A Culturally Competent and Democratic Pedagogy

Delivered before a room of educators at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2012.

When I was told me that students identified me as a culturally competent teacher and asked if I would present my ideas  before a video camera for a short piece on cultural competence, I agreed.

I must confess that I didn’t know exactly what to say in response to the specific question that was put to me, something to the effect of sharing examples of intentional ways I set an inclusive tone in my classroom. I don’t use any specific techniques or strategies to do that, or to enhance my ability to effectively interact with people of different cultural, ethnical, or racial backgrounds, or to teach members of majority groups to better appreciate the standpoints and situations of minority group members. Frankly, I have found many of the techniques and strategies people use to accomplish these things to be contrived, even alienating.

So I worried about what I was going to say as the date of the video interview rapidly approached. I sought counsel from my dear friend and colleague Andy Kersten and, as if he had studied phenomenological psychological counseling techniques, Carl Rogered out of me the influence of my background as the child of civil rights workers and the knowledge I acquired through a life of working and playing closely with my peers in the African American community (I wasn’t like other southern white boys).

I said this – and some other things – to the camera, after asking Mike to prompt me with the question. I don’t really remember much of what I said, frankly. However, I do know that, because of time limitations, I left out the intellectual and social justice pieces. I want to share those with you today.

The general epistemological framework that informs my sociology provides the means to be culturally competent. It allows me to pursue a politically-interested scientific pedagogy. Why I use the term “epistemological” here – that is, what I characterizes as thinking concerned with interrogating the source and logic of knowledge – will become clear as my argument unfolds.  What I will be saying to you here today is what I tell my students in one way or another. This is a general approach, not a tool kit of strategies or techniques.

Before proceeding, I want to define cultural competency as I understand it. To be culturally competent is to accomplish at least three things, all of which have objective and subjective dimensions:

  • cultural, ethnical, and racial self-awareness, especially of racial attitudes and advantages (often referred to as privileges);
  • knowledge of cultural, ethnical, and racial differences and struggles; and
  • a culturally – but not morally – relative attitude towards (or sensitivity to) cultural difference. Thus an appreciation of universalism.

These are objective because attitudes and advantages issue from social structure, ideology is a consequence of inequalities in power, and universal human rights are an objective feature of human being.  

My sociology is rooted in historical materialism, an elaboration of the scientific approach to studying history first developed by the revolutionary communist Karl Marx. Emphasis here is on the social relations that comprise the societal totality, with an eye towards identifying the internal contradictions and power asymmetries that generate group conflict. Historical materialism explains cultural and historical change in terms of these dynamics.

This way of studying the problem of culture and history links the objective reality of social relations to the subjective experience of them. To this put another way, it works as objective explanation of social relations that pulls attendant subjective elements into the domain of scientific analysis.

Social class, to take the paradigm, is not a subjective category, either as the arbitrary division of income by social science or as group self-perception, but rather as a material fact of segmented society which, in our epoch and for the most part, appears as the capitalist/wage-labor relation (in other epochs – and to some extent even in the current one – lord and serf and master and slave). The same objective relation that binds the classes together, because it is exploitative and oppressive, differentiates the subjective experiences of the respective class members in a real way (of which they can, crucially, be falsely conscious). In this way, we can analyze group consciousness as an objective fact of the system, understand the realities it perceives, and show how material divisions distort perception of the part and whole.

This also breaks down the traditional liberal barrier between science and politics – or, more accurately, exposes value neutrality as a mere fig leaf covering the nakedness revealed when one takes a critical approach to scientific subjects. My students learn very early in the semester that there is no value-free social science.

As I explain this – presenting the ideas of feminist philosopher Sandra Harding, historian Howard Zinn, educator Paulo Freire, revolutionary Karl Marx, critical race theorist Derrick Bell, etc. – students see new ways to think about the world. For most of their lives, they have received bits of information disconnected from a comprehensive theory of history and power, knowledge that is depoliticized and sanitized (think about the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. – in reality, a despised radical Christian socialist struggling against apartheid, capitalism, imperialism, and militarism, yet, in popular narrative, a beloved liberal reformer gently pushing the nation to make good on the promise of formal equality and pretty much setting things right). If social facts are at all plugged into anything remotely resembling a historical narrative, that narrative is typically ideological.

When considering the world through the lens of critical theory, students see history as power, structure, and struggle. This standpoint is particularly powerful for minority students. Often, for the first time, they have before them a method that, because it focuses on the circumstances of the oppressed, explains those circumstances, and makes a choice of comrades (to use Ignazio Salone’s famous phrase from the pages of Dissent), conveys their situation. Yet, at the same time, an approach that sides with the proletariat will also count many whites among its comrades.

I explain this to students this way: the subjective experience of a black man is objectively differentiated from that of a white man because each stands in a different grouped location with respect to the race or caste relation, a relation that is objective, empirically describable using a wealth of empirical facts. (It is crucial in making this argument to show that racism is not merely about race prejudice – in fact, it does not always depend on attitudes – but about structural and institutional power and discrimination.) However, the experience of a working class white man is different from that of a rich white man. White students learn that, while they have lived a life apart from minorities, particularly blacks in this part of the country, they share a common class position.

