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Claiming Aretha: An Essay on the Role of Race in Education

Updated on July 24, 2011

In high school, I was Aretha Franklin. Since there were no black students in our speech and drama program, my powerful alto belt repeatedly earned me the role of the “soulful black woman” in school musicals, from civil rights advocate Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray to the nineteenth century working class minority archetype Susanna in Tintypes. Although there were unfortunate connotations of minstrelsy involved even in my respectful portrayal of these characters, I was a strong proponent of such color-blind casting. After all, it is an actor’s job to pretend, making it irrelevant that I was not actually black. I felt that I had a right to be judged by my own ability, rather than according to involuntary and unchangeable factors such as race and gender. Accordingly, when I became a student director for the large group speech team, I applied gender-blind casting whenever possible.

The idea of transcending factors like race, gender, and class seems high-minded and egalitarian, and it may actually apply well within the illusory world of the theatre, in which actors transcend their own personalities in favor of new and different identities. However, it is debatable whether or not such color and gender-blindness is actually ideal in all contexts. Current scholarship seems sharply divided on the issue, particularly when it comes to public education. On the one hand particularists argue for a curriculum which varies to accommodate each student’s particular race and ethnicity. In Affirming Diversity, for example, Sonia Nieto writes that our culture is an important part of our identity, which educators ignore at their students’ peril. Although she freely admits that culture does not entirely define us, she holds cultural awareness and accommodation as essential to a successful classroom (Nieto, 2003). This idea is supported by the classroom observations of Signithia Fordham and John U. Ogbu as described in “Black Students’ School Success: Coping With the Burden of Acting White,” by Gloria Ladson-Billings in The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, and by the personal experiences of Joanne Kilgour Dowdy and Ernie Smith as described in The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom (Dowdy 2002; Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Ladson-Billings 1997; Smith 2002). On the other hand, pluralists like Diane Ravitch and Arthur Schlesinger argue for one curriculum which integrates each student’s race and ethnicity into a larger, pluralistic American culture, “a common culture that is multicultural,” (Ravitch 1990, Schlesinger 1992). In considering the arguments on both sides, we are called to ask ourselves: What role should students’ race and ethnicity play in the classroom? Should it play a role at all? Are our schools a patchwork of differing and irreconcilable racial backgrounds, or does a sixteen-year-old white girl have just as much claim to Aretha Franklin, as part of her American culture, as do her black counterparts?

According to Nieto, “When used in the conventional sense, being color-blind can mean being nondiscriminatory in attitude and behavior, and, in this sense, color-blindness is not a bad thing. On the other hand, color-blindness may result in refusing to accept differences and therefore, accepting the dominant culture as the norm” (Nieto, 2003). Although a “color-blind” worldview is frequently adopted as a means of treating students equally, that “equal” treatment tends to be geared towards members of the dominant culture, which is accepted as the generic norm. Meanwhile, by refusing to acknowledge the differences of other cultures, those differences are implicitly stigmatized as different, abnormal, or even wrong.

Nieto illustrates and expands on this point by offering the example of a 1974 Supreme Court Case in which the San Francisco School Department was accused of failing to provide equal education for Chinese-speaking students. “The school department countered by claiming that they were providing these students with an equal education because the students received exactly the same teachers, instruction, and materials as all others” writes Nieto (Nieto, 2003). The Supreme Court came to a unanimous ruling against the school department. Chinese-speaking students could not possibly reap the same benefits as English-speaking students from an English-speaking education that made absolutely no accommodation for their linguistic differences. Thus Nieto states that “Equal is not the same” (Nieto, 2003).

In another example, Nieto describes the case of Marisol Martínez, a Puerto Rican girl living in Milltown, New York. Although Marisol’s school is majority Puerto Rican, it does not include any kind of Puerto Rican history in its curriculum. Although Marisol expresses no interest in the possibility of a class on the subject, Nieto suggests that this is because she has come to accept the concept that “equal means the same.” Marisol does not want to ask for special treatment, Nieto writes, but she fails to realize that “European American students are accorded this special treatment every day” in Eurocentric American and world history courses (Nieto, 2003).

