The ‘Postcolonial’ United States: Multicultural Education as Resistance to the Construction of Subaltern

The ‘Postcolonial’ United States: Multicultural Education as Resistance to the Construction of Subaltern

Exploring Spivak's notion of the subaltern and where we are now...

Photo by Pragyan Bezbaruah from Pexels

The United States is a nation with a violent history of oppression and the marginalization of the 'othered'; it is a nation born of stolen land, racism, sexism, and yet carried the promise of 'freedom'. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" documents how societies framed by hierarchy perpetuate the silencing of the constructed 'subaltern' by removing their accessibility to platform, language, and legitimacy. The process of those 'othered' by the 'subject' being pushed to the periphery of society is tied inherently to education. It is through public education that ignorance can be combated, propaganda can be spread, and diversity can either be omnipresent as a tool for resistance or devalued and misrepresented as a means of preserving the hierarchy of 'subject' and 'other'; 'in which whiteness is assumed as the standard. In the 'postcolonial' United States, it is critical for educators to question how and what they are instructed to teach, their own bias', and how to design a space that fosters belonging for every individual they teach. Without critically engaging with the content of their course and their own identity as an educator, teachers act in a disservice to their students and the progression of our nation towards justice as a whole.

The dominant voice that has been historically present in the United States classroom is the white male heterosexual perspective that lacks any sense of 'culture' for the self and the standardization of worldview in this fashion is detrimental to students who identify in different terms. In Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, Sonia Nieto writes on the purposeful exclusion of varied narratives and voices in the classroom, "The general tendency throughout U.S. history (and this is true in the histories of most countries) has been to attempt to do away with differences, an approach based on the notion that unity creates harmony whereas diversity breeds instability and discord" (Nieto 145). If students are being taught only from a perspective that values and legitimizes the colonizers voice, there is no space for dialogue about how this can be highly problematic and this narrowly defined version of 'reality' can result in students feeling ostracized rather than recognized. In the same sense, teachers who adopt an attitude of being "color-blind" partake in a form of racism that refuses to acknowledge the identity and value of their students of color and thus contribute to the construction of the 'other' as subaltern and unheard. Teachers who reject their students who identify outside binaries or as belonging to a group of people who have historically been exploited depending on race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, etc. by refusing to discuss difficult subject matter with their students are actively working in favor of systemic oppression.

The decolonization of the classroom space requires that discomfort on behalf of the educator is embraced. In bell hooks', Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, transformational strategies are presented to intervene the replication of the exploitation and 'othering' in the form of racism, sexism, and classism that exists in the society at the macro level. In her work on critical theory, hooks "contends that a monocentric curriculum privileges students whose cultural norms are reflected within school culture, granting them "authority" in classroom setting and discussions while simultaneously alienating students whose cultural histories and traditions are subordinated and/or excluded" (Florence 76). In hooks' engaged pedagogy, the voice of authority is reclaimed by the students of the classroom and the notion of what is valid becomes more tied to lived experience than "established truths" that have been accepted without critique for centuries.

The act of non-passivity is central to multicultural education as engaged pedagogy seeks to create a space for every student to feel seen and heard in their classroom and empowered to contribute to a dialogue that does not frame the instructor as the singular voice of reason. The traditional methodology of educational practice is rooted in the 'postcolonial' remnants of Eurocentrism which hooks identifies in various elements, "(a) the metaphysical notion of knowledge as universal, neutral, and objective; (b) the authoritative, hierarchical, dominating, and privileged status of professors; (c) the passive image of students as recipients of compartmentalized bits of knowledge, which limits student engagement in the learning process by not considering them as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences; (d) the traditional notion that the sole responsibility for classroom dynamics rests on teachers; (e) the Western metaphysical denial of the dignity of passion and the subordination of human affectivity to the rationality" (Florence 77). To overturn these failings, educators need to consider how they teach and what they teach may be serving the dominant culture and the postcolonial structures of white supremacy, sexism, and classism. One critical action educators can take to move towards cultural pluralism in the classroom is the holistic appreciation of their students as unique and highly capable individuals. The dialogic approach of education seeks to assert reparations on the cyclical forms of marginalizing based on the privileging of limited stories. A major facet of non-passivity is the rejection of an authoritarian role as educator wherein praxis is at the core of the classroom dynamic. In the praxis model, the power of the instructor is moved from that of superior and all-knowing to a place of learner alongside students so as to promote unity and freedom for everyone in the space to ask questions.

The creation of a communal classroom which values mutual respect above all things is based upon multicultural practices. In order for any form of positive community to form, students must feel safe in their classroom, seen, and valued for where they are in their own personal journey of life and identity. A major component of respect between educator and student is recognizing the different backgrounds of students and seeking appropriate accommodations, such as for linguistic diversity and different vernaculars, dialects, and ways of being. A student should not have to mask or alter their own ethnic or cultural norms for the sake of preserving a homogenous classroom. It is as Freire quotes from Simone de Beauvoir noting on the objective of oppressor as 'subject' to change "the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them", so that by ignoring cultural differences or histories of traumatic and violent exploitation, the 'subject' maintains authority and control over the stories that are told (Freire 55). Freire rejects the notion of behaviorist methodology to view the human as 'tabula rasa' a simply blank slate to be molded, shaped, crafted by the instructor and incites that this passive form serves only the privileged. Multicultural educators are aware that, "it is not our role to speak to the people about our own view of the world, nor to attempt to impose that view on them, but rather to dialogue with the people about their view and ours. We must realize that their view of the world, manifested variously in their action, reflections their situation in the world" (Freire 77). Therefore, the human is inherently tied to non-neutrality having their own individual lived experience and understanding of reality and revolutionary, liberating education seeks to discuss these perceptions without valuing one voice as more valid than another. For it is the consistent valuing and singular sharing of the predominantly white male Eurocentric heterosexual voice for centuries as the primary voice of "civilization" that has created in every system of society a hierarchy that demands action more than reaction to be dismantled.

If students are exposed to a classroom that fosters their unique identity development and a positive self-concept, one which shows them the representation of images of people who they can identify with and view as intellectual or strong or empowered in any sense, then that classroom is partaking in radical ownership. By which is meant, an ownership of the self that is self-identified and imposed with pride in the legitimacy of one's own lived experience, history, and voice. This act of reclaiming the subaltern body begins in the classroom as a primary space for development and the traditional understanding of where knowledge is learned. Educators must question the 'postcolonial' status of the United States and engage in critical dialogues alongside their students that seek to invite all voices to the forefront. Without reconsidering on the most fundamental level what has been the form and content of the 'American' classroom, teachers perpetuate systemic oppression and the richness of the vast diversity of experience and thought of different peoples and cultures is excluded.

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