Educators, business people, and many others in potential leadership roles are for the most part quite familiar by now with the assertion that it is important their classrooms, businesses, and organizations are representative of the communities they serve. This can be reflected in many ways, for but a couple of examples, in the pictures they hang or the people they hire. But the apparent simplicity of such a description of problem and solution falls away quickly when one contemplates even the simplest scenario. Let’s say I’m a teacher and I know I have black students in my class, and I wish to display photographs representative of the “black community.” Shall I hang a picture of Barack Obama? …Nelson Mandela? … Michaëlle Jean? …Michelle Obama? …Sean Combs? All are black, but what does each “represent?” And what possible justification could I have for assuming they represent the same things to my students as they do to me, or that they represent anything at all?
. . . identity is formed at that point where the unspeakable stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history, of a culture . . .— Stuart Hall (1987, p. 44)
Identity is about belonging, and how we choose where we belong, but also how that is chosen for us. Narratives, our interpretations and retelling of history, shape our views of ourselves and our worlds, so “discourses [can be regarded as] formative, rather than expressive, of identities” (Hall, 1987 referenced in Parker and Song, pp. 583-4).
What is representation?
In the first several pages of Urban Portraits of Identity: on the problem of knowing culture and identity in intercultural studies Daniel Yon exposes the highly complex and deeply nuanced topic of identity and representation from the point of view of a number of adolescents attending public school in a diverse and cosmopolitan city, Toronto (Yon, 2000). Adolescence is widely understood as the stage in human development when we begin to decide what we will do with our lives, and consequently not just what, but who we will be when we grow up, so this is a very good place to begin an analysis. Reading Yon, it soon becomes apparent that, far from being a “simplistic reading of bodies,” (p. 143) the students being interviewed construct identities not only from the corporeal universe within which they dwell, but also from the vast cache of stories and imagery they encounter there. Representations of identity are “more spontaneous” (Parker & Song, 2009, p. 584). Our attempts to contain real students in neat “visible minority” boxes fail because their own view is much “thicker” (see Geertz, 1973). Regardless of any obvious or predictable connection their constructions often “defied neat reduction” to nationality, race or ethnicity (Yon, 2000, pp. 143-5).
This orientation towards community assumes relationships between “personal identity” and “cultural identity” as unproblematic. Either the relationship is imagined as being smooth, or where there is disjuncture then either identity or the culture is constituted as a “crisis.” Education is perceived as the means through which the crisis may be resolved. This is the same discourse that incites desires for curriculum that “reflects” the identities of the learners. In school-based efforts such assumptions about culture, identity, and community are therefore crystallized in a discourse of “inclusive education.” It structures, for example, the call for “African-centered curriculum” as an alternative to “Euro-centered curriculum” while generally offering little or no critique of the structures of knowledge or the meaning of culture that produce these “centerings” in the first place. In these various ways cultural relativism, and the discourse of community as inheritance that it produces, has come to privilege differences “between” while suppressing engagement with difference “within” communities.Daniel Yon (1999, p. 624)
It’s worth a pause here to consider that none of those three terms is itself neatly reducible; nationality often connotes citizenship, yet ethnicity may allude to that, but contains an element of DNA and a suggestion of tradition and ritual — race has a pseudo-scientific legacy in the realms of anthropology and biology but nonetheless has been applied as a synonym for either or both of the other terms… culture underpins them all (Smedley, 1999). These collisions, this flux between self-identifying and identifying self, is the starting point of my analysis.
The subject is a web of tensions and release, and just as “discourse structures the possibilities for thinking and acting” thinking and acting shapes the discourse. Thus, culture is deemed to be elusive, “…emergent, both product and process” (Yon, 1999, p. 626). Representation, then, can be seen not only as a marker of “social hermeneutics” used by those attempting to read a particular culture from the outside, but also as a tool by those within (or in proximity to) a culture to define and partition the boundaries of the culture, to decode the relationships of themselves and others to the culture (e.g., membership), and similarly to encode or declare their own relationship to a culture (Hall, 1997; 2007). We must, to quote Hall (1997), quoting Richard Hoggart (1958) “…try to see beyond the habits to what the habits stand for, to see through the statements to what the statements really mean…” (Hall, 1997, p. 43).