While Nieto is obviously an advocate for cultural awareness, she also warns that “Overgeneralizations can lead to gross stereotypes, which in turn may lead to erroneous conclusions about individual students’ abilities and intelligence” and asserts that “culture is not destiny… although culture may influence, it does not determine who we are” (Nieto, 2003). According to Nieto, such overgeneralizations have been used by educators to justify the exclusion of Hispanic students from leadership roles and to force them to share books and other supplies when there were not individual copies available for each student, based on the idea that Hispanics prefer cooperative to competitive learning (Nieto, 2003). It must always be remembered that students are individuals within their own cultures, and that by applying blanket statements to entire groups of students based on culture, one crosses the fine line between cultural awareness and racism.

Blanket statements and stereotyping also feature prominently in Fordham and Ogbu’s “Black Students’ School Success: Coping With the Burden of Acting White.” According to Fordham and Ogbu, white stereotypes of blacks as unintellectual, coupled with a resulting lack of intellectual confidence in the black community has caused black students “to define academic success as white people’s prerogative, and… to discourage their peers… from emulating white people in academic striving, i.e., from ‘acting white’” (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986). Because of this, black students with the ability and motivation to succeed in their schooling are forced to waste time and energy trying to conform to an unintellectual black stereotype and avoid being labeled as race traitors or “brainiacs” (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986).

Although it is never explicitly stated, it could be inferred that the unintellectual stereotype assimilated by black students results from a color-blind education, or an education geared towards the white majority, the standard default. According to Fordham and Ogbu, “white Americans traditionally refused to acknowledge that black Americans are capable of intellectual achievement” (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986). Remembering Nieto’s previous statement that high school world and American history courses tend to focus on the achievements of Europeans and European Americans, one might come to the conclusion that an education highlighting the intellectual achievements of the black community might help to mitigate the image of intellectualism as white domain. Indeed, Fordham and Ogbu conclude their article with the suggestion that “The [black] community should develop programs to teach black children that academic pursuit is not synonymous with… acting white…Cultural or public recognition of those who are academically successful should be made a frequent event” (Fordham and Ogbu, 1986).

This seems to be the same conclusion reached by Gloria Ladson-Billings, who writes in support of “culturally congruent” instruction, in which teachers “alter… their speech patterns, communication styles, and participation structures to resemble more closely those of the students’ own culture” (Ladson-Billings 1997). Presenting students with a “culturally relevant” curriculum, she says, will “assist in the development of a ‘relevant black personality’ that allows African American students to choose academic excellence yet still identify with African and African American culture,” or as one parent quoted by Ladson-Billings put it, “hold[ing] their own in the classroom without forgetting their own in the community” (Ladson-Billings 1997). Thus, an Afrocentric curriculum is one possible solution to black students’ equation of academia with racial betrayal.

Such an Afrocentric curriculum may have helped Joanne Kilgour Dowdy and Ernie Smith, each of whom were educated in a climate that upheld white culture as “correct,” as the norm. Dowdy’s Eurocentric education in the former British colony of Trinidad completely disregarded her native Trinidadian culture, dismissing her language, the local language, as incorrect, a mere slang dialect (Dowdy, 2002). This cultural insensitivity led both of her siblings to rebel rather than learning “the Queen’s English” as was desired, eventually causing their expulsion from school. It also ultimately led Dowdy herself not towards assimilation, but towards a stronger assertion of her own Masai roots (Dowdy, 2002). Similarly, the American school system regarded Smith’s use of Ebonics not as the use of another language, but as “sloven speech” or “broken English” (Smith, 2002). For his nonconformity to the white norm, Smith was seen as a “verbal cripple,” fit for nothing more advanced than vocational school. He only eventually learned Standard American English after he had finished his schooling, on the streets (Smith, 2002).

