Several years ago, one of the authors got his first job as a
university-level instructor. He taught a teacher education social
foundations course at a large public university in Los Angeles. Having
been immersed in the canon of critical pedagogy, he devised a syllabus
that was based almost exclusively on critical pedagogy readings. His
intention was to engage students in a critical examination of the role
schooling plays in reproducing hegemony. He met much resistance and
outright anger from many of the students in the class.
This type of experience is not uncommon for those teaching critical
pedagogy in the U.S.
Looking deeper at the specificities of the resistance, he noticed a
disturbing pattern. Approximately half of the class, consisting mostly
of White students and a few students of color, hated the critical
pedagogy literature. And the other half, consisting mostly of people of
color and a few White students, expressed that they felt empowered by
the literature. It struck him that something very different had happened
in the way that Whites in particular interpreted and valued critical
pedagogy. Plus, he was disturbed that those who hated it were mostly
White emergency credential teachers who taught mostly students of color.
Yet the only critical curricular tool the author had available was
critical pedagogy. He wondered, "Are there limits to critical
pedagogy? Is there some other discourse or pedagogy that can make more
progress in transforming White consciousness and forming alliances among
both oppressor and oppressed?"
Over the last few years, both authors have found keys to
transforming White consciousness through an examination of the
relationship between critical multiculturalism and critical pedagogy.
Those who teach multiculturalism in teacher education programs
constantly struggle with "sensitizing" prospective teachers to
the ways in which power and privilege contextualize daily interactions
in schools. Historically, multicultural education for teachers, at least
in its more critical forms, has emphasized building an awareness of the
unearned disempowerment of students who are members of oppressed groups
(e.g., Sleeter, 1996). But more recently, there is a growing trend
towards exposing and abolishing the unearned empowerment of the
oppressor. This newly systematized pedagogy calls for examining the
identity formations of those from privileged groups (e.g., Tatum, 1997).
It represents a form of critical multiculturalism that seeks to move
those who consciously or unconsciously surveil the hegemony of the
oppressor from their comfortable, "neutral" place towards a
transformed and deliberate monitoring of a type of social justice that
is in alliance with the oppressed (Allen, 2005). For example, the
growing movement of critical Whiteness studies has been a valuable
resource for critical multicultural education. Many more multicultural
educators are now engaging White teachers in an examination of their
White privilege in an attempt to motivate them to battle white racism
through their teaching.
However, this is easier said than done. Multicultural educators
whose pedagogy directly challenges systemic privilege (e.g., White
privilege, male privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege,
etc.) often encounter heated opposition from students who act as
representatives of the (relative) oppressor group. Along the way, many,
if not most, multicultural educators go through a range of emotions when
dealing with classroom hostilities. Some become angry or depressed, or
may even become fearful of retaliation from students who are uncritical
about their unearned sense of entitlement. Some of these educators
decide that it is just too draining to engage privileged students. Still
others rationalize their disengagement from challenging power by stating
that privileged students do not deserve to have their concerns dictate
the classroom discussion. In some cases, we empathize with these
stances, particularly when they come from educators who are members of
But some multicultural educators feel that despite the tremendous
struggle it is important to not give up on these students since they
will someday be classroom teachers, if they are not already. In urban
areas, the students of these prospective teachers will most likely be
people of color or other members of oppressed groups. And these students
do not have the privilege of not dealing with teachers from dominant
groups who are oblivious to the realities of oppression and the
processes for achieving a "positive" group identity. Or, the
students of these prospective teachers might be members of an oppressor,
not an oppressed, group (e.g., suburban White students). Who will
challenge their ideological formations? Who will teach them about the
need for social justice? If members of oppressor groups do not take up
this cause in the classroom, we argue that changing the role that
schooling plays in reproducing the social order will be that much more
In this article, we examine the limitations of critical pedagogy,
as commonly conceptualized in U.S. multicultural and social foundations
fields. What we have concluded is that there is a definite need to
re-invent critical pedagogy for its implementation in the more
privileged spaces of U.S. teacher education programs.
In order for critical pedagogy to bring about wide-scale
transformation of social inequalities in the U.S., it must be
re-envisioned, at least in part, around inquiries into the identity
formations of those in oppressor groups. It must also be more willing to
embrace the empowerment found in the development of positive identities
for those in oppressor groups. In general, these positive identities
should be ideologically consistent in their commitment to social justice
for all oppressed groups.
Thinking about critical pedagogy, part of the problem in applying
it to the U.S. context is that its major founder, Paulo Freire, wrote
Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/1993) as a means of empowering oppressed
Brazilians (as well as other oppressed people in the poorest parts of
the world). But even though oppression is an overwhelming reality in
both countries, the U.S. reality is different from that of Brazil. In
the U.S., most live a relatively privileged life. It seems to us that
many U.S. educators working in higher education may be choosing to apply
critical pedagogy without fully considering the specificities of the
U.S. social context. Namely, that the students in U.S. teacher education
classrooms, especially those who are White and middle or upper class,
are some of the most privileged humans to have ever lived in the history
of humankind. Yet many of them believe that they are just
"normal" humans or, amazingly enough, victims of "reverse
Thus, our central question is, "Should critical pedagogy be
used with U.S. middle- or upper-class White students without any
significant changes in the theory of critical pedagogy itself?" We
believe that the answer is "No," and a sympathetic critique of
critical pedagogy is called for. Our goal in this article is to outline
a refinement of critical pedagogy that deals more explicitly with
students from oppressor groups and, to a lesser extent, those in
oppressed groups who have internalized the discourse of the oppressor.
