Academic journal article Borderlands

Metaphoric Representations of Women of Colour in the Academy: Teaching Race, Disrupting Power

Academic journal article Borderlands

Metaphoric Representations of Women of Colour in the Academy: Teaching Race, Disrupting Power

Article excerpt

This was the first class that challenged my knowledge. Every other class ... has offered me information. (student interview)


Race is a subject that is often silenced in the discourses of higher education institutions, where issues of race and racism are discounted in the production of knowledge (Henry & Tator, 2009; Ng, 1994). One aspect of the practice of silencing lies in the fact that the subject of race entails teaching and learning 'difficult content'. Difficult content follows Pitt and Britzman's (2003) understanding of 'difficult knowledge', which, in the context of social justice and education, is 'meant to signify both representations of social traumas in curriculum and the individual's encounters with them in pedagogy' (p. 756). In particular, difficult knowledge is indicative of a crisis of representation, namely how faculty express fraught histories and experiences, and how students are fundamentally challenged in their own authority over a representation; in both instances difficult knowledge, state Pitt and Britzman (2003, p. 756), raises pedagogical questions about authority over knowledge, the conditions of representing multiple narratives and in the adequacy of language to capture marginalized experiences, and what learning means when knowledge is incommensurable, traumatic, and about social breakdown.

In examining how difficult knowledge and content is emotionally charged and controversial for students learning about race and racism, we assess the different metaphoric roles assigned to, or adopted by, faculty of colour in this process of educating students on difficult race-based content, for as Bipasha Ahmed (2008) notes, the task is often left to nonwhite instructors to disrupt dominant racial ideologies and hegemonies. As nonwhite instructors, we (the authors) experience this as both a burden and a challenge. Within the context of the study, new responsibilities and labour emerged as a result of questioning these dominant ideologies.

In the current literature, experiences of women of colour in the academy are examined in different ways. However, these are also under-examined (Turner, Gonzalez, & Wood, 2008; Henry & Tator, 2009). Some studies contribute to considerations of student perceptions of instructors (Anderson & Smith, 2005; Hendrix, 1998), the uneven and contradictory representations of female faculty of colour as both incompetent and expert (Gutierrrez y Muhs, Nieman, Gonzalez & Harris, 2012), and the classroom as a contested space of social change (hooks, 1994; Picower, 2012; Wagner, 2005). Numerous studies focus on how instructors manage or enhance the learning experiences within the difficult context of understanding oppression and racism, and they also propose strategies for working with resistance and engaging students in more critical analysis (Bohmer & Briggs, 1991; Chand, Clare, & Dolton, 2002; Donadely, 2002; Henry & Tator 2009). Other studies emphasize issues of power and privilege in teaching difficult content on race and racism and other systemic issues of difference. Bohmer and Briggs (1991) refer to this focus on power and privilege as a combined examination of institutional oppression and the reality of human agency. Gaine (2000) suggests that the focus should be on bridging the personal, structural, cultural and institutional levels of racism, within classroom experiences, and highlighting the complex social location and dynamics between students, the pedagogical content, and the institutional background.

Clearly, the classroom is not race-neutral (Freire, 1970) and the university classroom is embedded in the political, where even expressions of white guilt by those students who want to confront their unearned advantage or privilege (Case, 2007) are part of the politicized landscape of the academy. The literature on relations of power in the academy suggests that power is operationalized at multiple levels and through multiple capillaries, including through the regulation of disciplinary boundaries, and overt and unintentional racism in the classroom (Ahmed, 2008). …

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