Ethnic Studies: Choreographed Refusal

Featured Image: Educators at the Seattle Public Schools’ Ethnic Studies Summer Institute 2019 engaged in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed strategies to learn about and reject cultural appropriation.

By Jeff Stone

As more and more K-12 educators in Washington engage in ethnic studies, having a common focus will be key to our collective success. At Washington State Ethnic Studies Now, one of our aims is to refuse the white gaze  as we spread ethnic studies into every corner that defines the education systems we work within.

White Gaze

In the late 90’s, the late Toni Morrison spoke of her refusal to write to appease the white gaze of America. Instead of writing to the expectations or lens of a dominating white society, her writings centered Black experiences and realities. Morrison refused to write (and live) by standards imposed by whiteness. 

These imposed standards of whiteness are the white gaze. The white gaze frames how we are supposed to behave, how to think, and what to value. It tells us what is normal, right, proper. And, when people think, act, or be outside of the gaze, they are seen as abnormal and broke. 

In education, the white gaze results in a whitewashed curriculum, white middle class values/norms driving pedagogy, biased discipline decisions, and English only instruction. It frames white students as the standard of academic success upon which BIPOC students are compared. When considered at all, the histories and values are BIPOC communities are often seen from a deficit stance. Something to be fixed or rid of. 

But, it does not need to be this way. Refusing the white gaze has a long history in BIPOC communities. It is nothing new. However, recent scholarship by Dr. Django Paris and Dr. H. Samy Alim has resulted in a push for the white-centric K-12 education system to reflect upon the goals, content, language, pedagogy, values, and outcomes of education. To reconsider the aims and intent of our educational systems.

As educators of and for ethnic studies, we believe that a key aim of our work is to promote ethnic studies in ways that refuse this white gaze and forge new paths for student learning. To forge these new paths, we need to be in solidarity with our BIPOC communities to reimagine the curriculum and pedagogy found in our systems. To reimagine the point of schooling to look beyond the white gaze.

Washington Teachers

The majority of teachers in Washington identify as white and are teaching a fast growing Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander student population. For many Western Washington districts, students who identify from these communities are now the majority of students served.  As the movement grows, this means that many white teachers will be teaching ethnic studies alongside their BIPOC peers.  

Key for all educators, but especially white educators, will be to act and work in solidarity with their BIPOC communities. But what does this mean? 

Being In Solidarity

Programs such as Seattle Public Schools Ethnic Studies Summer Institute and XITO are providing teachers with content and pedagogical shifts necessary for the critical examination of educational systems dominated by the white gaze. These programs teach the skills to disrupt and refuse.

To be in solidarity requires us to go further than learning. We must act. As individual teachers, schools, and districts build their ethnic studies programs, we purposely build them in ways that refuse the white gaze.  We must work with our BIPOC students, families, and communities to define what this refusal looks like. How do our communities wish to refuse the white gaze? How do our communities imagine their K-12 education? What role(s) do our communities want in this rebuilding process? 

Educators using ELL strategies to conceptualize vocabulary terms at the SPS Ethnic Studies Summer Institute 2019. This is the gesture for the term “stereotype.”

There are no easy answers in this work, but we must begin to and continually engage with our BIPOC communities around the implementation of ethnic studies in ways that refuse the white gaze. 

What Can Refusing the White Gaze Look Like?

Refusing the white gaze has many faces. Some big, some small. It can mean collaborating with students and families to redefine the meaning of academic success: What does your community want out of school?  Refusal can look like translanguaging practices that encourage the maintenance and growth of their home languages.  Refuse to use resources that glorify the dominant narrative by bringing community elders into your classroom to teach and share. Refuse through grading practices, accept late work. 

Our Collective Call to Action

Our Washington State Ethnic Studies Now movement is only as strong as our community.  In this spirit, we pose the following questions to you. We are a collective community, able to learn with each other. So let’s share with each other. Reflect upon and share your ideas around these questions. Pose other questions for us to consider. Let’s be in community.

  • As you, your school, and/or your district engage in ethnic studies, how are you being in solidarity with the BIPOC communities? 
  • How are your actions of solidarity disrupting the white gaze of education in ways that your community desires?
  • What roles do Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities have in your process of refusal?

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