Constructing the "Oppressor Student" in Critical Pedagogy
An oppressor student is a student who is a member of an oppressor
group (White, male, middle- or upper-class, etc.) and a benefactor of
oppressor group membership. Since oppression is a structural phenomenon,
no individual person can escape their location as the oppressor any more
than no individual person can escape their location as the oppressed.
These changes can only occur at a societal level. Even the most radical
White student, for example, is an oppressor because they still benefit
(relative to people of color) from the social context of Whiteness.
While it may be difficult for well-intentioned people to accept
themselves as the oppressor, moving beyond denial is a key first step
towards building a humanizing social order (Freire, 1970/1993). As White
men, the authors accept the fact that we are the oppressors relative to
most humans. One could say we are "oppressor educators." This
does not make us bad people, and the intention is not to build
stereotypes. Rather, it locates us in a hierarchical system of
oppression and reminds us that regardless of good intentions we need to
work at learning how to play an effective and positive role in ending
oppression given our privileged statuses.
Over the last few years, we have had numerous conversations with
other critical educators about the difficulty of teaching oppressor
students. Granted, our evidence is anecdotal at this point. However, we
have strong reason to believe that it seems as though oppressor students
exhibit common patterns of behavior in critical classrooms. When they
are immersed in a sustained examination of the particular form of
hegemony that gives them their unearned privilege, the oppressor student
many times does poorly on class assignments, both in terms of
understanding the concepts or critiques and completing assignments in a
full and timely manner. Some even drop the class. Also, they seem to
resist deeper readings of critical reading materials, if they read at
all. It is as if they have a difficult time "hearing" those
they read. Moreover, they consistently deny the existence of the
structured, oppressive realities that are the social inheritance of the
oppressed. Thus, these students have a difficult time understanding why
they as (future) educators need to focus on social justice. They hold on
to individualistic educational psychologies that privilege positivistic
learning techniques or non-critical strategies of self-actualization and
"higher-order" thinking skills. They often seem to not
understand, or not want to understand, why members of oppressed groups
do not simply assimilate to the normative order, and they feel that they
have "accommodated" the oppressed as much as they are willing
to. They exhibit a multiplicity of behaviors and discourses in attempts
to distance themselves from self-reflection, whether at a personal or
group definition of "self."
Within this type of classroom scenario, it is easy to understand
how an educator would doubt whether critical pedagogy works with
oppressor students. The frustrated educator might even begin to struggle
in their own mind as to whether they should be more accommodating to the
oppressor student. "Should I make the reading assignments shorter
and more politically neutral?" "Should I tone down the
critiques I make of structural oppression, the oppressor, and hegemonic
ideologies?" "Should my lessons on multiculturalism make
oppressor students feel more comfortable or should I persist in
'speaking truth to power'?" Critical pedagogy seems to
have provided critical educators with few answers for dealing with the
concrete problem of power and privilege in U.S. classrooms
We believe that to adequately outline critical pedagogy's lack
of focus on the oppressor student, we must begin with an analysis of how
critical pedagogy constructs the image of its central character: the
oppressed student. Historically speaking, critical pedagogy has paid
close attention to the oppressed student. And rightfully so. It is the
oppressed who are traumatized by the institutional oppression endemic to
our educational systems. The oppressed student is discursively the
binary opposite of the oppressor student in that you cannot have an
oppressed without an oppressor. As such, they are defined in opposition
to one another; one is what the other is not and vice versa. Critical
pedagogy is premised on the notion of the oppressed student as the
idealized subject whose empowerment must take precedence in evaluating,
devising, practicing, and imagining schooling. Placing the oppressed
student at the center of analysis and action also puts politics at the
center of schooling and pedagogy. In the critical pedagogy view, no
longer are students a universal human being that can be abstracted and
idealized, as they are in traditional or mainstream pedagogies. Instead,
they are members of oppressed groups (and those not in the oppressed
group are by definition in the oppressor group).
