Educators, policy makers, politicians, and most individuals that work in some part of the educational institution are in a peculiar position. These individuals are beneficiaries of the educational system (given their relative privileged positions), but are called upon to offer critiques of the very system that they are products of. This positionality influences the way in which these individuals conceptualize the issues within the educational system. bell hooks (2014) says she didn’t think of herself as a professor and this allowed her the ability to offer a nuanced critique of what occurs in the classroom. Even myself as a success story largely due to the American educational system is locked into a mental framework in which I feel there is power in our educational system. Also, that this system constructed largely by my oppressor can be the key to my liberation. But, if the educational system is going to be structured as a tool of liberation we must grapple with the academic imperialism that is engrained in the educational system. I argue that students of color generally, black students specially, suffer from epistemological violence at the hands of our current educational system.
The current American educational system does not exist in a vacuum, in a fixed position in time, but rather is situated in a historical narrative of racial oppression. Blacks have been placed in opposition to modernity because of the imperialist project which encompasses, but not limited to, colonialism, the Atlantic slave-trade, and slavery. This project “drained societies of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out” (Cesaire, 2001, p. 43). To justify this imperialist violence towards black bodies “the myth” was created which argued that blacks did not have the ability to be civilized and would be helpless without Western society. This myth has been preserved and renegotiated over time. The contemporary educational system must become structured in a manner to combat this feeling of “nobodiness” created from racial subjugation.
The American educational system still largely operates under “banking system” principles in which Paulo Freire warned about. Within the banking-system the educational institution treats students as if they are empty vessels waiting to receive knowledge. Knowledge takes the form of a gift that is graciously given from the informed teacher to a student who was before void of valuable information (Freire, 2000). Rather than allow students to become co-constructers of their educational experience, the educational institution creates a monopoly on knowledge by controlling what legitimate knowledge is, who has the ability to possess this knowledge, and the manner in which this knowledge can be transferred.
Bell hooks (2014) argues, the university is inflicted with biases that maintains white supremacy, imperialism, sexism, and racism have distorted education so that it is not about the exercise of freedom. I argue that K-12 schools suffer from the same ailments. Through epistemological violence the racist, sexist, and imperialist nuances of the educational system can go unchallenged. If knowledge can only be constructed by individuals with power in the system, then new voices are never heard and even if they are they are pushed to the side. Students of color become indoctrinated into a system in which heteronormative middle-class whiteness is the norm. Even if the educational system one day transpired to economic gain for these students, they are still influenced by the hegemonic power of mainstream American cultural ideals. Here I argue for an educational experience that humanizes all students and aids them in their struggle to recover their lost humanity. Students of color are fighting for more than freedom from hunger, but for freedom to create and to construct, freedom to wonder, and freedom to venture (Freire, 200). Through this we need to move away from the banking system of education to a reflexive system where both teachers and students are both constructors of knowledge.
A Brief History of Imperialism
The imperialist project which encompasses, but not limited to, colonialism, Atlantic slave-trade, and slavery drastically impaired the lives of all people of color. Imperialism is typically discussed in at least 4 manners: (1) economic expansion, (2) subjugation of others, (3) idea or a spirit, and (4) a discursive field of knowledge (Smith, 1999). I view imperialism as consisting of all four given that it is multifaceted. Depending on what form imperialism rears its ugly head determines the manner in which it could be conceptualized. Imperialism infringed upon the histories and trajectories of countless societies.
Imperialism was fueled by capitalism’s need for endless expansion (Wolfe, 1997). The desire for economic gain at the expense of other human bodies was at the heart of imperialism. Out of the dialectic of valuing capital over human life, but still needing to present yourself as a good humane society came the “myth”. The myth is an overarching belief that Africans specifically and people of color generally did not have the ability to be civilized (James, 1977). To be civilized is to be human. This myth disqualified blacks not solely from civilization, but from humanity itself (Smith, 1999). The educational system must take up the task of giving students of color the agency to realize their innate humanity and develop it fully.
This myth allowed for the marginalization of black bodies. Also, it created an ideology constructed around the notion that the Western world must attempt to “humanize” these others. Different mechanisms were incorporated to civilize black bodies, such as religion, language, Western education, and etc. Language and literary principles are important because to speak a language is to appropriate its world and culture (Fanon, 2008). To be bound by the restrictions of a language is to lose the autonomy to define your reality. This becomes extremely problematic when the language you use has been imposed upon you by your oppressor. In Teaching to Transgress hooks highlights how the statement, “This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you” was powerful to her. She continues to argue that the English language in and of itself isn’t harmful, but the way in which oppressors have used it to marginalize the oppressed is. Within academic spaces we rarely see slang (black vernacular) used. hooks (2014) argues that Black English is used a resistance to white supremacy, but also forges spaces in which alternative epistemologies are created to challenge the dominant hegemonic worldview.
Education as form of Epistemological Violence
In 1933 Carter G. Woodson said, “The thought of’ the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies”. The optimism of our human spirit would like for us to believe that this is no longer the case. However, within this current banking system of education we treat students as empty vessels void of knowledge. The student is deprived of the opportunity to co-construct their educational experience using their cultural knowledge.
