+1(978)310-4246 credencewriters@gmail.com


This should show reflection and understanding of the course’s concepts as applied to the stories, experiences and perspectives of the characters in the movie. In other words, use what you’ve learned to analyze the movie. You will do so by creating a short presentation for the movie you chose.

Create Your Presentation

Submit your movie critique in the form of a presentation (slides). Imagine you need to educate a group of people about this movie.

You will submit a 5-6 slides presentation in powerpoint (excluding the first one in which you include the title and your information).

Your presentation has to include pictures (screenshoots from important parts of the movie) and quotes from characters that you find important to include in your presentation.

Do not use an entire slide for one picture. Each slide has to include a narrative (description of events, connection to social justice/multiculturalism, etc.).

The last slide has to include a personal reflection on what you learnt from the movie you chose and how the ideas/concepts included in the movie can be used in your own life. (~250 words).

Here you can find a sample from a former student:

Movie Critique. SAMPLE.pptx


Post your project by Sunday of Week 6 by 11:59 PM PST.

Grading Criteria

Criteria for Evaluation

15 points

The student submits 5-6 slides with full content

The main points of the movie are addressed, and a connection to multiculturalism/social justice is clearly presented by using concepts learned in this class.

The slides show creative content (pictures, quotes from the movie, etc.)

The student includes a personal reflection


The student submits less than 5 slides

The main points of the movie are partially addressed. The slides do not demonstrate a clear connection between the subject matter of the movie and social justice/multiculturalism

