Theoretical Perspectives for Developmental Education

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. Race relations are a part of the hegemonic workings of the structure and the individual social actor, and linked to how the individual explanations of his or her behavior in the context of peers, family, and school relations.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant (1994) approach these issues theoretically through a process called racial formation. Racial formation is the “socio-historical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed” (p. 55). An ideological link to how we think about race is provided through racial projects connecting what “race means [their emphasis] in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized” (p. 55). Racial formation, according to Omi and Winant, is a “process of historically situated projects [their emphasis] in which human bodies and social structures are organized” (p. 58). Racial projects become part of the social structure through our understandings about race that we believe are “common-sense” (p. 59). Common-sense understandings give us the ability to interpret racial meanings according to preconceived notions. These notions condition meanings about who fits into which category and how we expect categorized people to behave. Conversely, our ongoing interpretation of our experiences in racial terms shapes our relations to the institutions through which we are embedded in social structure. On the level of everyday life, we categorize individuals, often unconsciously, in the ways we “notice” race (Omi & Winant, p. 59).

The concept of racial projects is best understood by first defining race. Although I do not define race or ethnicity in terms of physical characteristics, social relations in the United States do categorize individuals and groups according to physical characteristics such as skin color. According to Omi and Winant (1994), “race is not an essence, nor is race fixed, concrete and objective, nor is race an illusion or a purely ideological construct” (p. 54). In other words, there are real material consequences to the way we practice race. Having defined what race is not, Omi and Winant suggest race be defined as a “concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies [their emphasis]” (p. 55). They further argue that the concept of race cannot be minimized, such as viewing the social world as “color-blind,” because doing so would mean posing race as a problem or irregularity within the social world when race should be considered a central organizing principle of human representation. For example, like many other students, Josie states that grades are important because they are the way that other people evaluate your academic abilities. As Josie states,

Grades are important because they are a way that people figure out if you are a hard worker or not and that’s important to me. I have a very strong work ethic. I don’t care what people think about Latinos, my family is very work oriented and if you have all “Cs” then it looks like you don’t do anything...even though you know you’re working 35 hours a week and a C would be doing quite well, you know other people’s perceptions would be that you’re not working.

Laziness as a common expected behavior assigned to Latinos frustrates many university Latino students. At the university level, students often choose which courses they want to pass with high grades and which courses they are willing to simply pass. Latino students believe they may not always make this choice because they do not want people to assume they are lazy or incapable, common expectations and behaviors assumed in the organizational logic of the school. This means White students are advantaged, able to assign a different meaning, to earning a lower grade. For White students, this choice is not about a strong work ethic. Choice may also be about practicality or the ability to prioritize. What Josie says suggests that the organizational logic of the school questions Latino academic ability and, when ability is proven, links the choice to perform at a lesser level to a poor work ethic. Latino students find themselves in the position of doing more when more may not be academically necessary, but necessary to negotiate an organizational logic that contributes to schools as White spaces.

There is a problem with examining school experiences through racial formation. Omi and Winant (1994) state that a conscious understanding of racial formation and racialization empowers the racialized individual to reconstruct racialized identity and to discontinue living in categories that demand we look at them as different. As good as this sounds, their theory still focuses on the subordinate position of the racialized individual. In addition, empowering racialized people to reconstruct their own identity does not necessarily mean others have reconstructed their identity. Students of color, although they may have raised their own consciousness about who they are, have not experienced a change in how they are categorized within the institution. How do we avoid limiting Omi and Winant’s astute observations about racial formation? I suggest we begin to produce a better understanding of race relations in schools by not positioning students of color as the only racialized participants in schools. We need to consider the position occupied by Whiteness as a racial category. Work by David Roediger (1991), David Wellman (1994), and Ruth Frankenberg (1993) examines Whiteness as a privilege often void of racialized meaning among White people. People of color, however, have a clearer understanding of the connection between Whiteness and privilege. Roediger reminds us that “for at least sixty years, Black writers have stated that race in the US is a White problem, with consequences that fall on people of color” (p. 6). The way we continue to approach race is through a color-blind lens. However, color-blind actions erase the color of the “other” and privilege Whiteness as the norm, whereas recognizing racialized differences would highlight that privilege. Why privilege? Because as Cheryl Harris (1993) argues, Whiteness becomes property, something that we own that is as beneficial to us as a piece of real estate.

