She contends that undoing the hegemony of whiteness requires reconfiguring the cultural shapes that one is/”we” are in, paying attention to one’s multiple selves and the ways that diverse cultural situations have shaped her or his life/our lives.


Following Bean’s work, in Pauline Bullen’s essay “Black Woman ‘Educultural’ Feminist,” the author discusses what it means to approach “social justice ‘educultural’ teaching from a Black radical feminist and activist standpoint” (p. 224). Bullen focuses on the work of folksinger Faith Nolan and visual artist Sandra Brewster as examples of how a Black radical feminist standpoint may be articulated through art and conveyed within the classroom. Taking up a Black feminist stance requires, Bullen asserts, a disruption to “systems of inequity and iniquity;” the adoption of a “‘counter-stance’ that refutes ideas of one ‘dominant’ culture, one knowledge system, one ethnocentric way of being in the world;” a stance that is “proudly defiant, revolutionary, and inclusive;” that interrogates race, class, and gender dynamics; that puts a need for social justice before assimilation or material desires; and finally, a stance that “challenges the institutional structures that are designed to erase whole peoples, through its education system” (pp. 233-234).


In the final essay of the book, Carlos Aceves describes how he uses Mesoamerican-based pedagogy with his students in El Paso, Texas, to challenge the hegemony of whiteness in the classroom.  He introduces three basic constructs that are central to his project: Tlahtocan, “One is the Sun,” and In Tloke Nauoke, which use “metaphor and symbols as a way of interpreting, coping with, and renewing (impacting) our reality,” while giving children “another model for critically viewing themselves in the world they live in” (p. 246). As Aceves sums up at the end of his essay,


I cannot think of a more empowering process for undoing whiteness in the classroom than to contextualize ancient constructs, the pedagogical instruments of an indigenous culture decimated by European imperialism and white racism, into a contemporary pedagogy, and have children learn not only the basics but also be empowered to examine their lives and world through a model of critical thinking, metaphorical expression, and self-identity. (p. 252)


One of the greatest strengths (among many) of this collection is the wide range of theories and strategies it contains on incorporating educulturalism into anti-racism education and social justice activism. As this book makes clear, art in its various forms can be a versatile tool for building students’ awareness of social injustice, for establishing dialogic relations in a classroom, for inspiring activism, and for dismantling institutionalized racism. Evidenced within the essays in this collection, art is pedagogically unique in that it can draw upon emotion, sensation, imagination, metaphor and symbolism to open up conceptual pathways and possibilities often unexplored within other curriculum material.  


To borrow from Babatunde Lea’s words on music, this book demonstrates that all forms of art can help to transform social space and social relations because they are


a creative process that can lead us into cultural spaces outside our normal experience. In these spaces, the normal is disrupted: the frontiers between thought, feeling, and spirit can dissolve... In this creative state, we are more likely to think critically about the social and cultural forces that influence us. (p. 99).  


As the educultural scholar/educator/activist is aware, it is in this state of creation, collaboration, imagination, and reflection that new social realities begin to emerge.      




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 25, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15350, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:41:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Helen Anderson
    Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto
    E-mail Author
    HELEN ANDERSON is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy of Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto. Her research interests include Critical Race Theory, post-colonial as well as post-modern literary theory, feminist epistemology, and art education. She is currently working on a dissertation entitled Mastering the Story/Storying the Master: Philosophy of Education Discourse and Empire. Her most recent publications are: “Performing Philosophy of Education ‘Whitely’: Reliable Narration as Racialized Practice,” forthcoming in Philosophy of Education 2008, ed. Ron Glass (Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society) and “Learning (& Leaving) the Comforts of Home: A Radical Pedagogy of Homeplace,” in Philosophy of Education 2007, ed. Barbara Stengel (Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society).
 
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