America; I Too Movie
 The movie America; I Too is a reminder of our country’s history of oppressing
marginalized people and of the American spirit of overcoming challenges.
ï‚´ The movie is based on the story of three arrested and detained
undocumented immigrants who must navigate the system to fight
impending deportation.
ï‚´ It expands awareness of the diversity of people affected by immigration
issues and teaches about how to stand up for the rights of immigrants, both
those directly affected as well as their families, friends, and communities.
Violation of Immigrant Rights
ï‚´ The film exposes the violation of the rights and freedoms of immigrants in
the US.
ï‚´ America; I Too starts by showing the arrest of Manny Santiago, a young
muralist, who is wrongfully accused of tagging his very own mural.
ï‚´ The arrest and wrongful accusations show the plight of immigrants since in
addition to living in fear of law enforcement agencies, they are criminalized
for engaging in income-generating activities to fend for themselves.
Rampant Violations of Rights
Immigrants have to stand firm like Manny
who confidently tells the law enforcement
officer that he “is not signing anything”
when ordered to sign papers to be moved
to Tijuana.
ï‚´ Immigrants live with constant fear and
uncertainty in the US due to unfair
treatment by authorities.
ï‚´ While Manny is in a holding cell after his
arrest, he learns that an order for his
deportation was issued back in 2008 due
to his undocumented immigration status
and that his name came up in the “gang
ï‚´ Manny insists that he was only 9 years old
in 2008, unaware of any pending
deportation, and was not a part of any
The scene where Manny refuses to sign papers.
Widespread Harassment of Immigrants
Two other characters in the movie, Ahmed and
Myeong, also face a similar predicament as Manny
after they are set up for an immigration raid and sent
to the same detention center as Manny.
This shows that cases of harassment of immigrants
are not isolated but widespread.
Ahmed and Manny in detention.
Educational Value of the Movie
ï‚´ A positive side of the film is that it is an educational tool for immigrants to
understand how to navigate law enforcement and legal systems to fight for
their rights.
ï‚´ Manny, Myeong, and Ahmed make three distinctly different journeys to
stop their deportation and stay in the country.
ï‚´ Immigrants have to stand firm like Manny who confidently tells the law
enforcement officer that he “is not signing anything” when ordered to sign
papers to be moved to Tijuana.
ï‚´ It is also educational for anyone seeking to understand the challenges that
immigrants go through.
ï‚´ The primary purpose of America; I Too is to serve as a teaching resource for
vulnerable immigrant populations regarding how to protect oneself in the
event of arrest and incarceration. It also serves as a learning tool for people
who seek information about the challenges undocumented immigrants
face regarding rights infringement, arrest, incarceration, and deportation.
ï‚´ The movie is paired with educational materials to help explain the hardships
that undocumented immigrants face, the importance of knowing and
defending your civil rights, and the power of social justice filmmaking.
 The movie amplifies the voice of America’s diverse immigrants, integrates
popular culture, and effects of cultural change.
JAMES A. BANKS, Series Editor
Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, Second Edition
Teaching for Equity in Complex Times: Negotiating Standards in a High-Performing Bilingual School
Transforming Educational Pathways for Chicana/o Students: A Critical Race Feminista Praxis
Un-Standardizing Curriculum: Multicultural Teaching in the Standards-Based Classroom, 2nd Edition
Global Migration, Diversity, and Civic Education: Improving Policy and Practice
Reclaiming the Multicultural Roots of U.S. Curriculum: Communities of Color and Official Knowledge in Education
Human Rights and Schooling: An Ethical Framework for Teaching for Social Justice
We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools, Third Edition
Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action
Engaging the “Race Question”: Accountability and Equity in U.S. Higher Education
Diversity and Education: A Critical Multicultural Approach
First Freire: Early Writings in Social Justice Education
Mathematics for Equity: A Framework for Successful Practice
Race, Empire, and English Language Teaching: Creating Responsible and Ethical Anti-Racist Practice
Black Male(d): Peril and Promise in the Education of African American Males
LGBTQ Youth and Education: Policies and Practices
Race Frameworks: A Multidimensional Theory of Racism and Education
Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap
Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools
Teachers Without Borders? The Hidden Consequences of International Teachers in U.S. Schools
Streetsmart Schoolsmart: Urban Poverty and the Education of Adolescent Boys
Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education
Achieving Equity for Latino Students: Expanding the Pathway to Higher Education Through Public Policy
Literacy Achievement and Diversity: Keys to Success for Students, Teachers, and Schools
Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools
Latino Children Learning English: Steps in the Journey
Asians in the Ivory Tower: Dilemmas of Racial Inequality in American Higher Education
Our Worlds in Our Words: Exploring Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in Multicultural Classrooms
Culturally Responsive Teaching, Second Edition
Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools
Diversity and Equity in Science Education
Forbidden Language
The Light in Their Eyes, 10th Anniversary Edition
The Flat World and Education
Teaching What Really Happened
Diversity and the New Teacher
Frogs into Princes: Writings on School Reform
Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society, Second Edition
Culture, Literacy, and Learning
Facing Accountability in Education
Talkin Black Talk
Improving Access to Mathematics
“To Remain an Indian”
Education Research in the Public Interest
Multicultural Strategies for Education and Social Change
Beyond the Big House
Teaching and Learning in Two Languages
Improving Multicultural Education
Education Programs for Improving Inter group Relations
City Schools and the American Dream
Thriving in the Multicultural Classroom
Educating Teachers for Diversity
Teaching Democracy
The Making—and Remaking—of a Multiculturalist
Transforming the Multicultural Education of Teachers
Learning to Teach for Social Justice
Culture, Difference, and Power, Revised Edition
Learning and Not Learning English
The Children Are Watching
Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge, and Action
Is Everyone Really Equal?
An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice
Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo
Published by Teachers College Press, 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027
Copyright © 2017 by Teachers College, Columbia University
Cover design by Katherine Streeter.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission
from the publisher. For reprint permission and other subsidiary rights requests, please contact Teachers College Press,
Rights Dept.: tcpressrights@tc.columbia.edu
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available at loc.gov
ISBN: 978-0-8077-5861-8 (paper)
ISBN: 978-0-8077-7617-9 (ebook)
To all those whose shoulders we stand on and lean on—may ours be as steady for the next
Series Foreword James A. Banks
What Is Critical Social Justice?
Chapter Summaries
A Parable: Hodja and the Foreigner
Layers of the Parable
1. How to Engage Constructively in Courses That Take a Critical Social Justice
An Open Letter to Students
A Story: The Question of Planets
Guideline 1: Strive for Intellectual Humility
Guideline 2: Everyone Has an Opinion. Opinions are Not the Same as Informed
Guideline 3: Let Go of Anecdotal Evidence and Examine Patterns
Guideline 4: Use Your Reactions as Entry Points for Gaining Deeper Self-Knowledge
Guideline 5: Recognize How Your Social Position Informs Your Reactions to Your
Instructor and the Course Content
2. Critical Thinking and Critical Theory
Two Dimensions of Thinking Critically About Knowledge
A Brief Overview of Critical Theory
Why Theory Matters
Knowledge Construction
Example of Knowledge as Socially Constructed
Thinking Critically About Opinions
3. Culture and Socialization
What Is Culture?
What Is Socialization?
Cultural Norms and Conformity
“You” in Relation to the “Groups” to Which You Belong
4. Prejudice and Discrimination
What is Prejudice?
What is Discrimination?
All Humans Have Prejudice and Discriminate
5. Oppression and Power
What is Oppression?
Social Stratification
Understanding the “isms”
Internalized Dominance
Internalized Oppression
Hegemony, Ideology, and Power
6. Understanding Privilege Through Ableism
What Is Privilege?
External and Structural Dimensions of Privilege
Internal and Attitudinal Dimensions of Privilege
Common Dominant Group Misconceptions About Privilege
7. Understanding the Invisibility of Oppression Through Sexism
What Is an Institution?
An Example: Sexism Today
What Makes Sexism Difficult to See?
Discourses of Sexism in Advertising
Discourses of Sexism in Movies
Discourses of Sexism in Music Videos
8. Understanding the Structural Nature of Oppression Through Racism
What Is Race?
A Brief History of the Social Construction of Race in the United States
A Brief History of the Social Construction of Race in Canada
What Is Racism?
Two Key Challenges to Understanding Racism
Racism Today
Dynamics of White Racial Superiority
Dynamics of Internalized Racial Oppression
Racism and Intersectionality
9. Understanding the Global Organization of Racism Through White Supremacy
What Is Whiteness?
White Supremacy in the Global Context
Common White Misconceptions about Racism
10. Understanding Intersectionality Through Classism
Mr. Rich White and Mr. Poor White Strike a Bargain
What Is Class?
Common Class Venacular
Class Socialization
Common Misconceptions About Class
Understanding Intersectionality
Examples of Everyday Class Privilege
Common Classist Beliefs
11. “Yeah, But …”: Common Rebuttals
Claiming That Schools Are Politically Neutral
Dismissing Social Justice Scholarship as Merely the Radical and Personal Opinions of
Individual Left Wing Professors
Citing Exceptions to the Rule
Arguing That Oppression Is Just Human Nature
Appealing to a Universalized Humanity
Insisting on Immunity from Socialization
Ignoring Intersectionality
Refusing to Recognize Structural and Institutional Power
Rejecting the Politics of Language
Invalidating Claims of Oppression as Oversensitivity
Reasoning That If Choice Is Involved It Can’t Be Oppression
Positioning Social Justice Education as Something “Extra”
Being Paralyzed by Guilt
12. Putting It All Together
Recognize How Relations of Unequal Social Power Are Constantly Being Negotiated
Understand Our Own Positions Within Relations of Unequal Power
Think Critically About Knowledge
Act in Service of a More Just Society
About the Authors
Series Foreword
Since publication of the first edition of this visionary, practical, and engaging book, a
number of events around the world have stimulated the rise of xenophobia,
institutionalized racism, and the quest for social cohesion and nationalism (Banks, 2017).
These events include the migration of Syrian and other refugees to European nations and
the xenophobic responses they evoked as well as the populist revolts that resulted in the
2016 passage of the Brexit referendum in England to leave the European Union (Erlanger,
2017). The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 and the
popularity of Marine Le Pen in France and other right-wing politicians in European
nations are also manifestations of the resurgence of neoliberalism and the pushback on
social justice in nations around the world. The election and rising popularity of
conservative politicians have led to an increase in reported Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic
attacks in the United States and other nations. Reported attacks and threats on Jewish
centers increased significantly after Trump won the presidential election in 2016
(Haberman & Chokshi, 2017). Reported harassment and attacks on Muslims in the
United States increased after Trump issued an executive order on January 27, 2017 that
banned immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations (Chokshi & Fandos 2017;
Shear & Cooper, 2017).
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends
toward justice” (King, 1965). The chilling and pernicious events described above do not
necessarily invalidate the belief that the quest for social justice is long and “bends toward
justice.” However, they exemplify the major thesis of Arthur W. Schlesinger Jr.’s (1986)
illuminating book, The Cycles of American History, in which he argues that during the past
two centuries of American history periods of social justice and idealism have rotated with
periods of pragmatism and conservative backlash. The election of Donald Trump as
president of the United States after Barack Obama engineered the passage of progressive
legislation related to health care and the environment during his 8-year occupancy of the
White House epitomizes Schlesinger’s thesis. The dismal and toxic “cycle” of American
history that was initiated by the Trump administration and the White nationalism that it
sanctioned (Painter, 2016) underscores how much we need the second edition of this
informative and helpful book. Teachers, like other Americans and Canadians, will be
influenced by the disconcerting and dispiriting racial climate in the United States and in
