Academic journal article Educational Foundations

Useful and Dangerous Discourse: Deconstructing Racialized Knowledge about African-American Students

Academic journal article Educational Foundations

Useful and Dangerous Discourse: Deconstructing Racialized Knowledge about African-American Students

Article excerpt

Drawing from Michel Foucault's notion of "useful" and "dangerous" discourse coupled with the theory of racial knowledge (Goldberg, 1993), this conceptual article examines how two common counter-discourses about African-American students operate and create racial knowledge in education practice. By counter-discourse, we refer to knowledge, theories, and histories that emerge as a direct challenge to commonly held deficit-oriented beliefs about racial groups and social phenomenon. We contend that while counter-discourses are useful to challenge problematic theories and practices, counter-discourses are not immune from dangers of their own. In a Foucauldian sense (Foucault & Rabinow, 1984), we maintain that counter-discourses are paradoxically both useful and dangerous. The intent of this article is to explore the double relational meanings of two contemporary counter-discourses: oppositional culture theory and the cultural difference theory. We focus on these particular counter-discourses because they reflect common educational discourses used to understand African-American academic achievement. It is our intent to illustrate how these discourses can operate in both useful and dangerous ways in teacher education.

In this article, we draw from existing educational scholarship about African Americans, in addition to our ongoing experiences with preparing both elementary and secondary teachers to illuminate the challenges of using these counter-discourses to address concerns with African-American students. We should note that it is not our intention to provide an exhaustive review on oppositional culture and cultural difference theory. Rather, our review of the literature draws from the common and dissenting arguments related to oppositional culture and cultural difference to illustrate theoretically how counter-discourses can operate in useful and dangerous ways. Specifically, we illustrate how, in spite of their re-articulation as counter-discourses to traditionally deficit-oriented ways of framing African Americans in schools, the two alternative discourses explored in the article can ironically re-inscribe these students (as well as the family, community, and cultural/racial group from which they come) in static, homogenizing ways. We conclude with a discussion about the complexities and implications of drawing from discourses that seek to improve, yet unintentionally may reinforce limiting, deficit thinking (Brown, 2010; Valencia, 1997) and ways to talk about and work with African-American students. Additionally, we offer three suggestions for how teacher education programs can help students understand and navigate between these counter-discourses.

Historical Context: Counter-Discourse and African Americans

Throughout the twentieth century, discourses of deficiency characterized common explanatory frameworks used to understand the experiences of African-American students in schools (Brown, 2009; Milner, 2010). These discourses positioned African-American students, along with their families and the communities and cultural/racial group of which they were a part, as lacking the skills, experiences, beliefs, and values needed to succeed in schools and in society. Drawing from education scholarship, Bondy and Ross (1998) note several longstanding myths held by teachers about African-American students that draw from deficiency perspectives. Collectively, these myths assume that African-American students, along with their parents, families, and/or caregivers do not care about education. In some instances, it is presumed that African-American students themselves lack the motivation and interest to learn or that African-American families do not provide appropriate intellectual experiences and support for their children. The problem with these deficit-oriented discourses is that they reinforce the assumption that African Americans cannot succeed at the same level as their White counterparts (Sleeter, 2008). …

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