Recognizing or understanding the consequences of schools as White spaces is important to the educational development of students of color. The majority of the literature suggests that students of color have two options, assimilate and succeed, or resist and fail. My data suggests that Latino students negotiate educational success through other means. For example, Latina students accommodate the organizational logic of the school by appearing to adapt to prominent ideologies. However, through awareness of the school as a White space and their position in that space, they have learned to value other things. They have discovered that White spaces necessitate the creation of what Patricia Hill Collins (1990) calls “self-valuing” (p. 107) to compensate for common-sense interpretations of racial meanings practiced through the organizational logic of the school. This kind of knowledge gathering is different from and beyond what is required of dominant culture students.

Our sociological thinking and general understanding by the larger society of success and failure is reflected in Robert Merton’s (1957) argument about assimilation. Merton suggests there are no alternatives other than to accept or reject the “means to an end” assimilation requires. Individuals from other cultures must accept discarding their ways of being in order to assimilate into the American melting pot. Rejection of the means (i.e., discarding one’s own culture) proposes not obtaining the ends (i.e., assimilation). The underlying assumption in the informal practices and formal policies of school organizations is success through assimilation. However, the organizational logic of the institution may not allow for complete assimilation because that space is racialized.

Power differentials exist that influence the consequences of an organization logic that distinguishes along race lines. This power exists because once the organizational logic is racialized as White, it is difficult for groups of color to break into that logic. Given the power differentials Whiteness enjoys in the educational institution, as in the larger society, White groups acquire greater benefits from the racialized divisions in the organizational logic and in the organization. Take for example the ability to acquire housing or taking advantage of a legacy admission to an Ivy League university, or racial profiling leading to higher arrest rates of African Americans for smaller offences such as driving without a license. This is not to say that power and control are always intentional or part of a White conspiracy against folks of color. As Gramsci (1971) and Omi and Winant (1994) point out, the social construction of race becomes “common-sense” and hegemony is achieved through what is believed to be commonsensical. The organizational logic at work in the school socially constructs race in a common-sense way. Just as Acker (1989) claims that organizations are not gender neutral even though what is masculine is considered neutral in our society, I argue that the school’s organization logic views Whiteness as natural and therefore is considered neutral. Organizational logic, built on assumed ideas and categorizations that White is natural and neutral, permeates that organization’s material and symbolic practices and policies. Furthermore, this organizational logic racializes the very space of the institution into a White space, a space that privileges White and disadvantages people of other color. If the organizational logic of the school that privileges Whiteness is not intentional, how may this concept be observed and how is it reproduced?

As Nina Eliasoph (1999) suggests, sociological treatments of how Whites “objectively reproduce racial oppression may be found in how they buy a house in one neighborhood and not another, pick one school over another, locate a company in one part of town and not another” (p. 483). However, to understand how decisions are made by Whites when neither prejudice (Wellman, 1994) or profit (Kirschenman & Neckerman, 1991) fully account for these decisions, we must look to other kinds of explanations. To begin with, the assumed rules for interaction inside organizations such as the school and in the workplace are subjectively colored with Whiteness in their everyday decisions and activities (Eliasoph, 1999; Fordham, 1988; Gould, 1999). Illuminating ways in which the organizational logic of the school neutralizes interactions may help us understand why many participating in school organizations do not understand that color, especially Whiteness, matters.

More than half of the university students and high school students I interviewed related instances when teachers expressed surprise at their knowledge, writing skills, or preparation for class. Many times, these remarks were related to assumed lack of language or writing skills by someone with a Latino surname. An organizational logic that defines expectations and appropriate behaviors from Chicano Latino students based on a White norm is another observable element that defines school space as a racialized White space. For example, in an American literature class at the university, Josie’s teaching assistant (TA) wrote on her first paper, “your writing is coming along well,” which she found offensive. She talked to the teaching assistant to find her suspicions were correct—that the TA had assumed because of her surname, she was not American and therefore not English speaking. Josie states that the TA was surprised by Josie’s response because she felt she “was responding to my paper in a culturally sensitive manner rather than just critiquing the writing as she would any other paper.” What the TA mistook for cultural sensitivity is a liberal response to interpreting a situation through the lens of an organizational logic that responds to difference as less than the norm.

Positive statements are helpful to any student but do not take the place of positive critique. In this case, the TA did not apply positive critique because she assumed the student to lack the skills necessary to write a better paper. Josie identifies this “treatment by my university TA and generally within school as difficult.” Josie does not analytically understand what is difficult. However, over time, Josie gathers this information into a kind of understanding that she uses to help her negotiate school practices. She reports, “I figured out how to do school. I appropriated the system and have been doing so ever since.” Although not saying so in these words, Josie developed an understanding of school as a White space working through an organizational logic that privileges markers that assume White values, and constrains markers that are assumed to be less than White. The constraint also neutralizes Josie’s “difference” by not holding culturally different students to the same standard as “normal” students. In practical terms, this means Chicano Latino students at the university will not benefit from the same level of constructive criticism, one of the most important processes for becoming a better writer. Josie explains she has found a way to negotiate the organizational logic of this space by appropriating the way to “do school.” Josie states that there is a difference between “doing” school and learning. She comments,

I like learning. I like being interested in what I’m learning and I’m not very hard to interest in stuff. Because the one thing I know is that whatever I learn, I relate to myself, and then it is a part of me.