While a strong case may be made against a curriculum exclusively tailored to the needs of the European-American, English-speaking children of the dominant culture, perhaps an equally strong case may be made against singling out minority students for differential treatment. In “E Pluribus Plures,” Diane Ravitch argues that “the particularistic version of multiculturalism is unabashedly filiopietistic and deterministic. It teaches children that… something in their blood or their race memory or their cultural DNA defines who they are and what they may achieve… it implies that American culture belongs only to those who are white and European… that the only culture they do belong to or can ever belong to is the culture of their ancestors, even if their families have lived in this country for generations” (Ravitch 1990). Although, Ravitch says, the intent of the kind of “culturally congruent” teaching advocated by Ladson-Billings is to raise minority students’ self-esteem, she holds that the development of such self-esteem is more greatly influenced by children’s families, communities, and society at large than by their school curriculum. Furthermore, says Ravitch, “to the extent that curriculum influences what children think of themselves, it should encourage children of all racial and ethnic groups to believe that they are part of this society and that they should develop their talents and minds to the fullest” (Ravitch 1990).

In addition to being separatist and exclusionary, Ravitch states that particularist teaching is also impractical, if not impossible. Using the example of a “culturally relevant” Mayan-based science and math curriculum for Hispanic students, Ravitch asks, “If the class is half Mexican-American and half something else, will only the Mexican-American children study in a Mayan and Aztec mode or will all the children? But shouldn’t all children study what is culturally relevant for them? How will we train teachers who have command of so many different systems of mathematics and science?” (Ravitch 1990). She also wonders if children who study under these methods will be prepared to study science and math at American colleges and universities. One is forced to acknowledge that extreme forms of particularism, insistent upon a constantly, solidly “culturally relevant” curriculum has its logistical problems, including racial segregation of students, possibly along somewhat murky or artificial lines, so that they may be taught in a way that is supposedly compatible with their ethnic background. According to Ravitch, “Particularists reject any accommodation among groups, any interactions that blur the distinct lines between them…. No serious scholar would claim that all Europeans and white Americans are part of the same culture, or that all Asians are part of the same culture, or that all people of Latin-American descent are of the same culture, or that all people of African descent are of the same culture. Any categorization this broad is essentially meaningless and useless” (Ravitch 1990).

As an alternative to culturally-specific education, Ravitch suggests a more inclusive approach, teaching a pluralistic curriculum to students of all races and ethnicities, including the contributions of a diverse range of Americans, from Helen Keller to Harriet Tubman. “American culture belongs to us, all of us,” says Ravitch, also quoting the Roman playwright Terence, “‘I am a man: nothing human is alien to me…’ You don’t have to be black to love Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction or Langston Hughes’s poetry or Duke Ellington’s music. In a pluralist curriculum, we expect children to learn a broad and humane culture, to learn about the ideas and art and animating spirit of many cultures” (Ravitch 1990). According to Ravitch, American public schools “exist to teach children the general skills and knowledge that they need to succeed in American society, and the specific skills and knowledge that they need in order to function as American citizens” and should thus teach one “expansive and inclusive” American curriculum. Those seeking more specific, “culturally relevant” education should look to private schools, which have long served to accommodate groups with special interests, such as Greeks, Chinese, Catholics, and Jews, says Ravitch.

In agreement with this view is Arthur Schlesinger, whose “E Pluribus Unum?” fiercely defends a single American curriculum and attacks the views of “ethnocentric separatists” like Ladson-Billings and Nieto (Schlesinger 1992). Unlike Ravitch, however, who stresses the unity and diversity of our “common culture that is multicultural,” and suggests that our curriculum might more correctly be labeled “Americentric” than “Eurocentric,” Schlesinger bluntly asserts the necessity and common sense of a Eurocentric curriculum, insisting that “the United States is an extension of European civilization... It may be too bad that dead white European males have played so large a role in shaping our culture. But that’s the way it is” (Ravitch 1990, Schlesinger 1992). Schlesinger also agrees with Ravitch that “culturally congruent” curriculum “encourage[s] minorities to see themselves as victims and to live by alibis rather than to claim the opportunities opened for them by the potent combination of minority protest and white guilt” (Schlesinger 1992).