This is a challenging undertaking, as representations and their symbolisms can be insidious and pervasive—and contradictory, subject to interpretation. It is accepted that observers bring their own baggage to observations. In researching identity this may mean biases and preconceptions, or pre-established categories constructed around them, resulting in research and reflection that becomes an attempt to justify the choice of those particular categories. Lucia Thesen observes that “…identity can be seen as the dynamic interaction between the fixed identity categories that are applied to social groupings (such as race, gender, ethnicity, language, and other, more subtle representations that are activated in certain discourse settings) and the way individuals think of themselves as they move through the different discourses in which these categories are salient.” (Thesen ,1997, p. 488) Thesen draws a useful distinction between discourse (systemic, societal, institutional) and voice (individual). She too acknowledges the tension and flux I alluded to above, as “…linguistic representations of the fundamental tensions between structure and agency in social life.” (1997, p. 494) She cautions, “…discourse theory downplays agency in the sense that new identity categories and combinations of categories, generated by research subjects themselves, fail to emerge in educational understandings.” She advocates for “…research that brings the locus of interpretation closer to students to find out in which discourses they perceive themselves to be operating.” (1997, p. 507) Both Yon, in what he termed an identity “snapshot,” (1999, p. 626, 2000, p. 144) and Thesen in her “exploration of identity in movement, over a period of time” (1997, p. 506) encounter agency and uncover students’ ability to negotiate multiple discourses, even to self-identify using multiple representations, as in the initially surprising case of a Serbian student who self-identified as “Spanish.” My category (“Serbian”) refers to an ethnicity or a geographical origin, but the student perceived, negotiated, and appropriated for herself certain specific representations around music and apparel she perceived as “Spanish” (Yon, 2000, p. 147). My category prepositions the student, furthermore I could undoubtedly deduce it from paperwork and never need to meet with her to do so. Were one to ignore the young woman’s perceptions and the process by which she achieved this appropriation—her agency in the construction—one would not only dismiss the person, but miss the point of undertaking the analysis.
What about race?
I said earlier that race underpins representations of nationality and ethnicity, and that is for a variety of reasons both objective and subjective. Having grown up and attended school during the 60s, and for the most part in the United States, I spent most of my life believing there are three distinct races differentiated by distinct physical characteristics including skull shape, facial features, and skin colour. I was raised to believe such things made no difference as to how people of different races should be treated, and I was astute enough to recognize this wasn’t always the reality. I travelled, and at some point during the 70s I began understanding and using the word “ethnicity” to describe a more general concept I understood to mean not just race, but to encompass culture, language, and other things I had probably associated with “nationality” prior to acquiring the new vocabulary. Not until perhaps two years before taking this course did I even hear the hypothesis that race was an entirely a cultural construct, with no scientific basis, and I was sceptical. How could this be? What about pigment? What about eyelids? What about hair?
Upon reflection I soon came to accept that race is a construct, that these are variations on a theme—but that they represent many other things in many other contexts. It had been, as Goldberg exposed it, “comfortable” to think of race, and in racialized terms (Goldberg, 1993, p. 150). My travels resulted in an extended stay (1970-1974) in a “Third World” country (Ethiopia) and there’s no question in my memory that I understood it to be “primitive.” I learned it was more “advanced” than many other “primitive” countries—the proof was offered in such facts as having the only airline in Africa in the 1970s that could boast of all Ethiopian pilots and maintenance crew, from shop foreman to the most junior mechanic. I don’t recall ever hearing explicit reasons given for this bit of trivia, but I know that I inferred from somewhere that it was due to three things. First, Ethiopia was a “Christian country since the 4th century AD.” Second, Ethiopia is “one of only two countries in Africa that were never colonized by a European power” (see e.g., ImperialEthiopia.org or Henze, 2000, rev.). And third, Ethiopia was an ally of the United States. While it’s also very true that I heard of Emperor Haile Selassie’s stirring 1936 speech to the League of Nations, and I knew that, many years before my arrival, he had insisted English become the language used in all school and schooling beyond grade 7. I now recognize that I probably never fully credited the emperor or the Ethiopian people for any of these creative ideas or accomplishments; my knowledge was racialized, the Primitive internalized, and the Otherness of Africa was a given (Goldberg, 1993, pp. 150-7).
