Stitzlein, Breaking Bad Habits of Race and Gender

Article excerpt

Sarah Marie Stitzlein. Breaking Bad Habits of Race and Gender. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008. ISBN 978-0742563599. 144 pages.

In December 2006, six Black youth were charged with attempted murder after a White student was assaulted during a school fight in Louisiana. The story of the Jena Six provides a powerful example of racial tension in schools and society. In Breaking Bad Habits of Race and Gender, Sarah Stitzlein provides a compelling analysis of how schools can be instrumental in helping students learn to embody their race and gender in flexible ways to alleviate conflicts in schools. The author uses a pragmatist and poststructuralist lens to describe and analyze John Dewey's conceptualization of habits and Judith Butler's work on gender performativity to construct her theoretical framework. Her work provides readers with both a revealing examination of identity in schools and a conceptual framework to explain the impact of inflexible habits in actual classroom settings. The final chapter includes recommendations and vivid examples for educators to improve relations among students from diverse backgrounds and challenge hierarchies that exist between social groups.

Stitzlein contends that educational philosophers and social theorists have not fully examined how we as individuals perform (appear, speak, act) our race and gender on a daily basis and the impact these habitual performances have on classroom interactions between students. She argues that contemporary theories of oppression have left social justice educators without a solid conceptual framework to create effective curricula and pedagogies to combat prejudice. Moreover, in her opinion, students have been taught about social justice "abstractly" without being shown how best to react to difference; especially in new situations. When habits prevent effective interaction between students they are no longer useful, according to Stitzlein, and need to be replaced with ones that are intellectual and socially just. Furthermore, she asserts that if students are taught in schools how to embody their racial and gender identities flexibly, incidents like Jena Six can be prevented. For these reasons, Stitzlein provides a more nuanced look at identity and classroom events to analyze racial and gender hostility in classrooms.

Stitzlein quotes Dewey's description of habits as "a predisposition to act or a sensitivity to ways of being rather than an inclination to repeat identical acts or content precisely"(17). An example of a habit discussed in the book is the way individuals communicate. The way we position ourselves physically when speaking, our tone or language choice, are features of our communication habits. Individuals may choose to use formal language with their colleagues that include technical terms or specialized jargon specific to the context. However, once they leave their place of business and return home with family and friends their language choice may become more informal and include slang which may be inappropriate or incomprehensible within another context.

Drawing on Dewey, Stitzlein contends that our habits are learned through transactions with society. Cultural norms for example, are enforced through familial relationships and other social institutions like schools. …