While Schlesinger agrees with Ravitch on many points, he seems to harbor a thinly veiled ethnocentrism that should not be ignored. Although he does insist that “We don’t have to believe that our values are absolutely better than the next fellow’s or the next country’s,” and that “Belief in one’s own culture does not require disdain for other cultures,” his own language is heavily tainted with disdain when he insists that “The West needs no lectures on the superior virtue of those “sun people” [Africans] who sustained slavery until Western imperialism abolished it (and sustain it to this day in Mauritania and the Sudan), who keep women in subjection, marry several at once, and mutilate their genitals, who carry out racial persecutions not only against Indians and other Asians but against fellow Africans from the wrong tribes, who show themselves either incapable of operating a democracy or ideologically hostile to the democratic idea, and who in their tyrannies and massacres, their Idi Amins and Boukassas, have stamped with utmost brutality on human rights” (Schlesinger 1992). Schlesinger’s insistence that the ideas of freedom and human rights are the exclusive intellectual product of the West and that it took Western imperialism to end slavery, suttee, and forcible veiling in other parts of the world seems reminiscent of Kipling’s “white man’s burden” (Schlesinger 1992). Additionally, while his use of the term “ethnic” to describe minority groups may be a deliberate protest against politically correct extremists, it could be interpreted as subtly painting minorities as somehow “colorful” and “exotic,” and implying that whites, apparently lacking this exceptional quality of ethnicity, are the standard norm.

Current scholarship remains divided on the issue of race and ethnicity in public schools. On one side, particularists argue for “culturally relevant” curriculum, while on the other, pluralists insist on one integrated and inclusive American curriculum. Neither view is entirely perfect. As stated by Ravitch, extreme particularism can be divisive and exclusionary, placing students in predetermined groups based on race and ethnicity, and thus cutting them off from other parts of American culture (Ravitch 1990). Conversely, authors proposing to teach one “American” curriculum, in spite of professions of “pluralism” might harbor harmful prejudices, leading to a curriculum that is unfairly ethnocentric and biased, as Nieto warns, expressing only the viewpoint of the dominant culture (Nieto 2003). Thus a careful line must be tread between “cultural separatism” and the subjugation of minority cultures, neither ignoring nor constantly fixating on cultural differences. Children should be taught an inclusive curriculum which celebrates the diversity of American culture and which celebrates them as unique and worthwhile, recognizing not only their many backgrounds but also their many talents and the myriad of other factors which make up their identities. They should be neither restricted to viewing the world through the lens of the dominant culture nor through the lens of their specific ethnic background, because after all, “You don’t have to be black to love Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction or Langston Hughes’s poetry or Duke Ellington’s music.” Or Aretha Franklin’s (Ravitch 1990).

Works Cited

Dowdy, J. (2002). Ovuh Dyuh. In J. Dowdy & L. Delpit, (Eds.), The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom (pp. 5-13). New York: The New Press.

Fordham, S. & Ogbu, J. U. (1986). Black Students' School Success: Coping with the "Burden of Acting White" 303-310.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1997). Does Culture Matter? The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. (pp. 15-29). John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Nieto, S. (2003). Culture, Identity, and Learning. Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (4th ed. pp. 145-170). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Ravitch, D. (1990). Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures. American Scholar, 59(3), 337-355.

Schlesinger, A. (1992). E Pluribus Unum? The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. (pp. 125-147). W. W. Norton and Company.

Smith, E. (2002). Ebonics: A Case History. In J. Dowdy & L. Delpit, (Eds.), The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom (pp. 16-27). New York: New Press.


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