many other nations today. These developments require multicultural and progressive
teacher educators to work more diligently to promote social justice and equality today than
was perhaps the case when the first edition of this book was published.
This trenchant and timely book is written to help both preservice and practicing
teachers attain the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to work effectively with students
from diverse groups, including mainstream groups. A major assumption of this book is that
teachers need to develop a critical social justice perspective in order to understand the
complex issues related to race, gender, class, and exceptionality in the United States and
Canada and to teach in ways that will promote social justice and equality.
One of the most challenging tasks that those of us who teach multicultural education
courses to teacher education students experience is resistance to the knowledge and skills
that we teach. This resistance has deep roots in the communities in which most teacher
education students are socialized as well as in the mainstream knowledge that becomes
institutionalized within the academic community and the popular culture that most
students have not questioned until they enroll in a multicultural education or diversity
course. Sensoy and DiAngelo—who have rich and successful experiences teaching difficult
concepts to teacher education students—thoughtfully anticipate student resistance to many
of the concepts discussed in this adept and skillfully conceptualized book. They respectfully
and incisively convey to readers the important difference between opinion and informed
knowledge. They also convincingly describe why informed and reflective knowledge is
essential for effective teaching in diverse schools and classrooms. The authors also provide
vivid and compelling examples, thought experiments, and anecdotes to help their readers
master challenging and complex concepts related to diversity, social justice, and equity.
Sensoy and DiAngelo draw upon their years of experience working with
predominantly White teachers and their deep knowledge of diversity issues to construct
explicit definitions of complicated concepts such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and
internalized oppression. Another important feature of this book is the wide range of issues
and groups with which it deals, including race, gender, exceptionality, and social class. The
authors also present an informative discussion of intersectionality and how the various
concepts related to diversity interrelate in complex and dynamic ways that create
institutionalized and intractable forms of marginalization.
This well-written and practical book will help practicing educators deal effectively with
the growing ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity within U.S. society and schools.
Although students in the United States are becoming increasingly diverse, most of the
nation’s teachers are White, female, and monolingual. Race and institutionalized racism are
significant factors that influence and mediate the interactions of students and teachers from
different ethnic, language, and social-class groups (G. R. Howard, 2016; T. C. Howard,
2010; Leonardo, 2013). The growing income gap between adults (Stiglitz, 2012)—as well
as between youth that are described by Putnam (2015) in Our Kids: The American Dream
in Crisis—is another significant reason why it is important to help teachers understand how
race, ethnicity, gender, and class influence classroom interactions and student learning and
to comprehend the ways in which these variables affect student aspirations and academic
engagement (Suárez-Orozco, Pimentel, & Martin, 2009).
American classrooms are experiencing the largest influx of immigrant students since
the beginning of the 20th century. Approximately 21.5 million new immigrants—
documented and undocumented—settled in the United States in the years from 2000 to
2015. Less than 10% came from nations in Europe. Most came from Mexico, nations in
South Asia, East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Central America (Camarota,
2011, 2016). The influence of an increasingly diverse population on U.S. schools, colleges,
and universities is and will continue to be enormous.
Schools in the United States are more diverse today than they have been since the early
1900s, when a multitude of immigrants entered the United States from Southern, Central,
and Eastern Europe. In 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that
the percentage of students from ethnic minority groups made up more than 50% of the
students in prekindergarten through 12th grade in public schools, an increase from 40% in
2001 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). Language and religious diversity is
also increasing in the U.S. student population. The 2012 American Community Survey
estimated that 21% of Americans aged 5 and above (61.9 million) spoke a language other
than English at home (U. S. Census Bureau, 2012). Harvard professor Diana L. Eck (2001)
calls the United States the “most religiously diverse nation on earth” (p. 4). Islam is now
the fastest-growing religion in the United States, as well as in several European nations such
as France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands (Banks, 2009; O’Brien, 2016).
The major purpose of the Multicultural Education Series is to provide preservice
educators, practicing educators, graduate students, scholars, and policy-makers with an
interrelated and comprehensive set of books that summarizes and analyzes important
research, theory, and practice related to the education of ethnic, racial, cultural, and
linguistic groups in the United States and the education of mainstream students about
diversity. The dimensions of multicultural education, developed by Banks (2004) and
described in the Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education and in the Encyclopedia of
Diversity in Education (Banks, 2012), provide the conceptual framework for the
development of the publications in the Series. The dimensions are content integration, the
knowledge construction process, prejudice reduction, equity pedagogy, and an empowering
institutional culture and social structure. The books in the Multicultural Education Series
provide research, theoretical, and practical knowledge about the behaviors and learning
characteristics of students of color (Conchas & Vigil, 2012; Lee, 2007), language minority
students (Gándara & Hopkins 2010; Valdés, 2001; Valdés, Capitelli, & Alvarez, 2011),
low-income students (Cookson, 2013; Gorski, 2013), and other minoritized population
groups, such as students who speak different varieties of English (Charity Hudley &
Mallinson, 2011), and LGBTQ youth (Mayo, 2014). Several books in the Multicultural
Education Series complement this book because they describe ways to reform teacher
education to make it more responsive to social justice issues and concerns. They include We
Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools by Gary R. Howard;
Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s
Classrooms by Tyrone C. Howard; Learning to Teach for Social Justice, edited by Linda
Darling-Hammond, Jennifer French, and Silvia Paloma García-Lopez; and Walking the
Road: Race, Diversity, and Social Justice in Teacher Education by Marilyn Cochran-Smith.
The first edition of this influential and bestselling book helped teacher education
students and practicing teachers to acquire the knowledge, skills, and perspectives that
enabled them to work more effectively with the rich and growing student diversity in U. S.
and Canadian schools. This second edition has been enriched by the addition of a new
chapter on class, enhanced pedagogical supports, and with additional examples from
contexts outside the United States. Students will find the second edition of this excellent
and visionary textbook challenging, enlightening, and empowering.
—James A. Banks
Banks, J. A. (2004). Multicultural education: Historical development, dimensions, and practice. In J. A. Banks & C. A.
M. Banks (Eds.). Handbook of research on multicultural education (2nd ed., pp. 3–29). San Francisco, CA: JosseyBass.
Banks, J. A. (Ed.). (2009). The Routledge international companion to multicultural education. New York, NY, and
London, UK: Routledge.
Banks, J. A. (2012). Multicultural education: Dimensions of. In J. A. Banks (Ed). Encyclopedia of diversity in education
(vol. 3, pp. 1538–1547). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Banks, J. A. (Ed.). (2017). Citizenship education and global migration: Implications for theory, research, and teaching.
Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.
Camarota, S. A. (2011, October). A record-setting decade of immigration: 2000 to 2010. Washington, DC: Center for
Immigration Studies. Retrieved from cis.org/2000-2010-record-setting-decade-of-immigration
Camarota, S. A. (2016, June). New data: Immigration surged in 2014 and 2015. Washington, DC: Center for
Immigration Studies. Retrieved from cis.org/New-DataImmigration-Surged-in-2014-and-2015
Charity Hudley, A. H., & Mallinson, C. (2011). Understanding language variation in U. S. schools. New York, NY:
Teachers College Press.
Chokshi, N. & Fandos, N. (2017, January 29). Demonstrators in streets, and at airports, protest immigration order.
The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2017/01/29/us/protests-airports-donald-trumpimmigration-executive-order-muslims.html
Cochran-Smith, M. (2004). Walking the road: Race, diversity, and social justice in teacher education. New York, NY:
Teachers College Press.
Conchas, G. Q., & Vigil, J. D. (2012). Streetsmart schoolsmart: Urban poverty and the education of adolescent boys. New
York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Cookson, P. W. Jr. (2013). Class rules: Exposing inequality in American high schools. New York, NY: Teachers College
Darling-Hammond, L., French, J., & García-Lopez, S. P. (Eds.). (2002). Learning to teach for social justice. New York,
NY: Teachers College Press.
Eck, D. L. (2001). A new religious America: How a “Christian country” has become the world’s most religiously diverse
nation. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.
Erlanger, S. (2017, March 29). Pillars of the West shaken by ‘Brexit,’ but they’re not crumbling yet. The New York
Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2017/03/29/world/europe/uk-brexit-article-50-analysis.html
Gándara, P., & Hopkins, M. (Eds.). (2010). Forbidden language: English language learners and restrictive language
policies. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Gorski, P. C. (2013). Reaching and teaching students in poverty: Strategies for erasing the opportunity gap. New York, NY:
Teachers College Press.
Haberman, M., & Chokshi, N. (2017, February 20). Ivanka Trump calls for tolerance after threats on Jewish centers.
The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/us/politics/ivanka-trump-jewishcommunity-centers.html?_r=0
Howard, G. R. (2016). We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools (3rd ed.). New York, NY:
Teachers College Press.
Howard, T. C. (2010). Why race and culture matter in schools: Closing the achievement gap in America’s classrooms. New
York, NY: Teachers College Press.
King, M. L., Jr. (1965, February 26). Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Retrieved from
Lee, C. D. (2007). Culture, literacy, and learning: Taking bloom in the midst of the whirlwind. New York, NY: Teachers
College Press.
Leonardo, Z. (2013). Race frameworks: A multidimensional theory of racism and education. New York, NY: Teachers
College Press.
Mayo, C. (2014). LGBTQ youth and education: Policies and practices. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). The condition of education 2014. Retrieved from
O’Brien, P. (2016). The Muslim question in Europe: Political controversies and public philosophies. Philadelphia, PA:
Temple University Press.
Painter, N. I. (2016, November 16). What Whiteness means in the Trump era. The New York Times. Retrieved from
Putnam, R. D (2015). Our kids: The American dream in crisis. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Schlesinger, A. M. Jr. (1986). The cycles of American history. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Shear, M. D., & Cooper, H. (2017, January 27). Trump bars refugees and citizens of 7 Muslim countries. The New
York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/politics/trump-syrian-refugees.html
Stiglitz, J. E. (2012). The price of inequality: How today’s divided society endangers our future. New York, NY: Norton.
Suárez-Orozco, C., Pimentel, A., & Martin, M. (2009). The significance of relationships: Academic engagement and
achievement among newcomer immigrant youth. Teachers College Record, 111(3), 712–749.
U. S. Census Bureau (2012). Selected social characteristics in the United States: 2012 American Community Survey 1-year
Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York, NY: Teachers
College Press.
Valdés, G., Capitelli, S., & Alvarez, L. (2011). Latino children learning English: Steps in the journey. New York, NY:
Teachers College Press.
We begin this text by acknowledging that we conduct our scholarship and teaching on the
unceded ancestral territories of various Indigenous peoples, on what is today identified as
Canada and the United States. It can be easy for us to dismiss how events from the past
could matter to us here in the present. But studying the history of colonialism—the
cultural, emotional, and physical genocide of peoples around the world—reminds us that
