Fall 1997 - Volume I, Issue 2
Race, gender, and class have always been at the center of my
socialization and education. Growing up in the segregated South I learned from
the people in my community that I was expected to be better than average just
because I was black, female, and poor. Although no one in my family ever
verbalized that being white was the standard by which I was to measure my
self-worth, the message came loudly through education.
practices of many of my teachers, especially in the North, denoted they valued
rugged individuals of European aesthetic who were competitive and action
orientated. Also, they believed the only American history was white (Helm,
1992). The curricula and textbooks used rarely portrayed the contributions of
African American men and women as creative, industrious, and intellectual
citizens in the development of the United States. The images of African
Americans that were presented were of Africans in shackles forced into slavery
whose offspring, generations later, were released from slavery into poverty
and welfare. In spite of those classroom images I clung to my racial pride and
gender identity because I had lived among African American teachers,
ministers, musicians, doctors, lawyers, housewives, businessmen and women,
entrepreneurs, nurses, farmers, sharecroppers, and others who made valuable
contributions to the community and society. It was through them and my family
that I learned to work hard to prove that I was competent, intelligent, and
capable of contributing to society. Nevertheless, the schools' mono-cultural
approach to teaching and learning implied that I needed to work harder to prove
my humanity just because of my race, gender, and class.
"I saw nothing
wrong with being who I was, but apparently many others did. My world grew
larger, but I felt I was growing smaller. I tried to disappear into myself in
order to deflect the painful, daily assaults designed to teach me that being an
African-American, working class woman made me lesser than those who were not.
And as I felt smaller, I became quieter and eventually was virtually silenced
Racism, sexism, and classism are forms of
oppression that are characterized by injustice, exploitation, and violence
which strip people of their humanity. When people's language, values, beliefs,
and way of making meaning of their world are stolen there is a feeling of
dehumanization. Paulo Freire (1970) argued that in order to struggle to regain
humanity "the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to
liberate themselves and their oppressors as well" (p.26). Freire stated that
the oppressors who use their power to "oppress, exploit, and rape . . . cannot
find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or
themselves" (p.26). Freire believed that the power in the weakness of the
oppressed is sufficiently strong to free both. This process can be a very
difficult one for oppressed people who see themselves solely as victims with
no capacity to shape and determine their own destiny. Many of them did not
have the opportunities to examine the historical facts that are connected to
their race, gender, and class identity.
This was evident to me when I
taught my first class of adults, pursuing a nursing career, in a multi-ethnic,
multi-lingual, urban community college where more than ninety percent of all
students received financial aid. The majority of the students in the seminar
were women of color who received federal/state assistance or worked at least
two jobs to support their families. The majority of them had a General
Equivalency Diploma and/or English was their second language. The college
placement tests placed eighty percent of them in developmental classes. These
classes would require another year or two before they would be eligible for
admissions into the nursing clinical classes. Their sense of failure was
reinforced when told that their academic skills were not sufficient to allow
them to take college level courses. The results of failure, according to
Herbert Kohl "are most often a loss of self-confidence accompanied by a sense
of inferiority and inadequacy" (1991, p.15).
Most of these women
"terrorized psychologically by low self-esteem" (hook, 1993) struggled to hold
onto their humanity framed in the economic reality of their daily lives. That
reality involved finding a career that would give them enough money and
dignity to provide for their families. The curriculum that was required for the
course did not include a historical analysis of race, gender, and class as it
related to the nursing profession or connected to who they were. Without this
analysis the course lacked the strength to help them acquire the power they
needed to liberate themselves and their oppressors.
To help adult
students acquire that power I included the historical facts as I engaged them
in a dialogue about their career choice: nursing/health care, balancing a
rigorous academic program, family, and work; and developing college survival
skills. I challenged them to place their experiences and ideals at the focus of
their analysis during class activities. Journal writing was used to
reflect-in-action about what they were learning (Schon, 1987). Schon theorizes
that reflect-in-action occurs when "our thinking serves to reshape what we are
doing while we are doing it" (p.26). I required them to write a one page
journal entry about what they saw, heard, and experienced during our class and
in the articles they were researching. I responded to their papers by asking
reflective or clarifying questions. I wanted to monitor how they were
processing new information, making decisions, and applying what they were
learning. It may sound like an easy process, but it was not. They wrote very
little, such as: "The guest speaker was good. I learned a lot.", "Can't find
articles. Spent hours in library." It was through class discussion that I
learned how most students were or were not processing information.
Black American, the oral tradition has served as a fundamental vehicle for
gittin ovuh. That tradition preserves the Afro-American heritage and reflects
the collective spirit of the race (Smitherman, 1977, p.72)."
ovuh" wrote Geneva Smitherman "has to do with surviving" (p.72). She explains
that it challenges the human spirit to "keep on pushin" towards "higher
ground". They understood how to survive to "git ovuh" in the classroom by
remaining silent and invisible. They now used their storytelling skill to
explain how they kept on "pushin" until they reach this point in their lives.