In critical pedagogy, the oppressed student's experience of
living as an objectified and dehumanized being becomes the critical
focal point for learning in the classroom. The oppressed student is seen
as being close to the experience of oppressive social structures, giving
them a degree of epistemological authority. The familiarity of systemic
oppression provides the motivation to gain not just the skills to
"read the word" but also to "read the world" (Freire
& Macedo, 1987). That is to say, the curriculum espoused by critical
pedagogist combines traditional literacy skills with the project of
developing a collective consciousness about the oppressive nature of
social and cultural institutions (Freire, 1969/1973). This intimacy with
oppression is seen as a source of knowledge that can be developed into a
critical literacy experience that empowers students to challenge how
they are represented and transform the institutions that maintain the
No one in critical pedagogy has made the argument for the
educational self-determination of the oppressed better than Paulo
Freire. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire (1970/1993) describes a
philosophy of education and liberation, arguing that the oppressed must
challenge that which oppresses them without becoming like the
oppressors. The role of the oppressor is central to his construction of
a pedagogy of the oppressed (Allen, 2005). For example, he states that
the violence of the oppressors makes them dehumanized. The oppressed
should not desire to internalize the violence of the oppressors in their
struggle to overthrow that which dehumanizes them. If the oppressed
become like the oppressor, both are dehumanized. In the struggle to
overcome oppression, the oppressed must restore humanity to all because
the oppressor is usually not in a position to do so. Therefore, the
humanistic duty of the oppressed is to liberate themselves and the
oppressors. Freire suggests that the oppressed must be guided by a
"radical love" for all humanity so that they do not turn out
like the oppressor, who is full of fear and hate.
However, there are persistent and troubling obstacles in critical
pedagogy classrooms that inhibit the construction of critical and
collective consciousnesses. One of the pedagogical struggles often
articulated by critical pedagogists is that the oppressed student does
not always understand the ways in which oppression has become part of
their everyday lives (Giroux, 1983). In fact, the oppressed student
might not even believe that they are oppressed. The oppressed student,
as a member of an oppressed group, may exhibit thoughts and behaviors
that are consensual with their own oppression. Their subjective and
ideological formations have been colonized by oppressing, hegemonic
discourses (McLaren, 1994).
Take for example the case of Cuban-American students in one
author's classroom. During an exercise called "The Vocabulary
of Images," the students were asked to use photographs from
magazines to express their identity. It seemed that the majority of
these students identified themselves as White and/or Hispanic but not
Latina/o. This choice of identity signifiers is interesting. They seemed
to desire an association with a European heritage, whether that was with
a more Northern European signifier like "White" or the more
Iberian-oriented signifier of "Hispanic." There seemed to be
an almost complete denial of a possible Mestizo identity, which the term
"Latina/o" is more likely to signify. There was almost no
reference to their potential indigenous and African ancestry (although
it is possible that a few did have solely European ancestry). Instead,
they opted for the "racial purity" of the Hispanic White.
There was a strong disassociation with any group that symbolized darker
This phenomenon may be perceived as odd as some scholars would
argue that Cuban Americans are Latina/o. Nevertheless, new studies such
as the one done by Maria del Carmen Cano (as cited by Robinson, 2000)
reveals and exposes the history of racism in Cuba where darker skin
color has as a consequence social injustice. The oppressor identities of
many of the Cuban exiles have deep historical roots in the enslavement
of Africans. In fact, their racial ideologies are rather consistent with
those of other lighter-skinned people in Latin America (Adams, 2001;
Allen, 2001; Skidmore, 1990; Wade, 1993). The larger irony of this
situation is that White Americans do not think of Cuban Americans as
either White or European. This was evidenced during the Elian Gonzalez
spectacle. Right-wing Cuban Americans believed that they were
"mainstream" until they saw the nation's general response
to their claims of injustice. White America basically saw them as just
one more group of "ungrateful Latino immigrants" and not as
fellow Whites or Europeans. Rather than forming radical alliances with
other Latino groups in fighting White supremacy, many Cuban Americans in
South Florida have instead chosen to identify with Europe and Whiteness
in an attempt to gain political support for their attempt to re-colonize
When students demonstrate a "colonized mentality" (Fanon,
1952/1967), critical pedagogy has traditionally suggested that the
teacher should construct an educational experience that engages the
oppressed in a critical examination of their social location within the
totality of the hierarchical social structure in question. Crucial to
this pedagogical theory is the notion that dialogical conflict provides
a means to develop a critical consciousness of the oppressed
student's place and role in the perpetuation of an oppressive
social structure. For instance, Freire (1970/1993) asserts that a
contradiction of identity exists in that the oppressed have an
internalized duality of consciousness. Being "themselves" is
in contradiction with being like the oppressor. Within the territory of
the oppressor, there are tremendous social forces that cause the
oppressed to internalize the model of the oppressor. Thus, the
liberation of this contradiction is a painful process where the
oppressed deconstruct the world of oppression by transforming their
realities through a liberating and humanistic pedagogical experience.
This experience is not an individualistic experience but a collective
one that calls them to become agents of their own history.
The political project of critical pedagogy is a redefinition of
education and literacy as a means for political unification among the
oppressed, with the ultimate goal being social transformation. But what
is meant by "social transformation" in critical pedagogy? By
what political process should this social transformation occur? Our
reading of critical pedagogy is that the primary vision of social
transformation is that of a revolution by the oppressed. In other words,
the oppressed should not wait for the oppressor to change, and they
should liberate themselves. We do not necessarily believe that most
critical pedagogists are directly calling for armed revolutions by the
oppressed and their allies. However, we do believe that armed revolution
is an assumed feature of the vision of critical pedagogy as those in our
field do little to thwart thoughts of armed revolt in our discourse.
Although armed revolution probably should not automatically be the first
choice, it is an exercise in privilege to tell those who are being
systematically killed that they should use more peaceful strategies to
humanize the oppressor.