I use myself as an example, a southern white man. I admit that I cannot fully experience black consciousness. But I can understand that consciousness by grasping its relationship to the system of social positions that underpin it – and more than this: by understanding that this consciousness is the result of existence on the oppressed end of the relation, I can forge an educational relationship in which both minority and majority students can develop a deeper consciousness of the social relations and its problems. I structure my classes to achieve what critical race theorists, such as Derrick Bell, call “interest convergence.” This is the ideas that white people will support racial justice to the extent that they can identify with the situation of black people, see their common interests.

This deeper consciousness leads not only to greater knowledge, but to more profound moral and political understandings, pushing participants towards the considerations of democratic solutions that address the problems of inequalities. For it is only when a white people understand the social situation various minority groups – and can relate to it – that they can accept black or American Indian or Latino/Chicano consciousness as a legitimate expression – rather than fear it (as racial hatred), or see it as inferior, or see it as biased or as part of an agenda (minorities playing the race card by talking about race, for example) – and call upon the other elements of the empathy they express in just the normal process of knowing others: sympathyand solidarity.

I define sympathy here as social affinity, in which one person stands withanother person, thereby closely understanding his or her feelings through an alignment of interests, which calls upon the majority group member to make what he previously viewed as sacrifices, but now sees as necessary acts of restorative justice.

I readily admit that my goal is not simply to educate, but to transform. We review other perspectives, but we are careful to examine these in terms of the role they play in history, in creating and entrenching inequalities, in preserving the status quo. It is not enough to say we are citizens in a democratic society. History is not static. It is becoming.  Democracy is a project. We have to learn how to think and act democratic and we must struggle for justice. We must identify the real barriers to realizing a just and democratic society, and for working people of different racial and ethnical backgrounds, that barrier must not be each other.

* * *

Here are examples of the language I use in discussing these ideas. In critical race theory, the concepts of oppressed and oppressor are termed “perpetrator” and “victim.” This is similar to Franz Fanon’s conceptualization, echoed in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, of “executioner” and “victim.” We talk in class about the perpetrator’s perspective and the victim’s perspective. 

It is important to understand this distinction because, in standard educational practices, the dominant standpoint is sold as the neutral standpoint. When the minority standpoint is presented, it is seen as political, producing resentment, indoctrination.

For example, discrimination is typically defined in law as an intentional individual act of discrimination based on race. This becomes the understanding of racism and generates such terms as “reverse discrimination” and “reverse racism,” thus ignoring power and starting from the false assumption that there is racial equality. This is the error of substituting an ideal of formal equality for the reality of material inequality. You hear that in the selective quoting of Martin Luther King Jr. about the “content of our character, not the color of our skin.” The victims of discrimination often can’t identify a perpetrator, yet they are the victims of discrimination. 

Knowledge in the academy is shot through with this hidden bias. Sandra Harding attacks this as the problem of confusing objectivity with neutrality. They are not the same thing. She identifies two types of politics in science (and this works for deepening our understanding of politics in the humanity, too). There is, on the one hand, the politicization of science in which politics intrudes on “pure” science. We can easily identify instances of this, for example when President Bush suppresses the findings in studies of No Child Left Behind in order to sustain his ideologically-driven program to privatize the public education system.

The harder type to detect is the depoliticization of science, wherein politics operates unnoticed through dominant institutional structures, priorities, practices and language of science. This attempt at neutrality not only hides systematically distorted research results, but it allows dominant science to normalize authoritarian politics. Thus when challenges are made to the hegemony of dominant science, the challengers are depicted as threatening the neutrality of science. Critics of prevailing politics in science portrayed as ideologues. This counterattack functions to reproduce power and privilege by marginalizing other views, which are, as I have explained, part of the objective reality of things. Modernization theory – and ideological cover for imperialism –is a good example of this type of depoliticized social science.

Harding writes that we need to distinguish between epistemological relativism, which holds different judgments are equally valid, equally good – what is also called “perspectivalism” – and sociological relativism, which holds that different cultural, ethnical, and racial groups, along with classes and genders, have different types of knowledge, a fact that does not negate the external position of an objective reality of social relations. Harding stresses: “No critics of racism, imperialism, male supremacy, or the class system think that the evidence and arguments they present leave their claims valid only ‘from their perspective’; they argue for the validity of these claims on objective grounds, not on ‘perspectivalist’ ones.”

To quote Harding further, “If one wants to detect the values and interests that structure scientific institutions, practices, and conceptual schemes… [o]ne must start from outside them to gain a causal, critical view of them.” Objectivity ¹neutrality.  We have to be aware of how your ideas, perspective, etc., are shaped by existence in society, how it is emergent from social relations (organicism). I strive to teach my students thatobjectivity ¹objectivism; objectivism provides only partial knowledge because it denies knowledge is historically/socially constituted.  All knowledge is socially situated. Therefore, maximal objectivity obtained through critical exploration of relations between subject and object.