to understand the injustices of today we must recognize their connection to injustices of the
past. We offer our deepest respect to Elders both past and present.
We extend our heartfelt thanks to the friends and colleagues who have supported us
with this project, especially those who so generously gave their time and expertise to read
and offer feedback on various aspects of the book. Your collegial support, and willingness to
push our thinking on issues taken up in the first and in this second edition have been
invaluable. Specifically, we would like to thank Carolyne Ali-Khan, Kumari Beck, Rochelle
Brock, Ann Chinnery, Sumi Colligan, Cheryl Cooke, Darlene Flynn, Paul Gorski, Aisha
Hauser, Michael Hoechsmann, Rodney Hunt, Mark Jacobs, Byron Joyner, Yoo-Mi Lee,
Darren Lund, Elizabeth Marshall, Anika Nailah, Deborah Terry-Hayes, Jason Toews, and
Gerald Walton.
We thank the reviewers who have been involved in the first and second edition for
their guidance and insightful suggestions.
Thank you to Katherine Streeter for her artwork.
Thank you to Brian Ellerbeck, Karl Nyberg, Lori Tate, and the entire publication team
at Teachers College Press.
And finally, we extend our deepest appreciation to James Banks for his trust in us to
produce a text worthy of joining the Multicultural Education Series, and for his lifelong
courage and commitment to building a more just world.
Map of Indigenous Communities Throughout North America
Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Langs_N.Amer.png
We are educators who collectively bring over 2 decades of experience conducting research,
teaching, writing, leading workshops, and facilitating discussions in the study and practice
of social justice. We have led this work with elementary and high school students,
undergraduate and graduate students, preservice and in-service teachers, and in the
workplace for employees of government, university, nonprofit, and for-profit organizations.
We have presented our research at national and international conferences, and within the
disciplines of education, social work, cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and
Middle East studies.
Through our experiences with wide-ranging audiences, we consistently see predictable
gaps in peoples’ understanding of what social justice is and what might be required to
achieve it. We think of these gaps as a form of society-wide social justice illiteracy and argue
that this illiteracy is not due to a lack of information alone. Rather, social in justice depends
on this illiteracy; it is not benign or neutral, but actively nurtured through many forces and
serves specific interests.
Social justice illiteracy prevents us from moving forward to create a more equitable
society. Thus the primary objective of this book is to provide a foundation for developing
social justice literacy. Using accessible language, addressing the most common
misinformation, providing vignettes, definitions, exercises and reflection questions, our goal
is to provide this foundation to a wide range of readers.
What Is Critical Social Justice?
Most people have a working definition of social justice; it is commonly understood as the
principles of “fairness” and “equality” for all people and respect for their basic human
rights. Most people would say that they value these principles. Yet seldom are the following
questions discussed, and even less seldom are they agreed upon: What are those basic
human rights? Have we already achieved them? If not, why not? How do we go about
achieving them if we agree on what they are and why they haven’t yet been achieved? From
whose perspective is something fair and equitable? Might something be fair for one person
while actually having an unfair outcome for another? What does respect actually mean in
practice? While some say it is to treat others as we would like to be treated, some say that it
is to treat others as they would like to be treated. Thus the definition itself is our first
The second challenge surfaces when we consider what it means to practice social
justice. Generally, because most people see themselves as valuing social justice, most people
also see themselves as acting justly in their lives. In response to questions about how they
practice social justice, many would say that they treat everyone the same without regard to
differences; because they do this, their actions are aligned with their values.
While these ways of conceptualizing social justice are very common, we see them as
woefully inadequate. Indeed, a great deal of scholarship in social justice studies is focused
on the gap between the ideals of social justice and the practices of social justice.
To clarify our definition, let’s start with the concept social justice. While some scholars
and activists prefer to use the term social justice in order to reclaim its true commitments,
in this book we prefer the term critical social justice. We do so in order to distinguish our
standpoint on social justice from mainstream standpoints. A critical approach to social
justice refers to specific theoretical perspectives that recognize that society is stratified (i.e.,
divided and unequal) in significant and far-reaching ways along social group lines that
include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality
as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change
The definition we apply is rooted in a critical theoretical approach. While this
approach refers to a broad range of fields, there are some important shared principles:
All people are individuals, but they are also members of social groups.
These social groups are valued unequally in society.
Social groups that are valued more highly have greater access to the resources of a
Social injustice is real, exists today, and results in unequal access to resources
between groups of people.
Those who claim to be for social justice must be engaged in self-reflection about
their own socialization into these groups (their “positionality”) and must
strategically act from that awareness in ways that challenge social injustice.
This action requires a commitment to an ongoing and lifelong process.
Based on these principles, a person engaged in critical social justice practice must be able to:
Recognize that relations of unequal social power are constantly being enacted at
both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels.
Understand our own positions within these relations of unequal power.
Think critically about knowledge; what we know and how we know it.
Act on all of the above in service of a more socially just society
Our goal in writing this book is to deepen our readers’ understanding of the complexity of
social justice and inspire readers to actively engage in critical social justice practice. We call
this blend of understanding and action critical social justice literacy.
Chapter Summaries
We have brought together key concepts necessary for beginning to develop critical social
justice literacy. Drawing on examples from Canada and the United States, the chapters are
intended to be accessible to both Canadian and U.S. readers. We provide many familiar
examples and have kept in-text citations to a minimum. We open each chapter with a
quote that captures a familiar misconception that the chapter will address. The chapters are
written to be building blocks; because each chapter builds upon the previous, they are best
read in sequence. The issues are complex, political, and often emotionally charged, and if
readers have difficulty understanding a key idea from one chapter, they may have difficulty
carrying the idea forward into the next. For these reasons, the book has the following
Definition Boxes in which we define key terms.
Stop Boxes to serve as reminders of key ideas from previous chapters and to help
with difficult or challenging concepts.
Perspective Check Boxes to draw attention to alternative standpoints on examples
used in the text.
Discussion Questions and Extension Activities for those who are using the book in a
class, workshop, or study group.
Patterns related to specific dynamics of oppression and how to practice recognizing
A Glossary of terms used in the book and guide to language use.
Detailed chapter summaries appear below.
Chapter 1: How to Engage Constructively in Courses That Take a Critical Social
Justice Approach guides students using the book in a course context. We address some of
the common challenges and present five guidelines or dispositions that can help ensure a
constructive learning experience in the social justice classroom. These guidelines include
how to reframe student beliefs and expectations about course grading and assessment.
Chapter 2: Critical Thinking and Critical Theory explains what it means to think
critically about social justice. We explain the theoretical perspective known as Critical
Theory and provide a brief sketch of key ideas relevant to our approach. The concept of
knowledge construction is introduced. This chapter clarifies the difference between the
opinions that readers already hold on a topic and the informed knowledge that we wish to
provide and foster. We explain the importance of setting aside one’s opinions and engaging
with humility when encountering content that is personally challenging or politically
Chapter 3: Culture and Socialization. This chapter explains what culture and
socialization are and how they work. We introduce the relationship between being an
individual and being a member of multiple social groups (such as race, gender, and class).
The chapter explains how important it is for us to understand that our ideas, views, and
opinions are not objective and independent, but rather the result of myriad social messages
and conditioning forces. We take the reader beyond the common conception of parents
and families as the sole forces of socialization and describe how other institutions work to
form our worldviews. Examples are provided to illustrate the power of socialization and
how it works as an unconscious filter shaping our perceptions.
Chapter 4: Prejudice and Discrimination unravels common misunderstandings of two
key interrelated terms: prejudice and discrimination. The chapter examines prejudice as
internal—thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and assumptions—and its relationship to
discrimination, which is external—prejudice occurring in action. We explain that prejudice
and discrimination cannot be humanly avoided; we all hold prejudices and we all
discriminate based on our prejudices. We argue that the first step in minimizing
discrimination is to be able to identify (rather than to deny) our prejudices.
Chapter 5: Oppression and Power explains how prejudice and discrimination are not
the whole story. We move beyond individuals and take readers on an examination of
prejudice and discrimination at the group level. We introduce the concept of power, which
transforms group prejudice into oppression, and define terms such as dominant group and
minoritized group. This chapter also explains the difference between concepts such as race
prejudice, which anyone can hold, and racism, which occurs at the group level and is only
perpetuated by the group that holds social, ideological, economic, and institutional power.
The chapter explains the “ism” words (for example racism, sexism, classism) and how these
words allow us to capture structural power as it manifests in particular forms of oppression.
Chapter 6: Understanding Privilege Through Ableism explains the rights, benefits, and
advantages automatically received by being a member of the dominant group, regardless of
intentions. From a critical social justice perspective, privilege is systemically conferred
dominance and the institutional processes by which the beliefs and values of the dominant
group are made “normal” and universal. While in some cases the privileged group is also
the numerical majority, numbers are not the key criterion; the key criterion is social and
institutional power. This chapter also explains related concepts such as internalized
oppression and internalized dominance, and offers examples of how these dynamics work to
hold existing relations of power in place.
Chapter 7: Understanding the Invisibility of Oppression Through Sexism traces a
specific form of oppression—sexism—in order to illustrate how our ideas, views, and
opinions are the product of interlocking and ongoing social messages in popular culture.
We describe the ways in which such interlocking messages serve as barriers to seeing
oppression and as such are central to how oppression is normalized.
Chapter 8: Understanding the Structural Nature of Oppression Through Racism traces
a specific form of oppression in depth. Racism is discussed within the U.S. and Canadian
contexts, and explained as White racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination,
supported intentionally or unintentionally by institutional power and authority. Racism is
illustrated through an examination of economic, political, social, and cultural structures,
actions, and beliefs. We offer an in-depth understanding of racism as an entry point into
building an in-depth understanding of how all oppressions are structural.
Chapter 9: Understanding the Global Organization of Racism Through White
Supremacy. This chapter continues the examination of racism by identifying some of the
ways in which racism adapts to and co-opts efforts to challenge it. We contrast
multicultural education and antiracist education, introduce other concepts such as
Whiteness and White supremacy, and end by addressing common misconceptions about
racism. These misconceptions also function as another form of adaptation and co-optation.
Chapter 10: Understanding Intersectionality Through Classism begins with an