The students who struggled with English as a second language added another
perspective to the story-telling by sharing their experiences of trying to
communicate via written and oral language. Hooks wrote, "conversation and
story-telling were important locations for sharing information about the self,
for healing" (1993, p.11).
Noting that we were all wounded by racism,
sexism, and a capitalist economic system, I shared my story of feeling
inadequate and inferior as a doctoral student. I told them there were times
when I did not feel safe as a Black student in the classroom. My way of
knowing and making meaning of the world was not acknowledged if it were not
written and spoken the way the dominant culture defined "standard English".
However, it was my choice to become a student again knowing that schools had
played a major role in my feelings of low self-worth. I was determined this
time to seek the voices of Black women whose stories would validate my ways of
knowing. I was starting to heal.
At the time I started teaching the
seminar, I also began an Independent Study course, as part of my doctoral
program, called Teacher Education and Philosophical Ways of Knowing. I was
interested in teachers' philosophical ways of knowing and making meaning of
knowledge from a non-Eurocentric perspective. The first book I read was Paulo
Freire (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire's concept of problem-posing
education named and validated my approach to teaching and learning.
"Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the
students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student
with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches,
but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while
being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in
which all grow. . .Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.
People teach each other, mediated by the world,. . . (p.61)."
had I found the theory that supported my teaching and learning practices, I
was engaged in a learning situation where liberating education was happening.
"Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of
information" (p.60). I became excited about learning and was eager for change
that would be self-determined yet connected to the teaching/learning
relationship I established with the Professor.
Since Freire's work
provided the liberating education theory, I selected the writings of Patricia
Hill Collins and bell hooks to provide the black feminist voices and language
that helped me express my experiences and ideas in an academic setting.
"Oppressed groups are frequently placed in situation of being listened to
only if we frame our ideas in the language that is familiar to and comfortable
for a dominant group. This requirement often changes the meaning of our ideas
and works to elevate the ideas of dominant groups (Collins,1991, p. xiii)."Prior to this Independent Study course, I had never been involved in a
dialogue with a white male professor who listened to how I was experiencing
the affirmation of my ideals and thoughts from an African-American woman
perspective using language I was familiar with. His approach to facilitate my
learning allowed me to hear him because I was not overwhelmed by external
circumstances, feelings of victimization and a sense of powerlessness (Greene,
1988). During our dialectical discussions I never felt like my ideas were
being challenged because they were wrong or bad, "To hear each other (the
sound of different voices), to listen to one another, is an exercise in
recognition" (hooks, 1993, p.94).
The kind of recognition I was
receiving from my professor was the same kind of recognition I strived for
with my students. I wanted all my students to participate in the conversations
because I wanted them to know that what they had to contribute was of value
and that I respected "their objective situation and their awareness of that
situation" (Freire,1970, p.76) . This Freirean approach allowed me to learn
with them "the various levels of perception of themselves and the world in
which and with which they exist" (Freire, 1970, p. 76). I knew that I could
not empower students to become active participants in their own learning if it
were not connected to their "own preoccupations, doubts, hopes, and fears"
(Freire, 1970, p. 77) . Therefore, I created a classroom community with
diverse students that accepted "different ways of knowing, new epistemologies"
(hooks, 1993). I provided the structure and a safe learning environment for
them to develop the skills needed to empower themselves. Thus the healing
There were twenty students of color in
the class for the final presentation. The average age in the class was 27. The
class consisted of three Philippino men and seventeen women of African
American, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Jamaican and African heritage. Their
education was important to them. However, they had talked about schools as the
one place that made them feel the most inadequate.
"How does it come
about that the one institution that is said to be the gateway to opportunity,
the school, is the very one that is most effective in perpetuating an
oppressed and impoverished status in society (Stein, 1971, as cited in
Their final oral project involved a brief presentation
of their research on careers in nursing and health care. They were to reflect
on what they learned about themselves that shaped/influenced their thinking
about nursing as a career. They were to cite comments from guest speakers,
articles, and anything else of interest to them that was connected to their
classroom learning. I encouraged them to be as creative as possible and to
Their presentations indicated they had developed "the power
to perceive critically the way they exist in the world...in which they found
themselves; they came to see the world not as a static reality, but as a
reality in process, in transformation" (Freire, 1970, p. 64). The
presentations were a tribute to the students' willingness to develop trust in
self, and others. They had grown into a community of learners that valued
their way and others' way of knowing. An African-American woman, 25, stated
"until this class I never realized the importance of hearing what my
classmates had to say. (humping her shoulders) I did not care. (pausing,
exhaling) I have learned a lot from the other people who shared their
experiences." The one student who had not prepared a written presentation felt
this course had no substance and said to me, "I did not get anything out of
your class. (smiling) Yea! It's my fault. I did not attend class as I should
have." The fact that she made her comments after some students had presented
led me to believe that she had learned something from her peers. I felt
excited and affirmed in my approach.