We also believe that the discourse-practices of critical pedagogy
typically support social movements, such as the U.S. Civil Rights
Movement. When critical pedagogists speak of social action, we assume
that social movements are a primary option. Social movements differ from
revolutions in their appeals to the oppressor. Social movements play on
the moral sensibilities of the oppressors in the hope that they will
change the cultural, institutional, and legal practices that are already
in place in, say, a nation-state. Revolutions, by definition, seek to
create a new nationstate by usurping the governmental power of the
oppressor. The main strategy is not to appeal to the moral sensibilities
of the oppressor. The oppressor's capacity to stop oppressing in an
expedient manner is much more hopeless in a revolutionary perspective.
And that can often be an accurate assessment. In sum, the political
course of social transformation being promoted by critical pedagogy
varies. However, critical pedagogy discourse provides the chance to
discuss the dialectics between armed and cultural revolutions. Moreover,
the larger point is that constructions of the characteristics of the
oppressors are ever-present in discussions about how to deal with them,
whether the discourse explicitly mentions them or not. In other words,
one cannot debate the options of armed versus cultural revolutions
without discussing the characteristics of oppressors.
How is the oppressor student represented in the critical pedagogy
paradigm? This is much more difficult to describe because the
experiences and concerns of the oppressed student are the primary focus.
After all, the intent is to de-center the knowledge legitimated by
oppressors through their ideological apparatuses (Althusser, 1971). We
do believe, though, that there is an implied pedagogy for the oppressor
in critical pedagogy discourse. Students from the oppressor group are to
be engaged in a pedagogy that challenges them to gain a consciousness of
how they contribute to hegemony. They are asked to form a critical
consciousness of how society and schools function to reproduce social
inequality through cultural and institutional processes. And above all,
they are asked to intervene in hegemonic constructions on behalf of the
oppressed and challenge members of their own group. The oppressor
student is asked to align with the oppressed in acts of social
transformation that are revolutionary and democratic.
In fact, some believe that the oppressor is oppressed, that indeed
we are all oppressed. For instance, some say that the oppressor is
"oppressed" by his/her unfounded fear of the Other and lives
their life seeking to create a comfortable place away from those they
fear. However, this notion goes too far. If everyone is oppressed, then
the term "oppressed" loses its value in naming a different
type of human experience. Freire (1970/1993) clarifies this issue by
saying that the oppressor is dehumanized but not oppressed. More
importantly, critical pedagogy discourse tends to hold out little hope
for the majority of oppressors to move past their dehumanizing ways and
take up radical causes. For example, Freire (1970/1993) alludes to the
notion that the oppressors will not liberate other oppressors because
they enjoy a world of privilege. This implies that their sense of
morality will not motivate them to correct that which is socially unjust
because they are too invested in their dehumanizing situation. However,
Freire does show hope for some of the oppressors when he describes a
path for the "rebirth" of the oppressor (Allen, 2005). U.S.
critical pedagogy needs to pay more attention to this part of
From a cross-cultural perspective, the critical pedagogy paradigm
seems unsuited for privileged geographical and cultural contexts.
Remember that the emphasis in critical pedagogy is on experience that is
close to the most negative consequences of oppression. Critical
pedagogy, at least that derived from a Freirean lineage, was meant to
speak to poor Brazilians, other poor Latin Americans, and oppressed
groups in other extremely poor parts of the world. This version of
critical pedagogy may transfer well to inner-city classrooms in the
U.S., although little research has been done to provide much needed
evidence, support, and critique. But in U.S. teacher education programs,
most of the students are White and middle class, not to mention that
they come from hyper-segregated pockets of extreme wealth and power that
they tend to see as simply "normal." These students certainly
live in a different world and worldview than poor Brazilians and other
Latin Americans of color.
How do we use critical pedagogy with these privileged teacher
credential students when they have not lived close to the traumatizing
effects of, as well as daily struggles against, colonization and
structural oppression? Should we base instruction primarily on their
experiences when their lives are so detached from the realities of the
oppressed? Maybe we could focus on the relative oppressions that they
have experienced. For example, many teachers-to-be are women. So could
we not emphasize gender as a totality of structural oppression? But will
White middle-class women, who comprise the vast majority of the U.S.
teacher workforce, necessarily translate their understandings of gender
oppression to racial and economic oppression? And what should a critical
educator do if their class consists of a large contingent of white
middle-class men? Our suggestion is that critical pedagogy needs to more
strongly emphasize the relational construction of identity for both
oppressed and oppressor students.
It is the tension around these social identities that most of us
meet head-on in our classrooms as we work towards the abolition of
hegemonic mechanisms like tracking and the hidden curriculum. We believe
that a more explicit theorization of the oppressor student that includes
the construction of their specific group identity and the reconstruction
of it towards a more positive counterhegemonic sense of individual-self,
group-self, and Other is needed.
The Undertheorization of the Oppressor Student in Critical Pedagogy
Due to the global scale of U.S. hegemony, U.S. political elites
dictate externally to countries around the world and internally to those
who are non-dominant how the economy should work and what counts as
legitimate knowledge (Spring, 1998). Thus, the project of developing a
critical consciousness of hegemony and oppression should be a
significant educational goal for educators of social studies teachers.