examination of class oppression. We explain current economic relations of power, address
concepts such as capitalism and socialism, wealth and income, as well as provide common
class vernacular. The chapter also addresses the concept of intersectionality as an important
theoretical development for understanding the multidimensional nature of oppression. We
identify elements of class privilege, name common misconceptions about class mobility,
and speak back to common classist narratives.
Chapter 11: “Yeah, But …”: Common Rebuttals. Based on our experiences teaching
these concepts in a variety of forums, we predict that readers will raise some common
questions, objections, and critiques. This chapter addresses the most commonly raised
issues. Drawing on all that has been discussed in previous chapters, we briefly but explicitly
speak again to these issues.
Chapter 12: Putting It All Together. Understanding social justice means that an
individual must be able to recognize how relations of unequal social power are constantly
being negotiated at both the micro (individual) and macro (structural) levels, understand
our own positions within these relations of unequal power, think critically about
knowledge, and most importantly, act from this understanding in service of a more just
society. The final chapter reviews key principles of critical social justice and offers some
concrete suggestions for action.
We hope to take our readers on a journey that results in an increased ability to see
beyond the immediate surface level to the deeply embedded injustice below; injustice that
for so many of us is normal and taken for granted. Looking head-on at injustice can be
painful, especially when we understand that we all have a role in it. However, in taking our
readers on this journey we do not intend to inspire guilt or assign blame. At this point in
society, guilt and blame are not useful or constructive; no one reading this book had a hand
in creating the systems that hold injustice in place. But each of us does have a choice about
whether we are going to work to interrupt and dismantle these systems or support their
existence by ignoring them. There is no neutral ground; to choose not to act against
injustice is to choose to allow it. We hope that this book gives our readers the conceptual
foundations from which to act against injustice.
A Parable: Hodja and the Foreigner
Once upon a time, a foreign scholar and his entourage were passing through a town in
Anatolia. The scholar asked to speak to the town’s most knowledgeable person. The
townsfolk immediately called Nasreddin Hodja to come to meet the foreign scholar.
The foreigner did not speak Turkish, Persian, or Arabic, and Hodja did not speak any
European languages, and so the two wise men had to communicate with signs while the
townsfolk and the entourage watched in fascination.
The foreigner used a stick to draw a large circle in the sand. Hodja took the stick and
divided the circle into two halves. The foreigner drew a line perpendicular to the one Hodja
drew, and the circle was now split into four. He moved the stick to indicate first the three
quarters of the circle, then the remaining quarter. In response, Hodja made a swirling
motion with the stick on the four quarters. Then the foreigner made a bowl shape with his
two hands held together side by side, palms up, and wiggled his fingers. Then, Hodja
responded by cupping his hands with his palms down and wiggling his fingers.
When the meeting was over, the members of the foreigner’s entourage asked him what
they had talked about. “Nasreddin Hodja is a very learned man,” he said. “I told him that
the Earth was round and he told me that there was an equator slicing it in half. I told him
that three-quarters of the Earth was water and one quarter of it was land. He said that there
were undercurrents and winds. I told him that the waters warm up, vaporize, and move
toward the sky, and to that he replied that they cool off and come down as rain.”
The people of the town were also curious about how the conversation went. They
gathered around Hodja. “This stranger has very good taste,” Hodja explained. “He said that
he wished there was a large tray of baklava. I said that he could only have half of it. He said
that the syrup should be made with three parts sugar and one part honey. I agreed, and said
that they all had to be well mixed together. Next, he suggested that we should cook it on
blazing fire. And I added that we should pour crushed nuts on top of it.”
Layers of the Parable
This story is from the tales of Nasreddin Hodja, a 13th-century Sufisage. His wisdom
stories often use humor to point out human failings and misunderstandings. What is
relevant about this story for our purposes is the way it captures some of the key concepts in
critical social justice literacy:
Each of us has a culturally based worldview.
We hold a common assumption that others share our worldview.
We often assume that what we intend to communicate is what is received.
Because Hodja and the foreigner do not speak the same verbal language, they move to
a form of sign language and assume that they share the same understandings of what is
being signed. Although both men leave the exchange feeling satisfied, we realize that they
have completely misunderstood each other. But if we go deeper than a simple
misunderstanding, we might also see that they had completely different ways of organizing
the world and what they valued within it. For the foreigner, the emphasis was on the
elements of the Earth; he had a more scientific orientation. For Hodja, the emphasis was on
sharing a meal; he had a more community orientation.
As their ideas about each other form and are communicated to their respective groups
(the foreigner to his entourage and Hodja to his fellow townspeople), consider now that
one of them is in the position to enforce his worldview upon the other; that is, consider
what might happen when we add power to the encounter. Imagine the foreigner and his
entourage are not just passing through, they are in town because their nation has just
invaded Hodja’s. The foreigner has been installed to govern Hodja’s town and he now
controls all of the land—land that Hodja and the townfolk have lived on and raised their
food on all of their lives, as did their ancestors before them. But now Hodja must pay the
foreigner large fees to use this land. The foreigner moves in and appoints his own people to
key positions of government and sets up his culture’s rules and social norms. The foreigner
imposes these new rules and norms upon Hodja and the townspeople.
Which one of these men is going to need to learn to understand the perspective of the
other? While they each have their own worldview and neither worldview is inherently
superior, only one of them is in a position of power that enables him to impose his
worldview on the other. Hodja and his community’s ability to work and feed their families
now depend upon the foreigner and his customs, language, and traditions, whereas the
foreigner does not have to learn the town’s customs, language, or traditions. Indeed, the
foreigner, who now controls all of the resources needed for Hodja’s livelihood, will profit
from Hodja and the community’s labor without ever having to learn to understand their
Now fast-forward from the 13th century to the 21st. Centuries of domination of the
town and resultant conflicts have occurred. The descendants of the foreigner, who continue
to control the town, benefit from the resources and power they have accumulated over the
centuries. Meanwhile, the descendants of the townsfolk have had to change their entire way
of life, customs, and even language in order to survive. The townsfolk try to pass their
traditions on to their young children, but the children see little value in cultural traditions
that don’t seem to get them anywhere in society. Many of the foreigners’ descendants are
also frustrated. They can’t understand why some townsfolk are so angry—after all, they
weren’t the ones who invaded the town centuries ago, and they don’t see why the
townspeople can’t just get over it and assimilate so they can all live together in peace.
As we can see, there are many layers of complexity in this story, layers that have built
up and been left unaddressed over generations. The foreigner’s descendants see the
situation as simple: Hodja’s descendants should just let go of the past and move on.
Hodja’s descendants, however, see the situation as much more complicated. Until the
historical, cultural, and ideological aspects of the foreigner’s domination are addressed, no
one can just “get over it.” Indeed, they recognize that far from being over, the domination
continues in newer forms. The suggestion that they could just move on reveals how little
the foreigner’s descendants understand the history of their town and their current position
within society, based on that history. This story is meant to illustrate many of the complex
issues that must be understood in order to develop critical social justice literacy.
How to Engage Constructively in Courses That Take a
Critical Social Justice Approach
The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must
come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the “real”
world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.
—Gloria Anzaldúa (2009, p. 310)
Vocabulary to practice using: anecdotal evidence; platitude; mainstream society; peer
review; objective; subjective
If you are reading this book, you are likely enrolled in a course that takes a critical stance.
By critical stance we mean those academic fields (including social justice, critical pedagogy,
multicultural education, antiracist, postcolonial, and feminist approaches) that operate
from the perspective that knowledge is socially constructed and that education is a political
project embedded within a network of social institutions that reproduce inequality.
Throughout your course, you will likely be studying key concepts such as socialization,
oppression, privilege, and ideology and doing coursework that challenges your worldview by
suggesting that you may not be as open-minded as you may have thought. You are
encountering evidence that inequality not only exists, but is deeply structured into society
in ways that secure its reproduction. You are also beginning to realize that, contrary to what
you have always been taught, categories of difference (such as gender, race, and class) rather
than merit alone, do matter and contribute significantly to people’s experiences and life
When confronted with evidence of inequality that challenges our identities, we often
respond with resistance; we want to deflect this unsettling information and protect a
worldview that is more familiar and comforting. This is especially true if we believe in
justice and see ourselves as living a life that supports it. Forms that resistance takes include
silence, withdrawal, immobilizing guilt, feeling overly hopeless or overly hopeful, rejection,
anger, sarcasm, and argumentation. These reactions are not surprising because mainstream
narratives reinforce the idea that society overall is fair, and that all we need to overcome
injustice is to be nice and treat everyone the same. Yet while comforting, these platitudes
are woefully out of sync with scholarly research about how society is structured. The deeply
held beliefs that inform our emotional responses make studying and teaching from a critical
stance very difficult.
In addition to being asked to question ideology that is deeply internalized and taken
for granted, critical engagement rarely provides concrete solutions. This ambiguity can lead
to frustration, for our K–12 schooling (especially in Canada and the United States) has
conditioned us to seek clear and unambiguous answers. Still, we pull various strategies
together and offer an overall framework for critical engagement. We draw on research and
our years of practice teaching social justice content and share the vignettes and guidelines
that have been most effective for our own students. A list of key terms can be found at the
beginning of this chapter. Practice incorporating these terms into your academic
An Open Letter to Students
Courses that address social justice and inequality through a critical lens often challenge
mainstream understandings and thus bring to the surface patterns and tensions that other
courses do not (Gallavan, 2000; Kincheloe, 2008). This is due, primarily, to two key
The first is that many of us are underprepared to engage in the course content in scholarly
ways. Basic study habits, reading comprehension, writing skills, vocabulary, and critical
thinking are often underdeveloped in college students. Ironically, much of this is due to
structural inequalities that courses like these try to address. For example, political and
economic pressures on schools to focus on standardized testing have resulted in moves away
from intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and engagement with ambiguity and toward
creating conforming and compliant students who can memorize the “one right answer” to
pass the test. Differences in the kinds of schooling we receive and the differential futures
they prepare us for are based on structural inequalities related to our race, class, gender, and
other social locations. These differentials affect our preparation for college and universitylevel engagement and are examples of the kind of inequalities that social justice–oriented
courses address. The ultimate goal of social justice education is to enable us to recognize
structural inequalities in ways that prepare us to change them. However, the sociopolitical
context of schooling makes critical engagement challenging for many students, and this