"The exciting aspect of creating
a classroom community where there is respect for individual voices is that
there is infinitely more feedback because students do feel free to talk and
talk back. And, yes, often this feedback is critical. (hooks, 1993, p.95)."
Some students came dressed as nurses to demonstrate their determination to
succeed despite what some of the guest speakers had shared with them in regard
to job shortages, faculty expectations, the length of time it could take to be
admitted to the program, and cost. What I had not been prepared for were the
tears. Some students were unable to finish their presentations because they
were crying. Two women, an African and a Puerto Rican, who had barely spoken
in class all semester stood up before the class, presented, and broke into
tears after they finished. They explained they had never spoken before a group
and thanked me and their classmates for giving them that opportunity.
A Philippino gentleman in his mid-thirties who smiled all the time told a
story that exemplified how an African American student helped him become a
part of the learning community as he struggled to learn the English language.
His smile represented the joy and comfort that I had come to expect from the
class. He said that every time he spoke to her and she did not understand, she
would quietly ask him to repeat it. His smile lit up the room when he stated
that he was lucky that he did not have to turn off his hearing aid. He was
teasing us; he did not wear a hearing aid. He explained that Americans had a
way of speaking loud to people who did not speak English. "My problem is not
my hearing" he laughingly said, "I don't speak good English He thank the
student for being the first African-American woman on campus to befriend him.
The students' transformation confirmed for me what I believed about
teachers' racial, gender, and class identity shaping what they teach and how
they teach. The liberating pedagogy I used required me to reflect-in-action as
I introduced students to a "shift in paradigms that seem to them completely an
utterly threatening" (hooks, 1993, p.95). I identified strongly with their
pain in accepting this way of learning.
"And I saw for the first time
that there can be, and usually is, [for students] some degree of pain involved
in giving up old ways of thinking, knowing, and learning new approaches. I
respect that pain (hook, 1993,p.95)."
Patricia Hill Collins' and bell
hooks' conversations and storytelling skills help me take back my stuff - "my
rhythms and my voice." My professor's teaching style helped me relax so I
could learn. Freire's liberating teaching theory helped me rejoice in the
knowledge that my thinking and actions were on the mark. My class helped me to
release the fear that bound me to the dominant, culturally defined image of a
strong silent black woman.
Many of the women in the class who
attempted to resist the call for healing tried to remain stoic, analytical,
and objective. I wanted to be there with them because of the perceived comfort
I found there. I also knew the pain of trying to 'git ovuh' in a white
supremacy society that was not eager to let you in no matter how much they
'talked the talk' of diversity. I had come to view the class as a collective
group struggling for the means to define their humanity. I, as only a Black
woman could at that moment, gave those women permission to let go, if they
wanted to, because there is strength in tears.
"The power of the group
to transform one another's lives seemed to be determined by the intensity of
each individual's desire to recover, to find space within and without, where
she could sustain the will to be well and create affirming habits of being
(hooks, 1993 p. 13)."
We all cried. My worst fear did not come to
be--overwhelmed with feelings of external circumstances, victimization, and
powerlessness that immobilized us. The class ended in the spirit of the
"life-affirming black cultural traditions" (hooks,1993). After the hugs, thank
you's, and I love you, I wondered what would happen to them if they were
unable to apply what they learned about themselves in other settings? What
knowledge did I teach? What cognitive skills did the student learn who said
that this was the best class she had because she learned more about the
meaning of "options" than she had learned about the subjects in her content
courses? My thoughts hung out there as I clung to the memory of the
African-American woman sitting on the windowsill, speaking for the class,
quietly asking me if I would fail them all so they could take the course with
me again. Once the healing has begun our voices can't remain silenced.
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palavra. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra. Return to the Journal of
Pedagogy, Pluralism & Practice Main Page
Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice Main Page
Fall 1997 Issue Main Page
Preface - A Dedication to Paulo Freire
Solange Lira and Bill Stokes - Toward Pedagogies of Freedom
Maria de Lourdes B. Serpa and Caetano Valadão Serpa - Freire Pedagogia da Autonomia Book Review
Sandras Barnes - Connecting Theory to Professional Growth and Pedagogical Practices in a Multicultural Setting
Peggy McIntosh and Emily Style - The National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum
Patricia L. Jerabek - Creating A Multicultural Learning Environment at Lesley College
Walter E. Stone, Jr - Making the Shifts
Barry Sugarman - Learning,Working, Managing, Sharing
Sebastian Lockwood - Density of Coincidence
The Editorial Board
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A Professor in Vanderbilt University's Department of Human and Organizational Development, Dr. Sandras Barnes has focused her studies on gender dynamics, class structure and race relations. Dr. Barnes received her PhD in Sociology from Georgia State University.
Explore the full content catalog of Lesley's Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice, featuring articles by leading faculty and practitioners in education, the social sciences, humanities, and the arts, by returning to the Journal's Main Page.