Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 1996 Issue »

    The Alchemy of Race and Rights and Teaching to Transgress

    The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor

    by Patricia J. Williams.

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. 263 pp. $10.95.

    Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

    by bell hooks.

    New York: Routledge, 1994. 216 pp. $15.95.

    Both bell hooks's Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and Patricia Williams's The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor inform the conversation on the intersection of community, diversity, and education. Drawing on their experiences as Black women scholars and teachers — an English professor and a law professor, respectively — hooks and Williams explore their personal and political experiences with teaching. Patricia Williams reflects on the relationship between race and the law. Through vignettes, she shares experiences in teaching that cause her to question the legal community and often place her at odds with both the scholarly and student communities. Building upon Paulo Friere's conceptualization of education as the practice of freedom, hooks explores the theory and practice of teaching that enables students to transgress racial, gender, and class boundaries in order to achieve freedom. Both texts draw upon and inform many genres, and both are written from a feminist perspective. This review invites the reader to explore the intersection of the notions — community and diversity — and to consider the implications for educators committed to creating educational communities that are inclusive of the perspectives of faculty of color.

    If educators believe in established conceptions of community, a group of people who share common interests, a similarity or an identity, or collective responsibility, then these two books are required reading for those in the education profession who are committed to creating viable teaching and learning communities that build on and foster diversity. The perspectives explored in these texts must be considered when scholars, particularly those in schools of education, move beyond the rhetoric of phrases such as "creating multicultural settings," "fostering diversity," and "inclusive communities," to soliciting, listening, thinking, and acting upon perspectives that are different. These books remind us that both the conceptualization of the word "community" in education contexts and the reality of community are not uniform, and in some cases not even comparable. Further, as hooks notes, "the possession of a term does not bring a process or a practice into being; concurrently one may practice theorizing without ever knowing/possessing the term" (p. 62).

    Williams's and hooks's experiences are likely to offer a chance for some individuals to experience a sense of community. Others are likely to experience them as "dangerous," as did a recent reviewer of hooks's work (Sykes, 1995). My reading of these texts provided the rare experience of discovering work with perspectives that speak to the reality of my life as a Black woman and as a Black woman in academia, and created a community for me. Both texts offer a lens through which to see how Black female intellectuals develop their craft, and how their experiences and realities inform their thinking and identities. Both Williams and hooks discuss their desire that their writing be accessible to the communities in which they work, and acknowledge that this desire sometimes places them in opposition to the academy. hooks notes, for example, that her choice of writing style reflects "political decisions motivated by the desire to be inclusive, to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations" (p. 71).

    Most compelling in Williams's work is the sharing of her daily life experiences (current events, conversations with her family, the political realities of Black life in America) and how such experiences inform her work as a law professor. While her diary contains many legal references, it is replete with provocative anecdotes that nevertheless entice the non-specialist reader.

    hooks's work complements Williams's by providing a more global discussion of issues in teaching, feminism, and race. hooks offers a series of essays that provide examples of her work with teachers and students. Her essay, "Embracing Change: Teaching in a Multicultural World," addresses how dimensions of multicultural education vary, depending on who you are teaching. hooks addresses the need for teachers to be aware of ensuing political manifestations of race, sex, and class. In her essay "Building a Teaching Community," she discusses the need for critical theorists to talk about and collaborate on their evolving teaching practice. She includes a dialogue between herself and a White male professor to provide a model for how to approach such a dialogue across racial boundaries.

    Although neither text purposefully addresses a consideration of the term "community," both include discussion of community and invoke a consideration of the intersection of community, diversity, and academia. In fact, hooks's statement, "To teach in varied communities not only our paradigms must shift but also the way we think, write, speak. The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself" (p. 11), can provide direction to academic institutions interested in creating educational communities that are truly inclusive. Such work can provide valuable insight, direction, and comfort to female scholars of color in academia, who often experience the vicissitudes of their personal and professional lives in isolation.

    The following quotes offer a glimpse of hooks's and Williams's experiences and perspectives:

    A man with whom I used to work once told me that I made too much of my race. "After all," he said, "I don't even think of you as black." Yet sometime later, when another black woman became engaged in an ultimately unsuccessful tenure battle, he confided to me that he wished the school could find more blacks like me. (Williams, p. 10)

    My abiding recollection of being a student at Harvard Law School is the sense of being invisible. I spent three years wandering in a murk of unreality. Law school was for me like being on another planet, full of alienated creatures with whom I could make little connection. (Williams, p. 55)

    After class, my students rush to the Dean to complain. They are not learning real law, they say, and they want someone else to give them remedial classes. How will they ever pass the bar with subway stories. (Williams, p. 28)

    At a faculty meeting once, I raised several issues: racism among my students, my difficulty in dealing with it by myself, and my need for the support of my colleagues. I was told by a white professor that "we" should be able to "break the anxiety by just laughing about it." Another nodded in agreement and added that "the key is not to take this sort of thing too seriously." (Williams, p. 166)

    It has not been easy for me to do the work I do and reside in the academy (lately I think it has become almost impossible) but one is inspired to persevere by the witness of others. Friere's presence inspired me. (hooks, p. 56)

    My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of my political activism. Given that our educational institutions are so deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more rewarded when we do not teach against the grain. The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the staid status quo, often had negative consequences — Ideally, education should be the place where the need for diverse teaching methods and styles would be valued, encouraged, seen as essential to learning. (hooks, p. 203)