In addition, the development of consciousness should be ideologically
consistent across multiple totalities of oppression. Students should
understand that they can be simultaneously the oppressor within one
totality and the oppressed within another, and they should be concerned
about both their own oppression and their oppression of others (Collins,
2000; West, 1999). After all, we are all members of a group that has
more relative power and privilege than some other group. The difficulty
in practice is that people tend to be closer to a consciousness of their
oppressed identities than they are of their oppressor identities. For
example, in our experience working-class White men are more likely to
embrace a class-based critique of schooling than a race- or gender-based
one. The critical pedagogy literature provides little information on how
to teach working-class White men in the U.S. about their complicity with
the oppression of women and people of color.
Critical pedagogy's undertheorization of students representing
oppressor groups represents a hidden hopelessness. If critical pedagogy
made a shift toward paying theoretical and practical attention to
oppressor students, then it must coincide with a new belief in the
possibility that oppressor students can change and that their
transformation is a major component of counterhegemonic projects (Allen,
in press). In part, critical pedagogy's undertheorization of the
oppressor student is due to its political project of developing a
collective sense of agency among the oppressed as a means of revolution
and self-determination. However, as discussed earlier, political
revolution is not the only type of radical political vision that the
oppressed consider and use.
In some social contexts, the political option of revolution might
not be an immediately viable strategy. For example, revolutions by
slaves in the Americas occurred more frequently in colonies and/or
nations where those who were enslaved outnumbered the oppressor (e.g.,
1804 Haitian Revolution). However, in the U.S. the construction of an
enormous white polity violently opposed to Black integration and/or
self-determination has long dampened the prospects an African-American
armed revolution (Du Bois, 1935). Instead of revolution, the oppressed
and their allies have more often opted for non-violent means of social
change, such as that practiced during the Civil Rights Movement or the
Women's Movement. In a social or civil rights movement, there is
still a need to develop a collective, unified agency among the
oppressed. But unlike the vision of armed revolution, there is an
essential appeal to the moral sensibilities of the oppressors in order
to bring about social and legal change within the existing nation-state.
We argue that critical pedagogy and critical educators should take
another look at the social movement perspective. The issue of
transforming the oppressor, at least strategically and contingently for
the purpose of civil rights campaigns in the U.S., should be a more
central focus, although as Bell (1992) points out this option has many
limitations. The strategy would be to influence the perspectives,
ideologies, and behaviors of enough members of powerful and privileged
identity groups so that new institutional and legal policies would be
enacted. The contingency would be that this strategy would have to
produce tangible results in transforming the systems of inequality
addressed, or else a new strategy would need to be adopted. And in the
face of structural oppression, failure is likely. But failing to try is
worse (Bell, 1992).
Critical pedagogists need to re-examine their root strategy for
teaching for social justice. While the skill and charisma of critical
pedagogists are factors on an individual level, our assumption is that
critical pedagogists are no more or no less skilled and charismatic than
other types of educators. At some point, we have to consider that the
possibility that the content of our "critical" curriculum and
its inherent assumptions might be the problem (Allen, 2005). The
authors' very anecdotal evidence suggests that privileged students
are seldom transformed by the typical critical pedagogy literature.
Certainly, some do change, but too often the attraction of even these
students to critical pedagogy is that it shows them how they have been
oppressed, thus allowing them to avoid a significant interrogation of
how they contribute to the oppression of others. Their investment in
specific, concrete, and privileged social identities, such as Whiteness,
Although less common, another possible reaction to critical
pedagogy literature is that students from oppressor groups do believe
that the literature and classroom discussions have changed their
understanding of their role as the oppressor in a system of hegemony.
Yet they still think and act in ways that do little to serve as a
meaningful intervention into the system of privileges that they benefit
from on a daily basis. Primarily, this is because critical pedagogy
texts often stay at the level of metatheory on oppression and do not
deal extensively with the specificities of oppressive social identity
relationships (Ellsworth, 1989) the way that much critical
multiculturalism does (e.g., Tatum, 1997). Oppression is a social
construction that produces different kinds of experiences for the
oppressed and the oppressor. In a critical multiculturalism framework,
knowledge comes from the excavation of a particular oppressive
relationship. The oppressed learns how to resist the material and
representational consequences of oppression and transform its cultural
and institutional manifestation. The oppressor learns how their identity
has allowed them, or even required them, to develop purposeful
misunderstandings of themselves and the Other (Mills, 1997). Also, they
learn how to intervene as members of the oppressor group in systems that
give them unearned privilege and power (Allen, 2005).
We believe that strategically and contingently focusing on the
formation of the oppressor identity also addresses one of the major
hurdles of critical pedagogy, namely the internalization of oppression
by members of the oppressed group. When oppressed students engage in a
critique of the identity formation of the oppressor, their desire to
want to be like the oppressor dissolves with greater consistency. They
learn how the oppressor marshals resources to perpetuate their unearned
And when they see their classmates from oppressor groups change
before their eyes, it is difficult to hold on to an assimilationist,
fatalistic, or repressed identity (Rossatto, 2005). In both of our
classrooms, we have had numerous students of color who enter the course
with uncritical beliefs of the achievement ideology. Their
unproblematized belief in the meritocracy system leaves them critical of
others in their racial group who engage in radical political actions.
