Hunter, M (2002). Decentering the white and male standpoints in race and ethnicity courses. In Twenty-first century classrooms, Eds. Macdonald, A., & Sanchez-Casal, S. pp. 251-279.
Margaret Hunter presents a compelling case for examining the epistemological standpoint of courses on race and ethnicity, and by extension, other courses as well. She says that “many courses do not challenge reified notions of race and reality, and some actually reinforce them” (p. 251). She is calling for us, as feminist teachers, to transform our courses to reflect the standpoint of students of color.
The basic argument is that most courses on race and ethnicity are taught from a white male ideology, which is evident in the structure of the material, the authors referenced, and the content privileged. “The knowledge constructed in the course is constructed from a white epicenter, where the white gaze is focused on various racial and ethnic groups” (p. 258).
How can a course privilege a white, male epistemology? Hunter describes numerous ways this is accomplished.
Many texts and course outlines have chapters/units on African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans. This “otherizes” all groups except whites! The presumption is that whites are the “normal” race and the measure by which all other racial groups are evaluated. It also appears that these groups of people are isolated from each other in their oppression, rather than viewing domination as the common thread among these groups. Her solution is to add a chapter on Caucasion-Americans as well, or, better yet, to organize the class by types or forms of racism/sexism – like “Domination and the State,” “Racial Violence and the Body” (p. 259). This would allow for a deeper examination of the forces which cause and perpetuate oppression, rather than focusing on groups of distinct “others.”
Another way to de-center the white, male standpoint is to infuse the course with the experiences of women. Hunter argues that many courses on race and ethnicity focus almost exclusively on the male experience. She reviewed numerous syllabi and textbooks, and could not find even one course which discussed the sexualization of the black female, or the sex-trade and third-world women — yet these are important structures of oppression for women. Another example she offers is the prominence of the inclusion of the Tuskeegee experiments (which affected black men,) but no coverage of the numerous experiments conducted on women, thus rendering them invisible.
Other ways white-maleness is privileged in courses on race and ethnicity include:
- The language we use (“Many slaves were raped” rather than “Many white men raped their slaves”)
- The amount of time spent “convincing” the class that racism still exists (which then privileges the assumption that racism does not exist and the teacher must convince the class that it actually does )
- The focus on “deviance” within racial groups rather than on the oppressive forces which caused the problems in the first place (ex: black-on-black crime, high-school drop-out rates, drug subcultures, gangs)
Courses on race and ethnicity, and other courses as well, need to privilege the knowledge systems of women and people of color…the ways of thinking and knowing which are subjugated when you teach from a white male standpoint.
Hunter offers three “epistemologies” which she has seen utilized by people of color – that is, three racialized ways of knowing.
First, the “Black/White” Paradigm is utilized by many African-American students and includes a “collective consciousness” that racism still exists and a belief that they are “the only group who has suffered seriously from racism” (p.261). Second, the “Colonial Framework” is often utilized by people from colonized lands, including Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, and Native Americans. These groups “are often aware of a precolonial identity from which they may often gain pride” (p. 265). Third, Hunter names an “Immigrant Framework” utilized by immigrants and children of immigrants. This group is more likely to see race as a social construction, and understands the politics of assimilation. Understanding these differing epistemologies can allow you to honor them in class discussions and course structure.
Hunter is trying to provide alternative ways of teaching in an effort to decenter white masculinity in an effort to “utilize the subjugated knowledge “ of people of color to interrogate racism (p. 71). This is what a feminist classroom is all about.
While I do not teach a course on race and ethnicity, I do teach a number of courses where race and ethnicity is a central consideration (Interpersonal Communication, Intercultural Communication, The Rhetoric of American Thought, etc). I addition, as a white teacher in non-white classrooms, the concepts of race, gender, and ethnicity are typically present – in almost all discussions. I was grateful to Hunter for articulating the ways in which class structure can privilege the while, male ideology, and I can see a number of ways I can better honor the epistemologies of people of color I my own classrooms. I plan to:
- Watch my language – by “softening” history, I am avoiding naming a group by its power. I need to do a better job of locating “whiteness” in my discussions, both in the continued propagation of racism, and in the struggle against it.
- Include discussions on the commonalities across oppressed groups, particularly to my all African-American classes. I need to spend more time locating the similar experiences with oppression of non-black groups. This might open up some spaces for unity rather than division.
- Educate myself on the experiences of black women, and integrate them into my classrooms. I do a good job of including female epistemologies, and even a form of black epistemology, but I have not done a good job combining them. Hunter argues that black women’s experiences can highlight both the racial and gendered aspects of oppression. I need to learn more to be able to include black women’s epistemologies in my classroom.
- Critique my textbook selections for evidence of white, male epistemologies.
Hunter lists a number of strategies I plan to utilize I my classrooms, including an identity exercise, and some self-critique.
I have been interested in epistemology since I read Women’s Ways of Knowing in 1988. It resonated on a personal level, and I have attempted to work with, and honor, gendered epistemologies since then. I have been a teacher at HBCU’s since 1993, and this has generated significant interest in racial epistemologies, and provided some insight s well. I read, with great interest, about Native American epistemologies in Dr. Villaverde’s History of Education class, and Dr. Hudak’s Morality course. It was motivating to read Margaret Hunter’s article because she discusses various epistemologies and their influence on knowledge construction in education. This is what I have been pondering, but have been unable to articulate! I have listed, as my tentative dissertation title, Epistemology of the Oppressed: A Philosophical exploration of Race, Gender, Class and Ways of Knowing. She provides me with a language to use, a place to begin, and a lot of ideas to consider.
That said, I do not agree with everything she says in this article. For example, she recommends that instead of using words like “society” (eg, Society doesn’t value African concepts beauty), we should instead place ownership where it belongs (eg, White men don’t value African concepts of beauty). While I understand her motivation, her application is faulty. I do believe that “society” is more accurate because many of us have internalized these “white-male” standards. However, by deconstructing “dominant” (white male) power, we can untangle this, and question our standards.
I most certainly plan to integrate her ideas of decentering a white, male epistemology in my classroom, and I plan to explore this whole notion of epistemology and knowledge construction a whole lot more!