Josie has learned that school consists of more than gaining intellectual knowledge. She has also learned what is expected of her as a student, appropriate responses to that expectation, and a way to “do” a racialized other in a White space. What Josie does is negotiate the organizational logic that neutralizes her difference by making the topic of learning a part of herself. It appears she has found a way to be in the White space of the school without being part of the organizational logic, which would make her disappear. Instead, she mediates that space and gains what she wants: to learn. Regardless of her efforts to appropriate the system, there continue to be expected and appropriate behaviors in a White space that impact Josie’s decisions as a Latina student.

Through these experiences, we gain insight into how schools as racial projects function through a White space, and how that space delineates relationships and creates barriers for students of color within the school along race lines. We also see how White space is negotiated through positive resistance. Resistance is a difficult term in that we often attach resistance to failure, and we also generally perceive it as negative rather than positive. Patricia Hill Collins (1990) argues that African Americans have developed a specific understanding of what is necessary for a Black person to survive in a White world. Collins describes Black women resisting imposed racialized identity through a clear definition of self and identity. Collins states that identity is not the goal, but the point of departure for creating a self-definition that challenges external definers. Self-definitions and self-valuations happen in safe spaces that Black women create for each other. Defining and valuing generates what Collins characterizes as “an independent consciousness as a sphere of freedom” (pp. 142-143). Furthermore, Collins states the process of defining and valuing the self is not about finding an increased autonomy as a separate individual. Instead, Black women’s self-defining and self-valuing is found in the context of community. In my study, I found that Latinos often resist White space yet succeed in school by creating safe spaces, spaces that Patricia Hill Collins refers to as “spheres of freedom” (p. 103). These are spaces where self-valuing compensates for common-sense interpretations of racial meanings practiced through the organizational logic of the school. Understanding this phenomenon expands our ability as educational practitioners to help students of color develop in areas previously not considered, but is nonetheless part of their educational development.


Let me summarize what Chicano Latino students told me and what observations and analysis of the institutions revealed. The gist is that color-blind actions erase the color of the “other” and privilege Whiteness as the norm. What happens in schools? The taken-for-granted assumption is that educational institutions are race neutral organizations and what is esteemed, White, middle class, male values, is neutral. In other words, schools, as Chicano Latino students inform me, are White spaces. What I discovered in my research is a mechanism that sustains this seemingly color-blind appearance of the institutional process, an organizational logic that advances White, middle class values and disadvantages those who do not fit into this privileged box. This organizational logic assumes a neutral position by distinguishing along racial lines in taken-for-granted aspects of school policy, and informal practices that determine what behaviors for people of color are allowed and expected in White spaces. What distinguishes this process is that “the others” are neutralized, or made to disappear in order for an assumed neutrality to continue. So it is more than marginalization of the other, it is about making the other disappear because recognizing racialized differences would highlight White privilege.

What do students do? My research indicates that Latino students negotiate their educational experiences through a process of self-definition and self-valuing. This process is dynamic, changes over time, and differs from person to person relative to that individual Chicano Latino’s personal history. There are, however, patterns in this process that allow us to see a distinct progression in self-definition and self-valuing in connection to the school experience. The process is also affected by the degree to which the individual is grounded in the context of a community that provides a safe space, or sphere of freedom that challenges dominant definitions and valuing.

Our solutions thus far to educating other than White, middle class Americans are to provide compensatory education, special programs for students of color, and to proclaim schools as dedicated to diversity, multiculturalism, or at the least cultural sensitivity. There are three problems with these solutions. First, these solutions place the burden of change on the victim of an unjust educational system. Although directing efforts to improve the educational experiences of Latinos to Latinos may be helpful, why many of these students need “help” is not clear. Latinos as well as educators and the general public may unconsciously believe they need special help because they are deficient. One of the reasons schools and education in general continue to focus on individuals is because, like Shapiro’s (2000) students, we tend to forget the structure of our society and the inequalities built into it. Instead, we are concerned about individuals, easily characterizing their ability or inability to participate fully in the educational process as individual and installing mechanisms for change accordingly. Furthermore, the individual on which the mechanism is focused is usually the person of color, not the seemingly able mainstream student. This is true for special programs designed for marginalized student populations, and for those designed to change the behavior of authoritative groups such as teachers. What we end up with in education in general is watered-down curriculum changes, half-hearted attempts to address learning style differences, and mandatory multicultural training for teachers and administrators. In developmental education specifically, we continue to utilize deficit and individualistic models and definitions of developmental education masking other kinds of relationships in the educational organization that affect taken-for-granted assessments of student skill and student need. As long as education, educators, and researchers continue to attack the problems in education on an individual level, including our views on racism in the schools, that the privileged group can ignore, we will not change race relations or educational institutions. bell hooks (1994) explains it this way:

