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Antiracist Praxis

Introduction to Antiracist Pedagogy and Praxis in Literature by Zainab Cheema


Traditionally, the college campus has been viewed as a space of critical thinking, open-mindedness and intellectual development. Nevertheless, attention has also been paid to how college campuses reinforce institutional racism, white privilege, and colonialism. Minority and international students and employees frequently confront barriers to inclusion, participation and structural inequality across campus, while white and minority students alike have voiced concern about the lack of diversity in reading material, teaching approaches, and assessment. Classes are often taught around a core “canon” that restricts the circulation of ideas to the work of white male writers and thinkers. Expectations of student learning are often restricted to their assimilation and mastery of information, which in theory will help them to secure advantageous employment. The neoliberal model of education as a means of economic opportunism conflicts with ideals of the educational experience as a practice of freedom and inclusion (hooks 12).
Current attempts to support diversity on college campuses remain limited. The dominant discourse of diversity tends to be about colorblindness and multiculturalism, both of which fall short of dynamic inclusion. Colorblindness asserts that any discussion of race is itself racist, thus protecting racism by making it invisible (Kandaswamy 7). On the other hand, multiculturalism privileges the heightened visibility of difference without critically analyzing the power wielded by different cultural and racial groups in society (Kandaswamy 7). Hierarchies of domination and subordination maintain differences that cannot be accommodated harmoniously.  In contrast to these approaches, antiracist frameworks can help teachers engage students in confronting, acknowledging, and analyzing racism, then working to deconstruct it as a norm (Kendi 225-26). As a result, antiracist pedagogical practices can help create inclusive community, activate creativity, and sustain dialogue, bringing about the kind of transformational change that the university ideally strives to deliver. 

Core Practices by Zainab Cheema

Antiracist pedagogy involves challenging the traditional “canon” that can often reinforce white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism and Eurocentrism. Engaging with the canon from the perspective of “transnational literacy” helps the teacher include minority and international thinkers within the syllabus and challenge the perspective of learning as the domain of white European men (Spivak 284-304). Inclusive approaches to the syllabus can take the shape of “contrapuntal” organization of readings, where readings from the traditional canon are paired with voices and themes not traditionally represented. This idea developed from Edward Said’s model of contrapuntal reading where, for instance, a reading such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park can be paired with primary or secondary texts on English colonial plantations in the Caribbean, where the Bertram family derived most of its wealth (Culture and Imperialism 80-96). This can help students connect themes, subjects, and spaces conventionally treated as separate, such as metropole and colony, or English gentry in eighteenth-century manor houses and slaves on Caribbean plantations. 

Since race is so closely linked with vision and sight, an approach to teaching race in the classroom can involve pairing texts with visual images and artifacts that illustrate the development of racializing ideas through material history. For instance, a seminar on Elizabethan literature can show how metaphors of dark and light in literary descriptions of beauty are racial constructs by pairing them with artifacts such as cameos, paintings, and textiles depicting black and white bodies (Hall “Teaching Race and Gender” 463). Guiding students to discuss how idealized concepts such as “beauty” are organized through racial ideologies helps them see “the yoking together of whiteness, normativity, and privilege and to see ‘race; as a concept that has many different configurations” (Hall  “Teaching Race and Gender” 462). Antiracist pedagogical approaches to canonical texts can thus enable students to question the canon itself as a “white monolith,” recognizing the diversity of influences and formations that have shaped texts conventionally read as “universal” and “racially homogenous” (Hyman and Eklund 2). 
Antiracist approaches to syllabus design can also adopt strategies such as educating students about the development of racial ideologies that enforce whiteness. In contrast to syllabi that compartmentalize texts on race and gender to a “unit,” antiracist syllabi can help students engage with such key conversations. For instance, while teaching on issues of race, antiracist pedagogy helps guide discussions by helping interlocuters understand not only how concepts of race have historically shaped societies and the production of texts, but also how race in our current society has morphed from now debunked scientific-biological frameworks into the more subtle frameworks of culture, ethnicity and civilization (Condon “Beyond the Known” 20). Socially engaged pedagogies can help students understand not only “the power relations that compose truths” but also to explore how “we engage ourselves, each other, and the world in transformative processes as we formulate and realize these truths” (Ford 2). Encouraging students to understand how racism operates through these constructs helps to give them the critical vocabulary and intellectual freedom to engage with ideas of liberation and justice in historical contexts and our contemporary world.
Another aspect of antiracist pedagogy is teacher-student engagement in the classroom. As bell hooks observed, “making the classroom a democratic setting where everyone feels a responsibility to contribute is a central goal of transformative pedagogy” (39). This requires the teacher to engage with diversity by practicing engagement with and commitment to diverse groups rather than trying to assume a position of imagined neutrality or objectivity. For instance, a teacher identifying “with” students, their families, and communities, rather than participating in identification “of” them, which potentially encourages a counterproductive mode of teaching as surveillance (Trinder ix). Similarly, Kandaswamy has discussed how when teaching the texts written by groups different from one’s own, adopting the model of “speaking with” rather than “speaking for” can help decenter the teacher’s presumed neutrality. Antiracist pedagogy also requires the teacher to acknowledge their own embeddedness in structures of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality and geography and to develop consciousness of how that impacts their engagement with the texts and with the classroom community. As Antonio Gramsci writes in his Prison Notebooks, “[t]he starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory” (324). This critical awareness can develop open communication between the teacher and students and help the classroom become a site of transformational learning.

Standards and Inclusion by Zainab Cheema

Alongside such practices as developing inclusive syllabi that diversify the canon and creating effective teaching modules that engage students across differences, antiracist pedagogy also includes developing fair and inclusive assessment practices that measure student learning from a variety of parameters beyond the culturally limited models of white middle class and upper class achievement. For more information on this topic, see the section on “Antiracist Assessment.”


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