Voices in Education

Pedagogy Beyond the White Gaze
During a long conversation last winter we (Django Paris and H. Samy Alim) looked to nuance and extend the emerging concept of culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP). CSP seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling and as a needed response to demographic and social change. As our conversation deepened that day and in the months that followed, we looked to more explicitly and critically center our notions of teaching and learning with students and communities of color. Here we offer some foundational ideas from our work together (See Paris & Alim, Spring 2014 HER, for a complete rendering of these ideas).

As scholars committed to educational justice, we live, research, and write with the understanding that our languages, literacies, histories, and cultural ways of being as people of color are not pathological. Beginning with this understanding—an understanding fought for across the centuries—allows us to see the fallacy of measuring ourselves and the young people in our communities solely against the White, middle-class norms that continue to dominate notions of educational achievement. Thus, we ask, what if the goal of teaching and learning with youth of color was not ultimately to see how closely students could perform White, middle-class norms, but instead was to explore, honor, extend, and, at times, problematize the cultural practices and knowledges of their communities?

Toni Morrison called out this fallacy brilliantly in a 1998 interview, in which she responded to misguided critiques of her books for not centering on White communities and norms, with the rebuttal, “As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the White gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the White gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.” What would our pedagogies look like if this gaze weren’t the dominant one? What would liberating ourselves from this gaze and the educational expectations it forwards mean for our abilities to envision new forms of teaching and learning?

Making sure the White gaze isn’t the dominant one in teaching and learning takes us to the edge of approaches to teaching that reposition the cultural practices of communities of color as assets, rather than deficits, in classroom learning (known as asset pedagogies). It is at this edge that we offer culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) as a needed way forward in the face of continued pervasive assimilationist, antidemocratic educational practices and policies. CSP extends previous visions of asset pedagogies by demanding explicitly pluralist outcomes that are not centered on White, middle-class, monolingual, and monocultural norms of educational achievement. As we reposition our pedagogies to focus on the practices and knowledges of communities of color, we must do so with the understanding that fostering linguistic and cultural flexibility has become an educational imperative, as multilingualism and multiculturalism are increasingly linked to access and power in a demographically changing nation. At the same time, CSP must resist static, unidirectional notions of culture and race that reinforce traditional versions of difference and (in)equality without attending to the shifting and evolving ways youth of color define themselves and their cultural, racial, and linguistic identities. Finally, CSP must be willing to seriously contend head-on with both the problematic and the many progressive aspects of our communities and the young people they foster.

The struggle for educational justice for people of color continues. We are hopeful our current work on CSP will help us all—students, parents, educators, and researchers—take this struggle further, in the full knowledge that our lives have meaning and depth beyond the White gaze.

About the Author: Django Paris is an assistant professor of language and literacy in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, chair of the National Council of Teachers of English Standing Committee on Research and a member of the American Educational Research Association Social Justice Action Committee. 

H. Samy Alim is an associate professor of education and (by courtesy) anthropology and linguistics at Stanford University, where he directs the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language (CREAL), the Institute for Diversity in the Arts (IDA), and African & African American Studies (AAAS).