challenge is heightened when the topics under study are politically and emotionally
This leads to the second reason that courses that address social justice and inequality
bring to the surface patterns and tensions that other courses do not: most of us have very
strong feelings and opinions about the topics examined in social justice courses (such as racism,
sexism, and homophobia). These opinions often surface through claims such as:
“People should be judged by what they do, not the color of their skin”
“I accept people for who they are”
“I see people as individuals”
“It’s focusing on difference that divides us”
“My parents taught me that all people are equal”
“I always treat everyone the same”
“I’ve been discriminated against so I don’t have any privilege”
“Our generation is more open-minded”
“I have friends from all races and we are all fine with each other”
“I don’t think race and gender make any difference—as long as you work hard”
“It’s White males who are the minority now”
“Women are just as sexist as men”
While these opinions are deeply held and appear to be commonsense truth (and not
opinion at all), they are predictable, simplistic, and misinformed, given the large body of
research examining social relations. Yet, the relentless repetition of these ideas in the
mainstream makes them seem true, and allows us to form strongly held opinions without
being particularly educated on the issues. Indeed, where we are members of dominant
groups (e.g., if we are male, White, cisgender, able-bodied), we will almost certainly have a
superficial understanding because that is the primary message made available to us through
mainstream society. Where we are members of minoritized groups (e.g., if we are women,
Peoples of Color, transgender, People with disabilities), we may have a deeper personal
understanding of social inequality and how it works, but may not have the scholarly
language to discuss it in an academic context.
Further, it is a rare individual who is dominant in all key social groups, or conversely is
minoritized in all key social groups. Yet messages that circulate in mainstream society do
not prepare most of us to conceptualize or develop the language to discuss our intersecting
identities in any depth. Take for example the intersection of race and class and consider a
White woman who lives in poverty. While she will face many class barriers, she will not face
racism. Yet a poor White woman—while not facing racism—will face barriers related to her
gender—sexism—that a poor White man will not. For example, she will be more likely to
be held responsible for the care of her children, she will be more likely to earn less than a
man, and she will be more at risk for male violence, all of which increase the burden of
poverty. Yet mainstream culture tends to present poverty as if there is a collective and
shared experience of “the poor.”
Without practice and study beyond what we absorb in our daily living, we are ill
prepared to understand social group injustices. Therefore, our perspectives on issues like
poverty and social inequality are necessarily lacking—and especially so if we ourselves are
not poor. These perspectives include the idea that if we don’t believe in social inequality,
then we don’t participate in it. Mainstream culture prevents us from understanding a
central tenet of social justice education: Society is structured in ways that make us all
complicit in systems of inequality; there is no neutral ground. Thus an effective critical
social justice course will unsettle mainstream perspectives and institutional discourses,
challenge our views about ourselves, what we think we know about society, how it works,
and our place in it.
Unfortunately when we are new to the examination of social relations, we only know
one way to respond to ideas studied in the course: “If the professor is saying that I
participate in systems of injustice (such as racism), they are saying that I am a bad person (a
racist).” Later, we should come to understand that this is not what our professors are saying,
and that binary ways of conceptualizing these issues (good/bad, racist/not-racist) are part of
what prevents us from seeing them.
In sum, the combination of underdeveloped academic skills, difficult theoretical
concepts, and highly charged political content that is absent of complex analysis in
mainstream culture, all of which is embedded within an institutional context that is
structured to reproduce inequality, can make these courses challenging. Yet basing our
knowledge on such sources as personal opinions, self-concepts, anecdotal evidence, hearsay,
intuition, family teachings, popular platitudes, limited relationships, personal experiences,
exceptions, and mainstream media is insufficient for understanding and responding
constructively to social injustice.
Therefore, to maximize your learning of social justice content, we offer the following
1. Strive for intellectual humility.
2. Recognize the difference between opinions and informed knowledge.
3. Let go of personal anecdotal evidence and look at broader societal patterns.
4. Notice your own defensive reactions and attempt to use these reactions as entry
points for gaining deeper self-knowledge.
5. Recognize how your own social positionality (such as your race, class, gender,
sexuality, ability-status) informs your perspectives and reactions to your instructor
and the individuals whose work you study in the course.
Below we explain these guidelines in more depth and how they can help you engage
constructively with social justice content.
A Story: The Question of Planets
Imagine: You are in a course that fulfills a university science requirement. The professor
holds a PhD in astronomy. He has written several books, is widely published in academic
journals, and has a national reputation in his field. The course objectives include defining
terms used in modern astronomy and exposure to the practices, methodology, and concepts
of the discipline. The professor is reviewing the assigned readings, which present the most
established theories in the field. He overviews the scientific community’s discussion of the
number of planets and states that based on the criteria for what constitutes a planet, only 8
planets are officially recognized in our solar system.
One of the students raises his hand and insists that there are actually 9 planets because
that is what he learned in school. He has seen many books with pictures of the planets, and
there are always nine. As further evidence, he recites the mnemonic he learned to pass all
his science tests: “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” He states that he
had a map of the sky in his bedroom as a child and it showed 9 planets. Further, he says,
his parents taught him that there were nine planets and many of his friends also agree that
there are nine. He spent his childhood camping out and looking up at the sky and
identifying constellations, so he has experience in astronomy. The professor tries to explain
to the student that to engage with the planet controversy one must first demonstrate
understanding of the criteria for what constitutes a planet, but he is cut off by the student,
who declares, “Well, that’s your opinion. My opinion is that there are nine.”
The professor tries once more to explain that what he presents in regard to the number
of planets is not his opinion, but knowledge based on the scholarly community’s
established criteria for what defines a planet. Although at one time astronomers believed
that Pluto qualified as a planet, as with all disciplines, their knowledge evolved. With the
discovery of new information and further study they now understand that Pluto doesn’t
meet the criteria of a planet, in large part due to its shape. This is not an opinion, the
professor repeats, but astronomical theories that have resulted from ongoing research and
study. The student replies, “I don’t care if Pluto is square, diamond-shaped, or shaped like
a banana, it’s a planet, and there are nine planets.”
How likely is it that the majority of the class thinks our hypothetical astronomy
student is raising a credible point? Would the class admire him for standing up to the
professor and expressing the same understanding they had (but were too hesitant to bring
up)? Even if his peers did share his view, that would not make his argument valid. It is
more likely that he would be seen as having some academic challenges, as somewhat
immature, and perhaps even disrespectful. It may even be assumed that he might have
trouble passing the class.
Guideline 1: Strive for Intellectual Humility
Our hypothetical student is representative of many students we encounter: He has not done
the readings or has trouble understanding what he’s read; he has limited knowledge but is
resistant to increasing it; he clings to the same worldview he came into the course with; and
he is overly confident about his position. Scholars have referred to these patterns as a form
of willful ignorance (Baker, 1990; Dei, Karumanchery & Karumanchery-Luik, 2004;
Schick, 2000). In our experience, students who have trouble understanding what they read
seldom: re-read, read more slowly, use a dictionary to look up new words, or ask their
professors to explain difficult passages. Standardized testing and the punishment and
reward system of grades are major contributors to these habits, as they have created a school
culture that rewards conformity and single, correct answers over intellectual curiosity and
risk-taking. Yet critical social justice education demands a different kind of engagement
than most of us have been prepared for in our previous schooling.
Another challenge to intellectual humility is that many of us see social science content
as soft science and therefore value-laden and subjective. On the other hand, the natural
sciences such as astronomy are seen as hard science and therefore value-neutral and objective.
Because of the presumed neutrality of the natural sciences, we are unlikely to argue with
astronomy findings until we have some mastery in the field—knowing that we might not
fully understand the concepts and theories presented. We are more likely to focus on
gaining a basic understanding and not on whether we agree or disagree. If we perform
poorly on tests, we might feel frustrated with the professor or material as being too hard,
but still recognize our own lack of knowledge as the primary cause of the poor
Yet in the study of the social sciences—and particularly when the topic is social
inequality—the behavior of our imaginary astronomy student is not unusual. In fact, it can
be common for students to argue with professors prior to achieving mastery of the concepts
and theories presented. Furthermore, students frequently cite anecdotal evidence to support
their arguments and dismiss course content prior to engaging with the research. And
unfortunately, students who “disagree with” social justice content are often taken seriously
by classmates —even seen as a kind of hero for speaking up to the professor. Seeing the
study of social inequality as a form of subjective scholarship, these students put it on par
with their own personal opinions and dismiss it out of hand.
In academia (including the social and natural sciences), in order for an argument to be
considered legitimate (e.g., such as how many planets there are, and whether racism exists),
it must stand up to scrutiny by others who are specialists in the field. This scrutiny is called
peer review. Peer review is the process by which theories and the research they are based on
are examined by other scholars in the field who question, refine, deepen, challenge, and
complicate the arguments, expanding the collective knowledge base of the field. Just as the
astronomy professor’s teachings are more than his personal opinions, social justice
professors’ teachings are more than their personal opinions. Both instructors are presenting
concepts that have undergone peer review. The overall evidence, theories, arguments, and
analysis presented in class are rooted in the peer review process.
STOP: When we say that peer review makes an argument legitimate,
remember that we mean this for academic contexts (such as a college or university
course you might be taking). There are other forms of evidence that are
legitimate. However, academic arguments such as those we present in this book
must stand up to peer review.
Most of us have seldom previously encountered—much less understood enough to
disagree with—the scholars we initially read, especially in introductory critical social justice
courses. Although some of us may bring important firsthand experiences to the issues (such
as being a member of a particular minoritized group under study), we too can benefit from
grappling with any theoretical framework before debating it. For the beginner, grappling
with the concepts is the first step. To facilitate doing so, practice the following:
Read the assigned material carefully. Look up vocabulary words and terminology
that are new to you (e.g., if there are terms used in this chapter that you do not
know, start with the book’s glossary). Accept that you may need to read all or part
of the material more than once. Consider reading passages out loud or taking notes
of key points as you read. Practice using new terms in class.
If there are terms or concepts you are still unsure about, raise them in class. It is
likely that you are not alone in your confusion. Assume that your instructors
appreciate questions that demonstrate engagement and curiosity, rather than apathy
and silence that make it difficult to assess student needs.
Strive to see the connections to ideas and concepts already studied. This will help
