Service-Learning and White Normativity: Racial Representation in Service-Learning's Historical Narrative

By Bocci, Melissa | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Service-Learning and White Normativity: Racial Representation in Service-Learning's Historical Narrative


Bocci, Melissa, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


Mitchell, Donohue, and Young-Law (2012) observe that in practice and theory, service-learning may be a "pedagogy of whiteness--strategies of instruction that consciously or unconsciously reinforce norms and privileges developed by, and for the benefit of, White people in the United States" (p. 613). In this historiography of service-learning, I examine four scholarly texts and three well-accessed online historical summaries published by service-learning practitioners. I explore how these historical narratives represent people of color, what they include and exclude, and how these representations and inclusions/exclusions may reinforce or challenge White normativity in service-learning. Additionally, I suggest supplemental events, figures, and philosophies that could be considered part of the history of service-learning in order to challenge its prevailing Whiteness.

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In Butin's (2006) article on the limits of service-learning in higher education, he warns that "there is a distinct possibility that service-learning may ultimately come to be viewed as the 'Whitest of the White' enclave of postsecondary education" (p. 482). His observation that Whiteness prevails in service-learning theory and practice is reinforced by other scholars such as Mitchell, Donahue, and Young-Law (2012) who note that "service learning is being implemented mostly by White faculty with mostly White students at predominantly White institutions to serve mostly poor individuals and mostly people of color" (p. 612). They observe that in practice and theory, service-learning may be a "pedagogy of whiteness--strategies of instruction that consciously or unconsciously reinforce norms and privileges developed by, and for the benefit of, White people in the United States" (p. 613). Thus, service-learning may suffer from both Whiteness--a prevalence of White people positioned as leaders/practitioners/servers and "White" ways of thinking and acting dominating policy and pedagogy --and White normativity, which McIntosh (1989, 2013) describes as the idea that those "White" ways of thinking and acting are "morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal" (p. 216). By privileging Whiteness, White normativity in service-learning can lead to assimilative, discriminatory, and/or exclusionary practices that reinforce oppressive socioeconomic power dynamics.

While Butin (2006) and Mitchell et al. (2012) critique Whiteness and White normativity in service-learning's pedagogy, in this article 1 focus my critique on service-learning's historical narrative. Building on Morton's (2011) assertion that "equally important and largely missing [from service-learning's history] are histories of efforts that have taken place outside the dominant, mainstream culture of the United States" (p. 38), (1) use historiographic methods to investigate how scholars and practitioners have represented people of color within their general histories of the practice, who and what they have included and excluded, and how this representation and these inclusions and exclusions reinforce or challenge Whiteness and White normativity within the historical narrative. Throughout the article, I also offer supplemental figures and events that, if included, could further challenge the prevailing Whiteness and White normativity. Such a challenge may have implications beyond the historical narrative itself because, as Morton notes, "We need a rich history of service-learning if we are to collectively or independently develop a 'point of view' that will allow us to approach our work more deliberately and with less likelihood of doing harm" (p. 37).

Introduction to Historiography and the Texts

A historiography's goal is to dissect the construction of a historical narrative in order to illuminate the facts, figures, and events that are included and excluded as well as the reasons for and implications of those inclusions and exclusions. In this historiography, my goal is to explore the representations of people of color within service-learning's "mainstream" historical narrative and to critique the ways that those representations contribute to or challenge the Whiteness and White normativity other scholars (Butin, 2006; Mitchell et al. …

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