For example, many Mexican-American and Hispanic students who have
internalized White racism look down upon the Chicano movement. Through
interrogations of Whiteness and the transformation of Whites in the
classroom, these Mexican-American and Hispanic students often have a
change of consciousness. Many become more accepting and even more
politically committed to radicalized identities. They also gain an
understanding of how they have internalized the fears and
misunderstandings that Whites have of other people of color, especially
Blacks and Indians. The potential for coalitions that can arise out of
sustained critiques of oppressor identities is invigorating for those
who have lost hope in achieving an egalitarian society.
Thus, critical pedagogy's current theorization of the
oppressor student inhibits the development of social movements in the
U.S. because it fails to specifically address, critique, and transform
the identity politics of particular powerful groups, namely Whites and
men. To move beyond the current situation, what would a pedagogy that
strategically and contingently re-centers the oppressor student for the
purposes of transforming the oppressor-oppressed relationship look like?
Upon what premises would it be based?
Toward a Pedagogy for the Oppressor Student
Incorporating theories of identity from critical social psychology,
we propose a pedagogy for the oppressor that puts attempts to transform
the oppressor student at the center of the educational experience. The
main idea is that a critical consciousness of the lived experience of
the oppressed and the oppressor must be learned through direct
engagement with the particular system of oppression that is seen as most
immediately related to the oppressor-oppressed relation at hand
(Collins, 2000). It is often said that the oppressed have a "double
consciousness" in that they have to know how to negotiate both
their homeplace and the world of the oppressor (hooks, 1990). The
oppressor student needs to examine what the double consciousness of the
oppressed means for their own consciousness, or lack thereof. That is,
how has the oppressor's lack of awareness about double
consciousness formed structured blindness in their perception of
themselves and the world?
For example, in urban schools teachers are most likely to be White
and students are most likely to be people of color. In this scenario, a
critical pedagogical intervention can begin by examining schooling and
identity within the social context of Whiteness, as that is the most
obvious and historically compelling identity difference between teacher
and students. The White educator needs to be engaged in people of
color's representations of their double consciousnesses. They must
be engaged in critiques of how their lack of reflection on the double
consciousnesses of Others constructs problematic White racial
identities, and thus White-dominant social contexts. In the case of
Whiteness, we have found that books like Beverly Daniel Tatum's
(1997) "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the
Cafeteria?" and films like The Color of Fear and Ethnic Notions to
be good resources to begin challenging and transforming White
Contrary to popular belief, critical pedagogy is, or at least
should be, about more than direct political action; it is also
conceptually driven. In other words, students need to learn important
concepts, which can in turn enhance political action. One important
concept that needs to be more central to critical pedagogy is the notion
of identity. Identity is a social construction rather than a biological
fact, and it is a concrete experience rather than an abstraction. It is
learned through interactions in a world that we are inserted into at
birth. We learn who we are through our relationships with each other,
thus disintegrating our sense of being as a universal human being. Some
of us come to understand that our social reality makes us into
particular beings or members of identity groups. Critical social
psychology suggests that the oppressed are more likely than the
oppressor to learn that they are a particular, not a universal, being
because their interactions with the oppressor and their technologies of
surveillance, such as schools and the media, tells them that they are
not "normal." Through multiple micro--and macro--aggressions,
they learn that they are the "alien" or the "Other"
to what is constructed as the normal, dominant, or oppressor being.
Conversely, the oppressors do not have to think about how they are
surveilled in the domain of the oppressor because they are the
surveillers, whether they know it or not (Allen, 2002; Tatum, 1997).
This teaches them that they are normal or simply "human."
Thus, the oppressor rarely develops an articulated sense of their
specific experience as a member of a privileged group, unless it is an
identity that they have constructed for themselves in order to maintain
their oppressor status. Rarely would this identity be constructed in
alliance with the criticisms offered by members of the oppressed group.
For example, most Whites believe that they are nice, kind, caring, and
benevolent people who have worked hard to obtain their wealth and status
(Gallagher, 1997). They seem to have little consciousness of how many
people of color distrust and fear them (hooks, 1990). Also, they are
unaware, or repress awareness, of their day-to-day privileges, let alone
what was done historically to procure the privileges that come with
being White in a society built by White racism (Leonardo, 2005:
Our belief is that oppressors can neither come to the realization
that they are members of an oppressor group nor come to a problematized
understanding of their oppressor identity without a significant
emotional and cognitive experience. We are skeptical that mere
"safe" discourse is in any way effective in achieving the
radical transformation of the oppressor's consciousness that is
necessary in order to make placing the oppressor student at the center
of pedagogy a worthwhile endeavor. In our notion of a pedagogy for the
oppressor, being in "the center" is more like being in the
"hot seat" or being the spectacle of oppression that serves as
the focus of inquiry and critique. The oppressor student must be
confronted with a systematic and persistent deconstruction of their
privileged identity, and, above all, they must be in an educational
context where they are a part of, but not in control of, the classroom
discourse. Some critical pedagogists may feel that this is a
paternalistic approach to teaching. However, we should not confuse the
pedagogy for the oppressor with the pedagogy of the oppressed. Freire
(1970/1993) is instructive when he says,
The specific content of their deconstruction should be located
within the critical multicultural discourse that is in question, whether
that is Whiteness, patriarchy, capitalism, or intersecting oppressions
within matrices of domination (Collins, 2000). In addition, we believe
that critical pedagogy's postmodern attention to "voice"
must be revised when teaching oppressor students. In our experience, we
find that oppressor students have a much more difficult time listening
than they do speaking. For them, they must work at listening to Others
and not dominating the discussion. At the same time, they need to be
engaged participants. We the authors, as White men, have undergone, and
continue to undergo, this process ourselves.
