In his For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin confronts “classroom colonialism” (p. 14), and clarifies earlier in his Preface:
What I am suggesting is that it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color….
I argue that there must be a concerted effort…to challenge the “white folks’ pedagogy” that is being practiced by teachers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. (pp. viii-ix)
Among K-12 educators and the general public, terms such as “colonialism,” “critical pedagogy,” and even “racism” may seem merely academic—ideas teased out among scholars in their ivory towers. However, as Emdin carefully details and interrogates, vulnerable populations of students (mostly black, brown, and poor) as well as the teachers charged with serving those students experience daily the realities of “white folks’ pedagogy” that demands assimilation and compliance from those students.
For vulnerable populations of students, formal schooling at the K-12 levels, Emdin argues, is stunningly similar to “[t]he Carlisle School [that] employed a militaristic approach to ‘helping’ the Indigenous Americans assimilate to the white norm” (p. 4). Then and now, many educators participating in education-as-assimilation were and are motivated by good intentions (consider Teach For America core members today).
Emdin focuses his work on how all educators (including white folks who teach in the hood) should reconsider their views of race and social class while teaching the “neoindigenous,” his term for students of color and living in poverty who are currently the target of re-segregation in “no excuses” charter schools.
For White Folks arrives as more voices are pushing against education reform that claims to serve vulnerable populations while mis-serving them. Zoé Samudzi argues We Need A Decolonized, Not A “Diverse”, Education because “diversity agendas are hindrances rather than stepping stones to justice and equity.” And Joanne Golann explains about her extensive research embedded at a “no excuses” charter serving mostly black and poor students:
In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.
Golann also makes connections similar to Emdin’s:
Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating *worker-learners* to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.
At the core of Emdin’s experiences as a student of color, a teacher of color, and a scholar as well as teacher educator is his antidote to the failures of both traditional education and the recent thirty years of education reform, reality pedagogy:
Reality pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goals of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf. It focuses on making the local experiences of the student visible and creating contexts where there is a role reversal of sorts that positions the student as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning, and the teacher as the learner. (p. 27)
Echoing and refining Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy concepts of teacher-student and student-teacher, Emdin carefully walks the reader through his own journey to embracing and practicing reality pedagogy while detailing in very concrete ways what this looks like in real classrooms with real students and teachers.
I could argue that Emdin’s book is a wonderful critical pedagogy primer, and that could mislead you into thinking his is just more of the “merely academic”—but this book certainly is not that.
This recommendation and review cannot adequately cover everything Emdin accomplishes—and I really don’t want to take away from educators and anyone who cares about education and children, especially vulnerable populations of children, reading carefully Emdin’s own words—but I want to highlight a few key reasons to consider carefully For White Folks:
- First, Emdin’s reality pedagogy is both a call for embracing culturally relevant education with the neoindigenous and a powerful argument for the essential elements of how all teachers should teach all students.
- This book in total is an outstanding entry point to confronting stereotypes about race and class while also stepping away from deficit perspectives about neoindigenous students as well as teaching and learning in general.
- Emdin speaks to a possible revolution in education that rejects accountability built on standards and high-stakes tests in order to embrace holding everyone responsible for teaching children; this is about authentic and challenging student-centered education in the name of individual and community liberation.
- Reality pedagogy seeks ways in which students and their teachers can form a classroom and school cosmopolitanism that is unlike the inequities of their surrounding communities, states, and country: “cosmopolitanism is an approach to teaching that focuses on fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (p. 105).
- The many practical aspects of Emdin’s work forces teachers to reconsider daily practice with the neoindigenous and all students: instruction, content, evidence of student learning, technology, pop culture, and social media. I could also say this is a great methods primer, but again, that could be misleading.
Emdin’s For White Folks is often a confessional memoir in which Emdin speaks to his own experiences as a black male student rendered invisible, but who became an agent of “white folks’ pedagogy” when he began to teach. Much of this book is about his transformation that has become teacher education and teaching as activism—activism in the name of neoindigenous and all students.
In his brief conclusion, Emdin shares his own touchstones for teaching, and in one he strikes a note we cannot, we must not ignore:
The way that a teacher teaches can be traced directly back to the way that the teacher has been taught. The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student [bold emphasis added]. (p. 206)
Recommended Companion Texts
Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Teachers College Press, 2013), Paul Gorski
You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn
NOTE: As I read, I found myself stuck at the beginning of Chapter 1 because my copy of For White Folk is an early printing that names the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as Bigger Thomas, who is actually the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son. After I posted about Emdin’s book on the NCTE Connected Community, I heard from another ELA teacher concerned about the error. I reached out to Emdin, who explained this was an editorial error to be corrected in newer printings. Please don’t let this mistake distract from Emdin’s great work and scholarship.
4 thoughts on “Christopher Emdin Confronts “White Folks’ Pedagogy”: “whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student””
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A student in my class just borrowed my brand new copy of this book. I hope he finishes it quickly, so I can read it soon. I wondered if it might be too difficult for independent undergraduate reading, but your comments indicate he will be able to make connections to other course content and gain new insights from this book. Thanks!
This is a good essay. I would appreciate more specific recommendations about how to make our classes more sensitive to all students’ needs.
Best wishes for the spring!
Janet Ruth Heller
Author of the poetry books Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011), the scholarly book Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990), the award-winning book for kids about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), and the middle-grade book for kids The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015).
My website is http://www.janetruthheller.com/