Speaking Up and Speaking out against Dominant Discourses about African Americans in Education

By Milner, H. Richard | Educational Foundations, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Speaking Up and Speaking out against Dominant Discourses about African Americans in Education


Milner, H. Richard, Educational Foundations


Not all African Americans are "substandard," "deficient," or "challenging" to work with in education. The reality is that many African Americans in education are succeeding. Some succeed because they are well supported in their educational experiences while others succeed in spite of their experiences. The media, research reports, and other discursive communications can leave many consumers believing that African Americans in general are socially inept, academically inferior, emotionally unstable, or simply abnormal. Not only are there pervasive under-substantiated notions and misnomers about African Americans in the news and social media, but also academic discourse can also leave many to believe that all African Americans in education are struggling.

In her review, Weiner (2003) found that the academic literature painted a very negative and inadequate portrait of African Americans and of urban education. Moreover, Ford (2010) found that when she surveyed the literature about African-American students, a similar picture was painted: Black students were portrayed as victims with little or no hope. In short, the databases were inundated with descriptors such as 'disadvantaged,' 'marginalized,' 'oppressed,' and 'at risk.' Such terms were used as adjectives to describe students themselves rather than the inequitable and unequal institutional, systemic, and structural realities of students--many of which are far outside of the control of students.

It is no secret that our discursive patterns both in terms of our oral communication and our writing in education are potentially powerful. Language is action and politically-charged (Friere, 1998). We must be cautious and deliberate in how we construct and enact language because it has the potential to

* reinforce stereotypes that those in society and education have about African Americans. People's misperceptions, assertions, and stereotypes about Black students come from a variety of sources, including their parents, the media, or even isolated negative experiences that they have had with Black people both inside and outside of the classroom. Language and discursive decision making can either disrupt or reinforce what we know and believe.

* unfairly place an individual or a group of people in a negative light, or to tell an incomplete account of the life experiences of a group of people. People in power are able to distort and monopolize what is written while those less "fortunate" are forced to either accept what is written or fight to be included in discourses that are sometimes dominated by those in power.

* seduce and subconsciously force us to believe underdeveloped, underconceptualized, and inaccurate information about Black students--especially when we consistently read and hear solely or mostly negative information about them.

Haberman (2000) maintained that "language is not an innocent reflection of how we (2) think. The terms we use control our perceptions, shape our understanding, and lead us to particular proposals for improvement" (p. 203). Clearly, language used to discuss African-American students can send very disturbing messages, and it is the goal of this special issue to disrupt and counter some of what is written about African Americans in education. At the heart of what gets taken up and expanded upon in educational discourse are questions that critical theorists and critical race theorists have considered for decades: whose knowledge and knowing is accurate? Who decides what is acceptable and unacceptable? What roles do power, race, and class play in the ways in which discourses are shaped about African Americans in education and other oppressed groups?

There is no single African-American culture. (3) The term African American denotes an ethnic group of people--not a singular, static cultural group; there is a wide range of diversity among and between African Americans although there are some consistencies inherent to African Americans as a group. …

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