It is common for oppressor students to exhibit the qualities of the
oppressor in classroom activities. One author experienced an interesting
situation in Miami. Attempting to create empathy among pre-service
teachers for non-English speaking students, he created a theatrical
simulation in his classroom. The main idea of the exercise was for
students to get a sense of what it is like to be an outsider to a new
culture. After dividing into two groups, students met in separate rooms
to create a fictitious culture with its own particular gender roles,
linguistic codes, etc. They tended to focus on behavior patterns based
on real and imagined or dominant and subordinate belief practices
particular to their cultural creation. They had the opportunity to
practice before the play took place. The last directions given were that
one student at a time would visit the other culture as if he or she were
a tourist, and each tourist should try to interact with "the
people" in an attempt to get to know their coded ways of living.
All students had the opportunity to visit the simulated Other.
During the exercise, what stood out to the professor was that when
oppressor students, especially Whites, were visiting the "foreign
culture" they often seemed compelled to impose their own culture
onto the other group. This seemed odd since no directions where given to
proceed this way. But given the theory that we have described in this
article, behavior like this is to be expected. It seemed that just as
oppressors in the real world have unacknowledged high-status cultural
capital and privileged access to upward mobility, oppressor students in
this exercise seemed to believe that it was natural to not have to
understand the cultures of Others.
Although sub-oppressors commit their share of aggressions against
those with less relative privilege, generally speaking the oppressed
rarely operate with the same sense of cultural and political entitlement
as more absolute oppressor students, such as middle- and upper-class
Whites. Instead, they tend to live everyday life through the duality of
the White world versus the homeplace (hooks, 1990). For example, Fordham
(1988) says that the few Blacks who do "make it" in the U.S.
economic structure often have to change how they manifest their racial
identity. In order to be socially mobile, they must be able to appease
White gatekeepers along the way. Many do so by assimilating to a White
model of humanity in order to ascend up traditional ladders of success.
Still others try to "lift as they climb," but doing so can
take a tremendous emotional toll. Either way, it is evident that members
of oppressed groups know consciously or unconsciously who is in charge,
and they react with this in mind, though not uniformly, as a means of
coping and survival.
As McIntosh (1997) illustrates, racism is (to some) an invisible
system of conferring the dominance of one racial group over another.
Systemic White racism occupies and controls space (Allen, 2002). It is
firmly entrenched. This is why we are arguing for a more direct and
interventionist pedagogy. The critical educator needs to realize the
depth of the psychological dysfunction that goes into maintaining a
hegemonic oppressor identity (Mills, 1997). They need to understand the
sense of territoriality that oppression and oppressor students create in
classrooms. They also need to understand their own complicity in
creating this territory (Allen, 2002). No easy, comfortable exercises
will do when it comes to subverting and dismantling the territories of
In classrooms that adopt the pedagogy for the oppressor student
that we are articulating, oppressor students will be the center of
attention and criticism. The oppressor students who are unaccustomed to
being the subject of discussion will often dismiss or deny criticisms
aimed at their oppressor ideologies, that is, unless they are shown
models of how they can interact differently by working against the
system of oppression that they are a part of. Critical pedagogy has yet
to provide more explicit psychological development models for either
oppressed or oppressor.
On one hand, this is understandable in that most of the
psychological models produced by White and/or male academics
universalize and essentialize humanity.
These types of models have been very damaging to the oppressed. On
the other hand, many critical pedagogists have embraced extreme forms of
anti-essentialism that dismiss the notion that individuals share in the
status of identity groups to which they belong, as if groups can have
high status but individual group members are not responsible for their
unearned high status. It is ironic that a paradigm so rooted in a
positive evaluation of collective social transformation by the people
ultimately relies so much on an individualistic constructivist model of
The authors believe that there are critical social psychological
models that can at least give those in oppressor groups a path towards
being an ally with the oppressed in abolishing the system of oppression
in question. It is crucial that identities rooted in oppressive
ideologies are disaffirmed whereas those rooted in counterhegemonic
ideologies are affirmed. For example, Janet Helms (1990) has done
significant work in outlining a model for the development of positive
White racial identities that are anti-racist. We have found that models
such as these combined with sustained critiques of oppressor identity
formations and oppressors' investments in their higher social
status have had a significant impact on the transformation of
consciousness for not only oppressor students but also oppressed
students who have either internalized the oppressor's discourse or
simply given up hope.