* * *

I can illustrate how the failure to comprehend this truth can interfere with democratic educational practices (I hesitate to use the word “progressive” here because of its reformist implications – the historical materialist approach is much more radical).

Some of you are perhaps familiar with the situation in the Tucson School District with the Mexican American Studies Program (Chicano Studies). La Raza. Arizona public school administrators – really the unilateral directive of Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal whose threat of appropriating $14 million dollars in public funds forced the Tucson Unified School District voted to suspend its Mexican American Studies program– have not only terminated the program, but have issued a list of book that can no longer be used in the classroom. These books include Rethinking Columbus, edited by Bill Bigelow and Bob Perterson, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, and Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, by Rodolfo Acuña.

Huppenthal ruled the program violated a state law by “promot[ing] resentment toward a race or class of people.” Huppenthal put it this way: “If all you’re teaching these students is one viewpoint, one dimension, we can readily see that it’s not an accurate history, it’s not an education at all. It’s not teaching these kids to think critically, but instead it’s an indoctrination.”  Without getting into the greater anti-immigrant politics of Arizona (we don’t really have to, as this situation is a microcosm of it), let’s explore the problem of Huppenthal’s thinking.

Huppenthal argued that “a dysfunctional school board… allowed a political faction to come into its campus,” and “take over these classes.” Analyzing the “lessons plans of what was actually taking place in these classes, it wasn’t something that people would tolerate, if they could see it out in the open air, not anybody who was liberal, not anybody who was conservative. This is outside of those kind of politics.”

Note how the problem isn’t that the curriculum is necessarily political but that it stands outside the very narrow range of allowable political thought in the United States, liberal versus conservative – which it has to in order to escape the standard ideological distortion. The “designers of the class” sought to “racemize the classes.” He then cited Freire’s work, who he described as “South American” and a “controversial philosopher” who “uses a Marxist structure to his thinking and his philosophy.” “So,” he continued, “the designers of the Mexican American Studies classes explicitly say in their journal articles that they’re going to construct Mexican American Studies around this Marxian framework with a predominantly ethnic underclass, the oppressed, being—filling out that Marxian model and a predominantly Caucasian class filling out the role of the oppressor.” (Interesting that he would use the racist word “Caucasian” here.) He notes that Freire claims that the word “oppressed” “is taken right out of The Communist Manifesto, where… Marx talks about the…history of mankind being the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors.”

Huppenthal  told Amy Goodman that he “was challenged to come into the classroom” and his experience confirmed what he has just explained. “When I come in the class, they have a poster of Che Guevara up on the wall. [By the way, the lesson that day did not include any discusson of Guevara.] And I said, ‘Did you… all know that Che Guevara helped direct the Communist death camps in Cuba, …that under that regime, they put to death 14,000 dissidents, many of whom their only violation is what we would call free speech rights?’ And while I was in the class, they characterized Benjamin Franklin as a racist.” He was astonished by the contradiction. After all, he went on to explain, Benjamin Franklin did so much for African slaves.[1] 

I am not going to go through his list. What struck me is this: “There’s some kind of historical record there because of the attitudes and beliefs at that time.” And I thought to myself. Oh this is so typical. We have to understand Franklin in terms of his time period and back then everybody held those attitudes and beliefs. I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody said that to me. This is precisely the oppressor’s perspective.

Was it true that it was the attitude of African slaves, who in many of the colonies were a majority of the population, held these attitudes at the time? Where is their voice – the voice of the oppressed.  He had the audacity to say that not apologizing for Franklin’s prejudiced views did “not do justice to history and to give these kids a distorted view of what America is all about.” He added, “This is a great country. You have lots of opportunities. Anyone, the odds are stacked against you.” 

“This is talking about healthy educational processes that allow students to think critically from many viewpoints, not be indoctrinated into a Paulo Freirean-Marxian kind of style of thinking about racial attitudes and creating hatred and creating an attitude of—really, that’s unhealthy in our educational system, and one that, if it was subject to community review, wouldn’t be allowed.” So teaching students about the history of racial hatred is “creating hatred” and “creating an attitude that is unhealthy.”

And then, when challenged about the banning of books, he gave this pernicious example: “You could use Mein Kampf in the classroom, but you’d have to be really careful, because you—if you found a teacher who wasn’t using it to explore the issues in Mein Kampf critically, but you were—they were using it as a Bible, boy, that would be intolerable. And that’s where the teachers have crossed over the line. They’ve gone from using these books critically, to get the students thinking about them from many vantage points, to using these books essentially as a Bible.” So teaching Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is about democratic education and liberation and advocating the views contained therein is the same as teaching Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and advocating those views, which is about fascist dictatorship and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

[1]“Benjamin Franklin was the president of the Abolitionist Society in Pennsylvania. It was under his direct influence that Pennsylvania became the first state to outlaw the slave trade. Benjamin Franklin, out of his own pocket, paid for the very first schools for African Americans in this country and perhaps in the whole world.”

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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