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Classroom Violence

By: Grace Vargas
July 15, 2016

I believe that instead of being nurturing environments, exhibiting the kind of nurture that can help our communities heal, many of our classrooms unfortunately, become spaces of epistemic violence.

On the heels of a tragically bloody week (#AltonSterling #PhilandoCastile #Dallas), I sit down to share the second installment of my thoughts on diversity in the classroom. It doesn’t take the events of last week to make it difficult for me to write on the topic because even on ordinary days (if those actually exist) whatever I feel led to say smacks of being trite. It feels like it has been said a hundred times and like myself and others are shouting out into an abyss with only the deafening sound of our echo as a response. I know many of you can relate to the frustration, discouragement, and outright rage that brings.

Over the last few days, many individuals in media interviews and public forums have suggested that there is a link between the problems that plague communities of color and the fact that high school drop-out rates in those communities are high. The argument does not consider the data, which indicates that high school drop-out rates for students of color have declined, but also the significant increase in college enrollment rates. What the argument also fails to recognize is how the classroom can also be a place of violence for marginalized minds and bodies.

As I prepare to enter my second year of doctoral work in religious studies, I was grateful to have some opportunities for reflection and reinvigoration this summer at two gatherings hosted by FTE and the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI), two invaluable organizations that support me, and students like me, in the academy. For me, the spaces these events provide have helped ease some of the hostility I feel in the classroom where perspectives that fall outside of the Western Eurocentric canon are often unequally represented, if at all.

Personally, I have struggled with feeling the burden of having to consistently raise awareness of these absent perspectives and their contributions.

A canon is a body of literature determined to be authoritative on any given subject. What is important to understand about canons is that they are collated, voted upon, and strategically chosen to regulate knowledge. Thus, the curation and transmission of knowledge becomes a political act and, as a result, also entails a moral responsibility. When canons are curated and taught without regard for how they marginalize other experiences, and/or as if they emerged in a vacuum, they exact violence and become morally bankrupt.

It is not news that this kind of violence is not just happening at the level of higher education in this country, but also at the level of primary and secondary education where it becomes even more hostile because students have not yet gained the intellectual tools to fight back. I believe that instead of being nurturing environments, exhibiting the kind of nurture that can help our communities heal, many of our classrooms unfortunately, become spaces of epistemic violence. Our classrooms become spaces where students of color are inundated with corrosive narratives about themselves and their ancestors in the best of cases (at least a false narrative can be refuted), or in the worst of cases, rendered invisible. In this scenario, bolstered by white supremacy, no one wins because white students are either given inaccurate or incomplete information or are taught (whether explicitly or implicitly) to fear, distrust, or dismiss their fellow students.

I wonder, might not this epistemic violence in the classrooms of our nation translate into violence in our streets?

Does constantly fighting to be heard, to be seen, to be acknowledged, inevitably lead us to a culture where fighting is the only way for people of color to operate because fighting means survival? These are certainly not new questions but given the resurgence of the old argument that education is the way forward, I feel the need to raise them again.

We cannot underestimate the role epistemic violence plays in our communities and it must lead us to re-evaluate and even dismantle our canons. We fear what we do not know and/or what we have been taught to fear. Which leads me to wonder, when will we build, vote upon, and employ a new set of canons?

Tags: Diverse Solutions, Thinking Out Loud


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