A pedagogy for the oppressor student needs to address the
problematic of guilt. Guilt has a powerful effect on critical
classrooms, and it is not given adequate attention. In many ways, guilt
is a taboo subject in critical pedagogy. This could be a reaction to
knowledge of how Christianity in combination with White supremacy used
guilt as a weapon of psychological colonization. However, White
supremacist Christians did not invent guilt; that would be giving them
too much credit. Guilt is a very human emotion, much like sadness and
joy. So ignoring guilt will not make it go away. Repressing guilt only
leads to avoidance, denial, and defensiveness. But guilt can be a very
powerful tool if we think of it in structural terms. Guilt stems from a
sense of complicity with a moral wrong. It enters one's
consciousness when one realizes their culpability for an immoral state
of affairs, such as systemic White supremacy. Oppressors do not simply
shift from complete oblivion of social wrongs to moral outrage at
oppression without at least some initial feelings of guilt. True, the
education of oppressor students should do more than just make them feel
guilty. But we are not sure how transformation of consciousness can
occur without the existence of guilt. We would dread the classroom of
uncritical oppressor students who did not sense guilt when presented
with the realities of the oppressed. That would be a very difficult
class, indeed. A more positive approach to the realities of guilt is to
figure out how to deal with it candidly as it comes up in the course of
both learning and social justice work. In other words, we should expect
those of the oppressor group to feel guilt, even if they have been doing
social justice work for a long time. It is not something that simply
fades away, although certainly not everyone experiences it to the same
degree. Thus, it is best to consider it as simply part of the work and
create affinity groups where feelings of guilt can be shared, discussed,
Love can be a powerful anecdote for guilt. Oppressor students need
to be taught how to love because their indoctrination as oppressors has
taught them distorted notions of love. In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm
(1956/2000) argues that love is often thought of as something one
"falls into" rather than as the outcome of an ongoing process
of building an authentic and trusting relationship. Since individuals
within oppressive systems are dehumanized, love within this context is a
process where the parties involved support one another in their struggle
to become fully human. To love is to make one another stronger so that
the partners in the relationship can better work against that which
seeks to make them weak. Radical love is a loving practice dedicated to
social justice. It takes into account that people are differentially
situated within hierarchies of oppression. Therefore, how an oppressor
student should love and be loved is different from that of the oppressed
student. It is contextualized by their positionality. The oppressor
student needs to learn how to dedicate themselves to the process of
abolishing oppressive systems that dehumanize the oppressed. The
oppressor student needs to unlearn the ways in which their beliefs have
consequences that negatively affect the oppressed. The oppressor student
needs to learn how to be accountable for their group privilege and do
what is necessary to put a stop to it.
Loving the oppressor student requires that they be treated as
capable of becoming more fully human once released from their investment
in their oppressor status.
Loving the oppressor student requires interventions that help them
learn how to not dehumanize themselves and others. It requires not
allowing them to take on the oppressor role in dialogue. And it requires
letting them know that if they make a mistake they will still be loved.
That is radical love.
When radical love is practiced in the classroom, a condition exists
where students work to humanize one another in direct but loving ways.
Real trust, though always in process, is seen as a possible goal. Freire
says that we need a pedagogy of love where we can "feel good when
we are together with others" (Rossatto, 2005, p. 19). We believe
that if educators honestly and passionately express their radical love
for humanity and their intolerance for oppression then oppressor
students are more likely to move beyond their knee-jerk reactions to
feelings of guilt. They need to know that someone is going to help them
through the process of change, especially if that someone, namely the
teacher, has gone through those changes themselves. Both authors, as
White men from working-class backgrounds, believe that it is important
that we share many stories about our own transformations in coming to
understand White and male privilege. We make ourselves into models of
what is possible to show that there are other ways of being, ways that
embrace the positive aspects of our transformed oppressor identities.
In conclusion, social transformation cannot be accomplished with
Whites (and other oppressor) students alone, but it cannot be realized
without them either (Sheets, 2000). Given that the majority of the
people in the U.S. are White (or White-oriented), critical pedagogy
needs to work with privileged students or else it will fail to produce
significant and radical changes. There is no question that this is
tremendously difficult work (see, e.g., Obidah & Teel, 2001). But
the power and privilege often promoted by oppressor students needs to be
subverted. Yet subverting that power in face-to-face interactions
requires practices and theories that go beyond the postmodern pedagogies
that critical educators have become accustomed to. An oppressor student
is different from an oppressed student. And any pedagogy that fails to
account for this difference is unlikely to contribute to meaningful
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Ricky Lee Allen is an associate professor of educational thought
and sociocultural studies in the College of Education at the University
of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cesar Augusto Rossatto is an
associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the
University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas.
The restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors,
so that the latter cannot reassume their former position, do not
constitute oppression. An act is only oppressive when it prevents
people from being more fully human. Accordingly, these necessary
restraints do not in themselves signify that yesterday's oppressed
have become today's oppressors. (pp. 38-39)