Vandana Shiva (1988) argues that contemporary science is reductionist and undergirds an economic system of exploitation. Science is geared towards the development of capital and all its other capacities are destroyed. Reductionist ideologies creates a monopoly on knowledge because it controls what type of knowledges are created and who the beneficiaries are. Shiva argues violence occurs because people become divided into experts and non-experts and non- experts become conceptualized as non-knowers. The current educational system operates from a very similar model. One in which we are training students to become workers in the economic market, so capitalist principles are the core of the system. Our educational model is reductionist because we simplify the educational system to a one size fits all and obscure the complex needs of students of color, the poor, and women. Through this process epistemological violence occurs because the experts’ shape what is knowledge, how knowledge can be created, and how can knowledge be transferred.
Education as a Form of Liberation
I argue that to move education away from committing epistemological violence it must be centered on liberating students. We must move away from a polarizing view of the classroom where the teacher is seen as knowledgeable and students are seen as empty vessels waiting to receive knowledge. Freire (2000) calls for a teacher-student with student-teachers dynamic. In this system everyone comes to class with meaningful knowledge. The dynamics of the class must be shaped in such a way all voices are not only heard, but are seen as legitimate contributions to the educational process. Freire argues that now students can call upon elements of their background awareness and reflect upon them. Within this problem-posing process students of color have the agency to critically assess their reality. Through this development of a critical consciousness praxis can later be incorporated to dismantle systemic structures.
We must transform the language that is incorporated in the educational system. Currently students of color are forced to master the language of their oppressor to prove fit to excel in the educational system. Alternative languages (e.g. black urban slang) are disregarded as educationally irrelevant. In this situation the key to educational success is appropriating the language of the oppressor. Defining what counted as literacy was a huge part of the imperialist project. Literacy once dealt with “having the ability to extract and encode from written text, but scholars have problematized this definition arguing that literacy is an ideology, with the construction and dissemination of conceptions as to what literacy is in relation to the interests of different communities” (Newman, 2005, pp. 399-400).
We see a shift in scholars from a more imperialist notion of literacy to a multiliteracy perspective. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis argue that given the altering social and technological contexts in which we learn and communicate we need a broader conceptualization of what constitutes literacy (2009). A multiliterary view allows us to view all forms of communication as literacy and moves us away from solely being tied to the imperialist view of literacy. If we treated student’s cultural language as legitimate forms of literacy they could use their own tongue in their journey of liberation. “Standard English is language of conquest and domination;in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues, all those sounds of diverse, native communities we will never hear” (hooks, 2014. P.168). The Black English vernacular was constructed in process of resistance to white supremacy. It is fitting that this language be utilized in the educational system as a liberatory resource for Black students.
History is a great resource to highlight the importance of personal experience in the educational institution (Dewey, 2004). Too often students receive a Eurocentric historical perspective that works to marginalize their personal experiences. Teachers want students to appropriate and reproduce the subject matter, but do not always think about the way in which this knowledge develops the student as a social member. When history is framed in Eurocentric terms students of color are being socialized to uphold white supremacy, which future alienates them from their self. Culturally relevant historical accounts will benefit students of color because they can see people who look like them as agents of historical change and will also benefit white student because it will allow them to begin the process of disinvesting in white supremacy. Students should be able to learn about indigenous ideologies, Afrocentric methods, and feminist paradigms given these cultural resources will aid them in developing a critical consciousness that can be transfered to any field.
For education to become liberatory it must develop the whole student. This cannot occur if we continue treating students as void of knowledge. The educational space must be democratized in a manner in which students can co-construct their educational experience. Currently teachers give students knowledge as if it is a gift so that they can one day in turn be successful in the economic sector. However, if this is the sole goal of education then students are never allowed the opportunity to develop a “conscientization” (Freire, 2000). Without this critical consciousness students of color’s actions cannot be directed towards liberation because they have not gone through a reflexive process yet to understand their true condition.
To develop a liberatory education system we first have to move away from the banking system and understand that both teacher and student have meaningful knowledge to offer. Students must be able to learn a history that is empowering to their self. We must also educate the soul (hooks, 2014). This will entail remodeling the Eurocentric manner in which we construct history. History changes depending on who tells the story. We must allow students to develop the capacity to tell their story; to speak a true word (Freire, 2000). This true word should not have to come from the language of the oppressor. We must alter the language in the educational system. Language is attached to cultural practices, not intelligence. Speaking urban slang does not highlight literary deficiency, but represents a cultural understanding that most academics have not acquired. If the individuals we label as experts have not acquired this skill, then this ability must not be valid.
Students of color are not separated from history. But, currently live in a historical position that is influenced by slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. To offer a meaningful education we must attack the hegemonic ideals that were created and renegotiated from this violent history. The educational system can uphold its sexist, racist, and xenophobic structure with epistemological violence. The educational system dictates what knowledge is, who can produce knowledge, and how knowledge can be disseminated. Until we stop this violent process students of color are doomed with making due with an educational experience that devalues their culture, history, and soul.
Césaire, A. (2001). Discourse on colonialism. NYU Press.
Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). Multiliteracies”: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies. An
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Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Corporation.
Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks. Grove Press.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
hooks, b. (2014). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.
Newman, M. (2005). Rap as literacy: A genre analysis of hip-hop ciphers. Text, 25(3), 399-436.
Shiva, V. (1988). Reductionist science as epistemological violence.
Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. University of Otago Press.
Woodson, C. G. (2006). The mis-education of the Negro. Book Tree.