with your recall, critical thinking, and ability to see the big picture.
Focus on understanding rather than agreement. Consider whether “I disagree” may
actually mean “I don’t understand,” and if so, work on understanding. Remember,
understanding a concept does not require that you agree with it.
Practice posing questions. Because most students have been socialized to care more
about getting the answers right and less about comprehension, we may fear that
asking questions will reveal that we don’t know the answers. Thus, we may make
bold statements that lack intellectual humility. These statements could be more
usefully framed as questions.
Be patient and willing to grapple with new and difficult ideas. “Grappling with”
ideas means to receive, reflect upon, practice articulating, and seek deeper
understanding; grappling is not debate or rejection. The goal is to move us beyond
the mere sharing of opinions and toward more informed engagement.
One place where grappling often falls short is in small-group work. For most
instructors, the goal of small-group work is much more than students simply “sharing their
ideas or opinions on X.” Rather, it’s an opportunity for students to spend time critically
thinking through difficult ideas with the support of others in order to deepen
understanding and share insights. In addition to the specific prompts and questions that
the instructor has given, all of the following could be taken up in small-group work:
Asking clarifying questions of each other
Making connections to other readings
Identifying key concepts and defining terms
Generating examples that illustrate the concepts under study
Identifying patterns
Developing questions
Questioning relationships between concepts
Discussing the implications for your own life and work
Practicing articulating the ideas introduced in the course using your own words, in
order to clarify and increase your comfort discussing them with others
Identifying and discussing challenging passages
Yet instructors often encounter small groups who are merely reinforcing their previous
opinions, have moved on to engage in off-topic social banter, or are sitting in silence,
checking email or texting because they are “finished” discussing the topic at hand. From an
academic perspective, a small group should never be “done” talking about any topic they
are given. Scholars have spent their careers developing these concepts, and a limited
number of class minutes is not adequate to finish working through and understanding
them. If you find yourself at a standstill, work through the bulleted list above, or ask your
instructor for some prompts and check in about how you are doing in your comprehension.
Guideline 2: Everyone has an Opinion. Opinions are Not the Same as Informed
One of the biggest challenges to attaining Guideline 1—intellectual humility—is the
emphasis placed in mainstream culture on the value of opinion. Mainstream culture has
normalized the idea that because everyone has an opinion, all opinions are equally valid.
For example, local news and radio shows regularly invite callers to share their opinions
about questions ranging from “Do you think so-and-so is guilty?” to “Should immigration
be restricted?” Reality shows invite us to vote on the best singer or dancer, implying that
our opinions are equal to the opinions of professional dancers, singers, choreographers, and
producers. While we might have an informed opinion, our response certainly does not
depend on one. Thus we can easily be fooled into confusing opinion (which everyone has)
with informed knowledge (which few have without ongoing practice and study).
Because of this socialization, many of us unwittingly bring the expectation for opinionsharing into the academic classroom. However, in academia, opinion is the weakest form of
intellectual engagement. When our comprehension is low and critical thinking skills
underdeveloped, expressing our opinion is the easiest response. All of us hold opinions on a
topic before we enter a course (as our astronomy student did), and these opinions don’t
require us to understand the issues or engage with the course readings at all. Therefore,
expressing our opinions simply rehearses what we already think and doesn’t require us to
expand, question, or go beneath our ideas. If we aren’t interested in reading what we have
been assigned, or do not understand what we have read, the easiest thing to do is to point
to a passage in the text and give a personal opinion about it (e.g., “I loved it when the
author said that men dominate because it reminded me of an experience I had….”), or use
it to reject the reading out of hand (e.g., “The author said White people have privilege. I
totally disagree with that because I know someone who didn’t get a job because he’s
When we make claims based on anecdotal evidence with regard to the concepts studied
—for example claiming, “Now there is reverse racism” —we are in effect expressing an
opinion that is not supported by scholarly evidence. We would not use opinion in
astronomy class and believe it unlikely that a student arguing that she or he disagrees with
Stephen Hawking on a matter of astronomy would have her or his position taken seriously,
much less feel free to make such a claim to begin with. Yet in the social justice classroom,
scholars such as Peggy McIntosh, Michel Foucault, and Beverly Tatum are regularly
disagreed with well before comprehension of their work is mastered. Consider how our
astronomy student’s understanding of planets—as well as his understanding of science as an
ever-evolving field—could deepen if he was able to engage with current theories about what
constitutes a planet. Unfortunately, our hypothetical student’s attachment to his previously
held beliefs precludes this possibility.
Because of these tendencies, professors who teach from a critical social justice stance
sometimes “shut down” opinion-sharing (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2014). This curtailing of the
sharing of opinions in class is often perceived as breaking a social rule: “I have the right to
my opinion and denying me that right is unfair.” Of course we have a right to our
opinions. But our academic goals are not to simply express our preexisting opinions; our
goals are to engage with scholarly evidence and develop the theoretical tools with which to
gain a more complex understanding of social phenomena. Yet let us be clear: We do want
students to offer opinions in order to reflect on and examine them; opening one’s opinions
to examination is not the same as simply expressing them.
In order to move beyond the level of previously held opinions, practice the following:
Reflect on your reasons for pursuing higher education. Many students would say
they are going to university or college in order to secure a good career. However,
your longevity and success in that career will depend on your critical-thinking skills
and the depth and breadth of your general knowledge base. How might allowing
your worldview to be stretched and challenged actually serve your future career
Recognize that you do not have to agree with concepts under study in order to learn
from them. Let go of the idea that you must agree with a concept you are studying
in order for it to be valid or worth learning.
Practice posing open-ended questions rather than closed questions that invite yes/no
responses or debate. Closed questions often begin with “Should” or “Do you agree”
(e.g., “Should schools ban soda machines?” or “Do you agree that opportunity is not
equal?”). The limitation of these questions is that the debate format does not leave
much room for examining grey areas or grappling with complexities. Closed
questions can also be answered with an easy yes or no, which prevents a nuanced
engagement with complex issues.
Practice developing quality questions. For example, using John Taylor Gatto’s
“Seven Lesson Schoolteacher” (2002), strong questions could include: “Consider
Gatto’s argument that all teachers teach the seven lessons. On a continuum from
‘Yes absolutely’ on one end, to ‘No absolutely not’ on the other, position yourself in
relation to his argument. Explain why you have positioned yourself there.” Use
phrases such as, “Under what conditions …” and “To what extent …” when you
ask questions. For example, “Under what conditions might we avoid teaching
Gatto’s lessons?” “To what extent does the school curriculum influence teacher
autonomy?” Use the course readings to support your position. Questions connected
to texts should require familiarity with the text to answer. For example, “Identify
two of Gatto’s seven lessons and find examples you have seen in schools.” If
someone can respond to the question without ever having read the text, it is not a
strong question. Questions may also ask people to re-imagine. For example, “Using
the readings, design the ideal classroom. Describe the guidelines for student
engagement in this ideal classroom. How would the curriculum and pedagogical
activities be organized? How would you assess your goals?”
Guideline 3: Let Go of Anecdotal Evidence and Instead Examine Patterns
Anecdotal evidence is evidence drawn from hearsay or only personal experience, and thus
anecdotal evidence is superficial, limited to interpretation, and not generalizable. For
example, many of us have heard something similar to, “My cousin tried to get a job, but
they hired an unqualified Black guy instead because they had to fill a quota.” Because
mainstream education and media seldom teach us how social inequality works, most of the
evidence we rely on to understand issues of social justice is anecdotal. But the goals of
college and university classes are to expand one’s ability to make sense of everyday events,
issues, and incidences. In other words, to offer new and more complex sense-making
systems. One of the more important academic skills we can develop is the ability to apply a
new sense-making framework to something we currently make sense of using another
To illustrate this concept of frameworks, imagine that you have pain in your leg and go
to your doctor. Your doctor would likely examine your leg, feel the bones and muscles, and
perhaps take X-rays to identify the source of the pain. If, however, you went to an
alternative (from a Western perspective) medical practitioner, such as a doctor of
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), she might have a completely different way of
examining your body and identifying the source of the pain. She may begin by looking at
your tongue and examining other parts of your body. A chiropractor might not examine
your leg at all, but instead begin work on your spine.
If we are taking a course studying how humans understand the body and conceptualize
healing, then we are less interested in which practitioner is “right” and which is “wrong” in
their approach to identifying the source of your pain. We are more interested in the various
frameworks each practitioner uses, the scholarly community that informs the ideas that
practitioner draws on, and what each framework offers us in terms of understanding how
the body works and how humans conceptualize illness and healing. Just as the TCM doctor
offers a new way of understanding how your body works, the critical social justice
framework offers us a new way of understanding how society works.
Another popular approach many of us take when we encounter a new and unfamiliar
framework is to focus on one or two exceptions in order to disprove the framework under
study. For example, when reading scholarship describing racism as structural, we may cite
sensational examples such as Barack Obama as proof that “anyone can make it.” We may
also use personal stories to “prove” that structural oppression doesn’t exist (or has now
“reversed” direction), such as in the story above about the cousin who didn’t get a job and
believes this is because the company had to fill a racial quota. Although it is a common
White myth that peoples of Color must be (unfairly) hired over Whites, it is false and
problematic for at least three reasons. First, it’s misinformed because hiring quotas are
actually illegal. Affirmative Action in the United States or Employment Equity in Canada
are not hiring requirements, but goal systems for the hiring of qualified people who are
underrepresented in a given field. Second, all of the evidence demonstrates that peoples of
Color are discriminated against in hiring, not preferred (Alexander, 2010; Bertrand &
Mullainathan, 2004; Dechief & Oreopoulos, 2012). Third, the story above rests on an
embedded racist assumption that the only reason a person of Color could have been hired
over the cousin is because of a quota and not because the person of Color was in fact more
qualified, or equally qualified but brought a needed perspective that the cousin did not.
Focusing on exceptions or unanalyzed personal experiences prevents us from seeing the
overall, societal patterns. While there are always exceptions to the rule, exceptions also
illustrate the rule. Yes, people from oppressed groups occasionally rise to the top in
dominant society. But the historical, measurable, and predictable evidence is that this is an
atypical occurrence. If we focus exclusively on those exceptional occurrences, we miss the
larger structural patterns. Focusing on the exceptions also precludes a more nuanced
analysis of the role these exceptions play in the system overall.
The following questions offer a constructive way to engage with the course content and
support Guideline 3:
How can using a critical framework expand my understanding of these phenomena?
For example, let’s say you are White and have spent time abroad. You have enjoyed