Despite the focus on diversity, our desires for inclusion, many professors still teach in classrooms that are predominantly White. Often a spirit of tokenism prevails in those settings. This is why it is so crucial that “Whiteness” be studied, understood, discussed—so that everyone learns that affirmation of multiculturalism, and an unbiased inclusive perspective, can and should be present whether or not people of color are present. (p. 43)

hooks illuminates a crucial issue in race relations today. White people do not think about race unless they are thinking about people of color. The reason for this is well explained by George Lipsitz (1998), who states that “[W]hiteness is everywhere in the U.S. culture, but it is hard to see…as the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, Whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations” (p. 1).

What does this mean in terms of developmental education? What would happen if education in general, and developmental education in particular, begins to look at itself, its research, and application as a White space? What would it mean to those participating in the relationships in that space? My analysis of Chicano Latino experience may appear as if once again the entire burden for change is on students’ of color ability to find spheres of freedom. To the contrary, students who have found this safe space in which to pursue their education have enlightened us as to the need for structural change, and given us some hints as to how to effect that change.

First of all, we need to pay more attention to race relations as the central subject of discovery. I would challenge White folks in educational institutions to look for and define those taken-for-granted assessments of students and applications of teaching in developmental classes, not in terms of curriculum, but in terms of how the relationships in the classroom are affected by our assumptions. In order to ask these questions about White space and the relationships that take place in that space, researchers and practitioners must first consider approaching their work recognizing institutions as racial projects built on White spaces. The theory in which we ground our research and practice must be considerate of race relations. Our research and practice must recognize the institution as historically and contemporarily built on values and ideas that are specific to one group rather than assuming the neutrality of the spaces in which we work. Our research and practice must recognize that our participation in the social structure, our statuses and roles, are not neutral. Most of all, we must listen to students of color and really hear them. What students tell us is their real experience, and we must believe and respect them rather than dismissing them through our own paternalistic interpretations of their experiences. What students in my research discuss is not racism, or individual prejudice such as Shapiro’s (2000) students suggested. These students discuss their relationships to education as a part of the social structure, and we should respond accordingly by seeking structural change. Because we cannot change the entire structure of the institution overnight, we must find a starting point. That point is to allow students of color to find spheres of freedom—give them time and space to address what the reality of their educational process really is in our classrooms, our offices, and in our research. We must consider that the spaces those of us who are the mainstream population research and practice in is a safe space for us, but not necessarily for those who are not like us. If we begin here, we will be giving more than rhetorical responses to the race relations in educational institutions as part of the race relations in the larger social world.


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Eliasoph, N. (1999). Everyday racism in a culture of political avoidance: Civil society, speech and taboos. Social Problems, 46, 479-502.

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Fordham, S. (1988). Racelessness as a factor in Black students’ school success: Programmatic strategy or pyrrhic victory? Harvard Educational Review, 58, 54-84.

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Gould, M. (1999). Race and theory: Culture, poverty and adaptation to discrimination in Wilson and Ogbu. Sociological Theory, 17, 171-200.

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The Place of “Culture” in Developmental Education’s Social Sciences

Mark H. Pedelty, Assistant Professor


Walter R. Jacobs, Assistant Professor


Recently, developmental educators have argued that we should view students in their full complexities, rather than as “deficits” to be fixed. This position can be actualized in the social sciences sector by retheorizing “culture.” Whereas many common assumptions of anthropology stress semiotic meanings of culture and many sociological approaches focus on structures and processes, we argue that developmental education should include both meaning and structure in understandings of culture. We use a cultural studies framework to combine anthropological and sociological groundings into a model of culture that demands that we first access students’ pre-college lived experiences and understandings, and work with them to expand, rather than replace, their knowledge with the formal discourses that they must master to negotiate academic spaces. In our model, culture is the collaborative practice of continually making and remaking contexts (i.e., structures and meanings) that provide students with dynamic tools to succeed in the academy and beyond.To:,

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