In this reflection, I consider my own experiences with multicultural literature in the classroom and argue why representative literature is a necessary component of equitable instruction.
“What if the goal of teaching and learning with youth of color was not ultimately to see how closely students could perform White middle-class norms, but rather was to explore, honor, extend, and, at times problematize their cultural practices and investments?”
-Alim and Paris (2017) as cited in Rodríguez (2019, p. 63).
In Gender and Sexuality in Young Adult Literature, Rodríguez (2019) not only poses Alim and Paris’s question but extends it, asking educators to consider what would happen if they let students “Othered” in all manners explore facets of their culture and identities in the classroom. This “what if” has been weighing on my mind the more I observe the “what is” in high school classrooms. For instance, last Friday my mentor teacher expertly navigated asking his students to check their work for Standard American English (SAE) conventions while also letting them know that SAE is not an inherently more “academic” or “intelligent” language or language variant. As I was listening to him follow Ladson-Billing’s (1996) advice, to give the students the tools they needed to navigate and dismantle the oppressive system of academia, I was both grateful we were taking a moment to critically analyze SAE and sad we were missing a moment to carefully examine the linguistic assets the students brought into the classroom.
The question and lesson remind me of a conversation I had years ago with my own high school teacher about the lack of multi-cultural literature in a class devoted to critical literacy. She was upset about the fact that the school denied her permission to order new books because the students could critically examine the texts in the Western literary canon.
Thinking about the way we unpacked Orwell’s 1984, I asked her, confused, “Is that not true?”
“We can critically examine them,” she said, “but there is so much we are leaving unexamined.”
I didn’t understand the truth of my teacher’s words until I took a college-level Chicanx Literature course. There, I not only experienced but examined texts that did not “mirror realities” (hooks, 1991, p. 57) or worlds that I knew. One of the texts that I discovered was Alex Espinoza’s Still Water Saints. The book follows a group of characters in a predominately Latinx and Mexican-American town. They all seek the help of Perla, a curandero at the Botánica Oshún healing shop. hooks (1991) defines critical fictions as texts that “radically subvert and and challenge dominate discourses” (p. 58). Still Water Saints explores how ideologies of Whiteness and Colonization create social stratification within a community of marginalized people. For instance, describing her more-revealing clothes, Espinoza’s (2007) character Azúcar says, “I’ve seen the way some women stare at me while I wait with them at the bus stop, the way they roll their eyes, hiding their mouths behind their hands and whispering in Spanish because they think I don’t speak it” (p. 90). Azúcar is describing the effect of the fact that, in order to promote Catholicism and justify imperialism and sexual violence against Indigenous females, colonial institutions structured the “[i]mage of the Spanish women and Marianismo” on one side of a binary opposing the Indigenous “puta” …who left tradition and passive dependency behind” for a “different cultural and economic role” (NietoGomez, 1997, p. 50). The “othering” Azúcar experiences on the bus comes from the lips of women who are also an “Other” to the white subject. The fact that both she and the women on the bus express antagonism against each other because they perceive themselves as being on opposite sides of a binary that colonization established shows the trauma that hegemony causes.
Importantly, the text also deconstructs the “Virgen”/ “puta” binary by giving Azúcar virginal qualities. For example, there is something “virginal” about her job as dancing as “a cabaret dancer” with “music and costumes,” because she is preforming for “men [who] come to the club to drink” (Espinoza, 2007, p. 93). NietoGomez (1997) notes that “virgin” figures are “expected to tolerate the man’s right to use his sexual freedom,” which Azúcar does each night she walks onstage to a crowd of “whistles and claps” from men (Espinoza, 2007, p. 95). Even more so, she plays La Virgen in her dancing act. She says she has “been doing Madonna forever” (Espinoza, 2007, p.93). At one point, she remembers she “ha[s] to buy a rosary” for her “performance” (Espinoza, 2007, p. 97). Each night onstage, Azúcar’s identity is in a continual negotiation between “virgin” and “puta.” By challenging the distinction between these concepts, Azúcar displays the fluidity of identities and challenges the idea that two ways of being inherently oppose each other. She disrupts the logic of hegemony.
After reading stories like Still Water Saints , after letting these women expand my imagination, I realized why representation is so essential in the classroom. In my English 11 class, I had the privilege of reading and critically analyzing books like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which helped me understand how culture constructed the female role I felt I had to fill. The students in my class who grew up hearing different stories and myths than I did never had the opportunity to, in a “core” course, explore their cultural practices and investments in the way that I, as a White student, had space to do. As Yosso (2005) notes, “racism, sexism and classism are experienced amidst other layers of subordination based on immigration status, sexuality, culture, phenotype, accent and surname” (p. 72). While it is true that “[t]he “classics” are not inherently oppressive: They can be useful in an anti-oppressive lesson if teachers ask questions about the ways they reinforce the privileges of only certain experiences and perspectives,” (Kumashiro, 2004, p. 77), teachers must recognize the ways that examining oppression through White, cis-gender narratives with heterosexual, able-bodied characters limits the lengths to which we can understand marginalization. As Yosso (2005) writes, “oppression in the law and society [cannot] be fully understood in terms of only Black and White” (p. 72). Students need the opportunity to explore how concepts like Whiteness fracture relations in communities of color, how they encourage stratification of privilege within already marginalized groups of people identifying as the same race, gender, or sexual orientation. These structures not only shape their identities, senses of safety, and abilities to survive but are necessary to understand and access if they want to disrupt them.
I wonder how many students truly believed their teacher’s claim that the linguistic assets they brought into the classroom were just as “academic” as the grammar they were learning to use. I wonder how many flags for revision it will take for them to question or forget it. I wonder “what if” the students had a chance to read literature written in the language variants they used? What if they critically analyzed this language to see that it has structures, rules, and patterns of usage as equally sophisticated and intelligent as Standard American English? To deconstruct the binaries that order our society, we need to prove the fallacy of the opposition, that one side is not lacking what the other has. We cannot do this without studying the concepts on both sides, critically analyzing them as ideological constructs that have no real core, yet do real work in the shaping of our world. This is why narratives by and about the voices that society has relegated to the margins are necessary in the classroom. They are a valuable tool in our quest to better understand the lives we experience.
Espinoza, A. (2007). Still water saints: A novel. New York: Random House.
hooks, b. (1991). Narratives of struggle. In Critical fictions: The politics of imaginative writing (pp. 53-61). Seattle, WA: Bay Press.
Kumashiro, K. (2015). Examples from English literature. In Against common sense (pp. 71-78). Routledge.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). Yes, but how do we do it? Practicing culturally relevant pedagogy. In White teachers/diverse classrooms: A guide to building inclusive schools, promoting high expectations, and eliminating racism (pp. 29-42). Stylus publishing.
NietoGomez, A. (2007). La Chicana—Legacy of suffering and self-denial. In Garcia A. M. (Ed) Chicana feminist thought: The basic historical writings (pp. 48-50). New York, NY: Routledge.
Rodríguez, R. J. (2019). Teaching culturally sustaining and inclusive young adult literature: Critical perspective and conversations. New York, NY: Routledge.
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, race ethnicity and education. 8(1), 66-91. DOI 10.1090/1361332052000341006.