the food and cultures of places such as China, Mexico, or Morocco, but have also
felt discriminated against (ignored, stereotyped, made fun of) because you are White
and from the United States or Canada. Why, you might wonder, aren’t the locals
more open to you when you are being so open to them—maybe even learning a bit
of their language? You offer this anecdote as an example that illustrates that
everyone is racist in some ways. Now imagine that you are grappling with a new
framework to make sense of your experience. You are studying key concepts such as
Whiteness, globalization, and hegemony. How can using this framework help you
contextualize your experience within larger macrodynamics and apply academic
Am I able to identify the larger group patterns at play in any individual situation?
For example, if my best friend lives with a disability, I may assume that I am outside
of ableism because I am open to this friendship when others are not. Yet rather than
make me exempt from ableism, how can my friendship provide me with a view into
the barriers faced by persons with disabilities? How can considering overall patterns
help me recognize how my friendship is situated in relation to broader social
dynamics—dynamics that intentions and individual practices alone do not
Do I recognize that when I claim that my friend’s disability is not an issue in our
friendship, that I am sharing my own limited perspective, because my experiences
are interpreted from my positionality as someone who is considered able-bodied?
What might the risks be for my friend to disagree with me or try to give me
feedback on unaware ableist assumptions I may be making? Do I have the skills to
respond to this feedback without defensiveness and denial? Using another example,
we often hear heterosexual students make claims such as, “There was one gay guy in
our school and no one had an issue with him.” Yet that “one gay guy” likely has a
very different memory of school. Indeed, when we have students in our classes from
minoritized groups, they invariably tell us of the misery of high school and all of the
unconscious attitudes and behaviors from the dominant group that they had to
endure. Our anecdotes are not universal, they are from a particular perspective; they
will necessarily be filtered through our blind spots and thus are not sufficient
Guideline 4: Use Your Reactions as Entry Points for Gaining Deeper Self-Knowledge
Because social justice courses directly address emotionally and politically charged issues,
they can be upsetting. For many of us, this is the first time we have experienced a sustained
examination of inequality—especially where we are in dominant groups. Further, much of
what is presented is counter to everything we have previously been taught. In addition,
these courses typically ask us to connect ourselves personally to the issues under study,
triggering patterns of resistance such as those previously discussed. For those of us who have
experienced inequality in key dimensions of our lives, it can be painful to see the explicit
resistance and hostility of classmates.
Although the frameworks used in these courses do not claim that people in dominant
groups are “bad,” many of us hear it that way because our current sense-making framework
says that participation in inequality is something that only bad people do. Until we have a
critical social justice framework—which requires a whole new paradigm of sense-making—
we often find it difficult to remain open, especially if we are a member of a dominant group
under study. Defensiveness, cognitive dissonance, and even feelings of guilt, shame, and
grief are not uncommon. In some ways, these kinds of feelings indicate movement and
change, and although unpleasant, they are not necessarily problematic. The key to whether
these feelings play a constructive or destructive role lies in what we do with them. We can,
of course, use them as “proof” that the class content and approach is “wrong” and reject all
that we are being taught. But there is no growth for us in this reaction. Rather than allow
these emotions to block our growth, we can use them as entry points into greater selfknowledge and content knowledge.
Conversely, where we belong to minoritized groups, these courses can surface emotions
for different reasons. Feelings such as anger, frustration, shame, grief, and that we are under
a spotlight are common and can also get in the way of our academic development.
However, the analysis, evidence, and conceptual language offered by social justice
education can provide the tools with which to challenge the relations of oppression that
lead to these feelings. Indeed, the evidence and analysis presented should reveal that the
challenges you have faced are not due to your own individual shortcomings but are in large
part the product of socially organized structural barriers. As such, these barriers can be
identified and acted against. In this way, rather than increase a sense of hopelessness and
immobilization, courses such as this have the potential to empower.
Returning to our astronomy student, we can see that upon receiving information that
challenged his worldview, he was unable to use his emotional reactions constructively.
Instead, he categorically rejected the information, ending with a somewhat nonsensical
claim that Pluto was still a planet, even if it was shaped like a banana. This is the equivalent
to claiming that “I treat people the same regardless of whether they are ‘red, yellow, green,
purple, polka-dotted, or zebra-striped.’” Simplistic platitudes often surface when we are
faced with evidence that fundamentally challenges our worldviews. For example, the
evidence that racism not only exists, but is systemic and implicates everyone is a difficult
idea for many of us. But popular platitudes such as “I don’t care if you’re purple” are
problematic for at least two reasons: First, colorblindness is not actually possible—we do in
fact see race and it does have social meaning and consequences. Second, people do not come
in these colors and so claims about green, purple and polka-dotted people render race
ridiculous and trivializes the realities of racism.
Social justice content can trigger strong reactions, but these reactions can be
constructive if we use them as entry points to deeper self-awareness, rather than as exit
points from further engagement.
Practice the following approaches to the course content in support of Guideline 4:
How does considering the course content or an author’s analysis challenge or
expand the way I see the world?
How have I been shaped by the issues the author is addressing? For example, if the
author is talking about the experiences of the poor and I was raised middle class,
what does their perspective help me see about what it means to have been raised
middle class?
What about my life in relation to my race/class/gender might make it difficult for
me to see or validate this new perspective?
What do my reactions reveal about what I perceive is at risk were I to accept this
If I were to accept this information as valid, what might be ethically required of me?
Guideline 5: Recognize How Your Social Position Informs Your Reactions to Your
Instructor and the Course Content
Positionality is the concept that our perspectives are based on our place in society.
Positionality recognizes that where you stand in relation to others shapes what you can see
and understand. For example, if I am considered an able-bodied person, my position in a
society that devalues people with disabilities limits my understanding of the barriers people
with disabilities face. I simply won’t see these barriers, in large part because I don’t have to
—society is structured to accommodate the way I use my body.
Guideline 5 addresses the perception that the content of the class is subjective, valuebased, and political, while the content of mainstream courses is objective, value-neutral,
and unpartisan. We discussed this perception under Guideline 3 as it relates to common
views on the social sciences. Here we want to consider this perception using the lens of
positionality as it relates to the instructors of these courses. Because instructors of critical
social justice content are more likely to name their positionality and encourage students to
do the same, they are often seen as more biased. Mainstream courses rarely if ever name the
positionality of the texts they study (for example, the idea that Columbus discovered
America is from the colonizer’s perspective, but certainly not from the perspective of
Indigenous peoples). Unfortunately, because acknowledging one’s positionality is a rare
occurrence in mainstream courses, doing so reinforces students’ perceptions of mainstream
courses as objective and critical social justice courses as subjective. Yet all knowledge is
taught from a particular perspective; the power of dominant knowledge depends in large
part on its presentation as neutral and universal (Kincheloe, 2008).
In order to understand the concept of knowledge as never purely objective, neutral,
and outside of human interests, it is important to distinguish between discoverable laws of
the natural world (such as the law of gravity), and knowledge, which is socially constructed.
By socially constructed, we mean that all knowledge understood by humans is framed by the
ideologies, language, beliefs, and customs of human societies. Even the field of science is
subjective (the study of which is known as the sociology of scientific knowledge). For
example, consider scientific research and how and when it is conducted. Which subjects are
funded and which are not (e.g., the moon’s atmosphere, nuclear power, wind power,
atmospheric pollution, or stem cells)? Who finances various types of research (private
corporations, nonprofits, or the government)? Who is invested in the results of the research
(e.g., for-profit pharmaceutical companies, the military, or nonprofit organizations)? How
do these investments drive what is studied and how? How will the research findings be
used? Who has access to the benefits of the research? As you can see, these are not neutral
questions—they are always political, and they frame how knowledge is created, advanced,
and circulated. Because of this, knowledge is never value-neutral.
To illustrate the concept of knowledge as socially constructed and thus never outside of
human values and subjectivity, consider an example of a tree—a seemingly neutral object
whose existence is simply a physical fact that can be observed. Yet notice that how we see
the tree is connected to our meaning-making frameworks (and thus is not neutral at all).
First, consider our perceptions of its size. A tree that looks big to someone who grew up on
the East Coast might not look big to someone who grew up on the West Coast.
Next, consider our perceptions of its meaning or purpose; these will be shaped by our
perspectives and interests. For example, an environmentalist might see a limited resource. A
member of the Coast Salish nation might see a sacred symbol of life. A logger or a farmer
might see employment. A scientist might see a specimen to be studied. Further, while it
may appear that the logger and the farmer have shared interests, in fact their interests are
opposite; the logger would see employment only if the tree is cut down, while the farmer
would see employment only if the tree grows and bears fruit. Now let’s add the layer of
political power. Who owns the tree? Who has “the right” to cut it down and profit from it?
Would the logger, tribal member, environmentalist and scientist all agree on this matter of
ownership? Whose interests are served by the concept that nature can be owned at all? And
who is in the position to impose this concept on others? Who takes the idea of ownership
for granted and who doesn’t? What kind of resources, institutions, and larger groups are
behind each of these individuals and how do they influence whose interests will prevail?
Finally, how are these interests informed by the specific time and place in which they
occur? What’s considered valid scientific research today (from a Western perspective) is not
the same as what was considered valid in the past. So while a tree may be an objective,
factual, and real object that exists independently of humans, our understanding of it—and
thus our interaction with it—cannot be separated from the cultural context we are
currently embedded in. In other words, humans can only make meaning of the tree from
the cultural frameworks into which they have been socialized. And so it goes for history,
physics, and all fields studied in academia. Knowledge is always culturally informed and
thus cannot be value-neutral.
Many educators use the metaphor of a fish in water to capture the all-encompassing
dimensions of culture. A fish is born into water and so simply experiences the water as one
with itself; a fish has no way of knowing that it is actually separate from the water. And
although the fish is separate, it still cannot survive without water. In the same way that a
fish cannot live without water, we cannot make sense of the world without the meaningmaking system that our culture provides. Yet this system is hard to see because we have
always been “swimming” within it; we just take for granted that what we see is real, rather
than a particular perception of reality. For these reasons, social justice educators name our
positionality (the currents and waters we swim in) in order to make the socially constructed
nature of knowledge visible and to challenge the claim that any knowledge is neutral. Yet
ironically, that naming is often used to reinforce the idea that social justice content and
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