In the post-colonial Africa of the early 1970s, even in a country occupied (by Italy, 1936–1941) but never colonized, I experienced and benefited from White privilege. A 15-year-old boy might carry the only white face in the Merkato, but in 1974 he could walk anywhere without fear, and command attention, authority, and respect—though he might not ponder its especially British Colonial legacy. Many years later I considered what representations I likely manifested meeting narratives of colonial history—unconsciously, unwittingly, and unintentionally, through the same accidents of birth—and I understood that my “burden of representation” (Alexander, 2009, p. 465), while undeniably present, was relatively light.
I’m now aware I have benefited from, and I continue to benefit from, white privilege—every waking hour of every day of my life. I have from the moment of my birth, and very well may until death. At 21 in California I stood patiently in line at the unemployment insurance office, spoke to the educated white workers in educated white English, quickly decoded the system, mastered the rules and collected full benefits weekly for the maximum number of weeks I was eligible. I can say with a clear conscience, however, that by 21 I didn’t believe for one second the African and Hispanic Americans in line (who usually weren’t “eligible,” and certainly weren’t as eloquent or composed) were to blame for their frustration—I remember thinking I’d be just as desperate were I held in that cycle of perpetual unemployability, just as rude and angry if I were being treated as I saw they were. When my benefits ran out I dressed just as appropriately and spoke just as eloquently at my next job interview, and quickly rejoined the world of the employed. As a white male I’ve enjoyed that level of freedom all my life, and exploited it often, sometimes without even knowing, other times with blatant arrogance.
A more recent example is when the Canadian born woman, whom I identified by my limited knowledge of accents as being of “Jamaican” heritage, accepted my expired health card and told the very next person, who spoke with a Caribbean accent similar to her own, she needed to see proof of his citizenship, which he then produced. How many times in that man’s life has he been asked to take just one more step to get to the finish line than I’ve been? Good thing she didn’t ask me, I’m an immigrant from the USA—and I didn’t have proof of my permanent residency! As a white male with no perceptible accent I’m identified as Canadian—included, eligible, okay. And while there may be little difference between a Canadian and an American in one context, there may be other times and places that a differentiation might be desired. That’s systemic, it’s about racializations and subliminal attitudes we all carry—yet none of us is “a racist.”
Implications for the 21st century classroom
The 21st century classroom is distinct because it’s often situated, at least in part, in cyberspace, and so is defined and restricted by a different set of boundaries (Parker & Song, 2009). The asynchronous nature of this classroom enables the emergence of “post-colonial subjectivities” providing multiple points of reference enhanced by global communications. “These emergent cultural formations cut across any simplistic binary between ‘pure’ old ethnicities, and multi-dimensional, progressive ‘new ethnicities’” (p. 600). Educators can benefit by becoming aware and respectful of these sensitivities. Framing the design of learning situations as opportunities to draw forth and empower multiple representations may be a powerful approach to engagement and community building that reaches far beyond more traditional perceptions of what classrooms are about (Parker & Song, 2009; WOW Project, 2007; Yon, 1999, 2000).
I believe an important first step is to acknowledge that the pathologizing concept of “race,” while lacking evidence to support its claims on our biology, is still part of our psychology, and is reflected in our attitudes, behaviors, and in our political systems and our policies. We must work as individuals to address the first two. We must work as societies to fix the last. It is—deeply and fundamentally—an education issue.
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