    It is crucial that critical thinkers who want to change our teaching practice talk to one another, collaborate in a discussion that crosses boundaries and creates a space for intervention. (hooks, p. 129)

    These excerpts suggest ways that hooks and Williams struggle to make sense of and create work that has meaning for and is true to their personal and academic communities. Their reflections may not be easily identified with or similar to the experiences of the majority of faculty in academic settings who are European American. This dichotomy highlights the importance of listening, learning, and reflecting for those who strive to consider the notion of community while also working towards diversity or inclusiveness.

    hooks's and Williams's work provides a point of departure from which to explore ways of thinking about building a transformative and inclusive teaching community. My own life experience as a Black woman student, teacher, and professor informed my reading of these books and raised a series of questions related to the intersection of community, diversity, and academia. As I am usually one of a few or the only faculty person of color in my workplace, I often find it difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue about diversity and the notion of an inclusive educational community. My voice is often not heard.

    Coupled with the reading of the texts, the following questions — which are explored in these two books — may provide a useful framework for collective contemplation by faculty truly interested in fostering inclusive educational communities.

    1. Can a faculty consisting of individuals of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds form a community? How?

    a. How do people of color define themselves, how are we defined and labeled by others, and how does this influence our work?

    b. Many people of color, because of their race or ethnicity, are treated differently in society and, by extension, in academic institutions. Is there (and in what form) an acknowledgment of this reality and an understanding that this will influence how one views their work and how their work may be received?

    c. What happens to a teaching and a learning community when a faculty member's perspective on the world, based on her experiences, conflicts with the ideas of the established academic community, including the students' understanding of what and how they should be taught?

    2. How does a professor create an inclusive classroom community within the broader institutional and societal environments characterized by disagreement, inequity, or racism?

    a. How does the race and gender of a professor influence the process of creating a classroom community?

    b. Can students who have never had a person of color as a professor give that professor the level of trust and respect that they would give a European American professor in order to create a community where learning can occur?

    c. What happens when different or alternative perspectives are brought into the classroom? Was Patricia Williams more likely to be reported to the Dean's office over issues of teaching style or content than a White female counterpart, for example? What happens to teachers who teach their students to transgress, as hooks does?

    3. Can communities within communities exist?

    a. Can we understand and affirm reasons why Black students might sit together at a lunchroom table and experience a sense of community? Or why Patricia Williams might need other Black law school faculty to talk with and debrief after a teaching episode before she presents her case to her Dean?

    b. How has the rhetoric of inclusiveness and of community affected our ability to talk directly about race and to listen and respond to, rather than ignore, marginalize, or isolate voices like those of Williams, hooks, and other faculty of color?

    The perspectives presented by hooks and Williams, and in other work on diversity and multicultural education (see, for example, Banks & Banks, 1995; Takaki, 1993; and West, 1993) suggest that there are many complexities and challenges inherent in the process of conceptualizing and creating communities while trying to engage philosophies of diversity, race, and education.

    A major challenge in the work to create educational communities that are inclusive and that foster diversity is not to place the burden on faculty of color in individual departments or in isolated situations to share their experiences and/or to personalize their participation/ideas. This is often neither the fairest nor the most meaningful way to create change, particularly if a community has not been created where common interests are identified, where difference is expected and celebrated, or where trust and truth pervade. I believe that these two texts are important reading for all faculty. Considered together, they can help faculty groups attain a better understanding of the experiences and teaching perspectives of faculty of color and serve, together with the questions I present in this essay, as a springboard for work towards developing meaningful, collaborative educational communities.

    The lessons lie in the principles, not the personalities. (Williams, p. 91)
    Hofstra University

    Banks, J., & Banks, S. A. McGee, (Eds.). (1995). Handbook on multicultural education. New York: MacMillan.

    Sykes, H. (1995). Feminist views on radical pedagogies: Dangerous struggles. Journal of Teacher Education, 46(1), 71–73.

    Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown.

    West, C. (1993). Race matters. Boston: Beacon Press.
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    Winter 1996 Issue


    The Colonizer/Colonized Chicana Ethnographer
    Identity, Marginalization, and Co-optation in the Field
    By Sofia Villenas
    "To Take Them at Their Word"
    Language Data in the Study of Teachers' Knowledge
    By Donald Freeman
    Inclusion, School Restructuring, and the Remaking of American Society
    By Dorothy Kerzner Lipsky and Alan Gartner
    Sustained Inquiry in Education
    Lessons from Skill Grouping and Class Size
    By Frederick Mosteller, Richard J. Light and Jason A. Sachs

    Book Notes

    Saving Our Sons
    By Marita Golden

    This Is How We Live and Tapori

    Wasting America's Future: The Children's Defense Fund Report on the Cost of Child Poverty
    By Arloc Sherman; Introduction by Marian Wright Edelman; Foreword by Robert M. Solow

    Blacked Out
    By Signithia Fordham

    Works about John Dewey 1886–1995
    Edited by Barbara Levine

    By Matthew Lipman

    Diversity in Higher Education
    By Caryn McTighe Musil, with Mildred Garcia, Yolanda Moses, and Daryl G. Smith

    Handbook of Qualitative Research
    Edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln.

    Commissions, Reports, Reforms, and Educational Policy
    Edited by Rick Ginsberg and David N. Plank.

    The Multilevel Design
    By Harry J. M. Huttner and Pieter van den Eeden.

    Search and Seizure in the Public Schools (Second Edition)
    By Lawrence F. Rossow and Jacqueline A. Stefkovich

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.